jeudi, avril 16, 2015

First Time Skiing in Japan (Niseko, Hokkaido, March-April 2015)

View of Mount Yotei (Ezo Fuji)

With the exception of The Young Adult who started at age 4, my kids started learning how to ski when they were barely 3. No matter where we were in the world (e.g. USA, Germany, Italy...), we would return to France to ski in the French Alps.

We did that 3 years running even when we were living in China. It was a total hassle, very tiring, not to forget expensive. One year we had a connecting flight (Paris to Lyon) cancelled, had our baggage (containing the ski suits) delayed, and missed our bus connecting Lyon airport to the ski station. Total nightmare.

Call it ski chauvinism, but Hub and the kids were convinced (still are) that there is nowhere better or more suitable for alpine skiing than the French Alps. Until the year before, the Babies were also taking ski lessons with the Ecole Française du Ski (ESF) and only decided to stop when they all had their Bronze Star. Baby Boy now talks of eventually trying for the Gold Star, probably because he realises that he could still improve his technique and enjoy skiing even more as a result.

I decided to put a stop to this skiing business for this year, for no way was I going to go through all that hassle yet again for a week of freezing cold and sore legs. Needless to say I'm hopeless at the sport, having picked it up too old and being afraid of my own shadow. I'm totally out of shape, so skiing can only be a torture for me. Yet I've reached the stage where I get really bored doing the easy runs and am too slow for the more challenging ones.

Looking at their disappointed faces, I relented and proposed a compromise: why don't we go to Korea (because air tickets are cheaper)? Hub was absolutely not motivated as he had never heard of Korea being a great place for skiing. I reminded him of the Winter Olympics, but he just had to be stubborn about it.

Then I remembered Japan. I have a friend who has been skiing there for nearly 2 decades and loved it. Hub has heard good things about Niseko too, about the powder snow, important snowfall and the efficient logistics. By the time we decided to go, the only holidays we had left was Spring/Easter Break, so we bought tickets to New Chitose for end March, booked a log cabin at Hirafu and prayed for snow.

On the way to Niseko

We arrived in Hokkaido on a sunny day and the plane (China Eastern), miraculously, was on time. We even had the time to grab a delicious pasta lunch before we settled onto our comfortable Hokkaido Resort Liner bus to Hirafu. The transfer lasted 2,5 hours and we were picked up at the Hirafu Welcome Centre by our hosts Tohsan and Kahsan of Fullnote Pension.

During peak season, it will probably not be possible for us to sleep in the log cabin which can house up to 10 people. But we were more or less the only guests there that week, it being almost the end of the Season. In fact, most restaurants were closed or closing, many shuttle buses stopped running and even the airport transfers would stop a week after our departure (or already had).

Fullnote log cabin

But we had our log cabin. It had a living area with a tiny kitchen in a corner (even a piano), a loft with tatami sleeping area and a basement with a WC, bath and 2 bedrooms. The smell of fuel was a little too strong in the basement and I worried a little about the kids suffocating in their sleep, but apparently they survived. Breakfast was included and freshly prepared each morning in the main house where there are rooms and shared toilets and showers, as well as a live jazz bar.

Shaba shabu at the pension

We rented our skis from Tohsan (the pension owner) and he also took charge of our ski lift passes. You could also order dinner from him (usually weekends) and we asked for shabu shabu on Friday evening which was done just the way we liked it. Very gentle and kind hosts who would drive us to and from the main ski lifts, while a free shuttle service from Hanazono stops just opposite Woody Note which is run by Tohsan's younger brother.

Skiing in Grand Hirafu

We had lovely weather most days except for one where it rained non-stop all day. It was amazing skiing with sunshine and under blue skies, and they were not exaggerating when they mentioned powder snow because it was the most beautiful snow I've ever skied on. The French Alps do indeed offer more exciting runs and gave meaning to alpine skiing, but one skies on volcanoes here in Niseko meaning usually wide runs that are not too steep. I also love the trees dotting the mountains in Hirafu and Hanazono, hopefully I will be good enough to paint them soon.

Love the trees

There are 4 ski villages here and we personally feel that concentrating on just Greater Hirafu (including Hanazono) is enough for a short week. The restaurant at Hanazono 308 was also our favourite though it was quite expensive. The teriyaki pork don was yummy.

Most amazing onion rings at Niseko Ramen

Food is a highlight of skiing at Niseko and it was unfortunate that so many eating places were already closed for the season when we were there. We managed to dine at Niseko Ramen next door on its last night open, at Nihonbashi in Kutchan (totally recommend) and at a few other places near our pension that were all quite good actually. I have put on 3 kgs after a week of ramen, different sweet-sauce meat-based dons, tempura, grilled fish, pizzas, fried chicken and yakitoris (because I do not eat raw fish). There is a Seico mart near our pension and we would visit it every day, lugging back choco pies, ice cream, Pokki sticks and soft drinks. You could hear HK tourists in the supermarket exclaiming over how cheap everything was, I guess at current exchange rates between the Yen and the HK Dollar, Japan must seem cheap to them.

I decided to take a break from skiing one day (also to give those poor guys a break as they were sick and tired of waiting for me on the runs) and explored lower Hirafu on foot. Love the architecture in the neighbourhood! Interesting combination of wood, concrete, lots of glass. Walked past the onsen (bath house), but the kids didn't like the idea of bathing naked with strangers (so prudish, mind you) so we didn't try it out.

