Last Days in Hong Kong

I’m sitting here in the Taipei airport waiting for our connecting flight, so I have a few minutes to wrap up our trip to Hong Kong.  While we really enjoyed the city, we prefer Fukuoka, and we are ready to get back home.

Hong Kong Day 3

View of Hong Kong Island from Kowloon

It was hot and very sunny in Hong Kong yesterday.  Since China Airlines confiscated my little bottle of sun screen, I was trying to dodge the sun as best I could most of the day, so I took the subway across the causeway to Kowloon rather than the highly recommended Star Ferry.  This ‘other side’ of the city has a totally different feel to it than the island.  It’s not nearly as easy to navigate and they have annoying street hawkers.  I walked around the same block twice, before I realized the only way to cross the main street was underground.

Bird Vendors

Bird Vendor

After finally getting to the piers, I watched the ferries arrive, and then walked along the covered part of the promenade which presented another beautiful view of the city.  I made a quick visit to the art museum, and then finished walking down the ‘Avenue of the Stars’ which is China’s equivalent of Hollywood Blvd.  It has the names of all their movie stars on it, as well as some statues, and corny Kodak picture spots…the Chinese tourists seem to love it though.

I then headed back into the heart of the city (where I could be in the shade of the high rises) and made my way down Nathan Road (the widest road in Hong Kong), which happens to be lined with, believe it or not, more shops.  I made a detour through a crowded park, passed a huge mosque, and then headed farther down Nathan Road toward Temple Market (which I purposely skipped since it’s a night market).  It was here that the scenery began changing.  There were swarms of people everywhere, lots of worn down buildings with signs in Chinese, and lots of exhaust, horns blowing, and people smoking.  The side streets became far more interesting to look down (sometimes scary looking).  I started questioning if I really should be venturing out here by myself.  Occasionally, I would see some other foreigners and an English sign which helped assure me that I wasn’t lost.

Charcoal Roasted Everything

Charcoal Roasted Everything

I came upon a popular local temple (Tin Hau) and decided to checked it out (I confess, I like the dizzy feeling I get when I’m in there).  I decided to hang out here in their community courtyard for awhile and take a rest, drink some water, watch the elder Chinese men play some chip game at their tables and review my map for the next part of my journey.  I finally felt brave enough to venture into the ‘scary’ part of town where I found the dried food vendors, ‘butchers’, and fish markets.  It wasn’t far from there that I found the Jade Market (more of a bazaar really), which I really enjoyed browsing through.  I’m not sure why some of the vendors don’t post prices – at least on some things -they’d probably get more sales (at least from me).

After walking several more blocks down Nathan street, I found the Ladies Market where I came upon even more stalls selling handbags, baby clothes, jewelry, etc.  I was still very hot and thirsty, so I treated myself to a nice cold iced mocha from Starbucks (truly an oasis in the middle of the dessert).  The sellers in this particular market were pretty aggressive, so I went through there as quickly as I could…which was not an easy thing to do.  This whole section of the city is filled with streets that specialize in one thing.  I decided to skip the electronics market street, and instead I headed for the goldfish market street (which ended up being several blocks of pet stores as well as aquariums.  That area did not smell very good, so I wasn’t too tempted to buy any cute fury animals.  Finally, I arrived upon my favorite two streets…the Flower Market (which smelled so good and I wanted to buy one of everything they were selling), and the Bird Street Market (which was highly entertaining).  At times I felt pretty sorry for the birds, but it appears the Chinese love their birds as much as the Japanese love their dogs.  Some vendors even had their birds do tricks or talk or sing.  It actually was a pleasant way to end to my very interesting day.

Hong Kong Day 3, Flower Market

Hong Kong Flower Market

I hopped on the closest subway train I could find and beat Robert to the hotel by a mere 15 minutes.  We ended up going back to the Soho area for dinner.  Oddly enough we noticed large groups of women hanging out on the sidewalks playing cards, talking and just camping out…this went on continuously for at least a mile (I kid you not).  We thought they were waiting in line for some tickets to see Brad Pitt or something, but we were informed at dinner that all the ‘domestic helpers’ in the city do this every Sunday as a way of socializing.  That’s great, but why on the sidewalk?…why not in the park?

