Chek Jawa At Long Last

Fiddler crabs

I’ve wanted to walk the Chek Jawa intertidal wetlands at Pulau Ubin ever since I returned to Singapore after university, and after about six years I finally managed it. This was back in June, but first I was slow about processing the photos, and then Michael Jackson died.

A little background for anyone reading this who isn’t from Singapore: when nature enthusiasts discovered that the government planned to reclaim this area, they conducted a biodiversity survey, submitted a report to the government, and petitioned against the reclamation. They were partially successful – the government agreed to defer its plans until 2012, but after that Chek Jawa’s fate remains unknown. In the meantime, the National Parks Board has had to balance huge public interest in the area against the necessity to preserve the fragile ecosystem. An elevated boardwalk takes you through the wetlands without letting you trample them into oblivion, but if you want to actually set foot on them you have to register for a guided walking tour. These are only available on a handful of dates per quarter, due to the need for suitable tide levels and times and of course in order to control visitor impact, and are so wildly popular that places are snapped up almost as soon as the tour dates are released.

Boardwalk and viewing tower

After trying and failing to get on these tours since 2003, I was delighted when my company got a block booking and organized an employee outing. I’d missed the opportunity to join a previous employee outing because all available places were taken as soon as the email advertising it was sent out, but this time they sent out the email quite late on a Friday evening and I was one of the few poor sods still at work. Score, kind of! So here are some pictures of what I waited 6 years to see. I’m a little drained from all the Michael Jackson posts – they’re not easy for me to write – and tonight I enjoyed a change of scene.

Sandbar lightThe puddled ground of the sandbar shimmered in the morning sun.

 

Fiddler crabsFiddler crabs scurried back and forth on the sand.

 

Crab's eye viewTinier crabs clambered in and out of little assembled sandball piles, their homes. These are dotted everywhere and it’s almost impossible to avoid stepping on one every now and then. Sorry, crabs. :(

 

Our guide showed us:

Hermit crab

Flower crab moult

Rock starfish

Rock starfish (underside)

Sea cucumber

Carpet anemone

Please, Powers That Be, let things remain as they are in this beautiful part of Singapore.

Beachscape at low tide

And just for once, let civilization advance no further.

Moo, Bamboo And You

I’m post-processing some photos with the intention of ordering postcards from Moo. (Wanna discount code, anyone? If you haven’t bought from them before and buy using the code EA2A2G before Jan 31, you get 20% off and I get a Flickr Pro account to replace my expired one, so it’s win-win.) And since the last time I asked you all for photography feedback the results were so interesting, I thought I’d get your views again.

Which version of this photo (snapped in the Arashiyama district of Kyoto) do you prefer? And if you were processing it, would you increase the contrast between the ray of light and the dark of the forest more than I have? Any other feedback on the photos or the processing is totally welcome, of course!

Ray (colour)

Ray (black and white)

Kansai: Day One (Miyajima)

Japan being Japan, we progressed incredibly efficiently, with excellent customer service every step of the way, from landing to baggage collection to sending our larger bags to our Kyoto hotel via the takuhaibin to collecting our Japan Rail pass to advance booking our train tickets to Takayama to sitting comfortably in the train to Hiroshima, watching the ticket inspector bow to the entire carriage before he started checking people’s tickets. I’ve decided it’s dangerous to go to Japan too often; when stuff is this effortless it makes you too soft to deal with the rest of Asia. Especially when you’re eying Laos for your next holiday (ulp).

After a quick 500Y udon lunch at a vending machine restaurant on the Hiroshima station platform, we hopped on another train to Miyajima-guchi, where we would take the ferry to Miyajima, our ultimate destination for the day. It is a sacred island to the Japanese, famous for the view of the Itsukushima Shrine’s torii (symbolic gate, it’s the red thing in the photo above) at high tide, AND IT HAS TAME DEER ROAMING THE STREETS. Of course, while planning our itinerary, I pretended to Alec that I was deeply interested in the religious and cultural aspects of the island.

