Sunday, July 29, 2018

View bonanzas off the beaten track on Victoria Peak and the edge of Victoria Harbour

High visibility day view from a hiking path situated on 
 Late afternoon view from the eastern edge 
Victoria Peak and Victoria Harbour are two well known Hong Kong landmarks and few visitors to the Big Lychee leave the territory without going up the former and taking a ride on the Star Ferry across the latter.  At the same time, however, I can't help but feel that tourists to Hong Kong are, more often than not, selling themselves short and failing to do these landmarks justice.  
In the case of the highest mountain on Hong Kong Island (but only the 31st highest in the whole of Hong Kong): far too many people mistakenly think that the only part of the Peak that's accessible to the public is the area around the Peak Tower.  As it so happens though, it isn't only some 150 meters below the summit of Victoria Peak but also happens to be the most crowded and therefore least attractive part of the Peak as far as I am concerned!
If people just ventured a few meters further away from what would be more accurately referred to as Victoria Gap onto Lugard Road, they'd find themselves on the northern edge of the Peak, and with easy access to green sights and panoramic vistas that most visitors to the area don't avail themeselves to.  And if they just went a little further off the beaten track by diverting west along Lugard Road to a little pocket park at the foot of High West before returning to Victoria Gap via Harlech Road, along what makes for an easy-to-follow Peak Circuit, they'd find that largely shaded path to be on the pleasantly quiet and peaceful side on most days.     
Part of me wonders whether it's wise to divulge this information as I must admit to loving that this part of the Peak has not been over-run by people.  But then I got to realizing that it's not as though this blog has hundreds of thousands of readers!  In addition, what I consider to involve just a bit of extra effort to get to may be deemed too out of the way by others.  Hence it being so that it's not just that few tourists venture to certain of what I consider to be really cool Hong Kong locales but that few Hong Kong residents do so too!
In the case of Victoria Harbour: most visitors to Hong Kong don't seem to realize that there are other cross-harbour ferries besides the Star Ferry and more places to walk along the harbour's edge than just the waterfront area near the Tsim Sha Tsui and Central ferry piers.  Alternatively, local shutterbugs tend to eschew those and, instead, make a beeline for spots on both the western and eastern edges of Victoria Harbour like the part of Kennedy Town known as Instagram Pier, the Sai Wan Swimming Shed further west of it, and the area in front of the Tin Hau Temple at Lei Yue Mun

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Welcoming shade and quiet on a hot summer day's Peak hike

The sun seems to be shining especially strongly these days...
 On a hot day, shade is really welcome
And yes, it's scary to think how much Hong Kong -- 
and the world in general -- would be with less greenery... :S
In many parts of the world (including territories as far apart as Canada, Algeria and Japan), heat records are being broken this July.  And although it hasn't been as horribly hot this month in Hong Kong as it was this past May, I've still had the air-con on most nights this July rather than be able to rely on the fan and breezes blowing through my open windows like I would prefer to.   
Another measure of how baking hot -- and humid -- it's been is that today, I felt a need to take not just one or even two but three showers to cool down and wash away the copious amount of sweat that I've been shedding for much of the day!  In addition, on a hike earlier this week, I was somewhat shocked to find that the temperature up on The Peak -- where I like to go to get some respite from the heat -- was not that much cooler than the parts of Hong Kong Island that were far closer to sea level.
As a consequence, even though visibility was high and the the skies were beautifully blue that day, I found myself enjoying being in the shadier sections of the hike -- where my views of the surrounding scenery were partly or even largely obscured by vegetation -- more so than those parts where I had clear views of the panoramic vistas that unfolded before and below me but were exposed to bright and frankly pretty intense sunlight!
Perhaps because it was a hotter day than many people liked, I encountered way fewer folks on the trail -- that took me from Victoria Gap down to the University of Hong Kong's Main Campus via the western edges of High West and Lung Fu Shan -- than is normal even for a weekday afternoon.  In particular, the section of the Hong Kong Trail leading from the Peak Circuit over to the pocket park below High West was particularly quiet that day.  Indeed, I'd go so far as to say that it was eerily empty of humans to the point that I could easily imagine myself to be much further away from civilization than actually was the case! ;b

Friday, July 27, 2018

Looking forward (with ticket in hand) to seeing Funassyi performing at the Charamel Splash Tour concert in Hong Kong! :)

My Charamel Splash Tour in Hong Kong concert ticket!

