Posted in Culture, Food, Travel

Japan – Himeiji, Kyoto and Mt. Fuji

Sorry for the delay in this last installment.  It was a combination of: diving trip to Manado, too much to do and computer problems.  Problems solved; need a little rest and no diving, hence, I am back…

From Hiroshima, we went to Kyoto, with a stop in Himeji.  This is where one of the best preserved, original feudal Japanese Castle is located.  The approach already tells you that this is something special

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We were guided inside the castle by a very nice volunteer guide on the left …

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I tried to visualise in my mind what this picture would have looked like a few weeks before, when the cherry blossoms were in full bloom …

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From Himeji it was back on the Shinkansen and off to Kyoto.  This was not my first visit to this city.  I had been there in 1985 and 2006, and really enjoyed both visits.  I was hoping to see a side of Kyoto I had not before, and I certainly did.

On the first evening, we went “Geisha” hunting.  Very quickly, we had initial success, but at a distance

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We had mixed success later until we ran into this beauty just coming around the corner

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On the second day, we went to visit a few of the ‘highlights’ of Kyoto.  First, the most famous ‘rock garden’ in Japan – we were there early and therefore the crowd was sparse.  Some of us took this opportunity to practice the meditation techniques learned in Koya San

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Then, the golden Pagoda

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We had an opportunity to participate in a ‘true’ tea ceremony

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and had, of course, another memorable meal

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I left Kyoto early so that I could spend a whole day near Mt Fuji.  It was quite an ordeal just to get there, and made me appreciate all the efforts of Hiro for the rest of the trip…

I took the Shinkansen from Kyoto to Mishima, a small station where only one in 5 or 6 trains stop.  There I had ten minutes to find a bus for Kawaguchi-Ko station.  First, I came out the wrong side of the station – the attendants at a shop were kind enough to redirect me after looking at the ticket I had (thanks Hiro for getting that for me).  On the North side of the station, no indications of any bus going to Kawaguchi-Ko.  I ask at the ticket office and am told that the bus leaves from stop number 2.  At stop number 2, there is a bus for Gotemba Station.  Just in case, I go in and ask the driver, who seems to say No!.  So I exit the bus, ready to wait for the next bus, but he calls after me, and explains that I need to change bus at Gotemba Station.  So I get in and an hour later, we get to Gotemba station.  The driver indicates stop 6 for Kawaguchi-Ko.  A bus is waiting, and the driver nods Yes when I ask about Kawaguchi-Ko – good sign.  The schedule says we are supposed to get there at 17:51.  At 17:46, we pull into what clearly looks like a train station, so I get ready to get off the bus … but the driver stops me, indicating this is not it yet.  5 minutes later, we pull into Kawaguchi-Ko station.

I had reserved at a local Ryokan and they indicated that they would pick me up at the station.  All I had to do was call when I arrived.  However, the web site also said that the staff had only limited knowledge of English.  The last test of the day was coming up.  I call the Ryokan and after greetings in poor Japanese, I ask if anybody spoke English and there was a long silence … some one else came on the line and I asked if they could pick me up at the station.  There was no immediate reaction, than I gave my name stating that I had reservation.  In very poor English, I guessed I heard “arrived” and “station” – when I said Yes, I was told 10 minutes and the line went dead.

All I had to do now was wait and hope.  10 minutes later a minibus from the Ryokan pulled up and I was on my way to the hotel.  Great place, very comfortable and great location.  All was GOOD.

Next day was my one chance to see Mt Fuji.  I went back to the station to go to the tourism office.  There I was told there were no buses up the mountain as the roads were still covered in snow.  However, they gave me a map that showed the way up the mountain, and I decided to walk towards the approach.  The sky was partly cloudy, so I had some hope.  About 5 km out of twon, I was walking along the road looking directly at the mountain.

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Unfortunately, the clouds were still there …

In the afternoon, I decided to go around the Kawaguchi-Ko lake.  There too, there are wonderful views of Mt. Fuji reflecting into the lake waters.

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The clouds are still there

For sunset, I took a cable car to the top of hill that overlooks Mt Fuji.  Here I am in front of the mountain.

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Unfortunately, there is still a cloud between me and the mountain.