NOW CHECK OUT THE DEER!

Miyajima Deer

Deer under a tree!

 

Deer in the bicycle lot!

 

Deer scratching its neck!

 

MUMMY AND BABY DEER! (The fawn kept trying to suckle by sticking its nose in between its mother’s legs as it trotted along behind her, which slightly disturbed my happy Bambi reverie.)

 

You are probably wondering how Alec managed to keep his lunchtime udon in his stomach in the midst of all this cuteness. It was tough on him, definitely. Here (visible to Flickr friends) is a very bored Alec stuck between mummy deer, fawn, and two little dogs. Don’t ask about the bacterial umbrella.

Eventually, once I had grudgingly accepted that stuffing the fawn into my overnight bag would be unwise, we continued our walk to Momijiso, our ryokan. We didn’t stay in any ryokans on the Tokyo trip since Alec was travelling for work that time, so we were glad to finally get the opportunity with this trip. In the price bands given by Japanese Guesthouses (a very useful service that helps non-Japanese speakers book ryokan rooms), A being the most expensive and D the cheapest, Momijiso is a C. So our room “only” cost us 33,000Y per night. You can do the math here, just try not to scream.

But hey, the trip was meant to be a belated first wedding anniversary celebration, and for the most terrifyingly priced accommodation we’d ever been in, at least it came with a lovely view onto the park, a carp pond just outside our window, two meals and a delightful obasan.

 

After freshening up, we took the ropeway up Mount Misen. We didn’t have time to hike up to the highest summit, but the views were pretty nice from what we did manage. The promotional pamphlet for the mountain is quite amusing – it lists a few things as among the “seven wonders of Misen”, but then clarifies that you can’t see them because they’re dead. The Ryuto-no-sugi is “the great cedar from which mysterious lights on the sea can be seen”. It’s now dead. The Shigure-zakura is a cherry tree which, on a fine day, “alone remains wet – seemingly caught in a rain. Can’t see the tree now because it has been dead.”

 

Dinner (included in the price of the ryokan room) was a spread of delicious home cooking by the aforementioned obasan – tuna, salmon and sea bream sashimi, cold tofu, lotus root with jellyfish, shrimp in light vinegar, grilled lobster (I’m allergic to lobster, so Alec got my lobster and let me eat his sashimi), sea bream in miso sauce, beef with green peppers and bamboo shoots, and for dessert, Japanese-style cheesecake and some of those huge amazing Japanese grapes where the juice tastes like wine when you bite into them. Here’s yukata-clad me (visible to Flickr friends) with just some of what we ate.

Miyajima at night is a far cry from its touristy daytime. Everything closes – no restaurants or bars are open because any tourist on the island eats in their ryokan.

 

The streets are largely empty except for a handful of strolling ryokan guests and the island’s nocturnal animals. A deer chased Alec 20m down the street after he bought an ice cream, and we also saw a tanuki! On the banks of the river, in the path of a powerful spotlight, a huge exhibitionist spider had made itself a helluva crib.

 

I didn’t see the big deal about Miyajima’s famous torii when I read about it in the guidebooks or saw pictures online. But in real life, gazing in the Miyajima evening calm at the bright red illuminated torii, its reflection rippling across the dark waters, was the moment I really felt like our holiday had begun.

 

Tokyo: Day Two

In usual EPIC FAIL style, apart from never completing any travel blog series of entries I’ve started (or never even starting any at all, for Sarawak, Siem Reap and last year’s UK/Ireland) and wholly failing to write anything here about the awesomeness of my last three birthdays, my wedding or my honeymoon, I just realized while packing for tomorrow’s trip to Japan (to Kansai region and the Takayama festival this time), that for our February trip to Tokyo, I only managed to capture a few hours on the day we arrived!

So in a comically pathetic attempt to improve this record, I now present: DAY TWO of Tokyo!

We were lucky enough to be able to meet up with the closest thing we had to a local expert, our old hallmate Hsien Li, who was in Tokyo for a one year research stint.

