Europe travel · Travel

German travel- Berlin the bold

Despite being Germany’s biggest city and capital, Berlin, to me, evokes a kind of tough, scrappy, brutish image, both from its past as a divided city during the Cold War and its contemporary image as a inexpensive, start-up paradise. I found this to kind of true when I visited it, as it was old in some parts, but I also found it attractive and more modern than Rome or Paris. As with London and Paris, Berlin was my first-ever stop in its country.

After getting off my budget flight from Rome, I took the airport bus to the station near my “pension,” their word for a cheap kind of inn, which in this case was a set of rooms inside a low-rise apartment. The building was dark at night, had no elevator, and had graffiti painted on the walls of its driveway. Not exactly the most ideal place to stay in. But it was close to the subway, being between two stations, and further up the street, a supermarket with a separate alcohol store next door (perhaps due to local rules). On one of the nights I went there, a group of punks (mohawks, black jackets and all) were hanging out with a couple of pitbulls in the parking lot, which did give me a little bit of trepidation but nothing happened. But yet, the neighborhood was attractive, with a wide expanse of lawn and a neat row of trees separating the block buildings from the sidewalk and main road. It was only the next day I realized there was a distinctive tower with a dome (TV Tower) at the far end of the main road. The neighborhood also had a lot of small businesses like cheap eateries, alcohol stores and clothes stores.

The first place I visited was the Berlin Wall Memorial. The city’s most famous attraction, the Wall exists as a few preserved sections, as it was mostly torn down. The Memorial is right in the midst of a neighborhood built over where the wall stood. As such, the Memorial stretches along several blocks where parks, preserved wall sections with a watchtower, and a small oval church commemorate the wall. Near the end, there is a museum from which you could get a good view of the wall from the top. The setting was so serene, in stark contrast to the harsh reality of the wall which bisected Berlin into an open Western part and the Eastern, Communist section from where people tried to flee to the West. Some of them lost their lives doing so, which is also commemorated. I also visited another more artistic part of the Wall two days later.

I later made my way to the Reichstag, the nation’s parliament that was in a grand, gray building. More specifically, I went to the top of the building, a dome from where you could get good views of the surroundings. It was then a short walk to the Brandenburg Gate, which was smaller than I’d imagined. There were horse carts, street musicians, and even an Iranian protest against their country’s regime going on. I walked to Gendarmenmarkt, where three magnificent buildings – the 18th century Konzerthaus Berlin (Concert Hall) and two 17th century churches (the French and German churches) are lined up in a row. I finished off the day by going to Potsdamer Platz, a confusing mall complex spread across several buildings and basements. The coolest part was Sony Plaza, a circular entertainment building covered by a neon-coloured roof made up of blades that resembled a propeller.

The subway was old, but retro and clean in a charming way, not so much creaky and antique like Paris’, cramped like London’s or dark and dirty like Rome’s. But it was a little confusing (see the system map) because there are so many lines, divided into surface and underground trains- U-Bahn and S-Bahn.


Europe travel · Travel

France travel- Paris at last

Usually I write about my travel in sequential order but I’ve decided to skip ahead to the next city on my Euro trip last year and continue doing so, and then go back to the beginning. London was my first stop so it was natural that the next big city was Paris, which was just a short cross-channel Eurostar trip away.

Paris is a city that obviously doesn’t need an introduction, being featured, written about and pictured in so many movies, books and photos. I was never one of those people who dreamed of going to Paris, especially as I’ve never been a romantic person, but I figured if I was going to Europe, I might as well come here. And I would be very glad I did.

After getting off the Eurostar train in Paris, where we had a most inauspicious start by having to go through an alternate exit due to precautions taken after station staff found a piece of unattended luggage, my mother and I got to our hotel by subway, as in London. Initially, the “antiquity” of the Paris subway was a little underwhelming, with the rickety old carriages and the doors that had to be pulled open with a handle and the somewhat dim platforms.

The first full day started with a trip to the Louvre, of course, and ended with a view of Paris and the Eiffel Tower from on high. The Louvre is one of the world’s most famous museums, and when we got out of the subway station, passed these elegant old buildings, and walked through the dark entrance of one of these buildings to see IM Pei’s glittering pyramid in the centre of the Louvre’s inner courtyard, it really hit home that we were in Paris.

But before we could enjoy the museum, I had to brave the hustlers and pickpockets which I read so much about and had come to fear. After a brief search to buy a Museum Pass, during which I avoided people pretending to seek donations (the web is full of warnings about people seeking donations from hapless tourists while their accomplices try to take your wallet), we lined up in the courtyard for about half an hour before entering the pyramid and descending to the basement entrance.

