Surprising Horizons

The Joy of Travel. The Realities of New Experiences.

It never rains but it ‘pores..

You know you’re in Singapore….

when it gets ominously dark (must-have-lights-on dark) hours away from sunset and clouds roll in black and dark like the end of times.

when rain hits sodden grounds and weary roofs at a decibel level where you can’t hear what a person is screaming into your ear.

when drains and culverts do their best impression of Niagara Falls eager to escape onto innocent not yet wet bystanders.

when five seconds caught without an umbrella results in a sogginess level (what’s the Richter scale for wetness?) equivalent to that of a freshly tea-dunked biscuit.

when the availability of taxis due to rainfall diminishes to the magnitude of the Mary Celeste.

when looking at the rain radar map of Singapore looks like an unwelcome MRI scan result.

when the sun is sitting pretty in a wallpaper of blue but you still end up taking an umbrella (just in case).

when dashing from tree cover to tree cover becomes a national sporting event.

when trains are delayed for more than 20 hours due to to train tunnels being flooded.

when lightning illuminates the night like day.

when thunder rattles skulls.

It never rains but it ‘pores? Damn straight.

Madame President, I Presume?

Hear ye, hear ye! Singapore has its first female president!

Ireland had its first female president back in 1990 but, you know, some countries have to start somewhere.

But all is not sweetness and roses in Singapore with Mdm Halimah Yacob’s appointment. You see, some Singaporeans feel slighted that Mdm Yacob has walked into the position due to some untimely government….restructuring of nominee procedures. Yes, that’s it.

In September 2016, the government mandated that this year’s president should be of Malay origin. A “reserved election”. The last Malay president was in 1970. The government stipulated if a race has not been president for five terms or 30 years then the “reserved election” for that certain race would be held.

Secondly, this criteria was also mandated:

A qualifying candidate from the private sector should be a senior executive managing a company with at least S$500 million in shareholders’ equity. Previously, such a candidate had to be a chairman or CEO of a company with at least S$100 million in paid-up capital.

These two rulings were seen to be handcuffing or directing the presidential hopefuls into a certain race and/or having a certain professional financial prowess. So, Mdm Yacob being Malay and a public servant (MP and Speaker of the House) didn’t have any limitations whatsoever to her running. The two public sector Malays who wanted to run fell short when it came to the equity in their private professional career. Thus, Mdm Yacob was elected unopposed and un-voted for by the public.

Challenges and Questioning

Some saw this whole process as racial profiling. Taxi drivers tut-tutted; the universal taxi language of quiet disagreement. Some questioned the fact that the Prime Minister had been of Chinese origin since Singapore’s independence, and questioned when other ethnicities would have a chance at PM.

So the presidential “election” process was seen as discrimination…but a positive discrimination in a sense! People arguing that no matter what race you are you should get a place in office regardless of ethnic background. The backlash has not been about Mdm. Yacob who is actually seen as quite a likeable and well respected person for the job. Merely, the machinations that put her in that position.

Are there deeper and more insidious gears and wheels turning in the background behind all the changes to the presidential election framework? I’m afraid I’m too much of an outsider to embellish opinion. I will drop in a few quotes from people who are closer to the wheel-house:

From www.sudhirtv.com:

In February this year, Chan Chun Sing, potential next prime minister, stood up in parliament and called Halimah Yacob “Madam President” (video at the bottom). Was it a slip? Maybe. But he did it not once but twice, laughing along with his fellow PAP politicians, having a ball of a time, delighting themselves in their own megalomaniac conceit.

We should think about this carefully and clearly. It is no laughing matter. A full seven months before the election, Halimah’s colleagues were already calling it in her favour. They made a blatant mockery of our democratic process.

https://sudhirtv.com/2017/09/10/on-singapores-presidential-election/#more-4376

From mothership.sg

No amount of contrived reasoning put forward , ranging from the absolute necessity of the scheme to Ensure multiculturism, to preventing terrorism ( the most absurd reason I have ever heard ) or the uprightness of the PAP in sacrificing political capital to maintain social harmony ( another baloney ) will ever convince Singaporeans of the righteousness of an evil scheme that has laid to waste 52 years of nation building. Everyone knew that this evil scheme was concocted by the Establishment to deprive Dr Tan Cheng Bock of the Presidency . So desperate were they to hold on to this lever of power that they were willing to sacrifice political capital to achieve it .

https://www.allsingaporestuff.com/article/pap-elites-desperate-explaining-shambolic-presidency-shows-seismic-loss-faith#.Wc8bjS8AMNU.twitter

Yikes.

So, it’s been nearly two months now since Mdm. Halimah has been sworn in. She has moved from her “normal” living in a HDB flat due to increased security concerns (not at all down to her neighbour’s lives being thrown upside down by all the extra commotion!) to the Istana or another landed property, both of which have a few more square feet I’m guessing.
The drama has died down somewhat but even the Straits Times are still opining about race and national identity in the aftermath of it all.

As an expat living here, I wish her all the best in holding the office as President of Singapore. As an expat I also can’t begin to analyse or suggest understanding of the underlying racial and national identity undercurrents that bubble up in Singapore from time to time. It’s there. It’s something that is deemed to be readily and openly discussed and debated upon but there’s an element of reticence and reluctance. The memories of the race riots of 1964 still remain vivid in people’s minds and after a smaller incident in Little India in 2013 the stricter weekend ban on drinking alcohol in areas such as Little India and Geylang soon followed suit with an overall ban on public drinking from 10:30 to 7am islandwide. Fears quashed.

