Thursday, June 30, 2016

A Kowloon Hills hike that included ascents up Lion Rock and Beacon Hill (Photo-essay)

Visitors to Hong Kong may think of Victoria Peak as being the most iconic of the territory's hills and mountains but for people who live here, Lion Rock is far more symbolically significant.  It's not for nothing, after all, that one of Hong Kong's most popular and emblematic Canto-pop songs is entitled Below the Lion Rock and that it's the anthem of a classic TV series about Hong Kongers with the same name.  

So it really felt like a big deal to finally hike up to the top of this hill even though it's "just" 495 meters high.  And although there's less symbolic significance in also having gone up to 457-meter-high Beacon Hill on the same hike, it actually made for a pleasant as well as scenic Kowloon Hills excursion to go all the way there from the foot of Tsz Wan Shan via Sha Tin Pass...

For the record: this hike really did begin close to 
a bus stop and behind a high density housing estate!
With construction not yet completed at Tsz Wan Shan
encounters sights like a holy statue behind construction barriers!
The upside of opting for this steep route is that one's soon up 
in the hills and able to take in splendid views of the land below :)
The climb up Lion's Rock is not for the faint hearted,
even along its clearly marked and most popular route :S

Still, many people do make it up to the very top 
of this iconic Kowloon hill :)

The trail between Lion Rock and Beacon Hill was
surprisingly quiet as well as enjoyable to go along
 Beacon Hill may not have the iconic status of Lion Rock but I still 
reckoned it was cool to finally get there and see what was up there :) 
Things being what they are, the views from Beacon Hill
(and the rest of the Kowloon hills) frequently aren't as clear as 
one would like -- but still reveal enough to be impressive

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Hong Kong helicopter services

Helicopters are a fairly common sight in Hong Kong
In places like Cheung Chau, they are used to transport 
the sick to a hospital across the waters
And out in the countryside, the Government Flying Service's
helicopters sometimes are called upon to do such 
as help with firefighting or rescue injured (or lost) hikers!
Maybe it's my imagination but it sometimes seems like there are more helicopters flying about in Hong Kong's skies these days than, say, two or three years ago.  The politically minded -- or just plain paranoid -- might suggest that this is a sign of there being increased surveillance taking place in the Big Lychee in the wake of there being increased opposition to the authorities; and I myself have suspected just that when seeing helicopters flying overhead on July 1st.
On a lighter note: more than one person I know has pointed out the existence of a helicopter service between Hong Kong and Macau (though none of my friends have ever thought to foot out HK$4,300 for the 15 minute ride!).  In addition, the wags among them never fail to muse that chances are high that many of those going from Hong Kong to Macau by helicopter end up not having enough money -- or, at least, not being in the mood -- to return on the same expensive mode of transportation.  Conversely, it would appear to be a sure sign that someone's won big at the gambling tables if he or she elects to make the return trip from Macau in a helicopter!
It's probably the case though that the majority of helicopters seen flying about over Hong Kong are actually carrying out more prosaic but more important business.  I think here of the helicopters utilized by the Government Flying Services to do such as act as air ambulances for residents of islands like Lamma and Peng Chau which don't have a hospital on them (and even Cheung Chau, whose hospital I get the distinct feeling is neither very big nor all that super well equipped) and help with fire fighting, especially of forest fires that break out during the dry season.
There also have been times when, upon spotting a helicopter flying in the area when out hiking, my hiking buddies and I get to wondering aloud if a hiker rescue effort was being undertaken.  And unlike with the commercial helicopter rides between Hong Kong and Macau, I actually do personally know of people who needed to avail themselves of emergency helicopter rescue services while out hiking in Hong Kong's wild outdoors! ;S   

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The artistic in the everyday in Hong Kong?

A sign that's renovation in progress, Hong Kong style!

