Quote Of The Day

"Victory goes to the player who makes the next-to-last mistake - Chessmaster Savielly Grigorievitch Tartakower (1887-1956)"

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Singapore...

Stuart and I arrived in Singapore last Friday and we've been pretty much partying ever since. Dawn and Al have been our hosts and rather lovely hosts they are too. City Tour, sky-high bars and electric trees followed by Singapore Slings at Raffles. What's not to like?!

Singapore is an unusual place. It's isolated, beautiful, clean and safe. There are lots of great places to eat, drink and hangout and being just shy of the equator the place is rather lush with vegetation. It's also a gated community bulging with skyscrapers, ex-pats and clammy weather so attracts a certain well-heeled crowd.

The 15% tax rate fills the place with high-end economic migrants, making it a global centre for trade and shipping, and it is a nice place to live - for those with money that is. For calling the place "expensive" doesn't even begin to cover it. Most things including food and drink seem to be 2 - 3 times even London prices.

And this little paradise island also has some tough rules to accompany its good living. Apart from the well-known no spitting and no chewing gum laws, commiting more serious crimes can prove costly or even fatal. Some have described Singapore as Disneyland with the death penalty. Singapore has the second highest per-capita execution rate in the world. The semi-authoritarian regime is run by a governing party that has been in power since 1959 and their motto is effectively, "If you've done nothing wrong you've got nothing to fear." Now where have I heard that before?

So Singapore is a nice place to live, expensive but nice. Just don't break the law.
 
    

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Macau: Getting There...

Yesterday Stuart and I ventured 40 miles west of Hong Kong to the most densely populated place on earth. It is one of the richest, has the 4th highest life expectancy and is the world's biggest gambling area. It also gaudy, tacky and defies belief.

Macau was the last European colony in Asia before it returned to the Chinese from Portuguese hands in 1999. Originally a key trading post to the Orient it is now a Mecca for gamblers. Tourists flock here in their millions to fritter away their hard-earned dosh, catch a spectacular show and eat and drink themselves that little bit poorer in one or more of the massive, themed hotel cum casinos.

The Venetian, the MGM Grand, the Wynn - all familiar hotel names to those who have visited a certain place in the Nevada desert. It shares the dancing fountains, the over the top animatronics, and the similarly high electricity bill of that place too.

Perhaps not quite as spectacularly sprawling as Las Vegas, what this tiny place lacks in size it more than makes up for in ambition. Macau has a new mega casino/hotel being built every month. And as they run out of space here they simply reclaim a bit more of the sea. This place is growing, literally.

If you like gambling, flashing neon and industrial scale chintz - this is the place for you! 

Us? We're heading back to Honkers for the peace and quiet.
 
    

Hong Kong: Welcome...

So Stuart and I have arrived in Honkers and it is as hot, as bustling, and as chaotic as I remember it. 

Stuart's lovely friend Laura was our tour guide on our first full day here and as it was Stuart's first time she showed us the sights, the sounds and smells of the place. It was great to have an ex-pat's perspective on the place. And boy did she make us laugh.

I was last here in 1996 just before Honk Kong was returned to Chinese rule and there was alot of uncertainty around at that time.

On the face of it I can't see much change since then although there is some evidence of street protest with banners about more local rule. One thing is for sure though - social media Facebook and Blogger work here - which they didn't in mainland China when we went there two years ago. So it not all bad.

Another thing that's stayed the same is that Hong Kong is a crazy city of excess. Its packed full of dizzingly high skyscrapers, dazzling lights, and hard-working and hard-partying people. It's not cheap here either but like most places in this world if you have money you are sorted. They say if you can't get it here, you can't get it. So if you are young, working, and healthy then life can certainly be lived to the max here. You can work until you drop and then party until you drop some more. 

However Hong Kong is also a place of have nots. There no social security here so if you are old, have no family, or no money you are on your own - often living rough and/or begging on the street. We saw old people and disabled people shaking tins for coins and pushing carts of dirty cardboard around (their makeshift beds for the night). A few feet away in a street cafe were a small group of business men gathered around a table with two bottles of champagne spilling it in their excitement to celebrate their latest big wheeler deal. The contrast could not have been more stark. It reminded me of London in the 1980s with its financial big bang and its huge social division between rich and poor.

A lovely place Honkers, if you can keep up with the lifestyle... and the payments.
 
 
 

Monday, March 13, 2017

Japan: Ye Gods!...

Waiting for check-in to open at Tokyo airport (Catherine Tate would have been proud...)

Me: They have a lot of Gods in Japan, don't they?
Stu: Do they?
Me: Yes. They do. Guess how many they have?
Stu: I don't know.
Me: Well, have a guess.
Stu: I really don't know.
Me: Well, GUESS!
Stu: 4
Me: 4?!!!
Stu: Well, I don't know!
Me: 4!
Stu: OK, a billion then.
Me: A BILLION?!!!
Stu: I don't know!
Me: A BILLION GODS! You think the Japanese worship a billion Gods?
Stu: They might do.
Me: The population the size of Japan and they have 100 Gods... EACH?!
Stu: I told you I don't know.
Me: A billion Gods?!
(Pause)
Stu: How many you they have then?
Me: 8 million.
Stu: Really?
Me: Yes. They have 8 million Gods. Which I think is alot. Not a billion granted but alot. 
Stu: OK. That is alot.
(Pause)
Stu: Where shall we eat?
 

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Japan: Magome to Tsumago...

