Travels in 2017- photo roundup

Happy New Year everyone.
Let’s hope 2018 will be a peaceful, productive and eventful year for us all.

Having gotten the frightful political and news lookback at 2017 out of the way in my last post, here is the lighter stuff — 10 photos representing the best of my travels in 2017. I traveled to Malaysia and Singapore for the first time, took a trip from Tokyo to Hiroshima, and went to see Avatar’s Hallelujah mountains for real in Wulingyuan, China. But best of all, I finally took a trip to Canada, where I studied, and Trinidad, where I grew up, to see family. I’m not sure if I would be doing as much traveling in 2018 but I wouldn’t mind.

Malacca’s Red Square, Malaysia. More a collection of grand colonial buildings near a roundabout and river, the “square” is still the heart of this elegant former Dutch and English colonial port, one half of a UNESCO World Heritage Site (Georgetown, Penang is the other half).

Out of all the different cities I’ve lived in, Toronto remains the best. I took a long-overdue trip to Canada a couple of months ago and while it was mainly for family purposes, I still did a little sightseeing.

Wulingyuan national park, Hunan, China. The huge 690-sq-km park is full of limestone peaks like this, which the floating mountains in Avatar were based on. While not as well-known as say, Huangshan, this is the best scenic site I’ve been to in China.

The island of Miyajima, near Hiroshima, is famous for its floating Torii gate. But the highlight for me was climbing Mt Miyajima and taking in the serene views of the nearby islets and the Inland Sea.
As part of that long-overdue trip to the West, I went back to Trinidad, where I grew up. This is a view of part of the capital Port of Spain, the northern hills, the sea (Gulf of Paria) and the Queen’s Park Savannah, a giant park in the middle of the capital and the world’s largest roundabout.

While visiting Japan, I went to Matsuyama, the largest city on Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands. The Dogo Onsen is a bathhouse complex centered on a cool wooden building that looks like a castle. I did go in to take a bath after taking this photo.

I’d never been to Vancouver before so it was great to finally visit it. With views like this right next to the city, there’s little doubt why it tops many lists of the world’s best cities.

As I was visiting Trinidad for the first time in almost a decade, I played tourist and revisited many places I’d been to as a child or teenager. This is Manzanilla, one of the best beaches on the east coast.

Despite having seen many skyscrapers, I find the Petronas Towers to be really amazing. Due to their formidable, hefty appearance and the fact there are two of them, they stand like titanic metal sentries of Kuala Lumpur.

I made my first visit to Singapore in 2017 and I was impressed by some of their structures like these weird, futuristic towers at the Gardens by the Bay.

Japan travel- Tokyo’s Shinjuku and Shibuya districts

Tokyo has a lot of districts, but the most famous and busiest downtown ones should be Shinjuku and Shibuya.
Shinjuku is a large district where the city’s metropolitan government is located, and features some of Tokyo’s tallest highrises. I went up the Metropolitan Government Building tower, which is actually a massive highrise joining together two towers, to take advantage of its free 45th-floor viewing deck. The view was great, taking in neighboring highrises and a vast stretch of the surrounding districts.
At night, it becomes this buzz of luminescent activity including clubs, pachinko parlors, bars and even a red-light district, though this isn’t exactly out of place in Japan. Shinjuku subway station is huge, because it consists of different platforms for different lines, and I actually got a little lost – I couldn’t find the platform for the subway to go back to my hotel and kept walking around in circles – and had to ask an employee for help. He couldn’t speak English but he helpfully directed me in the right direction. It remains the one and only time I’ve ever gotten lost inside a subway.

Shibuya is a well-known shopping district but is famous for something weird – a street crossing that is the world’s busiest. That’s because when the lights turn red, pedestrians from several directions converge creating a special sight. I admit I went there in the evening specifically to see the crossing in effect. The intersection is surrounded by brightly lit stores, buildings and large ads that create a spectacle similar to Times Square in New York. I wasn’t the only one there taking pictures though, and there were even a few Western tourists recording it! This crossing was seen in Lost in Translation, the movie with Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson as two American strangers in Tokyo who become close friends for a few days.
Those were also the only two downtown districts I visited since with only four days, I had to limit which places I went to in this vast city.

I also dropped by Akihabara, the famous tech and manga neighborhood, twice, but didn’t spend too much time there. I saw the manga and maid cafes, with girls dressed as maids handing out flyers in the streets, and I went into a couple of stores.
My flight back to Taiwan was on AirAsiaJapan at 7.45 am, so I had to race to take the subway and then the airport bus to make it on time or face having to take the taxi which would have cost about US$200. I arrived with just about an hour to spare, but I wasn’t the only AirAsia passenger to do so since the line at the counter was really long. The flight was uneventful but I remember the flight attendants were very, very attractive.
So, this is it for my 2013 Japan trip series. Thankfully, I’ve finished it before the end of 2015!

Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower, Shinjuku, which houses educational institutions
Shinjuku at night
Approaching Shibuya Crossing
The lights turn red and this massive collection of humanity flows in all directions 
Back in Shinjuku
Tokyo Government Municipal Building, headquarters of the metro government
Continue reading “Japan travel- Tokyo’s Shinjuku and Shibuya districts”

Mt. Fuji photo roundup

Here are more photos of Mt. Fuji and Lake Kawaguchiko, which lies near the foot of the mountain.
Almost as if I were soaring in the clouds
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Volcanic crater on the summit
This is on the trail at the fifth station, where I started from
Rock cairn on the summit
Close to the top
Looks like a grave  
Heading down

Japan travel – climbing and conquering Mt. Fuji


Japan’s most famous natural symbol is the mighty Mt. Fuji, whose almost-symmetrical snow-capped cone is a familiar sight in photos and pictures. Rising over 3,776 meters, its famous reputation extends far beyond the country.

Towards the end of my 2013 trip to Japan, in what is perhaps one of the few major achievements in my modest life, I climbed it. It was the perfect height – spectacular enough to be one of Asia’s highest mountains, but able to be climbed in one day. It wasn’t easy as it took me about 6 hours to reach the top, 1.5 hours to walk around the crater at the top, and 3 hours to get back down. I have to clarify that I didn’t climb it from the ground, but midway from the 5th station on the Yoshida Trail, the most popular of the four trails on Mt. Fuji. This isn’t cheating though, almost everyone who climbs it does it from that point.

After I got to Tokyo, I spent one day there then went to Mt. Fuji. Rather, I took the night bus to Kawaguchiko, a small resort town at the foot of Mt. Fuji which also borders a lake of the same name, and checked in at a hostel just across the station that I had prebooked. The next morning, I took the bus up to the Fuji Subaru 5th station, which is a large rest area on the mountain with several stores and washrooms.

I started off on a wide gravelly path along the Yoshida Trail, the most popular of the four different trails that go up from different directions and intersect near the top. However, coming down, you do need to be careful to go down the correct train. There were a lot of people, some of whom were coming in the opposite direction who’d probably climbed down after viewing the sunrise on top. Mt. Fuji was one of the few places I saw a fair number of foreigners during my Japan trip. There were even horses carrying lazy hikers further on to a certain point.

The path got steadily steeper, narrower and rockier and darker. The higher you go, the less vegetation there is until eventually it’s all bare soil and rock because Mt. Fuji is a volcano. I’d started from the 5th station so there were 3 more stations to pass until the top. At each one, there were benches, toilets (you had to pay to use but they were rather clean), and even huts that travelers could sleep in. There was always a lot of people, both Japanese and foreigners, along the trail. I even passed a few Hong Kongers including one family, who I’d bump into later.

While it was still summer and hot on the ground, it was a little cold on the mountain, which was the highest mountain I’d ever been on. The ground was desolate; there was no trees or vegetation and the soil was red. From far off, Mt. Fuji looks great but up close, it was ugly but majestic. Climbing the mountain is not technically difficult as there are clear trails and steps, but it was extremely tiring and I had to stop almost every 10 minutes or so. There were signs along the way and at each station showing how much more meters to go before reaching the top which provides a small psychological boost. It was a cloudy day and when I got high enough, the clouds were below me and often shrouded the land below so I couldn’t see it.

After what seemed an eternity, the top came into view. I told myself I’d soon be on top and I did, but that last bit was one of the hardest. It was great when I finally reached the summit; the sky was blue, the clouds formed an impenetrable layer around the mountain, and I was literally above the clouds. It was one of the most fantastic sights I have ever beheld.

The summit isn’t a single spot, but a large crater which requires over an hour to walk around. The absence of any vegetation and walking on red earth surrounded by bare rocky slopes almost felt like being on the moon or someplace not on this earth.

I’d started the hike at about 10 in the morning and I reached the top at 3.30, so by 5, I headed back down. The trail down was initially on a different path from the one going up, and at one point, it splits into two with one continuing on the Yoshida trail and the other to a different trail, but this is clearly marked by signs that explicitly warned climbers not to confuse the two trails. The trail down was very loose and almost sandy, so at times it was possible to jog down.

Lower down, I ran into a HK family of three who I’d met near the top and we passed each other several times again. It was a good thing because it was getting dark and just before we reached the fifth station, we took a wrong turn that resulted in me asking a park employee who spoke no English, and the family having a small dispute, shouting in Cantonese. It was a little desperate because we had to catch the final bus at the fifth station down to Kawaguchiko which left at 8.30, but we ended up doing so with some time to spare too.
We were actually staying at the same hostel too, but on different floors. After saying goodbye, I took a soak in the hostel’s hotspring spa. The next morning, I walked to Lake Kawaguchiko which was about 20 minutes from my hostel, did a short stroll enjoying the scenic lake, then headed back and took the bus back to Tokyo.

