Saturday, October 29, 2011

Split Forehead

This happened many years ago but I was reminded by Karen Cheng's blogpost about her son. I was to have dinner with my CG leader when she called and asked if we could go to her home instead to check on her eldest son who apparently had a fall and hurt his head. She knew her capable maid would not call her unless it was really urgent.

We went to her house and found the son to be much calmed down, sniffing, but with a patch of cotton firmly taped to his forehead. I didn't think it was serious but when she peeled back the tape, there was a gash of about 1-2 cm. It had stopped bleeding but looked like it needed attention.

So I drove them to a nearby clinic in a kampung. The clinic was in an old wooden shoplot and looked like it had seen better years. The doctor took one look and said he had to stitch up his forehead. He told my friend to hold her son steady while he tried to inject anesthetic near the gash, between the thin skin on the forehead and skull. As you can imagine, the boy screamed in agony and moved, causing the anesthetic to spurt out so the doctor had to do it again.

I gasped for breath, seeing everything. By that time, the father had arrived and was helping to keep the son steady as the doctor started stitching. I stumbled out of the clinic and... sobbed, calling KS and telling him not to expect me at the meeting that night. I just couldn't take it and I'm not surprised Karen Cheng fainted from this ordeal.

Now as I think about it, if you have kids, this is bound to happen right? In my family, it was Ron who split his scalp when Grace pushed him away from the piano. In my cousins' family, it was Kelvin who hurt his head from slamming his head under a tap.

Oh dear. Maybe I'll make my kids wear helmets until they're 12.


Our very first stop in Tokyo was our appointment with Studio Ghibli Museum. Why I call it appointment is because you have to buy the entrance tickets waaay earlier (we bought ours in the 3rd week of Sept for 14 Oct from my friend's relative who lives there and had the tickets mailed over. Even then, the weekend of 15 and 16 Oct were already sold out!).

We took the "Cat Bus" from the Mitaka JR Station. 

The Cat Bus. I was rather disappointed it didn't have multiple legs nor was it furry.
Ghibli Museum is a strange building, rounded edges with lots of plants growing all over it. Looks like a submarine, somewhat.
The giant powerful robot from Laputa

No pictures are allowed inside the museum. All I can say is that it is definitely a must-visit for Ghibli fans. Despite limiting the number of visitors every two hours, the place was packed! We got to watch a short non-distributed cartoon in their theatre too. It was about a bunch of kindergarten kids who created an imaginary boat and their encounter with a whale in their sea adventures. Unfortunately, no English subtitles.

We then took the train to Shinjuku, which is apparently one of the busiest stations. That area is where all the shopping is. We didn't really shop but found cheaper food around there.

We stayed at Hotel Villa Fountaine in Shiodome Building. The place was really posh, after all the hotels we stayed in. We had a queen sized bed and we could walk around the room comfortably!

The reason why I chose this hotel is because it is the most affordable hotel near Tsukeji market, which we aimed to go on Saturday morning. Being the weekend and only two batches of 60 visitors allowed per day, we woke at 3am and started walking to Tsukeji Market at 4am. We weren't the first ones there but had made it for the first tour which started at 5:25am.

Dodging fast moving vehicles, we made our way into the freezing hall where the fresh tuna were laid out for inspection:

Armed with a torchlight and a sickle, the buyers inspected the fish by looking at the colour of the meat, hacking off a chunk, pressing it with their fingers and sometimes eating it.

Satisfied with their inspection, the auction began with the ringing of bells which is when the action starts. The auctioneers starts calling out the numbers on the fish with their price (I think) while the buyers indicate their bids by a mere lifting of a finger. It all went pretty quickly, I must say.

We were only allowed in there for about half an hour which flew by quickly. After that, it is highly recommended that we have a fresh sushi breakfast and one of the restaurants recommended in Lonely Planet is Daiwa Sushi. There was a long queue outside and the seatings were cramped with a maximum of perhaps 30 diners in two shops.

As the guide also says, if you're not sure of what to order, just order the set meal, which KS confidently did. The first thing the chef placed on our plates was umi. Now, if you know us, we are not exactly adventurous when it comes to food. Umi looked like some brain or intestine of some creature. I was horrified that I had to eat this and look like I was enjoying it since the chef was right in front of me!

