Friday, July 31, 2009

thumbs up for incheon

I must say Korean Air is one of the best airlines I've taken, and Incheon Airport the better one around. Nevermind that I've only been to 3 continents so far, and have yet to try Singapore Airlines which is reputedly the top when it comes to service and quality.

On our transit flight to Roma, we stopped by Incheon for a couple of hours. While wondering around to see what we could do with the idle time, we found the Traditional Culture Workshop by accident and decided to give it a try.

I've been to Korea winter 3 years ago and had a really good experience there despite the cold so I didn't mind transiting here. (If given a choice, I'd rather transit at a country I've never been to, almost wanted to drop by Papua New Guinea on my way to Australia last year)

We chose to make to make the Korean Traditional Sock Cell Phone accessory. It was relatively easy, though much of the time was spent waiting for the glue to dry before we could give it a cost of varnish.

On our way back to Tokyo from Paris, we had another transit at Incheon, this time about 4 hours. The other craft available for trying was colouring traditional Korean fans.

This took longer, not only because it was a bigger craft but also we had just begun to unwind after the amazing journey and were very exhausted by then. Still, it was fun colouring. It felt like being in kindergarten again, filling in the colours.

Not very difficult really, it's all up to your creativity. The Spanish couple in front of us were quite gung-ho, even tried to copy the kanji on the instruction board. It was quite funny, because later they found out that the kanji actually meant "This craft is for free".

After colouring the petals of the lotus flower on the front, I decided to fill the back of the fan with memories of our trip in Italy and France. As you can see, most were food that we had throughout our 2 week stay. I wish I could bring all of them back with me!

I think this was a pretty good idea by the Korea Cultural Heritage Foundation. Other than allowing foreign visitors a chance to try their hand at traditional arts and crafts, there were souvenirs sold, and public performances for free.

If only other airports could emulate this, I'm sure it would leave a good impression on visitors, both on transit and real tourists to the country. Not to mention that we got our little accessory for free. Even if I had a sucky trip elsewhere, at least I'd remember the little gifts from Korea. I give thumbs up for their effort!

By the way, Incheon airport offers free Wifi (and laptops for use) near the departure lounge (we were at the East Wing). Overall the airport has a refreshing look, is clean and organised, a recommend indeed.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

heavenlier lamb stews

I happened to rush back for awhile to take a break before going out again and wanted to eat something quick. So I poured out some of the remaining wine to heat up the leftover lamb, let it simmer in the pan and went up to my room.

When I came down, the wine had dried up, along with the remaining sauce from the night before. I was afraid that I might have killed the rest of the lamb by letting it on for too long.

But what I didn't realise was that the dried up stew actually tasted better! The slices of potato tasted like a crispy french fries, the sauce had turned to rich chunks of chewy heaven and the lamb had gotten even softer and easier to bite off!

Yum, didn't know leftovers can taste so good...

You can read about our initial experiment with the first batch of lamb shanks, and also the second batch which inspired the word heavenlier!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

heavenly lamb stews

This evening I decided to make good use of the remaining lamb shanks. Since we had a baked version the last time, my housemates suggested lamb stew, so I looked up several recipes online and found this to be quite easy to make.

It's called Lamb Stew Ciuba and after cooking realised there were many positive reviews about it.

We didn't have all the ingredients at hand, and again had to improvise somewhat, but then there's not many ways you could go wrong with a stew recipe. It's a bit like soups where you just throw in all the ingredients and have them cook by themselves.

Toss cubed lambs into bowl with seasoned flour until well coated.

In a heavy saucepan, heat olive oil over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking and brown lamb.

Do this in 2 batches, transferring them to another bowl.

In pan, cook onions and garlic in remaining oil (I had to add extra because 1 tbsp seemed too little for the amount we had) over moderate heat, stirring until softened.

Add carrots, potatoes, brown sugar, thyme, spices, and salt and pepper to taste and cook, stirring, 1 minute.

Add red wine, broth and lamb. Simmer stew over low heat, partially covered, stirring occasionally, 2.5 hours until thickened and lamb is very tender.

It was already 9pm by the time the lamb had cooked for 1.5 hours. Since we were sooo hungry, and the lamb was already quite tender (you can see that the meat falls off the bone easily), we decided to just eat straight from the pan like that! We had it with bread and rice, and both were equally good accompaniment.

The whole time while we were waiting for it to cook, the smell teased our appetites and everytime we tried to taste, it kept getting better and better. The red wine certainly tenderised the meat when left to simmer, and I'm sure if we had left it for 1 more hour it would have tasted even better. As Imm herself said "Heaven!" when asked by Aishah how it tasted, I was again convinced that cooking by the recipe does have its merits too.

