Looking Forward

We welcome the new year with open arms today. As we poured our sparkling grape juice between the three of us, we talked about the year that was. And as we were talking, it occurred to me that this may have been the first time that we really talked about it.

Our New Year welcome dinner
Our New Year welcome dinner

2018 had been good to us. It had its ups and downs for sure, but it treated us more kindly throughout.

Matthew had been able to go to his chosen secondary school after the grueling assessment exam courtesy of the PSLE. And during his time in this new school, we realized that this was the school that we were looking for. Over the course of the year, we attended school events and gatherings. We made sure that we were able to attend parent-teacher sessions and we got to know the teachers well. We attended parent-child bonding activities to help us understand each other better. Through those interactions, the teachers were able to talk about their concerns and we were also able to voice out our own. As time passed, we felt that the way the school managed the way they teach is the right way for Matthew. Although all schools need to comply with the strict academic benchmarks by the Ministry of Education, they are given enough freedom to use different teaching methods. We are thankful that this school gives importance to a child’s potential rather than expecting them to perform at an unbelievable performance standard right off the bat.

Mister Matthew
Mister Matthew

We had good times just roaming around Singapore all throughout the year. We went to the Tampines Eco Green and tried grounding. We also frequently cycled to Pasir Ris Park. This served as our exercise and our bonding time as well. There was no fixed schedule and we went as often as we could. It could be to catch the sunset or to catch the sunrise. Sometimes, it is just to catch good food at the nearby hawker center. We went to a fair and rode the crazy swinging ship. We ate hipster food and drank hipster drinks. We visited the Turtle and Tortoise Museum for the last time before they closed the gates at the Chinese Garden. It was sad that they had to leave that place and we do hope they manage to find a new home soon. We rented a car from time to time just for the heck of it. And we finally got around to go to the places that we had only previously talked about.

Catching the sunrise at Pasir Ris Park
Catching the sunrise at Pasir Ris Park

We managed to go on a trip to Tokyo. And during our stay, we managed to go to places that we didn’t even think we could reach. Often times we got lost or got to a place that was not on our plan at all. We even got to take home souvenirs from nearly all the towns that we visited. A short visit to an aunt and our cousins made the trip a little easier during the first few days. And then a visit to a friend in Osaka also made it into our itinerary. But the best places that we managed to go to this time around were in Tokyo. Akihabara, Tokorozawa, Diver City and Yokohama to name a few. Okunoshima and Kyoto were also memorable places for us. Japan is definitely one of the highlights of 2018.

Welcome to Akihabara
Welcome to Akihabara

I also started teaching Matthew about photography. It’s time he advanced from just pointing the camera and shooting. It’s time for him to understand the concepts behind photography and make a hobby out of it. I can’t stand to just see him sitting on one corner and reading a book over and over. He really needs a more active hobby. And so do I. We do attend anime and gaming conventions now, but I don’t think that counts as an active hobby.

At Paradores Del Castillo
At Paradores Del Castillo

We visited our families in the Philippines at the end of the year. We tried to spend as much time as we could with them. We took them out to eat and to travel around the nearby provinces. We enjoyed our stay there and we had fun. While we also had a lot to eat, Matthew seemed to be the only one to not gain weight.

We had our downs too. But we’d rather not recall those. I think we already learned our lessons from those times. And its better to let those experiences go.

Yes. 2018 had been a good year. And here’s hoping that 2019 brings us more blessings and happiness that we can share.

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Let’s Go to Totoro’s Forest

We already went to the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka. So we thought we would go the extra mile and get lost in Totoro Forest as well.

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Totoro Forest is actually a nature reserve under the care of the Foundation of Totoro no Furusato. As far as the name goes, it has been used by Hayao Miyazaki used this forest as the model of the forest used for the animated film My Neighbour Totoro. The thing is, this forest is situated in Sayama Hills in Saitama.

