Starting the Day Right...

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Going Local: Holiday Apartment Living

What we did quite differently this trip to Japan was to try some apartment living (interspersed by a night in a ryokan).  This was prompted partly by the high hotel rates (thanks to the autumn leaves) and partly because they are so much more spacious than the tiny hotel rooms you get in Japan!

Home away from home
In Kyoto, we stayed in a small house in the Gion neighbourhood (the quieter, southern part of Gion) with a sitting/dining/kitchenette area downstairs and two bedrooms (one western style i.e. With beds and one Japanese style ie with futons!) upstairs.  It is not a traditional machiya but it is a snug cosy place (thanks to the gas heater) and we liked it very much.  It is not that easy to find, being at the end of a small alleyway tucked in between two buildings on the main road.  But thanks to the excellent directions given, we were able to find it.    Our "travel angel" let us into the house - we were so early getting there that the house was still being cleaned from the last tenant (cleaner is an elderly Japanese man), so he first proceeded to give us a little tour of the area, and showed us where the local supermarket was, and gave us little tips about the eateries around us.

We took one of his suggestions later that evening, and went to eat at the local Okonomiyaki restaurant around the corner.  The shop was a one-woman-operation.  She was a bit abrupt but then we didn't speak the language.  Tried to order the grilled tofu the guy next to us was having but she pulled out her English menu and got us to order from it.  Looks as though she has her own way of dealing with the foreign tourists who turn up, as opposed to her "regulars".  Halfway through our meal a Malaysian couple arrived.  We were able to guide them through the ordering process.  And also to explain what "Okonomiyaki" was. (They were hoping for teppanyaki, I can tell).

A tea house or ochaya near our house
Another night, we wanted to have dinner at a restaurant near our place.  We wandered around the area but must have made a wrong turn, as the street we ended up in was a row of tea houses or ochaya - the sort where the geisha entertain in!  We heard music and clapping coming from one teahouse, and some samisen music from another.  Admission, clearly, was by invitation only.  We finally found the row of restaurants, but one was closing (at 8pm!) and the other was selling hamburger..... so we picked up dinner at the supermarket and went back to our little home away from home and ate it off our breakfast bar.  How pleasant it was to be able to kick off one's shoes and rest on our comfy low sofa and table, before eating sashimi and potato croquets.  We finished our meal with the persimmons and sweet pancakes we bought from the stalls at the subway station.

In Osaka, we had an apartment also but quite clearly we were only supposed to sleep there and not
My bed, and bed companion
Much more.  The entrance lobby opens up on one side into the laundry area and shower, and on the other side into the room for the WC.  Another door leads you to the main apartment, which is divided by Japanese-style screen walls into a main kitchen-cum-sleeping area, another sleeping area and a third Japanese style room with futons stacked up on the side.  So this little apartment, with one shower and one WC, can sleep SEVEN people in total!  Dormitory style accommodation indeed.  (Our Kyoto apartment at most can host four).   There was no eating area per se, you are not really meant to sit and eat in the apartment unless in the Japanese room where there was a low coffee table.  It was not as clean as our Kyoto residence and the kitchen was not as well equipped.  But it was nice and roomy, and I really liked the company of the Snoopy stuffed toy.  

There are, I realised, a few things to look out for when renting apartments in Japan.  First, the standard rule where it comes to properties - location, location, location.  Where exactly do you want to stay?  Near lots of eateries, shopping, or in a quiet neighbourhood where you can feel like a local?  Do you intend to make lots of day trips, in which case being next to the station could be very useful and important to get that early start to the day?  

Second, check on how the house is furnished and equipped.  Does it have wifi, for example, or a washing machine?  Another tip, relevant perhaps especially for Japan - to check on the type of beds.  In particular, if the apartment has western style beds or Japanese futons.  Futons are all very well for a single night but for multiple nights, give me a proper bed!  

Third, whether you want to be met or not.  Both our apartments were accessed off a small little alleyway (not a side road, an alleyway) and you can't take for granted that the directions given are correct.  So it is very reassuring to have a person to call in case of need.  It was also good for someone to tell us how to use the equipment, advise on when and where to dispose of rubbish and so on.  For example our Kyoto travel angel told us which rubbish bag was for our glass/plastic/ aluminium containers and which was for the other items.  And if there is, say, defective equipment, it can be rectified quickly or at least it is quite clear that you didn't break it.