A building waiting to emerge from its cocoon
looking all refreshed, like its neighbor ;)

More than once when moving around in Hong Kong, I've been reminded of something an artist friend once told me: i.e., that it can feel hard to compete artistically with what's considered everyday by local folks.  There are times when his words come to mind when beholding beauty in nature (be it in the form of natural formations, flowers, birds or bugs).  But I actually remember him specifically talking about human-made objects that could be easily mistaken for installation or "found" art but actually were around for fairly mundane reasons -- and there are indeed occasions when glancing around Hong Kong's urbanscape that I definitely see what he means!

Take, as an example, the bamboo scaffolding used here in Hong Kong -- but few other places in the world -- which, with its attendant nylon wrappings (used to ensure that debris doesn't fall onto the nearby streets), could easily be mistaken for the work of Christo and Jeanne-Claude.  I wouldn't be surprised if every camera-totting tourist to the Big Lychee comes away with at least one photo of these temporary structures that spring up at construction sites and wrap around buildings whose exteriors require renovating.  (After all, I took my share of such pictures in the years when I was a visitor here rather than a resident!)  

Even after spending years living in Hong Kong, they -- and the spiderman-like workers who construct and clamber about them -- remain a source of wonder to me. However visually astounding the bamboo scaffolding and associated nylon mesh or sheets that wraps around building exteriors are to look at from the street (or nearby buildings) though, I do count myself very fortunate that I've not had to live in a building when it actually had the scaffolding and wraps all over it.  

Among other things, whatever views you have from your window and sense of privacy you have while inside your apartment would be missing for weeks, if not months.  So even the thought that your cocooned building will emerge stronger as well as better looking after that work's done -- or that it looks like a large-scale art work -- may seem like scant consolation during that renovation period which also would be undoubtedly pretty noisy!

Monday, June 27, 2016

A hike that began in bright sunshine but only ended after dark! (Photo-essay)

As the temperatures rise during the hot summer months, a number of folks in Hong Kong take to hiking in the late afternoon and even after dark, when it gets to a few degrees cooler than at midday.  I, on the other hand, am one of those people who tries to avoid being on a hiking trail after the sun goes down -- and consider it a good thing that, to date, the number of times that I ended a hike that began in bright daylight only after it got dark is not more than five!

Fortunately, each time this has happened, my party actually had finished the most difficult part of the trek.  Even so, it really is such a relief when one reaches a section of trail close enough to a village to see lights shining from within the houses and know that, more often than not, transportation back to the city also is nearby...

The sun was shining and the sky was blue when 
we hiked along the early, ascending portion

As ever, it was well nigh impossible to not pause at various points

If nothing else, looking back at how far one already 
has climbed can make one feel encouraged... encouragement is what one could do with when
faced with still more kilometers of hilly trails that day ;)

get a bite to eat, something to drink, or just rest for a bit
like the cows who like to gather in the area

Man is dwarfed by nature in this part of the Big Lychee

While struggling through a section of trail that was more challenging 
than had been anticipated, we saw shadows lengthen and the landscape 
darken -- but still couldn't help admiring the beauty of it all! :O

It was pretty dark by the time we got to Pak Sha O but we still 
couldn't resist snapping shots of the picturesque village all the same! :)

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Sadao Yamanaka's Priest of Darkness is no horror show (movie review)

