Starting the Day Right...

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Sapporo station is the place to be

A room with a view
I have a confession to make.  Although we spent three nights in Sapporo, we spent most of our days outside Spporo, doing day trips.  As a result, we didn't see much of Sapporo at all, except for the gigantic and rather enjoyable Sapporo station (co-located with a gigantic mall!)

We stayed at the JR Tower Hotel Nikko Sapporo, located at the station itself.  We took the bus from Furano to Sapporo and were quite delighted to find out that the bus station was literally on the doorstep of the hotel.  It was such a breeze checking in! We had a room on a lovely high floor with a gigantic picture window.  We would spend much time sitting here, just taking in our beautiful view of Sapporo, with the mountains in the background.

Elder-friendly shower
The room itself was pretty decent but what I thought was truly thoughtful was its elderly friendly bathroom, with an enclosed area housing both shower and bath, with a stool to sit in, and the faucet placed at a comfortably low level (taller people could use another set).  The floor looked to be non slip and there were a number of well placed grab bars.  And what I like about Japan - differently coloured toothbrushes so you don't get mixed up on who's is who's. They do these little things so very well.

The beauty of staying at Sapporo station though is that it is handy for everything - buying our breakfast buns, a simple ramen meal, food souvenirs to take home, etc.  We also tried out one of the conveyor belt sushi restaurants here too - enjoyable but my  favourite sushi experience this time continues to be in Furano with the big pieces of fish.

Crab, many ways
We also had one of the most unique meals of our trip here - a kaiseki crab feast at Kani Honke crab restaurant.  The restaurant is a few streets away from our hotel and it is famous for its crab.  We chose from the kaiseki sets available, gorging on crab sashimi, boiled cold crab, crab sushi, baked crab in its shell, crab gratin in a cute little crab shaped clay dish featured in our meal.   There were different varieties of crab available, Alaskan king crab, snow crab etc.  I think we didn't get much more than a bit of the King crab leg but the flesh was really so sweet. Whilst it was fun to see all the different ways crab could come in, at the end of it just that cold boiled crab was simply perfect.  That's the beauty of fresh sea food. 

We also tried out the regional  specialty - "Genghiskhan" or "Jingisukan", named after the conquering Mongol.  It is essentially a mutton BBQ type dish and unfortunately we probably didn't know how to order it. The lean meat was fine but there was also some strange cuts which were quite tough.

I should probably have spent a little more time in Sapporo, visiting some of the sights here. But we could only get the hotel for three nights and so we decided to travel down to Hakodate and spend our last night in Hokkaido there, before flying back to Siingapore.

More photos of Sapporo here!.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Geological wonders - the Shikotsu-Toya National Park

We took a 1-day tour out of Sapporo to visit two caldera lakes, Lake Shikotsu and Lake Toya.  The tour took us also to the crater of Mount Usu, which is a live volcano (!) although its last eruption was in 1977 (quite a spectacular one, as it turned out) and a view of Mount Yotei, a mini-Mount Fuji.

I do recommend these day tours for people who want to see the country side but don't want to have to work too much for it.  The Chuo Bus tour we took left from the bus station just next to our hotel, was very informative, good value (includes lunch), and was very efficiently and well run (just what every good Singaporean wants).  We had an "audio-lingual" tour, ie we had our own set of headphones and so could select the commentary in the language of our choice (English, Chinese, Korean, and of course Japanese).  The commentary covered  quite a bit of background on the development of Hokkaido as well as on the places we were visiting, the flora and fauna of the region, and even (when we were getting back to Sapporo) on Sapporo gourmet delights.

Lake Shikotsu and our glass bottomed-boat

Columns on the floor of Lake Shikotsu
We travelled first to Lake Shikotsu, where we took a boat ride in a glass-bottomed boat from which we could view the lake floor.  The water is amazingly clear at the sides, although it did get slightly more murky the further out we got from the shore.  What was fascinating was that there were these columns appearing at the base of the lake.  The explanation was that this was caused by volcanic activity in the past, when caverns formed by magma collapsed, leaving the columns.  The crater eventually filled with water, creating the lake.  The lake itself is quite deep in the middle, so much so that it does not freeze even in the depths of the Hokkaido winter.  You can read more about Lake Shikotsu in this good write-up I've found on the Lake and surrounding mountains.

