ultramarinus – beyond the sea

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ARRIVAL IN SHIRETOKO, Utoro (ウトロ), Shiretoko Peninsula (知床半島), Hokkaido (北海道), Japan, 2019.06.15

Day 1 (2/2).

In the Northwest Pacific between the Sea of Okhotsk and Nemuro Strait (根室海峡) lies a pointy peninsula extending from the easternmost part of Hokkaido.  Translated as “the end of the world” in native Ainu, Shiretoko Peninsula is often considered to be the last pristine wilderness of Japan.  Because of the famous Oyashio Current (親潮) that brings the nutrient rich subarctic current from Alaska and Bering Sea to the east of Hokkaido, Shiretoko is blessed with magnificent biodiversity and probably one of the world’s richest fishery.  Shiretoko is also the southernmost point in the Northern Hemisphere where sea ice can be formed.  The peninsula is also defined by the volcanic landscape of the Shiretoko Mountain Range (知床連山), and of course the lovely onsens dotted around the peninsula, such as Utoro Onsen (ウトロ温泉), Aidomari Onsen (相泊温泉), Seseki Onsen (瀬石温泉), Rausu Onsen (羅臼温泉) and Iwaobetsu Onsen (岩尾別温泉).  The special natural characteristics of Shiretoko have led to the establishment of Shiretoko National Park (知床国立公園) in 1964 and later enlisted in UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2005.

Determined to test our luck to check out the beautiful wildlife including Brown Bears, Ezo-shika Deer, Ezo Red Fox, Blakiston’s Fish Owl, Steller’s Sea Eagle, and the Orcas, Sperm Whales and Dall’s porpoise in the sea, Shiretoko was the top priority for our Hokkaido travel itinerary.  From Memanbetsu Airport (女満別空港) near Abashiri (網走), we picked up our rental car from Toyota-Rent-A-Car and began our 1.5 hour drive to Utoro Onsen (ウトロ温泉) in the town of Shari (斜里), the gateway of Shiretoko National Park.

IMG_8638After an hour and 40 minutes, our JAL flight took us from Tokyo Hanada to Memanbetsu Airport in Eastern Hokkaido.

DSC_4257The road from Abashiri to Shari offered us beautiful scenery of the Sea of Okhotsk.

IMG_8642From Shari, we continued driving along the sea up the Shiretoko Peninsula.

DSC_4265Before reaching the onsen village Utoro, we arrived at one of the tourist attractions of Shiretoko called Oshinkoshin Falls (オシンコシンの滝).

IMG_8652Just two minutes up a flight of steps led us to the viewing platform of Oshinkoshin Falls.

IMG_8656From Oshinkoshin Falls, it was just a few minute drive to Utoro, where we would stay for two nights.

DSC_429158m in height, the Oronko-iwa Rock (オロンコ岩) is an iconic feature at the fishing and onsen village of Otoro (ウトロ).  The rock separates the village from the breakwater structures out in the sea.

DSC_4304At the Oronko-iwa Rock parking lot, we had our first fox encounter: a furry fox sneaked behind our black car while we were taking photos of the setting sun.

IMG_6305The Oronko-iwa Rock is a popular spot for watching the sunset.

IMG_8671It was 6pm when we enjoyed a brief moment of the peaceful sunset out in the Sea of Okhotsk.

DSC_4293From the Oronko-iwa Rock, we could see the onsen hotels at Utoro.

IMG_8657The posters at Utoro visitor centre promote the salmon fishery and winter sea ice of Shiretoko.

IMG_8676After the red-eye flight from Hong Kong to Tokyo, the short domestic flight from Tokyo to Memanbetsu Airport, and the drive from Abashiri to Utoro, it was time for us to check in at Shiretoko Village, our onsen hotel in the hills behind Utoro village.

IMG_8682We always look forward the the meals at the onsen hotels in Japan.  At Utoro, we were treated with local seafood, deer meat, local salmon roe, and hairy crab.

IMG_6325It was the time for hairy crabs in Hokkaido.  Each guest was provided with a delicious hairy crab.