Priest of Darkness features an early screen appearance
by the late Setsuko Hara

Priest of Darkness (Japan, 1936)
- Sadao Yamanaka, director and co-scriptwriter (along with Shintaro Mimura)
- Starring: Chojuro Kawasaki, Kanemon Nakamura, Shizue Yamagishi, Setsuko Hara, Daisuke Kato
Its English title makes it sound like it'd be a horror flick but Sadao Yamanaka's Priest of Darkness actually is a jidaigeki (period drama) based on a kabuki play by Mokuami Kawatake.  One of only three out of the 26 or so films directed by Yamanaka that have survived destruction (on the orders before 1945 of the Japanese government, and after World War II by General Douglas MacArthur), it was made in 1936: one year before the filmmaker revered by the likes of Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa was drafted into the Imperial Japanese Army; and two years before his death in a field hospital in what was then Japanese-ruled Manchukuo when he was just 28 years of age.  
The oldest Japanese film I've ever seen harks back to even older times, seeing as it's set in a feudal Japan where samurai -- both those with a master, and ronin -- roam the streets of a city where dirt covered roads are more the rule than paved ones, and the loss of a prized sword could get a man to contemplate suicide.  An ensemble piece with a convoluted plot, it's not the easiest of films to follow -- not least because it looks to have some frames missing at various points -- but has some interesting characters whose paths intersect in ways that contemporary urbanites can well understand.
The Japanese title of Priest of Darkness (also) is the name of the story's main character, Kochiyama Soshun (Chojuro Kawasaki).  Dressed as a priest when he first appears in the film, Kochiyama actually is a professional swindler -- while Oshizu (Shizue Yamagishi), the woman he shacks up with, runs a gambling joint on the upper floor of her home and a bar on the ground floor.  
Among the patrons of the gambling joint is Hirotaro, an immature ne'er-do-well who gets himself into particular trouble after he steals a samurai's tanto (short blade) and trying to elope with a geisha.  With their parents presumably deceased, Hirotaro's elder sister, Onami (Setsuko Hara) tries as best as she can to be her brother's keeper.  But even with the help of Kochiyama and a ronin named Kaneko (Kanemon Nakamura), the best of whose nature she manages to bring out, she finds it hard-going; especially after the innocent seller of sweet sake inadvertently triggers the jealousy of another woman.     
Just 16 years old when she appeared in Priest of Darkness, Setsuko Hara acquits herself well in a cast that consists of mainly older and more experienced thespians, some of whom were members of the left-wing Zenshin-za theatre troupe that the Japanese authorities didn't approve too much of.  Even when in uncharacteristic period garb and a big wig, she's immediately recognizable; possessing an air and luminosity that lights up every scene she's in and incredibly adept at portraying the kind of woman that most men (and some women) would not hesitate to admire, trust and go to the assistance of!
Consequently, despite her part being not all that big, I can totally understand why this film -- and, for that matter, The End of Summer -- was included in the HK Cine Fan's ongoing tribute program to the late actress.  Put another way: this is a good pick to show that, like just about the only other actress whose charismatic presence has bowled me over even more than Setsuko Hara, she looked to have to be one of those thespians with natural talent that was apparent pretty much from the start.   
On a more general note: I'm also grateful to this film for introducing me to the talents of a bunch of other folks whose existence I have to confess to not having previously been aware of.  And while it's saddening to find out, even so many years after the fact, what happened to Sadao Yamanaka and the majority of his cinematic output, it is actually pretty cool to discover that there are pretty watchable pre-Second World War Japanese movies still available to be seen -- and that they can contain expressions of laudable humanity rather than alien hatreds.
My rating for this film: 7.5

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Nature's -- and humanity's -- beauty shines through despite the polluting efforts of some miscreants

Iridiscent clouds over Hong Kong this morning!

With natural world being so beautiful, it really feels 
such a shame when humans dirty it up

See how much nicer that same beach looks 
after it's been (largely) cleaned up?

"Give a hoot -- don't pollute!"  That was a lesson I learnt as a kid from Woodsy Owl, the owl icon for the United States Forest Service who would appear in comic books which starred his friend and fellow environmentalist, Smokey the Bear (whose own trademark message was "Only you can prevent forest fires!"). 

And as I gazed out at the garbage floating in the waters of Hong Kong, and also the rubbish strewn on the beach at Chi Ma Wan where I've been regularly venturing to with some others to help clean up this morning, this now adult got to wishing that Woodsy Owl's exhortations had been communicated to -- and impacted -- far more people all over the world.  Instead, it often can seem like too many individuals and corporations really don't seem much concerned at all if the planet in which we live gets more and more polluted by the day, hour, minute and even second.

