Monday, March 31, 2014

Japan Holiday - Day 5

This morning we leave Jiragonno for Tokyo, our final stop before flying home tomorrow via Haneda International Airport. Being a nature person I really prefer the countryside than the city. But visiting Japan without going to its capital is incomplete.

Tokyo is the most populated metropolis in the world with a population of  more than 13 million. One would expect traffic jams and air pollution in Tokyo but surprisingly they were very well managed. Perhaps this is to be expected knowing how serious the Japanese are to tackle problems before they get out of control. I've full admiration of the cleanliness of Japan. From the airport to the hotels and the many sightseeing spots we went I tried finding faults. Strangely I saw no littering in parks, malls, eateries, toilets and anywhere people congregate. It seems the Japanese were taught to NOT litter from young and any rubbish they generate like sweet wrappers or tooth pick they pocket to be thrown in the next available bins. There are almost no litter bins in public places like airports and shopping streets. In the Ueno Park we visited the authorities set up several large boxes for the public to throw in garbage according to categories for recycling. You won't see litters on the ground for sure. If you do you can take it they were thrown by foreigners. And people don't spit or vandalize public properties. Japanese are very organized and obedient.

The other thing that amazed me is the near absence of air pollution. Colin said the transportation authorities ruled only vehicles with the strictest gas emission control are allowed into the city. Which is why you won't see old vehicles entering Tokyo.

The standard of construction of roads and highways, including flyovers and signboards is extremely high. In these 5 days I didn't ride over any bumps nor saw faulty street lights, traffic lights or signage. Most certainly I didn't see signboards blocked by trees. Everything coexist beautifully. Roads, railway lines, low rise buildings, electric poles, signboards, traffic lights and vehicles of all sizes, and pedestrian traffic, there were no obstructions or stress. The only jam I encountered was in Kyoto and that was due to the Sunday traffic into the temple. Tokyo wins my admiration. Colin stays in Tokyo and love it more than the smaller cities. He can get everything yet not suffer the big city blues.

In Tokyo we visited the Imperial Palace park, walked part of Ginza, rested in Ueno Park and caught several Sakura blooming. No, we were too early by a week to see the full bloom, but it was a choice of experiencing ice in Fuji and less bloom or vice versa.

We visited the large Asakusa Kannon Temple in the Asakusa district. It is one of the most popular and colorful temples we've seen. Thousands of devotees and visitors like us thronged the temple to pray, make offering or just sightsee. The Japanese are mostly staunch Buddhists who weave their faith into their daily lives. As Christians I observe they have many disciplines worth emulating. Their faith help them develop a cohesive society and apply the teachings and values to make Japan a country to be emulated. Their leadership in technology, mass productions of automobiles, watches, electronic gadgets, computers, toys, medicine, personal care products, etc is testimony to the emphasis they place on children education.

Lastly we visited the Toyota showroom in Odaiba to view a wide display of Toyota vehicles. In the 1960s Japan was the great copycat of automobile engineering. In less than 30 years they became a major automobile producer and exporter. Today they are at par with the Americans and Germans. Toyota is the biggest car maker in the world today, producing on average 10 million vehicles yearly. It is the largest public listed company on the Tokyo stock exchange by market capitalization.

We fly back the next afternoon from Haneda International Airport. It was very impressive. I left Japan with awe and admiration. Would I visit Japan again? Good chance of going to Hokkaido.

For a photo gallery of this day's travel, check my Facebook album HERE.

Japan Holiday - Day 4

Why are Japanese houses and rooms so small? The hotel rooms we stayed so far confirm this impression. According to Colin that's because Japan is a very hilly country with 70% of the land being mountainous. Only 6% is available for building houses so the Japanese have to economize. They also cannot build high as the country is earthquake prone. Being squeezed for space forced the Japanese to be innovative and creative in space management. Even the roads and highways are narrower by international standards. This force the drivers to be more skillful and develop courtesy and patience.

