Revisiting Singapore Zoo

It has been a very long time since we have gone to the Singapore Zoo. The River Safari opened in 2012 and Inuka (the polar bear) was put to sleep in April of this year. And now, in October of 2018, we decided to come back and visit the zoo.

Do not feed the animals
Do not feed the animals

The cool thing about our recent visit is that the commute isn’t as bad as before. Don’t get me wrong, Tampines is still quite a distance from Jurong. However, we no longer took the train from Tampines to Jurong East and then transferring to the zoo-bound bus from the interchange. Instead, there is now a bus that you can take from OTH (Our Tampines Hub) which will take you straight to the Singapore Zoo. The Mandai Express is bus service to the zoo from Tampines, Bedok, and Sengkang. It’s 3 SGD per adult per trip. Children 12 years and below only pay $1 per trip. The service is available on weekends and public/school holidays. Full details are on their website (as well as booking details) at https://mandaiexpress.beeline.com

We expected changes to the zoo since it has been a long time when we were last there. The zoo still looks good. It still has well-manicured gardens, clean enclosures, healthy animals and the facilities are still well maintained. What seemed to be missing though, are animals. Wait, what? A zoo without animals?

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Let me explain. There are animals. But their numbers seemed to have dropped significantly. I only saw one white tiger, a pair of lions, one meerkat, one zebra, three giraffes, a bunch of chimps, two warthogs and then some. I’m just saying, the Singapore zoo that I remember was livelier than this. It’s still a zoo. The habitat is still there and so is the smell. I don’t know if it was just me or if the animals all decided to call it a holiday when we visited but to be honest, it became underwhelming. Yes, there are still portions that will pique your curiosity and places that feel better after revisiting them. But the experience doesn’t feel the same. Maybe I’m getting older or maybe I’m becoming more demanding. Maybe the zoo has lost some of its magic. Or maybe it was just one of those days. I won’t be dismissing the Singapore Zoo anytime soon. It is still a great zoo. And my experience may be different from yours.

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The Singapore Zoo is divided into zones. Depending on how you follow the map (if you decide to follow the map), you will go around and through the different zones before arriving back at the entrance (which is also the exit point). The map is a good enough guide, but one should note that it is nearly impossible to reach all of the zones or see all of the animals. Unless you are just running around and not really appreciating what the zoo offers, you would need to back up and slow down and you would be needing a whole day to see the whole park.

Timon, is that you?
Timon, is that you?

Our route took us through the Treetops Trail where surprisingly, the most interesting thing to see was not in the trees but rather down below in the water where an alligator was minding its own business. We continued on through the Otter enclosure but none of the Otters were there. We figured they were probably at Marina Bay Sands where they take selfies and wefies. We were trying to follow the suggested route on the map so we managed to enjoy the smell of the Malayan Tapis and we saw the White Tiger airing his … belly. We also saw Warthogs along the way and as if taking a cue from The Lion King, a lone Meerkat was on the opposite enclosure. It was supposed to be on guard duty. A few red bottoms of the Hamadryas Baboons later, and we found ourselves in Australasia. In here, the Kangaroos are nowhere to be found. They must have joined the Otters. We decided to move on through the Primate Kingdom after that and hoped that our cousins were hanging out. We were not disappointed as there were dozens of Colobus Monkeys and Patas Monkeys hanging out with Douc Langurs and Crested Macaques. This route led us to the Shaw Foundation Amphitheatre where we stopped by to catch a show with a Sea Lion. After the show, we were hungry, so we headed out for lunch.

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After lunch, we found ourselves walking along the Orangutan Boardwalk. There was a family of Orangutans having a crazy day on the treetops and they kind of reminded us of ourselves. We may have evolved from apes after all. Maybe. We reached the Wild Africa zone shortly and observed some Giraffes eating. They were in the same enclosure as the Zebras who were strangely only eating from a designated area with a bunch of leaves. There were other plant life all around the enclosure but the Zebras didn’t seem to move away from their feeding spot. The grass must be greener there. It took us a while to find the Lions from their pride rock, but there was a pair of them in there. It must have been quite the party the night before as they were pretty much zoned out and couldn’t be bothered. It started to rain then which brought us inside Reptile Garden and RepTopia where there are, well, reptiles. Which included a vast variety of small snakes and desert reptiles. When the rain finally let up, we were only able to venture forward to the Fragile Forest. The Fragile Forest is home to a good number of animals including the Flying Fox and Ring-Tailed Lemur. A variety of birds were also there and if we aren’t wrong, some adorable Mouse Deers. Then it rained again and we were stuck looking through an enclosure of Proboscis Monkeys. I have had my share of the Proboscis that would last me a lifetime after being stuck with them for so long.