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It was a long walk getting up to Totoro’s Forest. And that was just getting to the forest itself. You wouldn’t even know that you were actually inside Totoro Forest until you see some of the signs. Navigating the forest also proved difficult for us since the signs are in Japanese. Needless to say, when we say we got lost in Totoro Forest, we literally got lost inside Totoro Forest. It would have been fine though as inside the forest was cool and actually quite pleasant. It was nice to stay there, but we weren’t actually geared up for camping, so getting lost and not being able to come out of the forest would mean big trouble for us. We also wanted to reach Kurosaki’s house, which is a recreation of the Kurosaki house from Totoro as well. What we didn’t know was that the house was not actually inside Totoro Forest. And following the directions from Google Maps and the one blog with decent directions proved to be futile as we ended up getting even more lost.

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We got to Kurosaki’s house, eventually. And it was closed. Yes, for the life of me, I did not bother looking at the details of the house. I only knew that it would be the house would be perfect for any Totoro fan worth his salt. And because I had been too excited and frustrated getting to the house, I didn’t get to check that the house actually had days that it was closed. For a house that was in the middle of nowhere, I think that made sense. It didn’t make sense that I did not see that though. By the time we reached the house, we were already tired. Our only consolation was the maccha house that sat beside Kurosaki’s house.

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The lady who owns the caf√© was very nice and friendly. And the mochi and maccha is just superb. It is a very tasty treat and almost made us forget that we got lost and found out that the Kurosaki house was closed. Almost. Still, the maccha was refreshing and the mochi was really, really good. Probably the best maccha mochi that I have ever tried. And it turns out that they grow their own tea. In fact, they have their own school all about making tea. It was really a blessing that we made it there. The old lady even called up a taxi for us (because the place is, quite frankly, in the middle of nowhere). We weren’t able to see the Kurosaki house but we enjoyed our time in the forest and we really enjoyed the maccha. Not a bad day at all.

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 Yokohama

On the way back to Kyoto from Kamakura, we decided to take a detour to Yokohama. But what is in Yokohama? Quite a lot to be honest. And we really should come back here. At that moment though, we decided to hang around the Cup Noodle Museum.

Finally, a family sized Cup Noodle!
Finally, a family sized Cup Noodle!

The Yokohama Cup Noodle Museum was still a few blocks away from Minato Mirai station, the closest train station that I found to get there. However, Yokohama looks and feels so different from Tokyo and even from Osaka that it was quite refreshing to walk around. We managed to get in the Cup Noodles Museum late in the afternoon. We were actually afraid that we would not be able to make it since the museum closes at 6 PM. However, it seems that luck was in our favor and we managed to get in and enjoy what the museum had to offer.

Yup, we are fans of Cup Noodles
Yup, we are fans of Cup Noodles

You are presented with the history of cup noodles in Japan. There was a room that showed the variety of cup noodles that have come out since 1958. The original chicken ramen is the star of the show of course, but that did not stop them from creating odd-world flavors like tomato and curry. And you would be amazed at the variety of the cup noodle including those that have never been released outside of Japan. It was an entertaining and interesting look at cup noodles. The Momofoku Theater shows the viewers how Momofoku Ando overcame great adversity to achieve globally significant inventions. It was presented in a kid-friendly format, and even though it was in Japanese, it was easy enough to follow the animation of how the instant cup noodle ramen came into existence.

My take-away from the Cup Noodles Museum
My take-away from the Cup Noodles Museum

What’s nice about the Cup Noodles Museum is that it was created in such a way that you have to climb up floor by floor and by doing so, you minimize on missing out some of the attractions. We had Matthew try his hand on the DIY your own cup noodle at the factory. Well, it basically allows you to design your own cup and when you are done with that, it is like a choose-your-own ingredient to complete the package. You don’t need to be an expert with instant noodles to appreciate it, and as with many tourist attractions, this one is quite full. While Matthew was able to create his own cup noodles, it didn’t really look like he had that much fun. Of course, it may be attributed to the fact that he wasn’t feeling well at the time as well so other people’s enjoyment may vary. We ended our trip with a snack at the Noodles Bazaar. It is sort of like a hawker center where you can choose to eat different types of noodles from different countries such as China, Malaysia, Vietnam and others.

We didn't realise how famous Snoopy was in Japan
We didn’t realise how famous Snoopy was in Japan

After our outing at the Cup Noodles Museum, we headed back around the block and ended up in Yokohama Minato Mirai Tokyu Square. A mall, that was so big that you need a map so that you won’t get lost. It didn’t help that the escalators do not go up to the next floor in a conventional way either. Here though, was a Snoopy Town Shop, a Disney Shop and other character shops that are proud to represent Yokohama. As I mentioned earlier, Yokohama is special and it shows. This place is now on our list of places to visit again if we ever go back to Japan.