In my own aloof and simperish ex-pat ways, I experienced a certain reverse (at least from my own standpoint) racial profiling recently when looking to rent an apartment and inquiring after my nationality was one of the first demands from the landlord’s agent over SMS. I got the vibe that some nationalities wouldn’t be equally as accepted as other nationalities.

Luckily being Irish hasn’t been seen as a negative thing over here in Asia. Yet…

 

On Flying

It starts with the journey to the airport. You know you’re about to experience humanity at its worst and you won’t be able to escape it. You ride along in grim determination and simmering resignation to what’s about to unfold.

The terminal. Lost fingers point in different directions. Children with wide eyes follow along because that’s what they do. Check in. Eyes up. Blue screens answer with numbers and letters and it makes sense. Line up.
Too close.
Too slow.
Too far.
Too smelly.
Too loud.
Pay attention, alright?!! The world is happening outside of your bubble of ignorant existence!! How many suitcases can one person check in?! And why are they always in front of me?!
They have a Ming Dynasty vase that needs taken care of. Naturally.
They have a passport from the South Sandwich Islands. Needs to be telegraphed there for proof of citizenship. Naturally.
“Do you have any of the illustrated banned items in your suitcase?”
“No” Hell no.
Not the time for bleating simperish humour directed at an audience of one followed by an audience of heavily armed police.
Checked in.
Line up. Just go. Security. Pockets. Check. Again. Laptop gymnastics. Shoes on or shoes off? How paranoid is this country?! Sidle through the portal through to the other dimension where having all your stuff back in your pockets and bag is a fundamental right of existence.

Waiting. Wait. Waiting. Ignore life. Ignore some more. Delaying the inevitable. Time doesn’t change its gait.
Gate. Time to guess which person is on your flight and sitting in very close proximity to you. With elbows of granite and phlegmy affirmations.
Boarding. Let us all gather en masse and ignore all directions. First class and business class please prance your way through the commoner yokels waving your golden tickets. Just push them out of your way at your leisurrrrre. We’ll wait. We have to. That’s how it is.

Boarding. The initial joy of freedom past the boarding counter dissipates into a line of people who struggle with luggage calisthenics in the aisles. No you probably can’t fit your grand piano in the overhead. But, by all means, block the aisle for 10 minutes trying to do so. And yes, it’s absolutely necessary for you to take your jacket off in the aisle before sitting. Fold it twenty times and place it in the overhead locker for good measure.

Seats. Planes. Hell. Every stitch sewed by satan. Every nut and bolt placed by a maniac. Armrests measured precisely by psychotic cave dwelling bat people. Yes, person in front of me, it IS more pleasurable for you to recline your seat 1 inch into my knees to watch your movie. It’s also pleasurable for me to bang my knees into your reclined seat every 10 seconds.

Food. Prisons in Guatemala have better food than airplanes. Fact. There’s always chicken. And a sprig of broccoli. And some vague sauce. Never fear, there’s always a bucket of fish heads if they run out of options by the time they come to you. Alcohol elevates the taste by making you care less about life and your tastebuds.

Turbulence is the opposite of fun. I used to stare at the sky in wonderment at clouds. Some even look like old cartoon characters. Merely joyous yet duplicitous disguises. Now I know. Now I know. Some clouds are jerks. Some clouds reach up high with their scuffy appendages and roughly tickle passing airplanes for pure enjoyment. Jerks.

Landed. Joy of joyous joys. Yes why don’t you stand up and take your bag out of the overhead whilst the reverse thrusters are still countering Newton’s 3rd Law along the runway. Stuck behind Diana Ross who has 50 suitcases and a chandelier to extract before the whole plane can trundle out of the plane weeping.

“Thank you for travelling with us. See you again.”

“Yes. Yes you will.”

Community Cats of Singapore

Ol' Green Eyes Cat

Ol’ Green Eyes Cat

Wherever you find humans in Singapore you will find cats. Probably quite a few at times. Our old condo had three or four stray cats who hung around and got fed by a couple of neighbours (and us). Yes, we had a “crazy” cat lady too.

It’s a stance that’s been fought since the dawn of mankind. Do you feed stray cats or not? When I did feed our condo’s strays I always felt like I was a second away from been heckled and booed from the surrounding apartment balconies. I always had a response in my back pocket in case of said emergency: “I prefer cats to rats”. BOOM!

Sadly, animal and cat cruelty in particular around Singapore have been in the news more often recently (horrible pics included in this link). So I thought I would present my perspective on the community cats of Singapore.

As you might tell I’m on Team Animal and when I’m wandering the housing estates (HDBs) of Singapore photographing the architecture and people I always, more often than not, bump into some community cats for impromptu photo shoots.. I even have a sure fire way of getting them to look at me, yeah…uh-huh. No cats were harmed in the taking of these photos I assure you.

So, here you go, just some of the stray cats of Singapore that I’ve managed to capture on a memory card.