So another day has gone. Leaving Hana Isawa the entire reception staff came out to wave us goodbye. It wasn't Sayonara but Mata, ai mashou which means See You Again. Colin said it is the onsen hotel tradition, wishing we will return soon to enjoy their hotspring bath again. They waved even when we were far away until we lost sight of them. I've not experienced this anywhere before.

Today we're going up close to Mount Fuji. Along the way those with good view from the coach started snapping pictures. Later we stopped by Oshino Hakkai (after the Fanuc robotic arm manufacturing company) near Mt Fuji where eight ponds receiving melted snow water flowing into them. We took a group photo with Fuji in the background and drank pure spring water from Fuji. It tasted really pure and good.

At our next stop, the Gotemba Peace Park, we took more photos with Fuji standing elegantly in the background. We were really blessed to have fine weather either great visibility. We had our lunch break at the food courts of the Gotemba Premium Outlets. We tried getting as close as possible to Mt Fuji but only managed to get to the first pass at 1291m above sea level. During summer tourists can get higher to see the peak at closer range. For us this is the closest. With zoom lens the peak look really pretty. We took pictures in the icy forest to muse over in later years.

We stayed at the Jiragonno Fuji no Yakata tonight. It is another onsen hotel. We went for hot spring bath again. By comparison I'd say the Hana Isawa though older is better. I had mixed feelings as tomorrow will be our last day here in Japan.

For a sighting of the lovely photos taken today, please visit my Facebook album HERE.

Japan Holiday - Day 3

The Japanese came from Mongolia according to Colin. I didn't know that. Which makes the Mongolians their forefathers and should be proud as the Japs are smart and industrious people. Colin also said the Mongols tried twice to conquer Japan but failed. I cannot imagine if they succeeded. Would we be driving non-Japanese cars now? And no Sony, Canon, Panasonic, etc?

My internet research didn't confirm what Colin said. Here's a link to read if you are interested.

The weather continues to remain fantastic as we make our way northward from Gifu into the historic village of Shirakawa-go, another UNESCO world heritage site. It is a mountain village located at the highest peak on Mount Haku in the Ryōhaku Mountains. Almost 96% is covered by forest and this area is the snowiest place not only in Japan but the whole world! To get there our coach driver drove for 3 hours up the gradual mountain slopes traversing some 20 tunnels the longest of which is 11 km long. As we edge uphill towards the 1000m above sea level mark we started seeing snow in the distant hills then closer, even by the slopes. Being in early spring we still see lots of ice so you can imagine how it would appear during winter.

The outside temperature is 5°C but without a wind we didn't feel cold. We arrived at the lookout area perched over the village to take remembrance photos before proceeding down into the village itself to visit the museum, had a lovely lunch nearby that include wagyu beef which tasted soft and tender. We spent an hour strolling the main street of the village which is mostly uninhabited and admired the unique buildings covered with thatched roofings that you can read more HERE.

Leaving the village we next visited Takayama Jinja, a national historic site. Takayama Jinja was a branch office of the Edo Bakufu government from 1692 to 1868. But in 1867 Bakufu lost its political power and was returned to Emperor Meiji.

The visit to the mountains was the first highlight of this holiday that I shall always remember so it was with sadness to return to the lowlands to our hotel, the Hotel Hana Isawa which is an onsen or hotspring hotel. This is a most memorable night in which we were asked to wear the yukata (literally bath robe) and jinpe (optional overcoat) and sandals for a cross-legged dinner traditional style.

THIS is how you should wear the yukata. An excellent pictorial guide for ladies is found HERE. And a FORUM on wearing yukata in public.
THIS is how to take a hotbath in public.

It was a lovely experience for us. In between dinner and the onsen, which only a few of our tour group had the courage to go (you basically bath naked with strangers in a common same sex only hot bath) but we did and have not regretted it, we were treated to a 30 minutes free acrobatic show by three Chinese girls contracted by the hotel to entertain the guests after dinner.