One last point.  We went through a company, Japan Experience (google "Japan Experience Kyoto holiday apartment" and you should be able to find it) for our Kyoto apartment and for Osaka, got the booking off Agoda, where it was rented by an individual.  May be better to deal with a company, just for the more consistent service and better backup it provides.

Anyway, the more I travel around the Japan, the more I realise how convenient everything is and how easy it is to get around even for a foreigner who doesn't speak the language.  And that from a complaint-prone Singaporean, is saying something indeed!

More photos on this trip (in general) can be found on my Flickr album.


Saturday, January 07, 2017

Nara: Oh Deer Me!

Isuien Garden
Nara is one of Japan's ancient capitals, situated about 45min train journey from Kyoto.  Whilst many people do it as a day trip from Kyoto, we spent the night there, and travelled on to Osaka the next day.  With about 24 hours in Nara, we didn't have much time.  So since autumn leaves were the focus of our trip, we decided to spend the time at the famous gardens and parks of Nara.

Yoshikien Garden - Pond Garden
Japanese gardens are in themselves, an art form - carefully designed, beautifully executed, meticulously maintained. It is another way the Japanese express their love and appreciation of nature, flowers, and scenery.  Indeed, I really felt that the visits to the garden really refreshed the soul and delighted the eye.  The gardens are designed so that every step presents a different view and every turn surprises the visitor.  More about Japanese gardens and the different elements in the gardens can be found here and here and here.

We were indeed privileged to visit two very famous gardens in Nara, the Yoshikien and Isuien Gardens.  The Isuien Garden dates from the 17th Century and is famous for its use of shakkei, or "borrowed scenery".  Both gardens have ponds, and the pond in the second garden is supposed to be in the shape of the Japanese/Chinese word for water or "shui" (in Chinese).  But I couldn't quite make it out.

The Yoshikien Garden is just next to the Isuien and is made up of three gardens - the Pond Garden in front, then the Moss Garden and lastly the Flower Garden.  A small hill by the Pond is topped by a pagoda, with a charming view of the water and the tea house by the water.  Another tea house looks out into the Moss Garden - which was surrounded by the russet and red of the maple trees.  Sadly, there were not many flowers in bloom this time of year but nonetheless the Flower Garden was a charming spot, with a dry rocky river, a pavilion and more autumn foliage surrounding it.  I can just imagine how lovely it must be in spring or summer, with the flowers all in bloom.

After our stroll around the gardens, we went back to our ryokan.  We stayed in Nara Hakushikaso,
Kaiseki
which is really close to the Kintetsu Railway Station and also a short walk from both the gardens and Nara Park just beyond it (in fact the gardens are on the perimeter of the park).  We had to clean up and get dressed in our yukata (an informal kimono) in readiness for our yummy kaiseki dinner.  The dinner was served in our room - you can see from the photo our sashimi, soup, hotpot, tempura, pickles, chicken cooking on a hot plate, each with their own dipping sauce (or seasoning) as appropriate.

After dinner, one of the staff came in to lay out our futon beds.  I have to admit that it was quite comfortable and I woke up feeling refreshed.

Deer are everywhere
On our second day in Nara, we decided to walk around Nara Park.  Many of the important temples and shrines are actually in the regions of the Park and so it is well worth spending an entire day there, if you have the time, visiting the temples and wandering around the park.  We contented ourselves with walking around the park, looking at the imposing temples and of course, meeting the deer!

Indeed, it is not possible to avoid the deer, even if you wanted to.  They are everywhere!  But it is also important to remember that these are semi-wild deer and hence their behaviour can be unpredictable.  We saw a notice at the park warning us to be careful and there is also a video online for visitors to the park, advising visitors to only feed the deer the specially made deer crackers, being careful around them, etc.  I should admit that we did not bother buying deer crackers but saw many people with crackers not being able to "escape" from the deer who kept on following them for more. Later on, we also saw a deer trying to get the crackers directly from "source", ie one of the street vendors selling the crackers...  .... that's one smart deer.

