Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Nara's Wakakusa Yamayaki, the festival that involves a fireworks display and also the burning of a mountain! (Photo-essay)

Although my first impressions of Hikone were on the cold (and thus not particularly welcoming) side, I actually enjoyed much of my time in this Shiga Prefecture castle town and ended up rueing my not being able to spend more time in the area.  But there was an event taking place over in Nara that evening that I didn't want to miss; one that involved the setting afire of a mountain that loomed over the old capital city and which has been taking place since ancient times.

The Wakakusa Yamayaki is an annual festival which takes place these days on the last Saturday of January.  Religious ceremonies involving officials affliated with Todaiji, Kofukuji and Kasuga Taisha take place earlier in the day, including the bringing of a sacred flame over to light up a bonfire in Nara Park, some of whose flames are then used in the ritualized burning of Mount Wakakusa.  But the actual setting afire of the mountain, and also the grand fireworks show that precedes it, take place only after dark.

More than incidentally, it's quite the experience to stumble around a largely dark Nara Park, trying to find a good spot to see the pyrotechnics and general fiery spectacle, with a large crowd of people, with the possibility of one stumbling not only on uneven ground but also over some wild deer!  Happily, the festival attendees seemed to generally fare okay; with perhaps the greatest mishaps involving people losing a glove or two since on my way back to town afterwards, I saw an uncommonly large number of those items of clothing lying about on the ground! ;b

The Kasuga Bonfire, where one can receive blessings
from Shinto deities when warming oneself with its fire 
Hanabi (fireworks) atop a mountain!
Music accompanied these visuals, and so too did
oohs and aaahs from the crowd ;)
 I got reminded that evening that fireworks really can be beautiful 
 Firework displays also can be pretty spectacular!
The fireworks show ended with several impressive bangs!
Then, a few minutes later, the mountain burning began in earnest!
This dramatic sight can be seen from many miles away,
but the smell of burning didn't carry as far as I expected!

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Further Japanese food explorations during my short Hikone visit

A beautifully fatty slice of Omi beef :b
A bowl of delicious oyster soba in soup! :)
Although I had heard of Hikone Castle and Hikonyan before I set foot in snowy Hikone, I didn't know a thing about what this part of Japan was famous for food-wise.  But after I learnt via from a pamphlet distributed by the city's tourist information center that this area is famed for a particular brand of wagyu that actually is the oldest in the country, I knew I couldn't leave Hikone without trying some Omi beef!
Because it was pretty hard to walk around in the city due to there either being thick banks of snow on the pavement or cleared bits that were actually super slippery because what bits of snow on them had melted and then refrozen as ice, I stuck to dining close to my hotel.  Fortunately, because my hotel was close to the train station and, as is often the case in Japanese towns and cities, there are a number of restaurants and bars located close to the train station, I actually did manage to find a couple of restaurants that served the vaunted Omi beef.
Although one of them was a specialist beef place, I actually went instead to an izakaya for dinner as I was in the mood for some beer as well as Omi beef, and also wanted a bit of variety on the food front.  At Izakaya Hikoichi, I chowed down on sticks of yakitori (with the tsukune (chicken meatball skewer) proving to be particularly tasty) and tsukemono (Japanese pickled vegetables) along with a plate of Omi beef and side vegetables that I was a bit surprised to learn that I would be grilling myself on a portable teppan plate.  
Almost needless to say, the Omi beef was by far the best part of my dinner -- and I must admit to wishing in retrospect that I had gone to the Omi beef specialist place.  Ah well, next time -- I'm in Hikone, that is, because I somehow didn't feel like having beef for lunch the next day and opted instead for a bowl of oyster soba in soup at a modest noodle restaurant on the same street!
I think that because I was feeling so cold after walking back to the vicinity of the train station and my hotel from Hikone Castle and spending hours exploring the castle, including its heater-less main keep which one had to walk about in shoeless, a bowl of hot noodle soup really was calling so very much to me.  And because all those oysters I ate in Hiroshima hadn't made me "oystered out", I zeroed in on the item on Yachiyo's menu that had oysters as well as noodles and soup in it!
Because the dish was around the 500 Yen (~HK$37 or US$4.67), I wasn't expecting it to have as many oysters as it did.  Even better was how juicy and plump those oysters were, and how oyster infused the soup/broth was.  So yes, I not only ate everything in the bowl but I drained every drop of that super delicious liquid too!  Unlike Hiroshima, Hikone isn't a place one associates with oysters.  But that oyster dish that I ate in that city on the banks of Lake Biwa really hit the spot.  Oh, and the soba in that bowl really wasn't bad at all too! ;b     

