Saturday, January 06, 2018

Mount Fuji: The Icon of Japan

If there was one thing on my bucket list I wanted to fulfil this year, it was to visit Mt Fuji.  Fuji-san, as it is commonly called, is a mythical, mystical mountain for the Japanese.  At 3,776m above sea level, this is Japan's highest mountain.  Its symmetrical cone, formed by volcano action, rises above the surrounding plains and dominates the landscape for miles around.  After coming to Japan every year for the past three years, it was about time to meet Fuji-San.

There are many spots from which you can view Mt Fuji, and many scenic places around the mountain itself to visit.  For our visit, we decided upon a day tour from Tokyo, since it seemed the most convenient (although I have to say that I would love to visit again, and spend a night or two at the Fuji Five Lakes area).  It is also nice to have someone taking care of things!  Unlike the previous tour to Nikko, we had an older Japanese lady who was clearly a more experienced guide than the other two as she could offer more information and background in general, eg on how the mountain was formed, and about Japanese lifestyles.  She was also quite firm and reminded us to be punctual at every point in the journey.  

Our very first stop on the tour was the 5th station of Mt Fuji!  It was truly quite exciting and exhilarating, as we were actually ON Mt Fuji itself and had a lovely clear view of the peak and the surrounding countryside.  The weather was beautiful - brilliant blue sky, almost glaring sunshine, and a refreshing wind blowing.  We were about 1,600 m above sea level, not even halfway up the mountain, but it was cold, with that crisp chill in the air which makes you feel energised and alert despite the cold.  At this point, the vegetation starts to fail so when you look up, you can see the volcanic rock of the mountain rising above you to the top of the peak, interrupted here and there with streaks of white - I assume these are springs off water falling down from the mountain.

Above all, I was so glad that we had such a great view of the peak.  We were checking when the best time was to get a clear view (find out more here)  and it was wonderful that it all went according to plan.  Or at least, almost to plan as I was hoping that the snow cap would be there.  I had read earlier that Mt Fuji had experienced its first snowfall of the year just one week before our arrival.  Sadly, because of the warm winds brought in by the tropical storm, the snow cap had melted by the time we got there.  Which means that another visit is definitely in order!

Wakuike Pond, Oshino Hakkai 
Kagamiike Pond - can u see Mt Fuji reflected?
After the stop at the 5th Station we went to visit a charming little village called “Oshino Hakkai”.  Mt Fuji had shaped the landscape in the area in many ways, including creating the 8 ponds in this area, spring fed from Mt Fuji.

The crystal clear waters reflect the blue of the sky, the trees, and in some of them... even a mountain.  After some trying, I managed to get a shot of Mt Fuji reflected in one of the ponds! (Tip: look hard!)

We went off to our next stop, eating our bento lunch along the way.  I have to say that I preferred the nice hot food on the previous tour.  We were also enlivened by the conversation of our fellow tour participants.   The thing about day tours is that you also meet lots of people - we met a fellow Singaporean (of course) and hooked up with her for photo taking etc.  There was a Malaysian family, a Chinese-Australian lady, and a few Americans - one of whom was quite chatty. It truly amazes me how some people can talk about themselves and their lives to chance-met strangers - sharing it theoretically with one person, but in practice at a volume which allows the entire bus to hear all the details!

The secret valley to the Shiraito Falls
Anyway, after a rather noisy interlude, we arrived at the Shiraito Falls, the next stop on our tour and one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Japan.  There is another waterfall just next to it as well, Otodome Falls, which is much smaller.

The Shiraito Falls are reached after a short walk along the side of a gorge.  We walked down the gorge, turned a corner and there, in this long deep valley was a shining waterfall right at the end.  But the waterfall was not just that single stream of plummeting water. As you walk along, you realise that there are a thousand silver streams of water flowing down the side of the valley, joining the little stream beneath.  

Our last stop of the day was the Fujisan Hongu Sengen Shrine - the shrine devoted to the “Goddess of Mt Fuji”, Konohana. Apparently, Konohana is the flower-princess and her older Sister, Iwa-naga, the rock princess.  Because Konohana’s Husband chose her over her older Sister, human life ended up being as fleeting as a cherry blossom and not eternal, like stone.  Our guide made an offering to the Goddess on our behalf and we proceeded to walk around the shrine compound.  Similar to the Oshino Hakkai area, there is another pond which is again fed by a mountain spring from Mt Fuji.  