I didn’t realize it at first but the Louvre is huge, housed in a former royal palace with three different wings in different directions (according to Wikipedia, the Louvre is the world’s largest museum). After figuring out the map, we chose one wing and set off. The museum is big but it was packed with tourists and predictably, there were scrums around the most famous exhibits like the headless Winged Victory of Samothrace (marble statue of the winged goddess Nike) and of course, the Mona Lisa, where after much moving around and maneuvering in the dense crowd (no pushing or jostling though), I managed to get up close to the fabled painting.

Those two exhibits were very decent, but there were so many great pieces of exhibits including the massive Babylonian marble lions, Greek statues, and paintings of French kings and Napoleon. We were there for only three hours, but I really could have spent a couple of more hours as we only saw about one half of the museum. Of the three wings, we saw two of them and probably not even most of them.
The only complaints I had were that all the exhibit captions were in French, which for a world-class museum was a big stunning to me. Obviously, it was deliberate because it’s the French. Also, the toilets are few and inadequate – for instance, a couple of the washrooms only had one toilet and they are far apart. While my mother had lunch, I had to walk through something like 10 rooms to get a vacant washroom and by the time I returned, she had finished. Yes, I know the building is old, and the exhibits are old, but surely the authorities should be able to install some modern washrooms.

From there, we went on to Île de la Cité, an islet located on the Seine that is the center of Paris. This was Paris as I had imagined, with the rows of elegant townhouses, magnificent old buildings, Notre Dame cathedral, and the streetside bakeries selling baguettes and crepes. But of course, it was also a very heavily touristed place. First, we went to St Chappelle, a royal 13th century Gothic chapel fitted with the most beautiful stained glass windows I’d ever seen. There is a smaller hall from which you went on to the larger sanctuary whose upper walls were filled with fantastic multicoloured stained glass windows featuring scenes from the New Testament. The effect was like being in a hall with resplendent purple and blue ceilings.

Notre Dame was next, with its imposing Gothic structure fronted by two towers, and the famous stone gargoyles perched on its roof and above its windows. There was some impressive sculpted artwork in its front – midway, a row of stone statues of bishops stood sentry across the entire front facade while the three curved entrances had countless stone bishops sculpted along the sides and top. The cathedral is massive and it was an interesting experience to walk in the cavernous inside and view the stained glass windows, the sculpted scenes of Christ rising, and even the stone coffins of two bishops at the back. I was starting to enjoy Paris, even its old subway system, which now seemed kind of cool.

Finally, for the evening, we went to the Montparnasse Tower. The building is considered a monstrosity by some due to its somewhat unattractive appearance, but that is exactly why it provides the best views of Paris. Because if you go up the Eiffel Tower, which is another great place to view the city, you will see the Montparnasse Tower itself. As it is, when you can see the neat triangular grids of the uniform townhouses and famous landmarks like the Louvre, Notre Dame and even Montmartre hill, Paris is amazing.
Winged Victory of Samothrace
St Chappelle and its beautiful stained windows
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Notre Dame, above, and its famed gargoyles, below

Louvre again below

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Europe travel · Travel

England travel- London calling

The first country I went to on my first trip to Europe last year was the UK and the first city, London. This was by choice, because the UK is a country I greatly admire and have always lived under, despite never having been there before. I was born in Hong Kong when it was a British colony, grew up in Trinidad and Tobago, an English-speaking Caribbean nation and a former British colony, and I went to university in another former British colony. There were several aspects of British culture like the language, Premier League football, cricket, and literature that I was familiar with.

Flying into London via Dubai from Taipei, my mother and I had an uneventful entry at Heathrow and took the subway or Tube straight to our hotel. While that sounds convenient, the journey traveled through over 15 stations though it was a nice way to ease into London, seeing houses with gardens and overpass walls marked with graffiti, both sights that are unusual in East Asia.

The next day, we started with Sky Garden, which is not a garden but a free observatory hall located at the top of a tower in the financial district. From the hall, you can walk around and enjoy a 360-degree view of London and see famous landmarks like the Gherkin, Tower and London bridges across the Thames below. The hall is huge and over two stories high, with bars and restaurants. The large front glass panel is covered with steel bars which does interfere with the view, while you walk up the stairs at the side to look at the rear windows. It was raining slightly, typical stereotypical British weather, which marred the view but since it was free, there was no harm.
The building has an unremarkable official name – 20 Fenchurch Street – but it is nicknamed the Walkie Talkie and for good reason. From below, the tower curves gently outward at the front and back as it gets higher and has a rounded roof.

