Monday, May 23, 2016

"No reservations" dining in Nagano

Shirasu gunkan maki ("warship style" anchovy whitebait sushi)

 Sazae sashimi (raw horned turban shell)

I actually thought I'd be getting just a fish head but
it turned out to be a dish consisting of two big headed fish! ;) 

Before my recent Japan trip, an über foodie friend who would be visiting the Land of the Rising Sun around the same time and I got to talking about our dining plans when we were there.  She also showed me her dining itinerary, which consisted of already pre-booked meals at various high-end restaurants, including various sushi-ya where one needs to make reservations very far in advance and more than one restaurants serving beef (be it as yakiniku or sukiyaki).  

Although I agree with her that sushi -- probably my favorite food in the whole wide world -- is a "must" to eat when visiting Japan, I told her that I prefer to be more spontaneous with regards to deciding where, what and when to eat.  So I had booked only one meal ahead of this Japan trip (more on that in another post) and had earmarked two other places to go eat (but had not booked a specific time and day to turn up there).  And still I think I ended up faring pretty well in the dining stakes!

As an example, my first lunch in Nagano was at an eatery located on Chuo-dori, the main road I walked along to get to Zenkoji.  Looking for a cool as well as light meal to sustain me for an afternoon's worth of sightseeing and walking, mainly in the sunny outdoors, I went into a soba restaurant that turned out to offer handmade Shinshu soba -- a prized regional specialty.  Despite the place looking on the casually furnished side and its prices being very reasonable (with my total bill being 1100 Yen -- i.e., around HK$78 or US$10), I knew this was a serious soba place because it's one of those that, after you finish your dish of cold buckwheat noodles, brings out a pot of soba-yu, the soup in which the soba was cooked, for you to mix with the tsuyu (dipping sauce) and drink!

Although a portion of cold noodles served with not much more than strips of seaweed, grated radish, wasabi (Japanese horseradish) and tsuyu may not seem all that substantial, it not only really hit the spot but sustained me through to dinner time.  While wandering about near my hotel that evening, I spotted big signs for an izakaya (Japanese-style bar-restaurants) specialising in seafood and decided that'd be the place where I'd like to spend a couple of hours happily chillin' as well as filling my stomach.

I never ever figured out the atmospheric izakaya's English name but I was successful in ordering the drinks I wanted (nama biru (draft beer) followed by junmai ginjo sake) as well as some pretty tasty -- even if admittedly strange-looking -- food.  And for those wonder: actually, I did order a couple of non-seafood dishes along with the seafood dishes pictured at the top of this blog post! 

One of these was the fabled Japanese tomato that's sweet even when raw, and tasty when dipped in either Japanese mayonaise or salt.  The other was a dish of even sweeter crunchy cabbage, seasoned with a sesame type sauce and konbu with a super umami kick, that looked so mundane that I didn't bother to snap a photo of it -- but, unbelievably, actually turned out to be my favorite dish of the night! ;b 

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Cool critter spottings made even when I was covered with insect repellent!

View of water, land and sky from Sham Chung

One of the weirder looking bugs my hiking friend and I
spotted on the way to Sham Chung this afternoon!
 
And here's a colorful as well as unusual bug that,
at first glance, I mistook for a flower! ;b
 
While waiting at the bus stop at Pui O after taking part in a beach cleanup last month, I got attacked by midges.  The rashes caused by the midge bites lasted for over two weeks, itching terribly and failing to respond to the hydrocortisone cream I slathered on them daily.  And it wasn't until I got stronger medication from my doctor that my arms and legs started looking far less spotty and way more normal.
 
Determined not to get bitten by midges again while hiking this afternoon, I immediately sprayed insect repellent on my arms, legs and even the back of the neck after getting off the green minibus that had taken a friend and I to today's trail head.  And after my friend proceeded to do the same, I remarked that with all the bug spray on us, we might not be able to make as many critter spottings as usual in this area and at the time of the year.
 