 Fujisan Hongu Sengen Shrine
After our long day, our bus turned back to Tokyo and dropped us off at Shinjuku station.  We were given some discount vouchers for the Keiƍ department store - we went there really because we had some discount vouchers from the tour company which we didn’t use in the end. But, at the stationery section of the store, we found a calendar with a lovely woodcut pictures including the Great Wave by Hokusai!   So indeed, all our activities today were associated with Mt Fuji!  I can’t wait to make a second visit....

More photos of this day can be found on my Flickr page.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Ueno: Visiting Museums

Ueno Park - the Shinobazu Pond
Today we went to Ueno!  Ueno is the cultural hub of Tokyo, with numerous attractions within the park itself.  There are numerous museums, the famous Ueno Zoo, and various temples and shrines such as the Bentendo temple in the middle of the Shinobazu Pond (see picture).  Of the many museums, we visited two - the Shitamachi Museum, a small, intimate little museum which aims to preserve a neighbourhood of old Edo; and the Tokyo National Museum, which showcases the history of Japanese art.  There is also the natural history museum, art museums etc.

Ueno park itself is a spacious, yet bustling park.  Likely because of its fame, as well as the numerous things to do within the park.  The two museums we visited were at either end of the park, so I can say we walked through the entire length of the park, from the Shitamachi, past the old Kiyomizu Kannodo temple in the middle, to the Tokyo National Museum on the other end.

Our guide at the Shitamachi Museum
“Shitamachi” means “downtown” and this museum aims to preserve a "slice of life" in old Tokyo.   It is just a small museum, but really that is part of its charm.   The ground floor presents a street scene, preserving the front room of a merchant’s shop and two other smaller dwellings, one owned by a sweet shop owner and another by a metal worker.  We were brought around by an English speaking guide, Mr Fuji, who talked to us about how people lived in days gone by, and shared his own experiences in those days.   The second floor features the entrance area of the Japanese communal bath and a more modern kitchen (from the 1970s).   Also children's toys (including ones Mr Fuji played with in his youth).  It was a very pleasant visit - especially with our own personal guide.

We went next to the Tokyo National Museum. It’s totally unlike the Shitamachi, being a huge three-building complex around a central square.  And of course, being a national museum, it has a far broader scope than just old Tokyo.  The advice was if you have only a few hours, visit the Japanese gallery so that’s what we did.  We didn't have a friendly Mr Fuji to show us around.  But the exhibition guide is pretty good and the exhibits themselves clearly labelled.

The main exhibition in the Japanese Gallery presents the “Highlights of Japanese Art” and indeed it was a well curated journey through the history of Japanese art, across different items from the traditional pottery ware, paintings and wood block prints, to kimonos, samurai armour and even a fire-fighters’ jacket.  There were also horse armour, and a room full of wonderful Japanese painted screens.  It was a truly educational visit, probably my first extensive experience of this aspect of Japanese arts and culture (as opposed to appreciating cherry blossoms or autumn leaves).  The only slight disappointment was that I was hoping very much to see some original woodblock prints of Mt Fuji, namely Hokusai’s famous “The Big Wave” taken from his “Thirty-six views of Mt Fuji”  but apparently it’s not on display.   I am however pleased to say that thanks to Youtube, it is possible to look at all thirty-six views online.  

Japanese painted screen

In between the two museums, we went for lunch at the nearby Ameyoko Market, situated under the train tracks.  We found this nice unagi (eel) restaurant, Unatoto, which sells nice little unagi based set lunches with a little bit of salad, pickles and soup on the side.

For dinner, we went to a supposedly healthy restaurant, Midori no Kitchen, in Ueno Station (the sort which prints the number of calories per meal) which was recommended by Tsunagu Japan.  Not really "authentic" Japanese, but in a way it was nice to have a change!  Thus ended our cultural day in Tokyo!

Food photos below, for more photos on Ueno and the two museums, check out my Flickr page here.