Tonight we sleep on futons. I like the firmness sleeping on tatami mats but finding difficulty getting up I prefer regular beds. But the experience is treasured. And I did have a great sleep, especially after pampering my body to a hot bath.

Please check my Facebook HERE for a selection of today's holiday photos.






Sunday, March 30, 2014

Japan Holiday - Day 2

Colin is a good story teller, a convincing one. I'm sure whatever he shared with us about Japanese history, her values and practices accurately reflect the truth. These are what I learnt yesterday:

1. Sakura or cherry blossom was not of Japanese origin. They were brought over from the Himalayas a thousand years ago and adopted as its national flower. Likewise the Japanese didn't claim to have founded the art of soy sauce making but credited the Chinese. In fact they credited a lot to China - language, philosophy, attire, family values and art and calligraphy, among other things.
2. The Japanese consider spring a very important national festival. Everything is centered around spring - marriage, starting a career, start of school and university semesters, moving houses and many other major life events they want to hold them in spring.
3. Japan forbid the use of cheap foreign labour including domestic maids and factory workers. She encourages locals and students to find jobs to be self sustaining.
4. Japan place great emphasis on quality of family and education. Japanese wives would not work when they start having children but focus on raising them with good education and family values. The husbands are sole income providers while the wives look after the well-being of the families. Wives sacrifice their lives for the betterment of the whole Japanese society.
5. Japanese are great believers and practitioners of perfection. They copied as much as they can but improve upon what they copied. They pay great attention to designs, shapes, colors and arrangements. They are forerunners in industrial and scientific designs and technologies.
6. The Japanese appreciate nature, peacefulness, inner and external balance and tranquility. They believe in honesty and trust building and would not be abusive or ill-tempered.

ohayou gozaimasu!

Today we enjoyed our breakfast in the hotel before moving out to Osaka to see the famous Osaka Castle before continuing into Nara for lunch. As we didn't have time to tour the castle we toured the castle park instead and took an number of photos for remembrance. At Nara we had our first lunch seated Japanese style i.e. on tatami mats. Some of the tour members find it difficult cross-legging so was glad when told this is the only time we will eat this way. After lunch we had the chance to buy souvenirs downstairs. It was there I accidentally dropped my Canon Powershot S100 but fortunately it dented a corner and not crack the LCD screen. Nara is well known for its deer park where some 1200 wild sika deers roam freely. Inside the Nara Park is the famous Todaiji Temple which we visited.

Our next stop was Kyoto which is an hour away but due to the weekend traffic towards the Kiyomizu-deraTemple (an UNESCO world cultural heritage site) the journey took an extra half hour. The access to the temple is via a narrow alley lined on both sides by souvenir and snack shops. I almost disconnected with my group and was relieved to spot the flag held high by Colin.

The tour today ended when we were driven to Gifu just over 2 hours away north-east from Kyoto. Temperature is getting cooler as we headed towards the mountain area. We stayed at the Hotel Resol Gifu tonight.

For pictures of today's tour please check my Facebook album HERE.




Japan Holiday - Day 1

We took two flights on Cathay Pacific, from KLIA to Hong Kong and from Hong Kong to Kansai International Airport, arriving at 6.00am on March 22 to begin our holiday. Our local tour guide for the 5 days was Colin Tanaka, a Japanese of Taiwanese descent, a short affable man who showed great enthusiasm and flair in his work. We like him from the moment he met us outside the arrival hall. The itinerary today include visits to a Buddhist temple in Wakayama, the Kuroshio fish market, Yuasa Town and the Shinbaisashi shopping street in Osaka before we head back to Kansai Airport Washington Hotel for our first night stay.

