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Beauty in shades of blue

Posted by pakin On November - 19 - 2015 ADD COMMENTS

Kamuimisaki cape at the edge of Hokkaido’s Shakotan Peninsula offers a wonderful view of the sea

REACHING THE tip of Kamuimisaki cape on the north-western edge of the Shakotan Peninsula in Hokkaido, can only be achieved on foot and involves walking carefully along a narrow path that looks and feels like a mountain ridge, rising as high as 80 metres above sea level. Buffeted by the wind, it takes me a full 20 minutes to reach the cape, which looks out over the crystal-clear Sea of Japan, a beautiful shade of azure that has become known as “Shakotan blue”.

From this viewpoint, the horizon appears slightly curved at both ends testifying to what we already know – that the Earth is round. And even through it took about an hour from the centre of Shakotan by car, the spectacle is well worth the trip.

The sea offers not only this impressive view but also a variety of seafood. The town is famous for nama uni don (raw sea urchin roe atop a bowl of rice). I was there, however, just after the fishing season, which is limited to June through August.

Even so, a Japanese restaurant I visited for lunch still offered steamed sea urchin roe, and I enjoyed the kaisendon sashimi bowl decorated lavishly with northern shrimp and seasonal salmon roe. The sea urchin roe melted in my mouth, and I could taste its subtle sweetness.

Forests account for 80 per cent of the town. The rains that fall on the highlands are soaked up in the mountain areas, and the nutrient-laden rivers flow into the sea. This process is believed to help the growth of seafood and seaweed.

In 2010, Japan Tobacco Inc began a 10-year project called JT Forest Shakotan to help the conservation of these mountains. JT subsidises the costs of forest management within the reach of three rivers running through the town, including the Bikunigawa.

“Ill-maintained forests are recovering,” Hideki Matsui, the 68-year-old mayor of Shakotan tells me.

“I want to scientifically prove that mountains foster the ocean.”

Experts on forests, rivers and seas have already started investigations in their various fields.

“I hope they will collect enough data soon so that we can properly explain to children, who will be responsible for the next generation,” Matsui continues.

Forests not only nurture the abundant sea, but also are helping the reconstruction of areas hit by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. About 2,000 trees including Japanese larches were cut down, sent to disaster-hit areas such as Miyagi Prefecture and used as foundations for temporary housing units in May 2011. The workings of nature help human beings, showing the importance of protecting nature.

The next day, I visited a traditional-style fishermen’s lodge in the centre of the town that was originally built for those involved in the herring fishing industry, once the pride of the town. The streets are littered with the houses, now abandoned, that once accommodated fishing boat owners, their families and their crews.

In 2008, residents in the town began activities to preserve these houses as sightseeing spots. Local volunteers including Noriichi Bessho, 67, renovated the lodge and named it Yamashime Banya.

A public interest corporation subsidised the costs of renovation such as for replacing the flooring.

The facility was opened to the public until late September, hosting events such as shamisen lute performances. It is currently closed in preparation for further restoration work, but should reopen around May next year.

“I feel regret if tourists just eat sea urchin roe and leave town. I want them to know the history of Shakotan,” Bessho says.

Taking the waters

Posted by pakin On November - 12 - 2015 ADD COMMENTS

A visit to Bath offers the opportunity to soak in the historic spa in a state-of-the-art complex.

England’s best-known spa resort, the city of Bath gets it name from its healing springs. History shows that more than 2,000 years ago, the Celts and the Romans regularly bathed in the mineral-rich water and regarded the area as sacred ground.

The city became fashionable in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with the aristocracy and members of England’s high society spending weeks relaxing in the historic town and bathing in the thermal water.

The three hot springs in the centre of the city, the Cross Spring, Hetling and King’s Spring, are fed by groundwater which is heated by high-temperature rocks before rising back up to the surface at a constant temperature of at least 45 degrees Celsius. The largest and most significant is the King’s Spring, which feeds the Roman Baths and the Georgian Pump Rooms. The Cross Bath Spring and Hetling Spring, located some 150 metres to the west of the King’s Spring, feed the Cross and Hot Baths respectively.