Part of our sushi set. Umi is the orange one in the forefront, the texture not shown clearly in the picture. 

I was very proud of KS, the less adventurous, who stuffed it quickly into his mouth and chewed. I tried doing the same but I had to take two mouthfuls instead of one. It didn't taste THAT bad, just that the texture grossed me out (it disintegrated in my mouth). Later we only realized it was sea urchin (which I have once eaten straight from the sea in Bay of Plenty, NZ).

So, there we were, stuffing our faces with raw unknown seafood at 6:30am. Our poor stomachs! Definitely a once-a-lifetime experience. To be honest, I couldn't really tell the difference in terms of freshness nor can I say I absolutely enjoyed this type of sushi. Give me raw salmon anytime but this? Hmm... However, I would consider this one of the highlights of my trip.

Next stop was Ginza, the shopping district. There, I found a large Muji shop and fell in love with the place. It's like discovering Ikea for the first time, just that it has more stuff like food, electrical items, clothes. One can almost build a house with Muji's product offerings!

We then headed to Asakusa to see the Senso-Ji Temple.

The entrance with the distinct huge red lantern in the center.
Another part of the Senso-Ji entrance
More lanterns
The Pagoda at Senso-Ji

The next day, we headed to Harajuku in hope of catching sight of the famous Harajuku culture. However, we only saw a couple of girls despite spending the entire day people watching. Our guess is that we went on the wrong day, it should have been a Saturday instead of a Sunday. So Lonely Planet had incorrect information.

Anyway, we visited the Meiji Shrine in Harajuku, a simple wooden structure with hardly any colours except for the beautiful wood. While we were there, there were three weddings going on! Oh, they were the centre of attention from the tourists! We took photos while their family posed for their photo session, captured every step of they took... like paparazzi! So somewhere around the world, these couples have their wedding photos in someone's holiday photo library.

Bridal party moving from one part of the shrine to another, with the couple shaded with the large red umbrella

Of course the whole proceedings took place with much seriousness and ceremony, up to the point of how the bride holds the closed fan in her hands when photos are being taken.

Besides the weddings, there were also many mother-child couples who came to the shrine, fully clothed in traditional clothes. Tourists kept stopping the parents to ask permission to take photos together with their dressed up child.

I must say the ladies look really elegant in their traditional clothes.

Beside the Meiji Shrine, there was a park where we saw the most bizarre collection of activities. I actually saw a group playing lacrosse (which I was looking out for when I went to London, since I've always read it in Enid Blyton's Malary Towers and St Claire's), a girl who brought a mini harp to play with her group of friends, a group of youngsters playacting, another group playing the clarinet to the song of Doraemon, couples doing the salsa at another corner...

A group of guys attempting to play the didgeridoo
Guys having fun beating drums, creating an upbeat atmosphere at the park
This guy was swinging this ball with a tail, amazingly fluid and graceful.

A group of guys and a couple of girls dressed as Elvis and grooving to his music at dusk

We walked away dizzy with such an eclectic mixture of activities from all over the world!

That night we headed to Odaiba, a reclaimed piece of land connected via the Rainbow Bridge which looks like the Brooklyn Bridge.

We were supposed to take the ferry here but missed the last boat
Strangely, there was a Statue of Liberty on Odaiba island too

The next day, we had booked a typical tour to visit Mount Fuji and it's surrounding areas. Unfortunately, the guide was merely functional, merely ushering us from one place to another. I would have loved to hear about Japan, more of it's culture or any information about Japan but the guy hardly spoke. I was comparing him to our Blue Mountains guide who drove AND talked the entire day, from where I learnt eating kangaroo meat is better for the environment. This Mt Fuji guide wasn't even driving, but mainly spoke about administrative stuff.

Our first sight of the majestic Mt Fuji
Yellowing trees! And a part of Mt Fuji at Station 5.
The set lunch was at a nearby hotel: the round labu-like thing is made up of about 4 dishes.

We were then whisked off to Hakone where we took a cable car up to this place where there's sulphuric activity (don't expect a Rotorua, NZ here though). Here, they boil eggs in the hot water springs and because of the sulphur, the eggshells turn black. They believe the number of these eggs you eat will equal the number of years you will live. So if you want to live long, eat a lot more.

