In my previous post, I wrote about how my friends Michael and Irene came to become foster parents. At the time of writing, they had four foster children, one in Primary 2, two taking the PSLE, and one in Secondary Two.
When I stepped into Michael and Irene’s home, it looked both familiar and new.
Familiar because the wife and I came here fairly often before they were married, and Irene always kept a clean and neat home.
New because gone was the large furniture and the display cabinets of her Precious Moments toys, replaced by a box of neatly placed children’s school bags, and a smaller sofa.
Michael and Irene did not just make room in their hearts for the children they foster, they made room for these children in their home.
You can see that they have their Work From Home laptops in the living room but that was something they can put away at a moment’s notice. In my home, when I set up our Circuit Breaker WFH and HBL spaces, I had to throw away a ton of junk, and we still aren’t anywhere as neat as this household of four girls and their foster parents.
In the girls’ bedrooms, there is the usual assortment of toys, games, assessment books and clothes. Everything in its place. Later, I was told by a proud Irene that this is maintained by the girls themselves.
There was a sense of order, of structure, and peace.
And when you listen to the stories from the couple about the difficult circumstances the children came from, you understand why this structure is so important. It represents a sanctuary of stability for their challenging pasts, a place for them to grow into responsible adults, and for them to feel loved and cherished.
I felt it when I entered the home. It was obvious the children adored Michael and Irene, and the couple loved them back just as dearly.
I felt it when I took their photos: one family portrait, one couple photo, and one of the foster siblings together. I gave them the photos as keepsakes.
You cannot make up the affection and love that they showed one another.
It did not always run smoothly, Michael and Irene told me. There were many challenges.
Remember, these aren’t children who grew up in their care. They came from other situations, where they may have been abused, neglected or abandoned.
Each child comes with his or her baggage, and I am not talking about the bags that carry their clothes and belongings.
Yet, with patience and understanding, the couple managed to break down the walls that got in the way of their relationship with each child.
“Do you get to adopt the children you foster?” I asked.
Sometimes it happens but rarely, Michael told me. That is the not the goal of fostering, he said. Foster care does not necessarily lead to adoption nor is that its purpose.
The purpose of foster care is reintegrating the children back to their natural families, to take care of the children until their own natural family is ready and able to take them back again. To give their natural families time, as It were, to find their footing, and become capable of raising their child again.
Adoption is a permanent thing, where the adopted child assumes the rights of the natural child in the family. In contrast, foster care is a temporary arrangement to care for the child’s immediate needs in times of emergency, and provide them a safe, stable and loving home.
And the couple told me that each child in their care looks forward to going home to their own families, if possible. Reintegration does not happen overnight, but it is a gradual process which begins the moment the child enters the foster home. It is the hope of many who are in the foster care system.
I mulled over this for days after I finished my chat with them. How does one take on children who are not your own, with no expectation that they will be yours, and just love and care for them on behalf of another family, with the end goal of giving them back?
Surely this takes an immense amount of love and magnanimity on the part of the foster parents. It baffles my mind, and my heart.
And yet, here we are. Couples like Michael and Irene exist, willing to step forward and help. Some foster parents have no children of their own, and some do. All love and care for the foster children they take on.
Interestingly, Michael and Irene consulted each child before they fostered the next, even though they have the space and capacity to just proceed to take in another child after their first.
“Do you want a Big Sister?” they asked the first one before deciding on the second girl.
“Yes, I do,” said the first. And so Cheh Cheh came into the home. Then another Cheh Cheh, And another.
“Each child is a part of our home, and we wanted their buy-in before we brought home another foster sibling. We try to prepare the kids for whatever decisions that may impact their time with us.”
This is not part of any protocol, but to the couple, it seemed to be a sensible thing to do.
Another challenge they faced was the choice of school. For instance, their first and youngest child was about to enter primary school. “We did not know how to go about this school thing.”
As parents of our own children, we had about six years to prepare for their eventual entry into school. For Michael and Irene, they had about a year and a half to figure it out. With the help of the foster care officer and a kind principal, the youngest, who was transferring due to her own school closing, was able to enter the school near their home as the foster sibling of one of the older ones.
Another challenge was the first time they went to Family Court, ready to take over the care of the foster child.
“No child should ever have to be in Family Court,” said Michael, his face wincing at the memory.
Imagine a child of four, not understanding that she is not going home after court, and two families in court together.
It can be a messy and emotional rollercoaster for both families.
And yet, all this is done to ensure the child’s welfare is taken care of. The child’s wellbeing is paramount, and painful as all this sounds, it is done in the best interest of the child.