Pretty much every time that I've hiked to or from Pak Sha O, I've caught sight of some pretty interesting -- as well as plain pretty -- bugs.  On an excursion some time back that saw us trekking between this well-maintained Hakka village and Lai Chi Chong, we had come across a whole slew of eye-catching critters.  And another hike buddy and I had a similar experience when we hiked over to Sham Chung from Pak Sha O. 
 
Although I wouldn't have been surprised if it had been otherwise, this afternoon's excursion also turned out be full of cool critter spottings!  At the same time, I don't think I got any midge bites today.  So it seems that the bug spray I use (a natural insect repellent called Mosi-guard) is able to keep annoying bugs (like mosquitoes as well as midges) away from me even while not repelling those critters that I totally welcome getting near when I'm out in the countryside and wishing to enjoy being in nature as well as getting in some enjoyable exercise along the way! :)

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Touching the "Key to Paradise" and more at Nagano's Zenkoji

Six of the several Jizo statues to be found 
within the grounds of Zenkoji

Zenkoji's physically impressive Hondo (main hall) is one of
the biggest wooden buildings in the country


Talk about starting my recent Japan visit with a bang: Not only did I have the good fortune to spot Mount Fuji before my plane landed on Japanese soil but I also managed to touch the "Key to Paradise" lodged in the dark bowels of Nagano's Zenkoji later that day, thereby ensuring my eternal salvation! 

Best known to most non-Japanese for having hosted the 1988 Winter Olympics, the central Honshu city of Nagano is better known to Japanese people as a historic temple town that grew up around the Buddhist temple known as Zenkoji, founded in the 7th century and reputedly home to the first Buddha image ever brought to Japan.  A hibitsu (i.e., "hidden Buddha") since the year 654, just a (13th century) replica of that sacred statue is unveiled to the public -- and only once every six or seven years at that!

Suffice to say that my day's good luck did not extend to my getting to see the hibitsu -- or, for that matter, even its replica.  However, there still was plenty to see (and feel) at Zenkoji, including impressive large wooden gates, a number of statues of Jizo and other religious figures, still other Buddhist works of art housed in Zenkoji's main hall, the upper floor of its main gate and the lower floor of a pagoda (that houses both a historical museum and a memorial to the 2.5 million people who died in wars in the area in the past 150 years or so), and a pitch-black passage running under the main altar known as the O-kaidan that's home to the precious "Key to Paradise".

A popular pilgrimage site for centuries -- not least because it's the uncommon Japanese temple that's been open to women as well as men through the ages -- Zenkoji has both a high priest and priestess, and is considered a place for physical healing as well as spiritual enlightenment.  To this day, many visitors to it make a point to rub smoke from the large incense burner located in front of the Hondo on their bodies for health and good fortune.  They also rub the statue of Binzuru, a physician supposed to be Buddha's most intelligent follower, located inside the Hondo's Outer Sanctuary to alleviate their physical aches and pains; and it was touching to see physically able younger individuals helping frail elderly people who had congregated to do so.

Quite a few folks also do go and attempt to touch the "Key to Paradise" -- but flights of steps leading into and out of the O-kaidan prevent the infirm from doing so, and the light-less nature of the tunnel makes it so that those uncomfortable with spending several minutes finding one's way about in complete darkness would find it quite the scary ordeal.  Alerted in advance that the Key (which actually feels more like a door knob) was embedded in a waist-high space along the passage's right wall, I made sure to touch that wall's surface at all times -- and found this action helpful in keeping me oriented as well as to achieve the goal of those who enter the tunnel.

On my first trip to Japan back when I was a teenager, I decided to take up the challenge of crawling through the narrow hole in one of the large columns at Nara's Todaiji (Great Eastern Temple).  Although I did eventually succeed in doing so (and in so doing, was granted enlightenment in my next life!), at one point I felt like I'd never make it through and, instead, be stuck there forever!  

