The Great Torri

Quite a late post because well, life resumed but as I’m lying in bed with a sore throat and runny nose, I can’t help but reminiscent our recent Japan trip. This was the ‘must-see’ attraction in Hiroshima that I saved for the second last day and am glad it all worked out because on that day, the lowest tide reading was at 11.11am – perfectly timed for our visit.

It was also Nat’s first ferry boat ride to an island. Yes, most of Nat’s firsts were on this trip – our first family trip to the zoo was also in Himeji.

The quickest way to the Miyajima island is via train and then ferry. We had the JR rail pass so it covered all transport there.

That morning was rather overcast and had a slight drizzle so it was very misty. Yet, one could still see the Great Torri peaking out of the mist from the ferry.

The gate is known as the Great Torri because of the legend and religious significance that surrounds it. It is believed to represent the boundary between the human and spirit world. At high tide, it appears to be floating on the Seto sea but we went during low tide so we could literally walk on the sea bed and physically touch the gate!

Originally I wanted to book a one night stay at a traditional Ryokan on the island to see the Torii illuminated at night but I was worried that if we needed emergency medical attention, the hospital is on the main Hiroshima island!

And true enough, we had to visit the Doctor for an allergic reaction that Nat got from an insect bite. That’s another post altogether… but hospital visit aside, our day trip to the Miyajima island to see the Great Torri up close was the best way to end our holiday.

Just wished it wasn’t so misty so we could capture some clear blue summer skies but I guess the mist and drizzle also gave our visit a different feel and vibe that one usually does not get during summer.

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Day Trips to Himeji and Kurashiki

Last year when we were in Kyoto, Himeji was possible but not as nearby so I decided not to squeeze it into our itinerary. This time round, having our base at Okayama meant that Himeji was a mere 20 min train ride away. Another good place for a day trip out of Okayama is Kurashiki, in particular the historical Bikan canal district.

First up, Himeji Castle!

Getting there: Himeji can be reached from almost all major Japan cities such as Osaka, Tokyo and Kobe. So depending on where you are based, getting to the castle is relatively easy via the JR Shinkansen. Once at Himeji station, it’s a 15-20 minutes walk to the castle compound or take a 5 minute bus that drops you right at the entrance.

Did I mention how even the drain covers in Japan are so nice!

The special thing of this castle is that unlike most castles in Japan, it was not destroyed by any natural disaster or war. 2018 is also the 25th anniversary of Himeji being named a world heritage site.

Inside the castle compound, there is a Himeji city zoo so we brought Nat to see some animals. It’s 200¥ per adult while kids below 5 enter for free. While some of the enclosures are quite “cagey” with only one animal inside, it was still a very pleasant experience. Rarely does one get to visit a zoo in 20 degrees weather and see a castle in the background! Am so glad we have this memory of our first zoo visit with Nat.

In HJ’s words, the day trip to Himeji was “the longest and most fun day of our trip!”

Next up, Kurashiki!

An important point along Japan’s rice distribution route during the Edo Period, Kurashiki came under direct control of the shogunate and was named after its many storehouses (kura).

Getting there: One can reach Kurashiki from Okayama by local JR lines that costs approx. 320¥. From the train station, we took a bus ride that stops right outside one of the museums, the Ohara Museum and walked to the main canal district from there. Find out more ways to get to Kurashiki here.

The main attraction is the Bikan Historical Quarter, a central section of the former canal system. As it is now summer, the greenery was in its full glory as seen from the weeping willow trees that lined the canal. There was a slight drizzle that morning but the area was still very, very picturesque!

There’s also various museums and shops that line the canal which you can take a whole morning to see.

Am so glad I decided to spend four days in Okamaya so that we could make these two day trips!

– CK

Okayama

As with all of my Japan trips, I don’t remain in one city for the whole duration of the holiday so for our second base, I decided on Okayama. We spent 3 nights in Okayama because it’s near two other places I wanted to go – Himeji and Kurashiki. Here’s why Okayama was chosen over Kobe and a summary of sites to see on the first day.