IMG_8685Drifting ice is the most popular local feature to promote various drinks and food products from Shiretoko, from sake, beer to ice-cream.

IMG_8687We ended our first day in Shiretoko with a bottle of local grape juice.

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TSUKIJI OUTER MARKET (築地場外市場), Tokyo (東京), Japan, 2019.06.15

Day 1 (1/2).

Our flight landed in Tokyo Haneda at around 6am.  Before our next flight to Hokkaido’s Memanbetsu Airport at noontime, we had a few hours to spare in the Japanese capital.  Tsuyu (梅雨), the rainy season in Japan, was in full force in mid June.  Given the proximity to the city centre, we wouldn’t want to miss the chance of revisiting Tokyo.  We took the monorail and then transferred to the metro heading for Tsukiji Market.  40 minutes was all it took to reach Tsukiji.  It was pouring when we came out the metro at the Kabuki-za Theatre (歌舞伎座) exit.  We followed Google Map to make our way into the quiet lanes near the outer market.

Opened in 1935, the 83-year-old market has officially moved to the new Toyosu Market (豊洲市場) in October 2018.  With no intention to watched a tuna auction behind glass or checked out seafood and produce stores in a brand new shopping centre like setting, we preferred to revisit the old market at Tsukiji, where the Outer Market remained open for business.  At the market, generations of social interactions have developed a strong sense of community.  The chaotic turret traffic at the inner market, desperate tourists cramped in long lines for an early sashimi breakfast, cafes serving simple coffee on dark wood counters, street food stalls along busy lanes and covered alleyways, the spirit and ambience of the old market have drawn us back to Tsukiji again and again.  This time around, our Tsukiji experience took us to a craft coffee shop, a back lane sushi eatery and a historical Shinto shrine.

IMG_8560Miraitowa (future and eternity) and Someity (calm and powerful), the two official mascot of 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics, greeted all visitors at the arrival lobby of Haneda Airport.

IMG_8576Turret COFFEE, a popular hub for everyone in Tsukiji who love coffee, offered us a decent dose of caffeine to start the day.

IMG_E8579We came just in time to be the first few customers at Turret.

IMG_8586The cafe decor was simple and the coffee was aromatic and good.

IMG_8593Named after the 3-wheel cart that once roamed in the lanes of Tsukiji Market, a real “turret” was placed in the centre of the coffee shop as display and also seating.

IMG_8599Kitsuneya Beef Rice, one of the most popular eateries in the entire outer market, offers visitors a decent alternative to seafood.

IMG_8601For many, leaving Tsukiji Market without picking up several pieces of tuna toro sashimi would be a big regret.

IMG_8617We ended up sitting down at a small sushi eatery in a covered alleyway.

IMG_8621Despite relocation of the inner market, the sushi at Tsukiji Outer Market was equally fresh as before.

IMG_8620Today’s uni (sea urchin): Hamanaka (浜中), Uchiura Bay (噴火湾), Akkeshi (厚岸), Nemuro (根室), Rebun (礼文), and Nemuro (根室).  Even looking at the names of the five fishing villages in Hokkaido would wet our appetite.

IMG_8607Before returning to the airport, we made a stop at Namiyoke Inari Jinja (波除稲荷神社), the unofficial guardian shrine of Tsukiji Market.

IMG_8609Built in 1659, the Shinto shrine dedicates to Inari (稲荷大神), the god of fertility, rice, tea, sake, agriculture.  The Namiyoke Inari Jinja (波除稲荷神社) was specifically aimed to ward off disasters and diminish incoming waves.

IMG_8612The 1-ton Yakuyoke Tenjo Dai-Shishi male lion is one of the main features of the shrine. During Tsukiji Lion Festival on June 10th, the lion head would parade across the Tsukiji along with the red female lion head.

IMG_8613The 0.7 ton female lion head is slightly lighter than the male, but equally impressive.  After coffee, sushi, and Shinto shrine, we took our time to return to Haneda Airport for the flight to Memanbetsu in Hokkaido.