I guess I was destined no to see it! The next day, the clouds were still there and I decided not to wait and see if they would lift. I took a train to Otsuki, than one to Tokyo and finally to Narita where I arrived in the early evening.  I stayed at the Hilton Narita – my first real bed in 14 days; I had dinner at the hotel restaurant where I had steak and chocolate cake – my first western meal in 14 days.

Every time I go to Japan, I discover new aspects of the culture and society that leave me wanting more.  We explored aspects of food and culture I had never seen before and I am left with more hunger than when I started.  I know I will be back exploring the North of Honshu and Hokaido next time.

Posted in Culture, Food, Travel

Japan – Osaka and Hiroshima

From Koya San, we did the return journey by bus, funicular, train, train, train back to Osaka.  Luckily this time as we missed rush hour and had fewer trains.

Our first stop in Osaka was lunch – what else on a Food Lover’s tour.  We had Tako-Yaki, also known as ‘pizza balls’ – here they are typically filled with octopus, but you can also have shrimp, or beef.  The catch is that you have to make the balls yourself, and it takes a little practice to get them right.  I was concentrating so much on making my lunch, that I do not have any pictures of our results.  Fortunately, the looks do not affect the taste, and they were great.  Later on, we were able to see the ‘experts’ in action.  From right to left, you can see the evolution from a flat shapeless blob to round balls that are sold on the street.

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In the evening, we had a ‘fugu’ meal, another local specialty.  Fugu, also known as blowfish – here is what it looks like alive in the local market …

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is extremely toxic, especially the skin and the internal organs.  A restaurant and a Fugu chef have to have a special license to be able to serve fugu and must dispose of the discarded bits in a special way.  We had Fugu Sashimi, broiled fugu, steamed fugu, pickled fugu and fugu miso soup.

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I made several attempts to visit the Osaka Art Museum, but the first day I arrived too late to still get in, and the second, it was exceptionally closed for the day – I decided instead to go for a view of the city from the top of the highest building.  It gave me a unique view of the Osaka Castle, a reconstruction in concrete which I decided not to visit since we are going to go see the ‘real’ thing in Himeji later.

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and I also discovered that some Japanese women like to dress in Kimono, just to go around town …

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After Osaka, we go to Hiroshima.  I cannot say that the city is still traumatised by the events of 6 August 1945, but a lot in the city revolves around Peace Park and the Atom Bomb Museum.  The most recognisable landmark is what is left of the regional government building only 200 m from where the bomb exploded (it never touched ground as it exploded about 100 m above ground).

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As I had already seen the Peace Memorial Park and Museum, I decided to go visit the Japanese garden of Shukkei-en.  It had been right at the edge of the zone devastated by the bomb and was used as a place where wounded victims gathered awaiting medical help.  Unfortunately a lot of them died before anything could be done for them.

The garden is very peaceful and I was lucky enough to once again run into Japanese women wearing their kimono – making the experience even more authentic.

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Several years ago, I bought a book first published in 1946 by John Hersey called Hiroshima.  It is the tale of the day before to the day after the bomb fell.  I have never been able to confirm if this is pure fiction or real testimonies of what happened, but it is very realistically told.  And I am now sure that most of what he says is indeed based on facts and eyewitness accounts.  Hiro had arranged for us to meet a survivor of the bomb; for one hour, he slowly, and at times with obvious discomfort explained to us what happened to him that day when he was just 16 years old.  He reminded me of the book I had read years ago and now that I have seen what the city looks like, I should read it again to get a better feel for what it says.  Survivors of the bomb are getting fewer and fewer – the youngest is 63 having been in his mother’s womb on that day.  These are experiences that need to be captured now, before they are lost forever …

Hiro had also asked us if we wanted to go to a baseball game.  We all said yes.  Hiro claimed not to be an avid fan, but came prepared for us when we met just before the game

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There are lot’s of similarities between the game in Japan and in the US.  No, this is not the Philly Phanatic moonshining off-shore but is the local cheerleader

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And while there are differences, they have not replaced the pitcher by five ladies with Lacrosse sticks.  This is the ceremonial first pitch – I did not even know they played Lacrosse in Japan.

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We were amongst the local fans and since the Hiroshima Carps won the game, there was a lot of atmosphere throughout.