Monday, February 26, 2018

Agent Mr Chan is the kind of Chinese New Year movie you have to be in the right mood to enjoy (Film review)

The kind of movie best seen 
during Chinese New Year! ;b
Agent Mr Chan (Hong Kong-Mainland China, 2018)
- Jeff Cheung, director
- Starring: Dayo Wong (who also co-wrote the script with three others), Charmaine Sheh, C Kwan, etc.
If you had asked me two weeks ago which of the four Chinese language movies screening during the Chinese New Year period would do the least well at the box office, I'd have guessed that it'd be Agent Mr Chan since the film's budget and stars aren't as big as those of A Beautiful Moment (starring Carina Lau and Simon Yam), Monster Hunt 2 (starring Tony Leung Chiu Wai along with a bunch of CGI monsters) and Monkey King 3 (with Aaron Kwok as the titular character).  At the end of the first week of the holidays though, it's the spy spoof-comedy starring reputed "box office poison" Dayo Wong which has fared best at the box office, with total takings that rank second only to the global phenomenon that's Black Panther!  
Pretty amazing, especially since word has it that Agent Mr Chan was one of those movies completed quite a while back, only to have its release shelved for a time.  At the same time, however, it's hard to imagine Agent Mr Chan having been conceived as anything but a Chinese New Year film since it's filled with the fun cameos (including by Sandra Ng, Miriam Yeung, Ronald Cheng, Alan Tam, Lam Suet and Hiu Siu Hung), possesses the kind of loose plot structure and has that super eager-to-please quality that one associates with this particular Hong Kong movie (sub-)genre!  Oh, and its makers did make sure to include festive greetings to the audience by the main star and other cast members!
In his first starring role since 2002 box office bomb, Fighting to Survive (which he also co-directed, -produced and -scripted), Dayo Wong plays Mr Chan, a top secret agent whose love of "world peace" gets him and his nerdy sidekick (C Kwan) kicked out of the unspecified spy agency which they previously worked for.  Reduced to becoming private investigators spying on their clients' cheating spouses, their life is made further uncomfortable through the efforts of a woman (Charmaine Sheh) duped into thinking that they were going to marry by Chan on what turned out to his final spy mission.
Over the course of just a few years, the woman in question rose from junior policewoman to Commissioner of Police and then on to Secretary of Security.  While still filled with anger at being left on the altar by Chan, he's the man whose assistance she calls upon to investigate how it came to be that the Financial Secretary (Lawrence Cheng), who happens to be a relative of hers, would decide one evening to dress up a ballerina and prance on stage in public!
As might be expected, Chan's investigation results in all manner of plot twists and turns.  It also paves the way for cameos galore, with Sammi Cheng's being particularly guffaw-inducing and so surreal that, for a while there, I actually thought a lookalike actress was playing her -- the way that there's a (sorta) lookalike Daniel Craig in this movie that references and spoofs the world of James Bond quite a bit!
Even in the wildest of imaginations, however, there's just no way that James Bond would end up going undercover as a nerdy super fan of a girl group.  However, with the guidance of his nerdy sidekick (who's disconcertingly super familiar with that particular pop cultural millieu), that's what Mr Chan proceeds to do when his investigations lead him to suspect that someone connected to the "Happy Girls" girl group is behind the dissemination of the drug that got the Financial Secretary, Sammi Cheng and Julian Cheung (also playing himself!) behaving in ways that appear pretty strange indeed!