The next stop was the famous Tower Bridge and the Tower of London, where so much history, much of it unsavory such as executions and imprisonments, occurred. Unfortunately we did not actually view this history because we were in a rush and in a frugal mood. We walked across the Thames on the famous bridge, which is sometimes confused for London Bridge but is more attractive, to the other end and strolled along the riverbank where further ahead the World War II cruiser HMS Belfast, which serves as a floating museum, was moored. The view across the Thames was a fine combination of the old Tower of London fortress with the gleaming Sky Garden and Gherkin towers looming in the back. To be honest, while these are ultramodern buildings, their modest height and weird appearances (the Gherkin in particular has an obscene resemblance if you know what I mean) make the London skyline seem underwhelming, especially compared to East Asian cities. But otherwise, that was the only real complaint I had about what seemed to me a fascinating old city, having existed since Roman rule, which seemed to preserve its many historic structures and illustrious past with modern times so well.
The Shard on the left, and the “Walkie Talkie,” or Sky Garden tower, at right, look onto the Thames.

From there, it was on to another of London’s countless famous attractions, St Paul’s Cathedral. Again we didn’t go inside, but just walking around the massive church, the first of several grand cathedrals I’d see during the trip, was enough to appreciate its grandeur and size, topped by a giant dome. More memorable than the cathedral was getting lunch at a French bakery inside a courtyard at the side, where the French cashier misunderstood the amount I gave him when I paid (to get exact change) and sniffed audibly. Incredibly, that would be the only rudeness I experienced from a French service person during the entire trip, which included 8 days in France itself.

The next place was Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery. The square, named after the famous 19th century naval victory over a French fleet, is a vast open space that features the National Gallery on one side, two fountains, and the 51-m tall Nelson’s Column, atop which is perched a statue of the famous admiral who won the Battle of Trafalgar but paid with his life. Across the street are the embassies of several Commonwealth countries like South Africa, Jamaica, Malaysia and Canada, though not Trinidad. The square was lively, with hordes of visitors and street performers including a bagpiper playing the Game of Thrones soundtrack.

The National Gallery was impressive, more so given it was free. Though I would see even better art galleries later on during my trip but at that moment, I enjoyed the National Gallery’s works of art from English and European masters, including Vincent van Gogh, and as someone who wasn’t exactly an arts enthusiast, it helped me appreciate paintings a lot more.

After leaving the gallery, we walked a few streets north to Chinatown, passing by the theatre district. As Chinatowns go, it isn’t too big and had several pedestrian lanes filled with typical Chinese restaurants and a few bars. It did have a large Chinese arched “paifang” gate on one street. We had dinner at a well-known restaurant and that was that for the first full day in London.
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The Tower of London fortress
Old and the new
Looking down at the HMS Belfast, a floating military museum, from the Sky Garden
It was drizzling when we were in the Sky Garden, then the skies cleared up when we walked along the Thames.
This guys seem to be levitating though it’s more likely the pipe structure provides some kind of support.
Two of the many masterpieces inside the National Gallery – the rape of the Sabine women by the Romans, above, a historical event when the Romans invited a neighboring tribe, the Sabine, to a feast and then proceeded to kidnap their women, and, below, one of several Venice paintings that I really liked


Myanmar travel · Southeast Asia travel · Travel

Myanmar travel- the royal towns around Mandalay


The name Mandalay is famously associated with exoticism due to Rudyard Kipling’s poem and glamour from the Las Vegas casino, but Myanmar’s second city and former royal capital unfortunately doesn’t have much of both in my opinion. What it does have is a number of varied historical sights around it, being surrounded by several old capitals (Burmese history is complex) – Inwa, Sagaing and Amarapura. These towns (the latter two) and village (the former) don’t exactly have their former prestige but they feature impressive monasteries, the world’s longest teak bridge and a pleasant hill covered with temples.

Mandalay itself does have a massive palace complex surrounded by a moat, though almost all the buildings are reproductions since most of the palace was destroyed by bombing raids during World War II, which is why I didn’t bother to visit it. Instead, I went to Mandalay Hill, which isn’t that high but has fine sweeping views of the city, the Irrawady River, and the mountains to the north and east. However, Mandalay is considered the country’s cultural hub and contains a lot of artists, craftsmen and jewelry artisans, which I didn’t have the time to check out, and which might have made me appreciate the city more. Instead, I went on a full-day tour of the three former capitals and the next day, I visited Mandalay Hill and a couple of temples in the city, before leaving at night to return to Yangon.