You can read about our initial experiment with the first batch of lamb shanks, and also what happened after this batch that got even heavenlier, if there was such word!

Monday, July 27, 2009

prelude : europe on a shoestring

Tonnes of stories and even more pictures to sort. Still trying to gain back the sleep lost from the long distance flights and inter-city travels, finish unpacking luggage and do a post-mortem. Waiting for final statement from my phone.

Europe expenses recorded, remaining coins bagged, laundry done, Maxis roaming deactivated, CouchSurfing profile photo uploaded, Facebook status updated.

Now that I'm back in Tokyo, I can sit down to properly write about how all these began. I figured since I'm still relishing the memories of my trip, I might as well pen these down so that I can better convey the experiences I went through. The baking class, Ponyo experiment, classical concerts and others will have to wait.

When I lost my job, one of the first things that I thought about was to go traveling. I had already done Australia as a treat to myself after surviving my 1st year in Tokyo and 1 week was the longest I could take off from work then. I knew if I wanted to do a longer trip, it would have to be in between jobs.

Since my brother had a work assignment in UK that time, I thought I should visit him and go travel together as siblings. He had previous postings to Cyprus and Dubai before, both of which I've never been to. I was quite envious of the fact that even though he wasn't a travel addict like me he got to visit continents new to me.

However, due to the sudden notice, there was not enough time to plan a proper trip. His assignment only lasted for a few more weeks after that. In the end I postponed the thought because I felt guilty for wanting to travel when I should be looking for a job.

I gave myself 3 months initially. Then I extended it so that I could take the JLPT exam in early July. With that in mind, I would study hard for the exam, taking up a few part-time jobs while searching for a proper one. Then later reward myself after the test and before going back to work.

Many things happened in between, plus dozens of emails back and forth with travel agents on the various travel arrangements, and finally my housemate and I decided on the date for the trip, which was to be a couple of days after the test. This left us only a month to prepare for the test and plan for our first trip to Europe.

Since both of us wanted to backpack and travel on a shoestring budget, we had to read up and research on how best to go around. Being summer and peak period we had to travel smart. We decided to start from the south from Italy and travel northwards to (try to) escape the summer heat.

I signed up for CouchSurfing, sent emails to people I thought would be good hosts, read up on interesting places to visit, and arranged for accommodation for our trip.

Imm was in charge of transportation, making notes of the various fares between all the cities that we would be visiting, and comparing that to getting the Eurorail Pass.

We had separate Google Documents for each leg of the trip, plus one to keep track of the flight details, overall schedule, contacts and addresses in both countries, electrical plugs and appliances, and things to do/bring/buy. I also made Google Maps for Italy and France, though both have changed somewhat after that.

Friday, July 24, 2009

lingering whiff of that summer

there was something about the air
i inhaled deeper.
that familiar scent,
the smell of summer.
of cotton yukata's, linen dresses, hanabi parties,
and deep memories
of when i first moved to tokyo.

humid evenings and chilled rooms,
shorts, tank tops, flipflops.

times flies
when you're having too much fun.
don't know why summer 2 years ago left an indelible impression,
yet that's what memories are made of.

friends forged through suffering and trials
camaraderie. pat in the backs. looking out for each other
simple joys, gratitude
i can never thank God enough.

the air was different than that of the other continent
it brought me back to reality
reminded me
bringing with it a flurry of images, sights, sounds,
laughter and hugs
glimpses of unspoken stories,
insights into souls
how will the tale go on from here.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

très bien french trains

Originally written July 18th 2009 on the train from Nice to Lyon.

No wonder the French are proud of their train. We are now sitting in the best train ever! Japan has their bullet train, and it's definitely something to boast about. Fast, efficient and convenient, it brings people from one prefecture to another in no time at all. Coming from a developing country and having travelled to most of South East Asia and East Asia, the shinkansen was the coolest thing to me. Up until now.

I have no idea what other European trains are like, but French trains exceeded our expectations.

Going from Nice to Lyon, we booked ourselves train tickets on the TGV. We had already planned to book 2nd class tickets all the way for Italy and France. But we found out online that the price difference between the 1st and 2nd for this stretch of the journey was just Euro1!

I was told by Nabil to get tickets on the idTGV site, but I had no idea how cool this train would be until we reserved our tickets. For instance, the smart people at iDTGV realised that there is not only 1 type of customer. They allowed us to choose between iDzap and iDzen, which are different carriage types catering to various needs of the customer.

iDzen carriages offer a more peaceful surrounding with a black and deep red colour scheme, dimmed lights, catering for those who do not want to be disturbed while on their way to their destination. On the other hand, iDzap is for those who want to have fun while travelling. They offer DVD players and PSP consoles, in a more upbeat environment, with soft brown cushioned seats. Here is where babies can make all the noise they want.