If you're not too familiar with the world of Chinese New Year movies, Agent Mr Chan probably would be too bizarre a film for you to be able to take in and enjoy.  Even a veteran Chinese New Year movie watcher like myself felt her head spinning at times when viewing this seriously zany offering.  But while at other times of the year, I'd get frustrated at how all over the place this movie can be, during this festive period, I find myself being far more indulgent of such cinematic foibles and, subsequently, more able to be amused and entertained by it all!
My rating for this film: 7.0

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Snowy views of Hikone Castle and its expansive grounds (Photo-essay)

Although there are many castles to be found in Japan today, only 12 have the distinction of being considered original castles.  Of these, I've visited UNESCO World Heritage-listed Himeji-jo, Bitchu-Takahashi's Matsuyama-jo (a mountain castle that's the highest fortress with an existing main keep in Japan), Matsue Castle, Matsumoto Castle (the first sight of which caused me to gasp out loud -- so stunningly beautiful is it) and, on my most recent Japan trip, the castle that is the pride and joy of Hikone (and where Hikonyan supposedly officially resides).

While it's not a mountain castle like Bitchu-Takahashi's Matsuyama-jo, Hikone Castle's main keep does sit atop a hill amidst expansive grounds that includes a stroll garden (Genkyuen), a day palace (that's now home to the Hikone Castle Museum) and various other structures, including the only stables still standing in a Japanese castle.  Even though it was on the cold (and snowy!) side on the day I visited, I still felt compelled to spend many hours wandering about in the castle grounds and I must say that Hikone-jo's white walls really appear very photogenic amidst a background of equally white snow and bright blue skies...   

I don't think I've seen a moat all frozen up before 
until the day I went and visited Hikone-jo... :O
The steps that take one from the ticketing office
up the hill to the inner grounds of the castle
Many of the castle buildings are built atop high mounds of stone
This photo gives an idea how thick 
the snow was when I visited!
Puppet Ponyo points to the main castle keep behind her! :)
The staircases in this three-storey original castle keep
are on the distinctly steep side...

View of the back of Hikone-jo's main keep from the plum tree orchard 
whose trees were mainly bare of leaves and covered more with snow
The snow came pelting down once more
as I bade farewell to Hikone-jo...

Friday, February 23, 2018

Hikone's Hikonyan, relative to Funabashi's Funassyi!

Puppet Ponyo agog that visitors to Hikone Castle 
have three chances daily to see Hikonyan live!
The official mascot of Hikone in the flesh!
Puppet Ponyo watching Hikonyan's actions intently
(or, at least, with eyes that were wide open) ;b
Pretty much the first thing I did after arriving in Hikone was to head over to the local tourist information center.  While there, I was provided with a town map and pamphlets about the local pride and joy that is Hikone Castle.  And after I made known to the staff that I knew of their city's official mascot and was a big fan of the even more nationally well known and popular Funassyi, we proceeded to engage in a mock fan battle, with their doing such as pointing at the Hikonyan badges on their shirts and enthusiastically professing their love for their local mascot while I proceeded to wave my Funassyi handkerchief at them as I made my way out of the Hikonyan paraphenalia-filled space!
Having seen Funassyi live in Hong Kong, I figured it'd be fun to catch Hikonyan in action in its hometown and duly made my way over to the appointed venue the next day to catch the samurai cat mascot's first show of the day.  Scheduled to be half an hour long, it took place in a warmly heated room of the Hikone Castle Museum that was pretty full at the start, and mainly with adults (including several senior citizens) rather than children.         