While I didn't panic near as much at any point while inside Zenkoji's O-kaidan, it was quite the relief to eventually get to the end of what felt like a really long tunnel that was so dark that one really couldn't see anything but pitch blackness throughout one's time in there.  At one point, I accidentally bumped into someone who appeared to have paused to catch her breath and felt so embarassed.  At the same time, it made me fearful that I'd get bumped into by the person behind me and got to quickening my pace even while groping blindly about in the dark! ;S

Friday, May 20, 2016

A Japan trip I figured would be wonderful even before my plane landed! :)

Can you make out Mount Fuji in this photo I snapped as the plane 
I was on was descending down to Narita International Airport?

 And what of the snake I spotted in a tree and managed to take photos
of while strolling around the largest wasabi farm in the world?! :O

Also, it may not look like it but Matsumoto Castle 
(in front of which Puppet Ponyo posed with a friend) 
actually has six floors rather than five ;b

As regular readers may have surmised from my lack of blog posts over the past week or so, I was travelling about once more -- and yes, the Land of the Rising Sun was where I went once again!  What with the historic Tsukiji Fish Market being due to move later this year, I wanted to visit and have a sushi breakfast there at least one more time.  So this trip did see me revisiting old haunts in Tokyo as well as spending time venturing further afield to other parts of Japan that I had never previously been to.      

As is my wont, I had requested a window seat on my flight into Tokyo and was looking out of the window, happily drinking in the views, as the plane I was on gradually made its way back to terra firma.  Seconds before we landed, I happened to notice a beautiful snow-capped mountain in the far distance -- and got to realizing with a start that I was being treated to a rare view of Mount Fuji!  

Although I've been in places where Fujisan reveals itself on clear days (like Hakone and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building Observation Decks), I had never caught sight before of Japan's most sacred mountain.  So I really did feel that my first ever sighting of Mount Fuji was a portend of wonderful things to come on this latest Japan trip.

Consequently, even the first of two trains I needed to take to get to the first city I'd be staying at on this trip getting delayed for so long that I ended up missing my scheduled connection failed to dampen my spirits; this especially as I still did get into Nagano with plenty of time to do such as thoroughly explore Zenkoji, the popular and important Buddhist temple founded in the 7th century around which the city developed.

My good mood continued even after coming across numerous bear warnings while traipsing through a forest up in the nearby mountains the next day, actually spotting a snake curled up a tree a couple of days later, and being in Tokyo the day after, when a magnitude 5.6 earthquake hit eastern Japan, causing the building I was in to shake for a few seconds!  

It helped that I ended up not crossing paths with any bears (only a few hikers with bear bells).  And even though I can't completely subscribe to the Japanese belief that seeing a snake brings good luck (like more than one friend has told me now), I at least now feel more used to the sight of snakes in Japan -- after also having encountered them in Shirakawa-go and on Bitchu-Takahashi's Mount Gagyu!  

As for earthquakes: I've been really fortunate in my experiences of them being far less dramatic than could otherwise be the case.  (More than incidentally, the Kumamoto Earthquakes don't seem to be getting reported anymore outside of the country but one month on, there still is regular coverage of it on TV and donation drives for those affected by it within the country.) 

More than anything, I came away from Japan with many more great experiences.  In the coming days (actually weeks!), I will be sharing some of these with you via my photos as well as words.  Suffice to say for now that, as ever, I saw many beautiful sights (natural and cultural), ate lots of delicious food, drank quite a bit of Japanese alcohol (that goes so well with Japanese food) -- and had more interactions that confirm once more that some of the best parts of visiting the country come from getting to know the people along with their culture and land.      

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The joys of bike riding in Hong Kong's New Territories :)

There are some nicely laid out bike paths in
Hong Kong's New Territories :)
 
One of the older and more interesting looking buildings
I spotted while out bicycling one afternoon

It was hard to drag myself away from the Shuen Wan Typhoon Shelter's
breakwater after seeing the awesome views to be had from there :) 

Today has seen some of the finest weather in weeks, and got me thinking of another beautiful day some time ago during which I went on my second bicycle ride in Hong Kong!  After having thoroughly enjoyed bicycling between Tai Wai and Ma On Shan (after returning from a visit to The Netherlands, where I saw tons of bicycles and bicyclists!), I did some biking between Tai Mei Tuk and Luen Yick Fisherman Village (over by Sam Mun Tsai New Village). 
 
