The Rich World of Kyoto

Published on August 1, 2015 in the Singapore American Newspaper:

When you live surrounded by the glossy newness of Singapore’s infrastructure, it’s hard not to be impressed by the dignity of Kyoto’s several thousand years of architecture. Formerly the imperial capital of Japan, this city is a bastion of the nation’s culture and is rife with UNESCO World Heritage Sites. My husband, however, couldn’t get over the fact that progress seemed to have halted in the early 1990s, when Japan’s economic bubble collapsed And yet the trains still run perfectly, the buildings are old but not decrepit, and the analog ticket machines work without a hitch. If your impression of Japan was formed by sushi restaurants, anime, and the somber economic statistics, a visit to Kyoto will reveal a nation of more depth and breadth than you can imagine. This is a country that knows itself, that treasures its multilayered identity, and is content to move at its own pace.

Kyoto is home to over 1,600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines, big and small, and you can spend weeks going from one to another. Instead of hitting sites at random, I suggest doing research beforehand to hone in on the temples and shrines you really want to see, and then plan a route accordingly. My top three are as follows:

    1)    Fushimi Inari Taisha. You’ll want to set aside at least half a day to wander dreamily through the endless corridors of red-orange torii gates trailing up the mountain.

    2)    Heian Jingu. The vivid shrine buildings are reason enough to visit but it’s the stunning traditional gardens (which took 20 years for gardener Jihei Ogawa to perfect) that elevate this expansive site to magical.

    3)    Kinkaku-ji. Probably the most well-known temple in Kyoto, this is a popular site well worth the crowds. It doesn’t matter when you go, as every season renders the gold temple picturesque for different reasons.

Other temples and shrines I recommend are: Ginkaku-ji for its lush moss gardens, Kiyomizu-dera for the views of Kyoto, Daitoku-ji for its bouquet of sub-temples and historic Zen gardens, and Yasaka Shrine for a night walk. Though of course, there are thousands more.

Heian Shrine

Heian Shrine

Since it is possible to overdose on temples, take advantage of your time in Kyoto to experience some of Japan’s traditional arts. It’s easy to spend an entire afternoon just strolling along the preserved streets of Gion, the country’s most famous geisha district. While genuine geiko (the local term for geisha) and maiko (geisha in training) can be spotted in the evenings, you’re more likely to see women in colorful kimono during the daytime. Many of these are tourists who have dressed up for the day. If you’re eager to join them, there are a number of shops that will rent you an entire outfit, from the socks and shoes to the elaborate hairpins. The geiko and maiko still visit and entertain at the teahouses dotting Gion, and during cherry blossom season they give an annual dance performance called Miyako Odori (literally “Dances of the Old Capitol”), which we were lucky enough to catch. If you’re in town during the month of April, it would be a shame to miss. Gion is also the perfect place to buy high quality souvenirs, such as handmade pottery, paper fans, goods crafted from kimono style fabrics, lacquer ware, origami paper, green tea leaves, matcha powder, and more. While a formal Japanese tea ceremony can last up to four hours, a cozy teahouse just off the main stretch of Gion called En offers visitors a taste of the elaborate rituals. With explanations in English and the opportunity to try whisking green tea powder ourselves, it was an informative yet calming experience for everyone.

Kyoto’s geographic location and Japan’s comprehensive train system make it easy to incorporate several day trips into any itinerary. Osaka, Nara, Kobe, and Himeji are all less than an hour on the JR Line and each offers something different: delicious food and energetic nightlife in Osaka, a sprawling park overrun with friendly deer in Nara, the famous beef in Kobe, and the brilliant white, immense 680-year-old castle that is the centerpiece of Himeji. Before your trip, you can purchase a JR Rail Pass for the Kansai region, which will allow you to move between these cities with ease.