Each section of the train is carpeted, there are mirrors separating the iDzap on the upper carriage and iDzen on the lower carriage, toilet matches the overall colour scheme and the seats are wide enough for me to curl up and have a comfortable nap.

The 1st class seats that we got were so cool that we couldn't help but be amazed at the thought that they were such things in Europe. We thought the Japanese had created the best trains in the world, but now we know the French are classier when it comes to style!

Monday, July 20, 2009

fabulous firenze

Originally written July 14th 2009 on the train from Florence to Milan.

After 2 days in Florence, and an overload of paintings and art information saturated in our brains, we were ready to depart for Milan. It has been getting increasingly hot I'm not surprised if it reached 35 degrees.

Since the Firenze Santa Maria Novella station was halfway from Francesco's apartment to the Uffizi Gallery, we left our bags at the luggage storage. We could have made special reservations online to skip the queue but that would mean double the price of the entrance ticket itself.

We decided to wake up earlier to try to avoid the long queue, but apparently 9:30 was not early enough. We ended up having to wait for a total of 3 hours! Ironic considering that we were only left with less than 2 hours to tour the art gallery.

Reputed to be the world's oldest museum, we had to pay E10 to get in. I wish I had done my reading before going there, then I would have had at least a background to properly enjoy the paintings.

Our original train ticket was supposed to depart at 15:36, but for some reason the guy at the counter gave us a ticket that departed from the Firenze Rifredi station, instead of the Firenze SMN, where we were. We only realised this when we noticed that there was no announcement for our train.

While I stood to guard our luggages, Imm went to confirm our train. She bumped into a friendly Florentine lady who happened to speak English who told us that we could join her on a train to the next station which was the Firenze Rifredi station, and from there we could take the train that our ticket stated. However, we only had less than half an hour left, and we did not know that time her train would arrive.

Furthermore, her train would stop at platform 8 and our connecting train may be around platforms 1 or 2. Doing a rough mental calculation I knew with certainty that there would be no way we could make it for that train. So I asked if we could somehow exchange our ticket for the next train, even though it would mean taking the faster Eurostar Italia, which would also cost double. Plus a fine.

Since her train was due to arrive anytime soon, she found a guy waiting at a line if he could take over from her instead. Even though he did not speak much English, he was most willing to help us out. In the end, we went back to line up at the ticket counter with Lorenzo.

Poor Lorenzo, he was supposed to go off for his work in half an hour's time, but he stayed long enough to make sure we sorted out our issue. The next train leaving at 16:19 came at platform 9, and we managed to ask the trainmaster for permission to board that train. We finally went up, got ourselves some empty seats, and had to pay the fare difference and a fine of E8.

Even though we found ourselves some empty seats, we were still not sure if later on someone from the next station may come up to claim their seats. So we lingered around the compartment area for awhile till we reached Bologna station, and when we saw that everyone had had their seats, we took the ones allocated by the trainmaster.

And here I am typing this because God has given me another amazing race to go through! I don't think anything can beat that Hokkaido race because in this case, we still had ample time to reach Milano, and we had enough cash to survive the next city. That Hokkaido trip taught me to be calm and to evaluate all options available.

I figured, even if we couldn't get on the train we wanted to, we could have taken the bus to Milan, and just arrive slightly later than planned.

Now that we're on the Eurostar, I think this is really God's providence and blessing. Even though we have to pay double of our original ticket price, we will still get to Milan on time. With this, we have added another mode of transportation to our list. Italy's version of the shinkansen.

By the way, I think their Eurostar feels cosier than our shinkansen. The warm lights and dark brown seat upholstery give the carriage a warmer ambience. compared to the largely blue, grey and white colour and super-clean shinkansen. And you are also allowed to talk as loud as you want and even on the phone!

Thank God for Vanessa and Lorenzo from Florence!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

bonjour, comment allez-vous?

Today is one such amazing day that I'm super glad I made the decision to do this backpacking thingy. We're in Nice, our first stop in France. We departed from the last station of Ventimiglia in Italy, crossing the border over to Menton in France.

Can't believe I'm in the playground of the rich and famous. Situated in between Cannes and Monaco, Nice is a lovely beach town which boasts of brands such as H&M and Esprit. Our host's apartment is just 15 minutes' walk from the Nice Ville station, and a bit more to the north from the beach.

We made a day trip to Monaco, making that the 4th "country" in my list of European countries after Italy, the Vatican City and France. Feels kinda surreal, coz that was where the older James Bond movies were based at, and I could already see for myself the luxury cars whizzing by the winding roads across the coast and the world's richest parking their yachts at the docks of Monte Carlo.