The thermal springs, which produce some 1.2 million litres of hot water every day, were closed off in 1978 following the death of a woman who contracted meningitis after a routine swim in the old municipal hot pool. This pool sourced its water directly from the King’s Spring through one of three pipelines beneath the River Avon and the cause of death was eventually confirmed as an amoebic infection from Naegleria fowleri, a potentially deadly inhabitant of most hot-water springs around the world. Since then natural thermal bathing has been prohibited.

The thermal springs, which produce some 1.2 million litres of hot water every day, were closed off in 1978 following the death of a woman who contracted meningitis after a routine swim in the old municipal hot pool. This pool sourced its water directly from the King’s Spring through one of three pipelines beneath the River Avon and the cause of death was eventually confirmed as an amoebic infection from Naegleria fowleri, a potentially deadly inhabitant of most hot-water springs around the world. Since then natural thermal bathing has been prohibited.

The ban struck a deadly blow for Bath, which up to then had thrived on the revenues from its hot springs. The soul of the city was lost too, as local people were also prevented from using the hot springs due to concerns over the purity of the water source.

Several attempts were made to reopen the thermal springs but failed and Bath’s famous “healing water” continued to go down the drain until Thermae Bath Spa, with around 10 years of complex and expensive restoration, was completed in 2006.

With funding of 7.78 million pounds (Bt421.7 million) through a grant from the National Lottery, the project involved the restoration of five historic buildings, including the 18th-century Hot Bath and Cross Bath, and the construction of a new glass and stone building, the New Royal Bath, designed by internationally acclaimed architects Sir Nicholas Grimshaw.

Originally planned to open in 2002, the project ran behind schedule and well over budget, going from an estimated 13 million pounds in September 1996 to a final cost of 45 million pounds.

Today, Thermae Bath Spa and the new Gainsborough Bath Spa Hotel, both owned by YTL, are the only two places to enjoy natural thermal water in Bath.

My stay at Gainsborough Bath Spa Hotel completed my mission to bathe in Bath. And after a half day walking around the cobblestone streets, nothing is better to soothe aching muscles than a dip in the thermal waters.

The Gainsborough Bath Spa, originally built as a hospital in the early 1800s, occupies two Grade II Listed buildings with distinguished Georgian and Victorian facades in the heart of the World Heritage Site. Named after the artist, Sir Thomas Gainsborough, it is the only hotel in the UK that houses a natural thermal spa, tapped from the spring that feeds the neighbouring Thermae Bath Spa.

The 99 custom furnished guest rooms are all equipped with flat screen HD television, iPod docking station, Roberts radio with Bluetooth connectivity, radiant heated bathroom floors, tea and Nespresso coffee making facilities and a complimentary minibar.

The Spa Village Bath at the Gainsborough is spread out over two levels and the Bath House experience is the best way to “take the waters” in luxury. The staff introduces me to a pre-spa ritual circuit that includes dipping in three natural thermal pools of varying temperatures from 35 to 40 degrees Celsius, traditional and infrared saunas, a steam room, an ice chamber and an elegant relaxation area.

I particularly liked the main thermal pool because of the natural light shining through the four-storey glass atrium perched above the Bath House. With warm sunlight on my face, I let the water jets massage my back and shoulders and allowed the bubbling water sound to bring peace to my mind. I achieved that so well that my therapist had to call me several times to tell me that my one-hour pre-spa ritual had come to an end and it was time for my spa treatment, a 90-minute Ginger Renewal ritual designed to relieve muscle tension and help me sleep.

The following day I return for more, this time to Thermae Bath Spa next door to the Gainsborough. Armed with a towel, robe, slippers and a smartband, which allows me to access my locker, register the time I enter and exit the Spa and order food and drink in the restaurant, I am told to pay for everything when I leave.

My two-hour spa session starts with a gleeful leap into the biggest thermal pool, the Minerva Bath, named after the Roman goddess of health and wisdom. The pool is quite busy so it is impossible to have a peaceful dip and I head up to the open-air rooftop pool to enjoy a warm bath with the gothic Bath Abbey as the backdrop. The view is unbeatable and the crowd polite.

Time flies and before I know it I am in a treatment room being pampered with a tailor-made facial.

I think about visiting the Cross Bath, a separate building with its own open-air thermal bath fed by its own natural spring, but feel far too sleepy.