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“What Did I Do Last Night?” Cat

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Ol’ Blue Eyes Cat

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“Get Outta My Face” Cat

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“What?” Cat

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Cat, Interrupted

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Cat in Black and White

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Yawn Cat

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Not A Stray Cat

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Call of the Wild Cat

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Cat in Orange and Brown 1.0

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Cat in Orange and Brown 2.0

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“Someone Woke Me..” Cat

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“Get Lost” Cat

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“What da…?” Cat

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“Leave Me Alone” Cat

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“Pfftttttt!” Cat(s)

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“I Spy..” Cat

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“I’m Not On Your Car” Cat

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Not Evil Black Cat

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Domesticated Cat

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“Whadduppp?!” Cat

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“So Very Tired” Cat

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“I See Dead People” Cat

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“Seriously?” Cat

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“I Don’t Want To Be Awake” Cat

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“Who Dares Awake Me?” Cat

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Biggest Yawn Award Cat

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“I Taste Good” Cat

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” Scratching=Good” Cat

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Derp Cat

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“What is Life?” Cat

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“This Is My Town” Cat

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Not Dead Cat

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Motorbike Cat

You may notice some clipped ears; that is done by a Trap-Neuter-Return-Manage (TNRM) initiative by cat welfare organisations in Singapore. Cats who have been sterilised are then readily noticeable by the organisations and the public at large.

So keep a look out for these friendly felines the next time you are wandering around Singapore. They play a part in the unique communities you see around you.

Travelling Around Japan By Train Part 2

Part 1 here.

Osaka

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We trained up from Miyajima, back through Hiroshima, and on to Osaka. The trip took less than 2 and a half hours.
And so began, our journey into more touristy areas. The throngs of people got bigger and shoulders rubbed more frequently. We stayed up at the Courtyard by Marriott (review here) near Shin-Osaka station which is a little out of the way but good for train journeys onwards to other big cities. So we walked down into Osaka central on our first day which was an…interesting…walk over one of the main bridges traversing the Yodo river and through some areas that would be deemed dodgy in any country in the world apart from Japan. Here these areas were just a little…not looked after.
We headed up to the top of the Umeda Sky Building for some sensational views of Osaka. What a sprawling city. Amazing.

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In the evening time we headed to the Dotonburi area to see the famous neon lights and check out the shopping scene. Just to check it out, not actually buy anything. We sniffed out the Dublin Bay Irish Bar nearby and had a smoky and quick pint of Guinness. We also stumbled across Murphy’s Bar in a small back alley on our way to Shinsaibashi train station to take us back to Shin-Osaka.

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We wrapped up everything by going to a baseball game. It’s tricky (impossible) to buy tickets online for baseball matches. I used japanballtickets.com to buy my tickets for me and get them delivered to my hotel. Easy and would do so again. The Osaka Dome is great to visit and wasn’t that hard to get to on the train.
To be honest, we could have done more in Osaka (Osaka Castle to name but one) but we left feeling we had walked a lot of the city and saw a lot from ground level. And from above.

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Kyoto

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A mere 15 minutes Shinkansen away from Osaka and you get to Kyoto. Agree? Hehe. We stayed right by the train station at the Kyoto Century Hotel (review here).
Again, we planned on walking everywhere and that worked out fine – we did get the train back from Fushimi Inari Taisha after walking there as we were a bit drained.
Kyoto is about its numerous famous temples and shrines. The problem is everyone knows this and it becomes a mass of humanity swallowing up every inch of happiness and solitude you might like to find in these areas of peace. Firstly, we went to Kiyomizu-dera battling our way through millions of people up Matsubara Dori. You can’t even find time to stop and look through a window; the tide just pushes you along. When you get up to the Kiyomizu-dera you find your sheen of patience and happiness a little bit tarnished. It was fine but there was just too many people to enjoy it.
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The next day we walked to the famous Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine complex. It’s the place with all the reddish-orangish gates that you might have seen photos of. There are thousands of them set up that you walk through them all. It’s pretty cool. There were people there though. Lots of ’em. Worth it to see it.

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Back in Kyoto we went up Kyoto Tower; which was fine. Had a great creamy stout at the Yebisu Bar just beside the tower and then walked to get some avocado okonomiyaki at Kyo-Chabana. Which I didn’t particularly like but the vegetarian did.

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Nara

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All travel guides will tell you to check out magical Nara. Sadly, it’s far from magical. A short train ride from Kyoto (Japan Rail Pass valid) on the Nara Line; you disembark in a small town square and follow the herd towards the other herd. Of deers. If there were no deers in Nara there wouldn’t be much to talk about the area apart from a few temples thrown around for good measure. Perhaps Nara would be more pleasant without the deer?
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So, the deers. Unlike Miyajima, feeding the deer is encouraged both by the deer food vendors and the deer. It’s just….annoying. People annoy the deer, deer annoy the people. People pose for selfies with the deer. People hang food out of reach for deer to get the perfect pose. Deer eat bags. Deer eat clothes. Dear…dear…dear. Was not enjoyable and we were pretty happy to leave. Sad but happy.

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Yokohama

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Actually I don’t have a lot to say about Yokohama as we didn’t do much here apart from criticising Intercontinental Yokohama Grand Hotel (review here). I took the train into Tokyo (make sure to time it so you get the express train on the Minatomirai Line as it is much much shorter) so I could see the Shubiya and Shinjuku areas again; Hachiko is still waiting…sniff… Yoyogi Park is a perfect stroll of early Sakura blossoming and people watching in April. Always nice to do.

