Eurotrip Day 95 – 96: Abu Dhabi

Like Dubai, but with worse shopping malls

The capital city of the United Arab Emirates has more in similar with Dubai than it has differences.

And so, its a city that I hate as well.

I hate the wide ten-lane roads built for cars.

I hate their excessive use of water to hydrate all those plants in their lush parks and gardens.

I hate the disconnect between the rich, minority Arabs and the poor, majority Indian foreign workers.

I hate the sweltering desert heat and that distinctive, slightly charred smell in the air (is it so hot that even the sidewalk is smoldering?)

I hate it that they have almost zero public transportation.

I hate their dull fast food and staid, expensive restaurants.

According to CNN, this is the richest city in the world. Abu Dhabi’s oil reserves are estimated to last till way beyond the year 2100. In other words, they can continue building garish glass skyscrapers, ten-lane roads and meaningless theme parks like “Ferrari World”, fill the desert with hundreds of water-sucking fountains and import thousands of foreign workers from the Indian subcontinent and the Philippine archipelago to construct all this grandeur. 

What are we going to do with so much money?

I mean, there’s only so many ten-lane roads and skyscrapers they can build.

So…

Here comes the prestige projects like yes, Ferrari World. Saadiyat Island is their latest mind-blowing, opulent project. The island is going to be called Cultural City, and will feature a bunch of museums and cultural institutions. I really don’t understand this love of building self-contained but otherwise disconnected and disparate mini-cities. To me, its just poor urban planning. 

The entire project will cost billions and feature more reclaimed waterfronts, more spewing fountains, more parks that look almost tropical-like in their lushness, and of course, more shopping malls. Emirati-style, of course, which means its likely to be populated with luxury brands for the conspicuous consumption of the rich locals, and staffed to the brim with Indian security guards and Filipino store assistants.

Oh no, Dubai is overtaking us

The UAE is really more of a federation than a country. When I was in Abu Dhabi, which owns over 10% of the world’s known oil reserves, I read of foreign workers in another emirate, Sharjah, suffering electricity cuts to their dormitories and flats. Yeah, you heard it right, electricity cuts in a country that has too much oil.

And of course, everyone has heard of that famous episode when Dubai finished building the tallest building in the world and suddenly found themselves in trouble of defaulting on the international market. Their rich neighbour Abu Dhabi steps in with a guarantee, and suddenly, the name of the tallest building is changed from Burj Dubai to Burj Khalifa. Khalifa, of course, is the name of the current ruler of Abu Dhabi.

Everyone thinks that the capital of the UAE is Dubai, of course (its actually Abu Dhabi). The name "Abu Dhabi" just doesn't have the same cachet to it. It seems like they are in the middle of a spending spree to reassert their wealth and status. CNN has its Middle East headquarters in Abu Dhabi, and they are keen in transforming themselves into a “hub of hubs”. Yeah, they want to be a business hub, financial hub, cultural hub, artistic hub, hub of the Middle East, aviation hub, shipping hub… Oh man, that actually sounds a lot like Singapore, yeah?

In response to Dubai’s 7-star Burj Al-Arab hotel, Abu Dhabi built the Palace of the Emirates, also a 7-star hotel. What does it mean to be a 7-star hotel? I'd always thought that the number of stars were capped at 5. The Palace of the Emirates was ridiculously opulent and lavish. It had a long driveway, huge spacious lobbies in which you feel slightly afraid to move around in fear that you are dirtying their polished marble floors, and a ratio of what felt like 10 staff members to every guest. They also have a private beach, numerous swimming pools and a butler for every room. The ultimate winner? A gold bar vending machine in the lobby, where you can feed all your spare thousand-dollar notes into and watch a real gold bar pop out. Just the perfect souveniour for those folks back home.

Good Old Expat Life

I stayed with an expat in Abu Dhabi, Florent from France. He’s a pretty cool guy, and I got to see expat life through his eyes. Abu Dhabi isn’t the most interesting city, but Florent seems to like it a lot. Alright, I’m going to lay off my attacks on the city for a bit. The weather may be sweltering but at least its good enough to go to the beach everyday. It seldom rains, and there are always clear blue skies stretching overhead, a rarity in cloudy Singapore.

Another plus is there's also lots of beach activities and desert activities around Abu Dhabi. Florent and his French friends in Abu Dhabi seem to enjoy these a lot on weekends. And on weekdays, they meet each other frequently after work, and hang out in hotel bars (sadly, the only place where you can drink legally in the UAE) or have dinner together.

The best part of the expat lifestyle? Florent gets an apartment and a car with the job. This apartment is no ordinary flat – its located on the top floor of a sixteen-storey building, with fine views of the corniche and the sea. It has three toilets, a huge living room and plenty of rooms. By the way, Florent is only 23 years old - he graduated from university the previous year, and is living alone in Abu Dhabi. If such a young, inexperienced guy already gets these perks, I can’t imagine what life must be like for a middle-aged expat.

Well, I guess they need to offer people attractive remuneration packages to get them to come to a place like Abu Dhabi.

Ahhhhh… Japan.

Came back from a 56-day trip Japan a little more than a week ago, and I’ve been typing some recollections and reviews of destinations which I've also posted on this blog.

To me, Japan wasn’t foreign - it felt kind of familiar actually, probably because the geography and architecture has the same kind of ‘East Asian look’ like Korea or Taiwan and the fact that I’ve heard so much about the culture already.

But to me, Japan is a really endearing country. There have been countless moments during the trip when I just look at what’s happening before me and take a deep breath and say to myself yet again: I could live here. Those instances include: yet another touching and friendly (and occasionally wacky) encounter with a local, listening to the salespeople speak very quickly in honorific language with its very long verb endings, reading the kanji or kana or signs and advertisements and realising that I actually understand what they’re saying most of the time, hearing the Osaka soba seller shout ‘irashai!’ and ‘ookini!’ in that gruff Kansai dialect, taking in the hustle and bustle of Tokyo’s numerous busy subway stations, slurping down a tasty bowl of ramen, relaxing in a hot spring bath in winter, meeting friendly university students in Kanazawa, sitting in a JR train and looking out of the window……

Yes, I could really live here. I guess Japan has really grown on me, all its quirks, idiosyncrasies and above all, the politeness and warmth of its people.