We had arrived Japan at the beginning of its Spring Festival when the Japanese people came out to enjoy the arrival of spring, the blooming of cherry blossom, the open air and visit the temples to pray and give thanks to the gods. Colin confessed we had to stay in Washington Hotel as those in Osaka have been fully booked and cost twice as much to stay. We had our first Japanese meal at lunch but were shown where to look for our dinner inside a shopping area nearby the hotel. It was an interesting experience. Upon making an order and paying for it we were given a beeper which sound when the food is ready. It was a self service concept and we return the trays when finished. This is where we can find food for less than ¥1000.

Wakayama is the capital city of the prefecture of the same name located south of Kansai about half hour drive away. The city was just awakening when we arrived about 8.30am local time and we climbed the 100 steps neatly cut stone stairway to the temple above to view the Kinokawa River beyond. The weather was chilly at 7°C. Being just hours descended from the plane we didn't have our gloves with us so was somewhat under-dressed. Climbing the stairs was manageable but coming down took careful and measured steps as my knees weren't as good as before. Up at the temple we spied a cherry blossom beginning to bloom while all the other trees were still carry buds that seems at least a week away from opening. We were quite excited and started snapping photos with it.

At the Kuroshio market we waited for the tuna cutting demonstration to start and window shopped the various stalls. All the labels and price tags were in Japanese so it was hard to guess some of the less familiar marine food and preserved foodstuff on sale.

At the Yuasa town the soy sauce museum people were unprepared for our visit. A middle aged Japanese lady hurriedly came out to show us the gathering room where she narrated how the soy sauce industry came to Japan from China some 750 years ago. Colin translated.

The last stop was to Osaka's shopping streets in Shinbaisashi where for 2 hours we walked about among the mostly young Japanese folks, mostly girls, sometimes jostling for space, and not really feeling productive. I'd rather be sitting in a park bench to rest, if you know what I mean. A 3-boy band was busking to a group of watchers mainly young girls and promoting their self produced CDs. I must say they are pretty good and showed great confidence and showmanship. Hopefully some major record producers spot them.

Please refer to my Facebook for the photo albums HERE.


Thursday, March 20, 2014

Chasing Down My Weight

I confess I am not the physically active type. I indulge in few sporting events since school days and I type myself more of a brainy person. Over the past 10 years I could feel myself growing 'prosperous' especially around my waistline. Looking at my older photos I could track the bulge growing. It wasn't alarming really but for my height and weight my Body Mass Index puts me as moderately obese. I have mild hypertension and cholesterol level which are medically managed and under control. Recently I had my blood and urine tested and the results are within expected range. I really should be pleased but I'm not because my pants are getting tight. I recall during my Eastern Europe holiday last year I struggled tucking in my shirt. One unhealthy outcome of holiday is under-exercising and over-eating. I don't want to start my Japan holiday with tight pants as I have to wear two layers of clothing in the cold weather. So 2 weeks ago I decided to control my diet and start exercising. My tummy did get smaller but not impressively but my pants fit better. I decided to diet when my weight hit above 83kg when it was hovering between 78-81kg over the past 2 years. I hope to bring it down to 78kg or less even after the holiday. I had resume walking but the recent haze made it risky and the monsoon season that just started means fewer days to walk when it rains. But I try indoor exercises and cutting back snacking. My rice intake is a third of my usual portion. And I drink freshly prepared vegetable juice. My routine has taken a definite change including half boiled eggs and quick oats instead of bread. I have hunger tinge which I take it as a good sign, it means I've not over-ate.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Upcoming Japan Holiday

After our Eastern Europe holiday in September 2013 I began thinking of our next holiday destination for 2014. I begun having osteoarthritis of my knees and I know I don't have many years left to be able to travel without aid. And the EE holiday taught me to only consider short trips. It isn't I'm not game but my wife doesn't like traveling as much as I do. Plus from 2014 we have more time constraints. Our granddaughter staying with us has started school and any traveling has to be done during her school breaks.