Walking back to my room at the Gainsborough, I am welcomed, as always, with a fresh sprig of lavender on the sheets and extracts from Shakespeare’s “Sonnet LXI” and Wordsworth’s “To Sleep”.

I breathe in the lavender and as I drift into slumberland, wonder if the Romans too enjoyed these special treats.

Soaking up the culture

Posted by pakin On October - 21 - 2015 ADD COMMENTS

The City of Bath in Avon, southwest England, charms with its natural hot springs and 18th-century Georgian Architecture

October in England is notorious for its changeable weather so it is with delight that I wake up to blue skies and sunshine every morning during my four-day visit to Bath.

Bath, 90 minutes from London’s Paddington station by train, is well known for its Roman baths, Georgian architecture and its bond with Jane Austen. The city was named a World Heritage Site by Unesco in 1987 and archaeological evidence indicates there was human activity around the hot springs on which the City of Bath is built at least 8,000 years BC.

“Royal visits in the 16th and 17th centuries increased the fame of Bath, especially the visit of King James II’s wife, Mary of Modena whose royal physician recommended that she take the waters in the Cross Bath to improve her fertility. Soon afterwards she fell pregnant. To celebrate this event, the elaborate Melfort Cross was erected in the Cross Bath,” says Peter Rollins, director of Marketing and Communications at the Gainsborough Bath Spa.

Though still very jet lagged after a long flight from Bangkok, the clear blue sky, cool gentle breeze and warm sunlight are too good to waste so I take a short walk around my hotel, the Gainsborough Bath Spa, to explore the city.

Less than five minutes into my stroll, I am standing in front of two honey-coloured Georgian buildings: St John’s Hospital and the Cross Bath, the open-air thermal bath where the Celts revered their goddess Sul. Legend has it that the Cross Bath gets its evocative name in commemoration of the body of St Aldhelm resting there on its journey from Doulting to Malmesbury Abbey in 709 AD. It was officially declared a Sacred Site by World Wildlife Fund in 2000.

Build around 1174, the Hospital of St John the Baptist was founded by Bishop Reginald Fitz Jocelin next to the hot springs of the Cross Bath to allow for a constant supply of hot water. The hospital was originally designed as an almshouse for poor men, but with Bath evolving into a resort town, the demand for lodging houses grew. The Hospital then leased blocks of property to the Duke of Chandos who employed young architect John Wood, the Elder, to rebuild the lodging houses in 1727. The architect’s first work in Bath is now a beautiful example of Georgian building.

Most buildings in Bath are made from the local, golden-coloured Bath Stone, and many date from the 18th and 19th century. The dominant style of architecture in Central Bath is Georgian, which is known for its harmony and symmetry with pale colour schemes and woodwork.

As I walk along Beau Street to Stall Street, I can hear music and follow the sound to the magnificent gothic Bath Abbey. Here outside the old church, a busker with an operatic voice is entertaining passers-by in the bustling square and I am totally overwhelmed both by her vocal range and the magnificent architecture. For a moment I allow myself to imagine that I have travelled back in time and can easily picture a lady dressed in 18th-century finery and a gentleman enjoying the warm sunlight as his spaniels and corgis run around. The moment doesn’t last though with a loud round of applause jerking me back to reality.

The Roman Baths museum and The Pump Room are immediately to the right of the Abbey. The Great Bath, at the centre of the complex lies below the modern street level. There are four main features in the complex: the Sacred Spring, the Roman Temple, the Roman Bath House and the Museum, which is home to artefacts from Roman Baths. The buildings above street level date from the 19th century.

According to legend, Prince Bladud of the Britons had contracted leprosy and was banished from the Court. The prince took a job as a swineherd but soon the pigs became infected with the disease. Observing that the pigs were cured after rolling in the hot mud around Bath’s springs, the prince tried his luck in the hot murky water and he

too was cured. He then returned home and became the 9th King of the Britons and the supposed father of King Lear who was immortalised by Shakespeare. Bladud founded a city at Bath and dedicated its curative powers to the Celtic goddess Sul. Nine hundred years later the Romans started the development of the city Aquae Sulis – the Waters of Sulis – as a sanctuary of rest and then built a sophisticated series of baths and a temple dedicated to the goddess Sulis Minerva.