Here’s an overview of my trip itinerary:

16 Dec Arrive in Tokyo 
17 Dec – 19 Dec Tokyo 
19 Dec Hakone 
20 Dec Kawaguchiko 
21 Dec – 23 Dec Tokyo 
24 Dec Disneysea, stay in Tokyo 
25 Dec Nikko 
26 Dec – 27 Dec Tokyo 
28 Dec Magome, Kiso Valley 
29 Dec Tsumago, Kiso Valley 
30 Dec – 6 Jan Kyoto 
7 Jan Uji 
8 Jan – 11 Jan Osaka 
12 Jan Nara 
13 Jan Takayama 
14 Jan Shirakawago, stay in Kanazawa 
15 Jan – 16 Jan Kanazawa 
17 Jan Himeji, stay in Hiroshima 
18 Jan Hiroshima 
19 Jan Miyajima, stay in Hiroshima 
20 Jan – 21 Jan Fukuoka 
22 Jan Beppu, stay in Fukuoka 
23 Jan Mt Aso and Kumamoto, stay in Fukuoka 
24 Jan Huis Ten Bosch and Nagasaki, stay in Fukuoka 
25 Jan Fukuoka 
26 Jan Sapporo 
27 Jan Otaru, stay in Sapporo 
28 Jan – 29 Jan Sapporo 
30 Jan Tomamu, stay in Kushiro 
31 Jan Kawayu Onsen 
1 Feb Abashiri, stay in Asahikawa 
2 Feb Asahiyama Zoo, stay in Sapporo 
3 Feb Toya and Onuma, stay in Hakodate 
4 Feb Hakodate 
5 Feb Tokyo 
6 Feb Yokohama, stay in Tokyo 
7 Feb Tokyo 
8 Feb Depart Tokyo

Yokohama: Great Bay Views

Yokohama is just a short distance from Tokyo, and from Shibuya, it takes just 25 minutes and Y260 to get there by the Tokyu Toyoko Line.

Trains run all the way to Minatomirai station, and just a short walk away from the station is the beautiful bay area where I spent a gorgeous Saturday evening.

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The main vantage point is the International Passenger Cruise Terminal, which is a stunning building by itself, with its undulating wooden sky terrace.

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This is how the interior of the cruise terminal looks like:

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There's a great view from the open-air sky terrace, where I saw a beautiful sunset over the port and skyline in the distance.

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Matsumoto: Castle and City

First stop after leaving the Greater Tokyo Region on 28th December: Matsumoto, primarily to see one of Japan’s three famous castles, Matsumoto Castle.

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It’s about a 20-minute walk from the station to Matsumoto Castle, and though the backpacks were weighing heavily on our backs, we went ahead anyway.

The impression I got on my short stopover in Matsumoto is that of a neat, clean and prosperous small city surrounded by mountains.

The city is dotted with small gardens and parks, and there’s a remarkably spacious and wide feeling that had been absent for so long in Tokyo.

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There’s even a picturesque stream running through downtown, lined with grassy banks on either side. Nothing compared to the impressive Kamo-gawa river in Kyoto, but at that point I felt this really lent a touch of nature to the city and added much lushness and greenery to it.

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The street approaching the castle is lined with large Japanese flags, which led me to immediately think about the horrors Japan committed during World War II. Somehow, probably because of National Education in Singapore, whenever I see a Japanese flag, I’m reminded of the atrocities during the war, never mind that my parents weren’t even born then…

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As you can see from the picture, Matsumoto is a very clean, quiet and lovely city.

The castle area is picturesque and clean, and is surrounded by a city park. The castle is separated from the park by the castle moat.

The park:

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The park surrounds the castle and has a nice walking path that allows you to admire it from many different angles.

Matsumoto Castle has been designated a national treasure of Japan.

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Having seen quite a few castles during my trip to Japan, I can honestly say that Matsumoto-jo is the smallest of them all. But despite its small size, it is one excellent gem of a castle, because of its unique dark architectural features, and its magnificent setting, surrounded by a beautiful moat and the mountains of the Japan Alps in the distance.

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This is a castle that doesn’t have very steep fortified stone walls – notice how shallow the moat appears to be, without much of a wall on both banks to keep out invaders, unlike Osaka or Kumamoto Castle.

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We didn’t go into Matsumoto Castle, because the best way to admire it is from the outside (well, actually the real reason is because of budget constraints). It costs Y600 (S$9.50) to enter the castle.

It was a pretty day and it was pleasant to just walk about in the park and admire the castle and its reflection on the moat. This is not just a place for tourists; I saw many locals strolling about, walking their dogs and doing simple exercises.

On the way back to the station, we passed by some interesting black-and-white Japanese shops:

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A small portion of this small stream is actually lined with traditional Japanese shophouses, and as expected, they have now been turned into omiyage stores and street stalls selling overpriced senbei and soft-serves. But its still rather picturesque though.

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Hakodate: Night View

There are three famous night views in Japan, that of Kobe, Nagasaki and Hakodate. In this trip I’ve managed to see two of these three night views: Nagasaki and Hakodate.

The night view of Hakodate is seen from the top of Mount Hakodate, a 334m high mountain that overlooks the city. In winter, the only way to go up is by the ropeway, which costs Y640 single way, Y1160 (approx S$18) return.

The lower terminus station of the ropeway is a 10-minute walk away from Jiujigai tram station, located in the vicinity of Hakodate’s famous churches and red-brick warehouses.

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It’s quite a modern ropeway, but Y1160 is still expensive. Here's another travel tip: when in Japan, ask for discount coupons. Most paid travel attractions have discount coupons somewhere you can use, including the ropeway to get up Mount Hakodate. You can get this coupon easily from any hotel in Hakodate or the tourist information centre at the train station. After the discount, its Y1050 for a return trip.

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Still very pricey. So why pay this amount just to see the night view, when you can also see an equally stunning day view as well by just going a bit earlier before sunset? That’s what we did. They have this graph printed on the ropeway brochures and on the website which tells you exactly what time the sun sets during different months of the year -- just go 10 minutes before.

As we went up the ropeway, the houses got smaller and smaller, and we could see the mountains beside us clearly. Could even see Cape Tachimachi!

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Finally, the view from the top:

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Pretty, isn’t it? I like the way Hakodate city is spread out below in an hourglass shape, flanked by the sea on both sides, and bordered by snow-capped mountains in the distance.

Unfortunately the sun sets on the other side, so you don't get to see the sunset over Hakodate city. But the observatory at the top of Mount Hakodate affords a 360-degrees view, and go before dark to see this:

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Its very, very cold in winter up on the top, but I discovered a self-service cafe one floor below with the same good view. I'm ashamed to say that I sat down by the window for about ten minutes to admire the view without ordering anything (but quickly vacated the table to a group of Korean tourists who came in).

This is how the cafe looks like:

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It soon became dark. The night view wasn’t too bad, but I personally liked the one in Nagasaki better. Still, its wonderful by most standards.

