I spent a few days with my younger brother and mom in Hong Kong, a city she loves but has not visited in decades.
It was in the twenties before we came but it became a balmy thirty-four degrees Celsius when we landed.
Not for mother the glitzy and touristy attractions. No, mom sought out the wet markets of Nathan Road, and made us take her to the grungiest, grimiest bits of Hong Kong we could find.
Mom grew up in Chinatown, Singapore, so she was in her element here. We helped to carry her marketing, like dried seafood. If she could cart fresh meat and fish past customs, she would have bought the entire wet market too.
She also insisted on visiting Wing On Department Store and even though the brother and I thought it was very OG, it turned out to be quite well-stocked with decent brands.
We made a side trip to Chueng Chau island, and visited my 堂兄 (paternal cousin) in Discovery Bay.
At Cheung Chau, they were preparing for the Cheung Chau Bun Festival on their Vesak Day. My brother and I purchased matching fedoras because we were vain. It turned out to be the best decision we made, because of the heat and sun.
We took a bumboat to see a temple there, because mom is a temple nerd. Every temple also must see.
Cheung Chau is very pretty and quaint. It is like time stood still here. And you can see a side of Hong Kong that you normally don't see. I was here some years back but it was too cold to swim. This crazy hot summer weather was perfect for a day at the beach.
Back on Hong Kong island, I insisted on taking the tram. It was slow and a corny thing to do, and my brother said he had never taken one before, so I insisted we all try, even though it added 30 minutes to our travel time back to our hotel in Kowloon East. I know, I know, the MTR was faster but I am a tram otaku.
In the end, mom said the ride was ok but "aiyoh so very slow" and "one time is enough". I guess she does not share my love of trams.
On the last day, mom wanted to see The Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery in Sha Tin. In the mad heat and humidity, we climbed the hill. Only to realize it was the wrong temple. It was the Po Fook Ancestral Worship Halls next door.
It was still a lovely view from up there, but down the hill we went, to look for the right trail of Golden Buddhas. We did find it, but halfway up the hill, I decided the heat and exertion would be too much for my 76-year-old mother to reach the top, and declared Exercise Cut.
So we only managed to see One Hundred Buddhas.
It was great for spend time with my younger brother and mom, but next time I’m going to come to Hong Kong in a cooler season. I shall end this post with some photos of the other thing we did a lot of in Hong Kong: stuffing our faces with food.
Quietly, my family celebrated Qing Ming again this year. I use the word "celebrate" because this is how we observe this festival. 清明节 or Tomb Sweeping Day is, after all, a celebration of life, as well as a commemoration of our loved ones who are not with us anymore. And an introduction to the next generation to their forefathers, whom they have never met before.
It is a time for all of us to gather as an extended family to reflect and remember, regardless of our religious beliefs.
Even Faith, who has autism, knows to look for Ye Ye's niche at the temple, and to touch the photo of his face in recognition.
(Read the full post and see more photographs at brown.exposure.co or view the embedded version below.)
Seems like a thing to do a #bestnine. So this is my Best Nine for 2017. Lots of travel for me this year and the feed reflects it. Thanks for all the love on Instagram this year! Follow me on Instagram: @mbr_brown, if you haven't yet.
From top, left to right:
1. Meeting the Justice League in London
I'm on a road trip with mom through South Island, New Zealand.
It's not our first trip together. Among other trips, Mom and I have done Mount Bromo and Mount Ijen in Surabaya, trained our way from Tokyo to Hokkaido and trudged through lovely Japanese snow (including our favorite town of Higashikawa) and now we driving though the south of New Zealand.
From a very young age, my two younger brothers and I have been travelling with my parents and we learned to do it without joining a tour. Pa was airline staff and we got free tickets yearly but hotels and the rest were not free. So the only way to do it affordably was to rent a car and drive the brood through places like the islands of Hawaii (we covered pretty much all the islands) and the Grand Canyon.
And to save more money, we stayed in dodgy motels, or apartments with kitchenettes so that mom could cook, instead of us eating expensive overseas food (the US dollar was three Singapore dollars in the old days, and one Euro was more than SGD2).
There was a no-popcorn rule when we went to Disneyland as kids. We didn't understand why back then but look, a tub of that stuff was USD10. Which was SGD30. Which was a small fortune in the 1970s and 1980s. So, no popcorn. And meals were Mom's fried rice in a Tupperware, freshly cooked that morning in the hotel room with a Sanyo electric hotplate cooker.
This was the time before GPS and the Internet, mind you. So my old man drove, and my mom navigated the American continent or the Australian Outback with paper maps, and a lot of arguing. The entire family all developed the ability to adapt. After all, you can't google your way through your travel problems, or book a flight or a hotel room with your phone in those days.
Travelling solo with my mother in the recent years is still as fun as travelling with my parents and brothers back then. She is 75 years old now, and here are some random things I learned travelling with her.
1. Always be prepared for sudden toilet breaks. Old people need frequent toilet breaks. Myself included.
2. Always pack random food items. I'm an ultralight traveller and refuse to overpack. But I have to say, my mother's stash of 2-in-1 coffee and cup noodles were lifesavers when we were too tired to go out and eat.