Kobe vs Okayama: I initially selected Kobe as our second base after Hiroshima but I changed my mind. Not only is it slightly further away, it feels like it has the same city-vibe as Hiroshima. Kobe does have its fair share of sights but they just didn’t seem suitable for a trip with Nat. I wanted somewhere slower and more scenic.

Then I came across Okayama, and the more I researched, I knew it was the one; especially after reading that it developed as a castle town. This was more ideal for traveling with a toddler because I know that in Japan, every castle has an accompanying castle park that Nat can run around.

Getting there: We purchased a JR Kansai-Hiroshima pass from JTB that covers all the places we want to go, including local JR lines and the Hiroshima loop bus. So it’s advisable that you calculate the costs per trip vs. buying a pass to see which one is most worth it. As our pass allows us to take any of the Shinkansen trains, we took the fastest one (Nozomi) and reached Okayama in 30 minutes.

Where we stayed: Similar to my approach in Hiroshima, I picked a place to stay near the JR station – Daiwa Roynet Hotel Okayama. To our shock and amusement, the hotel occupies levels 5 to 10 of a building that has BIC CAMERA from levels B1 to 4. Anyone who has been to Japan knows about BIC CAMERA and how it literally sells almost everything! Imagine your hotel above our Singapore’s Turf City’s Giant Hypermarket but instead of 2 levels, there’s 5!

Must-see Sites:

This website has site recommendations by the season so on the first day, we went to the Okayama Castle and Korakuen Garden.

Weather-wise, it was sunny but still a comfortable 28 degrees. The best part was when Nat took a midday nap, which gave us a solid hour to chill in a cafe across the castle. We just sat there speechless…staring out of the window to enjoy the moment and beauty of the whole place.

– CK

Hiroshima 2018

So we’ve been in Japan, Hiroshima since the 2nd of June and we have survived the first few days of our trip! This is my 3rd time to Japan but 1st foray into Hiroshima. It is also our 1st overseas trip with Nat, after taking 4 trips without him in 2017. Here’s a summary of the past 2 days and how we handled traveling with a 19 month toddler.

The flight: There’s only one direct route via SilkAir from Singapore to Hiroshima so we didn’t have much choice but no complains there because I usually fly with SQ or SilkAir. A drawback was that there is only one flight per day from Singapore to Hiroshima, at 0145 in the morning! So yes, Nat’s first flight was 6h15min to Japan at 0145. We’re either crazy or just mad over Japan.

I’ve also come to learn that when one travels with a toddler, whatever “norm” we have goes out the window.

  • For example, Nat is usually asleep by 2030 until 0630 and he’s quite a heavy sleeper.
  • However, he woke up when we carried him into car at 2330 and didn’t sleep until 0330! Yup, the flight took off at 0145, Nat was quite clueless during take off but our friend was wide awake until 0330.
  • It took 30 minutes of Netflix nursery videos to get his eyes finally heavy and thankfully, he slept on HJ until the plane landed at 0915.
  • Luckily, there was nobody next to me or seated in the row behind us too so I moved back and laid down for 2 hours before the sun rise woke me up.

I did think about whether a daytime flight was better but I rather have Nat knocked out for the bulk of the flight than handle him being awake for 75% of it. That’s going to be our return flight and I’m so dreading it…

The hotel: At my colleague’s advice, we chose Hotel Granvia Hiroshima because it was near the JR station. Unlike Tokyo where one needs to take the Narita Express to the city centre, there’s a limousine bus equivalent in Hiroshima. The bus ride is approx. 40minutes and it stops at the bus station of the Hiroshima JR station. To our pleasant surprise, the hotel was right next to the bus terminal (hooray!).

The sights: We took Day 1 (2/6) slowly because we only slept 3-4 hours on the flight the night before.

Our first stop was the Hiroshima Castle, after we deposited our bags at the hotel.

  • Getting around Hiroshima can be quite easily done via taking bus or the tram. We purchased tickets for the Hiroshima loop bus that stops at the major tourist spots.
  • After checking in, we spent the evening at the shopping malls around our hotel.