“What kind of help would you like to see, to support you as foster parents?” I asked them.
“More volunteers,” they replied.
Besides Foster Parents, there is also a need for volunteers such as Befrienders, Mentors, Transport providers and Tutors.
Michael and Irene also had a lady volunteer who helped drive one of their foster children to school every day. Volunteers who do this are also registered with the MSF.
They say it takes a village to raise a child. This is even more true in the case of foster care.
Michael and Irene strive to provide all the necessary comforts of family life for their foster children, to give them a safe and nurturing space they may not have experienced in their natural families for whatever reason. And above all, a place where they can feel loved and cherished.
I hear it in the laughter from the girls’ rooms. I see it in their interactions. I sense it in the neat rows of clothes hanging in the cupboards, and the library books and text books stacked neatly on their desks.
Order from instability. Hope from the ashes of despair. Love that comes from a positive family life.
This is what Michael and Irene, and many foster parents like them, give to vulnerable children in Singapore. Let’s hope there are more people like them out there, willing to stand in the gap.
If you are interested to find out more about the MSF Fostering Scheme, you can join their upcoming sharing sessions. More details can be found at https://mrbrwn.co/msffostering2. Alternatively, you can call 6354 8799, WhatsApp 9645 8231 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
During Circuit Breaker, my kids suddenly saw more of me. We were all under the same roof, for months. Eating, studying, working, playing, arguing, nagging, sulking, and laughing.
It was life-changing, to say the least. We saw more of each other that we ever planned to. That is when you see both the good stuff and the bad habits amplified.
Faith, our oldest, and who has autism, could not go to her Day Activity Centre. So she stayed home and we had to keep her occupied. It is not easy to keep a 19-year-old severely autistic young woman engaged, let me tell you.
Isaac and Joy, age 17 and 15, both had HBL, so we had to do some serious spring-cleaning to make room for them to attend their lessons online whilst the wife and I found our own space to work. But soon we settled into a groove.
The kids, were for most part, well-behaved. But they are at an age when they are looking for more independence and defining their own identity. So at times, I have to balance between maintaining discipline and giving some leeway. They learned very quickly too, what I expected of them, like helping with the dishes after dinner, setting the table, and generally putting their books away after they were done studying (not always done).
But I count myself blessed to have these three in my life. Every day is a learning process. Every day, I figure out what it means to be a parent. Because you learn on the job. And hopefully, my kids learn to become sensible and responsible young adults.
But what about kids who don’t have this kind of family environment? Some kids come from homes torn by abuse, neglect or abandonment. Where do they go? Who looks after them until their biological families are financially, physically, and psychologically ready to take them back and raise them?
I found out two friends of mine, Michael and Irene, had decided to become foster parents. When I last saw them at our common friends’ wedding in June 2019, they had two kids in tow. And they told us, they were on their way after that wedding to pick up another. And when I finally met them to chat with them about their foster parenting journey, they had four lovely girls in their home.
I laughed and said, “Guys, you have more kids than we do now! How did you go from no kids to fostering four?”
And that was when they told me about their touching journey to making that decision to be foster parents.
Michael and Irene spent some time in Cambodia helping out in the villages yearly, and seeing children there who needed so much love and care made them want to help those who can’t help themselves. I understood how they felt because I went on two of those medical trips with them before.
They got married in 2014 and starting exploring fostering in 2016.
“Where did you go to find out about fostering?” I asked.
Michael said that he was helping out at the church tuition service when he thought, “How do I help more kids beyond volunteering to give tuition, beyond the two hours every weekend I am here?”
One night, he came home and asked his wife what she felt about fostering. At the time, Irene candidly said, “I got very angry because we were still trying to have kids of our own and here he was suggesting fostering? Was he suggesting I was incapable of having kids?”
Michael then backed off from the topic, wise husband that he was.
One day, they were at a Bible Study and a lady shared about fostering. The lady fostered not just one kid but many kids, some even with special needs. Five minutes into it, Irene’s heart open up and she was moved to tears, thinking, “Why did I close my heart?”
When she went home that day, and told him of her new conviction, and he laughed, and jokingly said, “How come I say you didn’t listen but others say, you listen?”
With his wife in agreement with his desire to be foster parents, Michael went to a foster care road show at Nex mall, organised by Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF).
That was when they encountered the first hurdle. For potential foster parents wanting to care for children below 13 years of age, they must ensure that their windows have grills. Obviously, it was for the safety of the children they foster but it did not occur to them at the time, that it would be that big a deal.