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Yokohama itself is a nice break away from Tokyo with a number of things to try out; make your own cup noodles at the Cup Noodle Museum, head up the Yokohama Marine Tower for a panoramic vista, or visit the Red Brick Warehouse for a wide variety of restaurants. There are other things but I have let them fade into memory reluctantly.

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Kamakura

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There are a number of small towns you can visit from Yokohama/Tokyo. I chose Kamakura as I wanted to see what a coastal town looked like and check out the big buddha there. From Yokohama Station you can take the Shonan-Shinjuku line straight to Kamakura. It takes about 35 minutes. I planned to walk everywhere in Kamakura. First, from the train station, I walked up the main thoroughfare (the side streets are crazy packed) up towards Tsuroguoka Hachiman-gu which is a pretty enough temple up a steep flight of stairs. The surrounding park-type area with pond is nice without being amazing.

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From there I retraced my steps back to Kamakra Station and walked past it westwards to head to the Great Buddha of Kamakura. It was a nondescript walk with little of note but it’s always nice to see “normal” houses and way of life in Japan. The Great Buddha is actually pretty great. Worth the walk. You can pay to go inside Buddha but I was one with myself by that stage.

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I then navigated my way to walk down to the coast/beach area to walk back to the Kamakura Station. The promenade was pretty nice without much else going for it. It was nice to see people enjoying the beach and brisk sea breeze. And that was Kamakura. A decent enough little aside from Tokyo and Yokohama.

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All in all, I would love to go back to Japan for another two weeks and explore more areas by train as I think Japan has the ability to surprise and excite any visitor around every corner.

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Guide To Moving Apartments in Singapore

Some say that moving homes is one of the most stressful life events that people can go through. Having laid in a hospital bed staring at the ceiling hoping that there was a slight chance that some spaghetti monster in the sky was looking down on me having my back I would disagree wholeheartedly. But moving apartments is…cumbersome and with a lot of moving parts so I thought I would run through what I did to make the move as efficient and stress-free as possible. Although this applies specifically to Singapore; maybe the organisation of it all can be adapted to other cities around the world.

Finding

In Singapore, there are usually two agents involved in a property rental. Your agent that you as the lessor have contacted to find a property and the actual landlord’s agent. I had had enough of paying our property agent half a month’s rent when we dealt with the landlord’s agent most of the time anyway for issues. You see, in Singapore, if you only renew one year contracts each year your agent needs a monumental fee (only if your rent is above $3500 also) to print out the contract for you to sign. Anyway, it’s very vague but if you only deal with the landlord’s agent then all that crap goes away. Lesson learned. Always look for properties that are being handled by the landlord’s agent.

So I used 99.co and propertyguru.com.sg exclusively and near the end of my hunt 99.co was the go-to website as it’s just a little more clear and the searches are more customisable. I looked for listings that said “landlord agent – no fees” which are few and far between but they are there and we did end up finding one which we jumped on and went with.

Organising

So you have to start, then, getting your stuff in order.

SP Services to take over your new apartment’s gas, water, and electricity. Use this form and scan and email it to [email protected]

Starhub/Singtel/Whoever to change your service address. This gets more complicated if you have fiber and you will have to pay relocation and installation fees if your new apartment doesn’t have any. We actually cancelled our TV subscription and fiber so I had to bring the TV Receiver box, remote, fiber modem, fiber cable, and HDMI cable to a Starhub Service Centre to confirm cancellation.

We don’t get a lot of mail but you may want to forward any mail that goes to your old address to your new one and you need to fill out this form and hand it in to a post office. $30 for one month forwarding.

You would have an Aircon maintenance contract with someone already so give them a heads up and arrange for them to do their last visit with or without you there depending on timing.

One thing you may not have a contract for is curtain cleaning which you must do on a semi-regular basis here in Singapore. More if you smoke like a chimney in your own home I guess. I have used Singapore DryClean Expert who come dismantle and put back up your curtains so you don’t have to worry about that. We had 20 day curtains and 20 night curtains which they charged $540 for. Not cheap but probably the most reasonably priced out there. They also answer emails from their website quickly which pleased me (tardy replies is a pet peeve of mine).

Pre-Moving

There are nightmares abound about landlords holding people for ransom before moving out of their property. You see, we pay two month’s rent up front in Singapore at the start of a rental agreement. Then anything they see weird before you move out will be deducted from that. Wear and tear. Define it? Yeah. And therein, lies the problem. Stains? Cracks? Holes? Smashed windows? Smashed furniture? Grafitti? All debatable. Well, not really. But you can see where arguments may occur.
The one thing I realised in trying to make our apartment look brand spanking new after spending 6 years in it is that there are a lot of homemade recipes out there that clean stuff good! Mattress sweat stains (yeah, that’s right)? Hydrogen peroxide, baking powder, and a drop of dish soap. Magic. General stains? Vinegar yo. Then you have the American imported Magic Erasers which help with wall marks and smudges of a hundred steadying hands along the years.