Black eggs for sale
Since we didn't have enough time, we didn't manage to visit the place where they actually boiled the eggs. We were hurried down to catch the last pirate boat out to Lake Ashi. As you can tell, I really don't like tours as you don't have the flexibility of deciding what you want to do. But we didn't know how to get to Mt Fuji on our own so we thought a tour would be simpler.

We hurried so much that we had about 20 mins to kill while waiting for the boat to arrive.

On our final day, we headed to Roppongi, a beautiful town within the city. Very modern buildings. Here's the iconic spider structure:

And again, to end my post, here's the Tokyo manhole cover:

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Around Kyoto

Of all the cities we visited in Japan, I personally liked Kyoto the best simply because it wasn't a bustling city. Sure there are stretches of commercial lots but the Kyoto we walked around had old buildings like these:

I think this is a ryokan. The top listed one in Super expensive but super gorgeous views. Located along a street which KS said he read somewhere to be "the most beautiful street in the world". We actually saw a crane in this stream.
Discreet (and expensive!) eateries

These were taken in Gion. However, both times we were there, the sun had already set so I don't have a good photo to show the cobbled street where the geishas walk every day. And we were lucky, we saw a geisha hurrying out of a diner. This was after a good hour of walking around the area, with a diminishing hope we'd see one. There were heaps of tourists walking around the area, eyeing every single kimono clad lady trying to decipher if she was a geisha. So when I spotted her, I clutched KS's arm and exclaimed, "that's one!" as though we'd just won the lottery.

We stayed at this place called Nagomi Ryokan Yuu. Of course, staying in a traditional house was an experience we didn't want to miss and this was one of the most affordable one we found from the websites. This room was the smallest we stayed in, both ends of the mattress touched the wall. However, this was as per our expectation from the descriptions in various sites so we were fine. 

Plus points for this place: staff spoke fluent English, everything is catered to English speaking travellers, there's a kitchen and laundrette, there's free wifi, the reception had the metro day passes so we didn't need to fumble at the stations.

This red umbrella helped us find the place as we walked along the narrow and swiftly darkening sky. 
The room with the folded mattress.
Super comfy! I loved that it had free wifi all over the place.

We visited several shrines, each with it's own distinctive feature.

Otowa Waterfall: School kids lined up to drink from one of these streams to bless their studies.
Golden Pavilion: It didn't start out as a shrine but eventually someone made it into a shrine. Amazing to see the sun glinting off the gold walls.
Inari Shrine with its many pathways of these red orange arches.

We also went to Arashiyama, a beautiful little town slightly off Kyoto which we felt was like a vacation town. There's lots of photos on the bridge there, especially in autumn and a large bamboo forest.

Unfortunately, it wasn't autumn enough and the trees were still green.
From Kyoto, we took a day trip to Nara where we passed a park with wild deer. Now, KS heard from Yen that to engage with the deer,  you have to do a thumbs up placed on your head, bow and say "Konnichiwa!" and the deer is supposed to bow back to you.

This is KS attempting the "secret signal". He tried this several times on several deer.
This is the response from the deer. "What the...?"
Then we saw this deer nodding and nodding to the shopkeeper until he relented and gave biscuits to chase it away.
At this stage, we realized, like all animals, they would do anything for food. So we bought the biscuits and voila!

At Nara, we went to see the largest wooden structure in the world. This building, like most shrines and castles we visited, was rebuilt and is only 2/3 of the original size, housing a HUGE bronze Buddha statue. 

Just like the computer game Karateka

One thing about Kyoto though is that the train systems are horrible. We bought a metro day pass but was later told we could only use it on one or two lines when there were about 4-5 lines. So we spent a lot on transport here. And most places we visited required us to walk quite a fair bit and take buses which can be quite daunting if you're not sure which ones to take.

Food was also difficult to find, since we were on a budget. We ended up eating at the Kyoto station quite a few times which had good food offerings. We had the worst meal ever in Nara though. Mine was a curry udon which was unpalatable and this was the only meal I could not finish.