The ‘must-do’ day trip from Hiroshima is to go to Miyajima.  The reason to go there is to take one of the most famous photos of Japan – the floating torii gate of the Itsukushima Jinja Shrine

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Hiro added a new twist by asking us to jump just as he took the picture

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There is also Mount Misen, where, if you are lucky, you can see some of the local wildlife

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But you can also see the famous torii gate from a totally new angle (you need to go to the very top, where there is a watch tower – lean over the top handrail a little – don’t tell my mother – and this is what you get)

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The Japanese are not particularly known for their sense of humour – but here is some, in two languages …

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In the afternoon, it was low tide and the area around the torii gate was full of people digging into the sand.  I never discovered what they were looking for.

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The trip would not be complete without some food – right?

The local specialty: Hiroshima style Okonomi Yaki – there is a building in town called Okonomi mura where there are 3 floors of nothing but Okonomi Yaki restaurants.  The food is prepared right in front of you – this time, we did not have to do it ourselves.

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It is off to Himeji and Kyoto next – stay tuned…

Posted in Culture, Food, Travel

Japan 2008 – Takayama and Koya San

After the visit to the fish market, we left Tokyo for Takayama, located in the mountains North of Nagoya.  For this trip, everybody had to have a 14-day JR Pass, allowing us to ride on almost any train, at anytime for the duration of our trip.  So we took the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Nagoya, and than a local train to Gero.  We had to stay there as there is a festival in Takayama and all hotels are fully booked.

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We had hope that the cherry blossoms would be still in full bloom here, but again, we are just too late.  We are higher up, but further South from Tokyo.  However, the town does offer some picturesque views.  However, our main goal is Takayama, another 1/2 hour on the train.

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The old part of town has been protected and winds around a small river.

You can ride around town the ‘old fashion way’ …

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As before, food is an important part of our trip. In the hotel, we are ready for our traditional dinner – Hiro and I have also decided to wear the traditional Yukata – casual wear for inside the house.

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The second day, we get to experience the Takayama Festival.  It is centered around a series of floats which were initially built centuries ago

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They each have a mechanical puppet who does the most intricate dance

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I saw two separate performances amongst a sea of people, which is why the view was not always perfect …

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When the puppet needs a change of props, “magic Hands” appear from below, carefully disguised …

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There are also parades

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I was fascinated by one young girl, in the middle of this photo.  She was beating her drum with rare energy, as if it had seriously wronged her – and she never smiled once!  Since she was part of a band with mostly flute player, I surmised that she really wanted to play the flute and was mad at the band leader for forcing her to play this ‘dum drum’!

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But what fascinated me the most, were the kids who rode the floats.  This girl had exactly the same haircut as the puppet.

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There were others, just thrilled by the big crowds

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At the end of the day, though, it was time to put the floats back in their hangars – not an easy feat since they do not have a motor and all is done by ‘people power’.

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We left Takayama the next day, after a visit to two sake distilleries, and a little bit of education on the finer side of this traditional Japanese drink.

This was our longest travel day, not in distance, but in just about every other way.  We took a train from Gero to Takayama, another from Takayama to Nagoya and than a Shinkansen to Osaka.  Two short subway rides got us to another station still in Osaka.  We were in the middle of rush hour and in one subway, we were packed tighter than sardines – not easy considering that most of us were carrying two bags (I had two backpacks – a big one on my back and a smaller one between my legs).  We did not have to go far, so it was an interesting experience – but I am glad I do not have to do that every day.  We took two more trains, a funicular and finally a bus to get to Koya San – South of Osaka, surrounded by 7 holy mountains.  The two is full of temples as it is one of the most important ‘teaching’ center of buddhism in Japan.  We actually stayed in one of these monasteries and were awakened at 6:30 AM to participate in two of the morning ceremonies that the monks have to do (no pictures allowed – sad to say).  Here is the entrance to our ‘hotel’

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The town is very picturesque

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but  not the reason why many pilgrims come here all year long

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The largest cemetery in Japan is located here caled Okuno-In.  It has been active for hundreds of years and contains tens of thousands of grave-sites all built inside a beautiful forest.