Fushimi Inari Shrine

Fushimi Inari Shrine

Of all the day trips we took, Arashiyama stands out. A mountainous district on the western outskirts of Kyoto, Arashiyama is known for its scenic beauty and restful atmosphere. The shallow, slow-flowing Ōi River is peppered with small boats full of day trippers. Paths into the leafy hills lead you to such gems as Matsunoo Taisha, one of the oldest shrines in the Kyoto area, as well as the Iwatayama Monkey Park, the ethereal bamboo forest, and a stone engraved with four poems written by Zhou Enlai, who was inspired during his visit to Arashiyama. After a long day of strolling along the river and basking in the gorgeous surroundings, a soak in one of the many onsen (hot springs) was heaven.

Once known for being a challenge for non-Japanese speaking visitors, Japan has gone to great lengths to make navigating its streets less scary. Buses and trains announce stops and tourist attractions in English. Station names and signs directing you to nearby sites have all been translated. The majority of restaurants we ate in had an English menu on hand. However, it’s the Japanese people that make Japan a genuine joy to visit. Their renowned politeness is often referenced as a joke or a cliché, but it’s impossible not to appreciate when you come face to face with it.

For example, after wandering through the beautiful Isuien Garden in Nara, I asked the attendant of the gift shop if he happened to know the English name of a splashy pink flower blooming across the grounds. He said he wasn’t sure as he only knew its Japanese name; would I mind waiting a moment? I heard him phone the woman manning the entrance and overheard her say that she didn’t know it either. The attendant returned to me with a regretful bow and a sincere apology, all over the name of a flower. It’s the effort put in when there’s no need, the almost obsessive attention to detail, and the cherishing of true quality that make Japan an exceptional and exquisite place to visit..

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A Weekend in Hong Kong

Published on February 1, 2015 in the Singapore American Newspaper:

If you’re homesick for the gritty vibrancy of New York City or just looking to spend a weekend somewhere other than a tropical beach, Hong Kong is the perfect whirlwind. Grungy, chaotic, and built amid a range of tall hills, Hong Kong seems to be opposite in personality from manicured, flat Singapore. And while you’ll never be able to see or do it all in a single weekend, the following itinerary will give you a taste of the buffet of experiences Hong Kong has to offer.

Friday Evening

Getting from the airport to the city is a piece of cake. Purchase the Airport Express Travel Pass, an Octopus card that holds one-way or roundtrip airport-to-city trips plus three consecutive days of unlimited travel on MTR. You can ride the brisk Airport Express straight to Central.

If you arrive before 10:00pm, head to Tsui Hang Village restaurant (New World Tower, 16-18 Queen’s Road) for Hong Kong’s most delicious tradition: dim sum. Like many of the city’s hidden gems, Tsui Hang Village is tucked away on the second floor of an innocuous office building. Their dim sum menu isn’t as extensive as one would hope, but the quality of their barbecue pork buns, tofu pudding and hand-torn chicken make up for it.

Drop your luggage off at your hotel and change into something swanky before taking a cab to the International Commerce Centre (the ICC building), which houses the Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong. On the 118th floor, you’ll find the ultra-modern Ozone Bar, the highest bar in the world. Cocktails aren’t cheap but the view of Victoria Harbor at night is nothing short of breathtaking.

Saturday

Eminently walkable yet also stocked with reliable public transport, Hong Kong was built to be explored. Take the MTR to Diamond Hill Station in Kowloon and follow the signs to Nan Lian Garden, a Chinese classical garden designed in the style of the Tang Dynasty. While the popular Wong Tai Sin Temple is an easy walk away and worth a visit, I found the nearby Chi Lin Nunnery to not only be quieter but more fascinating. Founded in 1934, this Buddhist monastery’s interlocking wooden architecture is the only of its kind in Hong Kong.

Then it’s on to the Yuen Po Street Bird Garden. You could take the MTR to Prince Edward Station, but I found it more fun to meander through Kowloon’s bustling suburbs, which allowed me to stroll through the charming Kowloon Walled City Park and to snag a snack in the food district. “Bird Garden” is bit of a misnomer – it’s actually a miniature market tucked onto a raised walkway enveloped in lush greenery. And even if you’re not looking to take home a sparrow or cockatiel, the towers and aisles of twittering cages are mesmerizing.