3. You are never too old to play with ducks.
4. Destinations are just points between which you stop for New Zealand flat whites.
5. It's not where you go, it's who you go with. I am blessed to have a mother who is an awesome traveller. Traveller, not tourist.
6. Hotels or motels must have a television. No TV? Minus four stars. TVs provide ambient sound as you go about your business. And also become a source of shared entertainment as you both try to answer the questions on quiz shows together. Or laugh at local cop shows showing the mild crimes that highway cops deal with.
7. You can talk to any stranger. Mother has the amazing ability to befriend anyone on the street. Be it singers at the Oamaru Sunday Farmers' Market, baristas in a coffee shop, or an elderly German couple who are on a seven-week camper van road trip through New Zealand. Or birds. I suspect that is where I get it from, because I talk to strangers on Twitter and my Facebook all the time.
8. Always ensure you've downloaded your Oldies Spotify playlist before embarking on your next long road journey, so you can both sing along to Frank Sinatra and Andy Williams. And reminisce about the singers and songs my late father loved.
9. Don't let Mom enter a supermarket. She will buy enough to last you two zombie apocalypses.
10. Do let Mom enter a supermarket. And let her buy what she wants. Because she know how to buy the best fruits, and snacks, and breakfast items at the best price. And you'll be thanking her when you tuck into the ham and cheese sandwich in the morning.
11. Your iPhone 7 Plus may be able to pull down travel and map info on the fly, but Mom's National-Library-borrowed Lonely Planet dead tree edition works without batteries or the internet. And works even when you're out at Milford Sound with no mobile coverage (shame on you, Vodafone).
12. Don’t ask your mother where small jars of jam, small cakes of butter, and the random banana come from. Just eat.
13. You never know when you might need these bottles of branded hotel-sized shampoo, conditioner, body gel and body lotion. Good for the kids when they go swimming back home. Good for the crappy hotels you may stay in, down the road, that may provide lousy unbranded toiletries. You might even want to start a shop with the collection one day.
14. She makes jokes about your snoring drowning out the TV she is watching at night. You make jokes about her morning farts.
15. “This looks like a nice little town on the map.” usually results in a drive through some off-road countryside, across several rivers, that leads to a town with just one building. Or the edge of Paradise.
16. You learn where you picked up the travel habit of washing your underwear and hanging them wherever there is a place to hang something.
17. Just when you think she has filled her one luggage, she whips out a folding bag made of the indestructible China/Thai plastic/cardboard that can take about 45 litres of shopping.
18. Travel with your parents while they are still mobile. They won’t be able to travel forever. Age, and two fractures in the ankle and knee from hiking in Vietnam a few years ago, can slow a mother down. Even the strongest trees grow old.
19. When she decides she really wants to have Indian food in the middle of nowhere in South Island, she will find it. And it will be worth the search somehow. That was some yummy Chicken Madras and Chicken Tikka Masala, man.
20. You can take the Geography and Art teacher out of the school but you can’t take the Geography and Art teacher out of your mother. And you appreciate the geography and beauty of New Zealand even more in her company.
21. It is ok to drive up the steepest road in the world, and acknowledge that your old knees aren't going to take you up Baldwin Street.
22. And above all, stay curious, open and always willing to see and learn new things.
[All images made by me, mostly with a Panasonic Lumix GH5 and Panasonic Leica DG Vario-Elmarit 12-60mm F2.8-4 lens, a Panasonic Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm F2.8 II lens, and an iPhone 7 Plus sometimes.]
The wife and I just came back from a trip to Japan. I can hear you all saying, “AGAIN?”
I don’t blame you. Last year alone, I think I was there almost every other month. I enjoy visiting Japan too much and never tire of returning.
This time, it was a special trip because we have not traveled together since 2012. And the wife has not been to Japan since 2010. Most of our trips together have been with the family and I thought it was time for some We Time. Also, it is to celebrate twenty years of marriage.
There is a contest at the end of this post where you can win a free trip to Japan! Link: Japan Dreaming Contest
I took charge of the trip and planned it all myself. I normally travel solo, but including the wife this time was not very different. I just had to make sure the itinerary did not include too long a train journey. When I travel solo, I tend to take these long and ridiculous train and ship journeys which I enjoy. But for the wife, I thought I would slow the pace down a little. But my itineary applies to solo travelers too. In fact, if I did the journey myself, this would probably be my path.
I bought us a JR East Tohoku Area Pass, which only costs ¥19,000 (about SGD240) if you buy it in Singapore or ¥20,000 if you buy it in Japan itself. The pass allows you to have unlimited travel on JR Shinkansen and limited express trains, within the Kanto and Tohoku regions, for any five days of your choice within a 14-day period.
Here is what that means. You can use the JR East Tohoku Area Pass for unlimited JR train travel within the region specified for five full days, but the days don’t have to be consecutive. This is unlike a 7-Day JR Pass, where you have seven consecutive days of unlimited travel but throughout Japan.
This means we could use one day to travel long distances, then stay in one city or town for two to three days, then use it again to travel to the next place, up to five times in total within the 14-day period.
It is very good for solo travel or couple travel, especially if you plan your destinations in advance.
Where did we go in our 9 days there? We started by heading straight to Karuizawa when we landed in Tokyo. That is one day of the JR East Tohoku Area Pass used. We spent two nights in Karuizawa, skiing and shopping at the outlet mall, and visiting the sights like Kumoba-ike or Swan Lake Pond.
