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Messing around on the RIVER

Posted by pakin On September - 7 - 2015 ADD COMMENTS

Exploring a Japanese mangrove forest by canoe

A KEEN canoeist for years, I was delighted to discover on a recent trip to Amami-Oshima island in Kagoshima Prefecture, that it was possible to explore a mangrove forest in Amami’s Sumiyocho district by canoe.

“This is a good tide,” said my guide Kazuhisa Saijo, 53, pointing upstream as I boarded a canoe from a dock at the river mouth. “We are going to a waterway that’s passable only at full tide.

My fellow participants on the 90-minute tour started paddling their one-person canoes. We moved ahead while looking at a mangrove forest on the banks of the river. One of the attractions of canoeing is that the paddler’s eye level is closer to the surface of the water than on a ship, making you feel like a part of nature.

Every tree in the mangrove forest grows in marshes, so these trees take firm root in the soil, with their roots spreading like an octopus’ legs. Even during stormy seas, it’s quiet in the forest, according to Saijo.

“There is no tree named mangrove,” Saijo explained. Mangrove actually refers to trees growing in brackish-water regions, where fresh and salt water are mixed. Around the mouths of the Sumiyogawa and Yakugachigawa rivers, trees grow in clusters on about 71 hectares of land.

This is Japan’s second largest mangrove forest, following that on Iriomote Island in Okinawa Prefecture.

We finally came to the waterway, which turned out to be just one metre wide. I was almost sent back by the reverse flow but quickly remastered my canoe to enjoy the challenging but exciting spot.

A native of Amami, Saijo went to college in Fukuoka Prefecture, when he again felt attached to the environment of the island. After working for a tourist association in the city, he established a tour company with a friend in 1998.

The Amami region was once ruled by the Ryukyu Kingdom, and later became a directly controlled territory of the Satsuma domain.

Shimauta – the traditional folk music of the region and Okinawa featuring tremolo and falsetto – is said to have emerged from the wails of the people at a time when heavy taxation was implemented in the region. The taxation was called “kokuto jigoku” (“hell of kokuto brown sugar)”, reflecting the fact that annual taxes in the region were then paid in kokuto brown sugar.

With such a history behind it, the Amami region has been attracting attention recently as a unique area, one that is well worth a visit. Last year, Japan’s budget airline Vanilla Air launched a service between Narita Airport and Amami-Oshima island, invigorating the island.

A Kandelia obovate seed that looked like a fishing float was bobbing on the water’s surface. The seed drifts with the tide to enter the nesting hole of a crab and then come into bud.

“That’s the curious wisdom of plants,” Saijo grinned.

As I turn to smile back at him, I could hear songs of a ryukyu ruddy kingfisher, a migratory bird spending the summer in the region.

Bowing down to filial piety

Posted by pakin On August - 25 - 2015 ADD COMMENTS

The picturesque Hwaseong Fortress in Suwon, just outside Seoul, was built by King Jeongjo to honour his father

IT IS a sunny day in Suwon, the capital of Gyeonggi-do province. The city is just 30 kilometres south of Seoul, making it a convenient day trip from the South Korean capital and an easy commute for locals preferring not to live in the big city.

Suwon’s most famous historical attraction is Hwaseong Fortress, a Unesco World Cultural Heritage Site since 1997.

“You know the Korean series ‘Yi San’ (Lee San)? That series was based on the life of King Jeongjo, the ruler who built this fortress and Hwaseong Haenggung Palace,” says Kevin, our friendly local guide.

I find myself wishing my mother and my sisters were with me. Major fans of the series, I can picture them walking through the fortress and the palace reciting the characters’ conversations and telling me the story of Yi San.

Born as Yi San, King Jeongjo was the son of Crown Prince Sado or Sado Seja, who was put to death by his own father, King Yeongjo, by being placed in a sealed large wooden rice chest. Thirteen years after King Jeongjo acceded to the throne, he began making plans to relocate his father’s grave in order to grant him eternal peace. Searching the whole country for the perfect place for his father’s new tomb, King Jeongjo decided to re-inter his father in Suwon.

King Jeongjo, the 22nd king of the Joseon Dynasty, built Suwon Hwaseong Fortress as an expression of his will to reform the nation and to show his filial piety towards his father.

Suwon Hwaseong Fortress, a piled-stone and brick fortress, stretches for a total of 5.74 km and surrounds the centre of Suwon City. We have too little time to walk the full distance around the fortress so we jump on the Hwaseong Train, a tourist train that travels between Paldalsan Mountain and Yeonmudae. The front of the train is shaped like a powerful dragon to symbolise King Jeongjo while the guest cars resemble the palanquins that once carried the king during his excursions.