Mandalay is not as filled with vehicular traffic like Yangon, but it still has a lot of old, noisy motorcycles and antique buses. It also does not boast Yangon’s old colonial buildings though it seemed older and less prosperous. The neighborhood where I stayed in was a mix of decent and rundown streets and there was a Buddhist temple right behind my hotel, which always had a large number of locals sitting in the front, one of whom was my driver for my two trips.

Amarapura Sagaing, and Inwa

The first stop was to Mahagandayon monastery in the morning where the star attraction was seeing the monastery’s hundreds of monks march to the dining hall for breakfast. The monks ranged from kids to teenagers to middle-aged people and they stoically put up with tourists like me standing at the side snapping away. It sounds a little exploitative but it is a known tourist attraction and the monastery does not seem to mind.

The Burmese are a very religious people who take their Buddhism seriously which can also be seen from the large number of Buddhist temples everywhere, including hill tops. I would later learn from my driver Joker (that was seriously his name) that becoming a monk for a short time was a rite of passage for most Burmese boys, hence the number of youngsters and teenagers in the procession. Joker himself had done it for a month in his village’s monastery when he was a child.

We then went to Sagaing and its temple-covered hill. The town was a former capital of a kingdom in the 14th century and briefly the national capital. Walking up a covered stairway that went straight to the top, and my first hike in a year since I had my foot surgery, I reached the large temple on top. There was a nice view of temples and the Irrawady River below and the large teak transport ships carrying their cargo of massive logs down towards Yangon. There was the amusing sight of locals getting excited by white tourists and rushing to take photos with them, something that still happens in China.

Inwa was the next stop. Here, my driver dropped me off by a riverside restaurant where I ate at before getting onto a boat to go across to Inwa. I initially thought Inwa was an island but instead it is a village located on the opposite side of the riverbank from which it was faster to cross by boat than by bridge, which was lower down. When I got off the boat on Inwa, I saw several horse-led carts and their drivers, the regular method of transport for tourists. I chose one and subsequently endured over an hour of a rickety horse-cart ride to Inwa’s famous landmarks – a teak monastery, the stone remains of a temple surrounded by rice patty fields and a watchtower that was the only remnant of a royal palace. The wooden village houses were just as interesting. It was a strange experience being taken around on a rocking horse cart around a rural village that was supposedly a royal capital up until the 19th century when a massive earthquake forced it to be abandoned.

While the views were fine, it wasn’t so nice seeing how the horses were treated. For instance, my driver whipped our horse every minute or so during our journey and I saw a few horses on the side of the road that were in rough shape with haggard looks, open cuts on their legs and mangy skin. Unfortunately, this was Southeast Asia and animal rights is not exactly a widespread concept.

After I took the boat back to shore, Joker picked me up and drove me back to Amarapura to a spectacular all-white temple which is indeed named in the Lonely Planet guide, but I am unable to Google for. Finally, we went to the 1.2km U Bein bridge, the longest wooden bridge in the world and a great place to view the sunset. The bridge is supported by wooden pillars and has roofed huts and pavilions in between. I walked across the bridge, took a short stroll around the village on the other side, and came back over. I still had an hour to spare and it was just too damn hot plus I was tired from being out the whole day, so I found my driver. As we drove away from the bridge, with the river on one side and a swamp on the other side with very murky water, I was surprised to see lots of shacks. Living just minutes from one of the area’s biggest tourist attractions, those poor folk and their swamp slum were a stark reminder of the poverty in the country.




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South Korea travel · Travel

Seoul travel- its impressive major museums

Seoul is one of the best cities I’ve visited, right up there with the likes of Shanghai, Osaka, Hanoi and London. One of the reasons is that it has the most impressive military museum I’ve ever visited, with basically an entire mini army and air force to the side, while its national history museum and contemporary arts museum are also quite good.