Bridal Couple (and deer)
But in general, we really had a lovely time in the park, just walking around, watching the people interacting with the deer, against this gorgeous background of the park and also some of the nicest foliage we have seen thus far, over a little stream. (Note: parts of the park are best seen during cherry blossom period, whilst other portions have maples planted and these look best in fall.  So not all the leaves on all the trees are red).  
My dear father, when I showed him my photos, said that the scenery was so beautiful, it made fools of photographers.  i.e., any fool can take a great photo.  But I have to say that it was really such a beautiful place that it is no wonder we saw at least three wedding couples taking their bridal shots in the park.  Of course the deer became part of the bridal party.

So, it was a short stay in Nara but looking back, I will always remember it as a really special moment in our holiday.

As a;ways, more photos here

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Dining and Shopping in Kyoto: Beef and Sushi and Needles

Izuju Sushi - Mackeral Sushi and the "Mosaic" sushi
One of the best things about Japan is that the standard of the restaurants here are generally good.  We didn't really have any major "dining ambitions" here in Kyoto, beyond eating a good variety of the different Japanese meals, but most of the time, we just chose our restaurant based on what took our fancy.  Many a time, our picks surprised us!

As in my last trip, thought it is easier to summarise our foodie experience all together (with a little extra on a special shopping excursion at the end).  This time though, I've taken pains to try and identify/locate the restaurants, especially the better and more memorable meals:

Sushi, sushi

Izuju Sushi
Amazingly, during this short visit with a limited number of meals we went to two top sushi restaurants in Japan, at least according to Tsunagu Japan!  They are two very different sushi restaurants, one very traditional, and one totally modern.

I did not know previously that there is such a thing as Kyoto style sushi and that one of the best exemplars of this type of sushi is Izuju Sushi.  This was one of the few restaurants we went searching for based on its reputation.  Izuju is just across from the Yasuka Shrine, and is a small little restaurant with only a few tables.  Go early, or you'll have to queue!  Choices are limited - the restaurant is known for its mackerel sushi and inari and also this interesting "mosaic" type sushi.  Little ingredients (like pickles) are packed into the rice so the sushi itself is a complete meal.  There was also a seasonal special, on horse mackeral sushi.  The restaurant requests courteously to try their food without soy sauce, to better enjoy the flavour of the rice.  Indeed, I did not need soy sauce, as the flavours of the rice and fish are so fresh that any addition would diminish the overall experience.  There is a far more detailed blog post about Izuju here, so I won't go into more detail on the food, ambience, and the history of this well-known restaurant.

"Ikan Bilis"
The second restaurant, Sushi no Musashi, is in Kyoto station and we actually came by here the last time we were in Kyoto!  We rather enjoyed ourselves and so we came back here again.  This is a totally modern conveyor-belt, Tokyo-style sushi restaurant, with one of the largest selections of sushi toppings I've ever had - lots of different shellfish, sashimi and it's all really fresh and good.  Prices are reasonable, and no surprise, you will have to queue for this one too.  What I like is that they actually name the seafood that you're selecting - having said that I am not sure what the name of this particular fish is.  I just mentally called it "ikan bilis".

Where's the Beef

Blow-torching the beef
A few doors down from Izuju is a beef restaurant, "Kappo Bar Gyugyu Gion Honten".  It sells Kobe Beef but as prices are like 9,000 yen for a steak we had the "normal" Wagyu instead.  We got a seat downstairs, on the bar surrounding the kitchen so we had a good view of our food being cooked on the grill.  One of the more exciting dishes was this version of beef carpaccio.  The beef (sliced super thin) is lightly cooked with a blow torch and served with a lump of sushi rice, radishes, and some soy sauce.  It is literally two mouthfuls of food, but really yummy mouthfuls.  

Kameoka beef
Obviously, we had not eaten enough beef because the very next day, we found ourselves in another beef restaurant called Gyuraku in Kameoka (we were looking for a nice restaurant for lunch after our ride on the Sagano Romantic Train)  Here there is no mention of Kobe beef.  Rather, the restaurant proudly proclaims that it is using only the famous "black cattle" of Kameoka.  The beef itself is also available in the butcher's next door. It appears that Kyoto prefecture  is trying to promote its own beef products internationally and Kameoka is one of the leaders in this!

