Monday, June 29, 2015

Crossing the Arctic Circle on the Hurtigruten's MS Richard With (Photo-essay)

A little after 7am on the morning of the fourth day of our Hurtigruten cruise, ship-wide announcements were made about our going to be crossing the Arctic Circle in approximately 10 minutes.  Thus forewarned, I put on several layers of clothes and then hurried outside to catch sight of the globe-shaped Arctic Circle Monument installed on the island of Vikingen that would provide us with visual evidence of our having passed the imaginary line at 66 degrees, 33 minutes north latitude, north of which we'd experience 24 hours of daylight this time of the year.

Six days later, the MS Richard With crossed the Arctic Circle again -- this time on the southbound section of its voyage.  Both our entering the Arctic and leaving this cold region of the planet were marked by special ceremonies that were memorable and, yes, entertaining.  So, strictly speaking, it's not like there's zero ship-board entertainment supplied by Hurtigruten; it's just that, well, it's not all that conventional! ;b 

At this point in the cruise, our ship had not yet crossed the Arctic Circle

When I took the above photo a couple of minutes later though,
we were already in the Arctic :)

 To commemorate our crossing into the Arctic, 
King Neptune came on board the ship!

Together with the ship's captain, tour leader and assistant,
he ladled ice cubes and water down the back of people's necks! :O

If you thought I was kidding about the ice cubes and water 
-- and yes, I couldn't stop from screaming out loud when
they got ladled down my back! ;b

 As compensation, all those who underwent the "ceremony"
got to have a shot of warming cloudberry liqueur afterwards :)

Tour leader Anna Olivia Wallinder shows the large bottle
of cod liver oil she dosed people with after we left the Arctic!

 One last look at the scenery at and near the Arctic Circle
at Vikingen Island that's so gorgeous it can take one's breath away :)

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Memories of lighthouses, including those on Norway's rugged west coast

One of many (hundreds?) of lighthouses seen

The Kjeungskjaer Lighthouse is considered to be the 
most beautiful of those found along the Norwegian coastline
 ...but I reckon that the Stabben Lighthouse is more picturesque :)

Although it was only last month that I climbed up to the top of a lighthouse for the first time (at Japan's Cape Hinomisaki), these navigational aides for maritime pilots have long fascinated me; this not least because, in my childhood, I had read stories in which lighthouses and heroic characters featured, such as the true tale of Grace Darling, the daughter of the lighthouse keeper at Longstone, and Five Go to Demon Rocks, one of the books in Enid Blyton's "Famous Five" series.
For all of my literary familiarity with English lighthouses, however, I can't recall seeing any of these structures having caught my eye in all of the time that I spent in the native land of the bulk of the authors whose books I read as a child.  On the other hand, the Muka Head lighthouse on my home island of Penang -- which, incidentally, was built by the British -- was one that caught my imagination as a child.  And as an adult, I loved the look of the lighthouses I spied on a visit to North Carolina's Outer Banks and have taken note on occasion of other lighthouses I've come across during my travels and, also, while hiking in Hong Kong
Still, it wasn't until I went cruising along the Norwegian's rugged western coastline with Hurtigruten's MS Richard With that I got to really appreciating the aesthetics of various lighthouses -- and discovering that there really are lighthouses that look like what you'd expect to see when you first hear the word.  Put another way: whereas I had previously only seen lighthouses that were tall towers or rectangular in shape and similarly "un-house-like", I could well imagine people -- even a family -- fairly comfortably residing in such as the lighthouses as Kjeungskjaer and Stabben!

The fact that there are over 150 lighthouses in Norway -- along with some 5,000 navigational lights -- give a good idea of how rocky and potentially treacherous the Norwegian coast is.  It also shows how much of a commitment the authorities have made to try to make the waters off Norway safe for those who travel in them (including its fishing community).  And while I didn't see any of these lighthouses' lights on since I was traveling there at a time when Norway's the Land of the Midnight Sun, I can definitely imagine feeling reassured at the sight of the beams of their lights on dark nights out at sea.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Sunday morning Trondheim impressions

It was so cloudy and gray when I visited Trondheim
that its King Olav Tryggvason Statue couldn't act
as a sundial like it was designed to do :S

 The city's star attraction is the Gothic Nidarosdomen which is

The Gamle Bybro (Old Town Bridge) which dates back to the 17th century
added color to my impressions of Norway's third most populous city

Admirers of Bruce Lee say no to Nazis? I'd buy that!