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At the foot of the telecommunications tower on the top of the summit, they installed some sculptures which were illuminated at night, adding to the atmosphere.

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It was really, really picturesque just gazing at the twinkling lights of the city below with the distinctive hourglass shape. Photos don’t do it justice; it is definitely one of the best aerial night views I’ve seen. The trip up Mount Hakodate was worth it, but in summer, I’d rather hike up than pay Y1050 for the ropeway!

Looking at those pictures, you might think I was all alone in quiet solitude to ponder the meaning of life atop Mount Hakodate. Uh-oh. I forgot to mention the 1,000 other people on packaged tours complete with flag-waving guides:

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The cable car was packed on the trip back down, which is another reason to come up the mountain before sunset, when you don’t have to share it with thousands of tourists from China, HK and Taiwan. This was on a weekday evening in February; I can only imagine the crush of people during one of those long weekends.

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But even with all these other camera-toting tourists around speaking at the top of their voices, was it still worth it? Well, yes, it was worth every single yen for the view alone. If its foggy, though, there's no point coming up – after we descended by ropeway, another one of those fickle storms came crashing into Hakodate and the summit was no longer visible from ground level.

Hakodate: Cape Tachimachi

We bought a one-day streetcar pass in Hakodate for Y600, and the natural effect of doing so was making us squeeze as many sights as possible into a single day. Packed, yes, but I wasn’t tired out, for I had gotten plenty of sleep during the slow-paced portions of the trip.

One unintended benefit of the pass is that it led us to discover an area in Hakodate called Cape Tachimachi that we otherwise wouldn’t have visited.

It was really pure luck – we looked at a street map of Hakodate, and saw the usual tourist spots like western churches, the morning market and the famous Mt Hakodate night view. One place on the map, however, looked terribly enticing to me: Cape Tachimachi. The name brought to mind thrilling images of violent waves, rocky cliffs and thunderstorms, so off we went in search of that cape.

The cape itself is actually a 15-minute walk from Yachigashira tram station, the northern terminus of one of Hakodate’s two streetcar lines, but boy, what a scenic walk it is.

First we walked through a residential district. I don’t know about you, but I really love wandering through residential districts in Japan, seeing how the people live, and looking at those lovely homes with well-tended bonsai trees.

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And can you believe it… in this residential district we found the cheapest “soft-cream” (i.e. soft serve ice-cream cone) in the whole of Japan.

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At just Y100 (S$1.50)! Not terribly cheap by Singaporean standards, but in Japan, these usually go for Y250 to Y300 a cone. So you can imagine my delight at discovering such a stall.

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Ice-cream in hand, my mood was almost as bright and airy as the weather – a clear, blue sky had taken over the overcast clouds that were raining snow for much of the morning. Just half an hour ago we didn’t know that kind of fair weather was even possible in Hakodate, casting it off as another Kanazawa-type town that just had the misfortune of bad weather.

Look at that impossibly blue sky! I also like Hakodate’s distinctive yellow fire hydrants.

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Suddenly, after we turned a corner, there it was: glimpses of the big, blue sea between houses.

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By then, we were walking through a graveyard. But I’ve never seen a more picturesque graveyard in my life before, with fresh powdery snow on the ground, blue skies overhead, mountains to the back, and facing the sea right in front.

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As you can see in the above pictures, the sky had suddenly become dark and cloudy again – the fine weather had lasted for just half an hour.

We quickly made our way past the graveyards (apparently there are tombstones of some famous Japanese people here as well, but we didn’t really go and take a look) and arrived at Cape Tachimachi proper just before the storm came in. Somehow the overcast weather seemed to add to the mysterious beauty of the cape.

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Dark clouds loomed overhead, and soon it started snowing again. We huddled in our jackets and hoped the storm would soon past. And sure enough, just like a tropical storm, the clouds soon drifted away, revealing clear skies in all directions, and a gorgeous view.

Snow-capped mountains in Hokkaido, blue seas and the low-rises of Hakodate city.

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Even had more time to enjoy the scenery as we walked back to the tram stop.

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That mountain is Mount Hakodate, and you can see a stunning view of Hakodate from the summit. That thick cable is the ropeway leading up to the top of the mountain.

Interesting scenes in the residential district nearby:

Road leading up to a temple totally cleared of snow:

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Retro-looking shops on the way back to the tram station:

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If you have time in Hakodate, visit Cape Tachimachi. Off the major tourist trail, but worth a visit nonetheless for fine views of the sea and cliffs, an interesting residential district, and picturesque Japanese graveyard.

Fukuoka: A Beach in Winter

Although I was in Fukuoka from 20th to 26th January, I spent only 2 full days in the city thanks to the Northern Kyushu Rail Pass (Y7000), which we tried to maximise by taking as many different types of trains and visiting as many places as possible.

1 of the 2 full days we had in Fukuoka city was spent exploring Canal City and taking a long afternoon nap in our couchsurfing host’s place, followed by an amazing live bar experience.

We spent the other day exploring the Momochi Beach area in Fukuoka.

What does a beach in winter look like?

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Well, like a beach in any other season it seems. It actually looks rather nice. Except for the fact that it was freaking cold, thanks to some cold front blowing into Japan that day. The winds were really strong, and I was secretly freezing but trying not to show it, especially when a group of guys about 16-17 years old suddenly jogged past, some clad in shorts. Apparently they are part of some school sports team, but training in winter in such strong winds wearing only shorts?! Well, they’re Japanese… which explains everything…

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Don’t be fooled by the clear, sunny sky. I assure you it was frosty and the wind was billowing.

There is a nice pathway that runs alongside the beach, so sand won’t get in your shoes.

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Pictures of the beachfront area. The tall distinctive building is Fukuoka Tower, a 234m high observatory that could have been the symbol of Fukuoka, if not for the city’s famous ramen (but more about that in another post).

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The dome-shaped structure in the photo below is the Yahoo! Dome, another famous building in Fukuoka. It's a baseball stadium.

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Some luxurious JAL hotel.

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Oh no, more of those young kids jogging in winter on the sand:

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There has to be some law somewhere against this…

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Some beachfront drinking-eating-shopping area with Western-inspired design and architecture.

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Cafes that look like they belong in some other beachside resort, just not in Japan. Correspondingly expensive prices to match.

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Fortunately there’s a free public rest area nearby that’s enclosed, with a great view of the beach. Stopped by for a while and had lunch.