 


HOKKAIDO ROAD TRIP, Hokkaido (北海道), Japan, June 15-25, 2019

Tsuyu (梅雨), the rain season, begins to hit Okinawa in May and gradually makes its way north to the rest of Japan until the end of June.  During the wet season, rainy and cloudy weather affects the entire country except Hokkaido, Japan’s second largest island north of the main Honshu Island.  The seismic active island is 3.6% smaller than Ireland, with a climate significantly cooler than the rest of Japan.  Seeking for a pleasant getaway from Hong Kong’s humid and hot summer, we picked Hokkaido as the destination for our 11-day vacation from 15th to 25th of June.  Traveling in the remote national parks and rural countryside of Hokkaido, hiring a car was a necessity.  The Hokkaido journey was our first road trip in Japan.

Known as Japan’s last true wilderness, Shiretoko National Park (知床国立公園) is the natural haven where Brown Bears and Blakiston Fish Owls ruled the primeval forests and Orcas, Minke and Sperm Whales roamed the waters of Nemuro Strait.  With fantastic natural scenery, wildlife and seafood to offer, this easternmost part of Hokkaido topped our priority list in the travel itinerary.  Next in the journey took us to the spectacular volcanoes of Akan Mashu National Park (阿寒摩周国立公園), where we came close to Japan’s clearest water at caldera Lake Mashu (摩周湖) and the fantastic onsen and fly fishing hot spot of Lake Akan (阿寒湖).  While the lavender fields of Furano (富良野) and Biei (美瑛) had yet reached the peak bloom moment, the ultra fertile soil below the Tokachi Volcanic Group (十勝火山群) treated us with some of the best bread, corn, potatoes, asparagus, melons and milk that we ever had in our lives.  Despite far away from Tokyo and Osaka, the architectural magic of Tadao Ando (安藤忠雄) in Hokkaido satisfied our thirst of contemporary design and aesthetics.  Back in Obihiro (帯広), Otaru (小樽) and Sapporo (札幌), historic traces of early pioneers and contemporary dessert shops and local eateries brought us back to delightful charm of urban Japan.  What’s more?  Day after day of mouthwatering seafood, fresh produces, good coffee, and lovely patisseries reminded us how wonderful our world could be, when the water is clean, soil is rich, forests are healthy and people are friendly.  Thank you Hokkaido.  You have truly touched our hearts.

maps 2Located north of Honshu Island, Hokkaido is the second largest island in Japan.

maps 1Flying in from Tokyo Haneda, our Hokkaido journey began from Memanbetsu (女満別空港) near the Shiretoko Peninsula.  After more than 1,181km of driving, we arrived at Otaru and Sapporo at the western side of the island.

DSC_4258This black hatchback hybrid Toyota Prius c (Toyota Aqua in Japan) provided us the means of transport from east to west across Hokkaido.

DSC_4490After 2 days of rain and wind, we finally had a glimpse of the active volcano of Mount Rausu (羅臼岳), the tallest peak in Shiretoko Peninsula.

DSC_5154The greatest experience we took away from Shiretoko was the close encounter with a pod of orcas in the Nemuro Strait.

DSC_5307The Mashu Lake (摩周湖) offered us a peaceful sunrise at 3:30am.

DSC_5666Under the shadow of Mount Oakan (雄阿寒岳), dozens of fly fishermen stepped into the crystal water of Lake Akan (阿寒湖) to test their luck.

DSC_5751Farms and greenhouses were washed with heavy rain as we entered into Furano (富良野).

DSC_5893Still at least half a month to go before the peak season of lavender blossom, visitors were enjoying themselves at a relatively less crowded Farm Tomita in Nakafurano.

DSC_6040Compared with rainbow flower fields, we loved the wheat fields at Biei the most.

DSC_6183Tadao Ando’s Chapel on the Water has been famous in the designer’s world since the 1980s.

DSC_6282The Hill of Buddha is the latest addition in Hokkaido by Tadao Ando.

DSC_6466At Yoichi Distillery (余市蒸溜所), whiskey has been produced since 1934.