Our next stop would be at a little rest stop where (accordingly to the commentary) the locals were famous for their mushrooms.  So we had a yummy bowl of mushroom miso soup, tonnes of mushrooms within for the princely sum of 100Y!!!  A good deal indeed.

Two of the four cute little islands of Lake Toya
We went to Lake Toya next - this is another caldera lake, but with four cute little islands in the middle! No, we did not visit the islands.  Unfortunately for us.  But it was nonetheless an interesting visit, and we spent some time by the lakeside enjoying the scenery.

Lake Toya is clearly more developed and accessible than Lake Shikotsu - there's a few decent sized hotels here - I an see this place being very popular for say conferences or corporate retreats (if the Japanese have such things that is). We had lunch here. It was a pretty good lunch, lots of veggies, but also a hamburger and a panko-encrusted prawn.  

Mount Usu crater
Next stop - Mount Usu, an active volcano which last erupted in 2000-2001.  It was great fun, as we went up a ropeway to the top of the mountain and then saw the volcano crater. Apparently  there is a walk which takes you much closer to the crater's edge but we did not go there....

The mountain actually overlooks Lake Toya, so we had beautiful views of the lake from this vantage point, next to the little volcano Mount Showa Shinzan. Mount Showa Shinzan came up by itself in the middle of a farmer's field between 28 Dec 1943 and Sep 1945 as a result of volcanic activity in the region.   

Lake Toya with Mount Showa Shinzan
Mount Yotei was the last mountain we came close to on our tour.  Japan has a number of mountains which they call "mini mount Fujis", so called because of the regular symmetrical shape of its slopes.  Mount Yotei is one of them.  We did not visit it per se but we viewed it from Lake Toya and also drove near it.  We saw it from various points and this was one of the last photos taken - by this time, it was getting darker, so it looks rather moody from my photo.  
Mount Yotei
Lots more photos in my Hokkaido album on Flickr.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Visiting Otaru

Otaru Canal
From Furano, we took the train to Sapporo, where we would stay for a few days, making day trips out to the surrounding areas. The first of these was to Otaru.  Otaru is an old shipping town, which historically was an important trading centre for countries such as China and Russia.  From the latter, European influences crept in. Today, Otaru is famous for its canal, old merchant houses, music boxes and beautiful glass.  It is also a handy day trip out of Sapporo.

I had forgotten to mention this earlier but it turned out whilst we were safely in Hokkaido, southern Japan was being lashed by Typhoon Nangka. We did, however, experience rather rainy weather on our visit to Shisaki- no-oka, near Biei, and it was likewise a rather windy day in Otaru, with the weather worsening as the day went along. 

But when we started the day, taking the train out from Sapporo station, it was a beautifully sunny day.  The
Otaru Orgel Doh - one of the glass shops,
with the steam clock in front
train would take us also down the coast in some sections, giving us the opportunity to to gaze at the cold blue waters of the sea. When we got off, at Otaru, we followed the crowds and sure enough, they took us to the canal where once upon a time the canal boats would load up from the warehouses situated on the sides of the canal. Today, the warehouses have been transformed to eating places, and tourist boats ply up and down the canal. Strapping young men in striped t-shirts also offer trishaw services - I suppose this is meant to establish Otaru's claim to be the Venice of the East, or at least of Japan. 

The other point of similarity between Otaru and Venice is, of course, glass. There are many glass shops  here
Music Box lovers rejoice!
in Otaru, along the main shopping street of Sakaimachi Street.  This was the old merchants' quarters, and these sturdy houses indeed look a little more European than Japanese at least to my eyes.  Today they are shops - mostly selling souvenirs, glass and music boxes.  Some times they combine the two and you can get a music box, with a little glass figurine of your choice perched on top!  
We spent some time looking for and finally found the Music Box museum.  The music boxes mainly feature European themes, and include a rather large organ which is really a music box!  

Other highlights of our visit include a steam clock (a gift from Vancouver, Canada), walking along the old railway line and taking a morning break at  Le Tao.  Le Tao is Otaru's answer to Furano Delice, with its own version of the Double Fromage cheesecake.  But it has expanded well beyond Otaru with branches in Sapporo as well.   We did have another break at Misono, a little ice cream parlour on the way back to the station.