In all honesty, there really do seem to be too many people out there who have not been taught to care about the Earth -- or, worse, have had the message imparted to them but still just really don't give a damn.  For me, it can be such a crying shame, especially when I'm presented with evidence of how beautiful nature is/can be when humans don't foul it up.

Probably due in no small part to today being another mega scorcher, the number of volunteers for this month's beach clean-up was less than half that of the previous two months.  Once again though, we looked to have made some difference against the odds -- in that the beach we set ourselves to cleaning-up this morning actually did look noticeably less strewn with plastic containers and utensils, glass bottles and tubes, toothbrushes, ballpoint pens, broken pieces of styrofoam and such just a few hours -- and lots of amount of sweat shed! -- later.  

Even though it couldn't approach the beauty of the iridiscent clouds we spotted earlier this morning, I still do feel glad to have played some part in helping make the beach look a good deal better than before we stepped foot on it today!  And as much as seeing pollution makes me inclined to lose faith in humanity, discovering that there actually are people out there who are willing to volunteer time and effort to help clean up messes that they didn't create can make me feel that all is not lost just yet!   

Friday, June 24, 2016

A fun misty day hike from Route Twisk to Ho Pui! (Photo-essay)

The past couple of weeks or so has seen Hong Kong experiencing furnace-like heat.  Consequenly, even though the skies have been beautifully bright and visibility's been on the super high side, few people consider it to be an ideal time to go hiking -- and many folks reckon that those of those of us who continue to hike through the summer to be on somewhat certifiable!  

Ironically, many of the same people who refuse to hike when it's super hot also won't venture into the country parks on cool but misty (though not actually super rainy) days.  But even though it can put a damper on my photo-taking activities, I've still been known to go out hiking on low visibility days; and as it so happened, the two friends with whom I trekked along a familiar trail that took us from Tsuen Kam Au on Route Twisk to Ho Pui one misty -- foggy, even -- afternoon were in agreement with me that it actually was a fun excursion, with the exercise we got and conversations we had along the way compensating for cool sights to spot being thinner on the ground than usual -- though still not completely missing -- that day! ;b

Would you venture into the woods on an afternoon
that looked like this? ;b
I guess it'd depend on whether you find sights 
like this creepy -- scary even -- or cool... ;)
The country park authorities can seem like they're
trying to up the scare quotient but I think it's really just
that they mixed up "beware" with "be aware" there ;D
 Also, when you hear what sound like gun shots while out
hiking in Hong Kong, it's most likely because you're close to 
a war game center rather than anything genuinely worrisome!
In this Gulf War area, the weapons of choice are
My group elected to hike on rather than "fight",
and enjoy peaceful spots in the country park like this

Hike's end at the village of Ho Pui (And no, 
this time, we didn't go by the nearby reservoir) 
If there hadn't been dates on them, I'd have guessed that
these houses were older than they in fact are!

Thursday, June 23, 2016

A quality -- and good value -- meal in a 24-hour sushi restaurant!

Would you go to a 24 hour sushi place?
The wonderful tuna sashimi platter I had there :)