DSC_6538Saturdays Chocolate in Sapporo is one of the many excellent local eateries and cafes that we visited in the journey.

IMG_9267Last but not least, Hokkaido offered us the best seafood and dessert that we ever had as far as we could remember.  Let’s begin to tell the story of our journey!


YUEN TSUEN ANCIENT TRAIL (元荃古道), Tseun Wan (荃灣), Hong Kong

Linking the village of Yuen Long (元朗) and Tseun Wan (荃灣), the Yuen Tsuen Ancient Trail was once a major route for farmers from Yuen Long to bring out their produces to the market in Tseun Wan.  Today, it is a pleasant hiking trail that leads visitors to enjoy the scenery of Tai Lam Country Park (大欖郊野公園), former villages such as Tsing Fai Tong (清快塘) and two of the city’s longest bridges: Ting Kau Bridge (汀九橋) and Tsing Ma Bridge (青馬大橋).

DSC_6198Our hike began from Tsuen Wan West Station and passed by Tsuen Wan Adventist Hospital to reach the trailhead.

DSC_6220Soon the trail led us up the hill of Ha Fa Shan (下花山).  The path was well paved with stones.

DSC_6222The narrow Rambler Channel (藍巴勒海峽) between the island of Tsing Yi (青衣) and Tsuen Wan (荃灣)/ Kwai Chung (葵涌).

DSC_6216Known as one of the world’s busiest port, Hong Kong’s container port is located right at the channel.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFurther down the road the trail led us further west where we were treated with great views of Ting Kau Bridge (汀九橋) and Tsing Ma Bridge (青馬大橋), two of the city’s most important bridges connecting the metropolis with its international airport.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnother highlight of the trail came as we arrived at the former village of Tsing Fai Tong (清快塘).  The village used to be a 200-year old Hakka village of the Fu clan.  Today, most villagers had moved to the new village at Sham Tseng (深井), about 45 minutes form their former home.

DSC_6252In 2002, a family of former villagers returned and set up a farm called Parent Farm (喜香農莊) at Tsing Fai Tong.  Many hikers stopped at the farm to enjoy their seasonal flowers and beautiful lily pond.

DSC_6272We came at the perfect moment of the year to enjoy the waterlilies.

DSC_6280While hikers enjoyed the waterlilies, their pets got a chance to have some fun at the farm.

DSC_6289From Tsing Fai Tong, we chose to end our hike at Sham Tseng (深井) right in front of Tsing Ma Bridge (青馬大橋).

DSC_6292Under the shadow of the busy highway Tuen Mun Road, the village of Sham Tseng (深井) is a well known village in Hong Kong.

DSC_6297Other than its view of Tsing Ma Bridge, Sham Tseng (深井) has been famous for roast goose for decades.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe couldn’t resist but to end our day with the famous Sham Tseng roast goose for dinner.


KAT HING WAI WALLED VILLAGE (吉慶圍), Kam Tin (錦田), Hong Kong

The moat, blue brick defense wall and guard towers of the 500-year-old Kat Hing Wai Walled Village (吉慶圍) remind visitors that villagers in the New Territories were once living in the danger of rival clans, bandits and the most important of all, pirates.  For self protection, many villages in the Ming and Qing Dynasties constructed defensive walls around their homes.  Walled villages mushroomed in the New Territories, creating walled compounds for specific family clans.  In the 20th century, many villages demolished their walls or had them partially removed, while most houses have been replaced with modern homes.  With a relatively well preserved moat and wall, Kat Hing Wai is actually quite a rarity.  Measured roughly 100m x 90m, Kat Hing Wai is one of the better preserved walled villages in Hong Kong.  Built during the era of Ming Cheunghua Emperor (1464 – 1487) with the 5m defensive wall constructed in the 17th century, Kat Hing Wai was a close knitted community of the Tang clan.

DSC_1890Outside Kat Hing Wai Walled Village, a small part of the original moat has been preserved.

DSC_1885For security reason, only a small opening serves as the entrance for the walled village.

DSC_1879Most houses in the walled village have been replaced by modern houses.