In the years since, Funassyi has kept on showing how musically inclined -- by doing such as forming a all-yuruchara band called Charamel) -- and also charitable it is.  But in both 2017 and 2018, the formerly globetrotting Pear looked to have lost its love for international travel.  So imagine my great surprise and excitement upon learning that it (along with the rest of Charamel) would be appearing in concert in Hong Kong this September 1st in what will be the group's first -- and hopefully by no means only -- Splash Tour stop outside of Japan!

I admit it: Part of me found this announcement so unbelievable that after the initial announced date for when one could get tickets for the concert got postponed by a couple of weeks, I got to wondering whether there really would be a Charamel concert in Hong Kong.  Then, when a second ticketing date was announced for the concert (little than a month before the scheduled musical event), I got to worrying that I would not be able to get my hands on ticket; this particularly after it became pretty clear that quite a few Funassyi fans from Japan were preparing to fly over to Hong Kong for the concert!

With ticketing scheduled to begin at 10am today, I was alerted to the fact that the relevant ticketing website already was "busy" at 9.30am.  Fully anticipating that it and the ticketing agency's phone lines would be jammed with Japan- as well as Hong Kong-based fans trying to get tickets for the concert, I made haste to head over to a ticketing outlet where I would be able to get a ticket from a staffer with access to the internal ticketing system (not accessible by members of the public) rather than just the external one that was effectively having a meltdown due to high demand.

Getting to the store five minutes after it officially opened for the day, I found myself in a queue behind two other people -- one of whom was taking her sweet time choosing which tickets to buy for another event.  After 10 stressful minutes of waiting, I finally got to the counter and found to my great relief that I was successful in making my purchase.  More than incidentally, the woman behind me in line this morning turned out to be a fellow Funatomo -- who told me that she had headed over to ticketing outlet after having had problems getting through to make a purchase over the phone.  

Since I now had a Charamel Splash Tour in Hong Kong concert ticket of my own, I was able to be happy for her -- and every other fellow fan of the Pear with the words "fun" and "ass" in its name(!) who has managed to secure tickets to the event.  What's more, I really would love for this concert to be a sold out affair -- even if this means that I will have to fight a whole bunch of people to get a prime seat on September 1st since there is a "free seating" arrangement in place for what I fully anticipate will be a super fun affair! ;b

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Like something out of a fairytale: Segovia's Alcazar (Photo-essay)

Earlier in my Spanish travels, I visited an alcazar in Sevilla which caused me to come down with a major case of tile envy.  Presented with another chance to visit an alcazar in Segovia, I grabbed the chance; this even though I knew full well that this particular complex actually is largely a reconstruction of the fortified palace that was one of the favorite residences of the monarchs of Castille (including the (in)famous Queen Isabella I who went on to marry King Ferdinand II of Aragon in Segovia and now lies next to him in Granada's Capilla Real) of in the Middle Ages that was burnt down in 1862.

My reason for this is that the Alcazar of Segovia is that its 19th century restorers appeared to have pulled out all the stops to (re-)create the kind of place that looked like it's come out of a fairytale.  Said to have be in the inspiration along with Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria's Schloss Neutschwanstein for the castles in Walt Disney's Magic Kingdoms, Segovia's fortified palace is a fascinating blend of Mudéjar and Gothic artistic styles.  And, unlike with Cordoba's Mezquita, I think the Muslim and Christian aesthetic elements actually go well together here! :)

Walk across the drawbridge over the moat to 
a place of visual wonder perched atop a huge bedrock! 

Some of the armory and weaponry on show
in the fortified palace

The thrones in the Alcazar may look rather modest 
compared to those found in Madrid's Palace Real...

 ...but a look up at the throne room's ceiling gives a clue that 
memorable visuals can indeed be found in this fortified palace!