As it turned out though, many members of the audience decided to take their leave before the half hour show came to the end -- and I can understand why.  With apologies to committed fans of Hikonyan: The cat samurai mascot is cute to look at in pictures and such but I must say that watching him in action made me truly appreciate the Pear (Fairy) from Funabashi since Funassyi is so much more fun to watch and listen to.
Here's the thing: like many other yuru-chara (but unlike Funassyi), Hikonyan can't talk and moves pretty slowly.  Based on what I saw of his actions at the show, Hikone's official mascot's vision is extremely limited, and his head and helmet seem really heavy, and may also be easy to fall off. So he can't move his head from side to side, and also can't do such as crouch down, jump around or move at pace -- that is, move the way that Funassyi can and often does. And since Hikonyan can't talk, watching him can feel akin to watching mime; specifically slow speed mime.
All in all, the 30 minutes with Hikonyan dragged quite a bit and there's no way I would want to watch Hikonyan's show twice the way I was so happy to have done when Funassyi came over to Hong Kong back in 2016 and made appearances at both the Wired Cafe in Tsim Sha Tsui and Causeway Bay.  And I think my mascot affections can be clearly seen by my having come away from my time in Hikone with a Shiga prefecture-themed Funassyi regional souvenir rather than something with a keepsake with Hikonyan face on it! ;D

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Views of snowy Hikone! (Photo-essay)

One month ago today, I began my most recent visit to Japan.  The first few nights, I stayed at a city I had been to the previous October: Hiroshima.  But on the fifth day, I packed my bags and took the train to snowy Hikone -- and ended up spending the night there rather than head back south to less snowy climes on the next train out!  

Although things looked pretty bad (as in blizzard-y!) at first, I decided that since I should make the most of my being there and, also, that I should actually go and try to see some of the town rather than just hunker down in my cozy hotel room or an inviting izakaya (though trust me when I said that I did do a bit of that too!).  Looking back and when looking at the photos I got of an uncommonly snowy Japan, I'm glad I did that; this not least because a thick layer of snow really does seem to make even scenes that might otherwise be rather everyday look pretty special...  

Snow-covered bronze statue of Ii Naomasa, once lord of Hikone
 Not your usual view of a jinja (Shinto shrine)
So much more snow on the ground (and atop roofs and post boxes) 
than cars and people out on the streets in the town center!

Add a bit of blue sky and sunshine and the overall perspective 
quickly becomes significantly cheerier! :)

The plants may be snow-covered but some of them
still had their flowers!
Hikone lies on the eastern shore of Biwako,
Japan's largest freshwater lake 
I got closer to Lake Biwa on my very first visit to Japan
back in 1982 than this time around but still could 
appreciate its beauty on this recent trip :)

Puppet Ponyo adds welcome color to the snowy landscape
(along with the blue portions of sky) :b

Monday, February 19, 2018

Enjoying the festive but quiet time of the year that's the first few days of Chinese New Year in Hong Kong

No resident in sight at Pak Tam Village
on the first day of Chinese New Year

Near deserted overhead bridge in Kwun Tong
on the second day of Chinese New Year

Shuttered shops are the rule in Sai Ying Pun
on the fourth day of Chinese New Year

The Hong Kong Tourism Board has a lot to answer for.  That's what I find myself thinking every time I see foreign tourists looking particularly befuddled as to why so many stores, restaurants and businesses are closed during the first few days of what's popularly known as Chinese New Year (but also is celebrated by others who use the lunar calendar such as the Vietnamese and Koreans).  Heck, even the museums and such are closed for at least the first two days of these holidays that tends to be celebrated with the family in the privacy of private homes; so visitors to Hong Kong can't even go museum visiting during this time of the year!

Even on Chinese New Year's Eve, things start to wind down: with many businesses closing early so that their employees can go home early to prepare for, and have, dinner with family; many restaurants not serving dinner due to a dearth of on duty staff; and those restaurants that have stayed open being quieter and far less crowded than usual since many of their (potential) customers are eating at home rather than eating out that night -- or have left town to go on vacation in some other part of the world where more things will open at this time of the year!

So why do I stay in Hong Kong at a time of the year where the city can be as quiet and shuttered as when there's a typhoon in town?  For one thing, I actually enjoy the experience of the city being so much more peaceful and less crowded than usual.  For another, I find that, because the factories and such on the other side of the Hong Kong-Mainland China border are not operating during one of China's "Golden Week"s, the air is often noticeably less polluted in Hong Kong (as well as presumably over there) over the first week of Chinese New Year.  