Feast your eyes on this succulent slice of abalone sushi! :b
It's a measure of how much more there is to Japanese food (particularly in Japan, where regional foods abound) that although I love sushi (and sashimi) very, very much, it wasn't until the fourth evening of my recent Japan trip that I ate a meal that consisted entirely of sushi, and only after I got into Tokyo that I dined in specialist sushi-ya.  And it's probably a measure of how much good -- sometimes even great -- sushi and sashimi I regularly get to eat in Hong Kong (as well as on my visits to the Land of the Rising Sun) that only one of the three sushi (and sashimi) meals that I ate in Japan this time around truly satisfied.
Looking back, I should have ordered tempura rather than sushi at the restaurant I had dinner in on the one evening that I spent in the mountain castle town of Matsumoto since the former -- rather than the latter -- was its house speciality.  On the other hand,  I should have been able to expect quality sushi at Ichiba Sushi; not least because it's located within Tsukiji's Jonai Shijo (Inner Market) and is one of the Tsukiji sushi-ya recommended on Yukari Sakamoto's Food Sake Tokyo blog.  But that Tsukiji sushi-ya -- particularly, I reckon, the sub-par uni it served me -- not only disappointed taste-wise but actually gave me an upset stomach that required me to run over to use a toilet less than half an hour after finishing my meal!
Thankfully though, my third and final sushi meal of the trip -- and, in fact, my final meal in Japan before I returned to Hong Kong -- was the kind that made me very happy psychologically as well as satisfied physically.  And the amazing thing was that it was at a 24-hour restaurant just a few minutes walk away from the Shinjuku hotel that I stayed in this time around!
The first few times I walked by Kizuna Sushi, I had my doubts about the place.  As snobby as it sounds, it actually looked too bright and tourist-friendly to seem like it could serve quality sushi and sashimi to me!  But every time I looked through its windows, be it morning, afternoon, evening or late at night, I would see that the restaurant had customers -- and from the looks of it, many of the customers looked Japanese rather than obviously foreign.  And after I decided that I did in fact want to have sushi once again for the final meal of my trip and wanted to pick what I was going to eat rather than opt for omakase (as would invariably be the case at a high end sushi-ya), I decided to give this 24-hour eatery a try.
Despite Kizuna Sushi offering bargain lunch sets, I decided to splurge by ordering a la carte -- and also treating myself to some junmai daiginjo to go with the food.  First, I started with sashimi: specifically, a platter of three different grades of tuna (maguro): akami (the reddest looking meat in the photo at the top of this blog), chu-toro (the medium looking meat in the same photo) and o-toro (the meat in the photo that looks light pink with white stripes).  Next up was a few slices of sushi, including one each of awabi (abalone) -- something that's not often seen on Hong Kong sushi restaurant menus -- as well as uni (sea urchin) and ikura (salmon roe), two of my very favorite varieties of sushi.
Finally, I had a cooked dish of tsubugai (whelk), which I also do love as sashimi but thought it'd be interesting prepared in a way that I hadn't previously tried before.  If I had had more room in my stomach, I'd have gone for sazae (horned turban), a shellfish I like served raw but like even more when cooked (particularly tsuboyaki, in its shell).  Sadly, however, I decided that I'd have to save ordering that for another time when I was in a place with that on the menu.
While this final meal before I headed to Narita airport to catch my flight back to Hong Kong was definitely of the splurge variety, its price was easily about a third of what I'd have paid if I had had the same meal in a sushi restaurant in Hong Kong that was good -- and specialist -- enough to offer those items.  And, actually, I reckon that's true in general of the meals I have (had) in Japan: i.e., even in Tokyo (which one can expect to be more expensive than the rest of the country), they are always a good deal cheaper than what I'd be paying in Hong Kong for food that's the equivalent both in terms of quality as well as quantity!

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Pukka Hello Kitty spottings in Japan! ;)