Today we slept in…knowing a full day of traveling was in store for us.  We made it home safely with no complications (other than having our cookies and candies X-rayed in Fukuoka when we arrived).  Robert almost lost his patience…he tends to get that way when he is tired.  So, sorry FIS faculty and staff…the odds of us bringing back any treats from our future travels is now very low.

Hong Kong Day Two

Day 2 in Hong Kong

Birds in Hong Kong Aviary

It ended up being a beautiful morning, the skies were clearing, and the city officials lifted all typhoon warnings, so everything was back to normal.  I was going to head for Kowloon on the other side of the causeway, but I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to see the city from the infamous Peak, so I decided to head to the Tram via Hong Kong Park.

City Parks usually don’t excite me much but this one was great.  In the first 5 minutes I passed some fountains, lakes, waterfalls, and watched turtles sunbathing on the rocks.  I don’t know if this was a typical Saturday morning here, but the park was not very busy…it almost felt like I had the whole place to myself.   I made a quick detour into the tea museum which actually ended up being quite amusing….I had no idea how many designs you could make with tea sets.  I was almost out of the park, when I found the walk-through aviary, and I totally lost track of time in there.  I didn’t end up getting to the Peak Tram until lunch time.

View from the Peak in Hong Kong

View from The Peak in Hong Kong

I bought my ticket and while I was waiting for the tram,  I met a wonderful couple from northern England who lived in Hong Kong during the 70’s.  It was fun listening to their stories and their suggestions for things to do while here.  They said they always come up to the Peak when they return and walk the loop.  The tram is one of the oldest operating funiculars in the world, having made it first journey in 1888.  It is also very steep.  There were several times during the 7 minute journey to the top I prayed the cable would hold, because the alternative would be very depressing.

The view of the city from the top of the peak is specatacular.  I’ve seen pictures of this view many times in my life, but nothing beats seeing it in person.  Sadly, I can’t believe that on top of this beautiful hill they built an ugly shopping center that looks like a concrete boat and beside that they built another shopping mall.  Fortunately, I had planned on walking the 2 1/2 mile trail around the peak – which is still well preserved, beautiful, and a great way to spend a relaxing day outdoors escaping the hustle and bustle of the city.

That night, I brought Robert back for the night view – which was equally spectacular.  We had a delicious Indian dinner outside in the courtyard of the Peak Lookout restaurant (which use to be the old tram station).   It would have been nice to avoid the lines for the tram, both up and down, but those were inescapable.  Despite the lines, we still ended up having a wonderful evening.

Hong Kong Day One

Day 1 in Hong Kong

Water Fountain in front of Former Supreme Court Bldg

I’m SO glad Typhoon Megi decided to vacation near Taiwan rather than Hong Kong….I really didn’t want to spend the next three days inside my hotel or in shopping malls.  Fortunately, the weather ended up being perfect.

Hong Kong feels like a San Francisco that’s being swallowed by ‘China Town’.  There is no apparent language barrier here…everyone seems to know English.  It’s very well organized and has a great and inexpensive subway system which I came to know intimately.  I spent my first day exploring from Hong Kong Central to the Western Market.  I would have preferred to explore everything with Robert, but unfortunately he was stuck in a classroom from 8:00 to 5:00…so he had to experience my day (and most of Hong Kong) through pictures.

The first half of my first day took me through the British historic areas of downtown.  It was odd to see small colonial buildings lost among all the steel and glass of modern day skyscrapers.  Times sure have changed.  With a little imagination, you could picture what it was once like.  I really enjoyed visiting St John’s cathedral (a very tiny cathedral with ceiling fans!) which is thought to be the oldest Anglican church in the Far East).  And not far from there, was the Government house and the Botanical Gardens filled with beautiful tropical vegetation and orchids.

Day 1 in Hong Kong

An Antique Market in Hong Kong

After such a relaxing and civilized morning, I was ready to take on the commercial markets.  Hong Kong has an insane amount of high end shops (most of which seem to have no patrons), and then sandwiched on small alleys between these buildings which house the shops for Versace, Valentino and Tiffany’s are street vendors in make-shift stalls repairing shoes, and selling costume jewelry, handbags, and cheap knockoffs.