And again, here are the manhole covers:

Manhole covers in Nara feature the deer.
Kyoto manhole covers has the shuriken in the centre.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Osaka, Japan

After a month of intensive planning, we went, saw and conquered Osaka, Kyoto and Tokyo in about 10 days. This trip has required the most intense planning for us because:
1. We covered 3 cities
2. In a language we knew nothing, in characters we don't understand
3. A myriad of train choices crawling across the cities, some with almost similar sounding stations, with different types of ticket choices and a combination of them all. For Tokyo, I found two separate train maps, one for the Japan Railway tracks and one for the Metro tracks. And, we needed to buy the Japan Rail Pass before we got there.

Let me just say we planned in great detail where we wanted to go, what stations would get us there (together with interchanges), how much it would cost for the transport (Hyperdia is a fantastic help!) and in total, which train combination ticket would have been the most cost saving. Another great website for planning is Japan Guide.

First stop was Osaka, a vibrant city teeming with young, trendy and gorgeously dressed girls. We stayed in the heart of the action, Shinsaibashi. Almost 99% of the girls were beautifully made up, wore fashionable clothes and shoes. I really stood out in my t-shirt, jeans and sports shoes. And make-up-less face.

Some shots of Osaka and where we went (other pictures on my Facebook and Flickr):
The moat around Osaka Castle
Osaka Castle
Osaka Castle - there was some dancing competition going on
People came out in droves bringing their dogs. This lady brought her rabbit to watch the performances.
Umeda Sky Building elevator-bridge encased in glass. Wasn't as frightening as I thought. We went right up to the top to enjoy the Osaka skyline.
Experimented with my camera using miniature. Looks like a toy city right? Like those tiny models of a new housing project.
Visited the Aquarium which was, okay. I think I still prefer Singapore's Sentosa one. They had a sun fish in this tank too but couldn't get a good shot of it. This giant stingray was doing flips up and down the tank.
More fish. No need to go scuba. And frankly, I won't want to with a shark around.
Sat the Ferris wheel located just beside the aquarium. Japanese seem to like these Ferris wheel as we saw quite a few of them across the country.
Flowers and heartfelt thanks to Steve Jobs in front of the Osaka Apple Store.
Dotonbori - famous Glico Man at the bridge. Shopping street packed with people.
We stayed in Hearton Hotel which took us 30 minutes of walking around, dragging our luggage trying to get our bearings (but once you find it, it's SO near the metro station). This branch was in Shinsaibashi, the heart of the shopping area and would be the nearest hotel to a station that we stayed.

Small rooms but it was comfortable and had wifi in the lounge. Included in our deal was breakfast which gave us a choice of Japanese or Western breakfast. I tried both and um, preferred Western because the Japanese meal consisted of dry pan fried salmon with rice. A bit too dry to my taste. The Western meal had egg and a gorgeously thick crispy toast which sparked a craving for toast with butter since I've returned.

The bed measured 120cm across. We just didn't turn when we slept.

After Osaka, we headed off to Himeji for a day trip. Activating our 7-day JR Pass, we asked the station master which train headed to Himeji and was told to wait at a certain platform.

The Shinkansen

The train came soon after but then I realized we were standing where the green car (which I remembered to be some first class seats) stopped. Not wanting to risk having the doors close on us, we quickly got in, found the car to be quite empty and sat down.

Green Car logo
Seats in the Green Car

After a few minutes, we realized we were violating three rules of our JR Pass:
1. We were in the Nozomi train (the fastest train) which is not allowed on a JR Pass
2. We were in the Green Car
3. Those were reserved seats and we didn't make any reservations even if we could!

We decided to buat tak tau (act like we didn't know any better, which was true). Thankfully, the guy who came to check our tickets merely asked where we were heading and nodded pleasantly to us. Trip took us only about 30 mins. Wow! I fell in love with the Shinkansen then.

Unfortunately, the Himeji Castle is still under construction.
There was a room that held the various types of armoury. Inspiration of Darth Vadar.

It was gloomy in Himeji. Other than the Himeji Castle, we walked around some gardens just beside it.

There were stray cats at the castle and this guy came to feed them rice. Japanese cat eating rice.
Japanese Garden

From Osaka, we headed to Kyoto, making sure we didn't get into a Nozomi train again.

Also, I noticed every city had interesting manhole covers:

Manhole covers in Osaka, depicting the Osaka Castle. 
Himeji manhole cover depicting... river and lilies? No idea the significance.