In the Sala de Galeria (whose colorful moulded ceiling purportedly
resemblea an inverted ship hull) is a large mural of Isabella I being 
proclaimed Queen of Castile and León in Segovia's Main Square

Stained glass window whose central figure is
-- you guessed it! -- Queen Isabella I!

 The grand Hall of the Monarchs contains three-dimensional 
portraits of 52 rulers of Castile and León, and 7 queens 
So... fantastically fairytale-like enough for you? ;b

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Segovia's marvelous ancient Roman aqueduct

Roman aqueduct makes for quite the awe-inspiring sight
The Segovia Aqueduct is a truly monumental ancient structure
Puppet Ponyo posing in the vicinity of the 2,500 foot long and
100 foot high exposed section of the 2000-year-old aqueduct
Although I've yet to visit Rome (or, for that matter, any part of Italy), I've come across a fair number of Roman structures over the years while travelling in various places that used to be part of the ancient Roman EmpireIn England (where I spent a fair bit of my childhood), I was shown surviving fragments of London's Roman City Wall in the British capital, saw more Roman ruins in York (which was founded by the Romans in AD 71), visited the Roman Baths that gave Bath its name, and walked along sections of Hadrian's Wall in Carlisle.   
In Trier, Germany, I spent time atop a fortified Roman gate, amidst the ruins of imperial baths, inside the massive confines of what used to be an imperial throne room and exploring the site of a vast Roman ampitheater.  On a visit to Istanbul (during which the camera I had with me sadly went kaput on my first evening in that Turkish city), I came across the physically impressive Valens Aqueduct completed in the 4th century AD.  And in Segovia, Spain, I came across an even older watercourse constructed by the Romans, whose famous exposed section stands at the heart of the city and is the number one symbol of a wondrously picturesque old city.
An easy day trip from Madrid by bus or train, Segovia is one of those places I wish I could have spent more time in.  With not enough time to see and do everything that I had wanted to see and do in that beautiful historic city, I ended up giving one of its major attractions a miss -- even while being unable to resist spending quite a bit of time staring in awe at the large exposed section of its massive Roman aqueduct and admiring it from a number of different angles. 
There's no getting away from the monumentality and great age of the structure but what's also really amazing about the Segovia Aqueduct is that it functioned for so many long, providing water to the city for close to 2,000 years, from the first century AD through to the mid 19th century.  An engineering as well as architectural marvel, its incredible nature is further cemented upon realizing that the colossal granite blocks of the exposed bridge section of the aqueduct are joined without the use of mortar or clamps and are held together, instead, by balancing forces according to technical guidelines laid out by a Roman architect cum engineer in a guide he wrote in 15 BC!
On an aesthetic note: it's astounding that something so functional can also be so beautiful.  And when gazing at something like this, one can't help but think that certain of the ancients really could/can teach contemporary folks (including many architects and engineers) more than just a thing or two! 

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Rallying for freedom of expression and association in Hong Kong

An event I attended in Hong Kong yesterday

No, I do not support Hong Kong independence...

But yes, I do think that we should have freedom 

I've been out and about quite a bit this weekend.  Last night, I attended the screening of  In the Heat of the Night, a 1967 murder mystery set in small town Mississippi that's particularly notable for its intriguing depictions of race relations in the American South during the height of the Civil Rights movement; and earlier today, I viewed another film in the form of Pom Poko, Isao Takahata's anime with tanuki and environmental issues as its focus.  This afternoon, I also spent a couple of hours chilling out at this year's Lan Kwai Fong Beer and Music Festival.  Oh, and I took part in a rally for free speech yesterday afternoon too.

A pretty last minute affair (the first time I heard about it was on Friday afternoon), the protests were organized in the wake of the Hong Kong government threatening earlier this week to ban a political party and, in so doing, make it illegal to be a member of that party, act on its behalf and/or raise funds for it -- not for what the political party has actually done but what the authorities think that it will do so in the future.  Put another way: we're venturing into "thought crime" territory here; something which should happen only in the realms of "reel-ity" rather than real life, and should be very disturbing to people who value freedom of thought and speech as well as assembly and association.  

