Golden Week 2018 Special Feature (Part 3) – If I Had 365 Days in Yeosu…

I would try to visit each of the 373 islands sprinkled around Yeosu (여수), Korea’s beautiful southern port city. Granted, most of these islands are uninhabited and some are just pieces of rock jutting out of the East China Sea, I may already have my work cut out. But if given the chance, I would really love to spend a year here, because Yeosu’s coastal scenery is breathtakingly gorgeous.

IMG_20180504_165332

Island hopping wasn’t really on my agenda on my recent visit because I only had three days there. It was also my first visit there. I had previously written about my love for Busan, but Yeosu (여수) stole my heart the first day I arrived. The entire city exudes such a relaxed vibe, so different from the crazy bustle of Seoul.

IMG_20180502_151001This vibe was perhaps best personified by the guesthouse owner, who made me feel so at home when I first checked in. I had just arrived from Suncheon (순천), wet and cold because it had been raining since morning.

With nowhere to go due to the inclement weather, I hung around the reception area, and quickly struck up a conversation with the staff (which comprises the owner and her lovely mum). She spoke little English, but with my patchy Korean, we managed to get by. One of her first questions to me was how long I intended to stay in Yeosu (여수), to which I replied “3 days”.

천천히 놀려 도돼요,” she said. (which means “You can take your time to enjoy Yeosu”).

Indeed, “천천히” (slowly) became a phrase I constantly reminded myself during my stay in Yeosu.

IMG_20180502_181656The rain eventually cleared up sometime during the evening, and I decided it’s time to explore the neighbourhood. My first stop was Yi Shun-shin Promenade, whose statue stood proudly over this coastal city. IMG_20180504_185556_1A much revered Korean admiral during the Joseon dynasty, Yi was most noted for his amazing naval tactics against the invading Japanese, in which his fleet of 13 “turtle-ships” repelled a 133-strong fleet of Japanese warships. There’s even a mock-up model of Yi’s turtle-ship,  that invites visitors to step in and experience (with life-size dioramas) how life on Yi’s ship might be like in those days as they set out to battle the Japanese.IMG_20180504_144940Yi Shun-shin Promenade was a place I would return to over the next two days, not because I had nowhere else to go but because it’s a fabulous place to wind down the day, and to truly appreciate the beauty of Yeosu. The sleepy promenade comes to life in the evening, when a long strip of red-and-white striped tents (Korea’s ubiquitous pojangmacha 포장마차) line the promenade.IMG_20180502_190604However, unlike the ones you would find in Seoul, those in Yeosu (여수) are bona fide “restaurants” in their own right, and serve mainly seafood hotplate. I joined the queue at Tent no.13, apparently a hit with the locals on Instagram. That night, despite strong gusts of wind that threatened to blow away the canvas roof at some point, I enjoyed a succulent meal, and even managed to exchange small talk with a group of locals seated at the next table.

천천히

IMG_20180504_180729Just as prominent, the twin arched bridges that framed the promenade on either side, were places I would return over the next two days. Brilliantly lit at night, the twin arches almost formed a perfect mirror image. I probably crossed the twin bridges at least half a dozen times over the rest of my stay, examining the sights of Yeosu from different vantage points, from Dolsan Island (돌산도) to Odongdo (오동도).IMG_20180504_164309There’s also no shortage of cafes, where you could grab some excellent beans and kick back at the rooftop terrace. One of these cafes, I discovered, even doubles up as a steak restaurant. Hmmm….interesting fusion!! On my last day, after my descent from Dolsan Park (돌산공원), I just stopped by a convenience shop to grab a beer so that I could just sit outside and gaze at these beautiful bridges.

천천히

The buses here still terrified me though, as they whizzed through heavy traffic with scant regard of road humps. For example, the bus that took me to Hyangiram Temple (향일암), a Buddhist hermitage located on the opposite end of Dolsan Island (돌산도), accomplished the journey in under 40 minutes, although according to Google, the journey would have taken 1 hour 37 minutes.IMG_20180504_103710I alighted from the bus a little shaken but I was immediately welcomed by a breath-taking view of the ocean. Perched atop a cliff, Hyangiram (향일암) is an oasis of calm. You would have to negotiate a relatively steep road, lined on both sides with restaurants and locals touting the city’s famous gat (or mustard leaf) kimchi 갓김치 before you even reach the entrance to the temple. They even offer to deliver the kimchi to your residence.