After morning mass at the Franciscan Cultural Centre near Roppongi, she took us to Gonpachi, which, depending on who you believe, was either an actual filming location for the teahouse in Kill Bill or merely Tarantino’s inspiration.

 

Happily ensconced in our booth, we caught up with Hsien Li over nice inexpensive food (Frommer’s is so right when it says that from the outside you expect this place to be much more exclusive than it is) and lots of ocha.

 

Sated, we hopped on a bus to Shibuya, which is exactly what one expects it to be like from TV, and walked through it to Yoyogi Park. I tried out my A650IS’s swivel screen at a flea market we passed along the way.

 

The Sunday atmosphere at Yoyogi Park was great, with lots of bands strategically spaced out along the pathways, tinny-amp-sound-projection-length apart, some clearly dressing and performing to be noticed, others earnestly performing boy-band J-pop.

 

Tokyo’s rockabilly boys and girls were also out in force, and we joined their crowd of very entertained onlookers for quite some time.

 

Encircled by our gawking, they danced completely without self-consciousness, sometimes interacting with each other as they struck poses and whooped when a new favourite song started playing, sometimes absorbed in their own personal enjoyment of the music. It was pretty delightful to watch.

 

These rockabillies sure don’t do things by halves.

 

Hsien Li and Alec finally managed to tear me away from the rockabillies and we headed to the famous bridge where the Harajuku kids congregate. It’s an interesting experience being there, not quite like what I expected. I’d always assumed the sole motivation for dressing up like that and turning up there was to see, be seen, and pose for tourists, or else why not hang out with your friends somewhere more pleasant and spacious than the side of a bridge? But although they tolerate the crush of tourists jostling to photograph them, most of them are far more focused on their own little social groups and don’t play to the cameras at all.

 

Of course, I joined the throng of tourists too. This photo has garnered more views on Flickr than any other from my Tokyo set so far, probably because before a Flickr commenter informed me that the girl on the left was cosplaying the guitarist of Dir en grey, I just assumed the girls were gimps and tagged the photo accordingly.

 

Elsewhere along the bridge: a “Free Hugs” girl, a swarthy middle-aged man facing away from the pedestrians and into the road, blasting U2 on his boombox and screaming along in Engrish even though his voice was so hoarse it was nearly gone, another guy in his 20s/30s dancing wildly to music on his headphones which no one else could hear. Again, I know nothing about J-rock or cosplay iconography, so I have no idea who this girl on the right is. These living dead sure dress nattily though.

 

You’ve seen this one before, but I still love her so I have to include her here too.

 

It’s amazing how the tranquility of the Meiji shrine is only minutes’ walk away from the madness of Harajuku, in the middle of a forest. It was the first of many Japanese temples and shrines in muted green and weather-beaten wood that I soon realized I liked much better than their gaudy Chinese equivalents.

 

There was a wedding in process at the shrine. Although I’d initially thought none of my photos of the wedding procession would be any good because I was reluctant to charge forth and get too much in their faces, I somehow like how this one turned out, especially the beautiful expression on the bride’s face.

 

After this, we parted ways with Hsien Li, who had been a marvellous guide and incredibly tolerant of my incessant photo taking, and went to the Ukiyo-e Museum to try and understand what the big deal is about Japanese wood block paintings. Apart from the process of production, which clearly requires great skill and dedication, I unfortunately still find the aesthetic of the finished products rather unappealing.

Much walking, some gleeful cosmetics and toiletry buying for me, and a Maisen tonkatsu dinner later, we were ready to call it a night. But this first real day in Tokyo had done serious battering ram damage to the anti-Japan fortress I’d built in my prejudiced heart. The days that were to follow continued this assault. Oh and lastly, photoblogging a trip to Japan just wouldn’t be properly done without documenting some kawaii. We spotted this more than life-sized snow couple along Omote-sando. KAWAII!!!