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Our trip back to the Singapore Zoo ended with a light snack while waiting for our coach to pick us up and bring us back home. Again, the Mandai service did not disappoint and we were back in Tampines without having to tough it out on the train coming from Jurong East. It had been a nice trip back, and while it would have been nicer if the rain let up much earlier, it doesn’t change the fact that the zoo experience has changed quite a bit. They are continuing to improve and update. During these times, your experiences may turn out better or worse than it should. Don’t let it hamper your enjoyment of the park, another opportunity will present itself soon enough.

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Let’s Go to Asakusa

Asakusa is in our itinerary for this trip. What we didn’t expect, was rain. It was raining for almost the whole day that we were scheduled to go to Asakusa. But you can’t tell the heavens to keep the rain up while you travel. So it was wet.

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As usual, we started the trip getting lost as we got off at Asakusa Station. Obviously, the rain did not help. Part of travelling is being lost, and hungry. While we did have some hits and misses on this trip with our meals, the lunch we had near Asakusa was definitely a miss. You see, we decided to try local and have lunch at a small eatery where a couple of secondary school kids came out from. I mean, if kids eat there, it must be cheap and good, right? Unfortunately, it wasn’t. It was decent, but not good and definitely not cheap. But enough of that.

Nakamise
Nakamise

When we got our bearings straight, we managed to make our way to Nakamise. A shopping street (of all things). According to travel websites, Nakamise has been around for centuries providing temple visitors with traditional snacks, sweets and tourist souvenirs. I’m not really sure if this is still the atmosphere of old Tokyo, but the shops are entertaining in their own right. There are tons of things to buy here. There are T-shirts, keychains, umbrellas, toys, kimonos, snacks and all kinds of knick knacks. The rain didn’t stop us this time around though. Nakamise isn’t that long, but the amount of people and the rain made the trip a bit longer. Nakamise will bring you to Sensoji Temple which is one of Japan’s oldest temples. On the other end of Nakamise is the Kaminarimon, which is essentially a giant Kaminari Gate and is also the symbol of Asakusa. Considering that we travelled from the temple to the gate, it just shows how bad my sense of direction was that day. And no, it does not happen regularly.

Since it was still raining, we managed to sidestep into Shin-Nakamise street. Basically, it is a street running perpendicular to Nakamise street. While it is also a shopping street, it is covered and makes window shopping a little bit more convenient. Add to that the fact that it is surprisingly less crowded than Nakamise and you can have a decent time walking about and taking in the atmosphere.

We must be at Orange Street
We must be at Orange Street

While walking, we also managed to find Orange Street. Another famous street in Asakusa which is, no surprise, painted orange. If it wasn’t raining, we probably would have ended up walking over and looking for historic stores that are supposed to line the street leading up to the old Public Hall. We were about to end our day because, well, the rain doesn’t really help. And then we stumbled across yet another Don Quijote. By far, the most rambunctious one I have seen. And this is where we spent the rest of the day. It had been fun and shopping on the cheap is no longer cheap if you buy too much. Just a thought.

Let’s Go to Fukuoka

The kids are still sick and we want to go somewhere. Thankfully, we got a JR Pass so our options were quite good. Since we get unlimited travel on nearly all JR trains, we booked a ride to Fukuoka. I’m loving the shinkansen every time I ride one. Travelling to Fukuoka from Hiroshima took only about an hour via shinkansen. Reserving a seat is fairly easy through any JR counter (most major hubs have more counters than others, and some even have counters dedicated to foreign travelers), and you would want to reserve a seat if you are travelling during peak hours. There were times that the three of us had to get separate seats due to the reservations being full. It’s best to always check the train schedule and your estimated arrival time at your intended destination to avoid crowds, congestion and stress.