It can be the small things that trip you up, and for the Michael and Irene, the grills was a source of angst. Their windows didn’t have grills, for aesthetic and view reasons. It may be a small thing to others but not having window grills can be important to some.
But just like those of us who become parents with our own kids, sacrifices and adjustments have to be made. I had to give up my study room so that my kids would have an extra room to sleep in, and also stopped buying my toys when I realised the kids needed space for their books and toys. And Michael and Irene had to change the way their home was configured to welcome foster kids into their lives and provide them with a safe place to stay.
They submitted their forms after a few months of mulling over the big decision, and then the assessment process began. The MSF-appointed assessors interviewed the couple and assessed their suitability to be foster parents. Everyone who lives in the household will be interviewed. If you have elderly parents living with you, they have to ensure that this does not compromise the care you are giving to foster children. In Michael and Irene’s case, it was just the two of them in their home.
The couple also had to go for a medical checkup and chest X-ray screening. I have to hand it to the MSF, they are certainly thorough.
Part of the interview process was also to find out the parenting style of the potential foster parents and how their own parents parented and disciplined them.
“How did you feel when you were caned by your parents?” was apparently one of the questions.
Michael said, “When they asked that, I was like, how would I remember something like that from 30 years ago?”
But some of us do remember. And it can inform and define the kind of parent we become. So it was quite an important question to ask.
One thing I learned was that foster parents cannot use physical punishment on foster children under their care. It is a sacrosanct rule. Some of these children come from homes with child abuse issues, and using physical punishment might remind them of their past, causing them to feel hurt or threatened. So the foster homes must be sensitive to this. Physical or any other forms of punishment are not allowed.
Once Michael and Irene were approved to be foster parents, they went for trainings held by Social Service Institute (SSI) where they learnt about topics such as helping children with trauma and attachment issue or with emotional and behavioural needs.
Michael said the lessons were enlightening and very useful.
Their first mentor and instructor for their course, who was also a seasoned foster parent herself, also helped them tremendously. After the sessions, she told them, “I think you two are ready.”
Michael laughed and told me, “I told her you sure or not?” This was because the course really gave a realistic picture of fostering and Michael felt a little apprehensive. But there was no turning back, the couple was determined to forge ahead.
You can put down what age and gender you prefer in the application form, they told me. And what criteria you may have. But it is important to have some give and take. If you have overly stringent criteria, it would be hard to find kids to place with you. But it was also important that the foster parents (and the biological parents) were comfortable with the arrangements.
For example, Michael and Irene told the MSF that they had no helper and needed to attend church. So the foster children would need to come along with them when they went. The biological parents of the foster children in their care were fine with it, so that was that.
Sometimes, schools or childcare arrangements may need to change too, depending on the circumstances of the foster child.
When the foster children are placed with a couple, there may be an estimated timeframe but sometimes, due to circumstances, the timeframe can extend. Michael and Irene said they were mentally and emotionally prepared for that scenario. One year can become two, perhaps because the foster child’s family circumstances did not improve.
Fostering ends at 18 but in some cases, foster parents continue to look after the child until he turns 21 with support from MSF.
Yes, there is a monthly fostering allowance provided by the State to help defray the cost of caring for the foster children such as food, clothing, transport, school fees and other needs. Medical Fee Exemption Card (MFEC) is also provided and this will fully cover the Foster's child medical expenses at polyclinics and government hospital. There will also be subsidies for infant care, childcare and student care.
But don’t ask foster parents how much money they are “making” from this. Nobody does this for money. Love is the only currency they give and receive. You really have to have the heart to take fostering on. It is a huge responsibility to take care of someone else’s child and provide a stable and loving environment for the vulnerable.
In my next post, I shall share some of the challenges Michael and Irene faced along the way.
If you are interested to find out more about the MSF Fostering Scheme, you can join their upcoming sharing sessions. More details can be found at https://mrbrwn.co/msffostering1. Alternatively, you can call 6354 8799, WhatsApp 9645 8231 or email email@example.com
I have enjoyed sharing my photos and stories with you this year. Here are the 2019 Best Nine photos of my instagram feed. Here is to more stories and adventures in 2020!