Since the sun sets relatively late in this part of the world, that meant we had more hours to play with. Like today, the sun only started setting around 8pm, and by the time we walk back to the apartment, it was still not totally dark yet. And that was just a little after 10pm.

So after coming back from Monaco after lunch, we walked along the Cote D'Azur beach, taken in by the azure colours of the sea. Walking from the end where the lighthouse was to the other side, we seemed to be a minority, as we noticed more than 90% of the people there were Europeans, or at least non-Asians.

Paragliding into the horizon, women sunbathing in the nude, walking on pebbled beach, dipping our legs into the sea waters of the French Riviera, watching a class learning African drums, rollerblading on the side curbs, owners and their dogs playing in the beach, smell of grilled seafood wafting from the beachside restaurant. (I didn't do all of these though!)

Memories of this beautiful town will stay with me for a very long time to come.

Later today we ride the train for Lyon, where our host Guillaume await us. Bonne nuit, signing off at 2:55am July 18 2009.

Monday, July 13, 2009

buon giorno, come sta?

20 hours, Tokyo - Seoul - Milano - Roma. Backpacking with housemate Imm. First time in new country in new continent, and have made and met many new friends.

Each day I learn so many new things about Italy and its people and culture. It's not just about The Godfather, or the Italian Job or Giorgio Armani.

It's about driving through the cobblestone roads winding from the Colosseo through the numerous ruins left by this ancient civilisation, or that their version of mamak is sitting on the steps of Piazza Trilussa with a bottle chatting under the starless summer sky, or the reason why there is not much of a train system in Roma is because everytime they dig underground they find something of archaeological importance.

There are plenty more stories about these past few days. Like how we waited for Obama at Bascilica San Pietro for more than an hour only to find out later that only the First Lady and their daughters appeared for a short tour of the Vatican City.

Internet connection here is not as convenient and reliable as that back in Tokyo, but no complains. We came with our expectations really low, and came prepared for almost anything. So we've had pretty good experiences so far and am glad we came together for this maiden journey to discover Europe on a shoestring budget.

Roma, check. Vatican City, check. Siena, check.

For now, the artsy farsty city of Firenze await us. Good night, signing off at 2:13am July 13 2009.

Monday, July 06, 2009

coca-cola going green

The Japanese are known to always come up with something new. Not just every season but almost every single week. It's very competitive here; unless you have something new on the shelf you will lose your customers.

The convenience store and shopping centers are where you will see the latest product, be it food, home products, clothes, electronic gadgets, well, just about almost everything that you need.

This time Coca-Cola (which produces more than just its famous carbonated drink in Japan) goes green by coming up with a bottle that is so light that you can twist and crumple it.

1. CHOOSE Japanese water
2. DRINK the delicious water
3. WRING the most lightweight bottle ever!
and do your part for the environment :)

Since we recycle bottles, the I LOHAS makes even more sense since the crumpled bottle takes up much less space, and uses less material to produce.

Sunday, July 05, 2009


I've been seeing this Softbank ad in the trains and at stations recently. I thought they were exaggerating when they said the gift would be a phone strap as big as a life-sized dog. Apparently the white dog is the mascot, whereas the protagonist in the ads is the black guy.

I guess they weren't kidding when the other day I saw a Softbank sales guy holding this up! Apparently, it's 30cm high and there are only 30,000 to be given away. And yes, only in Japan will you see phone straps this outrageous.

P/S: Don't ask me why Softbank is not a bank, but a mobile service provider.

Update 7 July 2009: Another gigantic poster, this time at Shibuya station.

Friday, July 03, 2009

sew she does

I don't think I've ever promoted anyone's blog before, especially someone I don't know, but I really love her designs! Aishah introduced sew i do to me today and I got hooked looking through her site.

She makes it seem so easy to just take a piece of cloth or some wool and make something usable out of it within few hours. She's refashioned old dresses into hip ones, knitted hats and scarves for her friends, turned her hubby's old T-shirt into a cool top for herself and many other creative projects that I wish I could do the same too!

Here is one that looks rather simple yet so cool looking - reversible Charlie bags, made out of Ikea fabrics. She had so much fun that she ended up making 33 of these bags! She's sold most of them at a local market, and are giving away the extra's.

I hope I win one! But even if I don't, I'd still say I like her sense of fashion and colour.

I remember my mum and aunt used to make the curtains for the home and hand-sew other homely decor, and my granma used to make quilts for our blankets, but I never showed any interest in those back then. I'm quite sure if the women in my mum's side could do it, I would've have inherited some of those genes!