For the record: the political party threatened with the ban is the Hong Kong National Party; and no, I do not support its calls for Hong Kong political independence.  At the same time though, I don't think any political party should be banned just for thinking of, or advocating, Hong Kong political independence; this especially since it has not called for any violence to be enacted out in order to fulfill its dreams.  And considering how few supporters as well as members that party has (with it not being able to muster even 50 individuals to take part in yesterday's protests), I actually don't think the Hong Kong National Party poses a serious threat to the government of Hong Kong or China's national security.

So why was I out marching in the hot sun on the streets of Wan Chai and hang out for a time outside the Police Headquarters on 1, Arsenal Street, with a bunch of people, many of whom were among the most clean-cut protesters you'd see anywhere, yesterday afternoon?  Because I believe that now is the time to protest and that we better make use of the freedom that we currently have to do so in Hong Kong, otherwise it might be taken away, and sooner rather than later at that. :( 

Friday, July 20, 2018

Pigging out in the land of jamón! :b

They take their jamón really seriously in Spain...

Fancy this plate of jamón, cheese and toasted breadsticks? :b
How about this charcuterie and cheese platter? ;b
I love jamón.  Maybe not as much as Ponyo loves ham but trust me when I say that I love it plenty enough.  And part of me wanted to order it every time I saw it listed on the menu in a cafe, restaurant or bar when I was in Spain!  Amazingly, I was able to resist doing so.  And it probably was a very good thing too as jamón is served for breakfast as well as lunch and dinner in Spain!  
As it turned out, I did have jamón at breakfast, lunch and dinner in Spain.  But even while the temptation to do so did get stronger and stronger the closer I got to my departure from the country, I did manage somehow to amass sufficient will power to prevent there being an actual day when I had jamón at every single meal!
In so doing, I was able to try a good variety of dishes -- with some actually consisting of vegetables and seafoods rather than "just" some part of a land animal -- while I was in that Western European country whose people definitely do seem to have a particular love for pig meat.  Still, believe you me when I say that I truly did eat a lot of jamón in Spain -- and a good enough variety of it too, since I actually did go ahead and sample a good amount of the Prosciutto-like Jamón Serrano, the drier -- and tastier, as far as my tastebuds are concerned -- Jamón Ibérico, and also the super deluxe -- and deeply delicious -- Jamón Ibérico de Bellota while in the Land of Jamón! 
Incidentally, I found it interesting that it's really only the tourists who drink sangria in Spain -- with the locals preferring to drink tinto de verano if they do go for wine mixed with something (as opposed to straight wine or, even more popularly as far as I could see, beer) -- and that, outside of Valencia, paella tends to be ordered by foreign visitors to Spain rather than local residents but, on the other hand, jamón really does seem to be genuinely beloved by pretty much all Spanish people.  Consequently, one won't feel shamed when ordering it in Spain -- if one needs one more reason to unashamedly put away lots of it when there! :)

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The monumental complex that's Philip II's El Escorial (Photo-essay)

There were a number of places I visited in Spain in which indoor photography was forbidden in parts or even all of the interior spaces where the public was allowed to venture in to look around.  They included museums (including the most famous Spanish museological establishment of them all, the Prado) and places with royal connections, including the Capilla Real (Royal Chapel) in Granada, the royal palace in Madrid and the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Monastery and Site of the Escurial (aka El Escorial) built at the end of the 16th century at a time when Catholic Spain felt threatened by Protestant "heretics".

Conceived by the very religious King Philip II to serve as a royal residence but also house a school to embrace humanism in a way that promoted the Catholic faith, a beautifully decorated library (full of books written in Hebrew and Arabic as well as Latin scripts), a monastery(!) and a grand mausoleum for Spain's royal family(!!), El Escorial is an extremely large complex with 4,000 rooms, 1,200 doors, 2,675 windows and some 24 kilometers worth of passageways!  