The Hwaseong Fortress influenced the development of Korean architecture, urban planning and landscaping. Jeong Yakyong, a leading scholar of the School of Practical Learning, designed the fortress. combining architectural and scientific knowledge from the East and West. The design was characterised by careful planning, the combination of residential and defensive features, and the application of the latest scientific knowledge in that era. Hwaseong is also unique in that it covers both flat and hilly land, making use of the terrain for maximum defensive efficacy.

From the Hwaseong Train, we can see the “chongan”, as the holes in the fortress walls are known. They were used to shoot at the enemy while remaining protected by the wall. The shape of the holes are different: some are drilled straight outwards to shoot at far off enemies, others at a downward slant to shoot at enemies close to the fortress wall.

Equally remarkable was the completion report for the building of Hwaseong Fortress, “Hwaseong Seongyeok Uigwe”, which was published in 1801 and provided details and particulars about the fortress design and construction process. After the periods of Japanese colonial rule and the Korean War, the fortress suffered partial damage and loss and “Hwaseong Seongyeok Uigwe” served as the main resource for the restoration works.

We are lucky to arrive at Hwaseong Haenggung Palace just in time for the martial art show. The performers are dressed in traditional royal guard costumes and quite aside from staging realistic fistfights, they also show how to use traditional swords, spears, lances and halberds. The performance is staged in front of the main gate of the palace twice daily – at 11 and again at 3 – except Monday. The show is free of charge and comes complete with English translation.

Hwaseong Haenggung Palace is the biggest haenggung, or temporary palace, of the Joseon Dynasty. King Jeongjo built it to accommodate his stay when he came to pay respect to his father’s royal tomb. He stayed at this palace a total of 13 times during his reign and also held various important events including the 60th birthday celebration of his mother in 1795.

Most of the palace was destroyed by fire during Japan’s colonial rule in the early 20th century, but a restoration project began in 1996, marking the 200th anniversary of the construction of Suwon Hwaseong Fortress, and the royal villa has been open to the public since 2003.

Suwon, deeply tied to Jeongjo’s deep loyalty to his father, is also known as “The City of Filial Piety”.

Letting it ALL GO

Posted by pakin On August - 18 - 2015 ADD COMMENTS

Kite surfing in The Philippines is quite an adventure and professional instruction is a must.

There are some places in the world that are guaranteed to make you want to return. Boracay, a small island in the Philippines, is one such destination and has drawn this writer to its shores for two consecutive years.

It was here that I first tried kitesurfing. The Bulabog Beach on the eastern side of Boracay has many windsurfing and kitesurfing sports centres and I was lucky to pick one that’s affiliated with the International Kiteboarding Organisation.

The organisation has training centres around the world, and some of its courses are tailored for beginners like me.

The centre on Boracay has different courses, from recreational to professional. In the recreational category, trainees have to complete the “discovery” level before they go on to more advanced levels.

My instructor Brian, who hailed from the United States, began my training by asking me to set up the kite on the sand.

I then had to practice at length the various skills for assessing the direction of the wind and the movements of my body.

The winds, which are strong in March, explain why the Philippines were always important on the ancient maritime trade routes. Indeed, they even call the wind Amihan, or trade winds.

From September to May, the hills on the northern and southern ends of the island channel the Amihan wind from the east onshore, and onto the Bulabog Beach on the eastern coast of the island.

Thanks to the wind, the reef-protected waters off Bulabog Beach are ideal for windsurfing and kitesurfing, so much so that it has become one of the venues on the Asian Windsurfing Tour. The Boracay International Funboard competition is also held here every January and lasts a whole week.

Bulabog beach draws kitesurfers from around the world and during the season those surfers could be seen along the 2.5 km stretch of Bulabog Beach.

November to April is said to be the best for kite and wind surfing while other water sports can be enjoyed from May to October.

The wind made it difficult to even stand in the water and I watched helplessly as the kite flew randomly in all directions offering no clue how to control it. I heard Brian yelling, “Let it go! Let it go!” but given the sound of the waves, it took a while to register.

I didn’t have time to figure out how to “let it go” before a pull from the flying kite nearly lifted me up from the surface of the shallow water. I lost balance, and was pulled into the water.

“You need to let it go when you can’t control it,” said Brian, “That’s the No 1 rule in kite-boarding.”

It was among several useful tips I learned about sports and life.