The day before I visited the central Norwegian city of Trondheim, I had been on a tour bus going through the town of Molde that looked so deserted on a Saturday evening that, as our tour guide remarked, "People might wonder whether the inhabitants have been abducted by aliens!"  Her comment came back to me -- and so too certain memories of my visits to Germany in recent years -- when I strolled around Trondheim when the MS Richard With docked at the port of the city of some 184,000 people the next day.

As I made my way to the city center, I didn't see any other people besides those who were pretty obviously fellow passengers for the first 25 minutes at least.  In that time, I also had failed to see a single store open for business, bar for a 7-Eleven; heck, even the local Tourist Information Office turned out to be closed on Sundays (like the day happened to be)!

It wasn't until I got near the Nidaros Cathedral that I saw other places that were open for business.  More specifically, the city's Anglican church was accessible to visitors while a service was taking place at Nidaros Cathedral at the time that I was in the vicinity, and the cathedral's gift shop was also open to the public.  

However, the Archbishop's Palace next door to the cathedral, which houses the Norwegian crown regalia, and its associated museum were closed until after the MS Richard With left Trondheim that afternoon.  So I had to content myself with checking out the buildings' exterior.  

Also, rather than go inside the grand place of worship while a service was taking place, I elected to walk around the building and admire its highly decorated exterior (on which could be seen lots of stone carvings, including some amazing looking gargoyles).  And so interesting were the sights on view that I ended up spending quite a bit of time slowly circling around the building with my eyes (and camera) scanning above me to catch some particular sculptural piece, and nook and cranny, before leisurely making my way back to my ship via a different route from the one that I had used to get to the cathedral.

A few meters north of the Gamle Bybro, I came across what appeared to be the liveliest part of Trondheim that Sunday morning.  Although the weather was not especially ideal to my mind (what with the weather being on the cool side for June and the cloudy gray skies threatening to heap rain onto those of us below), the members of the local populace who had gathered for what looked to be a weekly Sunday outdoor food and crafts market seemed quite able to create a pretty good atmosphere and looked to be enjoying themselves quite a bit.

Detouring to have a quick look, I noticed that yesterday's tour guide may have had a point when she announced that Norway's national dish is (now) pizza!  And it's true enough that even while I didn't have pizza that day (or, for that matter, at any meal served over the course of the cruise), it also was the case that my mother and I did end up eating some pizza before we left this Scandinavian country whose waters (also) do yield some amazingly delicious seafood! ;b

Friday, June 26, 2015

Geirangerfjord and "the Golden Route" (Photo-essay)

In my previous blog post, I wrote about having wanted to walk the streets of Alesund, yet opting instead to go on a land excursion that took place during the MS Richard With's longest scheduled stop in the Art Nouveau city.  

But when I tell you that the attraction which ended up taking greater priority than that Norwegian coastal town was the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Geirangerfjord (which I had previously listed among the top five UNESCO World Heritage listed-sites that I wanted to visit), I think you'll understand.  And even if not, I reckon that the following photo-essay will go a long way towards explaining why I do consider the eight and a half hour excursion I opted to go on -- which included two ferry rides as well as one long bus ride along what's been billed as "the Golden Route" -- to have been one of the highlights of my Nordic vacation:-
From a wonderfully placed lookout above Geirangerfjord
this is the incredible view you get when you look to the left...

 ...and this is the sublime sight that greets you 
when you look over to the right! :)

About an hour by bus and a ferry away from Geirangerfjord lies
the fabled and visually impressive Gudbrandsjuvet (Gudbrands Gorge)

I figured I'd see snow in Norway, even in June, 
but I didn't expect to see so much of it so up close! :O

I also definitely didn't expect to be treading on snow
for the first time in some 12 years in June of this year!