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 You even had the obligatory black raven …

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Every space, no matter how small, is used as a shrine or memorial

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In the afternoon, we visited the most important temple in town: Kongobu-Ji.  It is home to one of the best and largest rock garden in Japan.  The rocks represent the head and back of a dragon sticking above the clouds (gravel).  This picture does not do justice to the real thing …

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By now, you must be asking: what does this have to do with food?  We has another feast at the end of our stay in Koya San, served by the training monks …

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Next stop – Osaka, after a bus, the funicular and several trains of course…

Posted in Culture, Food, Travel

Japan 2008 – Tokyo

I just spent two wonderful weeks in Japan, visiting some places I knew, but others I did not.  This was an Intrepid Travel tour, with a food theme.  I love Japan, and I love Japanese Food, so this was a trip made for me.  It gave me a good opportunity to dig into the Japanese culture even more than I had done on previous trips.

We started in Tokyo, where I had been before, but without ever exploring the city.

First sight was somewhat of a disappointment.  I had heard that cherry blossoms were at their peak in the Tokyo area, and yet when I went to look for them, this is what I found

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Closer inspection confirmed my fears

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I understood later that the Thursday before my arrival, there was a very significant rain storm in Tokyo which stripped the blossoms from the trees … something for me to look forward to the next time I go to Japan.

Near our Ryokan (we only staid in Japanese style hotels), was the Asakuza Shrine and I was lucky enough to see a wedding couple about to tie the knot.  She seems happy enough, but I am not sure he believes this is the happiest day of his life.

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 Evening comes very early in Japan as sunset is before 6 pm at this time of year (for some reason that I still do not understand, the standard time is Tokyo is set so that the sun is at its zenith at 11AM, so sunrise was about 5AM and sunset around 6PM!). Even through the clouds, the sun tries to provide a reasonable sunset.

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This was a food lovers tour, and therefore a lot of the activities revolved around food.  On the second day, we had a soba noodle making lesson.

Continue reading “Japan 2008 – Tokyo”

Posted in Food, Sports, Travel

Exploring Bali from below

Several weeks ago, I received a note from Sinoto asking me if I was interested in a diving safari in Bali.  I immediately answered ‘yes’ without knowing what I was getting myself into.  I had already gone diving with Sinoto before, in Manado (also Indonesia) and we had an excellent time.  So I was looking forward to more of the same.

Sinoto, Su Li, Andy, Eric and I left on Tuesday evening (24 October) for Denpasar and an immediate transfer to Kuta Beach.  We arrived at the hotel after 10pm and immediately went in search of food and drinks.  Contrary to its reputation, the town seemed empty and quiet.  We stopped for Satay and a few beers in the only place that seemed to be still open.

Next day early checkout of the hotel.  We fill out all the paper work typical before going diving and we are off for a 3 hour drive to the north of the island. Our first diving day is in Tulambeh.  We leave from the shore and drop down a vertical wall only a few meters off the beach.  The first dive is an easy ‘refresher’ dive just to get our bearings.  I quickly discover that when some one points a camera at you underwater, you better hold your breath – Eric had obviously been there before…

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The second dive is around the wreck of a WWII Liberty ship.  The ship was hit by a torpedo as it was delivering military hardware to Bali.  The captain had the presence of mind to ram the ship onto the beach so that it could still deliver its goods.  After languishing on the beach for many years the ship finally slipped down the wall after the eruption of a nearby volcano, creating a fantastic artificial reef.  It is full of life, from the tiniest nudibranch to a giant barracuda.  We do a third dive before heading towards our new hotel.

I have discovered that a ‘diving safari’ is an adventure where you change dive site, and hotel, every day.  The second day we were at Secret Bay – and I think the secret is safe with us.  Visibility was not very good and we saw more seaweed than anything else.  We were supposed to do a night dive, but all decided that it would not be worth it, especially since we still had to drive to the third hotel on the itinerary.  We did find a few interesting animals amongst the weeds:  a leaf fish, a unicorn fish and a beautiful seahorse.

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Day three and we do the first boat dives of the trip near “Deer Island” or Menjangan to the locals.  Three excellent dives along coral walls with small and large creatures everywhere.  At the end of the day, we drive back to Kuta Beach where there is definitely more atmosphere than the previous Tuesday.