Before you begin your pilgrimage to the top, why not load up on some carbs with ganjang gejang (간장게장) – raw crabs marinated in soya sauce – a local specialty. Trust me, your bowl of rice will be gone in no time with these delicious crustaceans!!IMG_20180504_103835IMG_20180504_104015Another massive flight of stairs awaits you from the entrance to the top of the Hermitage. Fortunately, a trio of “See No Evil”, “Hear No Evil”, and “Speak No Evil” Buddha miniatures are strategically placed along the steps to offer you a brief respite, and excellent photo opportunities.IMG_20180504_105012The Hermitage is made up of a cluster of smaller temples, for which getting there is half the fun. For example, you have to pass through an extremely narrow (and dark) alley, created by nature’s forces, to get to one of the temples housing the Goddess of Mercy. Once there, you find yourself surrounded by a necklace of islands shimmering in the East China Sea.

Now if only there’s a café here as well…

천천히”      LS

IMG_20180504_114710Any images published in this article, unless otherwise stated, are owned by the author. Any unauthorised reproduction or use of these images in any form is strictly prohibited. Please kindly write to me for permission to use any of the images. Thank you very much. 😊

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Spirited Away (Part 3)

DSC04240The sprawling grounds of Kyoto’s Kiyomizu-dera, coupled with its abundant spiritual energy, makes it a top draw among ‘power spot’ hunters. But what if you could visit a whole city and feel the same positive energy throughout the city?

Look no further than Nara (奈良), Japan’s ancient capital before Kyoto, and home to some of the oldest and most magnificent Buddhist temples in Japan. Less than an hour from either Kyoto or Osaka, Nara can easily be covered as a day trip or if you have some time to spare, spend a night or two in this peaceful spiritual enclave.

A Google search on “Attractions in Nara” will probably turn up more than a dozen results on Buddhist temples and “tourist brochure”-eating deers. In fact, so brazen are these deer that a recent article in the newspapers warned tourists against these deer and attempted to educate the same tourists how to use sign language to convince these roving (and hungry) stags that they have no more food in their hands. Remember, like us, a hungry deer can become an angry deer, no matter how cute they may be.

But we’re not here to talk about deer, are we?

Tōdai-ji, Nara

DSC04183Now, if time is of the essence, skip all other temples and head straight to Todaiji (東大寺), home to possibly the largest temple in Japan constructed entirely out of wood. It also houses a massive 15-metre tall Buddha (or the Daibutsu), the largest in Japan.

DSC04186The real ‘spiritual’ experience, however, is not only found at Todaiji (東大寺), but also in slowly exploring the vast temple grounds, which overlaps much of Nara Park (where the hungry deer freely roam). Take a leisurely stroll through the adjacent smaller temples like the Nigatsudo Hall, the Hokkedo Hall, the Kaidanin Temple, the beautiful foothills of Wakakusayama (which can be covered in a short hike). Feel your skin glow and spirits awakened in this oasis of zen.

DSC04222DSC04259On the way back to JR Nara Station, you will also pass Nara’s most celebrated Shinto shrine, the Kasuga Taisha (春日大社), with its enchanting stone lanterns. If you have a penchant for Japanese Buddhist art, pop by the Western-styled Nara National Museum. Finally, the two-hour circuit ends at Nara’s iconic symbol, the Kofukuji (興福寺), built in AD710 and its name literally translates as “the temple that generates blessings”. What a way to end off your spiritual sojourn!    LS

DSC04270Any images published in this article, unless otherwise stated, are owned by the author. Any unauthorised reproduction or use of these images in any form is strictly prohibited. Please kindly write to me for permission to use any of the images. Thank you very much. 😊

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Spirited Away (Part 2)

Kiyomizu-dera, Kyoto

DSC03862From those previous two experiences at the Fuji Sengen Shrine and the Fushimi-inari Shrine, I realised that perhaps, I am more sensitive to the ‘spiritual’ aura of a place. At the risk of sounding bonkers or hallucinatory, especially to those skeptical of the existence of ghosts or the paranormal, I shall let you, the reader decide if you believe or not.