For our second day in Hiroshima, we visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and A-bomb dome.

Standing in the park today, I found it hard to believe that this was the site where the bomb dropped. Reading the signs about how there were school children doing volunteer work at the park when the bomb was dropped gave me goosebumps.

The food: Basically 3 things are “must-eats” in Hiroshima.

  1. Pancake with soba noodles or udon
  2. Oysters
  3. Noodles in a cold spicy dip

More info can be found HERE on the famous food Hiroshima has to offer.

So far, we’ve had moments of sheer exhaustion (especially on Day 1) to moments where we feel that we’ve got this traveling-with-a-toddler business under control e.g. Nat is adequately fed, slept enough, showered and most importantly, alive and safe.

The next 3 days will be spent in Okayama for the middle leg of our trip!

– CK

Ipoh in 3 days!

For the March school hols this year, we couldn’t escape to Japan to see cherry blossoms because I was involved in a major work event. So our Japan trip has moved to June and we decided to go Ipoh in March. I was intrigued by Ipoh because it is not only historical but also very rustic and eclectic – totally my kind of place…

Day 1: We took the afternoon flight out of Singapore so only dinner was planned for our first day after checking in.

  • The ‘must-eat’ pitstop was the famous beansprout chicken at the Old Town side – Restoran Tauge Ayam Lou Wong

Day 2: Prior to coming here, I booked a day tour to bring us around the city. We booked our tour from Ipoh Secrets, which was highly recommended by my colleagues who have been to Ipoh.

What was initially a small group tour of 8-9 people became a ‘private’ one with only the two of us and our guide, John!

Here’s where we went in summary. The sites in the heritage trail are very near each other so they’re very walkable even without a guide.

Ipoh Heritage Trail – we started with the former Ipoh Town Hall aka the Taj Mahal of Ipoh.

The Town Hall is opposite the Ipoh Railway Station, which is still in operation. It used to have a hotel on the second level but the hotel has ceased operation for more than a decade. John also shared with us about the “Ipoh” tree, that collapsed in the 1990s. It apparently has poisonous sap, which was used to kill someone before. True or false – I think we won’t really know.

Nearby is the Birch Memorial Clock Tower where our guide told us the history of the first resident of Perak and how he was resented by the locals and eventually assassinated. The memorial was subsequently erected by his son, Ernest Birch, the 8th resident of Perak.

As a History educator, it was very interesting to see how certain versions of history are celebrated while others are purposely erased by something as simple as the renaming of street names.

Then we walked through some of the old streets, in particular, the Concubine Lanes. What was formerly a street for the second and third wives of wealthy men is now a tourist lane with small shops.

Before lunch, John drove us to a house selling handmade charcoal-baked pastries. Sadly, the coal oven isn’t fired up as often anymore because the owner is going to retire soon.

Post-lunch, we made a trip to the first cave temple – Sam Poh Tong. It’s an active place of worship and extremely tranquil. It also had a Japanese pond with koi fishes and turtles. I personally like to visit temples that have elements of nature like the relics in Siem Reap and those in Japan, that are surrounded by gardens.

Next up was the famous and supposedly haunted Kellie’s Castle, which was my main place of interest. It’s a 25-30min drive out of Ipoh town so one can also go without a tour guide.

I can now conclude that I’m a castle-junkie because every trip thus far that has castles to see, they have appeared on my itinerary. UK in 2014, Germany in 2015, Japan in 2011 and 2017 and now Ipoh.

Our last stop of the afternoon was another cave temple – Kek Lok Tong. It had started to rain but that turned out to be a blessing in disguise because during wet weather, water will drip down the stalagmites inside the limestone caves.

After the tour ended, we headed to Plan B, a cafe/bar that was formerly an opera house for a late afternoon snack.

At night, we cabbed to the New Town side to shop at Ipoh Parade mall because shops at the Old Town close by 5pm.