Midori no Kitchen

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Asakusa: Visiting Senso-Ji

One of the joys of travel is that sometimes I serendipitously discover all these links between the various destinations one visits.  So for example, the day after our visit to Ieyasu Tokugawa’s grave in Nikko, we go visit Senso-Ji in Tokyo and discover that Ieyasu Tokugawa also made this temple (then already around 1000 years old as it was first opened in 645AD!) one of “his” two temples in Edo.  Asakusa was then a small humble village, Edo, then a small town.  Over the years, of course the temple has grown into one of the oldest and most visited Temples in all of Japan.  And Edo has metamorphosed into Tokyo, one of the great global cities in the world.  Ieyasu would be proud.

More on the history of Senso-Ji and on its grounds can be found on other sites, like this one and this one, so I will not go into it again here.  I didn’t in any case feel compelled to go and look at every single thing listed on these sites - we were happy to just wander around the temple and its grounds, and in the process, discover its secrets (such as the free green tea).  

The crowds at the Kaminarimon Gate
So we arrived at the Kaminarimon Gate, which marks the beginning of the entryway to Senso-Ji.  The huge red lantern hanging in the gate is a symbol of Senso-Ji, Asakusa and Tokyo itself.  It is of course the prime photo opp spot in the whole of these temple complex!  Behind the gate is Nakamise Street, the shopping street in front of the temple - selling souvenirs, food, religious items etc.

Now as we were passing through the gate, we noticed this rather enthusiastic tourist.  Often we see tourists all dressed up in Japanese kimono, the ladies all prettily decked out in floral kimono with their hair all done nicely, and the men in their duller outfits.  But this particular chap was dressed as a Ninja, and doing his best to act like one - posing in “ninja” poses, hiding behind the lantern etc etc.  Unfortunately I didn’t get a photo (too many people always in the way) but it was quite hilarious to see this ninja prancing around looking as conspicuous as possible (when one considers that the ninja is supposed to be blending into the shadows, disappearing into the night etc as they go about doing their secret work).   In fact he was happy to pose for photos, including with the kimono-clad tourists who wanted to get a little extra out of their time in costume.

The second gate - the Hozomon Gate
Anyway, we walked through the second gate (the Hozomon Gate) and approached the main temple where the golden “Kannon” statue was supposed to reside.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see it - apparently it is not in the public areas.   There is another large lantern just at the main doorway, above an offering box  where visitors offer donations and bow.

Next, we visited this little garden next to the main hall, a quiet spot after the bustle of the temple.  There were many little shrines here (actually there are a number of shrines throughout the complex) each with its own little friendly statue awaiting visitors, some looking very weathered as their markings had faded over the years.  This, more than anything, gives you the sense that indeed this is a very, very old temple...

For those interested, more photos of Senso-ji here.

After the temple visit, it was time for lunch.  Apparently the area around the temple is famous for its
Soba at Owariya Honten
soba, so we had soba for lunch.  We ended up in Owariya Honten, a short walk from the temple.  According to Tsunagu Japan this shop has been in existence for over a hundred years - a positive youngster compared to the ancient temple nearby but still pretty respetable for a soba restaurant!  We had the house special, a bowl of soba noodles in a tangy soup (flavoured with yuzu juice and zest) with two large, delectable tempura prawns. A satisfying meal!

After lunch we made our way to Asakusa-bashi, the nearby “crafting district” of Tokyo.  Here is where craft lovers  - knitters, beaders, embroidery fans etc - find their Mecca, with numerous little shops all over the place.  We were here to learn how to make tsumami flowers, which is the technique used to make these little flowers from Japanese crepe fabric (not a huge destructive tidal wave!).  The flowers are assembled in various intricate beautiful ensembles to make up the elaborate headdresses (Kanzashi) of maikos and geishas.  I had of course seen these when we were in Kyoto previously at the Gion Corner (as seen in these photos), and was instantly captivated.

The workshop is run by a Tsumami craft shop, Tsumamido, in a basement workshop next to the shop itself.  We were the only two in our class where we made the petals and leaves and assembled it to form a flowery brooch.  Not bad, for a first time?  But nothing compared to those in Gion Corner or indeed those on this site.

My handiwork

We went back to Shinjuku after this - walked around the shops, visited Isetan's food hall to buy some breakfast, etc etc.  A slower pace compared to the long day trip to Nikko, but it enabled us to rest and recharge for the next day's activities!