Of course, not all temples and shrines in Japan are spooky. Take Kyoto, for example. Feudal Japan’s ancient capital probably has the largest concentration of temples and shrines in a single city. However, on one of my visits to a temple, a Buddhist monk actually told me a very interesting fact about the temples in Kyoto.  According to him, many of these temples have a secondary function. They serve as auxiliary military outposts, where armies can be gathered / hidden, and also from which armies can be deployed to launch a surprise attack on the enemy.

DSC03845Many temple grounds in Kyoto are uncannily palatial and are often built with ‘secret’ chambers or passageways. I’m not sure about your reaction but a light bulb instantly switched on in my head when I heard this. Of course it all makes sense to me now!! Temples are not only meant for monks or shinto priests. They may even have served as the secret hideouts of fugitive lords.

Many temples and shrines in Kyoto are designed like forts, if you think about it. Consider Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺, literally “Pure Water Temple”), a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A long passageway lined with stalls (i.e. the Higashiyama District) is now a bustling tourist attraction. However, during the days of yore, it may have served as both a merchant town and important ‘refueling’ stop for the feudal lord’s army. Kiyomizu-dera’s outstanding feature, a massive wooden stage that offers spectacular views of the old capital, could have served the dual role of a lookout in its halcyon days.

DSC03857Looking out from the stage, you can feel the calmness and serenity of the vast temple grounds. The same tranquillity can be keenly felt in the other shrines and features, for example, the Jishu Shrine famous for its matchmaking prowess, the Otowa Waterfall, whose waters are said to bestow longevity and prosperity, or the vermilion Zuigudo Hall. The positive energy that exudes from Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺) makes this a powerful ‘spiritual spot’ in Kyoto.   LS

DSC03860DSC03872

(to be continued in Part 3)

Any images published in this article, unless otherwise stated, are owned by the author. Any unauthorised reproduction or use of these images in any form is strictly prohibited. Please kindly write to me for permission to use any of the images. Thank you very much. 😊

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Spirited Away (Part 1)

DSC03904I’ve been toying with the idea of this post for a while, but haven’t really got down to penning it until today. Spring vacation has just started, and it’s a much needed welcome change to see more of the sun. It’s also a time for many going away for short trips to recharge their batteries.

I’m not sure how this idea fits in with spring or cherry blossoms but nevertheless, if you’re planning to visit these spots, just read this with a light heart. What’s all this mystery ’bout, these spots, you might ask. I’m of course referring to power spots in Japan. Now you may have come cross this term from your research on the Internet, Tripadvisor or Lonely Planet. So I’m going to put forth a few disclaimers before we dive right into them.

Disclaimers:-

1. The term “power spot” started gaining traction in Japan since the 1990s, and as defined by All About Japan.com, these are sites that exude a particular energy based on concepts of feng shui. You don’t have to possess a ‘sixth sense’ to feel this spiritual energy. The site goes on to list the top 20 power spots in Japan. Now, this post is not about those ‘power spots’, although some of the listed sites may also be classed as such. Therefore, I would like to propose the term “spiritual spots” when referring to the spots I’m going to introduce in this post.

2. Those who are familiar with the concept of ‘power spots’, or who have read articles on them may find that the sites I’ve listed are not the same as the ones they have read or come across. Again, let me reiterate that I would prefer to call these sites “spiritual spots” instead of “power spots”. These sites do exude a particular energy. However, this energy may not be the positive energy associated with ‘power spots’. In other words, or in more layman terms, some of these sites are possibly ‘haunted’.

3. The experiences at these ‘spiritual spots’ are personal and are based on my own experiences on my travels. However, based on other articles I’ve read or researched, I can say with a certain degree of authority that these experiences are legitimate. You, the reader, have the choice to believe it or not.