 I did so though to be able to get to viewpoints like this one
which Puppet Ponyo enjoyed spending some time taking in :b

 From up above, one can get a view of what's to come: a hair-raising 
drive down the scary 11 hairpin bend, single lane (but two way) 

 And when you consider that this road also cuts through 
the paths of a number of gushing waterfalls, one can't help but 
hold one's breath several times when descending down it! ;D

Thursday, June 25, 2015

C'est la vie, Alesund!

The Art Nouveau town of Alesund is considered by many
to be Norway's most beautiful town

If only I had had ample time to stroll its streets... *sigh!*

If you had asked me at the start of my Hurtigruten cruise which Norwegian town, city or village I was looking most forward to visit, I'd have said that it was Alesund.  But despite the ship I was on being scheduled to stop not just once but thrice over the course of the cruise at its port (which is located right in the town center), I ended up not stepping foot in this coastal city which was rebuilt in Art Nouveau style after much of it was burnt down in a devastating fire 101 years ago.

For as it turned out, the MS Richard With's first scheduled stop on the second day of the cruise there was cut from 45 minutes to just 10 to make up for the time it lost to delays the first night.  Then, after the ship returned from a detour into nearby Geraingerfjord to spend a lengthier amount of time in Alesund's port later that day, I happened to be on a wonderful land excursion (which had topped the list of Hurtigruten excursions I wanted to go on) several miles away.

Many days later, the MS Richard With docked at Alesund once more while sailing on its southbound route.  This time, I decided not to leave the ship because the stop took place after midnight -- and I never managed to stay awake past even 11pm each night that I was on the cruise.  (This even though the sun never set most nights while I was on the ship!)

Early on, I had worried that shortened stops like the first one at Alesund on the voyage would be the rule rather than the exception.  Fortunately, this turned out to be the exception rather than the rule -- though it also was the case that on the southbound journey, there was at least one day when the ship didn't stop at any port for more than an hour to make up for time lost due to its having sailed in choppy waters for much of the night before.

Something else I learnt over the course of the cruise was that many of the places at which the ship stopped were so small that one hour -- or even 45 minutes -- could appear to be way ample time to check out the town (or, more frequently, village)!  On a related note: it was amazing how many more settlements the ship passed by that were so tiny they looked to be composed of not more than ten, even five, homes or buildings!  

As a German woman I befriended on the boat and I agreed, we could scarcely imagine how such a seemingly significant percentage of the Norwegian populace could -- and could want -- to live in such isolation, and how far away such as the nearest grocery store or supermarket was from where they lived!  Also, we spotted homesteads far up steep mountains that didn't look like they were close to a road as well as the sea, and got to wondering how its residents manage to get in and out of them!

At the same time, we could also easily imagine that many of these Norwegians -- whose country's population density stands at 13.2 people per square kilometer of land -- would be horrified at the thought of living in places with as high a population density as Hong Kong (with 6,690 people in the same amount of space), never mind in high rise apartments rather than houses with plenty of greenery (or, at least, space) around them.  Put another way: it really can be a case of "different strokes for different folks" in this interesting world of ours! ;b

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

An unconventional cruise experience, courtesy of Hurtigruten's MS Richard With

My home for 12 days and 11 nights earlier this month :)

One the first photos I took while on board Hurtigruten's MS Richard With
What became familiar sight on this Norwegian cruise :)
There are some things that I've told myself that I'll only do when I'm old(er).  One of these is take up tai chi.  Another is play golf.  A third is to go on a cruise -- or, rather, was, since I've now gone and done it...though having said that, a voyage on one of  Hurtigruten's boats that sail up and down the western coast of Norway, between Bergen and Kirkenes, a town with a population of around 8,000 that lies over 2,400 kilometers away, is by general consensus not really your usual cruise experience.
In 1893, Captain Richard With (whose name is pronounced like "Rikard Vit") entered into an agreement with the Norwegian government whereby his steamer company would provide shipping service to a northern section of the country's rugged west coast.  Over the years, what came to be known as the Coastal Express became a valuable passenger and freight shipping service for a large percentage of the Norwegian west coast, stopping regularly at 34 ports -- and crossing both on its northbound and southbound routes -- over the course of its 12 day voyage. 
Christened the Hurtigruten (Norwegian for "fast route") in 2006, this shipping line decided early on to serve tourists as well as locals.  But even while its tourist component has increased over the years, it's never relinquished its non-touristic duties -- and its ships (including the MS Richard With, on which my mother and I sailed) still drop off and pick up freight (and often also passengers) at each and every one of the ports -- many of them on the very small side -- for which it acts a veritable lifeline, and proudly flies the Norway Post flag on each of their voyages.