I've never seriously place Japan as a preferred destination, not because of anything I dislike but the impression of high cost of holidaying there. Having been to most of the popular Asian and Australian destinations I have Japan uncovered. I've shortlisted only 2 areas I like to go - the Mount Fuji area in Honshu and Hokkaido. My primary interest is again sightseeing with minimal known strenuous walking. Hokkaido was recommended by a friend but the weather is much colder and only amenable during summer or early autumn. My first choice is the Honshu InDepth 7D/5N package offered by Golden Tourworld Travel or GTT. The attraction is its full board package as I don't need adventure at my age, just the relaxation to be driven and shown nice places and provided all meals like they did for the EE holiday. I was tracking this package since last November but it was only on Jan 7 that I got a departure date and price. The holiday period was perfect. The 7 days covered the first term break. I wasted little time to accept it after informing my wife and children. Nothing apart from something tragic like earthquake or radioactive spillage can derail my plan. Concerns on the Fukushima nuclear plant radioactive spillage is dispelled as this tour itinerary is far from Sendai. On Jan 13 I paid the deposit to secure 2 places for the tour. The balance I paid late February. Visa is not required for this trip.

The recent disappearance of MAS flight MH370 does gave me some anxiety but I quickly dispelled it as an event beyond anyone's control. I decide to put my trust God as I've always did every time I travel overseas. Our tour leader informed me our group size is 23. Over the past days we began to pack. The weather is expected to be cold, from 8-16C, so we pack accordingly. As this tour coincide with the beginning of spring there is a good chance of catching the early bloom of the Sakura flowers. Hope we're lucky and to share here with my readers when I return from Japan.

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Mystery of Flight MH370

How do you explain the sudden disappearance of a 250 tonne jetliner in mid flight? This was what happened to MH370, a code shared flight with China Southern Airline, carrying 227 passengers and a 12 member crew, from Kuala Lumpur International Airport to Beijing in the early hours of March 8. Less than 2 hours after departure, while flying over the Gulf of Thailand and approaching southern Vietnam the plane stopped transmitting and ground controls in both Malaysia and Vietnam were unable to reach the pilot. No prior warning of any mechanical problems was relayed. In fact the pilot's last words when he signed off were "All right, good night," after being told by Malaysian air traffic controllers that he was entering Vietnamese air space. Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah couldn't have felt better now that he could set the plane on auto pilot on course to Beijing and grab some sleep. Neither were the rest of the crew and passengers aware of what came next as they settled down to rest or sleep with the cabin lights dimmed. Beijing was just another 4 hours away.

In one of the biggest aviation mysteries in memory, dozens of aircraft and vessels from an array of countries, including the US Navy, have failed to find a shred of evidence pointing to the plane's fate. The frustration is that aviation technology still couldn't allow a plane's location to be tracked even if its transponder was manually switched off as suggested by some investigators. For now it is like searching for a hairpin in a haystack. But the answer will be forthcoming - be it in days or a year or two. MH370 couldn't just vanish into thin air. Within human reasons just 2 possibilities exist.

1. The plane crashed.
2. The plane was hijacked.

If the plane was hijacked its physical location would be known now. You cannot land a plane this size in a jungle or a remote desert. And the hijackers would have made their demands known already. The twist to this sage is the Malaysian authorities leaked out a day after the disappearance, inadvertently I believe, that the plane had made a U turn and headed towards the Andaman Sea above the Straits of Melaka. Later this was retracted as untrue but there is suspicion why it was leaked initially. Was it the truth but covered up because of political or military sensitivity? If it was then the destination of the plane can be anywhere to the west of peninsular Malaysia as far as the fuel last, which include to Pakistan. If this turns out to be true then there is a good chance that the passengers and crew may be taken hostage and are still alive. We keep our fingers crossed and prayers lifted.