More info on Otaru here and more pictures of Otaru at my Flickr page - Hokkaido album.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Dining out in Furano

Furano's peak season is in summer (lavender) and winter (ski-ing and snow).  As a result, they do have quite a number of hotels and quite nice little restaurants for a small town.

Toiletries and spa goodies at Hotel Natulux
Most of the hotels, however, are up near the ski slopes or away in the surrounding area so we were lucky to get rooms at the Hotel Natulux, located right by the Furano bus and train station for easy access.  It was a nice hotel, with a superb range of toiletries which of course we appreciated very much!   The hotel came with breakfast too - choice of western or Japanese breakfast, so as we were there for a few nights we had the opportunity to try both.  The best thing about breakfast was the bottle of fresh milk - so rich that the cream has risen to the top and sticks to the foil top - so you have to shake it hard to redistribute the cream again.  

Lunch was largely eaten on the road so we had to make up for it at dinner.  We went to Kumagera, known for their beef shashimi and nabe (hot pot).  The beef shashimi comprised thin slices of wagyu over seasoned rice.  There is a yummy soy-wasabe-savoury marinade which is poured over the beef before eating - probably lightly cooks the beef, much like lemon and olive oil for fish caparccio.  The hot pot nicely complemented the beef too - duck, chicken, venison (one little piece) and vegetables in a miso broth.  Washed down, of course, with Sapporo beer.

Fukuzushi - Chirashi Sushi Bowl
Another night, we went to Fukuzushi, right next to the hotel.  I had a lovely, huge chirashi sushi bowl. Large pieces of sashimi (that's what they are known for, apparently) - really a delight to eat these large fresh pieces of fish.  Probably the best meal I had in Furano!  

We also went to a well-known little patisserie, Furano Delice (I call it "Felice" for short, and I do feel happiness there!).  It's known for its milk pudding but we ate their Double Fromage Cheese Cake - with a normal cheese cake base at the bottom and a mousse-y layer on top.  Really quite light and yummy, so it's easy to
Happiness at Furano Delice

get down.  I must confess that I was also very happy with the mini cheesecake I bought from Furano Marche (the shopping mall for tourists, specialising in local produce) the day before.
Curry Rice at Masaya- check out the milk!

Apparently Furano is also famous for its omelette curry rice, so I had to have that too, at Masaya, an omelette curry rice restaurant at the heart of town.  I got the Furano special, so called because itis meant to showcase the best of local produce. As such it is served with a little bottle of milk (much like what we have been eating for breakfast every morning).  I am not a big fan of Japanese curry (lacks the lemak-lemak flavour of Southeast Asian curries) and I guess this still doesn't change things but I liked the thinly cooked omelette the rice came in, the tender strips of pork and the pickled cabbage (sauerkraut style) on the side.

So that's the run-down on meals in Furano.  The food adventures continue in Sapporo.....

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Furano and Biei - a world of flowers

This year, I went to Hokkaido to experience the beauty of Japan in flowers and lavender.  We arrived in the town of Ashikawa on 11 July and such is the tourist appeal of Hokkaido in the summer, that there is a special "Lavender Bus" from Ashikawa airport straight to Furano.  In winter, Furano is all about ski-ing.  But in summer, it is about lavender and indeed there is an entire website devoted to this topic.

There are numerous lavender farms around Furano but one of the most famous is Farm Tomita, so of course that was where we went. And, we were not disappointed. We had selected the timing of our visit carefully.  Lavender, apparently, fluoresces in July and the peak of its fluorescence is in the third week.  The Japanese take it very seriously, just as they monitor and track the opening of the cherry blossoms ("sakura") they also have a fluorescence index to monitor the blooming of the lavender.  But of course the peak of the lavender bloom is when the tourists are out in full force and so we decided we would not compete with them and arrived one week before.  Even so, the fields were beautiful, a deep purple in colour and stretching out across the horizon.

Lavender field, Farm Tomita (Lavendin in front, Lavende at the back)

Now in a previous visit to Provence in France, we had missed the lavender season (and it was raining) but we learnt there that the French felt that only their lavender ("Lavende") was the true lavender and the type found in other countries including Japan was a less form ("Lavendin"). I am forced to say that I personally find the deep purple of "Lavendin" far more photogenic.  But, I should say also that the Farm Tomita features many varieties of lavender, including (I think) "Lavende".  And in truth, there are many different types of lavender available.  A relatively simple list can be found here.
Lavende, complete with bee

Lavendin, I suspect

It was also really quite interesting to track the lavender flowers fluorescing.  Our hotel had a few pots of lavender out in front and we managed to see the little flowers opening up.  I have never really seen the lavender flowers in such profusion before.