The further East I went, the more exotic the shops got.  There were whole streets dedicated to dried/preserved items…including seafood, mushrooms, flowers, roots, bark, snake skins, and ‘herbal medicines’.  I can only imagine what eventually becomes of this stuff, and I’m not sure I want to find out.   I finally came upon the antique district where there were hundreds of dealers with a huge array of artifacts from jade and carved ivory to gourds and old war propaganda posters.  I’m a sucker for all things old and I would have loved to spend more time here searching for a treasure to bring back, but I really needed to be heading back, so on I went.

My last stop for the day was Man Ho Temple (the oldest temple in Hong Kong).  I passed on the palm reading, but I did go inside to view the large incense spirals hanging from the ceiling (that stuff makes me dizzy), and then I watched a few women bang the gong and burn their prayers in the big fire pit outside (sending their prayers to the spirit world).  On my way back, fortunately I discovered the Central-Mid-Level Escalators…after walking all day my legs were numb – and those moving sidewalks were a godsend!

The old Man Ho Temple in Downtown Hong Kong

When Robert returned from his training, we both headed for the SoHo area (stands for South of Hollywood).  There were numerous bars and restaurants in this area for us to choose from.  We decided on a small Italian place on one of the back roads to have our dinner.  It was an extremely relaxing evening with great food and wine.  It was exactly what we both needed.  The owner and staff were fantastic and very generous.  Neither one of us really wanted to leave, but all good things must end.  On the way back we checked out the IFC mall and walked down to the Harbor area to check out the city lights.  By the time we returned to the hotel we were both exhausted, but excited about what the next couple nights would have in store.

Super Typhoon Megi

We have arrived safely in Hong Kong for Robert’s 3 days of IB training.  We weren’t thrilled about coming because there was a huge typhoon out in the South China Sea and the exact course was not known.  On Tuesday night the track was showing it strengthening and heading straight for Hong Kong.  Wednesday it was still growing and heading north toward Hong Kong, but there was some indication it might miss the city.  I didn’t sleep well that night, wondering if I should just stay in Japan and not risk it.  Fortunately, by Thursday morning, it was down to a Category 3 typhoon and expected to weaken to either a Category 2 or 1 by the time it made landfall.  The track showed it missing Hong Kong now by about 220 miles, so we felt it was safe to go.

Typhoon Megi

We were expecting some pretty bumpy flights.  There was some light to moderate turbulence landing in Taipei with lots of wind and rain, but the flight to Hong Kong was amazingly smooth – you would have never known there was a monstrous storm below.  We landed about 15 minutes late and were greeted with partly sunny skies and light to moderate winds.  There is a “strong wind signal #3 in force” (meaning they are expecting winds of 25-35 mph), but so far it hasn’t been bad.  The storm isn’t expected to make landfall until Saturday night and (of course) there is always a huge margin of error with the weather, so we aren’t entirely out of the woods yet.  It is cloudy right now and the forecast is for “windy with squally showers over the next few days”.

FIS Talent Show

“Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.”

Plato

FIS had their talent show last week.  I was amazed at how much talent there is at our little school (less than 200 students in pre-K to 12).  There were 27 acts, and I almost felt guilty not paying admission to watch some of the performances.  I’ve tried to find the right words to describe the evening, but sometimes words aren’t the best approach.  We took pictures, but to give you a better idea about the type of talent we are talking about, I have included a video of one of our 9th graders playing a George Harrison song on his ukulele.  This student has a portfolio of his music on You Tube.  Oh yeah, he just happens to be one of Robert’s best math students as well – many talents indeed!