Fun times at Uminonakamichi.
Fun times at Uminonakamichi.

We arrived in Hakata at lunch time. And as with any other meal time between me and the wife, it was time to eat. We were actually torn between eating at Canal City or just at the train station but a coin toss made that decision to go to Canal City. Now, Canal City is one of the places that we were going to visit while in Fukuoka, but we still needed to go to Uminonakamichi before going to the mall. The good thing about the initial trip to Canal City though was having a buffet pizza lunch at Shakey’s Pizza. Again, that’s pizza. And buffet. In one sentence. Another surprise that caught our attention at Shakey’s was the serving of dessert pizzas. Again, that’s pizza. And dessert. In one sentence. Who would have thought you could have cinnamon and banana on a pizza and that it actually tasted good?

Pizza as a dessert? Yes, please!
Pizza as a dessert? Yes, please!
Family time at Uminonakamichi.
Family time at Uminonakamichi.

After lunch, we made our way by local train to Uminonakamichi Seaside Park. It is a sprawling complex nearly 4 km from end to end and is located on a narrow peninsula off Hakata bay. There seemed to be only one train that services that route and the intervals are quite long. So knowing the train schedule will help you from waiting too long at the station. There is an admission fee and a bike rental fee. And as luck would have it, my wife was already full and had the common sense to rent bikes. It was a tremendous help and I was immediately thankful that we did rent them when I realized how big the park is. We cycled through most of the park and enjoyed the cool breeze of the surrounding area. The rose garden was only one of the places that still had a good amount of flowers blooming. It was nice walking among the roses, roses of different colors by the way. I didn’t realise that there were more variations of roses than I thought. We cycled through the rest of the park stopping every now and then to rest and enjoy the greenery. According to the park information, there are different flowers in bloom all year round. We probably had the misfortune of coming to the park on one of the days that the flowers are still in transition. We missed the meadow being filled with blooms, but it was still a good stretch of the legs nonetheless. If we were to come back to Fukuoka another time, Uminonakamichi would be one of the reasons why.

Having ramen and yakitori at a Yatai.
Having ramen and yakitori at a Yatai.

We headed back to Canal City after our visit to Uminonakamichi. The feature that differentiates this mall from other malls is their canal as the name suggests. They basically have a small river running through the stretch of the mall. At one end of this is a water feature with fountains dancing on a music and light ensemble. It’s not really new, but if you haven’t watched one before, Canal City is a good place to start. After strolling around the mall, we made our way out to the nearby Yatai stalls. Yatai are basically open air food stalls seating about seven or eight persons at a time. They serve an assortment of dishes like ramen and yakitori and are open in the evening just in time for dinner or an after-office snack. And yes, they also serve beer and other beverages. In other words, it’s street food. Our experience wasn’t that enlightening, but it wasn’t bad at all. Not really sure if we were just expecting more out of it, but for us anyway, it didn’t live up to the hype. Or maybe we just ate at the wrong stall, who knows. The day went by nice and slow and we hopped on a train back to our room in Kyoto. Another day in Japan done.

Let’s Go to Okunoshima!

The last time we were in Japan, we visited Miyajima island where deer roamed freely and peacefully mingled with humans. I remember being gently head-butted by a deer that was hoping to get his teeth into my corn on a cob, which, admittedly was one of the best animal experiences I had. This year, we decided to choose a smaller animal. Smaller than a deer anyway.

While the guide book and websites tell you how to get to Okunoshima island, actually getting there is a very, very long trip. And that’s just getting to the port to hop aboard the ferry that will take you to the island. A family friend brought us there this time around since one of our nieces was sick. The long drive may or may not get a bit dull due to the distance, but I still had a good time. And that small curry restaurant that we had lunch at along the way was a nice bonus.

A Wabbit!
A Wabbit!

So what is Okunoshima island exactly?
Well, if Miyajima was an island overrun by deer, Okunoshima on the other hand, is overrun by rabbits. Yup, welcome to rabbit island.