DSC_1789The central lane leads to the temple hall.

DSC_1792There were a wooden desk and a religious altar in the temple hall.

DSC_1803The altar table contained a built-in incense container.

DSC_1807Antique ritual tools could be found on the altar table.

DSC_1799The temple hall opens directly towards the only entrance of the walled village.

DSC_1817We didn’t see anyone during our brief visit of the walled village.

DSC_1821Almost all buildings have been replaced by modern buildings.  The original character of the walled village has been somewhat diminished in the modern era.

DSC_1837Some older houses still had traditional banners on their outer walls.  These banners usually advocate good fortune for the entire family.

DSC_1835“Kar”, the Chinese character for family, illustrates the importance of family bonding in a traditional walled village.

DSC_1842When looked closely, traditional touches could still be seen at certain houses in Kat Hing Wai.

DSC_1841In the past, the four cannon towers were the tallest structures in the village.

DSC_1895Today, the defensive structures of the walled village have been undermined by modern buildings.  Even the well known Kat Hing Wai Walled Village has no exception.  This is the harsh reality of contemporary Hong Kong.


DRAGON BOAT WATER PARADE (龍舟遊涌), Tai O (大澳), Hong Kong

Under the scotching sun in the summer morning of Dragon Boat Festival (端午節), former villagers and outside visitors gather along the the narrow waterways and mangrove channels of Tai O to take part in the annual Dragon Boat Water Parade and Race.  The sleepy and somewhat touristy fishing village once again fills with laughter and rhythmic drum beats, reminding elder villagers how vibrant Tai O fishing village used to be decades ago.  Now a popular sporting and recreational event that held in many cities around the world, dragon boat is actually originated right here, from the fishing communities in the Pearl River Delta where Hong Kong is located.

In the old days, young men in fishing communities in the region, like Tai O, would volunteer to join the Dragon Boat Festival.  While most would enter the boat race, a small group would participate in the religious parade, in which small statues of local deities are brought out from temples and paraded around the village in decorated dragon boats.  The dragon ritual is meant to cast away evil spirits in the village with heavy drum beats, synchronized paddling, and incense smoke.  Unlike modern dragon boats made of lightweight materials such as fiberglass or carbon fiber, traditional dragon boats are constructed using teak wood.  Each 65-ft boat takes 32 paddlers, 2 drummers, 1 gong striker, and 1 steerer.   During the Dragon Boat Festival, modern dragon boat races are held in rivers, beaches and the harbour allover Hong Kong.  Yet to get a taste of century-old dragon boat tradition, there is no better place than Tai O, where old rituals are still performed every year.

DSC_3802After an hour of ferry and 40 minutes of bus, we finally arrived at Tai O where the Dragon Boat Water Parade was about to begin at 10am.  Organizers were busy putting on the last bits of decorations onto the traditional dragon boats.

DSC_3837Flanked both sides by old stilt houses, the main waterways of Tai O provide the best setting for the dragon boat parade.

DSC_3865Decorated deity boat was always led by a long traditional dragon boat.

DSC_3872The Tai Chung Bridge opened up only in the Dragon Boat Festival for the passing deity boats.

DSC_3892The busy Tai Chung Bridge often serves as the visual focus of the entire fishing village of Tai O.

DSC_3987Despite the annual parade, fishermen were still selling fresh seafood right by the waterfront.

DSC_4030Statues of deity from three different temples were brought out for the parade.

DSC_4055Behind the designated dragon boat, the colourful deity boat was led around the waterway network.

DSC_4065Many paddlers of the traditional dragon boats came from the older generation of the local Tai O villagers.

DSC_4112The river mouth served as the main venue for dragon boat races.

DSC_4124Larger fishing boats served as the base of different racing teams.

DSC_4134It was fun to watch the dragon boat race from the spectator jetty at the waterfront.

DSC_4159All paddlers gave their best effort during the dragon boat race.

DSC_4176One of the most important aspect of dragon boat paddling is the quality of their synchronized movements.

DSC_4186The exciting shouts of loyal supporters offers outside visitors a glimpse of the community spirit of Tai O.