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Huis Ten Bosch: Japan Wants To Be European

This is probably a gross generalisation that may be a little insulting, and I mean no offence at all - one thing about the Japanese is that they really, really love Europe. They love all things European, and to them, a trip to Europe is the ultimate dream come true. No more crowded sardine tin-like subway trains; hello lovely countryside and large public squares. No more concrete sidewalks and glass skyscrapers; hello cobblestoned streets and historic red-brick buildings.

In Japan, this love of all things European is almost bordering on obsession. You just have to visit Otaru, Hakodate or Nagasaki to see it for yourself – streets lined with faux-European red-brick structures, paved with uneven stones, lined with ‘gas lamps’, interspersed with the occasional church…

Huis Ten Bosch is one such place.

Huis Ten Bosch, 1 hour 40 minute by Huis Ten Bosch Limited Express direct from Hakata station in Fukuoka, Y5600 (about S$90) for a one-day passport, for details see http://english.huistenbosch.co.jp/

Of course, Y5600 is way out of the budget for a frugal backpacker like myself. But we wanted to maximise the 3-day Northern Kyushu Rail Pass, so on a brilliant morning in late January, we found ourselves on the special Huis Ten Bosch Limited Express train departing from Hakata station in Fukuoka, bound towards Huis Ten Bosch, to go see what it actually is about. From the outside. Without paying the admission fee.

And surprisingly, you can see quite a lot from the outside, and immerse yourself in the European atmosphere that the Japanese love so much. So if you ever find yourself with a Northern Kyushu Rail Pass that you wish to maximise by taking more trains and seeing more stuff in the 3 days when its valid, you know what to do...

This is the special Huis Ten Bosch Limited Express train direct from Hakata station. If you don’t take this train, you’ll usually have to transfer somewhere else. Check with JR Kyushu for the latest schedule.

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Yes, they even have a train named after it! Painted in the theme park’s colours, with the logo prominently displayed on the exterior of each carriage.

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This is the interior of the train. Not an extremely unique Limited Express train except for the fact that its decked out in full Huis Ten Bosch colours.

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Be sure to sit in the correct carriage - at one of the stations mid-way, the train splits into two, with the other half going to Sasebo.

Two Huis Ten Bosch Limited Express trains parked opposite each other at Huis Ten Bosch station:

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The station is extremely picturesque, with Dutch-style architecture and set beside a very pretty river winding through lush, green hills. You have to cross a pedestrian bridge across the river to get to the theme park side, and there’s a nice view from the bridge.

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Entrance to Huis Ten Bosch:

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You can actually see a lot of the theme park and Dutch-style landscaping from the outside:

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There is this ‘church’ located outside the ticket holders-only area. Reason why I put church in inverted commas is because its one of those purpose-built European-style churches that are quite common all over Japan, for the sole purpose of holding elaborate church wedding ceremonies.

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There’s a very prominent tall building, the ANA Hotel JR Huis Ten Bosch, just outside the park. You might mistake it for part of the theme park, but its actually not. They offered a value-for-money lunch buffet and entry to the onsen for just Y1800 on the day we were there.

This is how the hotel looks like:

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At first, we thought that the neat houses across the canal were part of the theme park:

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But they weren’t. And we could go in and take a look. It’s actually an upscale residential enclave next to the theme park, where Japanese people live! I suppose then they can feel like they're living in Europe without even leaving Japan…

Houses in that Dutch-style residential enclave:

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Yes, complete with WINDMILLS…

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I think tourists aren’t actually allowed to wander into these streets and take photos with the houses. But well, no one stopped us when we went in. But just as we were leaving, the security guard came and told us that this area is off-limits to non-residents. Still, we were fortunate to have a chance to go in and wander through these streets, and experience the surreal feeling of being in the Netherlands but actually still being in Japan.

There are a couple of nice walks beside the river, and you can see the houses from the pathway, which is accessible to all:

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Nice waterway views, and at the end of the pathway, we were treated to a lovely view of the bay stretching out to the sea off Western Kyushu. This is probably as far west in Japan as we’ll ever get.

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It’s not the end of the Huis Ten Bosch journey yet. You don’t have to go back to Fukuoka the same way you came. An attractive route that goes to Nagasaki from Huis Ten Bosch is via the Seaside Liner, a rapid train that does the journey in 80 minutes and departs from the station every hourly or so (check the schedule again to make sure).

Departs from the same station by the river:

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If you haven’t taken a local/rapid train in Japan before, now’s a good time to take one. This journey has excellent views and along the way, you can get a glimpse into the lives of ordinary Japanese – schoolchildren taking the train to get home from school, old people talking on the train, etc.

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Nikko: Minshuku Rindou-no-ie

56 days in Japan, yet one minshuku we stayed in consistently stood out as the best accomodation throughout the entire trip. I had low expectations, because it was just a random cheap accomodation found through the internet, and boy, was I pleasantly surprised.

Minshuku Rindou-no-ie (民宿りんどうの家), Y5500 (roughly S$85) per person per night (including breakfast and dinner) after a Y500 discount if you reserve through email after visiting their website at http://www3.ocn.ne.jp/~garrr/Rindou.html.

Free transport to and from Nikko station (call them from the tourist information office at Nikko). The owner will pick you up in his car.

Nikko station:

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It is important to note that there are two Nikko stations: JR Nikko and Tobu Nikko, each operated by a different railway company. They are just a short walk apart. Most visitors will arrive at Tobu Nikko, especially if you don’t hold a Japan Rail Pass and have purchased a Nikko World Heritage Pass.

Rindou-no-ie is located in one of these small, quiet residential neighbourhoods just outside the town centre:

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Most people come to Nikko for the excellent temples, which are some of the best I’ve seen in Japan, but another reason to visit is the awesome scenery that just takes your breath away. This is the kind of scene that you’ll see as the owner drives you to the minshuku or when you’re walking from Rindou-no-ie to the temples/station.

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The following picture shows the exterior of the minshuku (roughly translated to something like a Bed & Breakfast). It looks like an ordinary, well-kept house in the outskirts of a small Japanese town.

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Genkan (entrance area):

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Rest lounge/living room:

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There is one PC with internet access which is free for guests’ use.

You can also buy some beer/ice cream if you want to, all reasonably priced:

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In the living room, there’s an amazing noticeboard pinned with tons of postcards sent by tourists from all corners of the world who have stayed here before. You can see how many people are fans of this minshuku! I was surprised that there are hardly any reviews of this place online – I guess everyone feels that this place is too good that he wants to keep the secret to himself !

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Cute decorations in the living room lend it a very homely touch. Indeed, the entire minshuku is like that – homely, warm and welcoming.

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A passageway from the living room leads to the toilets. Notice just how well-maintained, clean and beautiful the place is.