4. It’s no surprise that many of the spots listed in this post are temples or shrines. After all, many of these revered places of worship have a history dating back hundreds or even a thousand years. In addition, many temples and shrines also serve as the final resting places of the deceased. Temples and shrines are used to refer distinctly to Buddhist (temples) and Shinto (shrines) respectively.

With these disclaimers in place, let’s jump right into these sites.

(Kitaguchi Honguu) Fuji Sengen Shrine, Yamanashi Prefecture

IMG_4306I first visited Japan in December 2011. That was also the year of the Great East Japan Earthquake that decimated a huge area of the Tohoku region and placed Japan on every traveler’s warning list for countries to avoid, not so much due to the possibility of another major earthquake or tsunami but rather the nuclear fallout from the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant in Sendai. However, I went against convention because air tickets to Japan plummeted that year. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity of finally visiting the country of my dreams.

Like any first-time visitor to Japan, I headed to Tokyo and took a day trip out to see Mount Fuji. Knowing that it’s early winter, and that hiking trails to Mt. Fuji were closed, the sole purpose of my visit was just to see Mt. Fuji from afar and to explore the Five Lakes area round Mt. Fuji, that is, Kawaguchiko (河口湖).

IMG_4269Not sure how this shrine appeared on my itinerary, but I remembered reading about it somewhere that the entrance to one of the hiking trails to Mt. Fuji actually starts from the shrine’s backyard. Sounds like an interesting place to explore, doesn’t it? A Japanese colleague to whom I recently spoke to about this shrine as a ‘spiritual spot’ did a search on the Internet, and burst out in laughter. Apparently, according to what he found online, this place is also famous as a “love shrine” – one of those shrines that are popular with women seeking a romantic or marriage partner. Hmmm…from these pictures I took, I could never have known. Could you?

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Fushimi-inari Shrine, Kyoto

DSC03890I know what you’re thinking when you see this name. Of course, this has to be a ‘power spot’. This is probably one of the top three most popular shrines in Kyoto, and possibly also the most photographed besides the Golden Pavilion Temple. However, I would like to offer my own take on this shrine to you. This shrine is really really creepy!!

Most tourists to Fushimi-inari Shrine (伏見稲荷大社) are fascinated by the thousands of crimson and vermilion torii gates that wound around the hill on which the shrine is situated. Do you also know that many tourists do not make it past the half-way mark up the hill? Because, frankly speaking, the shrine grounds are huge, and the trek up the hill takes some effort. Most tourists make it as far as a pond which leads to a cave-like path that is dotted with fox (or kitsune) figurines. I say “cave-like” because the fox shrine is dark even during daytime. There’s even an urban myth that you should not go beyond this point.

For those who have, however, you will soon reach a cemetery built on the hillside, so there are steps leading to the tombstones, many of which are guarded by these fox figurines. Foxes or kitsune, have a long storied history in Japanese folklore. They are believed to possess supernatural abilities and are said to be able to shape-shift, taking on human forms. Some stories tell of fox spirits with nine tails, and possessing wisdom and magical powers. You can easily do a search online for spooky tales regarding these parts of the Fushimi-inari Shrine.

My own experience tells me that perhaps on hindsight, I should not have taken pictures here. I definitely felt the creeps here, and ‘power spot’ or not, I would advise you to be very respectful if you’re exploring these parts of the shrine.    LS

DSC03942Any images published in this article, unless otherwise stated, are owned by the author. Any unauthorised reproduction or use of these images in any form is strictly prohibited. Please kindly write to me for permission to use any of the images. Thank you very much. 😊

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

(to be continued in Part 2)

Euphemisms for the Travel Writer

img_20170114_124552Almost every onsen I’ve been to in Japan has been described in travel features by one of these words: “rustic”, “atmospheric” and “nostalgic”. Here, allow me to offer a light-hearted take on what these words actually mean…

Rustic – of course, the word has no association with the word “rust”. But perhaps by some satirical pun on the word, the rustic onsen/hotel/ryokan you are going to is probably literally rusting away…

Atmospheric – Not very well-maintained and in most cases, very run-down… A tad similar to “rustic” but in this case, the place probably has open-air spaces or comes without a roof…