Anyway, we had a steak served on a hot plate and next to a hot stone.  So we can cook it further to the degree of done-ness we want.  The steak itself was good - moist and flavourful.  It gave us the strength and energy to make our dripping way back through the rain to Arashiyama.


Traditional Kyoto Cuisine - Kyo-ryori, and Yudofu 
Kyo-Ryori Manshige

Another unexpected or rather unplanned meal was our first in Kyoto, at Kyoto station.  We were really looking for the conveyor belt sushi but got lost in the massive station and found Manshige instead.  We were attracted by the promise of traditional Kyoto food (termed Kyo-ryori) and indeed, it was a charming meal full of dainty little dishes - including the tiniest, sweetest little new potatoes I've ever seen, and three of the tofu "lollies" which I remember from my last trip here.  In addition, there was a delicately flavoured soup made from seafood and which comes with a squeeze of lime (Thai influence?).  It was such a lovely meal, that it is no wonder that I subsequently found it on someone else's "best restaurant in Kyoto station" list.  And apparently it is a branch of a more famous restaurant somewhere else in Kyoto!

Yudofu Set Meal
We also took the opportunity to eat Yudofu, another Kyoto delicacy especially in the Nanzenji temple area - apparently all the vegetarian monks swear by it.  And the purity of the water here in the area makes for the most pure Yudofu ever.  Now Yudofu is really not the most exciting food in the world.  It is a few pieces of tofu in a stock flavoured with one piece of kelp. It is served in a claypot.  You put the cooked tofu in a dipping sauce, add radish, seafood and bonito flakes and that's it.  Fortunately, the dish comes with some side dishes as well - vegetable tempura, and other small side dishes such as pickled seaweed and some tuba tofu (Yuba is made by skimming off the the film off the top of soya bean when it is being cooked).

We didn't go to a famous restaurant for this one either. We tried to but it involved a 1 hour wait so we went to the less famous (and much cheaper) establishment called Goemon Chaya down the road.

Ramen

Black Ramen
Regular Ramen
Another "must have" when in Japan is the ramen.  We were walking home from Hanamikoji when we passed by Musoshin ramen restaurant and decided that a hot bowl of noodles was just the thing for dinner.  Musoshin prides itself on its tasty stock made from vegetables and chicken and indeed the rich, thick broth was very tasty.  It is so thick, it coats the noodles completely so each mouthful is full of flavour.  They also have a special "Gion Black Ramen" dish which features a black ramen stock, sprinkled over with black sesame seeds and served with some black seaweed on the side.... you get the picture.

Little did we realise that it is rated so highly - ranked 29th out of all the restaurants in Kyoto! Maybe it is the result of the very active calls to review it positively on Tripadvisor

Nishiki market 

Beef Pao
No visit to Kyoto is complete without a visit to Nishiki Market.  I had visited the market on my last visit to Kyoto but it's still worth a repeated trip.  We made our way there but it would appear that the sashimi stalls are not open on a Monday morning :-( Anyway, we had breakfast here, if conger eel tempura, a beef pao (courtesy of Kyoto foodie tip), takoyaki and matcha flavoured soy milk ice cream can be considered breakfast.  The conger eel tempura was not wonderful - it had been sitting a while and so was not that fresh any more.  At least they reheated it for me.  But the beef pao - hot, steamy, full of succulent meat - was something different and definitely worth a repeat visit during future repeat visits to Nishiki (yes I think another visit to Kyoto is a definite possibility).

At Misuyabari
After visiting Nishiki market we went looking for Misuyabari needle shop.  My friend had tipped us off to this shop - because she wanted us to buy her some decorative pins and the famously sharp needles the shop is famous for.  It was not easy to find - it is actually in an offshoot of the Teramaki Shopping Arcade - but behind the row of shops.  We had to go through a little alleyway, which opened into a courtyard garden and the shop was on the far side.  If interested, the directions are here.