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Nikko: Up the Iron Road

We had booked two day trips - and this was the first one, to Nikko.  I always like day trips - they tend to be very good value for money as the tour packs in a number of places, gives us a typically decent lunch and there’s not too much walking.  Best of all, absolutely no hassle about working out the schedule, transportation etc.  All we need to do is get ourselves to the pick-up point and since we chose tours where we get picked up around Shinjuku, we ourselves don’t need to spend too much time travelling to the pick up point. 

Anyway, the day dawned bright and sunny, what we thought was a good sign for the day ahead.  So we got ourselves to the pick up point, boarded our bus etc.  Turned out that we had two guides - the main one was supposed to be this sweet, soft spoken Japanese lady whose English wasn’t the greatest.  It was the Assistant Tour Guide, an enthusiastic Filipino guy who did most of the talking and most of the “tour guide” work of getting the group together, giving directions etc.  

We were supposed to be going up the Iron Road, Irohazaka Road, and visiting the scenic spots on top. Now this was not an easy tour to find because in the autumn leaf period, the road is jam packed and so tour bus access is limited.  As a result, many tours avoid going here altogether.  So we were actually quite lucky to find this, perhaps because the day started off with the Irohazaka and ended off with Nikko whereas most other tours do it the other way around.

Round the bend - going up the Irohazaka Road
Indeed, it was quite an exciting experience going up the Irohazaka Road.  The road ascends up the mountain, and then down on the other side.  Because the mountain is so steep (we would end up 1,600sqm above sea level - for reference Mt Fuji is 3,776sqm) it is a series of 48 hairpin bends altogether - 20 on the way up and 28 on the way down.  In autumn, this road is supposed to be beautiful - with the russets and reds and yellows of the leaves on either side of the road.  If you search online for photos of the road, it is spectacular, especially viewed from above.  Unfortunately, we were there just after the tropical storm and typhoon before that which blew away all the leaves.  Nonetheless, the view was magnificent and we were so impressed by the expanses of mountain and valleys viewed from every angle as we twisted and turned our way up the hill.  (Check out my videos, going uphill and downhill).  It was even more exciting when halfway up the hill, we were informed that it had started to snow!

The fighting fields

Our first stop at the top of the hill was Senjogahara, which is supposed to be the “fighting field” where two Gods fought their battle.  Because of the fury of the battle, the trees were all destroyed, leaving a flat grassland behind.  It is supposed to be a most scenic place, with lots of wildlife.  But quite clearly, they were not happy about the snow as there were none in sight  And neither were we happy!  Given the bright start to the day, we were not quite prepared for snowy temperatures, now for the brisk winds which sent snowflakes swirling around us.  Fortunately I had my warm down jacket but others were not so well-prepared.... one person just had a light jumper and another had only a short sleeved shirt with a vest over it.

Lake Chuzenji on a misty day

Kegon waterfall
After the visit to Senjogahara we visited Lake Chuzenji - again, it is supposed to be most scenic, this lake on top of the mountain.  But, again, the cold and cloudy conditions turned the waters of the lake a dull grey.  Not quite the best place for an after-lunch stroll.

Our last scenic stop before descending the hill was the Kegon waterfall.  This was 97m high and is supposed to be one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Japan. Indeed it was quite magnificent to see the water plunging down and it was even a little exhilarating to be out there amidst the chilly conditions.  

After the waterfall, we went on to see the Tokugawa shrine, one of the marvels of Nikko.  Built by his son and grandson, it is where Ieyesu Tokugawa, the famous shogun of Japan, is buried.  The Tokugawa shogunate which he founded would continue to rule Japan for over two centuries, from 1603-1867.    

Entrance to the shrine
 I have to say that the guides were somewhat disappointing as they didn't really impart that much knowledge or information to the group.  That was particularly marked when we were at the shrine.  Aside from some basic information (all of which could be obtained from a guidebook) they didn't really go into much more detail about the era of the Tokugawa Shoguns or the politics of the time.  Fortunately it's all covered in detail in Wikipedia.