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The toilet and bathroom are both on the first floor, while the guestrooms are on the second floor. That is perhaps the only inconvenience you will face staying here. But really, its a small inconvenience! Many ryokans also have toilets separated from the rooms.

Stairway to second floor:

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A common lounge area is at the top of the stairway, with books and comics, as well as a microwave oven for your use if you so desire.

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Like most minshukus/ryokans, each room has its own name written in calligraphy positioned just above the sliding wooden doors.

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The room:

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Like the rest of the minshuku, it is spotlessly clean, and very homely and comfy. The room is bigger than it looks like in the photo, and includes the standard TV, heater, hot water flask etc. Ours was the biggest room in the minshuku and it could comfortably fit three people with excess space leftover to move around or place your luggage on. This is a modern home with all the conveniences of good heating and insulation, so you don’t have to shiver at night (which actually happened to us at some even more higher-priced ryokans in other towns). Incredibly comfy futons, and once again, I need to emphasise that this minshuku is really, really clean.

Y5500 for a night in that room comes with breakfast and dinner! Look at the dinner spread for 5 people:

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Fresh ingredients, awesome cooking, large variety. Most ryokans charge upwards of Y8000/person/night, and some of them we stayed in can’t even cook that well!

I’m not a connoisseur who can tell you the specifics about good food, like what cut of beef, where the fish comes from, etc. But I love food, and I sure damned well know when something is delicious. Take my word for it - dinner was GREAT.

Some of the dishes served:

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I have to reiterate that this is Y5500 for one night including two meals. And there’s a large portion of sashimi, tempura and beef included in the dinner! These are usually some of the most expensive items on a restaurant menu, and some ryokans which charge more don’t even serve such a big portion of these.

And what I consider to be the most important, the rice (ご飯), was impeccable. Steamed to the perfect balance of softness and chewiness.

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You can hardly find any fault with this dinner. All the while, we kept asking ourselves, is this really, really just Y5500?!

Even the chopsticks holder is so cute:

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Of course, breakfast isn’t as heavy an affair as dinner, but wow, it was still quality food.

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I love Japanese-style “omelette rolls” (don’t know what they are actually called). The above picture shows a pair of them, served at Rindou-no-ie’s breakfast.

Service standard is as good as, or even better, than some ryokans. Three instances of good service that are still fresh in my mind: 1) Each time we entered the house, the owner arranged our shoes, which we had so untidily placed, neatly at the entranceway, so that it would be easy for us to just slip into them and go; 2) The old grandmother came out of the house to bow to us as we were driven to the station, and remained bowing all the way until the car had left the street! 3) We still wanted to explore Nikko a bit after checking out, so the owner drove us to the temples area, then ferried our luggage to the train station when we were ready to leave!

If you ever find yourself in Nikko, stay at Minshuku Rindou-no-ie! I promise it’ll be one of the finest, if not the best, accommodation in your entire trip to Japan. And probably one of the cheapest as well. Minshuku Rindou-no-ie is so good and is such value-for-money that I still feel it is a little unbelievable even today when I look back at it all.

Note: Many minshukus and ryokans in Japan, including Rindou-no-ie, operate on a trust system. No deposit and no credit card details are required so if you’ve made a reservation, please do turn up!

Kyoto: Philosopher’s Path

It’s easy to get templed-out in Kyoto, for this is a city with almost as many temples as Tokyo has skyscrapers. You come across one on almost every street corner. Many temples are hidden within residential districts, serene and graceful, and they infuse this large Japanese city with a sense of calm, culture and peace.

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So it comes as a sort of relief to finally find something to do in Kyoto that doesn’t involve temples – the Philosopher’s Path (like its name suggests, named after a famous philosopher who used to walk this route in the past), a scenic walking trail that runs alongside a canal and past upscale residential districts and shops.

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It starts somewhere near the mass of omiyage shops leading up towards Ginkaku-ji, one of Kyoto’s most famous temples.

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This is by no means an off-the-beaten-path: many tourists have discovered the Philosopher’s Path as well, resulting in many buildings lining the path having been converted into expensive galleries, crafts shops and cafes selling their cheapest cup of coffee for Y400 (S$6). 

Some of these shops are quite unique and fun to browse. Check out this entire store dedicated to wind mills and wind chimes, in all sorts of shapes and sizes:

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Unique storefronts along the path. You can break up the walk with a visit to some of these shops, checking out local crafts and souveniours (be warned though, the prices here are likely among the highest you’ll run into in the whole of Japan)

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I had just scaled Daimonji-yama in the morning and my legs were tired, but the walk was so enjoyable that the ache was soon forgotten.

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The sound of the water in the tree-lined canal flowing slowly was just so soothing and provided the perfect backdrop to the whole scene. The fact that it was already evening time, when there were even fewer tourists remaining in what was decidedly an off-peak season day for tourism, also helped.

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This is probably one of the most romantic spots in the whole of Kyoto, and you can see temples and shrines, authentic residential districts (though upscale and gentrified) and pretty scenery along the way. Highly recommended – one of my favourite parts of Kyoto.

You'll see temples along the way, and you can even go in and visit them if you so desire (some charge an admission fee):

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Or just stroll along the path:

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Streets leading up to the path offer you a glimpse of typical Japanese residential districts:

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See how the rich live in Japan too:

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In winter the trees are mostly barren except for the odd one in full bloom.

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It was that kind of scene that makes you mouth ‘wow’ softly, and take a very deep breath of the cool, crisp winter air.

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The 2km-long route winds from the very touristy and typical omiyage shop-lined road leading up to Ginkakuji and ends somewhere near a private high school, where I saw local male teenagers dressed in their very stylish school uniforms with blazer and tie, and carrying hip school sling bags walking towards nearby Keage subway station.

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Budget about 2 hours for the walk, so that you have enough time to detour into temples, residential districts, shops, or whatever catches your interest along the way.

Hakodate: Streetcars and Nostalgia

The first impression many visitors have of a city in Japan is its train station. Hakodate is the southernmost and third-largest city of Hokkaido in Northern Japan, and this is its train station:

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Don’t be fooled by the ultra-modern design. Hakodate is still very much a small city, its low-rise, sprawling cityscape interspersed with shops and residential properties without any real downtown core. Despite this, I found it to be one of the most charming cities in my trip to Japan, which lasted almost two months.

One of the main things that adds to the charm: streetcars. Many other small Japanese cities of similar size like Nagasaki and Kumamoto have trams, and bigger ones like Sapporo or Hiroshima have preserved part or all of their tram system.

The trams in Hakodate are all of the ‘one man’ type, meaning the driver doubles as the conductor and drives a one-carriage streetcar, collecting the fare from each passenger at the front door when they exit. You enter from the back door, and exit from the front door.