Other acts that stole our heart:

  • A first grader singing Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds”
  • a second grader singing “The Ants Go Marching In”
  • two 6th graders playing the piano (one played “Arabesque” by Debussy, and the other played “Fantasie Impromptu” by Chopin)
  • an 11th grader playing guitar and singing with his two young sisters (from Finland)  “Our Last Summer” by ABBA,
  • a 6th grader on Violin playing Concerto in G minor by Vivaldi, and
  • a senior doing the Crazy Frog dance.
FIS Talent Show 2010

Huey on Ukelele

FIS Talent Show 2010

“Three Little Birds”

FIS Talent Show 2010

Violin

Spending the Day on Nokonoshima Island

We awoke to another beautiful autumn day here in Fukuoka, and planned to take the ferry to the nearby island of Nokonoshima to see the cosmos in bloom.  I adore cosmos, so I couldn’t wait!  At 11:00am we biked to one of the other teacher’s apartments to help make cosmos (the drinks) to take with us to the island (so we could have cosmos in the cosmos).  There were quite a few people already at the apartment when we arrived, and they seemed to be doing more sampling of cosmos than making of them. : )

And now for the real cosmos

Cosmos as far as the eye can see!

Soon, we headed for the ferry terminal.  The group of us that biked arrived ahead of those who took the bus, so we caught an earlier ferry and waited for them on the island.  The smell of grilled hamburgers consumed the pier so we went inside to eat some lunch.  When the others finally arrived a few of us decided to head to the park while they ate since we needed to get back to town earlier.  We boarded a bus which took us up a narrow, windy road to the top of the hill to the park.  The bus seemed to defy the laws of physics as it squeezed past other full-sized buses carrying passengers on their way down.

Coming here was obviously “the thing to do” today…every family in Fukuoka seemed to be here (including our next door neighbors, Takashi and Mayuko, and their two kids, Shugo and Mizuki).  People were walking through the flower fields, picnicking, lounging on the lawns, playing Frisbee, eating ice cream cones, feeding goats and chickens, riding sleds, making pottery – and just enjoying the weather and one another.  At times I felt like I had wondered into some child’s picture book.  Slowly we made our way from one end of the park to the other until we reached the pot gold (or should I say the cosmos galaxy).  Wow – what a view!  We were bewitched by the colors and smell of the vast multitude of flowers covering the hillside.  It was so intoxicating we didn’t want to leave.  We hung out there for a LONG time.

However, it was starting to get late and we had to start heading back…we ran into the rest of the group near the exit/entrance, and chatted awhile (they all had cosmos cups in hand).  As they floated into the park, we headed out.  I wanted to take the nature trail back down to the ferry terminal, and after seeing the line for the bus, Robert decided not to fight me on this one.  The trail was beautiful.  This is as close as we’ve come to hiking here in Japan.  We walked through a large canopied bamboo forest from one side of the island to the other…it was very relaxing…filled with bird calls, creepy forest sounds, and some of the largest and most beautiful spider webs I’ve ever seen.  As we got closer to the town, we saw old island homes, vegetable gardens, rice being dried in the field, and a bunch of fisherman and their boats.  We barely missed a ferry…we watched it leave as we approached the dock.  We noticed the line for the next ferry was already forming, so we headed over to make sure we caught the next one.

We were a little bummed when we got home and found out we had a small smudge on our camera lens…we had to crop all our pictures to try to remove the small blurry spot.  Fortunately most of the pictures we took looked great even with the smudge!  We had a wonderful time and are anxious to return and see other seasonal flowers in bloom.

Izakaya Dinner

An izakaya is basically the Japanese version of the Irish pub.  A place where the locals go after a long day at work to have a few drinks and get some food.  I’m not talking just some light snacks or a few greasy fast food options, but rather a wide range of food choices that are also designed to be shared with a group.  Wikipedia informs me they are also commonly called ‘akachochin’ (red lantern), since many of these places also display a red lantern outside their front door.  That should help us identify these places in the future.

Horse sashimi - yes, horse...it is good!

Horse Sashimi – yes, horse…and it is good!

It’s been our experience that most eating establishments which try to offer a wide array of menu choices have mediocre food at best.  Luckily, Kurt, the head of FICS, has been here long enough to know which ones are good and he picked the place.  Hidden away on a side street, you could tell by the entrance this place was (at a minimum) going to be fun and interesting.   We ordered a round of drinks, a sashimi platter, potatoes with fish roe, some beef & mushrooms, fried chicken, steak, baked potatoes, and some horse sashimi.  Yes, raw horse meat…and it was very good.  It reminded me a lot of venison tenderloin…very tender with a stronger flavor than beef.  If you could forget for just a moment that it was from a ‘horse’, and thought of it just as ‘meat’, and you were told it had 1/4 the amount of fat that beef does, 1/2 the calories, less sodium and cholesterol, and more protein and iron, you might consider it.  Remember the saying: ‘You are what you eat’.  Well, I guess I would much rather be a horse than a cow.