Then we departed Karuizawa and headed for Nikko. The second day of five-day pass used. We stayed two nights in Nikko too, choosing to visit Chuzenji Lake and Kegon Falls by bus, and then the UNESCO shrines and temples. We tried to go to the Akechidaira Ropeway too, but it was closed due to high winds. Ah well, it was still a nice little visit there and the view from the ropeway station was also lovely.
People tend to make Nikko a day trip from Tokyo but I find it a bit rushed. Spending two to three days just exploring the area is way more pleasant.
Nikko, we used Day 3 of our five-day pass to head to Yamagata Station. Instead of checking into our hotel near Yamagata Station, we went all the way to Oishida Station. It is about four stops from Yamagata Station. Since this is part of our day of unlimited travel, we wanted to maximise our passes. We went to Oishida Station because I wanted to show the wife Ginzan Onsen. It is a lovely little onsen town where the tv drama Oshin was shot. The town used to be a silver mine area, but it is now a very pretty hot spring town in the mountains of Yamagata. In winter, the snow-covered old buildings make you feel like you have gone back in time.
We caught the bus from Ginzan Onsen back to Oishida Station and then back to Yamagata Station by evening. This was one of the longest journeys of our trip: Nikko to Oishida, then Ginzan Onsen by bus, then back from Ginzan Onsen by bus, then Oishida to Yamagata. All in one day. We really made the pass worthwhile.
While in Yamagata, we also spent a full day in Mount Zao, the famous ski and onsen mountain resort. We bought a special pass that covered the bus ride to Mount Zao from Yamagata Station, and the return journey on the ropeway. If the weather is not too snowy, you can see the famous “Snow Monsters” on the slopes. And if you like, you can also ski there. We just enjoyed the scenery this time, since we already skied in Karuizawa.
We did not use the JR East Tohoku Area Pass for our day at Mount Zao. There was no need to.
We departed Yamagata for Sendai with the fourth day of our five-day pass. Again, we did not check into our Sendai hotel first but used our pass to head for Geibikei in Iwate. About a kilometre from Geibikei Station is Geibi Gorge, where you can take a 90-minute boat ride on the waters. The boatman (or boat-woman) even sings folk songs, and you can order a meal to dine onboard during certain seasons.
The Gorge is beautiful in autumn, with the red and orange foliage. But I am also very partial to the winter season, when the trees and ground are covered in snow.
After Geibikei, we only had two days left of our trip. I was saving the last day of our five-day pass to return to Tokyo on the last day from Sendai. So we spend the second-last day of our trip visiting Shiogama Seafood Wholesale Market. We just took a short train ride (using the SUICA, their stored-value card like our ez-link or FlashPay card) to Higashi Shiogama Station from Sendai, and walked about 15 minutes. In the winter, there are way less people visiting, so we thought the market was closed. But it was humming with customers.
You can shop for fresh fish and seafood to cook back home or, in our case, just buy all the sashimi we like from the fishmongers, then go to the dining corner to order a ¥300 set of rice and miso soup. DIY Sashimi Donburi! A meal like that would cost you way more in Tokyo, so I think it is totally worth visiting port where they have one of the largest fresh tuna catches in Japan.
After a hearty meal at Shiogama Seafood Wholesale Market, we took another short train ride to spend the rest of our day at Matsushima Bay. We took a cruise around the bay and also walked to Fukuura Island, which is connected to the mainland by a 252-metre-long bridge.
Our last day in Japan came too soon. We set off from Sendai early so that we could do some shopping in Akihabara, mostly for our kids. And my wife got addicted to gachapon, the machines where you put coins into, and turn the knob for some cute little collectible. The wife wanted to collect the cup-clinging office lady figurine called Koppu no Fuchiko. I ended up changing my notes for many many ¥100 coins to fuel the wife’s gachapon needs.
Our JR East Tohoku Area Pass covered our final day journey from Sendai to Tokyo, and also from Tokyo to Narita airport. So you see, with a little planning, you can really see Japan for quite a reasonable sum of money. And enjoy seeing the views from the Shinkansen and regular trains as they travel through the snow-covered countryside.
Whether you try my itinerary as a solo traveler or as a couple, I think you will enjoy it as much as we did. If you are interested, I have created a simple itinerary at the JAPAN by Japan site.
There is a Japan Dreaming contest going on at JAPAN by Japan, a site where Japanese locals share their favourite attractions. To win a pair of return tickets and three Canon cameras. Simply sign up and create a travel wish list, also known as a Wanderlist, Add five attractions to your Wanderlist and share it on your Facebook for a chance to win.
Quickly go and submit your entries to win! Gambatte!
Contest details are here: https://japanbyjapan.com/contest?cid=soc_blog_japan-dreaming_14022017_mr-brown
It is very simple:
1, Go to contest page and click on 'Create button'
2. Sign up as a member (free) if not already one.
3. Create wanderlist by clicking on 'Create' button on contest page.
4. Add 5 attractions to Wanderlist.
5. Submit and share.
May you win the contest and visit one of my favorite countries in the world!
Ryan and I are in Taiwan visiting Taitung and a few other cities.