After all that exploring, it’s time for a luxurious interlude. Take the MTR down to Tsim Sha Tsui and indulge in Afternoon Tea in the lobby of the oldest hotel in Hong Kong, The Peninsula. When you’ve finishing savoring the delicate pastries and elegant architecture, the Hong Kong Museum of Art is just a short walk away. Finish your time on Kowloon by wandering along the famous waterfront Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade.

Take the last Star Ferry from Tsim Sha Tsui to Central, soaking in the view of the skyline on the way, before heading to the raucous Lan Kwai Fong area, a cluster of bars and restaurants where you can grab a bite and party until all hours.

Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware

Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware

Sunday

Linger over breakfast and coffee at one of the city’s many cafés before making your way to the Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware, which opens at 10:00am and is located inside Hong Kong Park. Originally built in 1844, the museum building was the office and residence of the Commander of British Forces in Hong Kong up until 1978. In addition to admiring the gorgeous building, you’ll learn about the history of tea drinking in China and the gentle art of creating clay teapots.

Next to the Museum of Tea Ware is the K.S. Lo Gallery, which houses ceramics dating from the Song dynasty (960–1279 AD) to the Ming dynasty (1368–1644AD). For a real treat, settle into the Chinese Teahouse on the ground floor for traditional tea snacks and tea prepared the old-fashioned way. From the park, it’s a quick walk
to the famous Peak Tram, a Victorian-era train that hauls visitors up to the highest peak on Hong Kong Island. If the weather is clear, the views are well worth the crowds and the ticket price.

After descending, wander towards Hollywood Road and en route be sure to ride the Central-Mid-Levels Escalators (the longest outdoor covered escalator system in the world). Hollywood Road and its many side streets are chock full of antique shops, boutique clothing stores, artisanal coffee shops, and chic wine bars. Spend the afternoon getting lost and finding one-of-a-kind souvenirs to take home..

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On Finicky Expats in Singapore, and their Double Standards

Published on December 3, 2014 in The Wall Street Journal: Expat:

So — a little excited — The Wall Street Journal recently launched WSJ Expat, their hub for expatriates and global nomads, and has featured my piece! Here’s a snippet:

Rather than accept these aspects of Singapore’s restaurant culture as simply foreign, we tend to throw up our hands and declare that Singapore isn’t nearly as modern as advertised, forgetting that this glitzy city was a tropical backwater not even 50 years ago. Sure, every last dim sum hole-in-the-wall has passed the city-state’s rigorous health inspections and food poisoning is rare. But the appetizers arrived after the main course! The bathroom has squat toilets! They’re charging us for napkins!

Read the rest HERE!

WSJ Expat

WSJ

Top Eight Places to “Work from Home”

Published on December 1, 2013 in the Singapore American Newspaper:

In this modern day and age, “working from home” can mean working from almost anywhere if you play your cards right. Plus, a change of scenery can do wonders for your creativity and motivation, whether it’s writing an article, putting together a lesson plan or organizing leads on Salesforce. When I get bored of my apartment’s four walls, here are my top eight places to work from home (in no particular order):

7-8

3-4

5-6

1-2

As a final note, I want to say that while there are reliable hubs of strong WiFi to be found throughout the city, it is far more convenient to transform your smartphone into a WiFi Hotspot. Not only is it safer than connecting your laptop to a public network, a Hotspot relies on Singapore’s ubiquitous 3G signal (meaning it can be employed just about anywhere). There are plenty of YouTube videos and how-to guides on the internet to walk you through setting a Hotspot up and, trust me, you will be thrilled you did. Now get back to work.