Moving

Who is going to be in charge of your delicates? Who is going to throw your stuff in to the back of a van like a surly baggage handler at a crappy airport? You have many to choose from and everyone in Singapore, it seems, uses someone else to move stuff. I contacted two. Elite Movers and Shalom Movers. Both have good reviews and both have bad reviews. Elite replied to my email the fastest so they had the upper hand from the start. Shalom actually called me back about a day later. They both came and assessed my apartment and they both were nice and professional. Shalom quoted $750 and Elite quoted $500. After a few confirmations with Elite, I went with them. They duly delivered 45 boxes, tape, paper, and bubble wrap, and the job of realising how much crap we had collected commenced.

Settling

Figuring out how your new apartment has nothing in common with your old apartment is natural so some extra purchases may be necessary. If you are buying or are being given stuff by people you can use GoGoVan to hire a driver/mover to transport smaller quantities of stuff. My friends gave us two book shelves so I hired a 2.9m van with driver for $45. I had arranged a move with LaLaMove but the time arrived and van was not moving on the GPS map for a good 20 minutes. Finally I rang the driver, who sounded like I woke him up and he muttered “Wrong number”. Never again LaLaMove. You can use Lazada etc. to purchase anything else (including furniture) and get them delivered. Screw Ikea!! See what I did there?

And, of course, what’s a new apartment without adding some colour, joy, and some lovely aromas (other than our plethora of Yankee Candles) in the shape of some nice flowers?! A Better Florist has some great bundles to pick from and get delivered right to your doorstep.

A whole bunch of letters and paragraphs to sum up a lot of work, sweat, blood, and tears in moving apartments in Singapore. Looks simple right? Enjoy.

Bye, Ginger….:(

Travelling Around Japan by Train Part 1

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You’ve experienced some form of Japanese culture. Yes you. Food, ninjas, karaoke, origami, strange internet movies, to name but a few. Japan is unique. A good type of unique. Not present day Syria unique. So Japan shouldn’t be too hard to delve into as a tourist and it’s not. But it’s unique, and you have to embrace the uniqueness. Welcome it and start dancing.

Travel to and travelling in Japan

Japan, obviously, has a lot of international airports so that’s probably the way you will enter Japan (unless you’re ferrying in from Korea). You may be thinking only about Tokyo though, but there are other options! For us, we chose to fly into Fukuoka so we could work our way up to the Tokyo area. (after briefly travelling south to Nagasaki).

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Japan Rail Pass. Check to see if it is worth it for your itinerary. Figure out your train journeys you will be doing and put them into Google Maps or Hyperdia (comes in very handy when in Japan) to figure out the cost. Total it all up and see if it’s more than the price of a Japan Rail Pass. If it is? Buy a Japan Rail Pass! Easy! The Japan Rail Pass also cuts down on the stress of getting tickets at each train station. You can go into one of the JR offices at each station prior to a specific train departure (the earlier the better) and reserve a seat too…if you’re so reclined hehe. It worked out very well for us and we were very pleased at how smooth it was to reserve seats and board trains. Make sure you go through the manual gates to the tracks as the Japan Rail Pass is not swipe-able on the automatic gates. While you’re booking your Japan Rail Pass, also get a pocket wifi device too; this is very handy for those many non-wifi covered areas in Japan.

So what did we get up to?

Fukuoka

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Fukuoka is a nice little compact city. The airport is very close to the downtown area. The main train station is called Hakata so that might be why looking for Fukuoka Station doesn’t come up when you Google it! It’s only 6 or so minutes from Fukuoka  Airport to Hakata Station (you need to take the free shuttle bus from international terminal to the budget terminal first – easy) on the Kuko line – which costs 260Yen. We stayed at the Forza Hotel (TripAdvisor review here) a few minutes walk from Hakata station so it would be easy to get to our train.

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We walked everywhere and it’s a nice city to walk through. There’s not a crazy amount of touristy stuff but we saw a bit. One of the nicest little shrines we visited on our trip was the Kushida Shrine – which was small but quiet. As you go further north the shrines become tourist hellholes. We visited Maizuru and Ohori parks and had a pleasant walk around them – taking in the remnants of Fukuoka Castle.

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There is an Asahi Brewery in Hakata who do tours in English. It was recommended that we ask our hotel receptionist to organise it the day before. So we did; she came back and said no English tours the next day available but we could join a Japanese one. No worries as we are just there for the tasting. We arrived a few minutes late to the brewery (only a few stops away from Hakata station at Takeshita station) and one of the workers walked us into the brewery to join the group that had already left. It was in English. Weird. Anyway don’t go on a Sunday if you want to see beers being bottled as nobody works on a Sunday.

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Food wise, Fukuoka does a mean Tonkatsu ramen which has a creamy broth instead of a clear one. Delicious.

Nagasaki

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A three hour train trip south-west from Hakata lies Nagasaki. Known for its atomic past; it’s a very interesting city. It has a lot of European roots due to its place as an important trading port for the Portugese and you can see some of the European style buildings apparent when you walk around. There are a number of things to see tourist-wise in Nagasaki. You can make use of the street cars to get around. You get on through the middle doors and you place the flat fare 120Yen in the fare deposit bucket when you leave the front door of the tram. We walked through quaint little alleyways from the Richmond Hotel (TripAdvisor review here) to Glover Garden taking the cool diagonal elevator. It was pouring down (rain) when we visited but the views from the top were nice and the gardens were relaxing (even in the downpour) to wander around in.