More on the Taitung stories in a later blog post but today, we are in Kaohsiung. Our day in this southern city of Taiwan encapsulated the mrbrown School of Travel:
We were cycling around Kaohsiung on free Giant bicycles provided by our wonderful hotel, and we stumbled upon a ferry terminal and scores of motorcyclists and some cyclists boarding it. (Note to self: Install a basket on my bicycles when I get home. Bicycle baskets rule.)
Me: "Let's go!"
Me, after we board the ferry: "What pier were we at just now ah?"
Ryan: "Not really sure."
Me: "Where does this ferry go ah?"
Ryan: "Dunno also."
So here I was, following the locals up the We-Don't-Know-Where-This-Goes ferry. We parked our steeds at one side, so as not to block others boarding the ferry.
For someone who doesn't know where he is going, I looked pretty pleased with myself.
This kid is so darn cute.
After a short voyage, it was time to disembark.
When we got off the ferry, we finally checked our map app and found out this is Cijin Ferry Pier.
And where we boarded the ferry was Gushan Ferry Pier. ORH, now we know.
Heng the ferry didn't take us to Hong Kong or something. That would be bad, because we didn't pack a change of underwear in our daypacks.
Cijin turned out to be quite fun to cycle around. We rode along Cijin Coast Park and also went up to the Cihou Fort.
I know, I know. I am very random.
I am in Japan (I know, again) for ten days of travel shooting. Follow me as I take the Panasonic LUMIX GX85 camera out for a spin through Nagano, Yamagata and Iwate.
And yes, I know I look like Paddington Bear in that hat. It's my favorite hiking hat and you can't take it away from me!
Waiting for our train from Shinjuku, Tokyo, to Matsumoto.
Kamikochi in Matsumoto.
The place where they filmed Oshin, Ginsan Onsen. I want to come back in winter to see it again.
Lovely lake at Mount Gassan (月山 地蔵池), Yamagata.
And yes, all the photos here were made by me with the GX85. Ryan took the photo of me above with a second GX85. It's like GX85ception.
Three days to reach Chicago with the California Zephyr and I was only 24 hours from New York. I arrived at Union Station in Chicago a little worn around the edges but still alive and not smelling badly.
I grabbed a Calzone for a late lunch at Chicago (it was already 4pm by then, why no Bak Chor Mee?), chilled at the Legacy Lounge until boarding time for the Lake Shore Limited to NYC at 8.30pm (Legacy Lounge users got priority boarding we got to board early). By 9pm, most of the passengers were already on board and we were off.
I chose the second window seat from the front, on the left side. Malcolm from Toronto whom I met on the previous train ride told me the left window provided a better view on this train.
This train journey was shorter than the SF to Chicago leg. People didn't talk or socialize as much, maybe because the ride was shorter. I never needed to share a table at the Dining Car. My wife said maybe East Coast folks were colder.
I was so tired I slept on the Lake Shore Limited train. Slept right through dinner. I woke up at 1am, I think, which meant the Dining Car and the Cafe Car were closed already. I wasn't very hungry anyway.
At the frontmost seat in the right row were two African American old ladies. One of them came in a wheelchair and had some difficulty boarding. They weren't very happy with the service provided by the junior train staff, a young black man, and kept complaining about him the entire trip to each other. "Did you see how he apologized to the other passengers for the delay? We needed help and they should have boarded us early, amirite? What was he thinking, boarding us so late? And he kept apologizing to the other passengers like it was our fault we took so long to board? Didn't he know I have a wheelchair?"
On and on, Wheelchair Old Auntie talked about this for the entire trip with her companion. The conductor, an older white gentleman, popped over to ask if they needed any food because it would be hard for her to make it to the Dining Car which was four cars away (we were the last car). He told his assistant, the young fellow that Wheelchair Old Auntie didn't like, to take their order and bring the food to her so she needed walk all that way.
I thought the fellow was trying his best to be patient. He stood there waiting for her to make her lunch order, even offering some suggestions. When he left to fill the order at the Dining Car, Wheelchair Old Auntie started complaining again. "The conductor is such a nice man! But that young man, I never saw him come over to check on us the whole time! And you remember how he apologized to the other passengers because we were slow in boarding…" and her song would start again.
She was quite amusing to listen to. Harmless old lady but opinionated as heck.
I didn't see much of a view at the start because we departed Chicago at night. But I did manage to catch the station of Toledo, Ohio. I could not resist taking a photo of the station in the darkness, and posting it on Facebook with the caption "Holy Toledo!"
I've always wanted to say "Holy Toledo!" at the actual place. I know, I very boliao.
The friendly conductor made some announcements throughout the journey. AT 8am, he announced, "The Dining Car is open and requires some kind of footwear to be worn". I wonder why he had to say that. Seems like a common sense thing to do. Do people actually go to the Dining Car barefoot?
Another announcement he made was to the effect of "If you are watching any kind of video on your video-type devices, please ensure that they are of a family nature". I think he meant no porn or R-rated stuff, since there were kids on board too. I should know, I heard one kid all night. Poor thing, the parents, who had to deal with the crying 5-year-old
Because my body was already trying to adjust to the 15-hour time difference between Singapore and San Francisco, and because my cross-country train journey took me across four time zones in 4 days, my body clock was a mess. By Day 4 of my train journey, 5am at the East Coast was only 1am at San Francisco, PST vs EST.