I join my friends for a light lunch at Sally Lunn’s Historic Eating House close to the Roman Baths. Sally Lunn’s is one of the oldest houses in Bath (circa 1482) and serves the most famous local delicacy; the Original ’Sally Lunn’ Bun.

After our bun and tea, we have a two-hour walking tour led by local guide, Tony Abbott. From Bath Abbey where Edgar was crowned as the first King of All England in 973 to Pulteney Bridge, designed by Robert Adams – the only historic bridge apart from the Ponte Vecchio in Florence to have shops built into it – we walk along to The Circus. Originally called King’s Circus, the building was designed by John Wood, the Elder and completed by his son, John Wood, the Younger when his father passed away just three months after the first stone was laid.

Wood, the Younger proved that he, like his father, was a great architect with his magnificent Royal Crescent, a row of 30 terraced houses laid out in a sweeping crescent. It is one of the greatest examples of Georgian architecture in the United Kingdom.

Walking on cobblestone streets through and around the city of Bath is really like travelling back in time, from the Celt to the Roman eras and onwards to 18th-century England.

The well-preserved buildings, hot springs, parks, museums, theatres and fine tea shops offer endless possibilities for how to spend a restful day.

I am quite sure there are other, less attractive parts of the city but for me Bath will always be a sanctuary, a place to rest and relax – and take the waters.

Let there be light

Posted by pakin On October - 9 - 2015 ADD COMMENTS

The Shan community of Mae Sariang fetes the end of the Buddhist Lent with midnight alms giving and traditional dance

A unique Tai Yai festival that marks the end of Vassa, the Buddhist Lent, Ork Wa returns to the northern province of Mae Hong Son at the end of this month for a celebration that’s as old as time itself.

Honouring the return of the Lord Buddha to Earth after three months spent with his mother in heaven, the celebration is unique to the Shan-speaking community of Mae Sariang, where the people light fires to illuminate the Buddha’s path.

Dancers dressed as half-bird, half woman move in front of the burning firewood to percussive beats, transporting the visitor back some 100 years though thankfully still keeping one foot in the present, all the better to snap plenty of photos..

“The King Kala bird, a half-bird, half-woman, was the first to see the Lord Buddha returning,” explains Praphan Wiriyaphab, a Shan resident of this quiet riverside town.

“A bird of joy, she performed a beautiful dance for the Lord Buddha in order to show her respect.”

This year, the Ork Wa Festival is being celebrated from October 26 to 28 and coincides with one of the best times to visit the Northern Province.

The heavy rain is gone, and the winter is about to come. The villagers are full of hope and in the mood for celebration, as their rice paddies are bursting with flowers and young grains.

The first day of the Ork Wa Festival are mostly focused on preparation. Locals clean their homes and build small castles from bamboo sticks outside the fence, adorning the finished edifices with colourful paper and lights.

On the second day, the artisans get together at the temples to make traditional paper crafts. At night, as the full moon rises over the timeworn pagoda, the traditional Shan cultural shows get underway and authentic food is served. Incense, burning candles and the heady scent of jasmine and marigold bouquets waft through the night air.

Shan women – young and old – wear their best longyis and bright blouses as they make their personal contributions to the festivity.

But while the visual interpretation of the Ork Wa Festival is often flamboyant the spiritual meaning is profound.

Locals leave their fire sticks burning all night outside their fences while torches and oil lanterns illuminate the path for more than 400 monks who come in the night for almsgiving.

The midnight almsgiving is unique to Thailand’s North – where people are faithful believers in Phra Oppa Khud, a legendary monk. The monk in question, it’s said, is wise and powerful. He lives in his own place for most of the year, and only visits the people once – at Ork Wa – to receive alms.

Legend has it that Phra Oppa Khud always arrives in the middle of the night as a novice in disguise. Those giving him alms are rewarded with good karma. Visitors are encouraged to take part even if they are not believers and inevitably return from the walk along the river with full hearts if heavy eyes.

The festival culminates on the third night with a long and colourful procession into the heart of the Mae Sariang, which glows in darkness, a clear sign of its act of virtue.

The festival encompasses much more too from Lanna-styled drumming, kickboxing and outdoor cinema.

Let the beat and the lights guide you.