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.
This is a photo set of my Konbini (convenience stores) haul over the last two weeks, and the stories behind them.
Hakodate: Breakfast I bought for the train ride from Hakodate to Sapporo. Little did I know this was the beginning of the Great Hokkaido Canceled Trains Adventure. Typhoons can really disrupt transport infrastructure.
Kushiro: It was for supper AND breakfast the next day. Don't judge me.
That pancake thing was great but I did find it a tad sweet.
Kitami: Onigiri, the food you buy when you are on a six-and-a-half-hour bus ride from Kushiro to Asahikawa because your trains have been canceled for two days in a row and you really need to leave the Eastern side of Hokkaido or you'll be stuck in the port town of Kushiro.
This was my lunch when the coach made a 30-minute toilet break stop at Kitami. My bus ride cost me ¥5,450. The ride was long but the views were great. It was not how I planned to travel (I was going to take the train everywhere) but I got to see more of Eastern Hokkaido via a very comfortable coach.
Asahikawa: Heavenly Oden at Lawson's. This is the food of the gods. I actually wanted to have a coffee only.
Higashikawa: Hokkaido fresh milk. Technically this was bought at the Higashikawa Tourism office store and not a Konbini. But that sandwiches and milk were so good, I wanted to share a photo of it. They also sell fresh produce at the tourism office.
Tokyo: Gotta have Calpis. This is my last night here. It has been a long day.
I departed Asahikawa by train at 10am and was supposed to take the Limited Express to Sapporo, then Sapporo to Hakodate, then Shinkansen from Shin-Hakodate to Tokyo. But when I reached Sapporo, the 12pm train from Sapporo to Hakodate was canceled and only the 4pm train to Hakodate was running.
Not wanting to chance it, this being my fourth or fifth train cancellation on this trip so far, because of the recent damage from Typhoon No. 9 and No. 10, I bought an air ticket from Chitose to Narita (Vanilla Air, really cramped seats) on my iPhone, and jumped on a Rapid train to CTS airport from Sapporo station.
Travel conversations you don't want to have:
Kushiro Station Master: "All Limited Express train cancel today."
You: "How about tomorrow?"
Station Master: "Tomorrow don't know yet. Sumimasen. Typhoon, sumimasen."
Can't argue with that, really.
The fastest way to learn to be adaptable in your travels: travel during a May Day protest riot (Istanbul) travel during a freak snow storm (Kagoshima where it rarely snows), and travel during a week three tropical systems converge (Japan).
I have done all three.
I have since learned to shrug it off. As long as one is safe, everything else can be adjusted.
Incidentally, "sumimasen" (すみません) is an awesomely useful word. I use it all the time to say "sorry" or "excuse me".
Sumimasen, I'm going to soak in the 13th floor onsen of my hotel now. It's windy, raining and nothing in town is open anyway. Tomorrow I will figure out where I can go next.
Sorry for the lack of updates because I'm away at the Ogasawara Islands, Japan, also known as the Bonin Islands. Internet is a little spotty.
It takes 24 hours by ferry to get to the biggest island of the group, Chichijima, from Tokyo. Then there is also Hahajima, a two hour voyage from Chicijima.
So far, I've hiked, snorkeled and checked out the island views for a week. I'll give you a more thorough update another time but here are some photos of my trip so far.
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.)
My oldest daughter, I saw you standing at the door, looking out at the pool of our villa. Your younger siblings were already at the beach, playing with their cousins and both your Yi Suk and Sam Suk (二叔, 三叔), on our big family vacation. Our extended family all in one place, sixteen of us across four hotel rooms, one loud family on a road trip. It was fun to share the room with you, Mommy and Auntie.
Mommy said the dress was meant for your youngest sister Joy, but she was still too small for it. It fits you perfectly. Maybe in a few years, Joy will take over the dress from you.
Six years ago, your Ye Ye (爺爺) went on a similar trip with us. Remember? Back then, there were two less children. Ye Ye would have been happy to see his two new grandchildren, your little cousins, but he left us a year after that trip. Ye Ye would have been happy to see you so big and tall too.