The other really good surprise was the quality of the fried chicken.  My southern-born husband loves good fried chicken, and he was smiling ear to ear while eating these crispy, but tender morsels that were “almost as good as Mom’s”.  I know where he will be heading if he starts feeling home sick.  After that (and 3 or 4 drinks of shochu mixed with ice tea), he then proceeded to give everyone at our table a lesson on how to properly use “fixin’ to” in a sentence.

By the time desert arrived, the conversation had progressed to how the Japanese are reluctant to buy used things because they believe everything has a soul and depending on that item’s past, it could bring bad luck.  Well, we all lucked out tonight.  The food, the drinks, and the company made for another incredibly memorable evening.

Trying to Learn the Language

When I first learned we were coming to Japan, I started teaching myself Japanese immediately.  Nothing scared me more than the thought of needing to use a restroom and not being able to ask where one was.  I actually thought I was learning it pretty quickly.  However, by the time summer came and we had to prepare for the big move, I didn’t have any time to practice, and much of what I had learned was no longer in my head by the time I reached Japan.  For some odd reason, the only thing that kept popping up in my head were Spanish phrases….and those surely weren’t going to do me much good here.

I then thought I would have plenty of time once we got settled to continue my studies, but that didn’t materialize either since I now work 4 days a week.  So, a group of us decided it would be a good idea to have an instructor come to the school twice a week and teach us some basics, but the class kept being delayed.  At first I was bummed that we had to wait so long, but after struggling with menus, road signs, mail, etc..over the last couple months, I now realize how important it is to get a working knowledge of our resident language.  And, actually, we might put more effort into learning it now.

Our class has now begun and our instructor, Keiko, is a fun older Japanese woman with an interesting background.

Kanji Characters

For our first class we had to write our names in Katakana and then match some pictures to their Katakana names….I think she realized many of us weren’t very good at recognizing the characters or pronouncing the characters.  We all did pretty good with numbers though (counters come later which seem pretty confusing).  She then fiddled with some Kanji characters – which to me look like some top secret code from an alien planet (daunting and mysterious).  I’m actually amazed this is a modern day language…I personally think it should be categorized as art.   We finally ended the class by singing some song in Japanese, which we repeated over and over about 20 times.  I have no idea what the song was about and she wouldn’t tell us.

When we got back home, Robert immediately decided to figure out how to write Kana characters on his computer and then practiced writing his name.  Meanwhile, I tried to decipher a menu I picked up outside a restaurant nearby (I figured out they serve okonomiyaki).  I also started a list of Japanese words for some of my favorite types of food, so I can spot them on menus, in the grocery store, and hopefully on restaurant signs.  I’m even making an attempt at reading the junk mail I get.  The language barrier is by far the most challenging thing about living here in Japan.  It’s gonna be a looong, slow process to understand enough to get by, but it will be well worth the effort if we can stick with it.

Trip to Costco (Take 2)

We needed the van to pick-up our dryer which was being sold by a couple who was leaving Japan that lived about 20 miles outside of Fukuoka.  In order to reserve the van, we needed at least three teachers to go with us.  So, we incorporated a trip to Costco into our plans.  To start the day we headed to Costco with Kevin, Justin, Nanna and Maureen.  Our first trip to Costco was pretty easy, all we had to do was follow Kumi (see earlier post). Today, however, we had to rely on memory and Google maps.   This ended up being a bit problematic.

Map to Costco (Incorrect!)

According to our interpretation of Google maps the highway should have ended at the last major turn prior to arriving at Costco (we wanted to get to the first gold intersection after the green road ends in the picture).  That was not what happened.  Instead, the highway continued past the last exit and through an unattended toll booth which put us on the Kyushu expressway heading north (the green north-south road in the picture).  I was pissed that my navigator (let’s call her Rose) had let this happen.  However, I assumed that we could easily get off at the next exit and correct our (her) mistake.  Unfortunately, the next exit was about 10-15 kilometers (6-10 miles) north and the traffic heading south on the other side was bumper-to-bumper.  We were screwed!

