Scouting out Singapore

Downtown AM

Downtown in the Morning

Singapore is a city I’ve always wanted to visit – even before I knew exactly where it was.  I don’t even remember why.  When I was researching our trip on the Internet, the overall reviews were mixed.  It seemed like people either loved it or they didn’t think it was anything special. So, I had to go check it out for myself.

We flew Singapore Airlines, which for 19 of the last 20 years was ranked the #1 airline, so we were curious to see what made them so special.  We didn’t notice anything they did above and beyond the other airlines to deserve this type of special distinction.   Nevertheless, the crew was very professional and pleasant, the food good, very nice seats, they were well run and on schedule…but that should be the minimum expected.  Overall, I wouldn’t hesitate to fly them again, and they’d probably fall in the top tier of airlines, but Air New Zealand still has them beat by a long shot.

When we arrived in Singapore Wednesday afternoon, it was pouring rain….with lightning and thunder.  We were probably lucky they let us land.  By the time we checked into our hotel, the storm was pretty much over and there was no rain for the rest of our stay.  I wonder if I’d ever get bored of living in a city that was always between 75 and 90 degrees with no noticeable seasons?

Marina at Night

The Marina at Night

We ended up with a great hotel: wonderful service, free fruit and water every day, spacious, and it was in a great location – 5 minutes to the MRT subway station and a Starbucks right out front. 🙂  We were near the Marina area where there were lots of businesses.  The first thing we did was walk down to the Esplanade and then up the Singapore river.  The bars were already packed (Happy Hour).  The first group of restaurants we passed unfortunately had food hawkers which annoyed us so much we never ate in that area.  Suspiciously, that area always had less clientele (probably because we weren’t the only ones put off by those pushy street venders).  Those restaurants might want to try not hawking people to improve their business.

We eventually made it up to Clarke Quay…which was much more civilized.  We dined outside at IndoChine.  We had a great view of the river and were able to watch all the boats.  We ordered a variety of food…Vietnamese Spring Rolls, Papaya Salad, and Scallop Curry, which all ended up being very good.  We enjoyed this area so much we returned here for dinner one other night to eat at a Japanese Izakaya (yes, I know, we live in Japan – and yes, the food is that good).   There’s nothing better than being able to eat outside “European cafe style”…especially if it comes with great views and good weather.  Our walk back to the hotel was beautiful too, since the city lights up their buildings and bridges with all different colored lights.

Little India Produce Stand

Little India Produce Stand

On Thursday we visited Chinatown and Little India.  Chinatown was like other Chinatowns – the typical tourist shops and restaurants (except much cleaner).  Little India was more interesting, if for nothing else – the aromas emerging from there.  There was an abundance of jewelry stores down there too and they were all packed.  We should have stopped in one to see what it was we were missing – but I am sure Robert would not have been very interested.  It wasn’t time for a meal when we visited either one of these areas, but I bet the food would have been really good in both.  Each of us really wanted to try the chili crabs in Chinatown and some curry dishes, but we never made it back to either place. 🙁

We must have walked at least 5-6 miles everyday (even with taking advantage of the subway when we could).  The city itself is one of the prettiest cities we’ve ever been to.  The new buildings are marvels in modern architecture…it’s hard to capture their grandeur in pictures.  The city is clean, safe, very pedestrian friendly, with lots of greenery and a foodies haven for ethnic cuisine from everywhere.  The diversity of it’s people also adds to it’s draw.  Residents we talked to simply love it, and this city is NOT in a depression.  Everywhere we looked there were cranes  – for new hotels, subway stations, casinos, and who knows what else.    The “food centers”,  which are slowly replacing the Hawker centers, serve incredibly delicious food at affordable prices (at least the couple random places we tried).  Don’t equate them to USA ‘food courts’ in malls, they are NOT the same.  There are so many eateries in Singapore, I was beginning to think no one had a kitchen in their home.  In 3 days of exploring, we only saw one small grocery store, so I guess it is still possible that the majority of people do not cook (why should they?).  We even enjoyed a free concert (a local musician) on the Esplanade that weekend.  Of course, no place is perfect – two draw backs we noticed (though not surprising) were the number of smokers and the price of alcohol.  Even during happy hour expect to pay $6-10 Singapore dollars for a beer.

white tiger

White Tiger

We walked the full length of Orchard Road…too many shops to mention (at all income levels), eventually passing the Raffles hotel.  Neither of us were tempted to stop at the Long Bar and spend $25 on the infamous Singapore Sling (I had mine on the plane for free 🙂 )  We walked around the new casino and shopping area.  We didn’t go into the Casino, because we didn’t have our passports and they check those at the entrance.  The Historic District is still the center of government activity with lovely old buildings and lots of wide open parks.  The drive to the zoo is amazing – so much of the northern part of the island is parks and nature reserve you almost feel like you’re in a jungle.  The Zoo was quite large with an impressive number of species.  The habitats seemed more natural for the animals (no cages) and you could get real close to many of the animals.  Our favorites were the white tiger and all the primates.