The morning light poured into our room and wrapped itself around you, dancing like gossamer around your still-wet hair. Your thoughts are opaque to us.
But we know you are happy, even though you needed to adjust to the new environment. I know you didn't sleep well the first night. It always takes a while for you, my autistic daughter, but you eventually overcome.
Faith, you are a big girl now. Taller than mommy already. A few more years before you leave special school. I don't know where you will go after you reach womanhood. But you will always be my little girl, Papa's little girl.
I am miles away from home. But my home is with me. It is not a bad way to spend my fifteenth Father's Day.
Having my first Chinese meal since I came to the US last week.
Whenever I come to San Francisco, I must visit Washington Bakery and Restaurant at Washington Street, Chinatown. The food is good and affordable, especially the breakfast and tea set meals.
When I walked in, one of the waitresses smiled at me in recognition. Must be the yearly visits from Ryan and me, going as far back as 2007.
Even the restaurant wifi auto-connects on my iPhone. And Cantonese, my mother tongue, is spoken all around me.
Coming here is like coming home.
My return SQ flight from Hong Kong was a full flight but for the May movie selection (which was released a few days early), there was Deadpool, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and Spotlight. All movies with monsters in them. Awesome.
I really liked these new large touchscreens on my Singapore Airlines B777-300ER.
And a very alert Twitter follower pointed out that they are from Panasonic Avionics.
Panasonic Avionics confirmed it in a Twitter reply, saying that Singapore Airlines has their "eX3 system with 11-inch wide touch-screen monitors on their B777-300ER".
For some reason, knowing that made me happy. I'm such a travel geek. If only I had more time on the flight home to watch more than two movies.
I even saw some guy playing a racing game with the Playstation Vita-like control pad. It looked intense.
Small complaint: The screen Brightness control was hard to find in the on-screen menu. Please fix that.
In other news, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was pretty enjoyable. I may actually reread the original novel because of that zombie movie.
(In the previous episode, my mother and I are on a mother-son trip to Japan. We traveled by train from Tokyo to Aomori, planning to continue our journey to Hokkaido by slow train. Yes, I know we could have flown but that would be boring. Or waited for the launch of the Hokkaido Shinkansen due to launch in late March. But time and tide waits for no man… and his mother.)
We crossed over from Aomori, Honshu to Hokkaido via Hakodate and then took the train all the way to Sapporo where we spent two nights. The coastal view from the train ride was awesome, as the train took us through cities like Noboribetsu and Tomakokai.
Mom and I ate our fair share of Sapporo ramen and even did touristy things like riding the giant ferris wheel. These ferris wheels are in every major Japanese city I've been. Tokyo has one, Yokohama has one Nagoya has one, and Sapporo has one. It must be a thing.
For ¥600, it wasn't too bad an experience. We got quite a good view of Sapporo by night.
With Sapporo as our base, we took an unplanned random day trip to Otaru.
In Otaru, we ended up in Tenguyama, or 天狗山, because we jumped into the wrong bus. We wanted to take the stroller bus to town but got on the Tenguyama bus instead. But it turned out to be the right choice. After a ride on the ropeway, we discovered that the view up there was pretty spectacular. There was also a sizable skiing and snowboarding crowd.
Otaru is a touristy town but nice nonetheless. We took another bus and we ended up at the Sakaimachi shopping street. We resisted buying the glass souvenirs but caved in to some ice cream cones and dried cuttlefish.
Part of the reason we felt full was because everywhere we went along the street, there were food samples handed out. You can get pretty full just eating samples. Ahem.
From Sapporo we rode a train to Furano. We didn't expect it to be so quiet. Perhaps it was the end of the winter season, or folks went to the ski resort nearby instead.
But we didn't mind. It was a nice, quiet and beautiful town. The only challenge was finding dinner on a Sunday night. In the dead of winter. In deserted snow-covered streets.