In addition, over the years, I've figured out how to enjoy myself during Chinese New Year, including by going hiking with friends in the peaceful countryside, and watching Chinese New Year movies that, more often than not, tend to be on the silly side but also are full of goodwill and deliver plenty of laughs.  And while a lot of restaurants and bars do close for at least the first few days of these holidays, I also know of quite a few that stay open for business.

A tip for those who find themselves in Hong Kong sans family and/or friends to visit and provide food and drinks during this time of the year: convenience stores (such as 7-Eleven and Circle K) and fast food chains (foreign and local) do stay open; and ditto with most (if not all) restaurants serving Western or South Asian food.  And with each passing year, it seems that more and more Chinese as well as Vietnamese restaurants have opened for business over the Chinese New Year period here in Hong Kong -- though in these cases, be prepared to be asked to pay double the service charge you normally would in restaurants where a service charge is included, and for a service charge to appear on the bill in restaurants where that normally would not be the case.

Then there's the matter of the red packets filled with money which are given (by some) and received (by others) at this time of the year.  They're not mandatory to give to the staff of restaurants and such but I must admit to actually enjoying seeing the smile on someone's face when they get handed a lai see; and this especially when they are the sort who are thoroughly deserving of a tip, yet really didn't seem to expect any reward or recognition for their good service! :)

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Hiking with two good friends in southwest Lantau on the third day of the lunar new year of the dog :)

Out on the hiking trail with couple of friends in Southwest Lantau
Not the edge of the world, though it sometimes looked like it! ;)
A veritable Chinese New Year flower bonanza this afternoon!
After resting for a day (during which I went and watched A Beautiful Moment at the cinema), I got back to hiking ways on the third day of the lunar new year of the dog.  And even though we're just into February, I already have an early candidate for hike of the year in the form of the one I went on earlier today!    
Ever since I came across Man Cheung Po and Lung Tsai Ng Yuen (along with a "flying dragon") back on February 12th, 2012 while going along Sections 5 and 6 of the Lantau Trail, I've wanted to go back there and spend more time there as those sections of Lantau Island really did seem to be very pleasant sections of Hong Kong.  And a little more than a year ago, I did return to that part of Hong Kong's largest island by way of the Keung Shan Country Trail that allowed me to avoid having to go up (and down) the many hills of Section 5 of the Lantau Trail.  
As it turned out though, I ended up not lingering in the area as much as I had wanted to because the conditions I encountered there were far more misty than I had hoped would be the case.  But thanks to that hike on the second day of Chinese New Year last year, I now knew of an easier way to get to that area: one that seemed very much following again -- as was the case this afternoon!
This time around, the weather gods were also cooperative: in that, while it rained a bit in places in Hong Kong in the morning, it was dry where my two friends and I ventured this afternoon, far from misty and even sunny at times, with bright blue skies peeking out from the clouds every once in a while.  And at various parts of our excursion, scenic, even downright spectacular views revealed themselves; with today's visual highlights for me including the spotting of clumps of pretty pink Chinese New Year flowers and a point during the hike when one looked out at a sea so similar in shade and color to the sky that it was hard to see where one ended and the already began!
At times even more enjoyable than the beautiful scenery around us, and as far as the eye could see, was the company of my two hiking buddies: one of whom used to be my regular hike companion until she returned to Canada a few years back and is currently back in Hong Kong to celebrate Chinese New Year; the other of whom is the erstwhile regular hiking buddy who coined the phrase "non-competitive hiking" to describe our preferred hiking style.  Here's the thing: I really like that we never obliged to hurry to make particular times and, instead, just walked along at a pace all three of us were comfortable with -- and did quite a bit of shooting the breeze while we were tramping along too!
Back when I was at secondary school in Penang, I used to regularly walk up and down the school field during recess while chatting with a friend (or was it vice versa?).  I also made it a habit while attending college at Beloit of spending quality time talking with friends while strolling up and down the campus.  And I have enjoyed my share of conversation-filled long walks with friends when I lived in Philadelphia too. 
In Hong Kong, I do quite a bit of chatting with friends over meals and in bars but I also still very much enjoy chatting with friends while doing a bit of walking, or hiking as the case may be.  And as it so happens, the conversations today contributed quite a bit to making this afternoon's hike as fun as it was -- and, to my mind, helped further cement the friendship between the theree of us who went out hiking in Southwest Lantau together today. :)

Saturday, February 17, 2018

A Beautiful Moment delivers smiles, laughs, and many beautiful movie moments (Film review)

One of these Chinese New Year comedies I enjoyed viewing;
the other I plan to give a miss...