The MS Richard With drops anchor at an average of 3 to 5 ports over a 24 hour cycle.  Many of these port calls are for less than an hour.  At the stops that were on the short side (with 15 minutes not being unheard of!), I often took the opportunity to walk around the promenade desk several times (4 complete circuits made 1 kilometer, the ship's friendly tour manager, Anna, told us) to get some exercise as well as views of the village or town the shop had stopped at, and the surrounding often pretty magnificent scenery.  I sometimes also frequented the open sections of the promenade and top decks when the ship was sailing -- but, more often than not, strong, bitingly cold winds put me off doing this!
Usually, there's at least one stop a day that's longer than one hour.  Almost invariably, I'd leave the ship to explore the town (or village) and surrounding area.  (Rest assured that I'll write about and share photos of specific towns and such in posts to follow.)  On three occasions, I availed myself of excursions offered by Hurtigruten that allowed me to venture further inland and afield.  Each and every time, I got something out of temporarily leaving the ship for a time -- this even when I ended up walking about in rainy, windy, surprisingly-cold-for-June (i.e., 6 degrees Celsius) weather conditions!

At one port where a more conventional -- and much larger -- cruise ship than the 11,205 ton MS Richard With (with its maximum 623 passenger capacity and total of not more than 450 passengers on the cruise my mother and I were on) had also docked, I got a taste of what it would have been like to have been together with far more people -- and thanked my lucky stars that we had opted for a small boat cruise. This on top of the knowledge that Hurtigruten's smaller boats can sail into many fjords (including the famous Trollfjord whose mouth is only 100 meters wide) and narrow sea passages that the larger cruise ships cannot.

Something else that I really like about the Hurtigruten ships are that they have an informal dress code, always.  Put another way: There are no formal dinner occasions on this cruise where people are required to dress up. Neither do the ships have casinos, live entertainment shows and the kind of things that those who go for conventional cruises consider attractions but both my mother and I had considered unnecessary distractions at best and elements that would put us off going on cruises at worst!
Basically, what we both had wanted -- and found on the MS Richard With -- were grand views of land along with water and sky; and we got that in spades courtesy of the ship almost never sailing out of sight of land, it being the midnight sun for the majority of the time that we were on the cruise, and there being loads of places on the boat from which we good get good views while seated as well as standing.  
Some people might think this state of affairs boring.  Worried that I might get bored at some point during the 12 days, I took three novels on board but ended up finishing only one of them!  Oh, and I didn't check my emails even once -- and probably was online catching up on the news and such for an average of just 10 minutes a day (and this even though the internet could be on the slow side, especially when we were sailing far from any big -- by Norwegian standards -- town or city)!
Something else that added considerably to the cruise experience and occupied quite a bit of our time were the chats we had with fellow passengers; and this even though 75 percent of the ship's passengers were Germans, many of them elderly and unable to speak English. For even so, we managed to communicate with some of them -- including on one uproarious occasion when much of the conversation between four elderly German ladies, their middle-aged friend, my mother and I ended up involving our shouting names of famous German footballers (with my mother chipping in with "Franz Beckenbauer" to the delight of the Deutsch crowd)!  
As for those who could speak English: in addition to a sprinkling of younger Germans, my mother and I also befriended people from Belgium, South Africa, the UK, the USA, Canada, Japan, Norway, etc.  And truly, I have to say that our fellow passengers on board the MS Richard With -- and also its friendly crew (composed entirely of Norwegians and Swedes, it seemed) -- did contribute quite a bit to making this cruise experience as thoroughly enjoyable as it was. :) 

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Culture and nature (and the supernatural?) in Bergen (Photo-essay)

On my first morning in Bergen (and, for that matter, Norway), I made my way to the entrance of the city's harbor, where lies the Bergenhus Fortress, some sections of which date back to the 13th century.  Later, my mother went along with me on the Fløibanen Funicular (which reminded us of both the Penang Hill Railway and Hong Kong's Peak Tram) up to 320 meter high Mount Floyen, and spent a lovely time walking around his scenic spot.