Waiting for the ferry
Waiting for the ferry

We bought feeds from the visitor center at Tadanoumi port before we even boarded the ferry to the island. You can buy them cheap and you would want to buy them because the point of going to the island is to see (and possibly interact) with rabbits. Feeding them is one way of getting their attention. And true enough, once you get off the port at Okunoshima, there are rabbits everywhere. And just like that, we went off on a long hike through the island. That is to say, we didn’t really think about the route that we were going to take.

Eat, sleep, hop.
Eat, sleep, hop.

Of course, with rabbits to your left and to your right, the hike wasn’t really a hike. It was actually kind of a fun walk. We passed a museum that showcased the history of Okunoshima. A dark history that unfolds in contrast to the fluffy and gentle-natured population of rabbits that roam the island. The Okunoshima Poison Gas Museum represents a part of Japan’s wartime history. As the museum name suggests, Okunoshima was once used to produce poison gas to be used in the war. This was despite Japan having signed the Geneva Protocol banning the use of poison and chemical weapons some years before. The Okunoshima plant had been operating in secrecy during that time. Following Japan’s defeat, the factories in Okunoshima were destroyed. However, no one was prosecuted for the use of poison gas. This was because Japan never prosecuted any of its citizens for war crimes. The museum itself is quite small and entry is quite reasonable. It displays the actual weapons, some equipment used by the workers, historical photos and documentation.

Probably halfway around the island, we reached the hotel (and the café, yey!). We had a snack and got some souvenirs. This is the only place on the island to eat by the way, unless you packed your own food.

Feeding a furball.
Feeding a fur ball.

Continuing our trek, it has dawned on us that the last ferry out of Okunoshima is probably in two hours time. The fact that we were out halfway, and that we didn’t have a map stirred a bit of concern. So we braved the trail while feeding rabbits and still enjoying the scenery of the island. We hiked uphill and went through some of the island’s old ruins. We found the old barracks and the remains of old gun placements. We also managed to find the old storage structures but was not fortunate enough to find the old power plant and the tallest electricity pylon in Japan. There was a visitor center though that was surprisingly stocked with information about the islands flora and fauna. We may not have explored the whole of the island, but what we experienced was plenty. And more importantly, we made it to the last ferry (yey!)!

There are already numerous guides all over the Internet providing directions on getting to Okunoshima. We took our ferry from Tadanoumi, but there is another port on the Omishima. Have fun when you get there, and please take note of ferry departure times.

Back Again in Japan

It was a long sought trip back to Japan. And after some planning and re-planning and re-planning again, we finally got our trip sorted out. We decided on doing things our way with some guidance from online itineraries and reviews. And while we had to cancel our trip to Nagano, we were still going to enjoy our June holidays.

We're leaving on a jet plane.
We’re leaving on a jet plane.

If you are going to be travelling between prefectures, or just having long distance travel in general, I would definitely recommend getting the JR Pass. The shinkansen alone cost upwards of 10,000 Yen per person, per trip from Tokyo to Hiroshima. Shorter trips cost less, and taking local trains or overnight buses would be cheaper, but it will take a day to get there. We did the JR Pass and we managed to clock a lot of hours using the shinkansen. Those trips alone have made the Pass a worthwhile investment while we were in Japan.

So, first stop, Hiroshima. Let me just say that it wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be. There were a lot of English speaking Japanese staff at stations and shops. There will be misunderstandings every now and then, but you will never really be without a helping hand. I can say that for the major stations and cities, though I can’t say to what extent the farther you get away. Still, it won’t hurt to learn a bit of Japanese before going.

Waiting for our ride...
Waiting for our ride…

We spent eight hours on a direct flight from Singapore to Japan and after a hop-on-hop-off affair on the Tokyo Monorail, we spent another five hours on the shinkansen to get to Hiroshima. You would think that it was tiring, but you’d be surprised. It was tiring, but it was sort of relaxing at the same time. The shinkansen rode smoothly and the seats were quite comfortable. In fact, you have more leg and shoulder room on a shinkansen than on an economy flight. I fell in love with the shinkansen that day.

Matthew getting his facts straight.
Matthew getting his facts straight.

