Starting the Day Right...

Friday, June 24, 2016

Visiting Hanoi

Over the years, I have visited Vietnam quite a few times.  it's a country with a bit of everything - history, scenery, exciting cities, sunny beaches and restful resorts.  Yummy food and good shopping.  In short, it ticks all my boxes!

This year, I re-visited Hanoi in February (yes, this post is a little late).   The last time I was here, our stay was rather short as we had visited Ha Long Bay as well for an unforgettable boat ride amongst the karst landscape.  This time round, we spent the time solely in Hanoi.

The key highlight of this visit was, for me, undoubtedly the visit to the ancient imperial citadel of Thang Long.  Abandoned when the Emperor moved the capital to Hue, most of the citadel was destroyed and the site and remaining buildings were occupied by the French military and thereafter, the ministry of defence of independent Vietnam.  It was finally re-opened to the public as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2010, to mark the 1000th anniversary of Hanoi.  So, it would not have been open during my last visit to Hanoi.

The Doan Mon Gate

Most of the citadel was destroyed, and newer buildings built over them (excavation works are in progress, revealing the older ruins beneath).  But, some old buildings do remain such as Doan Mon (the main gate), the flag tower, the women's quarters etc.  I was amused to see the ladies' quarters had no windows on the ground floor!  Just goes to show the attitudes towards women in those days.  

It was also nice to see the student groups coming to the Citadel to take their graduation photos.  The girls were dressed in their beautiful flowing ao dais, just as they would have done throughout the years...

Students - ladies in Ao Dai

We also spent some time visiting Hoan Kiem lake.  I'd been there before but somehow the lake, in the centre of the Old Quarter, exercises a magnetic pull, bringing everyone to it.  The last time I was here, I spent just one night in the Old Quarter and this time I took care to make sure that we were in the heart of it.  It was certainly more handy to get to the food, the night life and the spas in the area!  The Old Quarter is partially pedestrianised weekend nights and so everyone spills out of the shops and eateries onto the streets.  Right in front of our hotel too!  

Vibrant street scene in the Old Quarter, Hanoi
We also had rather nice meals, including a fancy French dinner at La Badiane (named after the humble star anise). 

Our degustation meal at La Badiane
As I said earlier, Vietnam is one country with a bit of everything.  Hanoi's Old Quarter, in particular, really has that historical charm and character which I like so much.  So here's to my next visit to Vietnam....

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Organising Komono is better with washi tape

So, I am now still going through the Konmari process.  Although, I have to say that the press of work and other priorities are making it more difficult for me to do the weekend sessions.  With paper (mostly) over, clothes done, books done, I'm processing my komono.

First, a definition.  "Komono" is the Japanese word for miscellaneous things and as such there are numerous subcategories, like CDs/DVDs, toiletries, accessories, electrical equipment, stationery, household supplies and kitchen items etc.  I'd done a few komono subcategories whilst working on the earlier categories (to give a little variety) particularly when going through my paper.  So I have tested every single pen I have in my room to make sure it's not dried up (and discarded the rest), put all my stacks of post its in one single container, sorted and essentially tidied up my stationery items.

Dismantling a floppy
I'd also done my electrical items but to my horror I found a whole shoeboxful of old 3.5inch floppies.  Goodness.   I don't know what's on them, don't have any way to read them any more and  don't want to just throw them away without making sure that whatever data is on them is well and truly destroyed.   I did find some instructions on how to open up the diskette, and cut up the magnetic disc inside but I felt very stressed after doing just one.  So I stopped after that.  Will have to figure this out further.

My washi-taped iPhone charger, Organised with binder clip
I also sorted out all my various cords and chargers.  Somehow, reading Marie Kondo inspired me to start checking out more websites dedicated to organising matters.  Along the way, I've discovered the joys of washi-taping my possessions and the many uses one can put binder clips to.   My iPhone charger is now nicely washi'd and so is my mouse.   I used binders to help keep the cables in order.  They look good.  In fact, my mouse and chargers spark joy!