All this nonetheless only hints at what can be seen within, which includes one absolute masterpiece of religious artwork in the form of Rogier van der Weyden's The Crucifixion along with more religious relics than I ever thought it would be possible to gather together and display in one place (El Escorial's Basilica) and also more royal remains assembled in one very cold and frankly pretty eerie series of sepulchre spaces than I ever cared to be in the presence of!  So maybe you should count yourself lucky that I don't have photographs of such places and items to share with you as well as be satisfied with the following picks of the images that I did manage to capture while there... ;b

 A picture which hopefully gives a sense of how enormous 
-- and also visually forbidding -- El Escorial is! 

El Escorial's gray granite stones and even grayer 
slate roof tiles make one want to call for a bit of color... 
so enter Puppet Ponyo into the frame! :b
Looking towards the front of the Basilica in the 
Peeking from the cloister through a chained gate...
.After thrusting my camera into the space, it caught this image!
A(nother) quiet space in the cloister
The ceiling fresco of that otherwise austerely decorated space :O
Outside again many hours later, I felt like I had only scratched the surface 
of this monumental complex which I'm amazed does not attract as 
many visitors as so many other lesser as well as smaller Spanish sites!

Monday, July 16, 2018

Recent disaster in, and some relief for, southwestern Japan

Canal scene in Kurashiki

Watery beauty in Okayama's Korakuen

View of the river from a prime seat at Hiroshima's Kanawa
Two Saturdays ago at Sake Bar Ginn, its Japanese owner (and my good friend) asked if I had heard about the floods and landslides besetting much of southwestern Japan.  I replied that I had read a report or two about the situation but it wasn't until days after we had that conversation that I got to realizing how bad things had gotten there.

The first inkling I received that this was a pretty serious calamity was when I checked the website of the Asahi Shuzo sake brewing company and saw a posted notice about a posted notice about the brewery and head office having suffered flood damage; this despite their being located up in the mountains!  Still, it wasn't until I saw a video showing the extent of the damage that was suffered by this major sake brewer, whose facilities had seemed so state of the art when I had the rare privilege of visiting them this past January, that  I got to getting a good sense of how major a disaster had struck.

The death toll having gone past 200 later in the week gave an even clearer picture of how grim the situation has been for the denizens of flood- and landslide-hit areas.  And the photographs of what the nation's worst floods and landslides in 36 years have wrought has made for heartbreaking viewing, especially if one feels a personal connection to that part of Japan -- which I have on account of my having spent time in a number of cities, towns and villages in the affected prefectures of Hiroshima, Okayama, Kyoto, Nara, Yamaguchi, Shiga, Hyogo, Gifu and Fukuoka.

The idea that Hiroshima, which already has gone through so much, could well have suffered further damage gets me wondering whether there really is justice in this world.  And it really would have been such a loss for humanity if beautiful places like the historical quarter of Kurashiki and the Korakuen in Okayama that's considered to be one of the three most beautiful gardens in Japan had suffered physical devastation.

So it's quite the relief to get confirmation today that the latter two areas have been undamaged (and I'm going to assume that no news is good news with regards to the more internationally famous sites in the area).  In addition, it's absolutely wonderful to learn about the donations that have been made for disaster relief -- including by a certain charitable Pear Fairy, as relayed by a fellow Funassyi fan who was present when the Pear announced that its appareance fee and sales proceeds of its goods at the recently concluded Nassyi Fes in Tokyo would go to help flood victims!

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Remembering Liu Xiaobo and freedom for Liu Xia!

You are not easily forgotten, Liu Xiaobo
In the months since the death of the man who loved her so, as will be clear to anyone who reads his moving I Have No Enemies essay, many people have worked to make sure that Liu Xia -- whose only crime, it seemed, had been to be married to the man she loved -- had not been forgotten.  As an example, at the July 1st march this year here in Hong Kong, people carried banners urging that Liu Xia be freed.  In addition, the plans for the vigil to mark the first anniversary of Liu Xiaobo's passing held near the city's government offices originally involved it being a rally directed at the Communist Chinese government calling for Liu Xia's release.
As it turned, however, plans for that July 13th event had to adjusted.  For on the same day (July 10th) as the world got the miraculous news that all 12 boys of a football (soccer) team and their coach had been rescued from the cave in which they had been trapped for some two and a half weeks, the arguably even more amazing news came of Liu Xia having been allowed to leave China to receive medical treatment in Germany!    
To be sure, Liu Xia is not entirely free to do and say whatever she wants (yet) since her brother, Liu Hui, is effectively being held hostage in China.  But the wide smile on her face in pictures taken after she arrived in Europe clearly show that Liu Xia is now in a far better place than she was just a few days before; and this, in turn, gives those of us who have taken part in campaigns to urge for her freedom renewed hope that political protests can lead to the achievement of our goals, however unlikely they can seem to come true until, well, they do! :)  