View from the top
Kawaguchiko bus station, with Mt. Fuji looming in the back

5th station, the starting point of my trek

The trail starts off nice and smooth
It was misty at times.
7th station

The “8.5th” station, one more station and 900m to go before the top
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When the clouds shifted, you could see a bit of the ground below
The summit features large craters which take at least an hour to walk around.
Weather station, where the highest point is

The highest point on the summit
The way down starts off on a different path (though it’s considered the same trail as the one up)
The trail forks at this point, but luckily there are clearly marked signs like this

Lake Kawaguchiko

Japan travel- Tokyo’s Ueno district

When I was in Tokyo, I stayed in a hotel in the middle of two historic districts. To the east was Asakusa, and to the west was Ueno. Its main attraction is Ueno Park, a giant park in which the National Museum, Tokyo Zoo and several other museums are located as well as quite a few temples and shrines, including one dedicated to Tokugawa Ieyasu, the great Japanese shogun who helped unify the country in the 17th century.

The park was actually built on the site of a major battle in 1868 when shogunate samurais (Shogitai) tried unsuccessfully to resist the new Meiji government, and the tomb of Shogitai warriors still lies inside the park. There is a large lotus pond at the south end, Shinobazu Pond, that looks out onto office buildings, providing a stark contrast. The photo at the top of this post is of Saigo Takamori, who was a samurai commander who led an imperial army in an earlier uprising (when the battle in Ueno happened) but then rebelled against the government in 1877 and died under mysterious circumstances in the climatic battle. According to Wikipedia, the plot in The Last Samurai, the Tom Cruise samurai movie, was based on his rebellion. I have to admit though that when I visited the park, mainly to go to the national museum, I was unaware of all this history and it was only after I stumbled onto all these sights like the Shogitai tomb and the samurai statue that I learned about it.

The Tokyo National Museum stands at the north end of the park and is divided into several buildings housing Japanese history, art, and Asian artifacts. While the Japanese section was good, with Japanese samurai armor and swords being a personal highlight, the most interesting section was the Asian building which featured Chinese, Korean, SE Asian and even South Asian exhibits, as well an Egyptian mummy.

Ueno train station is nearby, and if you saw the first Wolverine movie, it was featured during a chase scene. Opposite the park is a shopping area called Ameyayokocho, a busy shopping area wedged into a bunch of alleys. The “Ame” in its name stands for America, as it was a black market for American goods after World War II. At night, its numerous pachinko (a popular Japanese pinball-like game) parlors really light up the area.
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Shrine to Tokugawa Ieyasu, one of Japan’s greatest shoguns


Shinobazu pond, below
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Tokyo National Museum
Another of the museum buildings
Wooden statues of the “twelve heavenly generals.” They look more devilish than heavenly to me.
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Samurai sword (above) and armor (below)
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Buddha found near Peshawar, Pakistan from the 2nd-3rd century. The lean figure looks much different from the chubby, bald Buddhas you usually find in China and SE Asia.
Seen in the Wolverine movie!

Japan travel- Tokyo’s Asakusa district

Tokyo is one of the great world cities that everybody has heard about. But to be honest, I liked Osaka better. Perhaps it’s because Tokyo is so big and multifaceted, so modern and such a mega-metropolis, that I wasn’t able to feel that much affection for it. I only spent three days there and maybe that wasn’t enough. It was the last stop of my Japan trip in 2013, with a trip to Mt Fuji bracketed in between, following Matsumoto.

I stayed in a rather old and cramped but passable hotel in a neighborhood between Ueno and Asakusa, two districts with a lot of history. Asakusa features Tokyo’s oldest and most well-known temple, Sensoji Temple, with over 1,300 years of history. It’s a pleasant white-and-red Buddhist temple, that has a front gate, the Kaminarimon or Thunder Gate, with a giant paper lantern hung in between and a small shopping street, Nakamise-dori, leading up to it, with stores selling snacks and souvenirs. Passing that street brings you to another gate, a large two-story one, with three giant paper lanterns, that you pass through before entering the temple proper. The main temple hall also features a giant paper lantern. The temple grounds is a nice place to walk around, with a pagoda, smaller halls, a 300-year-old bell and two rather stylish sitting Buddhas. The temple was busy with worshippers and tourists when I went there on a drizzling afternoon, and the shopping street was packed.

Weirdly enough, there is also a street near Sensoji that is well-known for … kitchen utensils. I passed by it and I saw a few stores, some of which had very large colorful kitchen cups as decorations, but passed up the chance to browse.

Asakusa has Tokyo’s oldest temple and its tallest tower. Tokyo Skytree is further east of Sensoji on the bank of the Sumida river. Standing 634 meters tall, the Skytree is the second-tallest structure in the world after the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. However, I didn’t bother to go up the Skytree, mainly because I planned to go up a skyscraper in downtown Tokyo that was free. I did walk up to it and appreciate how tall it was. It doesn’t have a fancy design as it is a fully functioning TV tower and only a small part of it is used for regular human activity, which is the observation deck.

Main temple hall
Looking back at the second entrance gate to Sensoji
Shopping street that leads up to the temple
Stylish Buddhas on the temple grounds
A statue of a mother and children in the temple ground. I also saw little statues with bibs in Kyoto. These are called jizo and usually have something to do with children. This statue was erected to comfort the spirits of mothers and children who died during World War II.

Tokyo Skytree. I don’t know what the hell is that golden “horn” perched on the black box on the left.
Oldish wooden houses on a side street in Asakusa