Of all the cities, I like Hakodate’s tram system the best, probably because of the one-man car system (Hiroshima’s tram system feels too modern to me!) and also because I used it the most, having bought a one-day pass(Y600, about S$9, purchase from the driver of any streetcar).

There are only two tram lines in Hakodate, so navigation is a breeze. Trams bring you to all the major tourist spots, but not directly to the doorstep, so you usually have to walk about 5-10 minutes after getting off (a pleasure though, as Hakodate has one of the most unique streetscapes amongst Japanese cities).

I’ll lay easy on the explanation for this post and let the pictures do the talking.

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Don’t trams just add that nostalgic feeling to any city?

Trams come in so many different designs in Hakodate, and its really enjoyable just looking at them and admiring the exteriors. Some are obviously taken over by commercial advertisements (but even these are done in such a way that the entire retro feel of the streetcar is still preserved) while others have public education messages or unique themes painted on them.

One of my favourite moments in Hakodate is just sitting in a tram, feeling the jerky movements of the car and listening to the cranky sounds of the engine as it rumbles along the snow-covered tracks, whilst admiring Hakodate’s unique Western-inspired architecture from the misty windows.

Another great travel moment to treasure.

Asahikawa: Asahiyama Zoo

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Asahikawa train station

For most Japanese, Asahikawa (旭川), a city in Central Hokkaido, conjures only one thing: Asahiyama Zoo (旭山動物園, Y800 for adults [about S$13], free for secondary school students and under, http://www5.city.asahikawa.hokkaido.jp/asahiyamazoo/zoo/English/top.html). This is undoubtedly the most famous zoo in Japan, the one everyone’s heard of, gone to before, or want to go  to soon.

The reason for this? Penguin Walk (ペンギン散歩, 11am and 3pm daily during winter), when the penguins of the zoo are released to take a stroll down a path lined with thousands of camera-ready domestic tourists cooing ‘kawaii’. Sounded lame to me, but we had a day to spend in Asahikawa, and besides, if we didn’t go to Asahiyama Zoo, we will forever encounter strange looks on the faces of the Japanese when we told them we’ve been to Asahikawa but didn’t go to the zoo. It’s like visiting Paris and not going to the Eiffel Tower. Yeah, I know its a little incomparable, but well, you get what I mean.

The zoo is open from 10.30am to 3.30pm in winter, which is undoubtedly the most popular season to visit, when the entire place turns into a snow-covered winter wonderland for the animals and visitors.

Take a public bus (40 minutes, Y400 one way) from the bus stop near Asahikawa JR Station - the staff at the tourist information centre there will be able to tell you where to board the bus and give you a schedule of the bus timings.

Even the bus comes decked in the zoo’s colours (only the ‘express’ buses, which take 10 minutes quicker, and are not as common as the normal buses):

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Just look at the long queue 15 minutes before opening time. Buy the tickets from the counter first, then join the queue, not the other way round! Once the gates open, though, the queue disappears.

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Here’s an English map of the zoo. Quite a few animals, and although it looks small, trust me, you’ll need more than a couple of hours here to do it justice.

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Which attraction can’t be missed? Penguin Walk, of course. Just look at the crowd waiting for the stars of the show to appear:

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By the way, this was on a weekday non-school holiday morning at 11am in early February. From what I can see, the path stretches about 100-150m, and the same amount of people in the above photo line the entire path. But the zookeepers will ask those in front to squat down though, so even late-comers at the back can get a good view.

I knew I had a picture of the entire path somewhere:

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All waiting for this moment:

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You wonder what’s all the fuss about until you see them walk clumsily in a way that’s so irresistibly cute, stopping now and then to peck at ice on the floor or at the shoes of onlookers. And you’ll be surprised by the kind of sounds penguins make!

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Can it get any cuter than this? If admiring Mt Fuji and relaxing in a ryokan is a classical Japan Hour moment, so is this – braving the cold to watch cute penguins walk slowly across the snow, your heart totally captured by them, like the thousands of Japanese tourists around you. Can’t help but coo ‘kawaiiiiii!’

The truth is, this same ‘kawaiiii' feeling stayed with me throughout my entire 3.5-hour visit to the zoo. Somehow animals on snow in Japan seem so much cuter!

Other highlights of the zoo, briefly. I’d love to write more about each aspect but if I do that this post would become too long!

No professional and dull-coloured signboards here. Cute signages everywhere in the zoo:

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Feeding time for the seals! This is called もぐもぐタイム in Japanese, literally “mogu-mogu time”. Translation: just another deliberately act-cute name for feeding time. But somehow the sound of that word is so addictive! Mogu-mogu tai-mu! Only in Japan.

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The zookeeper provides an interesting commentary (in Japanese) as he feeds the seals, which takes about 15 minutes. Quite a humorous session, as I saw one particularly fat seal coming out of the water and slithering on the snow, eyes following the zookeeper, looking hungrily at the fish in his hands. Zookeeper entertains the crowd by throwing the fish far away, and the seal warbles through the snow to get to it, making loud grunts along the way, and eliciting a gaggle of laughs from the onlookers!

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Polar Bears:

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They don’t only have cute signboards, but also cute animal-themed floormats, wall murals, benches, information boards, exhibits, etc, all with accompanying childish font. Same goes for all the other animal enclosures in the zoo. Part of the joy of exploring this zoo comes from seeing what kind of cute animal-inspired kitschy designs the Japanese can come up with!

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There he is:

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Other animals:

Cranes:

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Tiger:

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In case you were distracted by yet another impossibly-cute signage in the above photo (this one’s a warning sign – you’d never know!), that’s a lion walking on the snow.

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Leopard:

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Sorry, I’m distracted by yet another cute poster (above). This one looks like it could have been part of an elementary school science fair exhibit.

One sign I’ve been in Japan too long: taking as many pictures of random cute stuff in the zoo as I’ve taken of the animals!

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That’s a giant takoyaki ball (its actually a tap) next to a fish-painted wash basin:

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They even made a penguin snow sculpture, complete with a tiny bow!

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One of the most important reasons this zoo is so wildly popular is the interactive, interesting way it presents the animals. Besides the penguin walk and mogu-mogu time for the seals, another example is the orang utan indoor enclosure.

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Plenty of ropes and rock-climbing apparatus for them to hang onto and play with:

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Is that a gorilla-themed vending machine I spy over there?

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The orang-utans are lucky to be in a warm, heated indoor enclosure. No such fortune for the native Japanese monkeys – they’re left to shiver in the –7 degrees Celsius frigid air, which I found rather cruel.

