Monday, May 24, 2010


OK--  I have not kept up with my coverage of our trip to Tokyo.  The postings are now a bit out of sequence.  But here is a brief on our visit to Kamakura, home of the giant bronze Budha, outside of Tokyo.

[Sat, 2-May 2010]--   For our last day in Japan, we wanted to get out of Tokyo.  Our initial thought was to travel to Nikko.  Nikko is about two hours by train from Shinjuku.  It is a mountain town that has several shrines, and is a national heritage area.  There is also a national park adjacent to the town, and is a popular destination for Onsen, hot springs bath, and Ryokans-- the  Japanese inns that include a room, meals, and the Onsen.  However, Saturday was the start of Golden Week, a national holiday for Japan, and it would have been difficult to enjoy a Ryokan stay, and return to Tokyo in time to make our respective flights back to Singapore.
So instead we chose to go to Kamakura, which is an hour train ride from Shinjuku, and a good destination for a day trip.  It too is a popular weekend destination for Tokyo residents, so we anticipated it might be crowded.  We weren't wrong.
An understatement. Our trip out to Kamakura was without difficulty, however once there, it became interesting.
Kamakura is a coastal town-- very nice, and an area for Tokyo and Yokohama residents to escape on weekends--  perhaps like Monterey or Santa Cruz in California.  The area actually has several small towns along the coast, with a small railroad that services them, starting in Kamakura and ending in Enoshima.  The train is single track, except at stations along the way, so coordination along the track with the returning train is necessary.  The total length of this line is only 6.2 Km.  There area near Kamakura is forested, and is popular for hiking.  Further along there are areas for sailboarding, fishing, and a swimming beach at Enoshima.
The greater Kamakura area is the site of several shrines and temples (20 in all), and another national heritage site.  Some of the shrines date from the 12th century.  We visited two of them, the Great Budha at Hase, and the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine just above Kamakura.

Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine--  A few of our fellow tourists visiting the shrine.  As with many of the shrines in Japan, this shrine was reconstructed after World War II.  The ancient shrines around Tokyo succumbed to the fire bombings of the war.

The garden area near the shrine had a peony garden, which was incredible-- we were there at the right time to catch the peonies in full bloom.

Red peonies at the Peony garden, Kamakura

The queue forming to get on the coastal train at Kamakura station.  The train station dates from the 1920's

From Kamakura, the small train stops at several small stations along the way.  From each, you can get off and walk up to one of the several shrines in the area.  However, we decided our best strategy was to first go all the way to the end of the line at Enoshima, and then exit at each of the stops on the return trip.  This turned out to be a wise decision--  we went to the end, and walked to the beach, then returned to the station to find a queue forming for the return journey.  We were able to get on the second train leaving, and the train was filled to capacity (we were standing).  However, as the train stopped at the next station, a handful more people pressed onto the train.  We were packed in tighter than sardines in a can.  As the taller occupants of the train car, we felt fortunate, as our heads were up where there was some air to breathe.  The short woman next to us was not as fortunate, and could easily have suffocated.  At the second station one man got off the train (which took some doing), and  a few others attempted to charge on.  However, there was literally no room, and the woman in the front of the charge was repelled.  It appeared to be an an act of aggression by those on the train, but it appeared as that no offense was taken by the woman or anyone else--  apparently this is part of life in Tokyo and Japan when riding the trains.
We exited the train at the stop for the giant Budha, and walked up to the site--  it looked like the haj, or perhaps a large rock concert, with the streams of people headed to the shrine--  no chance of getting lost.

Great Budha at the Kotokuin Temple, near the village of Hase.  The Budha is a bronze casting, cast in the 11th century, and stands 11.312 M in height.  The Budha is hollow inside, and it is possible to enter Budha (for an additional fee.  Given the quantities of people a the temple, we only viewed Budha's exterior.  The method of how the casting was done was a mystery for centuries, and only recently determined with some archiological excavations done at the area.

Given our experience with the local coastal train, it was hopeless for us to get back on the coastal single-track train without a very significant wait.  We decided to walk from the Budha back to town in Kamakura, which is the station for the (larger) train returning to Shinjuku and Tokyo.  It was a pleasant walk, going through neighborhoods, and providing an opportunity to see some of the houses in the coastal area, away from Tokyo.
Walking the back streets to Kamakura--   To avoid becoming a compressed brick on the small coastal train (6.2 Km) we decided to walk the back streets to get us to the main train station at Kamakura for our return to Tokyo.  Clearly, many people were having the same idea--  looks like a pilgrimage.  The back streets leading to Kamakura made for a very pleasant walk (although we were pretty tired)--  a chance to view some of the houses and gardens of the seaside community, away from urban Tokyo.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Singapore Night Safari