Day 3: We had half a day to sight-see before flying back so we reserved a tour at Han Chin Pet Soo – the Hakka Miners’ Club, the oldest Chinese club in Ipoh.

Interesting fact we found out about our hotel – Sarang Paloh Heritage Stay & Event Hall…. it was the former OCBC bank!

This is one main reasons why we had such a fulfilling trip to Ipoh…everything around the Old Town is so rich in history and I personally prefer the slower pace of the place compared to Penang.

I highly recommend our hotel, it’s so eclectic and filled with antique furniture that I wished my home had more of. The staff are also very welcoming and helpful.

Ipoh, you were simply amazing.

And now, I need to get over my travel withdrawal because I have to go back to work tomorrow.

– CK

Travel Fever

Only a month of 2018 has gone by and I’m in need of another escape from reality. I know this mood swing will pass but I just feel the urge to do what I want, without having to consider so many things. In line with that, I can’t wait for our upcoming vacays – a short trip to Ipoh in March (w/o the kiddo) and a longer one back to Japan June (w Nat!). Yep, it’s our 1st overseas trip with him… he’ll be 19 months old and we chose Hiroshima because in my gut, Japan felt right and we’re both having withdrawals from our Japan trip in Dec 2017.

Ipoh was a recent, rather last-minute decision despite it being on my mind for weeks.

We just wanted to go somewhere nearby for a 3-day trip during the March term break.

  • Malacca was one of the choices but I don’t think I can last 4 hours on a coach.
  • Bangkok was also considered but HJ explicitly requested for a place that isn’t too chaotic and city-like.
  • I thought of Phuket, but we had gone there in 2015 so I didn’t feel like going back so soon.
  • There was just something about Ipoh – it’s history, food and the fact that it’s not as touristy as Malacca or Phuket that drew me towards it. So Ipoh it is then!

More on how I ended up deciding on Japan with Nat in another post because Netflix and supper awaits.

Tokyo and Kyoto in a week

Japan – you have been awesome! Will share briefly how we covered Tokyo-Kyoto-Nara & Yokohama within a week in this post. Now, at least HJ is open to more trips when he previously stayed away after the 2011 nuclear plant incident. Osaka-Kobe-Hiroshima next time? We’ll see. I really don’t fancy Osaka that much but it’s an inroad to Kobe and Hiroshima, which I’m more interested in.

Day 1: 28/11 (Tue)

  • Departed Singapore for Tokyo
  • We chose a night flight so that we can snooze on board and start touring once we arrive

Day 2: 29/11 (Wed)

  • Arrived in Tokyo early at 7am
  • Visited the Yasukuni Shrine after we stored our bags at our hotel near Shinjuku station. I missed this site during my previous trip to Tokyo in 2011 so it was a must-go for me in view of its historical significance. 
  • We didn’t go to the Meiji Shrine as it was not on HJ’s must-see list and I had also visited the shrine in 2011 but if you stay near Shinjuku or Shibuya, the Meiji Shrine is quite nearby!
  • After checking in, I bought HJ to see the main tourist spots in the city around Shinjuku, Shibuya and Harajuku since it’s his first time in Toyko.

Day 3: 30/11 (Thurs)

  • Left Tokyo for Kyoto via Shinkansen, which was where I wanted to spent the bulk of our trip (3 days, 2 nights in total).
  • Kyoto has A LOT of temples but we narrowed down to a few must-sees that was near our hotel. They are the Fushimi Inari Shrine and the Kiyomizudera Temple, both of which can take up the whole afternoon and evening if you take your own sweet time.
  • We also managed to visit a few malls i.e. Takashimaya in the evening. The big malls close daily at 8pm, which is quite early compared to Singapore standards so one way is to go shopping first and then have dinner after 8pm since most food places open until 10/11pm.