I also went back a category to give my shoes a little more attention.  The last time round, I threw out two pairs.  This time round, the focus was on actually checking out the shoes - cleaning dirty pairs and glueing the soles for one pair tightly back to the shoe itself.  Clean shoes and mended shoes are definitely joy-sparking!  Nonetheless, I discarded another two pairs which were definitely too far gone to salvage.  Somehow the shoe cupboard looks just as crowded as before- time for the other users to get rid of their old shoes too?

My bedroom is definitely looking much better after this extensive Kondo-inspired work.  I do have the huge "memento" category to work through, but I have managed to locate and pack them all in a single box for the time being.  Somehow, I can't really bring myself to do this just yet.  Fortunately (or maybe not) I can shift my attention to other rooms in the house, such as the kitchen (all that kitchen equipment) or even the living room (there are loads of cabinets with empty boxes, old ornaments etc) to de-clutter.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Paper, paper, all is paper

Over the past month, I have spent half every weekend clearing out my paper.  

According to Marie Kondo, paper is the third category for clearing, after clothing and books.  It is really my weak point as I find it really difficult to throw papers away!  Marie Kondo listed the papers which people keep:

- old lecture notes (check)
- old cheque books (with just counterfoils remaining) (check)
- old payslips (check)
- old credit card statements and bills (I only keep three years worth, in my defence)
- greeting cards (check)
- warranties and instruction manuals (check)

To which I have to add, old course and education certificates, travel-related paper like old maps and tourist brochures, bank statements, insurance documents, car and home maintenance related documents etc etc.

You get the picture.  My room is a veritable fire trap.  My cabinets and drawers are full of paper, and stacks lie on the desk and side table.  I opened up one big box which has been hidden in my cabinet for the longest time - only to find it full of papers which I had to sort through.  Some were old bills and the like but a lot were letters, cards and little travel souvenirs like postcards and pictures.  Sorting all the papers out took a very, very long and tedious time.

Marie's rule of thumb: discard everything, except (I) those documents which you must keep indefinitely for legal/contractual purposes, (ii) those documents which you need to take action on, and (iii) those you want to refer to and need to keep for a limited period of time.  

I can't say I followed her instructions to a T.  But, somehow her instructions succeeded in pushing me to discard my undergrad notes, my old payslips (except for my very first payslip - consider that komono not paper!), the cheque book stubs, expired warranties etc.  I decided to keep only two years' worth of credit card statements, not three (slowly, slowly).  Old car repair bills (for vehicles which were scrapped years ago) also made it into the bin.

Marie Kondo says in her book that her clients' record is fifteen 45-litre bags.  I'm not sure what the volume of my bags is, but I've filled about ten large shopping bags.  And, I've not quite finished since I still need to get a shredder to shred my bank statements in (I was a little reluctant to just tear them up).   

What I found very useful was Marie's suggestions on how to file papers.  Just keep them in three files reflecting her categories above.  She observed that most people have very elaborate filing systems, so much so that it makes it difficult for them to file papers away.  The far simpler filing system she proposed makes it easier for people to keep their papers.  Thinking about it a bit, I totally agree!!!  I have since simplified my "incoming" documents - instead of sorting them into my handphone bill, utilities bill, credit card etc, I will just put them all in the same big folder marked "2016" which I can then go through and decide what to shred or keep at the end of the year.  (I am afraid that I'm not really capable of throwing away my old credit card bill once it is paid).  So hopefully, this easy filing system will help me keep my papers sorted.

I was so tired of clearing just paper, that along the way, I did concurrently work on other categories.  I finished clearing out my clothes.  Five bags worth, ready to cart away.  Not the empty closets which some Konverts boast of but pretty good, for me.  I also sorted a little komono along the way, clearing out stationary and miscellaneous junk drawers.  

So that's paper (mostly) over.  Now to the rest of the komono.