[Saturday May 22--]  I discovered that one of my former volleyball team compadres and former HP associate from Boise was here in Singapore on business for HP, and he was able to have a free evening (after apparently a pretty gruelling week of work).  We arranged to meet Eric for dinner, and have him join Elaine and I for our planned tourist activity of the weekend-- the Singapore Night Safari.
One of the top "must see" sights that visitors to Singapore list is the Night Safari.  This is pretty unique, and pretty cool, and we had not yet gone to see it.  It is an extension of the Singapore Zoo, but features nocturnal animals, mostly from Southeast Asia, including many endangered species.  Thus it is a night time destination.  (The joke is that the animals work two shifts-- one at the day zoo, and then a night shift at the Night Safari)   It is similar in many ways to the Bird Park, as it is structured as a venue of family entertainment and education, with some special shows (at an extra cost), available dining, and of course, souvenir shops.  It is on the north end of Singapore, and takes a little bit of travel to get to it.
We chose to pay the extra fee to take the guided open tram-bus, which I think is the most popular scheme of seeing the night zoo.  Some animals are in constrained areas (this is a good thing for the humans), whereas others are in open areas, which the tram drives through, giving some illusion of a true wild safari.
There were several interesting animals--  leopards and lions, giant ant eaters, and water buffalo.  Some hyena, and many types of deer.  Here's a picture of some of the animals:

OK, well it was night time, and flash photography is not allowed, so as not to distress the animals (any more so than they are from being confined in a zoo).  Thus I didn't take pictures.  But take my word for it, this is a pretty interesting zoo to visit.

Eric--  ditch the jacket, it's hot here!

It was good to see Eric again, and I think he enjoyed a bit of time off.

Jim and Elaine at the "Singapo"  Night Safari

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Apartment warming

We had the gathering for our official warming of the apartment/condo this past weekend (Sunday May 16).  There was quite a bit of cooking that went into it, which all went well.  Total attendance:  14 people.  These were the collection of friends we have made since we have arrived, and including a couple of people Elaine either works with or knows from HP.  It turns out this is a lot of people to have in the apartment, particularly if everyone is indoors (air-con!) and not on the deck.  But it was great to have everyone over, share some nice food, and beverages, and as one set of friends describes it, a "chemistry experiment" introducing these various friends to one another.

As well as some nice wine and champagne (thank you!) we also received some beautiful orchid plants, which hopefully we will take proper care (Thanks Karen, Lupka, and Stephan).

It was a great gathering, and we hope to do it again sometime.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Keeping busy...

Some people have asked what I do, while Elaine is working, what I do to keep busy.  Somehow there is always something going on, not going (needing repair), or just gone (and needing to be replenished from the grocery store).
We have pretty much got the nest feathered--  the apartment is furnished, decorated to an appropriate level, and all the electronic conveniences necessary for a household these days (TV, telephone, music system, computer and associated accessories) set up.  (OK, Elaine did most of this stuff--  I just helped).  On to the next thing.
So what have I been doing?  Well,  we're having a house warming gathering come this weekend, with some of the friends we've met here, perhaps to show off the results, but mostly just to have a nice gathering.  So here's some of my recent endeavors, using the roll-around oven we got in the furniture spree, which will be served to our unsuspecting guests.  Don't believe for a moment that I know what I'm doing.  It's been raining quite a bit recently, so not to bad to be inside.
(Recall that many apartments/condos here do not have ovens. Turns out there is a reason-- few of these same apartments/condos have air-con in the kitchens, thus it gets pretty hot in the kitchen.  Also, there's not a lot of space.)

Apartment-made cholla bread, which will be made into french toast.

Apartment-made whole wheat bread, which will be made into...   slices of bread.

And when I'm not baking in the kitchen (that word applies two ways), I am working on new skill sets for my next career....

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Taking the A Train

Tokyo subway train

The transportation system in Tokyo is great, but takes some time to learn.  It can be quite daunting at first, and it is necessary to stay focused on what you are doing and where you are going, so as not to end up in Kyoto when you only wanted to go to the Ginza district.
The city is apparently inhabited by a society of gophers--  the city is riddled with trains and train stations, most of which are below ground.  In addition, the train stations are frequently connected to large buildings, such as department stores.  There are many shops and small restaurants in the subways and in the basements of these buildings.  Interconnecting them are tunnels and walkways.  It is purely optional that you actually walk outside on a street that might be wet with rain, or slick with snow.  It is Singapore on steroids.  (Well yes, Singapore is about 4 M whereas Tokyo just crossed the 11 M population point)
For non-Japanese visitors there are a couple of things that make getting around a bit intimidating.  (1) Although many of the stations have both English and Japanese signs, a few don't.  Lucky you if you happen to reach one of these stations.  In fairness, the majority of the stations we visited were well mapped, well dirrected, and many signs were bi-lingual.  I can't say that would be true in many other countries.  (2)  There are several train companies with trains running in Tokyo.  So some stations have service from one or more of the companies and some do not.  The most direct route to your destination may require a transfer, and beware that you should only buy a ticket to the transfer point, then buy a new ticket for the connecting train, if it is on a different company--  the tickets are not universal.  It may be possible to reach your desired destination on one train company's tracks, but it may not be the most direct route.  In Shinjuku where we stayed, there were three stations within three blocks of our hotel, but were serviced by different train companies.
The main station at Shinjuku is absolutely enormous, and I'm sure there are people who have entered it and never made their way out-- still wandering around trying to locate the appropriate exit.