 Lavender products could also be had a-plenty. And in addition, Furano is well known for its Yubari melon,  the price of which can go into the thousands and ten thousands of Japanese yen.Fortunately we got our slice for just 200Y each.

Yubari melon
Lavender Ice Cream
Lots  more photos of my visit to Farm Tomita can be found here.

We would do more flower gazing the next day, at Shikisai-no-oka, a flower farm between Furano and the nearby town of Biei.  Biei is considered one of the most beautiful villages in Japan - a reference really to the peaceful rolling hills and flower farms and fruit farms in the area.  But unfortunately, it was a rainy day when we went there and this discouraged us from roaming around.  The flower farm, however, was all one could ask for. Here're one or two pictures just to spark off some interest.  More photos can be enjoyed on my Flickr page.
Flowers and a distant view of hills

Flower fields, Shikisai-no-oka

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Majulah Singapura! Celebrating SG50 as One United People

So glad to be able to participate in this year's National Day Parade to celebrate Singapore's 50th Birthday as an independent nation.  
Many highlights - the ariel fly-past, mobile column, the short video commemorating Mr Lee Kuan Yew's life, the emotional climax of "Home" right at the end and the recital of the Pledge and the singing of the National Anthem.  Sadly my seat did not provide that great a view of the fireworks.  The floating platform's probably the best.
There are better reports elsewhere, so I won't elaborate.  My own photos and videos can be found here on Flickr.
But what was quite moving was that there were people wearing red throughout the day - when I went for mass, when I went for lunch.  It was a sign of solidarity for the day, that we were One United People.

Saturday, August 08, 2015

An Ancient Imperial City

Main Entrance into the Imperial City
For over a hundred years, Hue was the capital city of Vietnam under the Emperors of the Nguyen dynasty. The Imperial City was their seat of power.  Here at this site by the Perfumed River, they built strong, high walls around their throne hall, the administrative offices of their mandarins and the Forbidden Purple City, a citadel within a citadel where only the Emperor and his inner household (read wife, concubine and eunuchs) could step foot.

Our resort provided a free shuttle bus to the citadel, but it left at 10am and by the time it reached Hue around noon, the sun was blazing.  So, sunglasses, hat and scarf were in order.  And sunblock too, on the face and arms.  I could see why the locals wore long sleeved, loose clothing - the traditional aodai perfectly suits the climate!

There are many perfectly good sites describing the Imperial City, such as this, and this virtual walking tour of
Ruins of the Purple Forbidden City, from a newly restored corridor
the Citadel.  So I will not reproduce my route but instead go into the details which held more interest for me.  Sadly, in any case, much of the Imperial City was bombed during the Vietnam War and was destroyed, in particular most of the Forbidden Purple City.  Whilst restoration (or maybe re-creation) work is being done, there is still much to go.

From what I understand from Vietnamese history, the Nguyen Emperors were the last to rule Vietnam.  After WWII, the line of the Emperors stopped as Vietnam became torn in two between Ho Chi Minh and the communists in the north and the republicans in the South.  Eventually, of course, the communists won the day.  One would have supposed that they would have totally repudiated the legacy of the monarchy.  And they did, except for one detail.

The To Temple with Dynastic Urn
Peacock on Dynastic Urn
For whatever else they did, the Vietnamese Emperors had sent their ships out into the surrounding waters, out into the South China Sea where they laid claim to the islands in the area - such as the Spratlys and the Paracels.  In other words the two hottest properties in South East Asia today!

These activities were recorded, on the maps of the time and on the nine dynastic urns that one of the Nguyen Emperors commissioned.  The urns stand outside the Hian Lam Pavilion, across from the The To Mieu  Temple - where most of the Emperors of the Nguyen dynasty are commemorated.  The urns depict, amongst other things, scenes of the countryside and of the sea, of flowers and birds and beasts (including one peacock).