1. Faith finally overcoming her fear of flying
Blog Post: https://www.mrbrown.com/blog/2019/12/faith-takes-a-plane.html
2. Family Krabi Trip in December
3. Joy’s Christmas present to us
Blog Post: https://www.mrbrown.com/blog/2019/12/the-best-kind-of-gifts.html
4. Faith in Church
5. Road trip with my wife in Spain.
Exposure Photo Essay: https://brown.exposure.co/the-browns-go-to-spain-in-spring
6. 12 of us in our Krabi family trip
7. CNY 2019
8. Meeting Tim Cook and Theresa Goh
Blog Post: https://www.mrbrown.com/blog/2019/12/meeting-tim-cook-and-paralympian-theresa-goh.html
9. Hokkaido trip with the two younger ones
FB Posts with more photos: Link 1, Link 2, Link 3, Link 4, Link 5, Link 6, Link 7.
Podcast: mrbrown travels: The Watermelon Story, Japan
Other stories that meant a lot to me in 2019:
10. Turning Fifty:
12. Going to NYC with the Wife for GoT:
13. Being interviewed in Chinese by Tung Soo Hua on Channel 8's《我.董.你》 Be My Guest (thereby increasing my street cred at the wet market forever):
I am not a morning person but this morning was an exception.
You see, I was on my way down to OCBC Aquatic Centre to meet Apple’s Tim Cook and Paralympian Theresa Goh.
We had a good chat about creativity, accessibility, and parenting in a fast-changing technological world. And of course, Apple products, which I love using.
All the photos here were taken with an iPhone 11 Pro Max by me except the last one, which was of me Airdropping my selfie of us to Tim and Theresa [Photo: Reuters].
It is like magic, I said to Tim, about Airdrop. Which is what I also feel of many of Apple's products and services.
It was an honour and blessing to meet two extraordinary people in one morning.
Another roll of film unearthed from one of my cameras, this time a roll of Fujifilm Neopan 1600 black and white film, taken in January 2011.
(Read the full post and see more photographs at brown.exposure.co or view the embedded version below.)
The Wife and I took a 13-day road trip from the south of Spain to the north, and back again. I reflected on my relationship with my soulmate on this trip.
(Read the full post and see more photographs at brown.exposure.co or view the embedded version below.)
Singtel and HBO sent the wife and me to New York City to watch the gala premiere of Game of Thrones, Final Season, Episode 1. When we first heard from them, I was like, REALLY? We get to fly to watch the long-awaited final season of GoT??? Before ANYONE else on earth?
My wife is an even bigger fan of GoT than I am. And this was MAJOR brownie points. Even my second brother, who is a hardcore fan (he has watched ALL of GoT from Season 1 to 7 at least three times per episode) was jellies. He wanted me to pack him in my suitcase and take him along.
So we packed our bags in a hurry, grabbed the Singtel ReadyRoad SIM Card, and flew to the Big Apple for the Big Event. We visited the huge Iron Throne at 30 Rock and queued to redeem our tickets at the HBO HQ.
You can see how excited we both were. Like little kids off to see the circus. Of course, we had to go to the HBO store to get us some merch. I got my brothers some GoT tees, to share a bit of the excitement.
That very night, we got dressed up and went to Radio City Music Hall for the show. The wife asked, "Are we watching all six episodes of Season 8?"
"Er, no dear. You wish. Only Episode 1. I think the stars want to go home and won't be able to sit through more than six hours at the screening," I said.
A large number of the cast came, and they graced the stage to a standing ovation. It felt like forever that the series began in 2011, and to see the cast from the first season till now, made the hairs of my arm stand.
And the a hush came over the hall and the show began. We laughed, we cheered, we clapped. It was like a reunion with the show that took an almost two-year break from Season 7. And then, it was over.
We walked out of Radio City Music Hall with so many questions. So many feelings. I sent out a live video with my wife, to the fans back home. And then we walked past the red carpet area where the stars walked, as they dismantled the scaffolding. Then we realized we had to wait a few more weeks before we could see the rest of Season 8. Sigh.
Do sign up with Singtel and HBO if you want to catch the rest of the final season of GoT. It is with a mix of anticipation, at the conclusion of a story we have followed for years, and some sadness, that it was all going to end, that we felt as we walked home to our hotel in Broadway.
At least we still had a few nights left in NYC, to see some shows, to walk in Central Park, and to visit the MET before going home. It was one of the best trips the wife and I have ever had in the States. Thanks Singtel and HBO!
Going home is such sweet sorrow. It was such a chore not spilling the beans on what I saw at the gala. But mrbrown is no spoiler of shows. So my lips are sealed. That's what I do: I drink and I know things.
I found and developed a roll of Fujifilm Natura 1600 film I shot with in Tokyo, in 2011, and here is some of my street photography. I have to say, film gives me the feels.
(Read the full post and see more photographs at brown.exposure.co or view the embedded version below.)
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.
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!