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Of course, the major attraction in Nagasaki is the Atomic Bomb Museum which is a must see and a powerful introduction to the history of the area during WWII. A different approach is taken here than the Hiroshima Atomic Museum and I must say I preferred Nagasaki’s style better. Around the museum, you must also walk around and visit the Hypocenter Cenotaph, the Memorial Park, and make sure you find the illusive one-legged torii which survived the blast. Eerie stuff. You must take a minute to picture the scene in 1945.

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Another attraction is the “spectacles” bridge. Can you see why it’s called that, hmm?

Food-wise, Nagasaki has some cool and unique dishes to try. Chanpon is a fish based ramen dish which was quite nice. My favourite dish was the (Toruko) Turkish Rice though, which I got at Tsuru-Chan (no English, just point and smile!). It’s spaghetti, pork cutlet, and rice AND curry AND a tomato sauce. Amazing!

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Hiroshima

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The other atomic city in Japan. Again, a must stop at city if you are passing by. We stayed at the Hotel Granvia at Hiroshima Station (TripAdvisor review here) which was a little bit of a trek to the Peace Museum but not an unpleasant one and you get a sense of what the city is like from wandering the streets on your way. We stopped off at Hiroshima Castle Park which was nice but nothing crazily great. We paid 370Yen to visit the exhibits in the tower (rebuilt in 1957) and get a view from the top; again nothing spectacular but the views were good.

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We made our way towards the Peace Museum and the Atomic Dome; two absolutely must-see and must-experience areas when visiting Hiroshima. The Peace Museum is under renovation and there were conflicting reports about its openness but open it was and an experience it is. A little bit more pointed in its blame and victimization than its Nagasaki counterpart. I guess they can do whatever they want but the focus here is on the suffering of the people (down to the gory details of the horrendous injuries). A short stroll up the river past a couple more atomic monuments is the Atomic Dome; the most iconic structure in Hiroshima to survive the blast still standing. You can sit and stare and walk around the structure to reflect on humanity’s penchant for mass murder and hatred.

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On a small side street opposite a nondescript small apartment building is a small pillar. Directly above that spot the atomic bomb was detonated. A small reminder of a huge moment in humanities’ timeline. Find it if you go. It doesn’t seem to be that popular but upon reflection perhaps it’s the most poignant part of Hiroshima to visit; as locals just get on with their daily, normal lives.

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Hiroshima also marked our first taste of Okonomiyaki; a delicious savoury pancake filled with whatever floats your boat. We found a spot that was deemed popular, 新天地みっちゃん,  right beside an Irish bar we were magnetised towards. Getting there right after they opened was a good idea as it got busy very fast. Filling and wholesome; we had a slightly inferior one when we visited Kyoto.

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If you have a Japan travel guide perhaps it has a big red gate (or Torii) on the cover. That’s on Miyajima island, so I had to plan a little side trip there. From Hiroshima station it’s a 28 minute train journey on the JR Sanyo line to Miyajimaguchi station and then take the JR ferry across to the island (both train and ferry covered on Japan Rail Pass – but make sure you take the JR ferry and not the other one). As we wanted to chill out for a bit we stayed one night and this would mean we could also see the Torii at high and low tide. We also could experience the island after the hundreds of tourists had left on the last ferry. We stayed in our only ryokan (Yamaichi Bettkan – my review here) on Miyajima as it had great reviews on TripAdvisor. Ryokans are traditional Japanese rooms with floor mattresses and seats. It was nice to experience it and the breakfast the following morning was tasty and very fresh.

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The island itself is interesting – albeit very busy with tourists. There are deer roaming around eating maps and any loose things that tourists are not paying attention to. It is forbidden to feed the deer so they are in this weird limbo where they are used to taking from tourists now and not from the land – bit of a crappy situation. It doesn’t help that tourists will do anything for a selfie with them.

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There are a couple of things to see on the island – you can get up to the summit of Mount Missen by hiking or cable car, stroll along the busy food and souvenir streets, and visit the various temples. The main thing to do is just sit back and admire the famous red torii though.

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More spectacular with high tide than low tide; it’s still an impressive sight in either. If you have one day to spare spend a night on Miyajima to experience it after dark without the throngs of tourists. Make sure you also find some Miyajima beer and Momiji Manjyu – the tasty maple pastry that is baked up on the island.

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Part 2 will be posted soon and will finish up with visits to Osaka, Nara, Kyoto, Yokohama, and Kamakura.

Bike Sharing – Singapore Isn’t Ready For This Yet!

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Carcasses line the streets. You turn a corner and there’s another pile. Some lie proud and upright. Some toppled over with abandonment. Bring out your dead. It’s an apocalypse. Bikes everywhere. Scrawled on them are their owner’s names; Ofo, oBike, and MoBike. Somebody somewhere in a depraved clown circus marketing department, carved into stone that the use of the letter “o” was paramount to be in a bike sharing cOmpany’s name.

Singapore isn’t ready for this.

Footpaths describe quite adequately what should happen on them. They are paths for foots – okay, feet. Same goes for sidewalks…WALKS. But now, and since Summer 2017 in Singapore, footpaths are lined with said bike carcasses and more annoyingly, live ones with human beings in control! You can’t walk 10 meters without a ding-ding behind you or worse, the silent speedster over-taker who is just gambling on you not to turn into your apartment condo just as they slipstream ahead of you.