Nostalgic – just damn freaking old, and probably abandoned in some cases. A place where people no longer give a damn to even visit. Which also means, you are likely to be the only visitor there…

Below are pictures of Kirishima’s Shin Yu Onsen (新湯温泉), a terrible irony because it’s definitely not new (新), but yes it’s very rustic and atmospheric. Oh yes, and a lot of pipes and sulfuric smoke… you would be forgiven to think that Gandalf’s secret hideout is probably somewhere in the woods behind this onsen…Thankfully, the locals still visit this place… Enjoy…

Kirishima is about an hour and a half by train from Kagoshima. The nearest train station is Kirishima Jingu Station, which is uniquely designed to resemble its namesake i.e. a shrine. Its entrance is fronted by a large torii gate and shrine lanterns. Check ahead for bus schedules to the Kirishima Shrine and the various onsen hotels (cue the above-mentioned “atmospheric onsen“) as buses tend to be infrequent.  LSdsc02993pano_20170114_112753img_20170114_161543

Special Feature: Magical Miyajima 특별 기사: 아름다운 미야지마 섬

지난 달에 일본에 여행을 갔다왔다. 이번 여행은, 나는 덜 인기있는 지역을 선택했다. 히로시마와 규슈에 갔다. 히로시마에 대해 이야기 할 때, 사람들이 에게 가장 생각하는 일은 원자 폭탄이다. 사실은 “원자 돔”은 히로시마의 상징이다.  그러나 무엇보다 잊을 수 없는 여행은 미야지마 섬이다. 20141129_123622작은 섬이지만 미야지마 섬에는 볼거리가 많다.  특히 유명한 미야지마 잇수쿠시마 신사는  제일 인상 깊었던 곳이다. 그 신사는 일본에서 다섯 손가락 안에 드는 관광 명소이다. 바다의 한가운데에 거대한 빨간 도리문은 신사의 입구입니다. 높이 약 16 미터에, 이 도리문은 1875 년에 지어졌다. 그 도리문은 썰물 때 보러 갈 수 있다. 그것은 일출 또는 일몰 때 태양에 물든 바다와 도리문의 풍경은 정말 환상적이다.

여행 중에 새로운 것을 먹어 보는 것도 하나의 커다란 즐거움을준다. 미야지마 섬에서 나는 맛있게구운 굴을 실컷 먹었다. 굴은 너무 큰 신선하고 저렴하다. 매우 부드럽고 즙이 많았다. 너무 맛있다!   LS20141129_14421720141129_153059

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Watching The Clouds Drift By – Muroran (Part 2)

I woke up to a bright and sunny morning in my budget hotel room in Higashi-Muroran (東室蘭). The original plan was to take the train back to Tomakomai after check-out. But looking at the weather, it seemed such a massive waste to just pack up and go home. Yesterday’s exertions (and disappointments) were still fresh in my body and mind. After mulling over the options over bread and coffee at the hotel café, I decided to give Muroran another shot.dsc01826After a quick browse through Tripadvisor, I decided to check out Cape Etomo (絵鞆岬) and seek out one of Muroran’s specialty dishes – curry ramen. I must say this had to be one of the best decisions I’ve made on this trip. If there’s one place you ever need to try curry ramen, it’s Aji-no-Daio 味の大王. Though it’s still 11.30 a.m., the tiny restaurant was already packed with patrons. The curry is viscous thick, and the noodles are springy. Sweat was oozing from all pores down my face, but I was savouring every drop of the curry. Needless to say, I polished the bowl down to its last drags.img_20160919_115042My belly folks were humming a tune, and I hopped along to it as I made my way to Cape Etomo (絵鞆岬). Google Maps informed me that the trek to the cape would take about an hour on foot, but this time round, I decided to try my luck and just board any bus that would take me as close as possible to the cape. Last night’s misadventure told me that bus no.14 might be my best shot. And so it proved to be, though I had to ride my luck and guess the stop to alight. From my alighting point, it was just another 300 metre walk to the cape, which took less than five minutes.dsc01840dsc01841Although less celebrated than Cape Chikyu (judging by the fact that besides me, there were only three others), Cape Etomo, in my opinion, has more to offer. Not only can you enjoy a panoramic view of the Pacific, but also a perfect vista of the majestic Hakucho Bridge that spans the port of Muroran and its marina. I spent a good half an hour just taking in the scenery.img_20160919_142753img_20160919_143820_hdrHowever, the best find had to be Café Mutekirou, perched at the edge of a small knoll along the coast. The interior had a minimalist feel to it, with a granite wall accompanied by two humongous speakers as the dominant centrepieces. Jazz music was playing, and the entire café was drenched in sunlight through the floor-to-ceiling windows. I slurped my Americano and leaned back on my wooden deck chair, content to just watch the clouds drift by over the Hakucho Bridge. What a way to spend the long weekend!