Friday, July 13, 2018

Nothing but praise for Madrid's Museo Arqueológico Nacional

Valuable ancient artifacts on display at Spain's 
The over 2,300 year old Lady of Elche may well be 
the best known object in the museum's collection
The museum has substantial collections of Ancient Greek artefacts
along with ones from Egypt and the Near East as well as Spain
The first place (besides my hotel!) that I spent a considerable amount of time in after arriving in Spain was a museum: to be precise, Madrid's Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza).  And the first place in Madrid that I made for after returning from my week-long Andalucian sojourn (which included visits to Cordoba, Sevilla and Granada) and re-checking into our hotel in the Spanish capital was the Museo Arqueológico Nacional.
Much less of a popular tourist attraction than the fine arts trio of the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Museo del Prado and Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, the archaeology museum with the wonderfully apt acronym of MAN was not at all crowded on the day that I visited it despite my doing so during a Saturday and entry to the museum being free from 2pm to 8pm.  To those who opted to exclude it from their list of sights to see when in Madrid, I'll say that it's very much your loss; this not least since this particular museological establishment actually turned out to be my favorite of all the ones I visited in the country!    
Founded in 1867 by Queen Isabella II, the Museo Arqueológico Nacional was envisioned to be one of those great national museums which would exhibit the nation's past (and connect it to ancient settlements that go back thousands of years).  Over the past 150 years or so of its existence, it has utilized a number of distinct exhibition designs; with the latest redesign having been completed as recently as 2013.

As would be expected of an educational institution whose most recent remodelling took place in the 21st century, this Madrid establishment incorporates user-friendly multimedia technology.  In view of its visitors appearing to be predominantly Spanish (and probably local Madrileños and Madrileñas at that), I was pleasantly to also see that both the more conventional and multimedia displays were accessible for speakers of English as well as  Spanish. 
Of course all this wouldn't count for all that much if the museum didn't also have some pretty historically interesting and visually impressive artefacts on display in its spacious exhibit rooms and halls.  Those for whom old is gold should note that the Museo Arqueológico Nacional's collection includes items that date back many thousands of years to prehistorical times.  And for those who are keen on checking out items made of gold and other precious metals (and/or studded with precious stones): suffice to say that the museum has plenty of those too (and not just restricted to gold coins too though the museum does indeed have quite the sizeable numismatic collection)!
Still, what actually bowled me over the most about this particular museological establishment is the sensitivity and intelligence of its curatorship as evidenced by the way in which it chose to intepret and present the country's past and, also, itself and its collections.  Among other things, I found it really insightful of the Museo Arqueológico Nacional to actually have exhibits explaining its history along with the history of the various peoples whose objects are on display in the museum as well as certain individuals who had prominent roles in acquiring certain collections for the museum (including Spaniards who conducted excavations in Egypt and other places outside their home country).
Something else I found interesting -- and on the unconventional side -- was that this archaeology museum had in its collections and displays not only items associated with pagan peoples and others who would consitute "The Other" in the eyes of many Spaniards but also Christian artefacts.  On a related note: I thought it rather bold and admirable that mention was made of the impact of the Spanish Civil War on the Spanish physical and cultural landscape, and the subsequent necessity for salvage archaeology to be undertaken in various parts of the country. 
In sum: I found the Museo Arqueológico Nacional to be a remarkably enlightened institution; one which is admirably contemporary and even forward thinking in terms of such as the methods it utilizes to educate its visitors about various ancient peoples and Spain's past, and also thoroughly humanistic in its philosophical outlook.