I chose to watch videos that were of a "family nature" and watched Season 2 of Fresh Off the Boat. It was fun stuff. I kept laughing out loud on the train and had to close my mouth so I wouldn't disturb others sleeping.
Breakfast on the train was at 7.38am EST but it was 4.38am PST in my SF mind. But a man's gotta eat, even if the Continental Breakfast, with three miserable slices of bacon added as an extra, cost USD$17.50 with tip.
USD17.50 could buy me the top of the line Bento Box on a Shinkasen in Japan, man. I missed my bento box meals so much.
I slept a little on and off, after lunch (they ran out of pasta in the Dining Car so I had a salad with a slice of grilled chicken breast), and when I woke up we were approaching Penn Station already. There was a mad scramble to pack my stuff back into my bags, and I think I left a small adaptor plug behind. Ah well, got to buy a new one, I guess, making a mental note to visit B&H in New York City, the Funan/Sim Lim Square of NYC. Wait, Funan is gone already hor? *silent sobs*
I know, it's just an excuse to go tech window shopping.
Penn Station was a madhouse of people. Kind of like Shinjuku Station in Tokyo but not as clean.
I looked for the Long Island Railroad (LIRR) because I would be staying in Flushing, Queens, where the REAL Chinatown is. I got off my LIRR train toward Flushing Main Street, a station too early though. Aiyah. Touch down in NYC only make noob train mistake.
The view of the parked trains at the train depot at Mets-Willets Point station was quite nice though. Nearby, folks were going to Citi Field stadium from this station. The depot looked like a place where an action movie would be shot. Or maybe a clandestine deal made in the late night between parked trains.
In the words of Tay Tay, "Welcome to New York". It is the city that never sleeps. Jialat. I'm already having trouble sleeping.
I didn't sleep well on Day 1. I was still recovering from jet lag from arriving in San Francisco a few days ago.
The train journey to Chicago was progressing into Day 2. We entered Nevada, Utah and Colorado, chugging along the ever-changing scenery of the countryside. A recap to those who didn't read Day 1 of mrbrown's Great US Train Adventure: on a whim, I am taking a four-day journey from San Francisco to New York City — three days to reach Chicago Union Station using the California Zephyr train, and then one more day from Chicago to New York City's Penn Station via the Lake Shore Limited train.
Some tips to make this trip easier for anyone contemplating this trip on Coach class (meaning not Sleeper or First Class):
1. Bring a pillow of some sort. It helps a lot. The seats are wide and recline quite far but a pillow will be more comfortable for sleeping.
2. A blanket is also useful but I got by with my Icebreaker merino wool cardigan. The air-conditioning on the train can be cold at night.
3. There are no shower facilities onboard except in the Sleeper cabins. So you need to clean up some other way. I used wet wipes a lot and that worked for me. If you like, you can take a leaf from your National Service days and take a talcum powder bath, but I don't recommend it. Because you'll leave a trail of white powder around.
4. I know, it sounds a little hard to live for 3+1 days on the train without a shower but it's not a big deal, really. You don't sweat much while taking the train so you never get very grubby. Unless you spill coffee on yourself, then yes, that may be a problem. And besides, you are kind of saving two nights in a hotel with the price of your ticket.
5. Pack some food and drink for the journey and you don't have to be at the mercy of the Dining Car prices.
I had breakfast with Rudy, Betty and Ethel, three lovely elderly African-Americans from Denver. They were coming back from Reno and Las Vegas. They experienced a four-hour delay on the way from Denver to Reno but this happens a lot because Amtrak doesn't own their own track in many places and often has to give way to freight trains belonging to the freight companies who own that stretch of track.
Rudy, Betty and Ethel were fun to talk to. Rudy highly recommended visiting Denver, where they come from. "Take your family too," he said.
The Scrambled Eggs dish I had wasn't very good value. Scrambled eggs with grits, and a side of pork sausage patties for US$15. Ouch.
But — pro tip —the Continental Breakfast with fruit, cereal, Greek yoghurt and a croissant is much better value. I added two pork patties for an additional US$4.25. What can I say, I like living the high life.
Some folks didn't want to pay the higher Dining Car prices and either brought their own food (see tip number 5 above) or they bought food from a supermarket to feed themselves for the journey.
Having an ever-changing roster of mealtime companions helped make my journey less lonely. And also having fun buddies in the same car as you, going on the same long journey to Chicago, helped too.
You can either get out of your comfort zone and make conversation with new friends in the carriage or dining car, or you can keep to yourself for three days. I opted for the former.
Every time we were near a station, our patient conductor, Jimmy, would make his announcements to remind folks who were going to get off the train at the next station to get their stuff together, and get ready to disembark.
Occasionally we would get announcements by the Dining Car crew that Breakfast was being served "on a first come first served basis" or that "We are operating at full capacity now so please leave your name on the waiting list" or "Party Number 5, your table is now ready".
You can tell I have memorized the train announcements quite well. They are like markers of your hours and days, helping you keep sane on the train.
Some of the station stops were longer and passengers could step out to have a smoke or stretch our legs or even buy something if the station had a store. I only encountered one store in the entire route to Chicago was at Grand Junction, Colorado. There was a tiny store at the station and we had about 25 minutes for a break.