A Beautiful Moment (Hong Kong, 2018)
- Patrick Kong, director, co-scriptwriter (with Ja Poon) and co-producer (along with Jason Siu)
- Starring: Carina Lau, Simon Yam, Michelle Wai, Phillip Keung, Ivana Wong

Patrick Kong is one of those Hong Kong filmmakers critics love to hate but whose films have had quite the loyal fanbase in his home territory, especially among females of a certain age and class.  Often given a modest budget to work with, his movies tend to perform respectably at the box office but could hardly be considered "must see" blockbusters -- until now.

Super star-studded and featuring a bona fide A-list headliner in Carina Lau Ka Ling, A Beautiful Moment not only has the filmmaker working once again with many regular collaborators (such as Alex Fong Lik Sun and Jim Chim) but also a plethora of actors and actresses who collectively represent several generations as well as eras of Hong Kong cinema, from veterans like Patrick Tse Yin, Nancy Sit and Helena Law Lan all the way to youngsters like Cecilia So (who made such an impact with her 2015 feature film debut, She Remembers, He Forgets).  

Many of them have the kind of "blink and you'll miss him/her" screentime but those who notice their appearance will surely take some delight in their being part of this very local Chinese New Year movie that also sticks to this season's traditional conventions by being the kind of cinematic offering which focuses on family goings-on, delivering plenty of laughs and being sure to have a happy ending.  A Beautiful Moment additionally throws in the kind of mahjong- and poker-playing scenes that those who enjoy gambling movies will delight in, and ditto with regards to a pretty obvious allusion to the God of Gamblers.

Considering how many characters as well as jokes this sprawling movie manages to pack into its approximately 109 minute running time, I think Patrick Kong and co are to be applauded for keeping the main plot and sub-plots fairly coherent and the focus rather firmly on psychiatrist supreme Bo (Carina Lau), her martial arts expert daughter Michelle (Michelle Wai), and rich businessman Simon (Simon Yam) whose heart gets torn between his latest love and old flame.  Something else that's worthy of commendation is how much room Carina Lau and Simon Yam are given to show off their acting range; and, frankly, it's really wonderful to get a reminder of how these versatile talents can and do excel in comic and romantic roles.

In view of how very good the movie's two leads are, it might seem rather annoying that they have to share their screentime with so many others.  But Michelle Wai also proves to be pretty watchable and the likes of Ivana Wong (as Kiki, Bo's aspiring actress daughter) and Phillip Keung (as a major client of Bo who happens to be Simon's major business rival) manage to make what would otherwise be incidental as well as outrageously silly parts into ones which are pretty memorable as well as entertaining.

There are times when this film's cast is so good that it's tempting to think that they didn't need all that much directing.  At the same time though, I do also reckon that they were given some pretty primo dialogue to work with; with the ones likening men to Bluetooth devices and women to wifi being particularly amusing and also clever.  Regardless of who is (or are) primarily responsible for this effort, the main takeaway from all of this is that A Beautiful Moment delivered lots of smiles and laughs -- and, for that matter, many beautiful movie moments -- as far as I was concerned. :)     

