Tag Archives: Flowers

Travel Guide: Kyoto and Around

April is cherry blossom season in Japan and it’s as beautiful as everyone says. April is also early spring, which means the weather is highly variable. Umbrellas and layers were key to feeling comfortable wandering around Kyoto, Japan’s Imperial capital beginning in the 8th century. It remained the seat of power in Japan for over a thousand years and historic monuments, shrines, and temples abound. Renting a kimono for the day is a common activity in Kyoto and it was fun to see people dressed up – almost like going back in time!

This was my first trip in Asia with both parents and it was a fully immersive experience. (Dad and I went to Thailand and Vietnam a few years ago when I first moved to Singapore.) We took the shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo to Kyoto immediately after we landed and that made for a long day of travel; we were glad to finally be there!

We settled in and then went to Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, which was beautiful in the rain. The sound of the trees and smell of the earth was a lovely change from urban life in Singapore.

The next morning was sunny and we started early at Fushimi-Inari, a Shinto shrine known for its red torii gates. Fushimi-Inari is guarded by foxes and statues of them are located around the mountain. It was a beautiful walk and felt other worldly, as though passing through each set of gates was a doorway to somewhere else.

The view on the way up was stunning, too.

My dad wanted to visit Tofukuji Temple because he’d read that it has beautiful gardens, which I’m sure it does once spring actually blooms. But trees were budding and the ground was covered in moss and that was good enough for me.

From there, we went to Nishiki Market, a covered arcade of streets selling all sorts of food products, clothing, and souvenirs. I was mostly interested in the food stalls and we returned a couple days later to explore further. It was so enjoyable to smell new smells, taste new tastes, and just look around. Markets are always a travel highlight for me because they bring so much life there in so many different forms.

We ended the day wandering through some lovely streets with little shops and visiting Kodaiji Temple. The gardens around the temple included a bamboo forest and an exquisite cherry tree in full bloom, which was definitely the main attraction.

I really appreciate how Japanese gardens are sculpted and landscaped but not manicured. It makes them lovely in a very believable way.

Among the many nice elements of traveling in Japan is the convenience of trains. The Japan Rail pass allows foreign tourists access to most of Japan’s trains (like the Euro Rail Pass) and trains don’t require reservations. They are also very clean and extremely timely and comfortable!

Kyoto is an easy base for day trips and we took one out to Himeji Castle, Japan’s largest castle and one of very few that have remained intact. I was really glad that we opted for the guided tour. The tour guide was knowledgeable and friendly and more than made up for the lack of signage.

From there, despite the chilling rain that had begun to fall, we got back on the train to visit Osaka where we hoped to spend the rest of the afternoon and evening. Mum and I walked around the moat of Osaka Castle (Dad got a little lost or left behind – long story), occasionally putting up our umbrellas for the rain that alternated with patches of bright sunshine.

When it began to hail, however, we realized we needed another plan. After battling the driving rain and wind to get to the train station we returned to Kyoto and sheltered indoors to dry off. Not all plans work out and travel is an adventure, right?

Our last day in Kyoto was the nicest we’d had and I’m especially glad it was sunny because we went to Kinkaku-ji, a Zen Buddhist temple, and it was utterly stunning.

We walked to a pretty shrine surrounded by a garden of cherry blossoms and food stalls on our way back to the center of town . . .

. . . and then spent the rest of the morning in Nishiki Market where I took most of the photos above. From there, we visited the Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts, which was informative as well as free! It was useful in explaining much of the handiwork we’d seen and some of Kyoto’s history, particularly in terms of the geisha culture that still exists in a much smaller form.

After dinner in Gion, Kyoto’s most famous geisha district, it was time for one more sleep before boarding an early train to Hiroshima.

We had experienced all kinds of weather, tried new food, visited beautiful places, and were excited for something new. Stay tuned!