 

Photo Walk: Tanjong Pagar Plaza

I was depressed two Saturdays ago about my DJ classes ending, so I distracted myself from that by revisiting an older hobby – photography. The DJ school is near Tanjong Pagar Plaza, an old public housing building with lots of activity in its communal spaces on a Saturday afternoon, so I went on a little photography expedition there. I generally prefer blog entries with a few well-chosen photos rather than a slagheap of mediocre ones, but at the moment part of trying to get myself back into the photography habit is to be a bit less of a damn perfectionist. (Essentially, I accumulate photos, but procrastinate on processing them or printing them because I make the excuse that they’re still not quite good enough.) So here goes, a bunch of passable but not outstanding photos, which are hopefully still better than posting nothing!

This was taken hurriedly on the way to class so it doesn’t have the best composition, but I still like its odd collection of elements – outer shell of the disused Yan Kit Road swimming complex in the foreground, beautiful old shophouse in the bottom right and the towering half-constructed Pinnacle@Duxton blocks in the background.

 

The first two floors of Tanjong Pagar Plaza are a mix of little shops, some self-consciously modern and others which look as if they haven’t changed in twenty years.

 

I just totally loved that illustration on the sign.

 

The shops enclose a tiled quadrangle full of benches and greenery. Everyone’s down here on a Saturday afternoon, anxious crowds spilling out of the Singapore Pools betting outlet, cooks washing vegetables in huge plastic tubs, middle-aged men shooting the breeze, and one sweaty photographer trying to be as unobtrusive as she can.

 

In another country I might refrain from this photograph for fear of exploiting the image of a homeless person. But in Singapore, I’m pretty sure he just decided the shaded bench was cooler for napping than the inside of his flat.

 

Time for a quick poll! Which of the following two photos of the old men playing chess do you prefer, and why? I couldn’t decide, so asked my colleagues and got different, thoughtful answers about each photo. I’d be interested in hearing your views too.

This was a quick snap in very dim lighting so it’s not very sharp and could be better composed, but I processed and posted it to remind myself of what is possible with the Fuji F31fd’s amazing low light capability. If I were using my other camera (the Canon A650IS, also beloved but for different reasons), I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t even be usable.

 

I had fun taking these photos! Gotta do it more often.

Tokyo: Day One

I had jokes involving flying NWA, ghetto experiences, and “straight outta Chechnya”, but decided in an unusual fit of restraint that they were too lame to actually make. Let’s move on.

Practicalities:

We used the N’EX with SUICA discount deal to get into Tokyo, and at the end of our trip, the airport limousine bus on the way out. A little pricey, but still the best compromise between cost and convenience for us this time.

The Hotel Villa Fontaine Shiodome served our needs pretty well for the week, though if we were on a holiday we would probably have looked into ryokans instead. We found ourselves quite relieved to be in a more peaceful part of town than Shinjuku, yet still well located both for Alec’s work travel and my sightseeing. Except for far too little cupboard space, the room was comfortable, well decorated, had high-speed Internet, and was 5m from a vending machine selling 300Y-and-under beer. The price also included daily buffet breakfasts of salad, soup, a decent selection of breads and pastries, small sausages and hard-boiled eggs – not very elaborate but much more enjoyable for me than the boring continental breakfasts you get in European hotels/B&Bs. All in all, for what you get I think it’s great value for Tokyo, and I’d still consider staying there again (well up to three days anyway, can’t really afford more) even if I were travelling on my own dime.

On with the exploring:

The Shiodome area is full of showy, gleaming bubble economy era skyscrapers, with huge atriums and other large spaces heated uncomfortably warm even on a winter’s night. What we saw of the malls seemed pretty dead; we did see people walking in and between them, but couldn’t conceive how they could constitute enough traffic (on a Saturday night, to boot) to keep the places commercially viable. I know I’m making it sound really depressing, but the emptiness was actually a wonderful respite for us after a cramped uncomfortable flight and lots of hauling of luggage around crowded train stations where every escalator was going in the opposite direction from ours. Raised pedestrian walkways between the buildings take you off the roadside and glass shields along their lengths protect you from the icy winds. Every few minutes a driverless monorail snakes above you, announcing itself only very discreetly with a soft rush of air and muted light trails in your peripheral vision. In the photo, it’s that line of light in the top left.