Exploring lower Hirafu on foot

I wish we had discovered Niseko earlier. At the same time, the domains are not extensive enough for the rest of my family who are good skiers, but I certainly enjoy skiing there on that powder snow and very wide runs. There is also this dilemma about when best to go to Niseko; we enjoy skiing in late Winter/early Spring when the days are longer and there is usually sunshine, but it carries with it the risk of not enough snow. In Niseko, it also means fewer restaurants and buses and no live jazz at Half Note.

Finally, did I mention the heated toilet seats and integrated bidets almost everywhere in Niseko? Love it, such a clean and civilised country! Only at New Chitose airport were we reminded that we would be returning to China - starting at the check-in queue. Chinese family behind us literally stuck themselves onto our backs (instead of standing behind in the queue) when we were at the counter, and were complaining loudly when they were not served the minute the next counter was free (what was the point of sticking themselves to us actually when the queue was for 2 counters?)

Sayonara, Hokkaido, till the next time!

mercredi, avril 15, 2015

A day on Pulau Ubin and Chek Jawa (August 2014)

Pulau Ubin, Singapore

One positive thing about being an Overseas Singaporean is the pleasure I discover playing tourist in my own country each time I return home. When I was a teenager, I thought that it would be really cool to travel around the world and stay on my own. I still think it great, but I also look forward to seeing my parents in our old flat and getting back into "the routine" once I'm back on the island. Just thinking about this makes me homesick and with age the feeling intensifies.

Singapore is both a concrete jungle and a garden city. It is both a modern city and a place steeped in traditions practised by those who occupy its heartlands. I have learnt over the years to look beyond the facades of modernity into the true Singapore where new and old, east and west merge or co-exist in various degrees. We really do have the best of many worlds.

Last August, I finally brought my family of 5 to Pulau Ubin. The last time I visited was probably back in the 1990s when I was an Elderly Befriender volunteer with the Ang Mo Kio Social Service Centre. Us volunteers occasionally received training from the social workers and we also had bonding trips to help us remain more coherent as a group (consisting of people from very diverse backgrounds and ages as it was).

From Changi Point to Pulau Ubin jetty

Today, Pulau Ubin (Granite Island) probably has one of the last kampongs left in Singapore. Heard that only 38 people lived on the 10km2 island in 2012, from the few thousand back in the 1960s. We took a bumboat from Changi Point Ferry Terminal one morning after it had 12 passengers onboard.

Hub loved the island - the laid-back, old Singapore feel, the greenery, mud tracks, wooden houses...It was almost like stepping back into time, into another world. And it's so cool because it's so near to modern Singapore.

The Village

Make a quick visit to the public toilets near the jetty before you set out to explore the island unless you fancy doing it out in the nature with possible visits from gigantic monitor lizards while you are at it. We came across one as we were cycling and it was impressive how it hit a van (with its powerful tail) which was parked next to it (the driver stopped to take a picture of said lizard). It was scary and fascinating at the same time. There was also a family of wild pigs near Chek Jawa that residents seemed to be familiar with.

Some of the wild residents

Before we rented our bikes (easy to do so from any of the several shops lining the main street of the main village), we visited a vegetable garden (with deadly mosquitoes, so do come equipped with long sleeves and pants or powerful creams) and walked through the village. The bikes had seen better days, but what the heck, it's all part of the rustic nature of the island, besides they were not expensive to rent. A couple of cyclists have lost on their lives on "cemetery road" while going downhill or engaging abrupt ends so do consider hiring a helmet too.

Quarry lakes and wooden houses

We discovered that Ubin has a world-class Ketam mountain biking trail, and saw a couple of guys with special bikes going on it. It poured at some point when we were on the island and we took shelter in one of the various shelters along the tracks. Fortunately, rain doesn't usually last long in Singapore, you get a shower and then life continues.

The island is very green and the quarry lakes are beautiful. We didn't go on any guided tour because the timing wasn't right, but do check out the NParks website for guided walks or visits on the island.

Chek Jawa

We did visit Chek Jawa though. There is a boardwalk (through mangroves and the coastline) that is open daily from 8:30am to 6pm and you leave your bikes in a parking area near its entrance. We also climbed up the Jejawi Tower for a view of the canopy and surrounding islands. I loved the viewing jetty in the sea, felt just so calm and peaceful.

View of the canopy

Before leaving the island, those who love seafood could dine in the village. We didn't since the younger kids do not eat seafood, but I heard the food there was quite good.

On certain Sundays, I believe that a Malay cooking class is held in one of the wooden houses, maybe I'll return one of these days for the experience. I've never lived in a kampong before, having started out my life in a 3-room HDB flat in Toa Payoh.

Bye bye Ubin!

I hope that Pulau Ubin would be allowed to remain idyllic and not too developed so that mainlanders could have somewhere to go to if they would like to take a break from city life; not to mention remember a bit of the past by.

vendredi, avril 03, 2015

Remembering Mr Lee Kuan Yew (1923-2015)

Thank you, Mr. Lee, you will always be my hero! R.I.P.

I am who I am - because you were

I can lift my head high and walk with my back straight - because of you

I dare to dream and I dare to do - because you did

I have the courage of my convictions - because you had them first.

No one has inspired and motivated me as much as you had, Sir. I thank you for a life of struggle, of tough decisions (and the courage it took to make them), of vision, of leadership by example and of devotion to the Nation. May you join your beloved wife in rest and in peace. 

Thank you, Mr Lee Kuan Yew. 

I promise to always try my best and keep the flame burning, that we do not squander all that you have built for and with us.

Majullah Singapura!