The shrine itself is magnificent, with beautifully carved, ornate carvings.  The artist certainly took his inspiration from the animal kingdom because he has carved animals every where - the three monkeys, a sleeping cat, and imaginary elephants (carved by someone who thinks the elephant is all about the trunk and tusks) and the crane and the lion on the tomb of the Shogun.  Some parts of the shrine are under renovation, so we probably missed some of the beautiful inner halls, but I was glad that we were able to see the majestic Yomeimon Gate and hear the echos and vibrato of the acoustics in the "dragon Chamber".

Fortunately, the weather here at the shrine was really very pleasant - a lovely autumn day.  We wandered through the buildings of the shrine, and climbed all the way up to the tomb.  There was a little boy, Kenzo, on our tour, and he was happily (and not particularly accurately) counting the steps all the way to the tomb and also charming us with his childish prattle. 

Went back to Tokyo, at the end of a tiring day.  I certainly didn’t expect to experience summer in the morning, winter at noon, and autumn in the afternoon.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Tokyo Neighbourhoods: Shinjuku

So the thing about Tokyo is its many different neighbourhoods, each with its own character and street vibe.  And since we are staying here, I thought that this is where I would begin: with Shinjuku.

Shinjuku - where the Tokyo city government sits side by side with the many department stores, and the small alleyways of izakayas, drinking spots alongside the beautiful Shinjuku Gyoen park. Where the busiest subway station in Tokyo bewilders the visitor with the multiple subway lines and train lines all up and down the station.

I have to say that we didn't go to some of the more "famous" areas such as Kabukicho or the Golden Gai (somehow tramping through red light districts didn't really appeal) but we did spend time in  Isetan, Keio and other department stores in the area.  And we ate around the area quite a bit (so yes, there will be foodie reviews here).  We also spent an entire morning in Shinjuku Gyoen, just 10 minutes walk from our apartment.  In this quieter corner of Shinjuku, we found convenient little minimarts, little family restaurants, etc.  And we managed to escape the madness of Shinjuku station by going to Shinjuku-Sanchome or Shinjuku-Gyoenmae instead.  This is the part of the city I like - not too far from the city centre to make it inconvenient to get anywhere but at the same time not right in the hustle, bustle and crowds.

Shinjuku Gyoen - Traditional Japanese Garden

We had wanted to spend the afternoon in the Shinjuku Gyoen park on our first day in Japan but the heavy rain put paid to that.  So we had to postpone the expedition to another morning.  Shinjuku Gyoen park is considered one of the top parks in Tokyo and is made up of three large gardens - the Japanese Traditional Garden, the English Garden and the French Garden. There's also a greenhouse full of tropical plants - we did not see the need to go in. Of course, the Japanese Garden is the largest of all!  It is a pleasant strolling garden - with numerous ponds, winding paths, flower beds, and a view of the NTT Docomo Tower from practically anywhere in the garden!

That's one big chrysanthemum
The Japanese adore their flowers and at this time of year, the chrysanthemums are in bloom.  So there are little pavilions set up at intervals throughout the garden, each with their own display of beautiful blossoms.  Huge flowers bigger than my fist; long-petalled spidery flowers; small, spiky-petalled flowers - how could such different flowers all be part of the chrysanthemum family!   

Children "fishing"
Just so the chrysanthemums had some competition, we visited the rose garden in the French garden area.  It was quite a formal arrangement, different from the "natural" feel of the Japanese garden.  But there were shady sycamore avenues on either side; a pleasant place on a summery day.  Indeed, the park was full of families and children, sitting on the lawns and under the trees.  It so happened that we went on a public holiday, so it's likely that parents were free to take their children to the park.  But it all combined to create a warm, happy atmosphere in the park - children running, laughing, blowing bubbles; people lying on the lawn watching the clouds overhead, or sitting and contemplating the reflections in the water at the Japanese garden.  It wasn't as exquisite as the Japanese gardens in Nara or in the Kyoto temples but for a big and crowded city, it is a peaceful and restful place to spend a morning.

For more photos of Shinjuku Gyoen, ck out my Flickr.