Let’s Go to Kamakura

Kamakura is a coastal town in the Kanagawa prefecture, south of Tokyo. Since our base of operations has now moved to Tokyo, our itinerary now centers on places easily accessible from Tokyo. Of course, still taking advantage of the JR Pass. However, due to the number of lines plying the rails of Tokyo, not all of our rides are covered by the JR Pass now. We still make use of it as much as we can, but there is an alternative Pass that covers mainly Tokyo and other non-JR lines within the Tokyo region. It may be a good idea to study that depending on how your stay in Japan would look like.

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Kamakura today is a small city and sometimes called the Kyoto of Eastern Japan. I can’t vouch for that since I’m not a local, but it is a very popular tourist destination for both foreigners and local alike. We experienced first hand how a crowd can move you from place to place, you don’t even have to walk. You can just “ride” the crowd to get to your destination. However, riding the crowd didn’t go too well for us. Our destination was supposed to be the Great Buddha of Kamakura and the Hasedera Temple. Instead, we ended up in Komachi-dori shopping street. I really thought that I was moving in the right direction seeing as the street was crowded and everything. It felt like everybody was going on that street so that’s where we went. I should have guessed that it was a shopping district with the Ghibli Store on the first corner of the street. And then the shops just kept on going and going and going. Until I consulted Maps and it showed us that we were actually going in the opposite direction to where we were supposed to be going. And we have already walked a good hour (maybe even an hour and a half). Add after all that’s said and done, the walk along Komachi-dori was actually fun despite the big crowd. There are a lot of shops to explore. We even found the same shop that we had bought our umbrellas from in Canal City. You won’t grow hungry either as there are also lots of shops selling snacks and other knick knacks. There were souvenir shops left and right. And there were dozens of macha shops all along the Komachi-dori shopping street.

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When we realised that we had gone the wrong way, we had to decide if going back the other way is worth it or just call it a day. Well, luckily there was still a contingency in my itinerary for such an event. Onward then, to Yokohama.

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Let’s Go to Osaka

It’s our last day in Kyoto and we should be on our way to Tokyo soon. Until we got a call from a friend that is. She was asking to meet us before we head to Tokyo. So we packed our suitcases and made our way down to Osaka. We honestly did not have a lot of time to spend in Osaka. The trip from Osaka to Tokyo alone would be around three hours and that’s not including finding our way to our Air BnB host. But we couldn’t let an opportunity to catch up with friends pass by especially since we don’t come around that often to the land of the rising sun.

We're high up but we don't care!

We met up at Umeda/Osaka station and made our way to the Umeda Sky Building. It was a good walk from Umeda/Osaka station and when we got there, it became eerily familiar. As my memory came back to me, it turns out that this was where we took the bus to Hiroshima back when we were here in 2013. Those were pretty good memories.

Enjoying the view
Enjoying the view

The Floating Garden Observatory that connects the two towers of the Umeda Sky Building is accessible from the 39th story. It should be noted that I am actually afraid of heights and that 173 meters high is quite high. So what the heck was I doing up there? Well, the view is awesome for one thing. I should also mention that Japan has several of these tall towers with observation decks on different cities, but this one in Osaka was the only one we actually went up to. So yes, the view is great. And that was in the middle of the day. Imagine what it could have been at night. You can see practically all across Osaka from up there. This top floor is called the Sky Walk and it would be obvious why its named that when you are actually already there.

The view from up there
The view from up there

There is small pocket of space on top of the observatory called the Lumi Deck. This is a place where couples “lock” their promises on the Fence of Vows. The Lumi Deck can be accessed from the Sky Walk. And while it was windy and cool on the day that we went up to the Sky Walk, we heard that it can get freezing cold during the winter. We also discovered that Japan’s weather can change abruptly from time to time, so it’s best to check for rain or other undesirable weather conditions before going to the Sky Building.

Going back the way you came, you would already have noticed the souvenir shop which is (un-creatively) called the Sky 39 Souvenir Shop. There are items unique to the Umeda Sky Building that you can only buy here. You just need to keep your eyes peeled and your thoughts clear on whether you need them or not.