Originally, I had intended to bike from Tai Mei Tuk to Tai Po -- but I got distracted by the sights over by Sheun Wan Typhoon Shelter and also realized that I was happy to prolong my bicycling time by turning back to Tai Mei Tuk and, for good measure, riding up and down the Plover Cove Reservoir's main dam twice for added exercise!  Also, I figured that the scenery on the route I had chosen was so attractive that it was worth checking out twice in favor of passing through Tai Po's industrial estate on the way to its town center!
 
Although I've actually been in the area before, I got to discovering "new" sights courtesy of my going at a pace that wasn't only slower but which I could dictate when biking rather than breezing by on a bus or an even speedier green mini bus.  Among other things, amidst the many newer village houses that have sprung up along Ting Kok Road are to be found some interesting looking buildings which date back to the 1960s, at least one of which has red stars on its front that look to designate a pro-Communist Chinese affliation (like another building from the same period over at Kuk Po).  In addition, I got to see Tsz Shan Monastery and its giant Guan Yin statue from a whole variety of angles!
 
Best of all were the views to be had from the breakwater of Shuen Wan Typhoon Shelter that one can easily ride one's bicycle on to.  While the surrounding natural landscape was pretty stunning, I also was fascinated by the human activity that I saw going about.  Over in Tolo Harbour, there were fishing craft and fishermen going about their business.  And on both sides of the breakwater, boats manned by Country and Marine Park Authorities officers regularly patrolled the waters and a smaller boat puttered by, helmed by an old woman wearing a straw hat that marked her out as a Hakka fisherwoman and made her look like she come out of an old tyme photo of Hong Kong. 

When fellow blogger bluebalu interviewed me a while back and asked me for tips for people who come to the Big Lychee regularly, my reply included the suggestion that, if one wanted to, one could (temporarily) “escape” from Hong Kong's concrete jungle by going to other parts of the territory.  In the case of the bike ride between Tai Mei Tuk and Luen Yick Fisherman Village: not only does it get you into far more rural sections of this part of the world than many people may realize (still) exist -- but it also will show you that Hong Kong's heritage and traditional ways are still alive, and not just confined to such as the exhibition halls of the Hong Kong Heritage Museum or Hong Kong Museum of History! ;b   

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

A Tai Mo Shan hike with rocky highlights (Photo-essay)

As can be expected of a part of the world that's home to a UNESCO global geopark, Hong Kong has some remarkable geological features and landscapes.  Among the sections of the geopark I've been to -- and been amazed by -- are Ma Shi Chau, Tung Ping Chau, High Island, Lai Chi Chong, and a number of places (including Port Island) in the northeast New Territories that I finally got to on a boat tour last year.  

While out hiking in the Big Lychee, I've also come across a number of geologically interesting areas that lie outside of the Hong Kong UNESCO Global Geopark.  Among the more well known of these are Po Toi (with such as its "Turtle Rock" and "Buddha's Palm Cliff") and Chi Ma Wan's "Rock Wonder".  

In addition, there was the rocky area that three friends and I passed through while going down Tai Mo Shan to Lead Mine Pass and then to Tai Po (after having gone up Hong Kong's highest mountain from Route Twisk) one afternoon.  If it were in a more accessible locale, this visually attractive space surely would attract more visitors.  As it was, however, we had the place to ourselves pretty much the whole time we were there -- which, of course, made our being there feel all the more special and wonderful! :)

The easiest route up (and down) Tai Mo Shan is via 
the paved road that connects to Route Twisk

This other route down (or up) Tai Mo Shan also isn't all that 
difficult; it's just that there are miles to go before you
get to the nearest bus or minibus stop, forget MTR station!