By contrast, the rest of Shinjuku is lively and bustling.  We would go around the Shinjuku quite a bit - to shop, have meals or to get to our tour pick up points.  So we had many meals around the area (including a bento box dinner which we picked up from Isetan's food hall - a gourmet experience in itself).  Here are my three favourites:

    Tsukiji Sushi
  • Tsukiji Sushiko - quick, courteous service and lovely fresh fish!  I had a chirashi don, and I have to say that it did its namesake market proud. It is also a pleasure sitting at the counter watching the sushi chef at work - the quick, deft slices of his knife and the precision with which he places each piece of fish just so.  Not a big restaurant, just a small branch of a bigger chain but worth looking out for on a future visit to Tokyo.
  • Zen - a quiet okonomiyaki restaurant in a quiet street just minutes away from our apartment.  Somehow okonomiyaki is a real Japanese comfort food, at least in my book.  Here the okonomiyaki is nice and thick - but perfectly cooked throughout.  We had ours accompanied by sake, edamame beans and grilled oysters.  Again the oysters were cooked just right - moist, and fully of briny flavour.  Service was friendly - the proprietor came by to show us his coin collection (we contributed a 20 cent Singapore coin) and spoke to us via his Google Translator.  Again, worth a return visit.  Neither Tsukiji Sushiko or Zen are in the heart of Shinjuku, and are closer to Shinjuku-Sanchome station.
    Shinjuku Izakaya
Small little izakaya somewhere around in the Shinjuku-Sanchome area.  We were walking around looking for somewhere to have dinner when we saw the English menu in the window.  The chef standing at the grill took pity on these poor lost tourists and came out to hand us the menu to scrutinise more closely.  Small, crowded, full of the office workers stopping by before going on their way home.  We ordered tonnes of little dishes, far more than the office workers on either side who had only a light snack with their mug of beer.  We, on the other hand, were imbibing a fruity alcoholic soda.
Of course, one of the best things about dining in Shinjuku was the knowledge that we had only a short walk back to our cosy apartment after....

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Tokyo: Braving the Storm

Another year, another trip to Japan! 

We arrived in Tokyo on 29 Nov (Sunday) at around 7.30am.  Of course, we had to choose the very day that Tropical Storm Saola was blowing its way past Tokyo, bringing with it warm air and rain.  Lots of rain.  Pouring down, throughout the day.  Not drops, nor light drizzles, but a thorough downpour.  And our apartment would not be ready for us till afternoon.  

The storm would continue to have repercussions on the rest of our trip.  Find out why in subsequent posts.  But that is why I am beginning this account of our Tokyo stay with info about our apartment, because to be honest that was what we saw most of on Day 1.  That and the incessant rain.

Dashi Chazuke En breakfast
Anyway, since we were at Shinjuku station at 9am and no prospect of getting into our apartment till 11.30am, we ended up going for breakfast in the Lumine 1 basement food court.  Fortunately for us, there are lots of yummy Japanese food stalls there and we found this one, Dashi Chazuke En which serves a Japanese rice porridge breakfast.  Your rice comes with a little pot of dashi on the side, which you pour on top of the rice to make a porridge.  I had sea bream with sesame sauce - yummy.  Fortunately, after this comforting yet light breakfast, we managed to get a cab to our apartment.

As in my last visit to Japan, we had decided to stay in an apartment and we got AirBnB to lend us a hand.  Reading through my earlier post, I have to say that my advice to holiday apartment renters (think location, location, location; check that all the facilities you want are available - washing machine, wifi, beds vs. futon issue) remain all quite spot-on.  Our apartment is in Shinjuku, with two nearby metro stations - Shinjuku-Sanchome and Shinjuku-Gyoenmae.  At 40+sqm, it is indeed luxurious, space-wise, compared to the average hotel room in Japan and at a cheaper price too.  Theoretically with its two sofa beds and one bedroom, it can sleep 6 pax but that would be a tight squeeze.  It’s just nice for the two of us.  There are lots of supermarkets/convenience stores around, and little restaurants for a bite of dinner should we not want to wander about too much.  

Indeed, we were not inclined to wander too much that first day.  Our apartment was still being cleaned when we got there so we left our bags and tried to explore the area.  But the rain continued to pour down so heavily that even our short visit to scout out the nearby convenience stores ended up with our shoes getting thoroughly soaked.  We ended up buying food in the convenience store and bringing it back to our apartment for lunch!  How sad for our first lunch in Japan!  Of course, with the rain continuing to pelter down, we ended up staying in all afternoon and only went out for dinner.  But it was still raining, so we ended up walking around Shinjuku Station and doing some shopping in the departmental stores and shopping centres in the area.