White w/ Purple

Purple-tipped Orchid

Finally, we absolutely loved the botanical gardens and especially the orchid garden….we could have spent all day there.  After all that there were still lots of other things we didn’t have time to see or do, like some of the islands (including Sentosa), Arab Street, the museums, the Nature Reserve, Fort Canning Park, and of course, all the other restaurants. 🙂  By the time we left Singapore, we were very comfortable within a 2-3 mile radius of where we stayed…including all the underground malls and passages.

I’m sure three days is not enough time to make a reputable judgement, but I’d come back here in a heart beat.  Singapore is not by any stretch of the imagination an exotic place.  It is a big, modern city, but it feels like the heart of the Eastern Hemisphere and a civilized representation of all the countries that surround it.  We loved it.

Sisters’ Visit: Takeo and Nagasaki

Japanese Dinner

Our Japanese Dinner

We arrived at our Japanese Hotel later than we probably should have for check in.  It was 6pm, but the staff was extremely gracious and they were more than happy to accommodate our request for a 7:30 dinner.  After some tea and treats in the lobby (which are usually served in the room), they showed us to our tatami room where we unpacked and relaxed while having a few drinks.  I’m sure they giggled when they saw that we brought our own pillows (sorry, we are just not fans of those buckwheat pillows).  Since it was already pretty late, we didn’t have time for the onsen, but we put our yakatas on anyway.  It wasn’t long before our dinner server was there loading up our table with TONS of food: soups, appetizers, sushi, sashimi, and all the makings for shabu, shabu.  I ate everything, it was fantastic (especially the shabu, shabu).  I really thought we were done, but then she arrived with grilled fish, fried fish, more soups and sides, and some mixture to help congeal the remaining shabu shabu broth.  As full as we all were, we tried a little bit of everything, but there was no way we could finish it all.  Finally she came by one more time with dessert – a crepe filled with cream, strawberries and kiwi.  There was no way I wasn’t going to eat that though.  YUM!  Immediately after dinner they cleaned everything up and laid out the futons.  We had internet access finally, so we Skyped our families and then went to bed to the sound of rain.

Azalea Heaven

Amazing Azalea Garden

Morning arrived in a blink.  We headed downstairs for breakfast.  It was hard to imagine eating breakfast since it literally felt like I just had dinner.  We were wondering how they can eat so much food and still stay thin.  Our Japanese breakfast consisted of lots of little bite-sized dishes, some rice, egg, nori, fruit and yogurt and a little grill to grill your own fish.   Surprisingly we were able to eat quite a bit.  This place must have the world’s smallest coffee cups…like from a child’s play tea set.

Immediately after breakfast, we headed outside for the garden next to the hotel, since the entry fee was included in the room price.  The rain had finally stopped, but we took our umbrellas with us just in case.  We walked down the hill and through the big entry gate.  I immediately knew I was going to like this place.  I’m sure this place is beautiful in full sun, but with the low clouds and everything still wet it was quite magical.  I kept thinking how beautiful this place would be in the fall too.  In the distance I could see some wisteria as we walked along the edge of the little lake.  We eventually made our way to the crown center of the garden.  At the foot of this granite mountain was something that looked like it came out of a children’s story book….there were hundreds of azalea bushes of every color everywhere – like little mounds of ice cream.  We all felt giddy, totally amazed by the sight in front of us.  We almost got lost in there and we couldn’t stop snapping pictures.  Before exiting we had to pass the wisteria and, though not in full bloom, it was so beautiful and smelled so good I didn’t want to leave.  We all love gardens, and this was one of the loveliest we’ve ever seen.

Dejima

Visiting Dejima

We headed back up to the hill and after a quick photo of all us in front of our hotel, we were on the road to Nagasaki.  It was an interesting drive, because we went through more tunnels than I ever imagined there could be in one place.  At least half the distance to Nagasaki was tunnels…huge, long tunnels.  Even our final approach into downtown was a long tunnel.  After that last tunnel, we literally only had to drive for two kilometers through the city before we reached our hotel.  It was only 11am, and we couldn’t check in until 2pm, but they held onto our bags while we went out to explore the city.  Robert met up with us at the hotel…he got there about 10 minutes before us.  We all hopped on a street car to nearly the last stop on that line and just started walking up and down (and up and down) all the streets.  Our goal was to stop at all the places highlighted on our bare bones map (it’s amazing we found anything).  All the steep hills reminded us a little of San Francisco.