By now, I have improved and can hold my breath, however, I do not appreciate when the photographer seems to take a long time to actually take the photo…

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Day four will remain to me one of the ‘memorable’ experiences of my life.  We went to Nusa Penida by speed boat.  The first dive was at Manta Point.  As advertised, the water was cold, around 21 C which is low since we were all wearing 3mm wet suits more adapted to tropical water conditions.  Fortunately, we did not have to go very deep (only 9 m) and we did not have to stay down very long.  There is only one thing to see at Manta Point: giant Manta Rays – and I mean GIANT!  This was a rather technical dive as there was a very significant surge and one had to be careful not to get pushed into the rocks.  At first we marvelled at a large group of divers all moving in unison, as if they were dancing to some imaginary music.  We wondered why they were just floating there, doing nothing.  Than we looked up and saw two Manta Rays slowly circling overhead.  The larger of the two must have had a 3 m wingspan at least.

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We joined the back-and-forth dance of the other group and gaped in awe at the majesty of the two flying beasts.  After 30 minutes or so, the cold got the better of us and we headed for the surface.

The second dive was even better! After lunch and relaxation, we went to Chrystal Bay and plunged initially into 25 C water.  I was pleasantly surprised as I was expecting colder given what we had been told.  Than, somewhere between 8 and 10 m depth, the temperature dropped to 19 C suddenly, as if we had suddenly swam into a refrigerator.  We kept going down and swimming against the current for a while, until our divemaster decided to turn around.  He signed for us to wait for him at about 22 m depth and he went deeper.  After a few seconds, we heard him banging on his air bottle and signaling for us to come.  We did as we were told with much anticipation.  Out of the depths came one, than two and ultimately four Ocean Sunfish, or Mola-Mola!  These are fish with no tail – the body is roughly shaped like a rugby ball with one large fin on top and another on the bottom.  One Mola-Mola came directly towards us, passing right in the middle of the group.

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We stayed as long as we possibly could, until our dive computers were beeping at us to indicate that we were close to our no-decompression limit.  We slowly rose back towards the surface, and warmer waters.  It is only at this point that I realised that I was shivering uncontrollably.  It took us a long time to warm up even after we came out of the water.  A very memorable dive!

Saturday evening, we had a great seafood meal on the beach in Jimbaran.

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From the left: Myself, Andy, Sinoto, Eric and Su Li.

The meal, for 5 of us, with a bottle of wine cost a grand total of 1,200,000 rupiah, or 135 US$.  That by itself would not be worth reporting. However, on Friday night, we stopped at a shop along the road and had a complete dinner for seven (including our divemaster and driver) and spend a grand total of 100,000 rupiah!

On Sunday, we had a late evening flight and therefore we decided to go explore Ubud and a few craft centers along the way.

Before we arrived in Ubud, we visited the Monkey Forest, where we found (Oh what a surprise) …. monkeys! This sleeping family group was particularly touching.

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In Ubud, I found a very nice painting.  I though to myself that I was ready to pay up to 100 US$ for it.  I asked the price and was told 80 US$.  I know I should negotiate, so I did and we settled on 70 $.  Now I need to frame it, but I think it will look really nice in my apartment.

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Posted in Culture, Food, Sports, Travel

Jurong Island Race, Tokyo, Lau Pa Sat, BBQ, Casinos and a Typhoon

There are so many possible titles for this post but all would say too much.  You’ll have to read to the end to see what this is all about.

The Jurong Island Dragon Boat Race has been ‘owned’ by ExxonMobil (EM) in the last few years, ever since Georges (the then Chemical Plant Manager) extended a challenge to all of us in 2003 after no EM teams even got into the finals.  Our top men’s team “EM Ace” and our ladies’ team “The Tiger Lilies” have each won their respective competition three years in a row (2004 to 2006) and last year we had four Gold and one Bronze medal.  However, our competition is constantly improving, and there are several new teams this year, always an unknown quantity.

We knew we were in for a long day after the second heat of the 2007 competition on Saturday 4 August. EM Ace finished third in their heat and only the top two in each heat qualified for the final.  They would not get a 4th consecutive victory.

Fortunately Sea Blades (often, and unfairly, referred to as the ‘other’ men’s team) did qualify for the final in the open competition, Roaring 40s qualified in the veterans, the Lilies were directly into the ladies finals (as only three teams were entered) and Papillon qualified with the 4th best time overall for the mixed final after finishing a close second in our heat.