The military museum or War Memorial of Korea is a huge, formidable gray building (it used to be the country’s military headquarters).  In front are a few large sculptures commemorating the Korean War and to the side are a fantastic collection of dozens of old warplanes, helicopters, tanks and even a full-scale replica of a navy frigate. These could be an entire attraction itself, never mind going into the museum (but of course, you should).
The museum proper features historic weaponry, a full-scale replica of a 16th-century turtle ship used to destroy invading Japanese navies, and a full section devoted to the Korean War, featuring a memorial to fallen UN soldiers and the flags, military memorabilia and info of each nation that sent troops to help South Korea fight off North Korea and China.
War museum

The National Museum of Korea history museum is also in a large, gray, imposing building (maybe there’s a trend here) with a nice artificial lake in front. Like the British Museum in London and China’s national history museum in Beijing, this museum is completely free. The building’s entrance is a huge, conical glass section that leads directly to the exhibits which are on several floors surrounding open space in the middle. There were loads of Korean artifacts, paintings, and an Asian collection including Chinese, Japanese and South Asian items. Frankly, the ancient Korean artifacts didn’t impress me too much but what interested me more was Korean history. I learnt from the info on display that until the 7th century AD, there were three Korean kingdoms ( Goguryeo, Baekje, Silla,) that eventually became a unified entity after Silla, allied with China’s ruling Tang dynasty, conquered the other two kingdoms.
History museum

The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) was new, having just opened in January 2014, and was built at a cost of US$230 million. Normally contemporary art is not my thing and I wouldn’t go out specifically to view it, but I made an exception in this case due to all the articles I’d seen about this museum.
The MMCA (Seoul branch, there are other branches elsewhere in the nation) turned out to be worth it. The feature attraction was a giant transparent, hollow house made out of mesh cloth containing a smaller Korean house, a hanok, inside and was called “Home Within Home Within Home Within Home Within Home.” (really). There was also performance art with a soprano singing to a child, who was a visitor, sitting across from him, visual art and regular weird paintings that look like somebody took paint and threw it onto the canvass. I even saw a short film in the downstairs cinema which was big enough for a few hundred people about a Korean woman trying to remember a weird incident in the past involving answering a casting call of some sort.
The main attraction at the MMCA when I was there

History museum exhibits below
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War memorial/military museum photos below

MMCA photos below

Japan travel · Travel

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!

China · China travel · Travel

Hong Kong roundup 2015 – famous skylines and Cheung Chau

Hong Kong’s famous skyline is probably its most well-known feature, symbolizing the world’s most densest collection of skyscrapers and HK’s status as a financial and commerce hotspot. Indeed, that skyline, which lies over Victoria Harbor on HK Island, is something I never get tired of looking at and taking photos of from the southern tip of Kowloon, called Tsim Tsa Tsui. But that is just one part of a diverse landscape that includes packed highrises, countryside villages, scenic beaches and hilly country parks with vast greenery.
I could never tire of this view, especially at sunset and even with multiple ships – tourist boat, container ship, and ferry (left to right).

I didn’t hike on any mountain this time but I did go to Cheung Chau, a small island that is a former fishing village-turned-holiday retreat southwest of HK Island. The island has a busy waterfront with seafood restaurants and several temples and weird rock landscapes. There’s nothing spectacular but a pleasant island vibe and a decent excursion. People still live on the island, and there are holiday homes and school and religious retreat centers as well. It’s one hour from Hong Kong Island by slow ferry and half-hour by fast ferry.
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I also went to the HK History Museum again, the first being back in 2007. It was just as interesting as I remembered, with probably a few changes. HK may not seem to have much history given its current form as a busy commercial city and port stemmed from when the British colonized it in the mid-19th century, but fishing and pirate villages on the coast and rural villages inland had already existed for hundreds of years before. HK also has a diverse Chinese makeup including the Punti, Cantonese from Guangdong Province, and the Hakka (my father’s people), the Hokkien, from Fujian province, and the Tanka boat people, who mostly do not live on boats anymore. This assortment makes for a few distinct traditions such as walled villages and festivals involving noisy lion dances and climbing of bun towers. Nearby is the June 4 museum, which commemorates the terrible tragedy in Beijing (and other cities) in 1989 that saw a mostly student movement crushed by the authorities. Needless to say, such a place does not exist in the mainland.

June 4 museum, a small but worthy effort to commemorate the tragedy. Located near the history museum, it’s on a floor inside a building (you need the address since there is no sign outside the building) and features photos and information, which unfortunately are all in Chinese for now.
New Territory sunset

West Kowloon, the red junk is a faithful reproduction of traditional Chinese ships that sailed in this harbour as recent as the 1970s
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HK has a busy commercial port so there are always container ships to the west of Victoria Harbor.
Cruise ship docked at Tsim Tsa Tsui’s cruise terminal, with a junk in front

Mongkok street market in Kowloon
Indian/Pakistani food, which was quite good
New Territories
Enjoy the HK skyline again

Japan travel · Travel

Japan travel – starting off in Osaka with its castle, museum, peace center

Back in the summer of 2013, I took a 2-week trip through Japan, my final one before coming to China to work. It’s fair to say I’ve lagged pretty badly in posting about it. I even wrote a newspaper travel article about the trip last year. The trip was also my last long overseas trip, barring my last visit back to Taiwan for medical reasons.