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Alternative Expat Hotspots

Published on October 1, 2013 in the Singapore American Newspaper:

For a Friday or Saturday night out, the lure of Singapore’s expat hubs is hard to deny. The glitter of the clubs and the ambience of the pubs, the platters of bar food and the heavy steins of beer, the loud music and the reflection of the lights on the river’s surface… Unfortunately, it is equally hard to deny the dent these hubs can make in your wallet. Luckily this city has a seemingly endless amount of hidden gastronomic gems just waiting for you to explore. Whether you are looking to impress your visitors with your local know-how or are just in the mood for a less-touristy but still centrally located spot for dinner, the following suggestions are sure to make for a great night out.

Instead of Boat Quay…

When my in-laws visited a year ago, my husband took them along the glitzy strip of Boat Quay and then through the back to an open-air hawker center called BK Eating House, which sits behind the bars at 21 South Bridge Road. Though the plastic tables and fluorescent lighting didn’t impress my in-laws much, the specialty dry mee sua from the Yan Kee stall sure did. Not only do they claim to this day that it was the best meal they had during their time in Singapore, at $3.50 a bowl it was also the cheapest. And since the cost of one beer at a bar on the river will get you three beers at BK Eating House, it’s easy to forgive its artless appearance.

BK Eating House

Instead of Chijmes…

Instead of paying for expensive cocktails within the walls of Chijmes, stroll two blocks over to Standing Sushi Bar at 8 Queen Street. There are a plethora of good Japanese restaurants but I have yet to find one that rivals this lively restaurant. A stone’s throw from the Singapore Art Museum, Standing Sushi offers exceptionally fresh sashimi as well as an enormous selection of sake. Every weeknight features a different promotion (50% off sushi, sashimi, and alcohol, anyone?) but the prices are reasonable even without them. However, you will want to get there either before or after the peak dinner time as the restaurant doesn’t take reservations and the line outside can get pretty long.

Instead of Clarke Quay…

Across the river from the theme park-esque Clarke Quay, the Central Mall houses a barely marked bistro you won’t want to miss. You may have heard of No Signboard, dubbed as such because when it was a single stand in a hawker center in the 1970s, the founders simply couldn’t afford a signboard. Back then seafood wasn’t commonly sold in hawker centers but their unique crab recipes attracted much attention and today No Signboard has six branches, one of which is hidden in a corner on the fourth floor of the Central. A far cry from the original stall, this particular outlet is elegantly decorated and sports large windows that look out at Clarke Quay over the river. While you’ll have to try the famous chili crab or white pepper crab (which you buy by the kilogram), I also highly recommend the sliced mushrooms with abalone sauce over rice.

Instead of Robertson Quay…

For inexpensive wine and tasty food, it is hard to beat Wine Connection at Robertson Quay but if you’re looking for a real contender, check out the triple threat of The Foundry, Baan Khun Nai, and The Burger Office. All can be found sharing the same space at 18 Mohamed Sultan Road, the atmosphere of which can only be described as beach-like, eclectic, and relaxed. The Foundry prides itself on its choice selection of Belgian craft beers (I suggest a pint of the Kronenbourg 1664 Blanc). Baan Khun Nai serves up classic and succulent Thai food. And The Burger Office, as expected, specializes in straightforwardly delicious beef burgers. Mix and match as you please!

It’s easy for smaller restaurants to get overshadowed by the bright lights of the Quays but these homegrown alternatives make for a more authentic (and generally less costly) meal than what the tourist hubs tend to offer. However, they are also close enough to the parties that you can wander over after you’ve eaten, if you’re still in the mood.

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Top Five Travel Tips for Exploring Asia

Published on August 1, 2013 in the Singapore American Newspaper:

Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

There are plenty of reasons why Singapore is a great place to live. One of them is how easy it is to leave for a short break. Changi Airport has consistently topped lists of the world’s best airports for the last two decades and those with residency status move through it very quickly, but there are still a number of obstacles that can trip you up when setting off to explore Southeast Asia. To help you avoid my mistakes and oversights, here are my top five tips for newcomers to Singapore who are looking to discover the riches of the continent around us.