Our first stop was where the first Catholic Church was built in Japan….it’s now a temple.  We ended up walking through several shrines and temples.  We eventually found the main walking street (which was pretty quiet on a Sunday).  It was around here we shopped in a few antique stores and had lunch (steamed eel) at a little local restaurant.  After visiting the Spectacles Bridge, Shianbashi street, and Chinatown, we headed for the wharf area and had some drinks to relax.  A little before 7pm, we had our free taxi ride up to Inasayama for the night view of Nagasaki.  Even though it was a little hazy, it was still an amazing view.

Dontaku Parade Performers

Dontaku Festival Parade

The next morning, Robert left to go back to Fukuoka right after breakfast, and us girls went out to find Oura Church, Glover Gardens, Holland Street, the Western Home sites and, of course, do some more shopping.  While the Japanese seemed really interested in all the ‘western’ stuff, we weren’t (we see this all the time), so we headed back down to the wharf area to check out Dejima.  This turned out to be a really interesting place – about a very important part of Japan’s history.  While just a replica of the island village that once stood in the same exact location, it is extremely well done.  The village itself used to be an island in the harbor, but with all the land reclamation projects it is now in the city along one of the canals.  Much of Japan’s modern history started on that little island, and we all found it quite fascinating.  This is a must visit for anyone interested in Japan opening it’s doors to world commerce.

It was now late afternoon, so we headed back to Fukuoka, and that is were we spent our last day together.  We had dinner at a Korean BBQ restaurant, went downtown to do some shopping, ate some more food at the stalls in the park, and watched some of the Dontaku Festival.  Before we knew it, it was time to pack up and head for the airport.  🙁   I guess all good things do have to come to an end.

Sisters’ Visit: Kumamoto & Arita Pottery Festival

Spouts from Both Sides

Tsujunkyo Bridge

Friday we leisurely drove to Kumamoto by taking back roads and stopping every time something interested us.  The roads were curvy and narrow but not too bad.  It was only scary when a bus was coming from the opposite direction.  We were driving through canyons most of the time, so there were not many views around us other than whatever river we were following.  Any wide area seemed to have a town or rest stop.  We stopped one time to try and find some waterfall, but the path down nearly required climbing equipment (an elevator would have been best), so we ditched that idea.  Next we stopped in a pretty area where they sold gifts and had some food stalls.  We shopped a bit and had some coffee and french fries (sold in a popcorn cup).  We had a fairly large Japanese breakfast buffet at our Japanese Inn, so we really weren’t that hungry yet.

We continued on our way.  A last minute decision had us trying to find some bridge that spouts water from both sides.  It’s not well marked, so we were about to turn around figuring we’d never find it, when all of a sudden there it was and we pulled over.  There wasn’t any water coming out, but lots of people were hanging out looking like they were waiting for something.  It was a pretty area and the weather was perfect, so we thought we’d wait and see if it was like Old Faithful and went off every hour.  Sure enough, about 10 minutes later, water started gushing out of the holes in the center of the bridge from both sides.  We could hear it from where we were.  Though fairly far away, we really had a great viewing spot.  It was fun to watch and listening to everyone ooh and ah just added to the entertainment.

Front of Castle

Kumamoto Castle

We were back on the road in no time and the traffic started getting heavier as we approached Kumamoto.  Driving downtown proved to be quite a challenge, since in addition to cars, bikes and pedestrians there were also streetcars and one way roads.  We passed our hotel since we couldn’t make a right into the valet parking.   Our voice navigation system had stopped since she “arrived at our destination”, so we had to figure out ourselves how to get back to the hotel.  We ended up taking some one way side streets to the back entrance (service entrance) and eventually found their basement parking.  I was pretty happy my sister was driving and not me. 🙂  We couldn’t check in until 2pm, so we had a lite lunch in the lobby while we relaxed and talked for 30 minutes.  We checked-in, admired the fabulous view of the castle from our room, and then walked down to the castle to meander around the grounds.  The old turret was the most interesting to me, followed by the newly reconstructed grand hall.  A rather energetic middle age women was our private guide – I think she was excited to practice her English with us.  A “samurai” took our picture, he lived in Alabama for a while and he was very friendly too.   The castle grounds are quite extensive and it took us almost 3 hours to see everything.  We walked back through town and up and down their shopping streets.  We eventually bought some wine to share in our hotel before we had dinner.