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You see, Singapore isn’t ready for this. The streets in Singapore are run and owned by the cars. Taxis enjoy getting into accidents. Everyone knows this and so when you scan a barcode on a discarded bike to cycle home the last 5 miles you’re going to stick to the FOOTpaths. Makes sense in the saving your live sense. Singapore only passed into law in January 2017 that riding bikes on footpaths is legal…I guess the bike sharing companies spat out their coffees on that day and yelled “GO, GO, GO!!” into their Blackberrys. I guess they’re very happy that it’s still legal to cycle without a helmet in Singapore. Joy! No hassle of renting helmets! Yay!

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Let’s get back to the bikes lining the streets. When you get where you’re going to; you dump it. Some people lean it up against a wall, some people prop it up against a bus stop, some people stop in the middle of the FOOTpath, some people think that plonking it on a bridge staircase makes sense too. None of these places work. The “O” bike sharing companies state happily to “just park the bike in a designated public bike-parking area and lock it using the app.”  I have not spied with my little eye ONE DESIGNATED BIKE-PARKING AREA in central Singapore! I can imagine the board room of these cOmpanies before launching. “Yeah, but where do they park them after they’re done?” “Just put a few racks somewhere and pretend they’re everywhere” “Say no more”

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I must not be the only grump moaning as just this week, these bike sharing cOmpanies laid out an “agreement with the Land Transport Authority (LTA) and the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) 15 town councils to tackle this issue of indiscriminate parking.” This agreement includes a “single app platform for the general public to report illegally parked bikes; a common response time among the three operators to pick up these illegally parked bikes; and the adoption of geofencing technology by the end of the year.” Yeah that will work.

Let’s see how the year transpires. Oh, and electric scooter sharing companies have started popping up now too just to make things more interesting. You’ll never hear them coming….

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38 Oxley Road

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On a very very nondescript road in the gray labyrinth of central Singapore lies a very nondescript metal off-white wall. The off-white wall with its two empty and echoing sentry guard posts quietly whispers “Look but don’t touch. Move along”. Beyond that motionless and tiring metal white wall lies a quite quite nondescript house with a topping of Singaporean history and a simmering hotpot of sibling rivalry bubbling up inside.

So let’s talk about that house that resides at 38 Oxley Road.

To do so you need a brief history lesson of modern Singapore. Complicated country histories usually starts off with the United Kingdom and so, as they were prone to do, the UK found Singapore in 1819 and proclaimed it at as their own. In 1963 Singapore joined the Malaysian Federation (telling England to get lost), then got independence in 1965. Lee Kuan Yew was the man who started off Singapore and modern Singapore today is pretty much down to him. That’s about it. There’s more but I’m not getting into it. So there.

Lee Kuan Yew lived at 38 Oxley Road from 1940 until his death in 2015. A topping of Singaporean history may be too delicate a description; a hefty bucket of history gravy covers this house from the roof down to its foundations.

Lee Hsien Loong, the current Prime Minister of Singapore, is the son of Lee Kuan Yew.

Basically in the Summer of 2017 38 Oxley Road became the epicentre of a shitstorm sibling argument (between Lee Hsien Loong, his brother, and his sister, and some in-laws thrown in for good measure) about whether to demolish it or leave it as is. Because it gets all so very complicated after that (and before that), here’s the Wikipedia entry detailing the whole saga that led up to the great sibling war of late July 1017. Its long but read it for the loops of drama :

The house was subject to a government deliberation of whether to conserve the house for historical reasons in 2011. Lee Kuan Yew had met with Cabinet then and made known his preferred conditions if the house was to be preserved, if the cabinet were set on going against his personal wish. In documents released by the Prime Minister’s Office, Ho Ching, wife of Lee Hsien Loong, emailed the family in early 2012 with detailed plans about how the house would be renovated. Ho said that if there were objections to renting out the house after it was renovated, Lee Hsien Loong’s family could move in with Dr Lee Wei Ling.[3] Development application from Urban Renewal Board was granted in April that year. Lee Kuan Yew had also amended two subsequent versions of his will to remove a previous demolition clause.

In September 2012, Lee Kuan Yew was under the impression that the cabinet had decided on gazetting the house and wrote to his lawyer Kwa Kim Li: “Although it has been gazetted as a heritage house it is still mine as owner… Cabinet has opposed tearing it down and rebuilding, because 2 PMs have lived in the house, me and Loong.”[4] His lawyer checked and informed him it was not true that the house has been gazetted.

A final will was made in 2013, to reinstate an equal share among his children, the will is a reversion to the first will, with the demolition clause drafted by his daughter-in-law Lee Suet Fern. In documents shown by the siblings, Lee Kuan Yew initialed directly beneath the demolition clause and he personally drafted an additional codicil to his will on January 2014, which they claim was witnessed by his secretary and bodyguard.[5] Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling were also made the legal executors of the Estate of Lee Kuan Yew.

