Surprising Horizons

The Joy of Travel. The Realities of New Experiences.

Month: September 2017

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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