Travel Guide: Christchurch

After a quick stop in Geraldine where we were told we’d find antique stores and cheese and after 2,500km of driving, my friend Sharon and I finally arrived at our last stop, Christchurch. We had the good fortune to meet the wonderful Rosie Mac, a nurse-turned-artist with a story that gave us reason to pause. She’s in the middle of a spectacular mural project and her work is beautiful – take a look! We spent a lot of time with Rosie during our time in Christchurch. She has the soul of one who gives and she gives so much – life, joy, wisdom. (Every so often I meet someone who makes me rethink my concept of the soul, which isn’t that well formed to begin with.) It was an apt place to conclude our journey through Aotearoa.

In addition to good company, Rosie also provided us with useful maps and local hints about what to do in Christchurch. She told us her story of the 2011 earthquake and its aftermath. Signs of the damage are visible everywhere; Christchurch has relatively few buildings and a great deal of construction. But there’s a wonderful sense of joie de vivre in Christchurch, too.

There’s art everywhere, which was fun to look at and adds a lot to the emptiness of downtown.

There are also really beautiful public parks in the middle of everything and we spent some time sitting in a wonderful playground with a waterpark, turf hills to climb, and so many things to run to, jump off, play on, scramble up, and slide down. People really seemed to care about taking the time to spend together, which is harder and harder to find.

We also really loved people watching (and eating!) at Little High Eatery, basically a fancy hawker center or what New York would call a food hall. Think mall food court with real restaurants. Something for everyone!

We spent our only full day in Christchurch walking as much of the city as possible which, because it’s not so large, is quite possible. We followed the Avon River to the Botanic Gardens where we visited the most amazing rose garden I’ve ever seen. The flowers all smelled so good!

Our walk along the river also took us to some interesting landmarks, including a monument to the firefighters who died on 9/11 in New York . . .

. . . and a Maori sculpture and the Bridge of Remembrance for World War I.

And then it was time to better understand the earthquake. There was a wall with names along the river and it was interesting because not all names were in English; they were written in the languages of the people they were meant to commemorate. I saw Hebrew and several Southeast Asian languages and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a memorial wall like that. And like nearly everything official that we saw in New Zealand, much of what was written in English was translated into Maori, too.

The 185 Empty Chairs memorial, however, was particularly moving. We had walked by it the night before and it was so simple and unadorned that we didn’t stop to see what it was. The artist statement made it that much more poignant and I appreciated it for its simplicity and emphasis on individuality. So many memorials make all victims the same and this one decidedly did not.

Finally, we went across the street from the 185 Empty Chairs to the site of the CTV building. A park had been built over the cracked, broken, uneven remnants of the foundation. That was moving, too, in the way that the 9/11 memorial in New York is moving. Life goes on and we remember. We remember and life goes on.

Afterwards, we walked down New Regent Street and enjoyed looking at the pastel buildings, coffee shops, and cocktail bars. It was very pretty and felt like it would have fit well in Napier, the North Island’s art deco city.

The next morning, thanks to another recommendation from Rosie, I headed to C1 Espresso for the best cup of coffee in the city before flying home to Singapore. C1 Espresso is built in the old post office and still contains some elements of the old building, like letterboxes repurposed to hold matchbox cars. There’s a secret door that is actually a bookshelf of Penguin Classics and instead of music, Harry Potter on tape was being played in the washroom. And if that wasn’t enough, the pneumatic tubes that would have delivered mail now deliver certain menu items straight to your table. Quirky and full of laughter, like much of Christchurch.

And then it was time to go. Three weeks in a magical fairyland and I cannot say enough good things about it. If you get the chance to go to New Zealand, go. Without question, it’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever been (Norway was in first place for 9 years) and I am so grateful for the opportunity to travel there.

Travel Guide: New Zealand Road Trip – South Island

After a week on the North Island of New Zealand, which included Auckland, a few days on the road, and a final stop in Wellington, my friend Sharon and I arrived in Picton, a tiny town with a ferry terminal.

We picked up our new car, a red Toyota Corolla that I immediately named Roxanne, and then had a good meal, walked the one commercial street, and went to a phenomenal bakery for breakfast. And then off we went!