Your eyes are not deceiving you -- those are indeed
Hello Kitty-themed construction barricades! ;b
Spotted at a post office in Shinjuku: a variety of
Hello Kitty-themed postage stamps! :)
As regular visitors to this blog know, I enjoy making Hello Kitty spottings as much as I do wild critter spottings.  So it shouldn't be too much of a surprise to find out that one of the things I like about being in Japan is that I almost invariably will catch sight of Kitty Chan's visage at least once every day that I'm in the country where the headquarters of Sanrio, Hello Kitty's parent company, are located; and this without my having to do such as head over to Sanrio Puroland over in Tama Center (although I have indeed voluntarily done precisely this before).
Somewhat surprisingly though, my feeling is that I see more people wearing Hello Kitty-themed clothing in Hong Kong (the city with the same initials as the cute cat character) than in Japan itself, especially Tokyo (where it seems that people tend to eschew wearing clothing without any images on them, even when they're in casual attire).  And despite my having read of Funassyi's great popularity in recent years, I still was taken aback at having caught sight of the pear fairy from Funabashi's visage before Kitty Chan's on this recent Japan trip.  
For the record: my first Funassyi sighting of this recent Japan trip came on the first day and came in the form of stickers someone not official had stuck on an escalator in Tokyo Station!  In contrast, everything I saw on this trip that bore the image of Hello Kitty was pretty pukka; with Kitty Chan being at her most official when helping keep roadside construction sites safe over by Shinjuku Station and being featured -- along with a few other Sanrio characters -- on Japanese postage stamps on sale at the country's post offices.
Although I've encountered kawaii construction barriers before in Japan, I must admit to still doing a double take when I came across those rows of Hello Kittys by the roadside over in Shinjuku one evening. And what made the whole thing funnier for me was how pretty much everyone else who passed by them treated them like it was the most natural thing in the world for them to be there.  Put another way: I seemed to be the only person gawking at -- and snappying photos -- of them!
As for the Sanrio-themed postage stamps: I guess I should have known better but I just had to get a Japan Post staff member to confirm that they're indeed real stamps rather than mere decorative stickers before purchasing a set -- not to use, of course, but "just" as a cool as well as kawaii souvenir! ;b

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

A visit to Mito's Kairakuen -- one of the three great gardens of Japan (Photo-essay)

On the seventh day of my recent Japan trip, I continued taking advantage of the excellent value JR East Nagano-Niigata Area Pass by embarking on a day trip to Mito.  Food-wise, the capital city of Ibaraki prefecture is known for natto (the fermented soybeans that many foreigners find repulsive), chestnuts (like at Obuse) and plums (which supplied the flavor for the serving of soft serve ice cream I had while there!).  But while I like all those things just fine, Mito's main attraction for me really was its Kairakuen; and not just because I figured that taking in some fresh air in beautiful green surroundings might be a good thing to do after my epic evening at Sasagin!

Constructed in 1842 on the orders of Tokugawa Nariaki, the then lord of the ruling Mito domain, Kairakuen is considered to be one of the three great gardens of Japan along with Kanazawa's Kenrokuen and Okayama's Korakuen.  If truth be told: I wouldn't rank Mito's Kairakuen among the top three most beautiful gardens I've visited in Japan; with Takamatsu's Ritsurin Koen and Yokohama's Sankeien as well as the Kenrokuen and Korakuen having blown me away more aesthetically. 

But, then, I didn't visit in early spring, when the flowers of all 100 different types of plum trees grown at Kairakuen are in bloom.  And any time of the year, this 13-hectare attraction has few -- if any -- equals in terms of its sheer size.  Also, I do love that, unlike most of the other famous -- and even less famous -- gardens in Japan, there's no admission charge for what's still a pretty pleasant as well as spacious place to stroll around and take in some enjoyably scenic views out of season...

Near the Kairakuen's Higashimon (East Gate) lies 
Tokiwa Jinja, a Shinto shrine dedicated to 
two Mito feudal lords, including Kairakuen's founder

 The view from the area of the Kairakuen accurately marked 
on the map as "Grounds with a nice view" ;b

Within the Kairakuen can be found a reconstructed -- 
but historically rich -- three-storey wooden building known as 
the Kobuntei (which does charge a small entrance fee)

An appreciative Puppet Ponyo would like it to be known that 
the original structure was built at the same time as 
Kairakuen's inception and served as an aristocratic villa

Completely burnt down as a result of an aerial attack
at the tail end of the Second World War, it was rebuilt
years later and looks glorious now

Within the vast expanse that's the Kairakuen
is an aesthetically impressive bamboo grove

 A pair of interesting looking birds hop about
in the shade of some of Kairakuen's many plum trees

 The Kairakuen may not be a traditional Japanese stroll garden
but it's still really pleasant to wander around nonetheless! :)