Here's the train map for Tokyo.  I found it a bit daunting.
How to get there?  There are just a few options.  Best bet for a visitor is to map out your travel with the hotel concierge.

One thing about the trains (and busses too) is that they are on time-- you can set your watch by their arrival.  It is all very well organized.  I took a coach from Narita airport to Shinjuku (about 1 hour) and it's pickup time and arrival at our hotel was remarkbly accurate.  The attendants at the airport loaded luggage on the coach, got the passengers on, and bowed to the driver as the coach pulled away from the curb.

Jazz music is apparently very popular in Japan-- it was played in many of the restaurants and stores.  There is no A-train in Tokyo, but there are a lot of others.

Shibuya Station--   When the light changes green, the street is swarmed by pedestrians.  Many people hang out in the Shibuya area, a hot spot on a Saturday night.  This is near the Hachiko exit at the station.  Here there is a bronze statue of a dog commemorating Hachiko, a dog who faithfully came to the station to meet his master, even years after she had passed away.  Apparently there are dogs like this around the world (and stories to go with them), as it sounds vaguely similar to the story of Grey Friar's Bobby, in Scotland.  (For what it's worth, Pike's Market in Seattle has a bronze pig--  but I don't know the story of why he is waiting there).

Hachiko--  He's STILL waiting!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Tokyo Japan

[4-May-2010]--  Elaine was required to attend a business meeting in Japan last week, and due to some odd alignment of Japan holidays and Singapore holidays, it made for a string of non-work days for her.  I decided to fly in and join her in Tokyo, where we were able to enjoy several days together.  Although I worked with Japanese companies during my career, I never traveled there for business.  However, prior to my career I toured a small part of Japan-- that was in 1971!

Tokyo was fantastic!  The weather is perfect at this time of year-- about 65 F, and we caught the very tail end of the cherry blossoms in bloom.  The azaleas were in bloom, with bright colors everywhere.  It was a nice break from Singapore weather, which is considerably warmer, and much more humid than Japan at this time of year.

Tokyo is quite interesting, but very expensive.  During my visit in 1971 one U.S. dollar could be exchanged for 365 yen.  Consequently purchasing power at that time was very good-- cameras and electronics products of the day were probably a third of the cost in Japanese stores than the same product in a U.S. store.  Today one U.S. dollar exchanges for about 94 yen on a good day, and you can buy the products more cheaply in the U.S., or for nearly the same.  I am no macro economist, but I presume this is what maintains the level of U.S. exports that we do have.  Globalization has pushed a lot of manufacturing out of Japan, and has brought many U.S. companies to Japan-- Disney World Tokyo, all of the fast food chains (McDonalds, KFC, Burger King, etc), and (actually it is are all now visible in Japan.

Getting around Tokyo for non-Japanese speaking/reading individuals seems much easier than I remember as well--  there are many signs in both Japanese and English, there are frequently menus at restaurants available in English, and many of the store clerks or restaurant servers know enough to get you by.  It is shameful in many ways that while I was in Tokyo, I was accomodated by the locals with English, but I suspect that most destinations in the U.S. are not capable of accomodating Japanese tourists with Japanese.  The Japanese were entirely gracious, and I am thankful for their hospitality.

I will provide posts in the next few days and share just a few of the pictures from our visit.

Spring blossoms.  This was a garden at the Meiiji Shrine in Tokyo.  This shrine honors Meiiji, the Emperor of Japan (1868 to 1912), who is largely responsible for opening Japan to the West, and bringing western culture to Japan.

Spring azaleas in Tokyo.  I wish we could get our azaleas in Boise to look like these

Singapore River

[Sunday April 11--] The Singapore River runs through the central downtown area of Singapore.  It is a very short stretch of water, and in previous times was a central center of commerce, mostly conducted on small river boats.  Ferrys oared from the stern by boatsmen conducted passengers from the south side of the river to the north side, where most of the banks and other commerce buildings were located, by design.  A pedestrian bridge was built in the late 1800's.
With the influx of migrants into Singapore and its commercial growth, the river suffered greatly, and by the mid 1900s had become a polluted water with an intolerable stench.  The Singapore government recognized the need to clean up the river, and established a 10 year effort in 1982 to achieve this goal.  The reform required closing the river to the boats and ferrys, which has of course lost its old world charm and character.  A subsequent project to close off the river to create a cachement for fresh water, a precious resource for Singapore, will complete in 2012.
The river now has a trendy walkway along the river, with popular attractions and buildings along Boat Quay, Robertson's Quay, and Clarke's Quay.  There are bronzes along the walkway, and the Asian Civilisations Museum looks out  across the river, as well as the Fulton Hotel (previously the post office).

Robertson Bridge, Singapore River.  The Esplanade (performing arts theatre is in the background).  Although I haven't seen the water clear, the river is a particularly brownish color on this day I think because of rain storms that have brought down murky water.

The Asian Civilisations Museum (behind the trees)

A bronze artwork-- "Chinese Merchants"

Bronze artwork

Bronze artwork-- skinny dipping on the river

The Fulton Hotel.  This building was previously the Singapore post office

Our carriage await us... (somebody's, anyway--  Rolls Royce)