It was a beautiful day and very pleasant up on the most accessible of the seven mountains that surround the Bergen city center; and if we had known better, we'd have taken the funicular up but then hiked down.  Instead, we bought a return (AKA round-trip) ticket and got our exercise instead -- and some more fresh air -- by walking around the top of the mountain, including along a trail that led to a lovely lake in the area...

 Once the residence of the last king to hold court in Bergen,
the Rosenkrantz Tower was extensively modified under the rule of
16th century governor Erik Rosenkrantz, and currently houses 
exhibits on a variety of subjects, including an accused witch! :O

 From the roof of Rosenkrantz Tower, views can be had
of such as the 13th century Haakon's Hall, the oldest 
remaining section of the Bergenhus Fortress

 Mount Floyen and its funicular are landmarks which
add considerably to Bergen's beauty

There are grand views to be had while on the
Fløibanen Funicular, and also of it after
one gets up to the top of Mount Floyen

Click on the above photo to get an enlarged panoramic view
from atop Mount Floyen of a city located in beautiful surroundings

 Puppet Ponyo would like people to know that if they tear themselves
away from the mountain edge, they can find such as this lake
on which folks can canoe just a few minutes' walk away

Puppet Ponyo also was aquiver to find signs about witches 
(and trolls and dinosaurs too!) in the surrounding woods! :O

Still, rather than make haste to get down Mount Floyen,
we tarried at the edge of the mountain to drink in the scenic views
some more before finally returning to the city below :)

Monday, June 22, 2015

Norway's Bergen - and Bergen's Bryggen

A view of Bergen's Byrggen and the surrounding area

A more close-up look at the UNESCO World Heritage-listed
section of Norway's second largest city

A stroll along the Byrggen's narrow alleyways
offers up some more picturesque images

For some years now, I've wanted to visit the northern section of Western Europe known to English speakers as Scandinavia.  This even though I wasn't quite sure which countries counted as Scandinavian, and also what was the difference between that country grouping and that of the Nordic countries or states

What I knew though was that the greatest attraction as far as I was concerned were the fjords -- and after determining that Norway has the most, and most visually attractive, of these long, narrow inlets created by glacial erosion, the westernmost of the Scandinavian countries was where I headed to earlier this month (along with my mother).  More specifically, my mother and I went on a cruise that was proclaimed to be "the world's most beautiful voyage" that would take us through and past several thousand kilometers of scenic Norwegian fjords and coast, with the majority of the journey being spent up in the Arctic!

We arrived in Bergen (via Penang, Bangkok and Copenhagen) the day before the start of our cruise, as I figured it'd be best to give ourselves a day to overcome jet lag before going onto the boat that'd be our temporary home for 12 days and 11 nights.  Over the course of our first 30 hours or so in Norway, we also were able to do such as figure out how Bergen's properly pronounced (i.e., with a hard rather than soft "g") as well as check out a few of the town's sights.

On our first evening in Bergen, we found that even though it doesn't get "the midnight sun" due to it being located a few degrees south of the Arctic Circle, it still has daylight through to around 11pm.  So after dinner, I decided to go stroll about the parts of the city near our hotel -- which included the Bryggen, Bergen's old Hanseatic wharf.  

Initially, I had thought that the Bryggen consisted of just the few wooden buildings whose picturesque fronts prominently figure on many tourist-friendly photos of Bergen.  But while wandering about in the area, I got to realizing that those are but the tip of the iceberg, in that behind those buildings are many others that one can find and get to by walking through narrow alleyways.  And even when the shops, offices and other establishments which they continue to house to this day are closed, there still is quite a bit that's interesting to see in this historic section of Bergen which dates back to Medieval times.

On the face of it, the Bryggen's structures are on the modest side in size and decorative appearance -- and one may be moved to wonder whether there's some Eurocentric bias involved in having this on the UNESCO World Heritage list along with much larger historical areas like Georgetown, Penang, Macau's historic center, and Japan's Iwami Ginzan.  