Ç’est la vie.   LS

img_20160919_154053_hdr

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Weekend Wanders

Weekends can get pretty boring in Tomakomai. After all, this is a port city and an industrial town, whose biggest pride is a shopping mall and ice hockey. I couldn’t count on visiting Sapporo every weekend because that would put a financial strain on my already massively reduced income. (Travelling by train in Japan is pretty expensive!) Still, after two weeks here, I was itching to get out of Tomakomai and explore the neighbouring towns. I figured I could always start from the nearest, and then venture further as I go along. My first destination was the Lake Shikotsu in Chitose.

DSC01504A caldera lake created by the eruption of three adjoining volcanoes (Mount Eniwa, Mount Fuppushi and Mount Tarumae), Lake Shikotsu is the second deepest lake in Japan. It’s about a 30 minute bus ride from Chitose Train Station. On the weekend I visited, there was a huge crowd of mainland Chinese tourists (well, you can’t avoid them, they are everywhere…). And they were milling around a small jetty which offers boat rides in the shape of swans. After checking out the rental fees, I decided to give it a miss. I headed for the quieter end of the footpath, where there’s a wooden platform that leads down to the waters. There, along with a few others, I took off my shoes and treaded carefully into the waters. This was also a good spot to capture the beauty of the lake, with the surrounding volcanoes. I didn’t stay in the waters for long because the pebbled ground was giving my feet a painful massage, so I retreated to the wooden platform and sat there to soak in the sun and beauty of the surroundings. A colleague told me that there’s a secret onsen resort on the opposite end of the lake (from where I was), the Marukoma Onsen Ryokan (丸駒温泉旅館). The reviews on Tripadvisor and pictures on the hotel’s website do seem enticing. However, without a decent four wheels, I would most likely give it a miss for now.

DSC01529DSC01520IMG_20160827_144627_HDRTwo weekends later, my belly tubbies (sorry, Micah, I borrowed your term) are calling out for beer, so instead of paying a ‘pilgrimage’ to my town’s resident shrine, the Tarumaezan Shrine, I decided to book an appointment to visit the Sapporo Beer Factory. It helps that there’s a train station named after it, and walking to the factory from the train station took only about 15 minutes. I was given a detailed commentary by the guide, albeit in Japanese (which means I probably only understood 10% of what he’s trying to tell me). What disturbed me was that my ‘tour’ group comprised a couple of Japanese families with toddlers and 5-year-olds in tow. Surely, this is not the right place to bring your kids for an educational tour, unless you intend to raise alcoholics. Well, at least not yet, in my humble opinion. The kids were creating such a ruckus during the tour that at times, it was difficult to hear the guide. I also made the mistake of picking a weekend to visit the factory, as it was a rest day, which meant that the machines weren’t working and we could only watch videos of the assembly, filling and bottling processes.

DSC01561DSC01552The saving grace of this tour? Two free half pints of authentic Sapporo beer on tap, straight from the source. And you can kick back your shoes at the spacious viewing gallery (which overlooks an expansive golf course) to savour your brew. Depending on your experiences, I would say this tour of the Sapporo Beer Factory beats the one I had at the Sapporo Beer Museum which I wrote about previously, for the simple reason that you don’t pay a single dime for your booze. Call me a cheapskate if you like, but any free beer wins my vote anytime!