After some walking, we found a drug store open and we bought instant noodles and drinks for dinner, just in case. We looked like a bunch of desperate fugitives stocking up on supplies for a mad dash to freedom.
But after we left the drug store, we did manage to find a yakiniku restaurant run by a mother and daughter team, and boy, did mom and I have a feast.
"Where are we going tomorrow ah?" asked mom, between bites of the giant prawns and scallop.
"Dunno leh," I said, my mouth filled with bibimbap and grilled pork.
That night, I did some research and declared, "Tomorrow we shall go and visit the town of Biei and see the famed Blue Pond!"
Tomorrow came and we set forth on a train to Biei. Only to discover that the Blue Pond was closed for maintenance and dredging works till April. We weren't the only ones who discovered Aoike was closed. Two young men armed with a tripod and their camera bags found out while waiting for the bus from Biei Station. At least we found out at the station itself.
No fear, such hiccups never deter my mother and me. We sallied forth to Shirogane Waterfall at Shirogane Onsen. The kind lady at the tourist office told us the waters there were ALSO blue and worth a visit even in winter.
A 30-minute bus ride later, we were there and yes, it was a lovely waterfall. Walking to the bridge that overlooks it took a bit of work though, as the ground was covered in snow and ice. My mother and I looked like penguins trying to walk without slipping.
As we took the bus back to Biei (which has way more attractions during the other seasons), we had to decide where else to spend our day.
Over a quick lunch of chicken stew (which was oh so lovely) in Biei, I picked Aibetsu, famed for its mushrooms and a shrine. Why didn't we go to Asahikawa, a bigger city with a famous zoo with its penguin march? Because my mother and I are rebels and like to go to ulu places and see quaint towns.
Also, mom has seen penguins march elsewhere before and says Singapore has a great zoo already.
Hey, who am I to argue with the woman who gave birth to me, right? So off we went, and jumped onto the infrequent train along the Sekihoku line to see "mushroom town".
Well, let me just say, Aibetsu is really really quiet. So quiet that the station had no staff present (perhaps because it was winter). And we proceeded to trudge through more snow for about a kilometre to the shrine, crossing the Aibetsu Bridge that crossed the Ishikari River.
We got a little lost along the way but found ourselves in a centre for training handicapped people for jobs. They had freshly baked An Pan buns and other pastries. All handmade. And freshly-made coffee. We made friends with the staff there and they directed us to the shrine, which was just behind their building.
After the Aibetsu shrine visit, we walked back to the station again, but this time powered by coffee and An Pan buns. We sat in the empty Aibetsu Station, seeking warmth from the furnace, while waiting for the 4.22pm train. Miss that train and the next train is after 7pm.
We decided it was enough for the day, and retired to our Furano hotel, ready for our next destination. But before that, there is laundry to be done, and I am the professional travel laundry person in the family.
My ¥300 laundromat awaits. Also, typing this on my iPhone while sitting on the toilet has made my left leg dead. Sayonara for now.
If updates are sporadic, I apologize because I'm traveling from Tokyo to Hokkaido with my mother, a retired teacher. We've so far traveled by train from Tokyo to Aomori, the northern part of Honshu and we are now in at Hakodate, southernmost Hokkaido.
I have discovered that your mother may leave the teaching profession but you cannot take the teacher out of your mother. She has a curious mind and because she taught geography and art, this trip brings out all her knowledge and love of her subjects.
It's been fifty years since mom came to Japan. Her first and only trip to Japan before this, was her honeymoon with my late father. And now she is traveling here with me. It's like a full circle.
Apologies for the lack of updates here lately. I'm away in Japan (again), battling some crazy winter weather but generally having a ball. I promise some updates soon.
Here are some fun signs I've seen in Japan to keep you entertained for the moment.
I guess what happens on this ferry, stays on this ferry.
That's very reassuring of my hotel breakfast.
Yabuli! The name conjures up a mysterious and exotic land! When I was first told we were invited by Club Med to stay at this resort, my first reaction was "Ya Boo Where?".
Turns out it was near Harbin, China, near Mongolia, in the province of Heilongjiang.