Our next stop was Nelson, which was really exciting because a friend and former colleague was living there! Along with another school family, we had plans to meet her upon arrival in Nelson, which was really nice. Nelson reminded me of a larger version of the town where I grew up. Cute streets to walk down, a pretty church, benches by the river. Nelson also had really beautiful flowers.

The primary reason for our stop in Nelson was to visit Abel Tasman National Park, which was an absolutely magical day. The weather was phenomenal for sea kayaking, hiking, and a dip in the sea. We even saw seals lounging on the rocks! Each lookout from the cliffs was more beautiful than the last and the views took my breath away again and again.

Abel Tasman remained a highlight of the trip for me and it also stands out as something I’d do differently next time. I’d pack differently, plan differently, and camp for a night. That would allow for a longer kayak trip as well as a longer hike. The stars throughout New Zealand were the biggest and brightest I’ve ever seen and I can only imagine what it would have felt like to see them there.

Next, we headed to Punakaiki to spend New Year’s Eve on the beach. The drive was beautiful . . .

. . . and left us very excited for our night on the beach. We ate cheese, crackers, and fruit and drank wine sitting on the rocks. It grew cold as the night deepened and we greeted 2019 under the Milky Way.

As our first activity of the new year, we decided to hike a 12km loop through a rainforest with streams, up a cliff, and onto a working farm with horses. We met very few people along the way and were glad to start the day in a beautiful place with our bodies moving.

On the way back to the car we took a quick detour to see the pancake rocks and blow holes that Punakaiki is known for.

That afternoon we drove to Franz Josef Glacier, which was my bucket list item for our trip. I first learned of Franz Josef when I was living in Malaysia and planned a trip then, which I didn’t take because I couldn’t afford it. It was really special to see that dream through, but the weather did not cooperate at all. It was pouring when we hiked the glacier the next morning and our guide, Lisa of Glacier Valley Eco Tours, could not have been happier. This was a very typical West Coast day, she assured us, and we’d be able to see the waterfalls that are only visible in the rain.

As we walked, Lisa told us more about plants than I’d ever heard and it was a real joy to learn from her. Though it would have been nice to be able to see the glacier a little more clearly, I was just so happy to be there. Getting soaked to the skin was less joyful but I learned an important lesson – when a tour company asks if you’d like to rent wet gear, you say yes.

The sun came out in the afternoon and we couldn’t resist going back out for another hike. We didn’t go back to the glacier but everything looked completely different!

The next morning we picked up a pair of hitchhiking German siblings and brought them as far as Lake Matheson. This was the only lake that we visited that was small enough to actually walk all the way around, which we were more than happy to do.

The landscape completely changed as we continued on our drive to Lake Hawea. What had been glaciers became mountains and deserts; rainforest gave way to tougher plants and grasses.

I’d read that Mount Iron in nearby Wanaka was a good place for a hike, so we drove a bit further in that direction. As promised, it afforded beautiful views of the mountains that were everywhere.

The next morning before getting back in the car we hiked along Lake Hawea itself. The day grew hot quickly and we were glad to be out and about early.

We stopped for on the road for yet another picture of mountains . . .

. . . and then in quaint Arrowtown for lunch on our way to Queenstown. I’ll take you around Queenstown and Milford Sound in a separate post so bear with me while we skip ahead three days. . . .

And then we arrived in Lake Tekapo! Lake Tekapo was our last short stay and our last real road trip stop. The landscape grew more desolate as we drove.

We were excited to learn that Lake Tekapo is located in an International Dark Sky Reserve. I spent some time walking on the beach when we arrived late in the afternoon.

We spent the night in a cabin on a campground and though I had to wrap myself in all of my layers and a blanket to stay outside, I was determined to see the stars come out. It was silent and dark and I greeted the Milky Way again. Such a perfect way to conclude our road trip around New Zealand’s South Island.

In our two weeks on the South Island, we spent much of our time on the road but stopped for a few days in Queenstown and Christchurch. Posts on both places are in the works. Stay tuned!