My rating for the film: 8.0

Friday, February 16, 2018

The path less taken on the first day of Chinese New Year

Not the usual flowers I expect to see on a Chinese New Year hike!
Bauhinia in bloom in mid-February!
So were a bunch of smaller and less colorful flowers 
that attracted a scary amount of bees!
Since moving to Hong Kong, it's become a tradition of sorts for me to go hiking with friends on the first day of Chinese New Year.  And there have been occasions when, seemingly on cue, I'd catch sight of the bell-shaped flora known as Chinese New Year flowers on one of these hikes.
On today's excursion, which saw a friend and I trek from Lady Maclehose Holiday Village over to Sai Sha Road (but this time via Yung Shue O rather than Kai Kung Shan), however, I got to thinking that my chances of seeing the flowers that I will readily admit to looking forward to spotting at this time of the year would be on the slim side since it had turned unseasonably warm in recent days.  And as it turned out, today's turned out to be the warmest day by far of 2018, with highs of 27.7 degrees Celsius registered over in Sha Tin and Twa Kwu Ling, and the temperature in Pak Tam Chung having hit the 27.5 degrees Celsius this afternoon!
I hope that my chance to make some Chinese New Year flower spottings this year aren't completely gone though; and I really can't believe that it'll stay this warm through to the whole Chinese New Year period (which traditionally goes on for 15 days!).  I also take some consolation at today's hike being far from flower-less.  Not only that but I actually came across some bright pink flowers that I had never seen before, or at least not in the state of blooming that they were in, along with some bauhinia that had a different coloring from what I'm used to seeing.
Other visual highlights from today's excursion included my coming across rock pools that, even while I know they are completely natural, look so attractive that it sometimes seemed like they had come out of a movie set designer's imagination.  And while I'm not normally tempted to jump into one, I must say that if the temperature had risen a few degrees further, I might have wanted to take advantage of there having been few other people out on the trail my friend and I went on this afternoon and letting myself be cooled by those waters!
All in all, today's was a pretty pleasant hike along what really did feel like the path less taken since my friend and I spotted fewer than eight other people on the sections of trail between the Lady Maclehose Holiday Camp and Yung Shue O.  Actually, to judge by what we observed in Sai Kung town and while catching the minibuses to, further into and out of the Sai Kung Peninsula, the first day of Chinese New Year may well be the quietest and thus most optimal day of the year to go hiking in this part of Hong Kong which normally attracts many hikers and lots of others wishing to enjoy the outdoors on their day out!

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Snow in Japan!

Snow falling while I waited for my train to arrive at 
Hiroshima Station on the second day of my recent Japan trip
I found the snow to be really pelting down and 
settling on the ground the day that I went over to Hikone!
 Not a scene I expected nor wanted to see on a Japan visit!
For the first twelve years of my life, I only ever saw snow in picture books, on TV or in movies.  On a visit to England a few months after my thirteenth birthday though, I saw snow for the first time and was pretty ecstatic to have had this then exotic -- to me! -- experience.  
After I moved to England to attend boarding school though, snow became less of a thrill and more of a bother, especially after it melted and then re-formed into super slippery ice.  And the four years I spent at college in Wisconsin (aka the Siberia of America) definitely made me like the cold white stuff even less, with the subsequent years I spent in Philadelphia -- during which the city would regularly run out of salt for the roads in winter -- making it so that by the time I left the USA on July 4th, 2003, for far warmer climes, it would have been perfectly fine by me if I never ever saw snow again!
Since then, I've actually been pretty successful in avoiding seeing snow for the most part.  Indeed, it wasn't until 2015, on a May visit to Norway, that I came across -- and even tramped on -- the cold white stuff again!  And after a brief encounter with falling snow while on transit at Munich airport later that same year, I had not had more encounters with that which can be so pretty to look at but not all that great to be in until my trip to Japan last month!
I won't lie: the first time I saw snow falling in Japan (upon coming out from Hiroshima's Okonomimura. where I had just enjoyed a delicious lunch of Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki), I let fly an expletive -- and it wasn't because I was excited by the sight of the cold white stuff but, rather, because I actually was horrified by it!  But after I realized that the falling snow wasn't sticking onto the ground, I calmed down somewhat -- to the extent that the knowledge that snow was falling did not dissuade me from going ahead and journeying by shinkansen later that day to Osaka Funassyiland (and back later that evening) in order to get a 60cm Funassyi!
Over the next few days, as I saw more snow fall but almost never accumulate on the ground, I relaxed even more.  Indeed, I could be accused of having become rather blasé about the uncommonly snowy conditions that the Japanese media appeared super excited about; and this especially when the snow that I saw falling on my way to the Asashi Shuzo brewery up in the hills of Iwakuni prefecture also didn't seem to be sticking much at all to the ground.  Thus it was that I wasn't all that bothered when it began snowing once more my train journey from Hiroshima to Hikone, one that involved my switching trains at Shin-Osaka and moving from the Chugoku region over to the Kansai region.     

