Spiritual Charm of Putuo Village

I never knew of the existence of Putuo Village until my friend, CY, who is an avid amateur photographer, asked if I was interested to make a photo trip there. Although I would have preferred to sleep in on a Saturday, curiosity got the better of me and I was up and all ready to go at 6:30 the next morning. We had planned to arrive at Putuo Village by 8 o’clock before it got too hot.

Putuo Village is a huge park spanning more than 40 acres that juxtaposes Buddhism with nature, leisure and charity. At the start of the shaded tree-lined road is a sanctuary for the elderly, followed by a huge forest of bamboo and finally, the main temple at the furthest end of the park.

Bamboo Forest 

Our first stop was at the Bamboo Forest where we were joined by three other friends. The whole place was quiet and serene except for the natural whispers coming from inside the forest. The cool, early morning air and soothing greenery threw worries to the wind and brought about a feeling of well-being and peace. I was excited to find out what waited behind the tall bamboo canopies. There were stone lions along the pathway to safeguard the premises, as well as Buddha statues to welcome and receive visitors into Nature’s realm. It looked like a good getaway for prayers and meditation.

Entrance to the Bamboo Forest.

No sooner had we made it past the entrance when we were bitten by mosquitoes. Although I was in a long-sleeved ‘T’ and jeans, it did not deter the mozzies from biting my face, neck and hands. I couldn’t even put my finger on the camera’s shutter without getting bitten on the finger tips! Some of these depraved critters even had the audacity to bite through the sleeves of my shirt. The five of us must have looked quite funny – clapping our hands wildly in the air, slapping our faces and scratching ourselves as we made our way into the forest.

Buddha Shower Pavilion for the purification of body and mind.

I really enjoyed walking in the Bamboo Forest and would have stayed longer if not for the pesky mosquitoes. For those who are thinking of visiting this place, applying insect repellent beforehand is an absolute must! To prevent any further blood loss, we decided to leave the place and drive to the main temple – the Guanyin Pavilion.

The Guanyin Pavilion 

Prayer Wheels

The concept of prayer wheels originated from Tibetan Buddhism. Traditionally, the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum is written in Sanskrit on the outside of the wheel. Each wheel is filled with thousands of mani mantras. Spinning the wheel clockwise is believed to have the equivalent effect of reciting the prayers orally. When this ritual is carried out from the heart with sincerity, humility and repentance, the following merits can be derived:-

  • Clears the mind, grows concentration and heals the spirit
  • Absorbs positive energy for radiant, glowing skin
  • Eliminates the 3 Poisons of Greed, Anger and Ignorance
  • Enhances the aura, protects from diseases
  • Prevents negative influences from taking over and doing harm
  • Enhances learning and develops wisdom
  • Gets rid of bad karma that inhibits the attainment of goals
  • Saves the deceased from falling into lower realms

 Wishing Tree 

The Wishing Tree is a major attraction in Putuo Village generating faith, inspiration and hope for its followers.

Devotees as well as tourists come all the way to write down their wishes and cast it up the tree. According to belief, the higher the wishes are hung, the more likely the wishes will be fulfilled.

 The Guanyin Hall

The view outside from the Guanyin Hall
The colour red helps to uplift the spirits.

There is a pillar carved with dragons just outside the washroom that guards the place.

 

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Walking Tall: Mishima Skywalk

It’s not common that you get to see all three of Japan’s big attractions from the same place. However, a visit to the Mishima Skywalk offers that rare three-in-one opportunity.

Opened to the public on December 2015, the Mishima Skywalk is the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in Japan at 400 metres long. At an elevation of 415 metres with a height of 70.6 metres and a footpath width of 1.6 metres, the bridge is family-friendly. It is wide enough for two wheelchairs to comfortably pass each other. Baby strollers are allowed…as well as pets, provided you hire a pet trolley.

Metal grooves have been built along the middle of the footpath, enabling the bold, brave and beautiful to look directly down at the green valleys and thick forest below.