I grabbed two muffins for US$1.50 each, and a peach that cost a US$1. I needed some backup food for the night. That peach was sweet and nice but such a pain to eat, dripping everywhere. One must be careful on a 3-day train ride without shower facilities.
One time, we got this announcement: "Please be reminded that this is a no-smoking train. This extends beyond tobacco products. If you smoke weed on this train, you will be asked to leave the train and you may be subject to criminal persecution. So please be considerate to our other passengers and we can all get to where we're going. We have detected some weed onboard and we are now looking for it. Please do not smoke weed."
Apparently, even though it is legal to smoke marijuana in the state of Colorado, it was illegal to smoke it on the train. I explained to my train buddies that pot was a Class A drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act in Singapore and the possession or consumption of weed can result in up to 10 years of imprisonment or S$20,000 fine or both, and trafficking in more than 500 grams can lead to the death penalty.
That's a stronger penalty than being kicked off the train, I reckon.
Some stretches of the train ride are such empty stretches of land that you have no cell phone signal or if you do, there are no Pokestops or Pokemon to catch. I know this because I opened my Pokemon GO app to try.
The viewing car is also a place for minglin' and socializin'. I went there a few times just to take a photo or two, and to listen to the volunteer guides tell you stories about Dead Man's Curve as seen in the Steven Seagal movie Under Siege 2, or the history of the Rockies.
I miss the old Steven Seagal. When he had less chins and really looked like he could kick ass.
I slept a little better on the second night. But I was still waking up a few times. "Go to sleep, buddy," Malik would say to me, at 3am, when he saw me on Facebook, my face lit up by the light from my iPhone.
I did catch up on my sleep eventually, during the day. But I really snored when I knocked out in the late afternoon. And my train buddies made a video of my less-than-glamorous sleeping position and sounds. I hope they don't release that video when I become famous one day. It would destroy my fledging movie career.
I called the Wife and kids when we were in Grand Junction, CO. Our FaceTime video call was a little laggy because my internet connection was probably spotty. But at least it worked.
Very often on the train ride, I would experience No Service on my cell signal. Kind of like flying economy on an American airline. After the initial withdrawal symptoms, I learned to cope with the stretches of zero Internet access. I used some of that time to read, or stare out the window, or think of what I was going to eat at the next meal time.
I decided to give lunch and dinner in the Dining Car a miss on Day 2. I just had a muffin for lunch and an Angus burger from the cafe car for dinner. The sad little microwaved burger was a little cheaper than a $22 dinner entree but I think they should spell it without the letter "g".
On Day 3, I had a Continental breakfast and shared a table with Malcolm from Toronto. He was on a vacation by himself and went to California to visit family and Nevada for some festival. He also took the same journey as me, from San Francisco to Chicago, where he would stay a night and then fly back to Toronto. He told me I had picked one of the nicer train routes to travel on. He has taken quite a number of Amtrak long distance routes like the Coast Starlight (from Seattle to Los Angeles), and the Empire Builder (from Chicago to Portland) and he thinks the California Zephyr is one of the best for scenery.
After three days of living out of seat 37, I finally arrived at grand old Chicago Union Station, the same station where that scene from The Untouchables was shot, you know, the one with the pram rolling down the stairs in slow motion, and Kevin Costner trying to save the baby while shooting the bad guys.
In three days, I had crossed two time zones and seven states: California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa and Illinois. I've seen parts of America I've never seen before. Miles of desert, miles of cornfields, and the fabulous Rockies.
Sure, the Amtrak trains are not as nice or as punctual or as fast as the Japanese Shinkansen, but the views are pretty and the company I had was diverse and chatty. On Japanese trains, I never had anyone to talk to (probably the language problem and the fact that Japanese passengers tended to keep to themselves). Not so on American trains.
I have five-hour layover till my Lake Shore Limited train to New York City so I'm chilling at the Legacy Lounge (US$20 for a day entry) because they have a Happy Hour and a roomy toilet that isn't the size of a cheap IKEA wardrobe.
As I queued at the Amtrak counter to ask about the next part of my journey, I met my lunch companion from Day 1, Levi, a young man who took the train from the West Coast like me, who spoke with a strong Southern accent. He showed me his bag with US$10,000 of pro fishing equipment that he was going to use at the bass fishing tournaments in Michigan.
"Ah have never fished in the Great Lakes before in mah life, so Ah came down here to give it a trah. I can catch anything with mah rods, just gimme an hour in them waters."
Some of these tournaments have prize money up to US$100,000, and a new car, he told me. But you have to work your way up the tournaments system which can cost princely US$250 each tournament.
"This is mah cheapest rod, but I have mah more expensive gear comin' in the mail," Levi said.
I tell you, the people you meet on a long train ride in America is as diverse as the scenery across the continent. I also learned about the challenges of driving and delivering RVs (recreational vehicles) and trucking from my other friends.
That is an experience I won't exchange for the luxury of a shower or a bed in a three-day American train journey.
It has been almost 24 hours since I made the fateful decision to jump on an Amtrak train that will take me from San Francisco (Emeryville, to be exact) to New York City.
I made that decision at 5am on a Thursday morning in my hotel room, booked the train tickets on my phone, and quickly packed to get to Emeryville Station in Oakland for the 9.10am departure.