The shop itself is tiny, and sells primarily needles, the decorative pins (ordinary pins but with little pinheads of dogs, cats, and many other little items).  It has a 360+ year history and apparently used to sell needles to the Imperial Palace!  The shopkeeper doesn't speak much English but somehow we managed to get by.

Tea for Two

Apple Tea
Somewhere along the way, we started having tea.  It started with a rainy visit to Arashiyama and a warm cosy English tea served in a traditional looking Japanese house.  Who would have expected to see scones and Earl Grey?  Although it turned out that the house specialty is actually an apple tea, complete with chunks of freshly cut apple.  It's a seasonal specialty so not always available.  Anna Maria is on the main street, on the way from the railway station to Tenryu-Ji temple.  It's a welcoming place and I certainly would recommend it to anyone who wants a little break from all the walking around (rainy day or not).We also decided to treat ourselves to a nice tea 


after tracking down the Misuyabari needle shop and making our purchases.  Our reward for effort, so to speak.  Lipton Tea House was started up apparently in 1930 as the British wanted to interest the Japanese in drinking Lipton rather than green tea. And to have a nice piece of cake with it.  I had a nice cheesecake.  But honestly it was just a nice break after all the walking (and BTW we had not had lunch, just all the snacking at Nishiki market).

We were amused to see two of the other patrons of the needle shop having tea here, too.

Well, I've come to the end of a long long post all about my Kyoto food experiences.  Or at least the more significant ones.  Glad that we had some new food experiences and also the chance to revisit a few old favourites.  Looking forward to my next visit to Kyoto (whenever it is)!


Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Scenic Route: Kibune and Arashiyama

There is so much to see in Kyoto, but a lot of it seems to be temples.... so, in an attempt to insert some variety in our autumn leaves viewing experience, we decided to take in the maple leaves by train, especially after we read about a "maple tree tunnel" on the way to the little village of Kibune which was illuminated at night.  

So we decided to take the train there by day, visit the famous Kibune shrine, and take the train back by night.  Maple tunnel by day AND by night, sounds good right?  Unfortunately, things didn't quite turn out that way.  The train journey was easy enough (check here for the e-guide by the rail company)

But very sadly, our day time journey revealed that many of the autumn leaves had fallen already, so there was not much to see.  And the train zipped by so fast, we could not take many photos.  The night journey back? Well, suffice to say that there was a moment of suspense and excitement when the lights on the train went out, for us to better view the illuminations.  But there was also a collective sigh of disappointment when the leafless (but illuminated) trees appeared.  So much for that!

Up to the shrine
Fortunately, we did have a good visit to Kibune.  Confusingly, the village is called "Kibune" and the shrine sometimes called "Kibune" or "Kifune".  The shrine itself marks the ending point of a journey; a goddess in a yellow boat travelled up the river and stopped here.

River flowing over rocks and leaves
It is quite popular during this period, with many people lining up to pay their respects to the deity, and to pen down their prayers, wet them in the shrine's spring waters (it is dedicated to the water god), and tie them to the nearby stand.  At night, the lanterns lining the stairs leading to the shrine are lit, adding to its mystique.

The rest of the village is tiny - apparently there are expensive restaurants and ryokans here, serving busy city dwellers who want to come away for a lazy and quiet weekend.  In summer, the restaurants serve meals on platforms over the river flowing past the village as it goes down the hill.  At this time of year, there are no more platforms but the river continues to be lit up by charming little lanterns.  We hoped to see autumn leaves but we were just slightly past the peak so most of the leaves had fallen - but they still looked pretty floating in the river, trapped by the rocks!

We had a more successful train ride the next day, on the Sagano Romantic Train from Arashiyama to Kameoka.  The train itself is an old fashioned steam train, with old wooden carriages etc.  The ride took us on the banks of the Hozugawa river gorge, and the autumn colours were beautifully displayed along this scenic route.  Whilst it was perhaps slightly past the peak season, it was still quite a sight to see - when the train first emerged out of the hill side to a view of the river gorge there was another of those collective sighs - but of wonder and excitement this time, not disappointment, as the train hurtled through a gorgeous patchwork hillside, and by a rushing river in the gorge below.  Check out my video:


video

In theory, we were supposed to take a boat ride back to Arashiyama.  It would be a two-hour ride, back along the same river gorge, in an open boat.  Exposed to the elements.  On a sunny day that would have been fine.  But it was raining, a miserable, incessant and cold drizzle.  We decided that two hours in the rain was not for us.  So we went for lunch at Kameoka (more of this in a subsequent post) and took the normal JR train back to Arashiyama.