We reached Hiroshima and met up with relatives. We had dinner at a Yakiniku restaurant and gained a kilo each on the first day (all except Matthew). Unfortunately, the kids were sick and they were unable to stay longer. We didn’t even get to play. The night didn’t go to waste though. Luckily we were able to go back to the A-bomb dome at the Hiroshima Peace Park. This was one of Matthew’s itineraries. Even though we were here the last time we visited Hiroshima, the Peace Park at night is something else.

The A-bomb dome at night.
The A-bomb dome at night.

There’s something about the cold evening breeze and the quietness of the night at the Peace Park. And while the A-bomb dome is lit up, it was lit just enough to give it ambient lighting. It enhanced the visual of the remains of the building and gave it a sad but peaceful aura. It was beautiful. We didn’t have anything that we wanted to do in particular there, so we just had Matthew enjoy his night and we enjoyed walking through the cool breeze in Hiroshima’s streets.

Yayoi Kusama in Singapore

It was packed and you need to queue up in order to see some (actually, most) of the exhibition. Seriously, this is not how you are supposed to appreciate the art of Yayoi Kusama.

Tulip Obliterated
Tulip Obliterated

Apart from the annoying bit that everybody just seems to want to take a selfie (or wefie), there is a lot to appreciate in the Life is the Heart of a Rainbow exhibit recently concluded at the National Gallery Singapore.

For the longest time since I have read about it, I wanted to go and see this exhibition. However, due to commitments both at work and at school (for Matthew), we found it difficult to set a date that was not a weekend. And so we braved the National Gallery one Saturday afternoon to visit the Yayoi Kusama exhibition.

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But who is Yayoi Kusama?

If you were one of the few who came to the exhibition to actually experience the art and not just to take your Instagram feed to the next level, then you would have taken a bit of time to actually read up on her. It would have been told then that Yayoi’s childhood experiences had been the primary force in her art. Having lived through WWII despite the hallucinations she had been having in her head, it was easy to understand why her art is, well, classified as avant-garde. She would describe her hallucinations as “flashes of light, auras and dense field of dots”. At some point in my personal life, I’ve had those visions. I have not thought of them as hallucinations but rather, I thought it was normal happenings in my head since I wanted to be alone most of the time. She even managed to give it a name, “infinity nets” and “self-obliteration”. Big and apt words (and quite frankly, I wish I had thought of them).

She also had hallucinations of flowers that spoke to her and patterns that came to life. I didn’t have flowers speaking to me, although my dog often did. And I often spoke to my dog. Again, I thought that was normal. But Yayoi did something amazing with her hallucinations. She conquered them and used them as a means to an end. As such, you have these various art mediums that can only be described as distinctly Yayoi Kusama. I may never understand some lumps of it, but of those that I did, it made me see dots in my head again.

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Stay behind the line.
Stay behind the line.

 

We squeezed our way through the crowd and queued up however which way to get into the galleries. Each of which were suffocating due to the number of people. Whether or not they were there for the art or for whatever personal reason, it made the whole experience somewhat less personal. Admittedly, I tried getting photos of my family and myself to have a reminder that I had been to the exhibition. The rest of the photos were to remind me of the art that I enjoyed and had good conversations with my son while we were there. Surely, Yayoi Kusama would have flinched at the discussion my wife and I were having with our son regarding her work. Sure, it’s been viewed and appreciated by legends and critiques the world over, but I don’t think she’s ever been critiqued by an eleven-year old boy who saw tadpoles in her art.

"Tadpoles on purple water" - Matthew
“Tadpoles on purple water” – Matthew

 

"Circular Zebra" - Matthew
“Circular Zebra” – Matthew

 

We would love to see her work again, but not like it was in the National Gallery. Perhaps a trip to her own museum in Japan would be a better way (and more complete) to live and appreciate the art of Yayoi Kusama.

"How many parking lot mirrors did she steal for this?" - Matthew
“How many parking lot mirrors did she steal for this?” – Matthew

Interestingly, I read piece in the Straits Times with whom I share the same sentiment with. The link to the article is here, and as of this writing, is still a live link.

http://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/yayoi-kusama-in-the-age-of-selfies-and-instagram