The key to controlling the kite is to let it go according to the wind direction, while adjusting position in the water.

Gradually I “mastered” my kite, made it fly steadily and at my will. It is a kind of art in collaboration between the wind, the kite and the body.

Brian knows all about letting it go. He arrived on the island some seven years ago after his construction business collapsed and decided to stay.

For the rest of my classes, I was struggling between how to control the kite and when to loosen the grip on the bar and felt like cheering when I finally managed to stand in the water while at the same time keeping the kite aloft.

Brian later gave my fellow trainee and I a recreational bonus by offering us a chance to “experience the water”.

We swam behind him as if he were the surfing board, each of us holding a bar that he wore. He navigated the kite and directed us to float on the water. The three of us moved swiftly in the water.

At the end of the lesson, Brian gave each of us an IKO membership card, and my fellow trainee said she would return in November, the beginning of the next windy season.

I did not make it last November. When I went back again this April, I did not see Brian. I heard he had left for Cebu, a kite resort hub nearby.

Perhaps I will meet him again on the waves on my next visit.

Singapore sells seashells and more by the bay

Posted by pakin On August - 10 - 2015 ADD COMMENTS

The third edition of the sumptuous Epicurean Market returns to the city state

FOODIES FROM all over the region and beyond will be making their way to Singapore next week as the Marina Bay Sands plays host to the third edition of the extravagant Epicurean Market. Running from August 14 to 16, it will feature more than 60 leading brands and some 35 master classes by top chefs, wine sommeliers and mixologists.

Singapore has long been a culinary destination for travellers, thanks to its diverse cultural background, evolving dining scene as well as international influences. But during these special three days Singapore will be offering a great deal more.

Epicurean Market 2015 is aiming to be bigger and better than ever, with the region’s finest food purveyors, award-winning restaurants and wine experts all set to offer guests an unforgettable culinary experience. Consider the amount of food that will be prepared for this three-day food fiesta, and you’ll appreciate the scale of the Epicurean Market.

Some 2,000 kilograms of seafood will be prepped and 20,000 fresh oysters shucked, along with 20 kilograms of caviar, and an estimated 15,000 pizzas. On top of that, a troupe of mixologists will be armed with enough artillery to keep the spirits and fine cocktails flowing from morning until late at night.

During the course of the three days Sands Expo and Convention Centre Halls D and E will be littered with celebrity chef restaurant booths. Among the big names are db Bistro & Oyster by Daniel Boulud, Adrift by David Myers, CUT by Wolfgang Puck and Pizzeria Mozza and Osteria Mozza by Nancy Silverton.

Favourites like Waku Ghin by Tetsuya Wakuda will make a return this year with an array of new signature dishes. The chef is also expanding his repertoire with a second booth focusing on 12 exquisitely delicate pastries. Tasty Thai treats aromatic beef skewers, grilled eggplant salad with dried prawn, charred rice noodles with pork and yellow beans, and deep-fried chicken with plum sauce from Long Chim by David Thompson will delight foodies. And participating in Epicurean Market for the first time is Spago by Wolfgang Puck, who will offer hand-made Agnolotti and Spicy tuna tartare as a sneak preview ahead of its official opening.

There is also a Farmer’s Market inspired by the farmer’s markets of California and featuring great quality fresh vegetables, roots, fruits and seafood as well as artisanal products in an authentic and rustic environment. Guests can sample and taste food throughout the Farmer’s Market, interact with experts for home-cooking tips, and pick up a recipe card or two. Epicerie Boulud, chef Daniel Boulud’s popular gourmet shop in New York, will occupy a sizeable section.

Wine connoisseurs can look forward to the finest and rarest wines sourced from around the world at the massive Wine Zone with nearly 30 wine suppliers including KOT Selections, The Oak Cellars, Monopole, Enoteca, Excaliber Wines, Unique Wines and Wine Culture strutting their stuff.

Over at the bar, Diageo is making a splash at this year’s Epicurean Market with a stunning booth that combines a Cocktail Bar with a Whisky Lounge. Manned by award-winning mixologists from the Diageo Reserve World Class Bartender Competition including winner Steve Leong, the bar |will offer a spirited selection of cocktails using ingredients sourced at the Farmer’s Market itself and workshops on creating various types of cocktails. Whisky connoisseurs can park themselves in the plush lounge seats, where a wide range of Single Malts as well as rare blends from John Walker & Sons await. Whisky appreciation mini-workshops will be conducted by Christoph Nyfeler, founding partner of Whisky World.

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