Matthew and Yumi (he's much taller now)

It was soon time for lunch and we decided not to go too far anymore. We just went back down to the basement level of the Umeda Sky Building and we were actually pleasantly surprised. Takimi Koji Gourmet Street is like a nostalgic era of Japan that is filled with restaurants and other food shops. We had our ramen here and some pretty good photos for our memories too. It was a great place to eat where the food is good and the prices reasonable. And all of it just some 10-15 minutes of walking from Umeda/Osaka station.

Alas, it was time to go. Time spent was short and sweet but we were happy to meet up with a good friend once again. Until next time, Yumi-san.

Let’s Go to Gion

Okay, it was late at night and it was drizzling when we decided to take a walk at Gion. In fact, it was the night of the same day that we went to Arashiyama and the Kyoto Railway Museum. So I guess you could say that my day had been full. Of course, I spent the morning with both Matthew and Judy in Arashiyama and then I spent the afternoon with Matthew in Kyoto. The night ended with me and the wife taking a stroll in Gion. By far the most productive day of my stay in Japan.

Gion at Night

We didn’t get to see any Geisha. But we saw lots of bouncer type guys in full suits though. I guess that shows what kind of place the surrounding area of Gion is. We did feel safe while we were walking around, and the atmosphere in Gion has its own special aura. The air may have been cold and damp due to the rain, but it was nice just walking around the neighbourhood.

Streets of Gion
Streets of Gion

If my memory is correct, we were walking along Kawaramachi-Dori street that is lined with Pokemon themed street lamps. We just walked through alleys and streets trying to make our way to where Google Maps says “Gion”. And while it did not prove to be the most educational tour of Gion, we did manage to take in the atmosphere. The area around Kamo river is full of old school vibes combined with touches of the present. The cobbled street with Japanese lanterns are especially gorgeous at night. We were also trying to reach the Shirakawa area where the streets are lined with willow trees. I think we did, as we managed to walk through Shirakawa-Minami Dori on the way home. We were also surprised that we managed to find the entrance to Yasaka Shrine. A shrine that we visited the last time that we were in Kyoto back in 2013. It looked different in the morning but it is arguably better in the evening because of the quieter atmosphere.

Ending up in Yasaka
Ending up in Yasaka

Come to think of it, I would consider it a romantic stroll of Gion. We just walked, held each other’s hand and sat down for some coffee. All the while just talking and having a good time.

Let’s Go to Kyoto

Going to Arashiyama was the earliest we ever traveled during our stay in Japan. And to no surprise, by the time we returned to Kyoto, it was still just lunch time. We had time to kill, but not much muscle left to kill it with. Since it was still early, and our memories of the SGMAGLEV Railway Museum was still fresh in Matthew’s mind, we decided to try the next nearest destination. The Kyoto Railway Museum. The wife may have had enough of trains for the moment though, as she let us be on our way and said that she would just go home to rest up (and do some laundry). On that, we had to rely on Google Maps to bring us to our destination.

Nope. Thomas is not here.
Nope. Thomas is not here.

It turns out, the Kyoto Railway Museum wasn’t that near the train station at all. We found that out as Matthew and myself were walking to the museum but ended up in front of the Kyoto Aquarium instead. But we persevered and walked the additional meters to get to the Kyoto Railway Museum. Was it worth it? You bet it was.

Matthew trying out a train.
Matthew trying out a train.

When we got to the Kyoto Railway Museum, Matthew was back in explorer mode. He couldn’t wait to go around and once again soak up what this museum has to offer. The Kyoto Railway Museum, unlike the SGMAGLEV in Nagoya, caters more to the history of Japan’s railway operations. You will notice straight away that this museum is bigger than the one in Nagoya. You enter the museum from an open area where you already have several trains from Japan’s rich history of rail. Matthew, as always, goes on ahead going in and out of trains where possible. You can even have your picture taken from the cockpit of a bullet train (for a price). Once you enter the main building, you are transported back in time to the beginning of Japan’s railway history. There is a very old steam engine that has been preserved on one side. And all throughout the main building are evolutions of the trains that have plowed all across Japan’s countryside. Even if you are not a train nut, it’s difficult not to be the least bit interested in trains. There are cut out cockpits of trains with working levers and switches. There was even a working public address system (which Matthew had absolutely abused). There were more trains here than in the SCMAGLEV Railway Park, so much so that if we spent half a day there, you would need the whole day here in the Kyoto Railway Museum.