At Arita Pottery Festival

Arita Pottery Festival

The next morning we hoped to get some breakfast at Starbucks, but they didn’t open until 8am (very typical in Japan), so we left.  On our way out of town we visited the Suizenji Garden which represents the 51 stations from Tokyo to Kyoto.  It was very artistically done, but much smaller than I had envisioned.  That ended up being a good thing, since we had a ways to go to get to Arita for the pottery festival.  Traffic was now noticeably heavier on the expressways, but we never went slower than 80 km/h.  The landscape eventually became hilly and full of trees.  Approaching Arita and having no idea where to park or where the festival actually was, we figured the train station was a good place to park…and we were right.  We only had to walk a block to get to the main street.  It was nowhere near as crowded as everyone had told me it would be.  It was an overcast, misty day, so maybe some people chose not to come that day.

I’ve never seen so much pottery in one place in all my life.  It must have gone on for two miles.  A huge range of pottery was represented from the mass produced 100 yen stuff to the expensive porcelain.   Amongst all the pottery were some food stalls, so throughout the day, we ate – okonomiyaki, fried chicken, and ice cream.  We shopped until ‘closing time’ when they opened the street to cars.  I would definitely return – maybe for their fall pottery fair.  This town seems to have lots of character and it is in a beautiful area.  Our English GPS guide was on the blitz that evening (probably from the rain).  She had us going in circles to get out of town… nearly getting us stuck on a train track in the process.  Alas, we made it out of there safely and to our Japanese Hotel.

Sisters’ Visit: Mt. Aso and Takachiho Gorge

So cool...

Mt Aso’s Crater

I’m so lucky to have sisters who like to travel.  Every year we try to go somewhere.  This year, after unsuccessfully finding frequent flyer flights to Vietnam, two of my sisters decided to come visit me and see Kyushu.  I was a bit worried about planning everything, because it’s a challenge booking things in Japan if you don’t know the language, so I was hoping everything I planned/reserved was going to work out and that we wouldn’t have too many surprises.  Since it was also the start of Golden Week, I was also nervous about large crowds and traffic.  As it turns out, everything turned out perfectly.  We had another fabulous time and made some more incredible memories.

With on-time flights and an English-GPS equipped rental car, we got off to a good start.  Our first dinner was a special treat at Ippudo for ramen and gyozas.  We all resisted the temptation to stay up late since they had had such a long trip, and we were planning an early morning departure.  We were out the door Thursday morning by 8am after some coffee and breakfast.  I immediately realized I was going to love having an ETC card thus avoiding having to stop and pay at all the toll gates.  The expressway was mostly uncrowded, and we had no problem finding our way to Mt. Aso.  The drive was beautiful once we got out of the suburbs of Kumamoto.  Lots of hills with every shade of green on them, lots of streams and deep river valleys.  It was interesting to watch the vegetation and landscape change as we approached Mt. Aso.  When we got there it was very windy and quite cool.  We took the ropeway up to the viewing area and we got to see down into the crater where it was glowing a florescent green.  We walked around, met a nice German family, and did some shopping and snacking before heading onward.

Falls from another angle

Boat Ride thru Takachiho Gorge

The winding road down lead us into a beautiful valley area which seemed to have a ‘western’ theme to it and views of “hairy” oddly shaped mountains.  We stopped here for a late lunch (udon and soba) and then drove through more canyons before we came upon the town of Takachiho.  Having ‘walked’ the roads here on Google maps, I knew where our Japanese Inn was, so we stopped there straight away and checked in.  They supplied us with some maps and information and off we went.  We walked down the gorge along a steep one lane switchback road to get to the park and boat area.  It was a beautiful area with very few people.  We boarded our rowboat and off we went.  Our fearless, never rowed before, captain managed to make this a fairly humorous boat trip not only for us but for everyone else in the area…it’s a miracle we didn’t get drenched by the waterfall.  I’m sure this was retribution for the rafting trip in Belize that she still gives Jody and me a hard time about.  Nevertheless, she did a great job and we got to see and experience this wonderful place.  The color of the water, the waterfall, the cliffs, the varied rock formations, the vegetation…all made it beautiful and it was great to be a part of it all.

Sharing the Sake

The Kagura Dance Performance

We walked back up to town and checked out Takachiho Shrine where we would watch the Kagura dance later that night.  The size of the cedar trees were simply amazing and I loved the smell of the cedar and pine.  The dance performance was very entertaining, especially the last dance about the ‘Creation of Japan’.  I’d highly recommend this to anyone.  I wish I could have understood the commentator.  He obviously loved telling the story and I could almost figure out what he was saying from his expressions and the small English handout they gave us.  The music was a bit repetitive (almost hypnotic), such that after an hour I was ready to leave (otherwise I might have clobbered someone with that drum).