A midnight six-hour flight to Beijing, then a layover of two hours, then another two-hour flight to Mudanjiang, then a two-hour van ride later, we finally reached Club Med Yabuli at about noon.
The room we were given was lovely: a two-bedroom suite with a view.
We had one checked-in luggage that carried some of the bulkier stuff like boots and ski jackets, but the kids, the wife and I mostly carried our own stuff in our Tom Bihn carry-on bags. This wasn't the family's first winter (we were in France around the same time last year) but this was the first time the kids and the wife have ever experienced below zero temperatures, and for the kids, it was their first time seeing snow, so it was quite exciting. I did Finland in winter some years ago, so I kind of knew what to expect, but my biggest worry in the run up to the trip was to ensure they were all sufficiently warm and appropriately dressed for the trip.
As they say in Norway, there is no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing.
The important thing to remember is not to have too many layers, or you won't be able to move. So the layers have to work well. I made sure no one was wearing cotton (cotton retains perspiration and doesn't wick, and you end up very cold because the moisture becomes icy). Our basic set up was a base layer (we used Icebreaker Merino wool leggings and tops), then a t-shirt (either merino wool or polyester), then a merino wool or fleece cardigan as the mid-layer, and then a wind-proof, water-proof ski jacket with a hood (we were mostly wearing Montbell jackets).
Hands were protected with an Icebreaker merino wool glove lining and then a waterproof Montbell glove on top of that. We all had an Icebreaker merino wool beanie to keep our heads warm, and a Polar Buff around the neck that could also double as a face cover.
Our feet were kept warm by Icebreaker merino wool ski socks, and we were wearing insulated boots from Columbia. The boots are lined with fleece and can apparently be worn to -32ºC.
We had Uniqlo fleece-lined pants on, and I have to say they worked very well with the Icebreaker merino wool leggings. I think if the weather was slightly warmer (like -10ºC and up), one could do without the leggings even. I try not to wear base layers if I can help it, because they are such a pain.
The layers help you keep the warm air trapped close to your body, and the wind proof outer shell keeps the wind chill from coming in. We carried an extra down jacket each in our backpacks too, in case we needed another layer inside, but you don't need it if you are skiing or doing something rigorous.
We never worried about food in Club Med. We had three major meals a day at the buffet restaurant, and in between there were always drinks and snacks on hand. We had one Mala Hot Pot dinner at the Mudan restaurant one of the evenings too.
We spent the first day after we checked in exploring the place, and sorting out the ski equipment and ski clothes rentals. Note that while the group ski lessons are included in the price, ski equipment rental is not. Also bear in mind that the ski instructors from the Sun Mountain ski school may ask you to try personal one-to-one lessons, which cost extra. It's up to you whether you want to pay extra for personal lessons, but I didn't see a need for it for my family. The free group lessons were enough to learn the basics.
We signed Isaac and Joy up with the Mini Club for kids, and the Club Med GOs took care of them from 8.30am till 4.45pm. For two days, my kids spent the time learning how to ski with other kids, and also had lunch and played indoor games with them. That left the wife and I time to either relax in the room, or go out to explore the snow ourselves.
We also managed to do a ski lesson for ourselves. I am pleased to say that after an hour or so of instruction and practice, the wife managed to ski downhill on the gentle beginner's slope without falling. And she could even stop.
You can see the wife and I in the photos below, dressed in our blue rental ski gear. We look like winter factory workers.
Of course, I didn't want just to ski. I did want to explore the surroundings a bit more. Unfortunately, the week we were there, the local authorities decided to do maintenance of the gondola that could take you to other ski areas and to the mountain top. So we didn't get a chance to take a cable car up higher, not that we were going to ski down the more challenging slopes, but it would have been nice to see the view up there. I mean, who does maintenance during a peak ski season? I suspect Club Med had no control over this maintenance timing by the authorities, so it was out of their hands.
We did manage to go snow trekking, and that was good fun. We donned our winter clothes and geared up for a morning walk in the forest around the resort.