Look at them all huddled together.

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This was the only animal who seemed unable to withstand the cold. The giraffe looks like its doing fine.

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Many other animals but too many to list here!

As one of Hokkaido’s most popular tourist attractions, this zoo’s souvenior shops has prices to match as well. All the souveniors, soft toys and cute candies are just way too overpriced. The cheapest thing around is a ‘Capsule Zoo’ (Y300), not very cheap in itself, but if you really want something to take home, you can get one of these from the numerous ‘capsule machines’ at the rest area.

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The surest sign of Asahiyama Zoo’s popularity is this:

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Asahiyama Zoo Train. Free for holders of the Japan Rail Pass or the Hokkaido Rail Pass. It is actually an all-reserved seat limited express train decked out in a very, very cute animal theme. Runs daily between Sapporo and Asahikawa station, Sapporo-Asahikawa in the morning, and Asahikawa-Sapporo in the afternoon. Check the schedules and timings with JR Hokkaido, as there are some days when it doesn’t run.

Pictures of the train:

This is the area between carriages:

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A typical passenger seat:

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Each carriage has its own theme. The car is made up of five carriages, and there are seats in 4 of them. When reserving a seat on this train, make sure you tell the JR staff which animal-themed carriage you want. The exterior of the carriage is painted with motifs of the animal, and the interior is also decked out in matching colours and themes. Plus, the first four seats of each train are draped with special animal ‘skins’ for you to take pictures with (you can’t reserve these seats, its just something cute they put there for fun):

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The last car does not have passenger seats, but an entire rest lounge where you can take pictures with stuff like a polar bear chair, and uh.. what’s that other animal?

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Or you could stamp one of the five special stamps on your notebook (stamp-collecting seems to be something of a hobby in Japan, where every single metro/subway/train station/tourist attraction/special train has its own unique stamp).

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This is what the polar bear stamp looks like:

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And kids will enjoy this area in the last carriage, where they can read animal books (in Japanese) or watch animal shows of the zoo (in Japanese):

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Everyone gets a small certificate to show that you took this special train!

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Its given out by a special attendant on this train, who goes around conducting special ‘animal quizzes’ in each train carriage (in Japanese).

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It all made for a very fun 100-minute train ride between Asahikawa and Sapporo that passed in a flash as I went carriage-to-carriage, snapping tons of photos and posing with cute wall murals and seats. Do as the Japanese do – forget your sarcasm and skepticism, and just embrace cuteness and childishness for one day. You’ll be glad you did it. If you’re a fan of zoos, Asahiyama Zoo won’t disappoint; even if you’re like me and don’t really care about them, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how fun they can actually be!

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Sydney: Do It Cheaply

Australia has been one of the first few countries to fully recover from the economic crisis, and since then the value of the dollar has risen dramatically. At the time of writing, the exchange rate was almost AUD$1 = SGD$1.30, an ominous sign that doesn’t bode well for one’s wallet. Going down under, it seems, may very well sink your finances down under as well.

But believe it or not, the old mantra holds true: the best things in life are free (or cheap, at least, in the case of Sydney).

Here’s a list of my favourite things to do for free/cheap in Sydney, compiled over the course of a ten-day trip in November:

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Gorgeous harbour views. Sometimes the tourist belt encompassing the Sydney Opera House, Circular Quay and the Rocks appear to be one big overblown tourist trap. If you’re not careful here, it is very easy to part with your money: Opera House Essential Tours (AUD$24.50 for student and concession tickets) and a variety of Harbour Cruises, some involving dinner on board (AUD$50 and above).

Out of reach for the budget traveller. Sometimes this sum alone might be one’s budget for a day, even two. I’m going to suggest some alternatives below, but by all means, if you feel that the tours/cruises represent money well spent during travelling, go ahead.

I went for the Opera House Essential Tour and found it mildly interesting, though not exactly “an emotional journey, engrossing you in a story to rival any opera plot" as claimed on the website. The tour tells you about the history and architecture of the world’s most recognised building, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and if AUD$24.50 for a concession ticket still seems steep, buy it online where prices can drop to as low as AUD$19.60 for the earlybird ticket. Otherwise, just bring along a guidebook and read about the Opera House while you stand staring at its beautiful, billowing sails (free). By the way, you can also grab a free copy of The Sydney Morning Herald (usually AUD$1.40 at newsstands) at the Opera House as well. Great for catching up on international news while overseas and understanding more about the only country in the world which is also a continent unto itself.

If a candle-lit dinner on an evening harbour cruise sounds expensive, it is. Do it dirt-cheap by purchasing a ferry ticket (all ferries leaving from Circular Quay get you a view of the Harbour Bridge, Opera House and city skyline) on the public ferry, a mode of transportation used by many Sydneysiders themselves. Take as many ferry rides as you want with a TravelPass, and enjoy the sea breeze blowing through your hair as you take in one of the world’s most recognisable skylines. Unfortunately, no food is served on board save an overpriced cafe; pack a sandwich and you’ll get yourself a unique experience at just a quarter of the cost, with the same view as those who paid AUD$50 a head for the full-blown dinner cruise:

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An unexpectedly delightful time can also be had wandering the grounds of University of Sydney (free admission), which occupies a huge sprawling campus between The Glebe and Newtown. The university is entirely deserving of its “Hogwarts-like” label bestowed by Lonely Planet.

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The historic campus is full of beautiful buildings and gardens, and security isn’t that tight too, leaving you free to wander most of the grounds at leisure.

Another gorgeous place in the city is Hyde Park (free admission). Its an oasis of shade and calm in the middle of towering skyscrapers.

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Marvel at how fitness-conscious Sydneysiders are; visit Hyde Park during lunch-time on a weekday and it’ll be full of people using their lunch break judiciously by jogging and exercising. I also witnessed many office workers munching on sandwiches and tucking into salads on the benches in the park.

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Walk over to St Mary’s Cathedral (above photo, free admission), just next to Hyde Park. Its a lovely old church with an amazing interior and pretty stained glass windows (I didn’t take any pictures inside the cathedral).

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For further proof of Sydneysiders’ obsession with fitness, check out the Botanic Gardens (free admission).

This is what I saw at The Domain (free admission), the section of the Gardens nearest the CBD:

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The best views from Sydney other than atop a ferry can also be had from the Botanic Gardens (its also an incredibly windy place!)

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Plus some pretty cool flora and fauna:

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The Botanic Gardens is just a short walk from Hyde Park, and I saw several interesting scenes and people along the way:

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A great city is always best experienced on foot, and you can walk almost everywhere in gorgeous Sydney weather, admiring the sights along the way. Best of all, its free.