But without any claim made for this disappearance there is a 99.9% chance the plane is lost and the ensuing question is where, in the sea or on land. If it was on land chances are there are witnesses and reports would have been made of its sighting. After 5 days it is most likely the plane had crashed into the sea. This is supported by its flight path and time radar contact was lost. Worst if the plane crashed into the Indian Ocean then search and rescue would be extremely difficult and remote. Then of course the question, assuming the sea crash, is how did it happened? The plane either suffered sudden engine failure, exploded by bombs carried or assembled on board, or ignition of its fuel tanks, any of which gave no chance for the pilot to send our a distress message.

If it is failures attributed to the plane or its equipment then the manufacturer Boeing will have a lot to answer. If it was triggered by explosives planted on board the answer is clearly terrorism. Were the terrorists on the plane to detonate the bombs or were they detonated by timer preset to explode at a certain time? What is the reason for bombing the plane? Two possibilities exist - the Xinjiang movement to take the province out of China and the persecution of Shiite Muslims by the Sunni Muslim Malaysian government. The first possibility is more likely as the flight carried 150 Chinese nationals.

Friday, March 07, 2014

Guilty!

Being acquitted in court doesn't guarantee your freedom. This is what Dato Seri Anwar Ibrahim (DSAI) found to his chagrin today when the Appeal Court comprising 3 learned judges overturned the verdict of the High Court judge who found him innocent of sodomy charge brought against him by his former aide Mohd Saiful Bukhari Azlan.

The timing of the trial and the swift judgment smack of interference by the Barisan government to stop DSAI from contesting in the upcoming Kajang by-election on March 23. The unfolding events confirm what was stated by Rafizi Ramli, the strategy director of Keadilan, the party headed by Anwar, that he was brought into the Selangor state government to defend it from falling to UMNO which lost control of the state in 2008 to Pakatan and is seen to do everything possible to wrestle back the state. Anwar as a member of parliament and Opposition Leader has no power at the state level. His presence is critical to stop the raid by UMNO. Now that Anwar cannot stand in the Kajang by-election how is Pakatan's plan going to change? One possibility is stated here, that Rafizi himself will be offered to contest.

With just over 2 weeks to the by-election and a week plus to nomination, Pakatan will be scrambling to decide on its candidate agreeable to all 3 coalition partners. Rafizi appear to be popular, capable and available and agreeable to the Kajang voters to fight to retain the seat won in 2013 by another Keadilan candidate Lee Chin Cheh who resigned for no other reason than to make way for Anwar to step into the state government. This was admitted by Rafizi who claimed he masterminded this scheme. The question is did he considered further the possibility of what happened today, and if so, was he prepared to lead the offensive against UMNO in Selangor without Anwar?

The hype talk of Anwar stepping into the role of Menteri Besar or Chief Minister of Selangor now no longer arise, and incumbent Khalid Ibrahim can breathe easy. But as an inexperienced politician, being a corporate person who excelled in managing plantation and investment agency of the federal government in a civil servant role, he found himself under severe attack from the UMNO party out to discredit him and create confusion and swing support back to them. Whether he remains as MB or gets replaced is questionable but the key matter now is to successfully defend Kajang and win by a larger majority if possible. The victory will drive home the message to UMNO and Barisan that destroying Anwar will not be the end of Pakatan. Rather it will help raise up new leaders from within to carry on the struggle to redeem our nation from corrupt leaders.

In hindsight it would appear that UMNO has misjudged today's verdict in its favor. It has in actual fact infuriated many parties, including observers like Human Rights Watch and foreign governments wary and worried of the deteriorating track records of the Barisan government led by Najib Razak. It would also infuriate Pakatan supporters and drive a wedge into those who think the government is incapable of facing competition or is afraid of Anwar and that getting rid of him will take away their nightmares.

Ultimately the Kajang voters in particular and Malaysian voters in general must agree on this. Would they trust their government under the hands of Pakatan which has delivered sterling performance in Selangor and Penang, or of Barisan which over 56 years of rule have failed to bring the country to a developed state. The Kajang Move will go into our history book as a watershed event that separates those who want Malaysia governed competently from those who cannot do without surviving on corruption and handouts.


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