Our ‘Old Men” won their final, by 0.05 seconds; the Lilies did even better, winning by a mere 0.01 second.  Sea Blades was a very close third in the Open.

image002.jpgPapillion is ready and eager in preparation for the final of the mixed competition (front to back, right than left rower – Desmond, Jonathan, Su Li, Christy, Dawn (hidden), Yen Nee, Samuel (hiding), Ken, Ben, Myself and Patrick in the back).  We actually won it by 0.03 seconds, but we were disqualified because we ended the race in the wrong lane, actually locking paddles with the second place team in the lane next to ours.  It was a decision we could not dispute even if our ‘mistake’ probably did not influence the ultimate outcome of the race.

Last year, we had the best time of the heats and fell apart, due to our own lack of race experience, in the finals.  This year, we did OK in the heat and much better in the final, leading all the way from an excellent start, and still did not get our ‘toy’ – the gold medal.

I really think now that we are jinxed!

 

 image003.jpgWe know that we gave it our all and we were first across the finish line.  Nobody can take that away from us.  Two EM teams were very disappointed by the results that day.  It was very heartening,though, to see how all the other EM teams rallied around them in the true spirit of teamwork.  You can see from the attached photo that we have a very large Dragon Boat family at ExxonMobil.  They all helped a lot in making us feel better after what was very much a disappointment.

No time to celebrate, or commiserate, as that same evening at 11:30 PM I am off to Tokyo for a training class.  I sleep the “sleep of the just” in the plane, undisturbed by the events of Saturday, and really tired from all the efforts and excitement; when I finally wake up, we are only ½ hour out of Tokyo.  I am surprised to discover that the temperature is in the high 30’s and the humidity in the 90’s.  Not the ideal weather to ‘explore’ a city; and not what I remembered from previous visits (until I realize, of course, that the other visits were in December and January!).  I walk around the Ginza and Imperial Palace areas for the afternoon before meeting others for dinner at the hotel.  In the middle of this very modern city, I run into young (20-year old) women wearing very traditional kimonos and wooden shoes yet talking on or texting with their very modern 3-G telephones.

That evening, we go to a ‘shabu-shabu’ restaurant right down the street.  No one really speaks much English in there and there is no English menu, but we still manage to get a lot of excellent food, and really cheap for Japan and especially Tokyo.  Next day training and another excellent dinner.  Tuesday, back to Singapore. Typical business trip. I saw a lot of airplanes, airports, busses, taxis, subways, hotels and offices and very little of Tokyo itself.

Tuesday evening, I had dinner at Lau Pa Sat with friends.  Ben and I arrived early and even though we were clearly together, the taunts seemed to treat us separately, pulling me in one direction and him in another, as if they could not believe that we would actually have dinner together.  We finally got a table for eight and had immediate offers of satay and all sorts of other foods.  The ‘Tiger Girls’ we there too with jugs and mugs – not those jugs for those of you with a dirty mind! – I am not sure you could call them ‘girls’ any more as they had probably been doing this work for quite a few years…

 

On Wednesday, I discovered that Singapore can still surprise me.  I found a legal gambling hall!  Papillon was having its annual BBQ at the Costa Sands Resort.  I arrived early so I started to wonder around the place.  A door caught my attention as there was ‘Jackpot” written over it; I reallt expected to walk into a ‘casino-themed’ restaurant.  I walked instead into a room with 2 dozen slot machines and nobody asked me anything or tried to stop me, and the world did not end, and the police did not come out from behind one-way mirrors calling “Everybody put your hands up – this is a Sting Operation”.  I had seen ‘game rooms’ very discreetly hidden in some private clubs, but I had no idea they existed this openly available to the general public.  We had satay, bacon and mushroom skewer thingies (the new Papillon signature dish if we can find a better name for it), hot dogs, pork chops, otah, chicken wings, mee goreng, and much more.  We had chocolate cake and champagne when Freddy and Christy finally joined us.  We watched the videos of our last races – it is the first time that I am actually seeing myself rowing – and saw that we did very well in the CCG (bronze medal) and in the JI Race.  We talked ‘till early in the morning while others played Mah-Jong (I am still not sure if they play with the correct rules here!).  I had to go home early (I got there at 4AM) because I had an early flight to Hong Kong that same Thursday morning.