In short, my trip went like this. I touched down in Osaka, spent a few days there, then went on to Kyoto and did the same. From there, I went to Matsumoto, a scenic holiday town, and visited Mt Tateyama and the Kurobe Dam, then moved on to Tokyo. From Tokyo, I went to climb Mt Fuji, then returned to Tokyo.

I should point out that while Japan is not a cheap place to travel in, I was able to use up less than a month’s salary for my trip. I flew by budget airlines, and mostly stayed in lower-end but decent hotels (my drab Tokyo hotel was the most expensive at $50 a night). Only at the foot of Mt Fuji did I stay at a hostel.

I flew from Taipei to Osaka on a Friday evening, via Peach Airlines. While Japanese are in general extremely polite people, there was a very disgruntled passenger who argued with the hostesses and who then continued arguing after we touched down and he was met by a male staff. It was all in Japanese so I couldn’t understand anything, though I saw how accommodating the female Japanese stewardesses were towards him. It would not be the first time in Japan I would see an incident like this involving a male passenger and female staff.

Anyways, after landing in Osaka’s artificial island-based airport, I collected my stuff quickly, went through immigration and then had to be searched at customs. I think Japan is one of the few countries where you need to undergo this when leaving the airport. It happened to me many years ago when I went to Japan as part of a Taiwan tour group. While I had my luggage searched, I noticed a few passengers who were taken to a nearby compartment, probably to be body-searched.

The customs officer was a friendly guy who asked me a few questions. He was amused when he saw my jacket and pointed out Japan is hot in the summer. When I said I was planning to climb Mt Fuji, he seemed impressed. After he asked me questions, he then took out a folder filled with photos of weapons and drugs and asked me if I was carrying any of those. No, no, no, I replied as he pointed to a photo of a gun, a knife and explosives and I started laughing, though not too loudly. “Sorry, I’m just doing my job,” he said, probably a little embarrassed. I was impressed when he said that as his English wasn’t that good but it showed he could make conversation.

As it was already past 11, I scrambled to take the airport train to the city. I managed to get on the last train with minutes to spare, then got out at my stop. This is where things got a little interesting. Now, Japan is a wealthy country with a high level of development.

But when I stepped out of the station onto the street, the first thing I smelt was urine and the first thing I saw was a homeless old man, or maybe he was a drunk, sitting on the sidewalk. Apparently this was in an old, working-class neighborhood in Osaka, and it certainly looked so. I used Google Maps and Streetview extensively while doing research for the trip, so I tried following the directions to my hotel but I got a bit lost.

I walked into a Family-Mart convenience store where I showed my printed hotel map to two young clerks who spoke no English and pored over my map enthusiastically but weren’t able to recognize the place.

At this point, it was almost midnight and I ended up walking back to the station exit and heading into a different direction. I did find my hotel though I had a brief scare when I saw the front desk was closed. Luckily I was able to press a bell and a staff came out and sleepily checked me in.

The next day, I set out for Osaka Castle. It’s an attractive castle surrounded by a moat in the middle of a massive park, with a few smaller buildings scattered. One of these was the Osaka International Peace Center, which I was going to first. It is a small museum that commemorates World War II by showing Japan’s beginning of the war in Asia, the city’s damage from retaliatory US bombing and more importantly and impressively, displays photos and information about Japan’s aggression in China, Korea and across Southeast Asia in that war. Japan has a reputation for downplaying what it did during the war, but in this museum, the photos showed graphic evidence of what they did, such as dead Chinese and wretched prisoners of war. There was also a display on Auschwitz, the German Nazi prisoner camp in Poland where lots of Jews were killed, and a room full of black-and-white photos of momentous events in the late 20th century. Above the photos were “doomsday clocks,” a clock devised by an American science magazine that showed how close to doomsday or nuclear war the world was at the moment by how close the minute hand was to the starting point (12 o’clock) – the more conflicts in the world, the closer it would be to doomsday. The time for the clock for 2013 was 11.55.
It admits Japan did bad things in Asia though the wording is vague plus it mentions the Japanese who died too (they wouldn’t have if Japan hadn’t started the war). It’s a bit half-hearted though at least it’s a start.