After Lee Kuan Yew’s death, the will was read in April 2015. Lee’s estate was divided equally between the 3 siblings, the Oxley house was inherited by his eldest son, with a clause for Lee Wei Ling to stay in it for as long as she desires. Lee Hsien Loong believed the final will was made without full knowledge of elder Lee, but did not pursue the issue through legal channels.[6] Instead, he raised the issue to his deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean about doubts on drafting of the last will in 23 April 2015. Probate on the Will was granted in 6 October 2015 without objections.[7]

Lee Hsien Loong then offered to sell the house to his sister, Lee Wei Ling for a nominal $1, with the condition if the Government were to acquire the property later, any future sale proceeds shall go to charity. The offer was rejected. Subsequently, his brother Lee Hsien Yang took up an alternative offer to purchase it at market valuation, plus donating 50% of the value to charity. Lee Hsien Loong sold the house to his brother under those terms and donated all proceeds to charity. However, according to Lee Wei Ling, Lee Hsien Loong was deceitful in his statements. As part of the agreement in 2015, Lee Hsien Loong was said to have endorsed the demolition clause in the final will and promised to recuse himself from all government decisions on the house. The siblings questioned why a ministerial committee was set up in 2016 to discuss the issue, and why PM Lee made the statutory declaration with the intent to influence the committee decision. Lucien Wong, PM Lee’s private attorney, represented him in the affairs as the PM Lee and his siblings stopped talking to each other directly.

On 14 June 2017, Lee Hsien Loong’s siblings made a public statement on Facebook, and alleging that he had abused his office to prevent the demolition and that he wished to move into the house to inherit the political capital of his father. They further claimed that he had used state authorities to harass them and they had to flee the country.[8] Their These claims were denied by Lee Hsien Loong who expressed disappointment at his family for publicizing what he called a “family matter”.[9] A special 2-day Parliamentary session was called up by the PM to explain his version of the saga.[10]

Boring right? Siblings bickering over family property. The eldest son just happens to be the eldest son of the founding father of Singapore. Pretty much. And the current Prime Minister. That’s the point. It is boring. Very. But because they are the family at the roots of Singaporean’s family tree it becomes public. So why was everyone in Singapore up in arms about this for about a month? Because they couldn’t get away from it! There were dramatic and angry Facebook posts by opposing sides from the family as if it were the Smiths down the road having a right go at each other over whose turn it is to do the dishes. Again. There were screenshots of different “proofs” posted on social media by the opposing sides. There was a TV statement by Lee Hsien Loong. There was a 2 day parliamentary session all about 38 Oxley Road.

It was a family feud played out on Singapore media in front of the Singaporean people.

Taxi drivers I talked to (I knew they would have a strong opinion) tut-tutted and sighed as the drama unfolded. Silly. Stupid. Waste of time. Get back to the real issues in Singapore. Lah. As an ex-pat it was amusing and a little absurd. If this was deemed a drama, man, we really don’t have a lot to worry about living in Singapore! Take a map out, drop a pin in a random country and you’ll quickly find out what political drama is. With a capital D.

As it is, and as it is with any water cooler drama chin wagging debate, the furor and fuss has dissipated with time. People have happily moved on. People are more than happy to not hear any more of the family feud; keep it to the Whatsapp family group chats. There are still some tired and bored arguments forever turning over on internet forums; but that is to be predicted.

And 38 Oxley Road has become the new Instagram and tourist photo hot-spot. Look but don’t touch. Move along.

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Foo Fighters Live in Singapore August 2017

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I remember unwrapping the cellophane from around the cassette of the Foo Fighter’s first album. I bought it from a shop. A real shop. With real Irish bank notes. The year was 1995, after all. A lot has changed.

Still smarting from Kurt’s violent departure from this mortal coil I remember being intrigued and excited with what the shaggy haired drummer from Nirvana could do. Nothing much naturally, right? Wrong.

The album cover’s weird off-world retro laser gun promised…something. Even the band’s name “Foo Fighters” was weirdly attractive. Published by Roswell Records. Everything was alien friendly connected. Fun? I think so. Inviting? Very much…

“This Is A Call” set the tone from the get go on that first Foo’s album. Fuzzy, distorted guitar riffs and jangly pop-rock vocals adorned Dave Grohl’s first Foo Fighter’s album (worth to note; he played all the instruments on it). The evolution throughout their following 7 studio albums was sometimes a little stunted but always head(bang)ing forward with delivering rock n’ roll in abundance.

And so it was that the Foo’s first concert in Singapore in over 20 years started off with that first album’s second track “I’ll Stick Around”. A fitting start in many many ways. The pace rampaged on for the next 3 songs with “All my Life”, “Learn to Fly”, and “The Pretender” following in manic succession. The pace subsided welcomingly with an emotional sing-along of “Big Me”. Someone was cutting onions somewhere.

Foo Fighters Setlist National Stadium, Singapore, Singapore 2017, Concrete and Gold Tour

The Foo’s back catalogue is spread out throughout their set and is represented well. One must admit though that the songs from “Sonic Highways” sound less cohesive and composed when they stand together with more accomplished and polished songs from other albums.

 

 

A word on Mr. David Grohl. Impressive.

Ok, more than one word. Funny, powerful, sincere. His screaming delivery has never sounded better and his stage presence is second to none. Which is good because there’s not a lot of activity with the other band members other than a frenetic and grimacing Taylor Hawkins on the drums. Their musicianship speaks for itself though without any added histrionics needed. Nate Mendel’s swirling bass holds up many a song throughout the night.

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The National Stadium is a fine venue for a concert and it seemed to be organised well but I never buy beer at these events anymore so I can’t speak for waiting times to get drinks and food. Plenty of transportation options abound too and memories of Guns N Roses at Changi Exhibition Centre are fading….slowly….

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