Our first two days in Yabuli were dreadfully cold, at -21ºC and wind chill during the DAY (which is why you see the wife and I all covered up in the earlier photos), but the day we chose to trek was a nice and sunny day, a warm -11ºC with just a little wind.
I know. -11ºC doesn't sound very warm but it is all relative. We didn't even wear our balaclavas and we could sometimes take off our gloves.
Sam, our Club Med GO guide, was the friendly chap who took us trekking. He even brought some mini-sleds for the kids to try riding down the slopes we encountered along the way. Even my wife tried the sleighing.
The photo above was taken by my 12-year-old son, after we finished our family trek. I am quite fond of this photo and I think he is getting the hang of photography.
We also played a while outdoors, at the giant igloo at children's area.
I think my kids are better at this sliding-down-the-roof-of-an-igloo thing than I am.
We also tried the heated indoor pool and outdoor jacuzzi. There is an indoor swimming pool (and gym too) that is heated to about 27ºC. Swimming in it is quite pleasant but the most fun thing is the outdoor jacuzzi. YES, you heard me, OUTDOOR.
That outdoor jacuzzi is heated to 45-49ºC and to get to it, you have to walk out of the pool area into the open. It was a mad dash in -16ºC that day, but once you get into the hot water, it is heavenly. It is surreal to be inside the heated jacuzzi and see ice forming around the edges of the pool.
Don't do what I did: After swimming in the indoor pool, I covered myself with my damp bathrobe and made my way outside to the heated jacuzzi, thinking I was very smart to keep myself covered and warm. By the time I got out of the heated jacuzzi, the wet parts of the bathrobe had already become super cold from sitting out in the -16ºC air. It was like putting on a robe of ice. I think some of my tender bits may have fallen off.
I have to say our first family skiing trip in below zero temperatures went very well. No one felt too cold and all had fun. I think we are ready to try the Club Med in Hokkaido, Japan next. I hear the snow there is like powder. And I want to use the winter clothing I bought for the family as much as possible. Kids outgrow clothes so darn fast.
After a hectic Christmas season, we packed our bags and flew to Yabuli on Boxing Day. Where is Yabuli, you ask? It's near Harbin, China. And it s very very cold here. -22°C during the DAY kind of cold.
We are here for our very first ski holiday, at Club Med Yabuli. The wife, Isaac and Joy are with me on this adventure (Faith is home with grandma and Aunty, because she doesn't do long flights well). We took a flight to Beijing and then a connecting flight to Mudanjiang, which is two hours away from Yabuli by car.
I will update you guys more when I get the chance. I'm sure you would like to see me in my winter clothes, layered up like a polar bear.
Greetings from Perth!
After a spell at Margaret River, our three families drove back to Perth itself. From wide open spaces to a cityscape. The weather is warmer here than down south but it's still pleasant because it's not humid like Singapore.
Down south of Perth, where we spent four days, we visited the Ngilgi Caves, Busselton Jetty (longest jetty in the Southern Hemisphere and where an Iron Man would be held end this week) and some sheep shearing and animal petting farms.
I would also like to add that I think Australian coffee tastes very good. No wonder Starbucks died a tragic death here. Why would you drink inferior American coffee if you have Aussie coffee?
Pro travel tip: Never let the wives enter a supermarket. They won't come out until they've bought everything.
That said, I am pleased the wife was wise enough to buy bread and scones yesterday when we drove past Bunbury or we wouldn't have any breakfast this morning.
The balcony where we are staying is huge and overlooks the city. So we have decided to do what we did in Yallingup and have breakfast outside. Very lifestyle hor?
We haven't decided where we are heading next, probably Fremantle. So far, we've done the play-it-by-ear style of travel and it's working out nicely. Sometimes it's nice just to drive around and discover stuff, like the sheep shearing farm we found near our Yallingup place. And the countless wineries we stumbled on.
You can take a rock and throw it in the Margaret River region and hit two or more wineries.
Not that we're complaining, of course. Mmmm, wineries.