Number One: Visas!

Visa costs and requirements vary greatly throughout Asia, so right after (or even before) you buy your flight tickets, hit the website of your destination’s embassy to figure out what you’ll need. Many nations surrounding Singapore will allow you to buy an On-Arrival Tourist Visa but some require a Letter of Approval from the local embassy to do this and most can only be purchased in American dollars (and sometimes only in new bills). There can also be extra requirements, like a minimum number of blank passport pages. Bottom line: do your research in advance and prevent a debacle at the airport.

Number Two: Know the Health Risks

Malaria is a year-round risk throughout Southeast Asia but it needn’t prevent you from going where you want to go. A general physician in Singapore can usually provide anti-malarial tablets but be aware that you have to start the regimen a few days before your trip, so give yourself enough time. However, the most frequently reported illness among visitors to Southeast Asia is the highly unglamorous traveler’s diarrhea. While abroad, one of my greatest joys is trying dishes in restaurants frequented by the locals but this can admittedly be risky. So, there are a few rules of thumb to keep in mind when it comes to chowing down. Don’t drink or brush your teeth with the local water. Be sure to check that the seals of any bottles of water you buy are unbroken. Don’t eat raw fruits or vegetables as they have likely been washed in the local water; the exception is fruit you peel, like bananas or oranges. Be wary of how foods with a high risk of salmonella—like eggs or chicken—are prepared; opt for fried instead of steamed or boiled if you’re uncertain.

Number Three: Take More Cash than You Think You’ll Need

I will be the first to confess that I rely far too much on a credit card and not enough on cash. Take my word for it: it is no fun wasting your precious time in an exotic paradise desperately searching for an ATM. But even if you’re not me and you calculate your trip’s expenses down to the penny and take out enough foreign notes in advance, there will always be an unexpected cost somewhere down the line. For example, did you know you need to pay an airport tax in cash when you leave Indonesia?  So, in addition to taking way more money than you need, I would also suggest you don’t exchange your extra baht, dong, or kip until you’re safely back on Singaporean concrete, where at least the fees will be in a currency you’re used to.

Number Four: Invest in a Necessities Kit

It’s easier to have a little travel bag of necessities on hand instead of rifling through your cabinets for 100ml toiletries before every trip. Ideally an essentials kit for Southeast Asia should include: sunscreen, insect repellant, Purell, painkillers, band aids, anti-malarials, Pepto Bismal or the equivalent, wet wipes, toothpaste, toothbrushes, extra medication and miniature versions of your normal routine (shampoo, face wash, shaving cream, etc.). And don’t forget the number one necessity: tissues. Much of Southeast Asia operates on a system of BYO toilet paper and you will come to cherish the packets of tissues you cleverly brought with you.

Singapore’s pharmacies are pretty good about carrying travel-sized toiletries, which were once a convenience and are now a necessity if you want to step foot on a plane without checking a bag. And when you’re only flying a few hours to stay for a few days it is worth neither the hassle nor the cost to check a bulky piece of luggage. Pack sparingly and smartly.

Number Five: Relax

I’ve heard a lot of scary stories about Asia from a lot of people who’ve never been. I actually had a friend frantically warn me about a disease in Papua New Guinea that causes a person to laugh themselves to death. A quick internet search revealed that this disease is transmitted via cannibalism, which I don’t generally practice. What I have found from traveling around Asia is a lot of breathtaking sights, delicious food and friendly people.

There has yet to be a country I regret visiting. Sure, the salmonella poisoning in Myanmar wasn’t all that fun, but the Burmese were some of the most genuinely sweet people I have ever met. It’s up to you what you get out of travel. Not every trip will go completely to plan (actually I can guarantee that almost none of them will) but if you keep an open mind and an adventurous spirit, there also won’t be a single trip you don’t learn something about yourself from.

Happy travels!

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