The journey will take me three days to reach Chicago Union Station, then another one day from Chicago to New York City.
I have only my Aeronaut 30 carry-on bag for my clothes, and my Synapse 19 backpack carrying my camera, lenses and tech, so hopping unto a super-long train journey like this wasn't going to pose an issue. No luggage to check in or drag around.
So far, the view from the train has been awesome. Except at night, of course, when you see nothing but the darkness outside and within you.
I make many new friends, some because they will share my carriage for the entire journey, and some because we meet new people at the dining car at every meal.
Big shoutouts to Ali and Brian who were off to Reno to see the hot air balloons, and Sandy, the backpacking grandma from New Zealand, and Jackie, mother of twins from Munich on her yearly solo trip, and Malik, my trucker friend and fellow Apple fan, and Arlene, RV driver and writer of books, and Melissa from San Francisco who has a super-talented daughter doing a Masters in music, and Louie on a two-week trip through Seattle and Colorado.
So many new friends, and it's only Day 1.
After 13 hours of riding the California Zephyr train, in the middle of my first night, we crossed from Nevada into Utah. And my Apple Watch adjusted the time zone automatically while I tried to sleep.
But I'm restless. Yet excited. And thinking of about a million things.
Where am I going to stay in the East Coast where hotels cost a bomb?
Should I fly back to SFO or take the train back?
How do 小妹妹 bloggers take selfies of themselves asleep while aiming the camera of their phones?
What shall I have for breakfast later in the Dining Car and who will I sit with next?
Why can't Amtrak trains go as fast as Japanese trains?
Did I turn off the gas at home?
Does it matter since the rest of the family is there?
Have the children done their homework before the school holidays end?
What is my wife wearing to work today in Singapore?
How will the recommendations of the Constitutional Commission to raise the criteria for candidates who wish to run for President impact the candidates who qualified the last time?
Should our leaders stop pretending they want an elected president when the ruling party can change the goal posts until they get the candidate they favour, and just go back to the Selected Presidency?
Should we rename the amendments to the elected presidency to the Tan Cheng Block Act?
Should I pee before I go back to sleep?
Where can I find a shower at Chicago's Union Station where I have a 6-hour layover before my next leg to NYC?
Then I told myself not to think too much. But just go with the flow. Just in case, I booked my NYC air ticket on my iPhone first. American domestic airlines have a nasty habit of raising prices aggressively if you don't book early.
I also paid my bills using my AXS app and watched my bank account shrink with one tap. I was almost scared to "Slide and Peek" at account balance in my POSB app.
And most important of all, I took this selfie of myself sleeping but looking like someone else took it.
In July, I spent four wonderful days with my new travel blogger/writer friends in the Tohoku region, Japan.
Tohoku Chihō or 東北地方 ("North East Region") is made up of six prefectures in the north of Honshu, namely the prefectures Aomori, Aomori, Iwate, Miyagi, Fukushima and Yamagata.
Tohoku is known for its hot springs, mountains, lakes, and lovely countryside. And if you are near the coastal regions, the awesome seafood. You can get more info on Tohoku at voyag.in/jptohoku.
My first day in the Tohoku region and this was the view of the Mount Hakoda in Aomori prefecture. It's summer in Japan but here in the north, it's around 24°C. The air is refreshing and the sun is out. Not a bad way to spend a Monday. It gets hot in Tokyo and further south in Japan during the summer months, but when you go north, temperatures hover around 22ºC to 25ºC. Winters can get cold in the north though.
Our first stop was the Mount Hakkoda Ropeway. Taking the ropeway up this mountain in Aomori gives you awesome views, especially on a clear day.
Lunch was in a lovely farmer's restaurant in Hirosaki where you don't get a menu to choose from. The ladies there cook a different set menu daily from the produce in their farm and take great pride in producing meals the old fashioned way. They hold cooking classes here to promote the culinary culture of their community so that their food culture isn't lost.
We also made our way to see rice paddy art at Tanbo Art in Inakadate Village, Aomori. You can take a seasonal train to the Tamboāto Station nearby. This station only operates from April and November.
We ended our day at Hoshino Resorts Oirase Keiryu Hotel, nestled in Towada, Aomori. It has its own baths and huge rooms (my room view was that of the mountainside and stream), and a breakfast and dinner buffet to die for. The food here revolves around an apple theme, because Aomori is famous for its apples. We had apple cider, apple pie and pork chops with apple sauce. So good.
I know. This was just Day 1.
On my second day in Tohoku, I woke up at 5am to cycle along the Oirase Gorge in Aomori. It was a lovely 14km along the Towada Stream, especially when you get to enjoy views like this.
After breakfast, we did some hiking through Oirase Gorge and explored the flora and moss-cover rocks of the area. Then we checked out and drove down to the Tanesashi Kaigan or Tanesashi Coast (種差海岸) in Hachinohe, Aomori. There we tried some sea kayaking.
Lunch was seafood freshly caught from the Pacific Ocean and prepared for us by the lovely aunties there.
In the afternoon, we walked around the forest near the coast and then in the evening had a BBQ seafood dinner by the sea.
Even after we checked into our hotel in Hachinohe city, the day was not over. We went bar hopping in the famous back alleys of Hachinohe.