Sydney: Wonderfully Overpriced Markets

What does the word market conjure up in your mind?

A bustling centre of commerce with buyers and sellers haggling and crowds jostling?

A wet, dirty place wafting with the smells of fish, vegetables and meat?

A worn-down location to find cheap produce and goods, with a clientele dressed as if they just woke up?

Well, the markets in Sydney are anything but.

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My first encounter with Sydney’s markets came on the third day of the trip, at the busy pedestrianised end of Oxford St leading to Bonji Junction. It was a small market, with probably no more than 25 stalls. The goods on sale were mostly along the lines of fresh flowers, vegetables, cooked food and home-made stuff like artisan breads, honey, chocolate and accessories.

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Guidebooks really don’t prepare you for the shock you get when you walk into one of these markets and check out what’s on offer.

Here’s an example of the prices at the market at Bondi Junction:

Loaves of bread, baguettes and such retail from AUD$4 ($5.20)

A small box of Ethiopian food consisting of about 2 dishes and rice goes from AUD$8

Prices of fashion accessories and knick-knacks start from AUD$10

I could barely afford this:

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Spinach, cheese and minced chicken Turkish Gozleme (AUD$7.50)

And yes, in case you’re wondering, it does look and taste similar to the roti pratas we get in Singapore, just that its ten times more expensive and stuffed with a little more ingredients than the ones back home.

Oh well, at least I tried something that sounded exotic.

The queue for the Turkish Gozleme stretched more than 20 people, and the stall had to give out number tags. Had plenty of time to look around the market whilst waiting for my number to be called.

Ended up purchasing a bottle of homemade honey (AUD$5).

But I haven’t seen the end of markets in Sydney yet.

On a hot Saturday, I went to Paddington Markets (395 Oxford St, Paddington, http://www.paddingtonmarkets.com.au) and just when I thought it couldn’t get more expensive, this was much more upmarket.

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The market is located in the affluent suburb of Paddington, and is held every Saturday in the premises of a church along Oxford St, Sydney’s premier shopping street (above picture).

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It sells a wide variety of things. There are plenty of clothes (mostly around AUD$40-50 each), and, somewhat surprisingly, more than a few stalls selling homemade soaps (about AUD$5 per piece). There was even a stall selling a special sports headband with in-built earphones which you can wear around your head and listen to music whilst running (AUD$50).

Particularly interesting was the strong presence of shops selling arts and crafts, like beautifully-composed photographs and paintings (AUD$20 and above), handmadenotebooks and diaries (AUD$25-$40), coasters (AUD$5) and more. Not the kind that you get in Chatuchak market in Bangkok, these are obviously of a much higher-quality and not factory-produced. The appeal is clear: good-quality, excellent hand-made crafts with a strong individualistic streak, stripped of pretence. Clearly unaffordable for a budget traveller like me, but it was great fun to wander around and check out the intricate designs and decorations all the same.

An impulse buy that blew my budget was a gift pack ofDelicatessen’s chocolates (AUD$25 for 4 80g packets). These tasted so lovely when I tried them at the stall, and perhaps already used to astronomical price tags by then, I just knew I had to buy them. I loved the unique flavours like chilli bark, peppercorn, coffee and guinea fig, but regret ensued after I later walked past a chocolate store somewhere else with more affordable candy in the AUD$5-10 range.

Clearly this is one market where you have to constantly watch your budget.

There is, however, a single market in Sydney where you can get extremely cheap stuff:

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Paddy’s Market (basement of Market City, 9-13 Hay St, Haymarket, just off Chinatown, http://www.paddysmarkets.com.au).

What is it like? Unfortunately I don’t have any photos of the interior. But just imagine Bugis Street or Chatuchak with hundreds of stalls selling the same tourist kitsch (AUD$2 to $10) like stuffed kangaroos, Australian flags, koala bear magnets, Opera House/Harbour Bridge/Sydney Tower replicas, fake rolexes and “I love Sydney” T-shirts and you wouldn’t be far off. Its pretty packed too, with throngs of Chinese nationals and Koreans. I do however find it too over-the-top in Aussie kitsch and stereotypical souveniours and left without buying anything.

For a unique shopping experience, I’d say skip Paddy’s and go to Paddington, but a word of advice: do try to control your spending.

Sydney: Cafes and Cappuccinos

What do I like most about Sydney, Australia?

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Nope, it’s not the Opera House.

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Nor the Harbour Bridge.

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Nor Bondi Beach.

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Nor the Blue Mountains.

The answer is this:

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Cafe culture in Sydney.

After ten days down under, this was what left the deepest impression in my mind, and what I think of first when I look back at my trip to Sydney.

Sure, the Sydney Opera House, Harbour Bridge, Bondi Beach and the Blue Mountains are all world-famous attractions in their own right, and deservedly so (except for the Blue Mountains, but that’s a story for next time).

Yet it was the excellent cafes dotted around town that made travelling in Sydney such a delight.

Cafes in Sydney come in all shapes and sizes, but they share one common trait: a casual, welcoming place for people to visit and indulge in the luxury of time.

The best one I went to was in Berkelouw Books Newtown (6-8 O’ Connell Street, off King Street, Newtown; http://www.berkelouw.com.au/about/newtown), tucked in a quiet alley in a neighbourhood close to the city. It was as much a cafe as it was a bookshop (its founded in 1812), and the two blended together so seamlessly it’d put wannabes like the cafe at Borders to shame.

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You enter into a wonderfully rustic bookshop which decor oozes literature by itself, and on the second floor, facing the street, is a gem of a cafe.

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The decor is amazing. It is bright, modern and yet cozy, with touches like exposed brick walls, dark wooden banisters and cushy sofas that sink when you sit on them.

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Its not all about the decor, though. Coffee obviously does not take a back seat here. The large flat white (AUD$4, or S$5.20) I ordered was rich, creamy and topped with such intricate latte art that it felt like a pity to finally have to drink it.

It tasted so good.

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The same goes for almost every cup of coffee I had in Sydney. Always that beautiful design on top of the foam, the work of an experienced barista. And each cup is filled to the very brim, so full that extra care has to be taken not to spill the coffee when serving it. Sometimes, it is full to such an extent that you can see the curvature of the liquid rising slightly above the rim of the cup!

Some pastries are also sold at the counter. At the cafe in Berkelouw Books, I got a homemade blueberry muffin (AUD$3.50), which tasted just divine. I don’t know whether it’s because of the fact that it’s freshly-baked, or because of how beautifully its presented, sprinkled with flour, on an oval shiny metallic plate.

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Starbucks? Never again.