The last time I was here in Arashiyama was in spring time, looking at the cherry blossoms, and it was indeed quite a different experience seeing the autumn colours.  And the low lying clouds created a totally different atmosphere, compared to the crisp clear skies of spring.  Autumn is "a season of mists", after all.

The river at Arashiyama
Having been to the sights in Arashiyama the last time (bamboo forest, garden, two Temples) it was quite liberating to decide that we had enough rain for the day and find a nice place for tea.  

And so that's the way our train journeys went.  Neither really turned out as the "perfect" day out from Kyoto, but they each had their own pleasant and memorable moments, and that's all you can really ask from a holiday.

See more photos on Flickr!

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Back to Kyoto: Autumn Foliage


Kiyomizu-dera Temple at Night

After two years, I am back in Kyoto!  During my first visit, it was for "Hanami" or to view spring flowers, particularly the delicate, transient cherry blossoms.   This visit, it was "Momiji" time! "Momiji" specifically refers to the red maple tree leaves but in reality there are others too, and the colour is not just red but also the golden yellow of the ginkgo tree and others.  

Here in Kyoto, we arrived as the maple trees were supposed to be at their peak.  But this is a fast season, and we realised that maybe we had arrived a day or two beyond the peak.  We also realised that just because the maples were at their best, it didn't mean that every tree was ablaze with red.  Some trees (eg the cherry) may have already lost their leaves, and others may be still as green as ever, resulting in a "patchwork" of colours.         

Kiyomizudera
Our first stop in Kyoto was the Kiyomizu-dera temple - one of the most well-known temples here in Kyoto, and the one nearest our little apartment!  We did not arrive early enough to visit the temple grounds properly (in daylight) but we managed to take a few photos in the fading light and then joined the throngs on the deck facing the main temple to get a chance to photograph the famous illuminations of the main hall.  
Indeed, the throngs waiting to take that one iconic shot were immense!  We stood five-deep along the deck facing the main temple.  People were pushing and shoving to get through and in the meantime, people were hogging the front of the deck taking their photos.  Well, we finally managed to get our shots and went on to meander around the gardens to admire the illuminated pagoda rising above the illuminated trees.

Next day, we went to two more temples, Nanzenji and Eikando-Zenrinji.  First, Nanzenji.  Nanzenji is famed for its aqueduct (quite easy to find) and also its sub-Temples.  We went to one, Nanzenin, famous for its little pond garden, and for the mausoleum to the Emperor Kameyama, who founded the Nanzenji temple in the first place.

The pond garden was a true delight!  First, being a sub temple, it was less popular with visitors (it had its own separate entrance fee, which could be one reason for the smaller crowds).  So we were able to admire the autumn foliage in the garden in relative peace and quiet.  The beautiful red leaves also formed a layer on top of the pond.... So the reflection of the red leaves was accentuated by the leaves already in the water.

The pond garden at Nanzenin

Rock Garden at the Hojo, Nanzenji
Nanzenji itself has a beautiful tranquil zen rock garden in its "Hojo", the dwellings of the chief priest.  Apparently, the rocks look like a tiger with her cubs.... I'm afraid that that one went right past me.  We sat there and contemplated the rocks and the patterns in the pebbly sand nonetheless.  Subsequently, walking through the Hojo, we did see rooms with wall paintings of various animals including tigers (and leopards, I think).  That, I can get.  

Our next stop was the Eikan-do Zenrin-ji temple.  Like Nanzenji, this temple is famed for its autumn foliage.  Indeed, we were not disappointed (and got to see the leaves in the blaze of sunset!).
Momiji lit by the setting sun

We walked all the way to the Pagoda, with its view of Kyoto, and then walked around the temple buildings, looking at the internal gardens before making our way down to Hojo pond.  Well, I can only say that a picture tells a thousand words so please do take a look at my Flickr site for more glorious photos of Eikando temple and the other two.  (Please note that the photos are being put up progressively).