In the morning, we weren’t in a big hurry to go back to the city, so we drove further up the road to the shrine associated with the dance performances – the place where they supposedly lured the goddess out of her cave so that it would no longer be dark in Japan.  I’m so glad we went there, because it really tied the whole experience together.  The actual shrine is the cave and there are literally thousands of piles of stacked rocks on the way to and in front of this place.  It has a very mystical feeling to it, and we were incredibly lucky to have it all to ourselves.

Just as we were leaving masses of people were arriving.  During this trip, I learned the key to really enjoying Japan’s treasures: do it early in the day, because the Japanese are not morning people.

Road Trips!

Hanging Squid

Hanging Squid

Robert & I decided to rent a car one weekend in April.  The purpose was to get out of the city and see some areas the train doesn’t go to and for me to practice driving on the left side of the road before my sisters arrived.  We picked up our car Friday night and had to park it in a pay lot even though we have a parking spot associated with our townhouse (we don’t have a contract for the parking space so we can’t park there, even though no one else uses it either- seems rather silly to me).  We requested an English GPS, but they didn’t have any available, so we had the Japanese version instead.  It was actually very useful (once you figured out all the buttons), because as long as you know how to use a map, you can still figure out how to get somewhere and where you are.

On Saturday we drove along the coast past Kuratsu to a little town called Yobuko.  We first stopped at their little farmers market to look around, and then further up a dirt road (it was under construction), we happened upon the town which was buzzing with activity.  It was an incredibly charming old fishing town on a cute little harbor, so we just had to stop and check it out.  In the parking lot a couple of older women were passing out maps of the city (rolled up on a pretty scroll) and they pointed out where we needed to go.  This town is known for their squid and the little buggers were hanging everywhere or spinning or being cooked or dried.  We ended up on the street behind the main road which was lined with little stalls of people selling all kinds of squid products, seafood, produce, gifts, pottery, clothes, etc.   We watched sea urchin being opened, picked out of the shell and boiled in it’s shell. I’m not sure if this was a special event or if every Saturday is like this, but it was fun.  We eventually came upon the city shrine and stepped up for the view and the cherry trees, and walked through the town one more time before deciding to leave.

Closeup of Cliff Layers

View of the Coast’s Cliff Layers

We took our time heading back and made several stops to view the beaches and coastline and check out the interesting rock formations caused by the wind and waves.  Some of the rocks along the cliffs reminded me of the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland…the pentagonal shaped basalt rocks which were created by volcanic activity.  The rocks here just happened to be sideways rather than up and down.  After visiting the National Park, and the Nijomatsubara Beach, our last few stops were in Itoshima to view the ‘couple rocks’ shrine and get a bite to eat at one of the restaurants.

Dogs at Lunch

Dogs at Lunch

The most interesting thing that occurred while we were at the restaurant was watching two women touting over their three dogs.  It was if they were in their own little world, and no one else was there.  All the dogs were dressed up in ridiculous outfits (one could barely move around normally).  I personally think this falls under ‘cruelty to animals’.  Anyway, they kept propping them up in different chairs and taking pictures of them with different poses and backgrounds.  The eventually sat the dogs on cushions in their own chairs at the table and put ‘biscuits’ on their plates.  The poor boy dog (in a blue jean outfit), jumped down and tried several times to “mark his territory” only to be frustrated that it wasn’t working.  Shortly after that, we unfortunately got the opportunity to watch him get his ‘diaper’ changed.  While all of this was mildly amusing, I hope I never have to witness it again.

View of Shiraito Falls

The beautiful Shiraito Falls

On Sunday we headed up into the mountains to a farmer’s market that one of the teacher’s showed me a few weeks earlier when Robert was in Brussels.  This time, however, I was able to load up on veggies since now I had someone to help me eat the large quantities they sell.  We left there with lots of lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, potatoes, onions, and chives.  The roads up there were much more narrow and curvy than the day before and I’m sure Robert got a few gray hairs from my driving, but afterward, I felt pretty confident about driving around Kyushu by myself.  He eventually had enough of my driving and took over the wheel when the road narrowed to just one lane (shared by both directions).  On the way back we managed to find Shiraito Falls and take a short hike in that area.   I’ve never seen so many hydrangea bushes in one place, I’m sure it is simply gorgeous in June/July when they are blooming.

We ran a few errands before eventually dropping the car off.  It was really fun to do this and I’m glad we did it.  I still prefer train travel (it’s less stressful, and we both can enjoy the views), but cars truly are necessary to get to those places where the trains do not go.