The section on what the Japanese did in China. The photos explicitly show the horrors done to Chinese.

After leaving the peace museum, I walked through what seemed like a forest for a while before eventually reaching the castle moat. I saw the moat first, a wide channel upon which a mighty sloping stone wall stood on the other side. The castle was in the middle of a complex within the stone wall that was itself surrounded by another moat, but smaller. Inside this second moat, the castle stood proudly atop a stone base, six stories each topped by a green tiled roof with gold decorations. At the top level was a viewing platform that gave a great 360-degree view of the surroundings.
Outer moat
Inner moat


As impressive as the castle is, the fact was it was a recent replica built in 1931. Originally built in 1585, it was destroyed after a mighty battle in the Summer War of Osaka. It was then rebuilt but was again destroyed by fire from a lightning strike in 1665. It was restored again in 1931 but then destroyed again in 1945 from airplane bombs during World War II. Finally, in 1997, it was rebuilt according to the original specifications and designs. This is therefore the fourth version of the castle and less than 20 years ago.

The castle’s original importance stems from the fact its roots involve two of Japan’s three greatest warlord unifiers. The castle was built by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, one of the great warlords. Toyotomi died while it was being completed and it passed to his son Hideyori. However, Tokugawa Ieyasu, the third of the great warlords, attacked Hideyori in 1614, besieging the great castle. After a prolonged siege, they came to an understanding and Tokugawa withdrew. However, a year later, Hideyori decided to restore the castle’s defenses and Tokugawa attacked again in what is called the Summer War of Osaka. This time, Tokugawa won and completely annihilated the Toyotomi clan. This year incidentally is the 400th anniversary of this great battle.

The inside of the castle reflects the sad end of its original owner, with paintings depicting the siege and the final battle as the Toyotomi warriors were routed and their family members killed. There are images of the various banners used on each sides and detailed information on the generals in the armies and how they fared.

The area around the castle featured vendors, people in samurai and ninja costumes and even street performers. There were a good bit of people, but not crowded, which is probably the best condition at tourist attractions.
Cosplay samurai near the castle

I then proceeded to the Osaka Museum of History, a tower across the street from the southwestern corner of the castle park. So far, it is the only museum I’ve been to that is in an entire tower, and it has a unique elliptical shape, covered in what looked to be brownish tiles but with one edge glassed, and is next to the NHK Osaka tower. The tower is over 10 stories, and you start from the top and make your way down.
Osaka history museum on the left and NHK Osaka on the right, joined to each other by the round entrance lobby.

As expected, it covers Osaka’s history from the early hundreds (400AD onwards). Interestingly, I found out that Osaka was one of Japan’s earliest capitals in the 7th and 8th century, when it was known as Naniwa. Historical artifacts were kind of sparse though the displays of early 20th century Osaka were quite interesting. What it lacked in ancient pieces, the museum made up for in life-size replicas of boats and shops and entire pavilions recreating society in different times.

As I was leaving, there was some cosplay gathering outside. As I was looking back, I saw a family of ninja and I quickly took a photo of them. Rather than be annoyed, they were all smiles and decided to pose, and I took another one. I’d heard how Japanese can be reserved and polite, but not warm, but that family (I assume they were) definitely broke that stereotype. That remained my best experience with Japanese strangers during that whole trip hence why their photo is the second one at the top of this post.
Osaka Castle and the park from the history museum across the street
Information on the generals who fought in the final battle at the castle
A shrine near the castle, probably dedicated to the warrior in front

Osaka Castle, elegant and historic, but flanked by modern concrete and glass
The blue tower is a beautiful building. Not to mention there’s a motorized crane perched on top of it.
Exit of the park with guard building at the side


Renegade- book review

Given that Scotland will be voting over independence in two days, it’s fitting that I’ve just finished Robyn Young’s Renegade, the second novel in a trilogy about Robert Bruce. Bruce is possibly Scotland’s most famous King who famously won the Battle of Bannockburn over the English in the 14th century. He was also in Braveheart, as the Scottish noble who supported William Wallace, then betrayed him and got him captured by the English, this last part being fabricated.

The novel starts off in Ireland, where Bruce is searching for a holy staff, Ireland’s main Biblical artifact that the English King Edward I is desperate for in a bid to hold all four holy artifacts of Britain to uphold his right to rule the entire land. As I didn’t read the first novel, I missed much of how he got there, but suffice it to say things are not looking good for him or the Scots. The English have the upper hand on the Scots, who are struggling but still resisting led by William Wallace and Robert Comyn. Eventually Bruce finds the staff, but is captured and eventually returned to Scotland, where he ends up back in England as one of Edward I’s knights.