DSC_4207At the end, an award ceremony was held at the spectator area.

DSC_4250While the dragon boat race captivated the hearts of spectators at the river mouth, the deity boats and traditional dragon boats continued to parade around Tai O’s waterways.

DSC_4221At around noontime, the dragon boat parade was coming to an end.

DSC_4225Wooden dragon boats were once again put into storage along the waterways.

DSC_4212Until next year’s Dragon Boat Festival, visitors coming to Tai O can visit the small community museum to learn more about the traditions of dragon boat.


PARADE OF FLOATS (飄色), Cheung Chau Bun Festival (長洲太平清醮), Hong Kong

In less than an hour of ferry from the commercial centre of Hong Kong lies the island of Cheung Chau, home to a former fishing community, a legendary pirate treasure trove, dozens of seafood restaurants, and the biggest annual Taoist Dajiao (打醮) festivals in Hong Kong, the Bun Festival (太平清醮).  Originated from a series of religious rituals seeking for protection from local deities after a plague broke out in the 19th century, the Bun Festival held annually on Buddha’s Birthday has been simplified and evolved into one of Hong Kong’s most famous intangible cultural heritage events, along with Tai Hang’s Fire Dragon Festival, Tai O Dragon Boat Water Parade, etc.

In 2014, I came to Cheung Chau during the Bun Festival to watch the Bun Snatching Race at night.  This time, we arrived at Cheung Chau during the day to watch the afternoon parade.  Known as the Parade of Floats (飄色), the parade included a combination of religious statues of deities, lion and qilin (麒麟) dances, and children dressed in costumes raised in mid air.

DSC_3144The parade began at Pak Tai Temple, the patron god of the fishermen community of Cheung Chau.

DSC_3154In the back lanes we chanced upon a workshop making the festival’s fortune bun.  The workshop owner suggested the plaza where the parade groups would make a turn as ideal spot to watch the parade.

DSC_3208We met a local lady at the plaza and she kindly found us a chair at the front row sitting right beside her.  The first thing that caught our eyes was a qilin dance from one of the street communities on the island.

DSC_3264Basically the parade consisted of groups from different street communities of Cheung Chau.

DSC_3276Small statues of deities were taken out from temples and paraded around the main streets of the island.

DSC_3293Local children were dressed in traditional costumes and gave out souvenirs.

DSC_3301All parading groups were dressed in vivid colours.

DSC_3520.JPGBeautiful banners of the festival are taken out once a year.

DSC_3341Known as Parade of Floats (飄色), selected children are dressed in different costumes and raised with hidden metal supports.  Along with the ones in traditional costumes, each year some children would dress in costumes related to contemporary trends or current affairs.

DSC_3496This year, two were dressed like the chief executive of Hong Kong, one as Theresa May, one Buddha, one Super Mario, a group of characters from Jin Yong (金庸)’s The Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber (倚天屠龍記), etc.

IMG_7595A girl dressed in costume related to a historical TV series.

IMG_7600Another girl dressed as the chief executive of Hong Kong.

IMG_7621Two children dressed like a traditional princess.

IMG_7642Another one dressed like Super Mario.

DSC_3516.JPGThough the traditional lion dances on bamboo were even more impressive.

DSC_3565Brave lion dancer performed different moves on tall bamboo poles that were controlled and moved by his other teammates on the ground.

DSC_3578Dancing traditional large flags were also fun to watch.

DSC_3615The parade was a mixture of traditional heritage, current affairs, and community groups.

DSC_3649Parade band dressed in yellow and black performed along the street of Cheung Chau.

DSC_3659Inevitably, buns were used as a parade feature.

DSC_3733After the parade, we met the qilin dance group once again in the side street.

DSC_3748Approaching sunset, we returned to the forecourt in front of Pak Tai Temple.

DSC_3750Similar to 2014, there were three big traditional paper figures in the festival ground.

DSC_3766Some of the paper figures were moved to the waterfront for the burning rituals.

DSC_3761By the sea, offerings and lanterns were placed for all wandering ghosts.