I finally figured out how to go directly from Hong Kong Airport to Macau.  But it cost me a brand new tube of toothpaste!  My first time in Hong Kong, I went there first and than to Macau.  On the last day, I took the ferry back to Hong Kong and immediately the train to the airport (a 4 hour trip!).  On the second trip to Hong Kong, I decided to start with Macau. Coming out of Immigration and Customs, I asked how to go directly to Macau, and was told that there is a way, but you have to do so before Immigration.  I had to take a train followed by a ferry for another 4 hour trip.  This time, I was determined not to miss it again.  Just to make sure, I decided that I would only have carry-on luggage, one small back-pack, so I had ultimate flexibility.  I found the desk for the ferry to

Macau and got a ticket for the 3:30 sailing.  However, I had to re-enter security after I got my ticket, and there, they confiscated my brand new tube of toothpaste because it was, allegedly, over the maximum allowable volume of 100ml! Singapore did not seem to mind, but Hong Kong said NO!

Macau is a very interesting mixture of modern and traditional.  Upon arrival at the ferry terminal, the announcement is made in Chinese (I suspect Mandarin rather than Cantonese) then English, Japanese and finally Portuguese.  10 years later and it is still the second language here in Macau.  Even new signs, erected since the end of colonial rule, still include Portuguese.  Most restaurants have a sign which says “Estabelecimento de Comidas” followed generally by a typical Chinese name such as ‘Tin Fock Lai’.I

am staying at the new Wynn Macau Casino Resort. 

Macau has changed a lot since the last time I was here for Chinese New Year in 2004 (a potential future post?) and yet some things have not changed.  I went into the historical district for dinner and found a little restaurant where I had excellent food for little money.  They had one menu which was translated into English but I really had to have imagination to attempt to understand what the actual food would be.  They have “fired fish brain with chilly” and “beef tenderness”; since they had fried in other places, I was puzzled by ‘fired’ which was repeated for many dishes; I am still not sure what ‘tenderness’ was all about – I know that mores are a little looser in Macau but I doubt if that had anything to do with it – I do not think that they were offering sexy massage with dinner; you only get that with a hair cut! 

The weather is not very good as Hong Kong and Macau are under the influence of the trailing edge of the latest typhoon.  Wind is not strong but there is a constant threat of rain and there is a complete cover of low clouds.  The light is grey and would remind my of my native country of the temperature had not remained around 30 C.  It should get better later as the remnants of the storm are moving away from here.

The biggest change is the construction of mega-casino resorts such as Wynn’s where I am staying.  In 2004 the Casino market has been opened to competition and several of the major Las Vegas companies are establishing a presence here.

 image006.jpgYou can see about the weather on this shot from my camera-phone.  The three-coloured tower on the left is a new resort being built (from the lion statue at the front, I suspect it may be MGM) and in the middle of the picture is the Wynn’s Resort where I am staying.  You can also see several sets of tower cranes for new buildings.  Further along the same view, Sands is finishing their resort and Venetian is also under construction on reclaimed land South of Macau – they are building a resort larger than the one in Las Vegas.  In the last year, Macau has surpassed Las Vegas as the largest gambling city in the world in terms of money played! And they are building here twice as fast as they are in LasVegas.

 image008.jpgHowever, Uncle Ho, former holder of the gambling monopoly in Macau, is not giving up without a serious fight.  His main casino was always the ‘Lisboa’ but he had gambling halls in most other major hotels.  He is building an incredible tower (it may look like it should belong to Playboy instead when it is finished – look for the bunny ears coming up…) with a huge Casino underneath.  The Casino is already open even though the tower is not yet completed – you do not need a hotel here in order to attract visitors to the casino.  Hidden under the tree, to the left of the massive building, you can almost see the entrance to the old casino, which used to be by far the largest in Macau – just to be sure you do not miss it, here is a blow-up of that same area.  It also gives you a better idea at the actual size of the new tower.

 image009.jpgI tried my luck in several casinos and made it without losing too much money, actually a lot less than I was ready to loose, mostly due to two big wins which made up for all the small losses.

I headed for Hong Kong on Saturday (lucky for me I did not try to do it Friday as all the ferries were cancelled due to bad weather) and just walked around to reacquaint myself with the city.  The weather continues to be bad and therefore I am not really tempted to go anywhere far.  However, the views of Hong Kong Harbour, with low grey clouds, can create dramatic images such as this one.

 image011.jpgThe large building in the middle disappearing in the clouds is the tallest in Hong Kong and there are twenty more floors that are currently.  I doubt that they can see the sun above the clouds even on the top stories…

On Sunday, 12 August, I was heading back to Singapore, 8 days after the beginning of this post.