Day 4: 1/12 (Fri)

  • We set off early to visit the must-see Arashiyama bamboo forest and the Kinkaku-ji temple (golden pavilion), which is in the same area as the bamboo forest so these two sites should be done together. 
  • If we had more time, I would have visited the Tenryu-ji temple, another UNESCO heritage site that is located quite near the bamboo forest. One can visit the temple first, and then exit via the garden, to enter the bamboo forest grove.
  • In the afternoon, we took a day trip to Nara (45 minutes away by train on the JR Nara line) to see wild deers roaming in Nara Park. The sun sets around 430pm during the winter season so we had to ensure that we reached Nara by 3pm so that we could spend some time in the park with the deers.
  • The famous Todai-ji temple (with the giant Buddha) is also located in the park and closes at 5pm.
  • We spent the evening having dinner and did some souvenir shopping in Nara before heading back to Kyoto for the night.

Day 5: 2/12 (Sat)

  • For our last morning in Kyoto, we decided to go to the silver pavilion – Ginkaku-ji temple, after having visited the golden one.
  • Near the temple is also the Philosopher’s Path, which is famous for being lined with peach blossoms but as it was the tail-end of autumn, we got to see a myriad of orange and red leaves instead.
  • In the afternoon, we headed back to Tokyo via Shinkansen and spent the rest of the evening shopping for more souvenirs at Tokyo station, Ikebukuro and Sunshine City.

Day 6: 3/12 (Sun)

  • On our second last day, we decided to go to Yokohama, specifically to visit the Ramen museum and Nissin cup noodles museum.
  • If we had more time, maybe I would have visited the Kirin beer museum? However, between the 3, HJ preferred the food-related ones.

Day 7: 4/12 (Sun)

  • Half a day in Tokyo and flight back to SG

In retrospect, if we had 1 more day, to really max out the 7 day rail pass, I might have included a trip to Mt. Fuji.

Between Mt. Fuji and Yokohama, we chose to do the latter instead because HJ did not really want to take a a 2.5 hr bus ride to Mt. Fuji to and fro Tokyo. After all, I had also been to Hakone and Mt. Fuji on my previous trip in 2011 but Yokohama City was the first for the both of us.

So visiting Tokyo & Kyoto 6-7 days is very doable. It just needs advanced planning and scoping of the sites depending on what you want to really see and do. Based on the sites that we planned to visit, buying the nationwide rail pass (SGD$345) was more worth it vs. paying for one-way trip tickets. The pass also included the Narita Express ticket and it can be used on any JR Line.

Between the two cities, we definitely preferred the slower pace of Kyoto! Am so glad we spent almost half the time there.

We will surely be back to Japan in the near future! HJ says next year – that’s too soon for me but I definitely won’t wait 6 years to come back unlike my previous trip in 2011!

CK

Last trip without Nat

We’re in Japan for our end of year trip while Nat is having his own ‘vacation’ at my mom’s. This is our longest time away from him – 7 days. He still seems rather oblivious? Actually, Nat has never been very clingy but after 6 days, we are eager to see him ! For our next trip in 2018, guess he will be traveling with us…

Generally, 2017 has been an awesome year vacation-wise.

We managed to go to Hanoi (June), Hong Kong (Aug), Penang (Sept) and now Japan.

Partly, it was to make up for a whole year of being in Singapore when I was expecting Nat.

HJ also does not want to travel with Nat yet because it’s very different, traveling with and without a baby. Bluntly speaking, dealing with a carrier, pram, milk powder and diapers isn’t what we have in mind when we think of a vacation.

Yet, I think after a year of reliving our 2015 travel days, I’m ready to bring Nat along with us next year. He’ll be 1 year plus and not really a baby anymore. We’ll see how it goes…

CK

Dream Away 

I came across this photograph in a shophouse along Love Lane, Penang and bought it because there was a plethora of thoughts that came to mind. I thought of HJ’s dream(s), thought of my previous dream or fantasy to study and live in Germany. I wanted to walk away but I kept thinking about it so now I get to bring this home and then maybe, be reminded that it’s never too late to make things happen. 

The shop lady then told us that this was previously along Stewart Lane, but has since been painted over. What a pity. 

So back to this idea of dreams. 

There is no way I have any regrets when I look at how blessed we are, especially now with Nat. 