Finally, after trying to exit on three emergency pull-outs which only returned us to the expressway (are you getting the picture yet?), we made it to a real exit which required us to pay a toll.  When we approached the attended toll booth the woman asked us for our ticket.  Well, we did not have one because we did know that we were supposed to get one at the toll booth after missing our last exit to Costco.  Fortunately, the very understanding woman at the toll booth figured out what had happened.  She wrote down our license plate number (hopefully, we do not get a ticket for running through the toll booth and the police do not show up at my school to arrest me (and my navigator)).  She also gave us basic directions to Costco.  We followed her directions, and with some additional help from Kevin’s I-Phone GPS, we finally made it to Costco.

Fortunately, the rest of our day on the road in Fukuoka was uneventful.  All of our passengers were returned home safely, and we got our dryer.  The good news is that the next time we go to Costco, I (and my navigator) will definitely not make that mistake again!

A Visit to Karatsu City

Karatsu City and Castle

Karatsu City from Castle

We are slowly getting braver.  We took the local train and actually ventured out of Fukuoka prefecture and into Saga prefecture (prefectures are equivalent to counties in the USA).   The town of Karatsu is about an hour south and it is known for it’s Castle, pottery, and the Niji-no Matsubara Pine Forest (one of the 3 largest in Japan according to our tourist information lady).  Robert loves the name of that forest – he would not stop saying it.  After briefly chatting with Charles Bronson’s brother on the train (you don’t want to know), we had a chance to admire the coastline and some rural countryside from our train window.  We also noticed leaves starting to change on some varieties of trees (some trees have actually lost their leaves already, which is puzzling, because it’s not even close to being cold yet).  The highlight of the train ride was getting a glimpse of that huge pine forest that skirts along the beach.  It looks like an awesome place for a bike ride…maybe next time – since the bike “rentals” are free!

Following Maureen’s advise to stop at the information desk, we sat down with a very helpful women who gave us an English map of the city (colorfully drawn and illustrated, and worthy of framing and hanging in our house).  She highlighted all the things to see and gave us a suggested route which we followed almost exactly.

Grounds of a shrine in Karatsu

Traditional Japanese Wedding at Karatsu Shrine

The downtown area has been setup as a shopping arcade.  Several of the streets have been covered and tastefully decorated.   After doing some window shopping, we visited their main shrine which we were lucky to witness a newly wedded couple leaving (dressed in traditional attire).  We quickly stopped by the exhibition hall which houses the 14 floats that will be carried through the city during their annual festival next month.  The lady at the information desk informed us that all these lacquered washi paper floats are more than 130 years old, and one of them weighs 3 tons!  We will have to come back here just to see that festival – either this year or next year.

We followed the stone walled promenade to the Castle.  Aside from the incredible views from the top of the Castle, there was a massively huge wisteria vine.  I’m sure it is incredibly beautiful when it is in bloom.  I had no idea they could get that big.  Housed inside the castle is a museum which I’m sure is really interesting…but it was basically useless to us, since we can’t read the Japanese descriptions about the artifacts.  After climbing up and down what seemed like 14 million stairs (and walking all over town), we were pretty hungry, so we picked up some sandwiches and sat in a nice sunny courtyard listening to music and planning the rest of our afternoon.

First of many pottery stores

First of many pottery shops

After lunch, we visited several pottery shops that displayed work by many of the local artists and then we meandered down a back street which housed some of their most prominent potters creations.  Their studios are in a residential area, so it was hard to know if it was really a studio or someone’s house. I knew we were in the right area though, because the entire street was made of clay tiles.  The pottery in these locations was really expensive.  Ranging from about $30 for one small tea cup to over $2000 dollars for a plate.  I don’t think I need any piece of pottery that bad.  I love the style though, which is earthy yet elegant.

We actually came to Kuratsu to see the castle, but we found much better reasons to come here.  It’s a friendly and quiet seaside town, great for walking, biking, and escaping the hustle and bustle of the big city.