At the roundhouse turntable waiting for a magic train.

We saw a model of an old train station complete with a counter, train schedules and wooden gantries. We saw the difference in classes of trains. We saw how kitchens in trains looked like and their dining cars.¬†There were so many trains to see that we were almost lost in the museum. And then as we were heading to the exit, we saw it. A stable of steam locomotives inside a roundhouse and a turntable for the trains. The steam trains have all been meticulously restored and you can smell the grease and oil all around you. It is one of the most majestic things I have seen. The trains all seem to come to life in that place and if you close your eyes, you’d get scared that they might even start talking. But it is enough to feel the steel on your skin. That roundhouse and that turntable is a must visit.

The exit, as always, is fronted by a museum shop where Matthew’s eyes always light up. Here we got the next wind up shinkansen that completes his pair of souvenirs from the railway museums. We headed home after that. But that was not the end of our Kyoto trip.

Let’s Go to Arashiyama

Arashiyama. When we started planning for this trip, the wife had already mentioned that we would be going to the Arashiyama bamboo grove. So during the time that I was preparing the itinerary, there was already a place holder for Arashiyama. It’s always a good thing to plan ahead for places that you would expect to be crowded, and Arashiyama is definitely one of those places.

The gardens of Tenryuji
The gardens of Tenryuji

We came to Arashiyama via Saga Arashiyama station on the JR line (Yey! JR Pass covers this). I didn’t really plan the route that well because on the map, it looked so near to the station. Thank you Google Maps! We made our way to the Tenryuji Temple grounds as we were going to use that as the pass through to the bamboo grove. The temple grounds were quite big and we got a bit lost traversing the garden paths. So much so that we didn’t manage to actually go into the temple. We were more nature lovers than temple goers anyway, so you could say that served us just fine. The gardens are impressive. Like most of the landscaped gardens that we have visited in Japan before, the gardens here are beautiful. It seems that they have a knack for picking out which greenery goes with which tree and which flower and which shrub. We could stay there for hours just breathing. And we would have, if not for the incredible number of tourists. And we haven’t even reached the bamboo grove yet. We started getting glimpses of sky high bamboo trees as we were walking along the garden paths. And we knew we were at the end of our temple trail.

Bamboos of Arashiyama
Bamboos of Arashiyama

We exited the temple grounds and followed the directions to the bamboo grove. As we walked along the bamboo grove trail, it was obvious that the path was going to be a bit dark. The weather has not been bright and sunny from the start of the morning after all. But the bamboo grove itself lends its mysterious aura as the wind ruffles the surrounding and you feel the slow swaying of the bamboo trees. Its truly an amazing feeling, albeit fleeting for only a moment as the noise from tourists trespass into your visual and aural periphery. Yes, we knew that Arashiyama would be a tourist hot spot, but we didn’t think it would ruin the experience that much. Oh well. At least we had moments.

Tanukis or Racocon Dogs along the rails
Tanukis or Raccoon Dogs along the rails

Moving on after the required photo taking (and photo bombing), we decided to take the Sagano Scenic Train route towards Torokko Arashiyama where we were planning to take the JR train back to Saga Arashiyama. The Scenic Train wasn’t part of the original plan, but considering we still need to hike all the way to the same train station, we decided to go for it. The Scenic Train takes you across and through the mountain along the Hozugawa river. The natural state of the mountain with the river passing through it is, again, nothing short of beautiful if you love nature. The feeling was again only for several fleeting moments when you can isolate yourself from the tourists. Don’t get me wrong, we were tourists as well, but we were quiet and observant because we wanted to take in what Arashiyama had to offer. But the group of tourists that we chanced upon were noisy and inconsiderate of other travelers. It was like a wet market in the train all the way down to Torokko Arashiyama. Other than that bit with the noisy tourists, Arashiyama gave us a great time.

I should mention that it was raining by the time we reached Torokko Arashiyama. And even then, it was fun. We got lost and we got wet but we got what we came for. We enjoyed our day of travelling. But it wasn’t about to end so soon.