Maybe my only regret is not going for a student exchange in University?

Some days I also think about how things could have been if we didn’t have a family of our own yet – could we both be overseas studying and living for a year? 

Or maybe we won’t even have done that because of other commitments like our jobs and families? 

Technically, even with a family of our own, that can still happen but I’m always hampered by fear. 

Fear of losing security, fear of the unknown, fear of being lonely, fear of getting out there and being vulnerable. This then rubs off on HJ as well because whatever he does, also takes into consideration how I feel. 

Maybe what I need is a long vacation in Europe? Long enough to see the bulk of the places I yearn to visit e.g. Eastern Europe, Italy… Maybe this can still happen but just not now? 

Owell, for now I shall just bring the photograph home and be reminded of my dreams. Hopefully, I will be able to actualise some of them. 

– CK

Hong Kong 

Our HK trip in summary – some history and scenery but mostly walking, shopping and eating. Next time, in a few years, we will most probably be back with Nat but with a very different itinerary. I’m excited to go home tomorrow because I could do with a break from all the sweet and oily food and of course, see our monkey, Nat 🙂

In terms of visiting HK, here’s some tips we picked up along the way.

1. Decide which side you want to stay – Kowloon or HK island. 

  • Previously, when I visited HK with my family in 2010, I stayed on the Kowloon side. This time, I decided to stay on the HK island side for something different. 

2. Book a hotel NEAR an MTR exit. 

  • This may sound straight forward enough but there’s a difference between somewhere that is “2 minutes” walk from the sub vs. “5-8 minutes” walk, especially during the summer heat! Originally I booked at Butterfly on Hollywood Road but changed it to Kew Green Hotel Wan Chai as the latter was a much shorter walk from the Wan Chai MTR exit (2-3minutes). Although, Hollywood Road is nearer to the central part with all the food and nightlife/bars so it all depends on your preferences.

3. Sheung Wan/Central/Admirality was where we ate mostly.

  • Prior to the trip, I already knew where I wanted to go and eat. Most of the places was recommended by this blog entry. It is a shorter list compared to this other HK food guide that has 20+ listings but it was useful cross-referencing both of them during our pre-trip planning. 
  • In retrospect, I think the bulk of our trip was about locating these ‘must-eat’ places in HK and walking off the calories via shopping. 

4. Causeway Bay, TST and Citygate was where we shopped.

  • This one is really to each his own because HJ and I are not a fan of markets – Ladies Market, Stanley Market etc. Basically, any street market isn’t our cup of tea. That left us with mostly shopping malls in the above mentioned areas. Most of Nat’s items were bought from this mall called iSquare. They have both Babies’R’us and Mothercare! We also found clothes for him from Zara Kids @ Central that costs SGD$5 for a shirt?! 

5. Visiting between Oct-Dec may be the best time.

  • The next time we visit, I’d pick the cooler Winter months for the following reasons: 
  1. August is quite hot as it is still summer with temperatures ranging from 31-34 degrees. 
  2. We would have liked to see some horse racing for fun but found out there are no races during the summer months of July and August as it is too warm for the horses.
  3. September is the typhoon period for HK so even though it’s not as hot as July and August, there may be typhoons and/or heavy rain. 
  4. The seasonal flu season in HK is also from July to August although this year saw HK’s flu season begin a bit earlier in May/June. We both took our annual flu jabs earlier in the year so hopefully we don’t come down with anything. 

One ‘hidden find’ we came across was a legit and good foot massage place @ Central called ZEN Massage and Foot Massage – 98 Wellington St. 

  • We went there on the evening of our 2nd day because we had really walked TOO MUCH. Sometimes if our designated location was inbetween MTR stops, we’ll walk there instead of taking the train. If the location was 2 stops away by bus, we would also rather walk since it’s technically very near. So by the end of day 2, we abandoned our plans to go to the hotel gym because I think all the walking made up for all our eating! 

All in all, I think we have had enough city trips for 2017 so I guess our next escapade out of Singapore should be somewhere more relaxing? 

– CK