Not a very exciting first day in Japan.  But at least we managed to settle down in our cosy little apartment.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

At Pangkor Laut Resort

Emerald Bay, Pangkor Laut Resort
Pangkor Laut is an island off the west coast of Malaysia, in the State of Perak.  It is a private island resort, once much visited by the great tenor Luciano Pavarotti.  I paid a short 3N visit there this year.

Indeed, Malaysia really has nice resorts and Pangkor Laut is no exception.  It's not just the peaceful, serene environment - the service is great and the staff friendly and helpful.  Pangkor Laut is known for its Sea Villas where the villas are built over the water in the traditional style of the Malay fishing village.  But we chose to stay in the very comfortable Hill Villas, which provide great views overlooking the resort.

Hornbill snacking on a snail
Because this is a private resort, it is also the only one on the island, leaving the rest of the island mostly untouched.  There's also a conservation expert on the island, who leads short walks to help educate we tourists on the beauties of the rainforest and the perils faced by wildlife due to the greed of human beings.  We joined him on the daily "jungle trek", where he educated us on the wildlife of Pangkor Laut.

Indeed, Pangkor Laut has its own unique indigenous species here.  Most noticeable were the hornbills, which cluster around the swimming pool and nearby cafe.  These are Oriental Pied Hornbills, and there is a veritable flock of them.  These hornbills are a little smaller than the hornbills I saw in Sabah and much more used to human company.  There is another species of hornbills on the island but we did not see them.
Hornbill nest

Our resident naturalist told us that he was trying to encourage the hornbills to breed on the island.  That was why he put up a few of these little houses, for them to nest.   In the wild, she will select an appropriate tree to nest
in and her mate will peck out the hole for her.  In this case, there is no need for any tree.   The male brings the material, the female builds the nest, enclosing herself within.  This keeps the eggs safe from predators (including man).  She lays 2-3 eggs, of which typically only one hatches.  In all, the female will incubate the egg for about one month, and then stays there for another two months whilst her loyal, loving mate brings her and the hatchling food.  Talk about confinement!  When the hatchling is big enough, she will break open the nest and they all will fly away together.

The other very noticeable inhabitants of the island are the flying foxes, which nest on the sea almond tree near the entrance to the resort.  According to our guide, they chose this particular tree because it offers a source of food (the sea almonds) and is on the right side of the island away from the sea, where it is too windy for them.  It is also reasonably far from the noisy swimming pool area.

The island is also famous for its spa ....  we had a free massage in our package so we didn't make use of any other services.  But we did go for the yoga and tai chi classes.

Where we spent most of our time on the resort was the beach.  The beach is really so idyllic, with white, soft sand, where the fragments of corals and sea shells can be found.  The water is reasonably clear and clean, and because the shore slopes every so gently downward, it is quite shallow even some way out. The surrounding trees provide shade for the deckchairs (unless you are a crazy ang moh who doesn't know enough to come out of the sun) so even in the heat of the afternoon, it is comfortable and breezy.  The nearby bar offers snacks and drinks.

On the food - well, this is a resort and there are no alternatives since the resort is the only one on the private island.  So whilst it is tasty, it is also quite pricy.  Shall we say that my favourite meal was the buffet breakfast spread (especially the Indian booth which offered roti canai or prata every morning, plus another yummy Indian pancake/bread like roti jala, apom or chapati - this changed on a daily basis).  Other than that my favourite meal this trip was the taugay chicken and kway teow we ate at Ong Kee in Ipoh just before we went to the airport.

View from our Villa in the morning

All in all, it was a great and restful holiday.  It's not that straightforward to get to (we flew to Ipoh, then took a 90-min taxi ride to the Pangkor Laut jetty on Marina Island, from which we took a speedboat to the resort).  Total travel time (including the hour we spent checking in at the jetty and having lunch in a nearby coffee shop) we spent having lunch before the speedboat left the for the resort was about 5 hours (1.25hour flight, 1.5hour taxi journey, 20 minute speedboat).  Not too bad actually.

For more photos, do check out my Flickr photos here.

Starting the Day Right...

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