Stuart and I set off early after a Japanese breakfast (heavy on the fish, light on the toast) on the old postal trail from the delightful Japanese hamlet of Magome through the mountain pass to the equally delightful village of Tsumago. Anything Joanna Lumley can do...

The trail was only about 8km as the red-crowned crane flies but with the ups and downs it was about twice that. It was great fun - winding paths through the hills, thick bamboo forests, the never-melting snow, passing ancient castles, male and female waterfalls, and lots of great views of the mountains.

Japan's really has beautiful countryside and it is quite a revelation to be out of the cities: no concrete, no neon, just lovely houses and amazing landscapes. People say it's the 'real' Japan and I'm minded to agree. 

We even found Joanna Lumley's walking stick.

(Thank you Toby for the fabulous suggest of this part of our trip.)
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Japan: Magome...

After the dazzling cities of Tokyo, Kyoto and Hiroshima it's nice to have a bit of downtime in the beautiful village of Magome in the Kiso Valley. 

So quintessentially Japanese it almost seems too good to be true.

We are staying in a classic Royakan with sliding paper doors, communal bathing and communial eating.
 
 
 
 
 
 

Friday, March 10, 2017

Japan: Miyajima...

Located in Hatsukaichi City, Hiroshima Prefecture, Miyajima is a Shinto shrine on the island of Itsukushima. The island is best known for its "floating" torii gate. And it's simply fab. 

Stuart and I arrived having spent the day in Hiroshima so we were a little shell-shocked. So imagine our delight arriving on such an idyll. 

The place is simple enchanting. The ferry brought us over from the mainland to an island where there are precious few cars, a "floating" temple snuggles the beach complete with a "floating" gate out at sea, the whole place is an UNESCO site dating from 593 AD and at dusk delightful lanterns illuminated the sea front.
 
 
 
 
 
 

Japan: Hiroshima...

We traveled down from Kyoto to Hiroshima today to visit the Peace Park and Peace Museum. It was a sobering place with detailed and necessarily graphic detail of the affects of the first atomic bomb dropped on a city.
 
 
 
 
 

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Japan: Nara, Kyoto and Mark 50th...

On Wednesday we took the bullet train down to Nara passing Mount Fuji en route. Nara is a beautiful ancient capital of Japan densely populated with temples, palaces and deer. Some of which tried to eat my coat.

We then took the train back to Kyoto where we were to stay for a couple of days to celebrate Mark's 50th. Kyoto is another beautiful city packed with castles and temples. Nijo Castle is particular lovely.

On Mark's birthday proper we walked through the famous bamboo forest and ate a traditional vegetarian lunch at a Buddhist temple. After that we took a train up through the valley to marvel at the scenery. 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Japan: Gotta Love Tokyo....

I've previously mentioned my love of Tokyo and it's weird serenity, cleanliness and near-clockwork perfection. What I'd not mentioned on the weirdness front however is three other things that many people strongly associate with Tokyo - and Japan in general.

In no particular order: the Japanese near obsession with the futuristic technology, their infantile love of youth culture and all things childlike, and just how many people actually live here. 

Or in layman's terms: they love their tech, they act like kids and the place is packed. 

Luckily enough we have been able to experience these three weird Tokyo wonders first hand in the past few days. 

Firstly we went to the touristic trap Robot Restaurant to be screamed at, dazzled by, and to marvel at a robot show that frankly wouldn't have looked out of place in the mind of a hyperactive, overly aggressive child on an acid trip. It was colourful, earsplittingly loud and a technological triumph. If robots are our future I want no part of It. It was exhausting to watch but a thing of bonkers beauty. 

The second weird thing we did was to dress up as children's video game characters and drive around the streets of Tokyo in go-karts like we were in Nintendo's MarkoKart driving game. I was Mario the plumber. Tim was Luigi the plumber brother. Stu was Yoshi the dinosaur. And Andy and Kevin were a turtle and a chipmunk. (You had to be there.) It was probably the most fun I've had with my clothes on for many a year. We sped about Tokyo tooting our horns, reliving the video game and posing for photos at every junction. Almost universally Japanese people smiled at us, waved to us and laughed with us. Young and old alike seemed to be transported in their minds back to their youth when the only thing in life was playing video games. And treated us like rock stars accordingly. The Japanese all love Mario. They perhaps love the memories of their youth even more. He's just a kids' video character but a national hero of Japan. Youth Culture Rocks!

And the final weirdness we experienced was on the streets again but this time on a night time trip to video-game-in-real-life neighbourhood Shibuya. Calling it "crowded" doesn't begin to describe it. Packed to the gills at street level  with swarming youths - yes, youth culture again - the area is road after road filled with illuminated billboards, flashing advertisements (to put Piccadilly Circus to shame) and skyscraper-high buildings overpopulated with bars, restaurants and crazy happy shiny madness on every floor. The place was loud, throbbing and filled with a million people. 

When the traffic lights change at the famous Shibuya crossing and the cars vanish it's like a flood of humanity surge to cross the roads from from every direction. It's like a riotous stampede from the four corners of Hell. Joyous and scary. And within 60 countdown seconds the little man turned red, the people are gone and the crossing is empty again. From throng to gone. Free for the cars to venture across once again. It's mad and hypnotic to watch. 

So three bits of Japanese wonderful weirdness there; in a show, behind a wheel and on the streets. Robots, Mario and the crowds. Gotta love Tokyo and her wonderful weird ways.