Bruce, you see, served Edward when he was younger before turning “traitor” and going back to fight for Scotland. But this return is part of an intricate scheme concocted by Bruce to regain the trust of Edward, while secretly trying to expose Edward’s false claims relating to the holy artifacts and lead an uprising. Edward has by this time crushed the Scottish resistance and even captures Wallace, who is then executed brutally, being hung, drawn (having his insides carved up while alive) and quartered (having his corpse be cut into four pieces). Of course, the holy artifact claim is probably artistic license taken by the author, though the artifacts and much of the events including Wallace’s death are real.

The writing is fine, while the action and history are described in elegant but not overly complicated or  prose. Many of the characters are a bit weak, though Edward I is indeed menacing and formidable as he was in reality. Wallace and Comyn are portrayed well though, and it is interesting to see the squabbling and interfighting that plagues the Scots. It seems there are too many characters, especially minor Scottish nobles and knights, and Bruce’s brothers are not given major roles.

I enjoy historical novels a lot, especially about ancient military figures and warfare, and Robyn Young is possibly the best historical novelist I’ve ever read. I know Young from reading her Templar trilogy, which started off in the Middle East where European Crusaders are battling the Muslims and continues in Europe after the capture of Jerusalem by Saladin.
In reality, I don’t have anything but respect for the United Kingdom and Scotland. Whether the Scots vote for independence or to remain in the UK, I’ll be glad for them. The Scots deserve a chance to gain independence, and the UK is admirable for allowing the Scots to vote in the referendum. I hope whatever the outcome, there’ll be peace and order.

China · China travel · Travel

Beijing travel- Capital Museum

Beijing might have the National Museum and the Forbidden Palace, which is an entire palace that serves as a museum, but being such a historic and grand city, it also deserves to have an impressive museum dedicated solely to it. The Capital Museum is exactly that.

Located in Xicheng, it is in a large gray rectangular building that doesn’t given much indication about the historical treasures and fantastic displays inside. This building has only been open from 2006, before that the museum was located elsewhere.

Inside the museum’s large open interior, on one side are the main exhibits which are several floors. On the other corner is a green multi-level cylindrical structure that houses more exhibits, coated in what seems to be green jade tiles. Indeed jade is what it features inside, as well as calligraphy and paintings. I didn’t go into this structure on my only visit so I can’t describe what’s in it.

The museum features exhibits on the history of Beijing, including weapons, coins, and other imperial artifacts, as well as calligraphy, pottery, and bronzes. That’s to be expected and it’s nice, but there are cooler things, such as the most (only) erotic Buddhist statues I’ve ever come across.
An array of iron and bronze tools, pottery and other artifacts from the Tang and Sui Dynasties.

The Buddhist exhibit features various statues, many of Tibetan origin, including multi-armed female deities and fierce gods riding dragons, but the ones I remember are the Buddhist gods holding naked females, and engaged in standing copulation and even fellatio.

Then there were crazy non-sexual ones such as dancing demon-faced figures and a multi-armed demon riding a dragon (see below).
Of course, sexually explicit statues are not the only thing memorable in the museum.

For instance, there’re coffins belonging to a Jin Dynasty emperor and empress in an open vault; though I’m not sure if the actual bodies are also in there.

On the top floor, there’s an impressive mock hutong neighborhood, with the “homes” featuring exhibits showcasing the folk customs and daily life of old Beijingers, from weddings to funerals, as well as art pieces.

It’s very nice, and it’s also unique. This is something that many Chinese museums, even good ones such as the Xian and Nanjing museums, don’t do well or have – exhibits that are colorful and interactive, combining photos, artifacts, videos and sound recording as well as life-size settings, all in a modern environment. Chinese museums tend to focus strictly on history but neglect contemporary history and interactive aspects.

The basement features more exhibits, usually special temporary ones. When I went, the special exhibit was about ancient peoples and kingdoms in the northeast, including the Tungur people, the predecessor of the Manchu, and the Jin Dynasty, who ruled parts of Northern China in the 12th century and established their capital in Beijing.

The Capital Museum is yet another of those Beijing sights that don’t get much attention, but is quite impressive. It’s located in Xicheng district, near Muxidi subway station on line 1.

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Miniature reproduction of scenes from 20th century Beijing life.
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Basement exhibition on Northern kingdoms.