IMG_20160827_145347_HDRI guess that’s about all Chitose had to offer, so I was ready to venture further this time. The next nearest destination on my Google Maps is Shiraoi, a sleepy rural town with a decent museum and village on the Ainus, the indigenous people of Hokkaido. However, reviews have been average at best, and I’m all too familiar with the Japanese’ love for dioramas, so this Ainu village may not be an exception. I ditched the idea of looking at fake people and animals and instead opted for Noboribetsu.

DSC01627The last time I was in Noboribetsu, I spent a good afternoon exploring the Hell Valley (also known as the Jikokudani) and even managed to squeeze about an hour and a half soaking in one of the many daytime onsens (of course, I went with the cheapest admission given the limited time I had before the last bus). A word of caution to day trippers, the last bus from Noboribetsu Onsen to the train station leaves at 6.58 p.m., so unless you have booked a stay at one of the expensively mediocre hotels here, you probably should really plan your trip. Having said that though, I am still contemplating a weekend staycation here one of these days because though the hotels are exorbitantly overpriced and grossly underwhelming, their onsens are amazing!

DSC01632For this trip, I decided to check out the Date Edo Ninja Village (登別伊達時代村) instead. I’ve heard about the famously notorious bear park here, but didn’t fancy the idea of seeing bears trapped in glass enclosures. I must say the admission tickets, priced at 2,900 yen, did shock me a little because by Japanese standards, the prices are slightly on the high side (not including Tokyo Disneyland). Still, I relented since I was already there. The Ninja Village was a good re-creation of a normal feudal town during the Edo period. Of course, there’s the requisite diorama showcase of life during the Edo period, what’s like inside a samurai’s residence and a whole street of trinket and games shops. You could even dress up as a ninja if you like, but for an additional 2,000 yen, I would recommend you do your ninja cosplay at home.

DSC01640What made this trip worth it though were the cultural performances, and I was really fortunate to be able to catch all of them, almost back-to-back! There were four altogether, including two ninja action shows, a comedy featuring the village mascot, a samurai cat/dog called Nyan and my favourite, an Oiran show. Oirans were top-ranked courtesans a.k.a prostitutes during the Edo period. They actually enjoyed prestige and social status during the Edo period, even invoking a sense of mystique among the common townsfolk.

DSC01691IMG_20160904_161119_HDRThere’s also a whimsically eerie Cat Temple (O-nyanko), with an interesting “haunted house” experience. In fact, the Cat Temple was probably scarier than the adjacent Haunted House (incredibly named the House of Ghosts and Monsters), which turned out to be more lame than horrifying. I also found the Ninja Maze pretty entertaining, seeing people (myself included) struggling to balance themselves on 30-degree inclined rooms. Overall, I had an enjoyable two hours stepping back in time to feudal Japan, and for a while, fantasising about how cool it must have been to be a ninja or samurai. For a split second, I even contemplated lugging a katakana or Oiran doll home from one of the souvenir shops. LS

IMG_20160904_183031_HDR

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Winds of Change

Today marks my first full month of living in Japan. And what an introduction I had. The night before, I was bracing for a grade 10 typhoon in my apartment, wondering if the winds would somehow tear my roof away. This was the fourth typhoon to hit Hokkaido in 10 days! According to one of my colleagues, typhoons seldom land on Hokkaido. So much for that!

Life in Tomakomai started with me going around to get the necessary documents completed, for example, opening a new bank account, getting my Japanese residence card and signing up for a new mobile contract. The shock and disgust that had registered when I was “welcomed” into my new apartment (a decaying Japanese civil servant’s block that could have survived World War II) was temporarily cast aside for these urgent matters.

DSC01545I spent the next couple of days scouring Nitori (the local version of Ikea) for furnishings, Daiso for household items and the various supermarkets around my vicinity for groceries and to get acquainted with the different grocery options nearest to my apartment. My first priority was furnishing my otherwise empty shell of an apartment. Except for a bed, a table, two chairs, a fridge and a washing machine, I had nothing else in that stinkhole. And did I mention it stinks? So badly! From years of non-occupancy and I suspect, the fresh tatami mats. Gosh, I have never hated tatami so badly! The kitchen floor was sticky and feels uncomfortable on the feet. The stove had a lot of wooden fragments and chips. On top of that, rust has almost consumed the ventilator fan above the kitchen stove. This wasn’t really what I had envisioned when I first signed up for this!