Posted in Culture, Food, Sports

Not your average Tuesday evening

This happened yesterday evening.

My usual routine on a Tuesday is to join my Dragon Boat team at a local gym (located near the Singapore National Stadium) after work.

We start our workout under the watchful eye of Patrick at 6:30 PM – give or take 10 minutes depending on who is there on time and who is not.  We do 5 full laps of the runing track, on the outside lane, for a total of 2.4 km as a warm up (we are supposed to finish in less than 15 minutes, so it is not ‘just’ a warm up).

After that we do 3 complete circuits of 5 to 7 different weight exercises.  Since the exercises follow each other continuously, this is somewhat aerobic as well as taxing the muscle endurance.  As we have progressed since we started in March, we have also increased the weights that we handle.

We usually finish around 8:30 PM and than have dinner together at a local Food Center.

Here is a picture of the ‘happy’ team taken several weeks ago before the practice (we do not look that good afterwards):

 stadium-2-56.jpg

From left to right: Freddy, Benjamin, Patrick, myself, Christy and Samuel.

However, as I said, this was not my usual Tuesday evening.

When we arrived at the stadium, there was a crowd obviously organising something really big in the middle of the stadium and on the running track.  We all rejoyced as it was obvious we could not run.  However, Patrick was not defeated and took us on a team easy run in the neighborhood around the stadium.  We jogged for 15 minutes before getting back to the gym.

He had a surprise for us in the gym as well: lighter weights!  We knew than there would be a price to pay. And there was.  Only 2 circuits, only 5 exercise, but still 25 repetitions the first circuit and 30 reps the second – and the exercises are to be done in pairs, back to back, and against the clock.  Ben and I are first to go, and he is slightly quicker than me for all but the last exercise.  I catchup with him towards the end, but not quite enough.  He takes a little less than 4m30 seconds and I am right around 4m45 seconds. Two by two the rest of the team complete the same series: Jonathan and Desmond, Freddy and Samuel, Ken, Christy and Eddie.

We finish the practice with a full race simulation: six minutes of hand clapping to insure that we are all on the same timing.

There were more surprises to come.

As usual, we all left for the temporary Hawker Stand on Old Airport Road.  I was almost looking forard to the Harbin Beer that I was bound to drink even though I prefer a cold Tiger.  The lady who serves beer and drinks is very nice and has convinced us that she makes no money with Tiger and only earns a little when she sells Harbin Beer (from China) – so I usually relent! When we arrive, the place is deserted and 1/2 the food stands are already demolished.  I guess when they say temporary, they really mean it.  It turns out that this is the week when they move back to their permanent place.

Not to be denied a good meal, Patrick proposes that we go to the restaurant that his parents own.  It is not too far.  The directions I am given are to take a right, than left.  At the light go right and the restaurant is on the left, with a yellow sign near Lor 34.  The name is Lai Fat.

I drive, go right than left than right at the light.  No yellow sign! I find Lor 34 and try to park. No parking spaces! Since there are 10 cars already illegally parked, I do something I never do … park illegally too! As I am walking back towards the main street, I run into Partick who shows me where the restaurant is.  The sign is blue, with yellow letters, and the name in english is shown as Lai Huat.  I find out later that the Hokien version of Lai Huat (Mandarin) is Lai Fat and had I only been able to read the chinese characters, there would have been no doubts in my mind that I was at the right place.

Patrick ordered for us and we had an excellent meal. Lighlty fried fish with excellent chilly sauce, steamed checken with herbs, seafood hor fun, strir fried kaylan and another vegetable for which I can never remember the name.

And I had a Tiger Beer! Excellent evening!

As we were finishing up, some shouted something I did not understand and 1/2 the people in the restaurant immediately starting running out.  As all the poeple at my table were doing the same, I figured that I should follow suit.  Maybe this is where the term ‘Chinese Fire Drill’ comes from, so I was wondering where the fire was.  Nothing so severe; just the police had shown up, and we needed to move the cars.

It was probably the right time to go home anyway, so after settling the bill, we all headed our separate ways.

Another great experience in Singapore!