Some forty minutes after the second train of my journey passed Kyoto though, I began to see landscapes that were distinctly snowy in nature, with the snow getting thicker and thicker the closer I got to my destination that day.  By the time the train rolled into Hikone Station, I was thinking that some of the winter scenery I was passing could easily be mistaken for Siberia's rather than Japan's! 

I have to admit: there was a part of me that wanted to get on the next train out of Hikone soon after I arrived in that part of Shiga prefecture; and this especially it wasn't just snowing when I got there but pelting down pretty heavily!  But after reminding myself that I had experienced similar -- and even worse! -- conditions in Wisconsin, I not only kept to my plan of staying the night but decided to go out and walk around in the town since I was there for a bit before going and getting dinner (and at least one alcoholic drink!) in a nice, warm izakaya in the evening!
As I tramped about in the snow, I got to remembering how slippery the not completely cleared paths can get, how wet snow actually is, how few people are keen to be out walking about when it's snowing heavily, and how bleak but also beautiful it can turn landscapes into.  In addition, long before I completed my walk around Hikone town, I was thinking how happy I am that I no longer live in a part of a world where snow falls during winter but also how cool it actually was -- metaphorically that is, not just literally! -- that I was getting to see truly snowy conditions for the first time ever on a visit to Japan! :)   

Monday, February 12, 2018

A visit to the rural sake brewery that makes Dassai! (Photo-essay)

Back when he was the Asahi Shuzo Company's vice president, I met Kazuhiro Sakurai when he visited Sake Bar Ginn while he was on a stopover in Hong Kong.  Over a shared bottle of Dassai Sparkling 50, we chatted about subjects ranging from the films of Studio Ghibli to how one can get Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki topped with oysters.  And at one point in the conversation, the man who's now the company president told me that if I ever did get to Hiroshima, I was welcome to visit his sake brewery, which is located in the neighboring prefecture of Yamaguchi; something I duly proceeded to do on my trip to Japan last month!

It took two trains (including a very local one with just one carriage and a driver who, at some stations, would do double duty collecting the fare from passengers getting off his train) to get from Hiroshima to Suo-Takamori, the nearest train station to the brewery that I hadn't previously realized is not only located in a really rural part of Yamaguchi prefecture but fairly high up in the mountains.  But it was so totally worth the effort to get there to see how the sake that -- as I told Sakurai-san -- I've drank thousands of liters of gets made. 

Adding to the experience was my getting extended incredible courtesy and serious VIP treatment: as in I got picked up from (and later dropped off at) the train station, given a personalized tour of the place, and met Sakurai-san again, this time over on his home turf.  Oh, and after I toured the brewery facilities, I also spent some time at the Dassai Brewery Side Store, where I got to not only sip glasses of the familiar Dassai 23 but also the even more amazing Dassai 23 Centrifuge and simply incomparable Dassai Beyond!

Inside the industrial-looking rice-polishing facility 
which was the first stop on the tour

 Unpolished Yamada Nishiki sake rice on the left and 
the same rice post polishing on the right

The Asashi Shuzo Company's main building

Before entering the working section of the main brewery,
one needs to put on protective clothing and spend time in an 
air shower room to reduce the risk of contamination of the facilities

The polished sake rice is (still) washed by hand
rather than machine at the Asahi Shuzo brewery

 I feel incredibly privileged to have been allowed into the area
where they make rice malt when people were in the process of 
sprinkling koji onto the steamed rice

I also thought it very cool to be allowed into the vast room
where hundreds of large vats filled with steamed rice, koji 
and water are mixed to make mash that's left to ferment

Filled bottles of sake about to have the famous 
Dassai label affixed onto them :)