The accompanying commentary and description of the urns in the Hian Lam pavillion points out that they also record the "East Sea" (I could not find this though - but searching for individual decorations on nine gigantic urns in the hot sun is not easy, it is not unexpected that we miss things), presumably east of Vietnam, which would be the South China Sea.    So this is "evidence", at least from Vietnam's perspective, of the country's historic claims to the Spratlys and Paracels.

Map Detail
These claims are further reinforced by the maps.  Behind the great audience chamber of the Thai Hoa Palace - where sits the Imperial Throne - there is a smaller hall which contains maps of the South China Sea, again with the Spratlys and Paracels demarcated as being in Vietnamese territory.  There is a map in French - ie the French also recognised these historic boundaries.  

The competing claims of the various parties contending for ownership of the Spratlys and Paracels will take much time to go into.  Other countries will have their own evidence.  I am no expert, and putting this up on my blog does not indicate I am taking sides one way or another; it is purely to indicate the interesting point that the present day communist leaders of Vietnam are using the records of the Imperial administration to support their claims.

Detail - Thai Binh Pavilion
The other highlight of the Imperial City was, to me, the Emperor's little reading pavilion, Thai Binh Pavilion.  Situated deep into the Forbidden Purple City, it is one of the few buildings not destroyed by the bombing.  Ornate mosaic decorations adorn the roof and walls of this charming little building.  The Emperor's reading room faces a pond with rock garden in the middle so that he can rest his eyes on this peaceful scene when he wants to take a break.

After our visit, we took a cyclo to the French Boulangerie, a small little cafe which we located in (I believe) Lonely Planet.  This little cafe is a social enterprise, set up to train disadvantaged youth to be bakers.  The food itself was simple - we had a "Baguette Brest" which is essentially bread topped with cheese, ham, onions, tomato paste etc.  There was also a very welcome ice cream for dessert.  Not quite an "Imperial" meal, but warm and tasty nonetheless.

This is my fourth visit to Vietnam and I find that the more I visit, the more I find of interest.  In Hanoi we explored the ancient capital and the beautiful Ha Long Bay.  In Central Vietnam, the old town of Hoi An and the Imperial Capital at Hue.  In Ho Chi Minh City, I learnt more about the Vietnam war and visited the Mekong Delta.  And still so much more to see.....

More Hue photos found here.

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Resort Living in Lang Co, Vietnam

Our Resort - Angsana Lang Co

Vietnam is a great place to visit.  Good food, historic buildings, beautiful scenery, lovely resorts.  This time round we got to sample all of them.

We stayed at Angsana Lang Co, the "low cost" version of Banyan Tree.  Not that we were complaining though - the resort itself was perfectly situated just next to its more "atas" sibling and shared the same beautiful sandy beach.

And, I can't complain about having a suite with a big balcony and well-appointed bathrom.  See pictures of the resort here.

It was hot though - really hot.  In early June, the dawn comes around 4am and twilight at 7pm.   I suppose this is what is the norm for farming communities,so that the farmers wake up and work in the cool of the day.  We learnt, pretty quickly, that we too needed to wake up early in the morning if we wanted to have a swim in the cool of the morning.  From 10am to 3pm, all we wanted to do was laze in our room or in the spa.

The bay area 
Lang Co is a village about 1 hour north from Danang, and is supposedly one of the most beautiful bays in Vietnam (see this link).... I guess I will need to visit more bays to make a more educated assessment!  But it is indeed a beautiful place - the drive takes us along the coast with absolutely stunning views of misty mountains and clear waters.  We would travel this route repeatedly, to visit Hoi An and Hue.

I have of course visited Hoi An before - see my post on my previous trip.  But it was a pleasure indeed to revisit this charming little town.(See the photos of this trip on my Flickr page). In particular, I like walking around in the evening, when the the air is cool and the glow of the lanterns light the streets.

Nu's eatery
Re-reading the post, I remember now that I was not too thrilled about the food.  But this time round, we took our chances at a little restaurant further away from the main tourist strip.  And we were rewarded indeed, by a truly yummy meal of Vietnamese style kong bak pau (!), pomelo salad and a yummy Hue style noodle in a pork ragu with rice cracker strips on top. We finished off with ice cream - when I tried chilli ice cream for the first time.  Believe me, it has a kick to it.

So if you are in Hoi An, try it out. Nu's Eatery is at 10A Nguyen Thi Minh Khai.

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