Pagoda at Eikando 
Technically, this was the day we were supposed to walk up the Philosopher's Path and end our day at Ginkaku-Ji (yes, yet another temple).  But the thing about short days and our relatively slow progress is that we don't cover all that much each day.  Of course we could have gone there for the illuminations but somehow after the first night's experience, it didn't appeal.  

Maybe another time, another visit to Kyoto!



Sunday, August 28, 2016

Visiting the National Gallery

Although the National Gallery has been open for a while now, I'd not had the opportunity to make a visit till recently.  And indeed, I'm sorry that I waited so long!

For it was an insightful and informative afternoon, where I had the opportunity to see artworks by South East Asian artists, and of Singaporean art in particular.

The National Gallery itself is a beautiful building.  The old Supreme Court and City Hall buildings were painstakingly remodelled and a connecting building inserted between the two.  It beautifully preserves the splendour of the old buildings whilst ensuring that they are fit for their new purpose.

I didn't really have the need or opportunity to visit the Supreme Court before (not being a lawyer nor a criminal) but I remember going to City Hall for my first job interview :-) The Public Service Commission (PSC) had its offices there and I have to admit that it was with some trepidation that I entered this imposing building to look for the interview room.  Not much remains that I can see (not that I remember much) of these old PSC offices but visitors to the old Supreme Court building can still view the Chief Justice's Offices, and the old cells where prisoners were held when not required in court.

But back to the paintings.   There are a few exhibitions going on at the National Gallery.  I went to "Reframing Modernism", which was in conjunction with the Pompidou Centre and featured European artists including Matisse and Picasso alongside Singapore and Southeast Asian painters of the same era.  But what I found more engrossing was "Siapa Nama Kamu  - Art in Singapore since the 19th Century".  Siapa Nama Kamu means "What is your name" in Malay, and hence this exhibition explores the Singapore identity through paintings.  These paintings give an insight into Singapore over the years just as much as they reveal the painters' own artistic development over time.  It was really interesting, for example, to see how Chen Wen His, well known for his "gibbons" paintings, painted in such vivid colours and in such "modern" styles!

It was also a great opportunity to view Georgette Chen's work - I hadn't seen many of her paintings till this visit.  She is really Singapore's great "impressionist painter" and her paintings of lotuses really brought to my mind Monet's famous water lilies.  By contrast, the quaint and vivid woodblock prints brought a smile to my face.

Best of all, the National Gallery helps you to bring your favourite paintings back with you!  The "Social Table" (you can see it as you leave the exhibition) allows you to select paintings and put them all together in one big picture.  Here's mine:


Here's to my next visit!


Saturday, August 13, 2016

Go Go Go Joseph

Joseph Schooling, not in a technicolor dreamcoat, but in his swimsuit and goggles walked into the Olympic Swimming arena in Rio 12 Aug 9.10am Singapore time and made history, and his dreams come true.

With giants like Michael Phelps and Chad Le Clos in the pool, Joseph Schooling swam the fastest 100m Butterfly in Olympic HIstory - 50.39s!  - for the Gold Medal.  Phelps, Le Clos and Laszlo Cseh tied for the Silver (certainly something you don't see every medal ceremony).  

Joseph had already made history the day before just by qualifying for the finals, with a swim of 50.83s in the semifinals for the event.  Many of us had stopped work (As evidenced by the numerous Facebook posts I saw after the swim) just to catch the event.  Today, fortunately, is Saturday and so I could watch on the big TV screen instead of my little iPad.  Fortunately, I still kept the iPad on hand, to take screenshots of memorable moments.

Here are just a few photos, to mark this major milestone in Singapore's sporting history.  Indeed, in Singapore's history.











Joseph's journey to the winner's podium has taken 15 years, ever since he was 6 years old. It's a story of single minded determination, coupled with talent, hard work, effort, and incredible family support.  

And here's the TODAY article in which Joseph thanks all of his friends, family, coaches, etc who supported him over the years.

Go go go Jo!  You made it today.  And all of us are proud of you!

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....


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