Friday, January 01, 2016

Tidying up for the new year

It started when I heard that my sister had asked our mother for a book on home organisation for Christmas.  I was shopping for Christmas presents at Kinokuniya and saw this book entitled "the life-changing magic of tidying up: the Japanese art of decluttering and organizing" by Marie Kondo.  I vaguely recalled reading  about her off my Facebook feed and so thought the book would be just the thing for my sister and picked it up immediately.

Of course, my mother had got her the exact same book.

So I kept and read the book instead.  Further research online threw up lots of "before & after" pictures, testament to the efficacy of her method.  So I decided to give it a try. 

Marie Kondo's first step is to de-clutter, before deciding how to store what is left.  Her default is to get rid of everything, except those things which "spark joy".  And she starts off with clothes (including bags, shoes, etc), before moving to books, papers and komono (miscellaneous items).  Thus far, this is what I've done:

1. Cleared out my t-shirts and my underwear drawers, and folded them Kondo-style, and stored vertically.  It was amazing to see how orderly the drawers became and how much space suddenly emerged!  And how easy it is to see my things after that.  

I have to admit that I didn't quite follow her instructions with the rest of my clothing.  Because I had recently done a mini-purge, and also because I found out that my relative was sending a box of clothes overseas in about a month or so.  It made more sense to hang on for a fuller "kondo-ing" of my wardrobe nearer the date.  

2.  Cleared out my bag collection and got rid of three huge bagsful of bags.  Because my umbrellas were stored with my bags, I took the opportunity to organise them as well (I didn't purge any because I have been known to leave my umbrella behind me, so will leave it to natural attrition to reduce their numbers).

3. Shoes.  Ok, so I only got rid of two pairs.  Not that I have that many to begin with.  There was one "maybe" which I decided to keep for now.  I'll throw it out when I next buy a pair of shoes; its partly the need to preserve my share of the real estate in the shoe storage areas.

4. Toiletries.  This effectively means I've Kondo-ed my bathroom.  Paid special attention to the cabinet under the sink (where I installed a few Daiso extension rods to create a shelf for good measure).  Confession: I could not bring myself to get rid of my entire collection of hotel supplied goodies. I use them!  I do!!! But maybe I don't need to keep on taking them back any more...

I have to admit that Marie Kondo's instruction to strive for "ultimate simplicity" in storage solutions struck a chord around here.  For years I have had this little plastic chest of drawers under the sink where apparently I am supposed to retrieve soap, first aid things, etc.  In practice the drawers were hardly used and the bandages inside seem a little old.  My hotel "selections" were occupying one drawer but it was also very difficult to find what I was looking for in the drawers.  I got rid of the drawers, and used a shoebox -Marie Kondo's recommended solution instead.  That also put one empty shoebox to good use.  

5.  Books.  Okay, this was not that much of a purge as others have done.  Partly because I just can't bring myself to get rid of too many.  I know that Marie Kondo says "sometime means never" but then I recently read a book which had been sitting there for years so there.... Maybe I got rid of some 45-50 books, but because the bookshelves were overstuffed previously, this means they have just reverted to being nicely full.  And I can actually find books I want to read!   My bookshelves, full as they are, spark joy.

I also worked on the family cookbook collection.  Again, we could have gotten rid of a few more but my mother felt bad getting rid of some which were given as gifts.  

What's left : paper (this is going to be a tortuous session) and komono.   Looks as though I'll need to do another update.

I am hoping that all this decluttering will help me start 2016 on the right note!

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Emmeline's last bow

After losing our Darling Dinky, it was sad to say goodbye to Emmeline just two months later.

Just before leaving for Japan, I instructed my family: "do not euthanise any cats in my absence". It was said half in jest, but little did I know that a few days after my departure Emmeline would suffer a serious ear infection which led to a vet visit, and diagnosis that she too had feline cancer.  She was treated for the ear infection, and so was still alive (but feeble, not eating well) when I returned.  She fell ill again shortly, and had difficulties breathing - difficult to watch.  So we took her back to the vet, and said goodbye one last time.