So many places to share. This was an unforgettable part of my trip: The Geibikei boat ride, in Ichinoseki city, Iwate prefecture.
The air was clear after the rain. And we moved through the waters of the 2km-long Geibi Gorge surrounded by nature, by fish in the waters, and dragonflies. Then the mist rolled in. And then our boatman (boat lady?) broke into song, her voice ringing through the gorge and echoing through the soaring cliffs.
Chuson-ji Temple in Hiraizumi, Iwate is a very significant Buddhist temple in Japan. Built by Lord Kiyohira of wealthy and powerful Fujiwara clan, the temple is home to Konjiki-do, a golden hall or mausoleum containing the mummified remains of the three leaders of the Fujiwara clan: Kiyohira himself, his son Hidehira , and his beheaded grandson Yasuhira.
After the long day, we checked into Ryokan Onuma in Naruko Onsen hot spring resort in Miyagi. Ryokan Onuma is owned and fun by the family of Shinji-san, who is a fifth-generation innkeeper. This ryokan has been his family for more than 100 years!
In one day, I soaked in the outdoor onsen in Ryokan Onuma where I stayed, then went hiking at Naruko Gorge, followed by lunch at Shiogama Seafood Wholesale Market (we ate FRESH tuna and salad) and a boat ride at Matsushima Bay, ending at the Godai-do Temple and tea at Kanrantei Teahouse that overlooks the bay.
I wish I had more time in the outdoor onsen at Ryokan Onuma.
Shiogama Seafood Wholesale Market is huge and being near to Shiogama Port, receives one of the largest tuna catches in the country.
While it is a wholesame market, it is also open to the public, so you can get some really fresh tuna and seafood for very decent prices here. If you ate the same stuff in some Tokyo restaurant, it would easily cost you twice as much.
After we selected the fresh seafood and fish from the stalls, we bought a rice and miso soup combo for ¥300 each and tucked right in. I have never eaten this much fresh tuna in my life. Burp.
From Shiogama, we made our way to Matsushima in Miyagi prefecture. Mr Miyagi, my buddy, told me I was visiting Miyagi without him and felt left out.
We took a Matsushima Bay cruise and sat in first class, my first time in the first class area of a ferry. It felt pretty swag.
From the ferry. you can see the islands peppered throughout the Matsushima Bay.
I didn't get enough of the onsens and countryside and food this time round but the four days certainly gave me a taste of the region. I am certainly coming back to the Tohoku region again.
Some have asked me if it is possible to do this itinerary without driving, in a Free & Easy way. It is quite possible but it will take longer. Here are some broad tips:
1. Places like Tanbo Art, there is a train station. The station isn't open all year though (simply because in winter, there would be no point).
2. There is a free shuttle service to Hoshino Resort Oirase Keiryu Hotel from Shin-Aomori and Hachinohe.
3. The Tanesashi Coast is a five minute walk from JR Tanesashi Kaigan Station.
4. The Geibikei gorge is just a short walk from Geibikei Station along the JR Ofunato Line.
5. Chosun-ji Temple takes about 25 minutes on foot, from Hiraizumi station.
6. Ryokan Onuma is a five-minute walk from JR Naruko-gotenyu Station.
7. Shiogama Seafood Wholesale Market is a 15-minute walk from Higashi Shiogama Station.
8. For Matsushima Bay, you can take a train from Sendai to Hon-Shiogama Station then take a cruise from Shiogama Pier to Matsushima, then return to Sendai via the Matsushima Kaigan Station. Or vice-versa.
Or you could also book Tohoku land packages from these two sites:
(All photographs here by me.)
"Papa, where we live now, is it city or countryside?" the kids asked me yesterday.
I replied, "Singapore is a city state, kids. We have no countryside or suburbia. And even if we do, it will eventually become city too. We only have Urban, Almost Urban, and Punggol.
Actually, on hindsight, we do have a countryside. But you only get to enjoy it for 3 months when you serve NS.
(No, that's not were we live, we were just visiting friends. But Photos By Me.)
I am usually the one who writes about Faith on her birthday. But this year, my wife wrote something on her own Facebook account which expressed our feelings more beautifully. So I am going to share her thoughts about being the mother of our firstborn, who has autism.
Today is Faith‘s 15th birthday. It‘s been a long journey. Like all 15s, they have their growing pains. There are much angst, emotions and other issues. It makes it sadder when any 15 year old have to brace more than they should. Some have to deal with broken family issues, loss of loved ones, physical disabilities and so much more.
You‘ll be surprised how resilient some of our kids are. Sometimes they carry more than us adults think we are bearing. Sometimes they even have to be stronger than us so that we can feel better.
I admire my little Faith. She has to be stronger than any normal teenager. She has to brace herself every day just to overcome the small normal things we make her do everyday. It takes so much from her, to force herself to overcome the overwhelming sensory experience just to get a normal task completed, things we take for granted for, things we complain and gripe about.
For reaching 15, I celebrate with Faith on this special day.
She has done so well and I know she will do better with so much love her school teachers and my families have given her. I am forever grateful for the love, patience and time spent on her.
My Faith is strong. My Faith is beautiful. Happy birthday my little girl! You will always be my little girl and a very resilient one. We are so proud of you!
(See more photographs at brown.exposure.co or view the embedded version below.)