The more on reads up on it though, the more impressive it starts to sound.  For one thing, there's its age -- since the Bryggen has been an integral part of Bergen since the Middle Ages.  Then there's it being so that while the wooden urban structures found in it used to be common all over northern Europe, that is no longer the case.  And even more unusually and notably is that though the buildings of the Bryggen are not all original (since some were burnt down in fires over the years and such), they have over the years been consistently rebuilt following traditional patterns and methods -- and stayed occupied and in use throughout.

Strolling about the area, I found restaurants and bars occupying the premises alongside souvenir shops (many of them selling Norwegian sweaters and other woolen wear along with troll kitsch and reindeer plushies!), craft stores and travel agents offices.  I also noticed quite a few Asian people walking around -- and was later told that the three top nationalities of tourists to Norway these days are Germans, Americans (many of whom have Norwegian ancestry!) and -- surprise, surprise -- mainland Chinese.  Re the last: I figured as much since upon arriving at Bergen's airport, I saw signs in four languages: Norwegian, English, and Chinese and Japanese!  

Sunday, June 21, 2015

On transit in Penang, Bangkok...and Copenhagen!

Not a sight one is likely to see in Hong Kong...

That's not the original little mermaid statue...
but it still should be easy enough to guess
where Puppet Ponyo had this photo taken! :)

For the better part of this month thus far, I've been traveling about and therefore not had time, inclination or -- at times -- ability to check my emails and blog.  This is a state of affairs that may freak out many people but, in all honesty, I'm fine with -- and could be said to even welcome -- my having periods of "digital detoxification".  (And before anybody asks: no, I still do not have a "smart" phone nor feel inclined to go get one.)

The eagle-eyed among you will have noted an addition to the Where in the world I've been to date map at the bottom of my blog's pages -- and that's indeed where I've spent the better part of the last three weeks or so.  But because my most recent holiday was with my mother and she wanted me to travel with her from Penang rather than meet up in the country where we'd be going on a cruise, I first went to Malaysia for a few days -- and it was indeed from Penang that she and I embarked on a journey that would involve three different flights and several hours of transit in first Bangkok and then Copenhagen before arriving in Bergen, Norway's second most populous city (despite having a municipal population of less than 280,000 people!).

Like Penang, Bangkok is not entirely new to me.  So rather than devote much of my transit time there to sightseeing, I arranged instead to meet up with old friends there.  But while the friend I met up with in the Thai capital city post Norway trip came over for lunch and drinks at the hotel that my mother and I had been put up at by Thai Airways, I ventured out of the hotel when I transited in Bangkok on the way to Bergen -- and ended up strolling around Lumpini Park as well as having dinner at another friend's nearby apartment.

A green oasis in the middle of an increasingly large concrete jungle, Lumpini Park has lovely green lawns, ponds where paddle boats shaped like swans can be rented out for a ride and areas where weightlifters and people into keeping fit can be found.  It's also home to a few statues (including of Rama XI) and shrines.  But what my friend thought was the park's star attractions were its resident  monitor lizards -- which, when in the water, can resemble crocodiles and alligators, and when partially hidden behind rocks, have parts which got me thinking they were snakes! 

Despite their appearance, my friend assured me that these monitor lizards are largely not harmful to humans.  Still, you don't want to be bitten by them because it's said that their saliva's so toxic it can kill people -- and at the risk of sounding like a fraidy cat, I think their stony stares can be rather frightening! 

In retrospect, I wish that my mother and I had arranged to spend more time in Copenhagen.  As it was, both our stops there to and from Bergen were not long enough to venture outside of the airport.  At the same time though, I felt like I did manage to get a taste of Denmark at that facility -- and not just because there's a replica of the Little Mermaid statue in Copenhagen harbor there (which Puppet Ponyo of course felt obliged to pose with since Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea was inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's tale)!