Emmie and her little pirates

Emmeline started off being called "MC", itself a short form for "mother cat".  She was the mother of our cute little "pirate kittens" (her first and last litter, for we sterilised her after) and was a very devoted mother to them.  

After the little pirates got adopted, MC continued to hang around and from an occasional visitor, became a regular inhabitant of our front yard.  She was on good terms with Mollie and Paddy (our late tom cat), and snuffled amiably at the indoor cats when she caught glimpses of them through the open door.  Eventually we decided that we had been thoroughly adopted and therefore formally named her "Emmeline", or "Emmie" for short.

Watching over her kit.
Emmie's health had its ups and downs.  She developed a mouth infection which resulted in expensive dental treatment and the loss of numerous teeth (she became our $500 cat).  From the front yard, we moved her to the back yard to watch over her recovery.  But she was hard to budge - even after her health improved, she became the undisputed queen of the yard, with all our other cats watching her warily whenever they ventured into her territory.  She happily invaded the house too, lying on our sofa in the afternoons.

It's hard picking out her photos; she looks a great deal like Mickey (our other dear departed black & white) so I'm picking out the ones I definitely know are of her....

Emmie indeed gave us many warm and fuzzy moments, and we miss her.

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Last Stop Hakodate

Nightfall - Mount Hakodate
We reached the last destination of our Hokkaido trip, Hakodate, where we would stay one night before flying back to Singapore via Tokyo the next day.  The good thing about flying ANA is that we can make use of the extensive domestic flight network, enabling us to see more cities.

Anyway, Hakodate, like Otaru, has lots of trade links to Russia, and from there to Europe.  It has imbibed considerable European influences as can be seen in the old city at Motomachi, where there are a few churches - Anglican, Catholic, and Russian Orthodox - next to each other. The British consulate is not far off, as is the old Hakodate Public Hall.

Converted Warehouses in Hakodate 
We had gotten a 2-day tourist bus ticket, so we happily rode around the old town, getting off whenever we felt like it.  Aside from the churches, we went to the old pierside area where the ships used to unload their goods, to be stored in the long warehouses along the pier.  Today, these warehouses have been converted for retail use, with little shops selling food, handicrafts etc within.  And it was here that we found out that just as Furano has "Delice" and Otaru "Le Tao", Hakodate's major cheesecake maker is "Snaffles"!  Snaffles have a few branches in Singapore, and I must say I rather enjoy eating their "catch cakes".  We had the opportunity to sample a wider range of Snaffles' products here too.

The number one tourist activity in Hakodate, though, is to see the night view from Mount Hakodate.  We  went up early - or at least so I thought - but by the time we got there, the place was really crowded with people lined three deep in order to get photos of the view. The view was beautiful, with the glittering lights outlining the city.

Hakodate morning seafood market
The view was nice, yes, but the highlight of our visit was definitely the morning seafood market.  Situated across the road from our hotel, we walked over for our seafood breakfast.  We started with sea urchin - freshly opened up, with some cooked shellfish on the side.  We ate it all up with gusto.

The market itself had many other little food stalls.  After hearing that Hokkaido (aside from melons) was also well known for its potatoes, I was glad that I finally managed to get one freshly baked potato with a dab of fresh butter inside.  It was indeed a good and satisfying snack and I also thoroughly enjoyed the matcha ice cream which rounded off my meal.

After going to Kyoto last year, Hokkaido presents an interesting contrast.  Settled in the early 20th century, it has a far more modern feel to it than the ancient capital.  I enjoyed the Hokkaido produce - potatoes, vegetables, melons and dairy products, and marvelled at the scenery - the majestic volcanos, serene lakes and the pastoral beauty of its flower fields. I look forward to my next visit to Japan....

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.

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