IMG_20160813_225236_HDRI felt like a kid in a candy store in Nitori. The place is massive, and loaded with furniture – beautiful furniture. I would do anything to turn my stinkhole into a more inhabitable (and I hope, cosy) space. I grabbed everything I thought that could aesthetically enhance the apartment. So in came a carpet that costs more than $250 (my most extravagant splurge thus far), two DIY shelves, a DIY wardrobe, 60 pieces of 30 by 30 cm plywood tiles to lay over the disgusting kitchen flooring, a full-length standing mirror, a shoe rack, five floor mats, a fancy standing lamp, fresh bedsheets, bathroom slippers, a frying pan, a pot, cutlery, even a stool (so that I could sit on it while wearing my shoes). I also resorted to buying anything I could from my predecessor – a decently large flat-screen LCD TV, a couch, window curtains, curtain linings, humidifiers, dehumidifiers, a clothes rack, futons, a toolbox, more shelves, all sorts of kitchen utensils, and tons of hangers! Well, my predecessor was going to leave the country and head back home – so I guess it’s a relief to him that he could dispose of all these to any sucker that wants them. And I happen to be that.

I bought tools to saw, file and shape the kitchen tiles, assembled, shifted and rearranged the furniture. After two weeks, the pieces are slowly falling into place. August 15 was a momentous occasion for me because my long-awaited carpet finally arrived – the crowning jewel in my living room. And to top it off, I now have access to the Internet – after an intense and painful two weeks of administration hassle with NTT. There’s definitely more I can do to decorate my apartment, but at least for now, I can say with much pride that this, now feels a little more like home.   LS

IMG_20160828_174650_HDR

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Chasing Japan

IMG_3253I could still remember vividly my first trip to Tokyo. Well, why couldn’t I? After all, it was only about five years ago, to be honest. No big deal, you may think.

It was, for me.

I finally had the opportunity to see Japan for myself. A country whose modern history was defined for me in school textbooks in terms of Japanese supremacy and militarism, of ruthless ambition to conquer a large part of Southeast Asia during the Second World War, of murderers in the Nanking massacre and countless others, of brutal soldiers who raped and killed comfort women and innocent children. Of course, that was a Japan from a different time, a different rule.

DSC01868Japan today is a modern democracy, celebrated for its cuisine and culture, and revered for its natural beauty. Its economy may have stagnated for more than two decades in recent times. Yet, the Land of the Rising Sun is still recognised as one of the most influential economies in Asia, and even the world.

Eight months before my visit, the entire country was reeling from the shock and devastation caused by the Japan Tsunami on 11 March, triggered by an earthquake that measured a massive 9.0 on the Richter Scale. I remembered when the tsunami struck, I followed the news religiously every day. My heart went out to Japan and the Japanese people. News reports of disaster victims queuing patiently for relief supplies at evacuation centres showed me a side of Japan I have never seen before. It’s during times like these that reveal the mark of a people, and the class of a nation. And I could not help but salute their resilience, their respect for each other, their civic mindedness, their solidarity. Since that maiden trip to Tokyo in the fall of 2011, I’ve also visited Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, Nara, Hiroshima, Fukuoka, Miyajima, Beppu, Kumamoto and Hokkaido in the years after.

IMG_3916I returned from that trip to Tokyo in 2011 with a new determination and conviction to take up the Japanese language again. I use the word ‘again’ because I had previously taken Japanese as a language elective module during my varsity years. I had lasted merely two semesters then because I found myself spending more time on studying and revising Japanese than the other core modules, which affected my grades. This time, however, I am determined to master it, I tell myself. And when I do, I want to return to Japan, to find a job and experience living in Japan for a couple of years. I am on the verge of realising my dream come August this year.

And I can’t wait! 🙂    LS

This slideshow requires JavaScript.