Among other things, Carlsberg beer and Lego sets were prominent at the airport.  Ditto re quite a bit of pinewood being used for the floors and walls of the building, and furniture about the place that screamed out "Scandinavian design!"  Then there were the many types of liquorice on sale -- with the salty versions looking to be quite a bit more popular than the sweeter kinds preferred in places like the US, Britain and New Zealand.

Incidentally, I asked a Swedish fellow who lives and works in Norway what it is with Nordic types and liquorice.  He said he had no idea but that it shocked him on his travels to other parts of the world when he went into supermarkets as well as convenience stores and often was unable to find even one kind of liquorice sweet on sale in them!  And yes, he knows to bring his own stash whenever he travels out of the Nordic region now...;b

Monday, June 1, 2015

Cheers to great beers and friendly company in Osaka! :)

At a place serving the nectar that's Minoh Beer once more!

More draft beer selections at Beer Belly 
than at the Minoh Beer brewery!

Puppet Ponyo was happy... 
that there's a glass of beer shorter than her! ;b

I'm not going to lie: after getting into Osaka the most recent time that I was there, checking into my hotel and availing myself of the assistance of the helpful tourist information office staff at Osaka Station, my very first destination was a branch of Beer Belly, a bar associated with Minoh Beer that was within walking distance of my hotel and Osaka Station.  But because I discovered that the bar doesn't open until 5pm (at least on weekdays), I went to Dotonbori to get some food at Daruma and then Takoume before returning for what turned out to be several nightcaps at the ji-biru (regional beer; i.e., craft beer or microbrew) joint!

Maybe if I hadn't had so much food in my stomach already, I wouldn't have ended up drinking as much beer as I did at Beer Belly.  In any case, I tried to be conservative by ordering half pints of beer each time -- but after drinking three half pint glasses worth of Minoh Beer's superb W-IPA, got to reflecting that it'd have been cheaper to have ordered one full pint glass along with one half pint worth of the beer rather than three separate orders of half pints!

Mindful of the W-IPA being 9% alcohol, I decided to have try the other beers (which are all 5% alcohol) first.  The very first beer I had at Beer Belly was one I had not tried before: Minoh Beer's Pale Ale. But although I generally prefer pale ales to stouts and IPAs, I actually prefer the two other styles of beer brewed by the microbrewery which I had tried last September when I went to the Minoh Beer brewery.  So I decided to go for the stout for my second glass of beer this time around and the W-IPA for my third half pint portion.

At the bar that evening, there were two versions of the W-IPA: the regular keg version, and the "real ale" version that was cask conditioned and was less fizzy.  At the risk of being labelled a beer Philistine, I must admit to liking the keg version more -- and that's what I decided to have for my fifth half pint glass rather than try another of the other beers on tap at Beer Belly (which *sob* included a seasonal imperial stout brewed by Minoh Beer until just a few days before I got there)!

Somewhere between my third and fourth beers, I got to chatting with a friendly couple sitting at the bar next to me.  Both engineers as well as Osakans, they also clearly were beer lovers who regularly spent evenings at Beer Belly.  Recently, they told me, the big Japanese breweries like Asahi had started brewing their own pale ales and such (rather than just the usual lager style beers).  But they just couldn't compare to the likes of those brewed by Minoh Beer.

Having ordered their beers by the pint and drank pretty quickly, my new female engineer pal was the first of us three to decide to call it a night.  After she told her partner she wanted to go home, one of the more amusing bouts of leave-takings I've been party to ensued -- with her not only shaking both my hands several times and telling me how happy she was to have met me but all three of us high five-ing each other a few times into the bargain!

Add in my experience at the Minoh Beer brewery on a previous visit to Osaka, one of the Beer Belly bartenders also having been eager to engage me in conversation and the jolly cook at Takoume earlier the same evening, and I am inclined to conclude that Osaka may well be the most foreigner friendly place in Japan; with people being more fluent in English -- or less afraid to make use of their English knowledge (which pretty much every Japanese has since they are taught it at school) -- than in many other parts of the country.  Coupled with the conversations I had often being punctuated with much laughter and good cheer, I really do think that Osaka's a great place to visit -- even if it may not have repositories of beauty like the Adachi Museum of Art, a UNESCO World Heritage-listed site like Iwami Ginzan, or sublime sunsets like Matsue's. :)