It feels more like a real hike when the trail's not paved 
and the terrain becomes more rugged :)
 
See what I mean about this being a rocky part of Hong Kong? :)

The kind of scenic view I enjoy gazing out at 
while out hiking in the Big Lychee :)

See the trail we came down on? :b

 Upon passing through this archway, you'll find 
yourself in Lead Mine Pass

Whichever route one takes out of there, it involves traipsing 
for a few more kilometers, so I wasn't surprised to see my 
pedometer register 25,565 steps at the end of this long hiking day ;b

Monday, May 9, 2016

Peking Opera Blues, and its (continued) relevance for post-Umbrella Movement Hong Kong

 Peking Opera Blues had a full house screening
at the Hong Kong Film Archive yesterday afternoon :)

Ever since I attended a full house screening of my favorite movie of all time at the Hong Kong Film Archive yesterday afternoon, I've felt like I've been floating on air.  I may have viewed Peking Opera Blues more than 50 times already (including twice on a big screen in New York back in 2001, and once at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. before that) but I don't think I'll ever tire of watching it; not least because this is one cinematic offering that's not just super action-packed but also offers up so many really interesting and substantive ideas and messages (along with comedy that will get you laughing and dramatic moments that never fail to tear at my heart).

An amazingly multi-genre -- even genre-transcending -- work, Peking Opera Blues manages to entertain even while addressing a number of serious issues, in ways that remain pertinent three decades after it was first released in its home territory of Hong Kong.  Set in Peking circa 1913, after Yuan Shikai had succeeded Sun Yat Sen as the President of the new Republic of China and was showing signs of monarchism, the movie's early scenes show how political power can change hands quickly, that there are ruthless people willing to what it takes to advance themselves professionally and politically, but also committed individuals willing to sacrifice much to do what they think is the right thing, and folks who will end up getting involved in plots they don't know much about and caught up in circumstances outside of their control.

I've read analyses in which the film's three main characters -- all of them female and strong-willed but possessing very different outlooks and personalities -- have been described as being the three Chinas in human form; with Hong Konger Cherie Cheung's Sheung Hung, a woman intent on getting her hands on enough riches so that she can leave China, representing the then British Crown Colony.  But while watching Peking Opera Blues yesterday in post-Umbrella Movement Hong Kong, I got to latterly thinking that it's Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia's Tsao Wan, the idealistic patriot willing to go against her father to save her country, friends and innocent bystanders, who now better represents Hong Kong.

The beloved only child of General Tsao (Kenneth Tsang), an autocratic warlord ally of Yuan Shi Kai, Tsao Wan is tasked by her republican comrades with procuring a document that she knows if lost by her father, will result in his losing his privileged position and possibly more.  Over the course of the film, she is made to feel more psychological and physical pain than she probably had ever realized would be the case.  Still, come movie's end, this inspiring figure stayed intent on working for the greater good of her country, and hopeful that the day would come when the on-going battle would not only draw to an end but also be won by her side.

Although she may never have represented Hong Kong in the past or present, Sally Yeh's Pat Neil, the aspiring Peking Opera performer whose life is irrevocably changed after she gets to know Tsao Wan and Sheung Hung, also is able to impart valuable lessons to contemporary Hong Kongers.  After befriending complete strangers who she only decided to help in the first place because they shared a common enemy, she proves to be a loyal ally -- and turns out to be the incorruptible moral compass of the overall story.    

Back in 1986, Peking Opera Blues' director-producer Tsui Hark and scriptwriter Raymond To couldn't possibly have foreseen the coming into being of the Umbrella Movement -- and that, during and in the wake of these pro-democracy protests, many young Hong Kongers would find themselves swept up by a series of tumultuous events and having to go against their parents when upholding their political ideals.  What history did teach them though, and they proceeded to effectively communicate in the concluding lines which exist on the film's 35mm prints (but, sadly, don't appear in any of its DVD editions), is that victories for either side often end up being less permanent than may be realized at the time and what ensues further down the line may well be something that is beyond contemporary imagination.