But we were starving, so dinner took priority over exploring for the meantime. Lonely Planet was pretty useless for our immediate vicinity, so we just walked into the Pedi Shiodome skyscraper next to our hotel and did some walking, hemming and hawing up and down a row of about 10 restaurants, most of which served safe options we were already familiar with, and Komeraku (scroll down for it on that page) which looked cheap and cheerful but we’d never seen the food on its menuboard before. As we stood outside this one frowning and scrutinizing the pictures, its friendly waiter made the decision for us by coming and ushering us in.

I smiled nervously and broke out the “Sumimasen, nihongo ga hanasemasen. Eigo ga hanasemasuka?” my colleague had taught me, and luckily for us he spoke enough to guide us pretty well through a menu of mostly unfamiliar stuff. When he couldn’t think of the English for “ika”, he drew a happy squid on his order notebook. I understand from bento.com that what this place serves is chazuke, which the waiter described as “Japanese risotto”. We ordered set meals, where you choose whether you want pork or fish broth, and pick two toppings and whatever protein you’re in the mood for. Then you spoon some rice (it looked like long-grain, half-polished rice, and stood up to the broth well without getting all mushy) into a bowl, take your beautiful little soup kettle and pour in some broth, add your toppings, a sprinkling of seaweed and some absolutely wonderful crunchy bitty things that were at every table and gave you little explosions of crunch in each mouthful of soupy rice. It was unbelievably delicious, and for only about 910Y each! This remained one of our favourite meals from the trip.

After dinner we strolled aimlessly but happily around the neighbourhood, just enjoying its tranquility and the feeling of being back in a winter climate. I was also trying to familiarize myself with the new baby I bought just a few days before and my Velbon Ultramax travel tripod, which I’d shamefully not got round to using since Alec gave it to me for Christmas. The difference it’s made to my night photography is an absolute revelation – it’s coming on every holiday from now on! Unfortunately, my rather “experimental” photos during this first night when I was still learning aren’t really worth sharing, which is why this post is light on photos.

On the way back to the hotel, I snapped this ad for a TV series. Further research has revealed it’s based on a manga where the troubled boxing prodigy protagonist and the nun who tries to help him develop feelings for each other. Oookay.

Tokyo: Smoke Break

Back from Tokyo, and it was awesome! Unfortunately, immediately upon returning I have been catapulted into a work shitpit, so I can’t do much updating at the moment. In the meantime, maybe you might enjoy chilling with my Harajuku girl while waiting. I’m printing her out and sticking her to my wall at work this week to remind myself (a) that I was just on holiday, and (b) to breathe.

Harajuku Girl

Shiny Shiny

After losing my trusty little Ixus 430 in Cambodia last December, I spent 6 painful camera-less months waiting for Canon to release a version of the Powershot which had both a vari-angle LCD screen and O.I.S. before caving in to a good offer on the Fujifilm F31fd, which is an extremely good compact camera in other ways but has neither of those things. I felt I couldn’t wait any longer for the perfect camera to be released because I wanted enough time to get familiar with a new camera before bringing it on honeymoon in September, and I also knew June to September were going to be too crazy for me to keep monitoring camera release schedules.

And of course, now I’m back from honeymoon Canon has deigned to release the A650IS in Singapore. It looks like ass, but it’s exactly what I spent all this time waiting for. I’ve decided to spend the next three or four months agonizing over how to justify the extravagance of owning 2 digital cameras, at the end of which time the price will hopefully have dropped and I will then pounce. But you can feel free to start affirming or reproaching my future extravagance right now. (For what it’s worth, I use everything else until it dies. I still have a videoless 4th generation iPod, a 2003 Thinkpad, and a 64MB thumbdrive.)