On a clear day, all three of Japan’s “giants” are visible from the middle of the bridge – the Mishima Skywalk (longest pedestrian suspension bridge), Mt. Fuji (highest mountain) and Suruga Bay (deepest bay).The visit to Mishima Skywalk started off well although it started to get windy and cold as we made our way across. Nevertheless, the suspension bridge held well and there was very little wobble despite the pedestrian traffic. I really enjoyed the walk and took my time to soak in the fresh, cold air as well as admire the sweeping, green vistas around me.

Every visitor who purchased an entrance ticket (¥1000 per adult) received a free plastic raincoat. I didn’t think that there would be a need to use it, but just as we were rewarding ourselves with a bagful of chestnuts, the place went dark and heavy rain poured down almost immediately. Everyone scrambled to seek shelter in a small exhibition hall. We had to wait for around 20 minutes for the rain to subside before putting on our raincoats and making the 400-metre dash back.Upon reaching the entrance, we discovered that we had (once again) just missed the bus and would have to wait another 50 minutes for the next one to come along. In order to kill time, we decided to take the escalator up to the Sky Garden for a hot cup of coffee.The Sky Garden houses a beautiful exhibit of lush flowers that hang from a glass ceiling and bloom throughout the year. There are some souvenir and craft shops as well as eateries that provide snacks and meals under the soothing ambience of an indoor garden.

It still hadn’t stopped raining when we boarded the local bus to visit a nearby fruit farm. We decided to give it a miss and headed straight back to Mishima Station.

 

This is the last write-up about my visit around the Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan in August 2017. I wish I could dedicate a post on my successful climb up Mt. Fuji. Unfortunately it was not to be. We made it up to the 8th Station and were just 500 metres away from the summit. We were advised to turn back as the non-stop rain that followed us from the start of the hike greatly reduced visibility, rendering it slippery and dangerous to continue to the top. 

At Fujinomiya Fifth Station

Blueberry Lodge, Gotemba Kogen Resort

For our final night in the Shizuoka area before heading to Tokyo for our flight back to Singapore, we decided give ourselves a treat and booked a night’s stay at Gotemba Kogen Toki No Sumika, a resort popular with the Japanese. Gotemba Kogen Resort is ideally located in the valley at the base of beautiful Mt. Fuji.  This huge resort complex offers five themed hotels with specific guests in mind.

  • Hotel Tokinosumika – A hot springs hotel with views of Mt. Fuji in every room and access to all 17 hot springs within the premises.
  • Hotel Brush-up – A business hotel with only single rooms, fully equipped with meeting and convention facilities.
  • Gotemba Hotel Kogen B.U. – Good for weddings, conventions and entertaining overseas guests with views of Mt. Fuji in every room and entertainment outlets on the uppermost floor.
  • Slow House Villas – Round-shaped themed villas for relaxation with family and friends.
  • Blueberry Lodge – Ideal for group and family getaways.

Gotemba Kogen Resort has something for everyone – from restaurants, cafes, souvenir shops and boutiques to hot springs, spa and even a pet hotel. It even has its own brewery. Outdoor activities range from tennis, ice skating, swimming and golf to a stadium for soccer. Indoors, there are badminton courts, a games room for billiards and table tennis and a special arena for the magnificent night time Water, Illumination and Projection Mapping Show.

We had originally secured a reservation weeks before to stay in Slow House Villas with a Peter Rabbit theme, but had to cancel because of a change in our itinerary. By the time we were ready to become Peter Rabbit’s guests, his burrow was already full and we had to make do with a night’s stay at Blueberry Lodge instead.

It was pouring with rain by the time the free shuttle service pulled up at the resort. To make matters worse, we alighted at Hotel Brush-up, mistakenly thinking that it was the only drop-off point for all five hotels in the resort. We ended up having to walk about half a kilometre in the downpour, dragging our luggage across the car parks, passing shops, restaurants and the soccer field before finally arriving at the Front Office Reception for Blueberry Lodge and Slow House Villas.

Inside Reception, a furry welcome by life-size toys from the British show, “Shaun the Sheep”.
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There is a vending machine and little shop in the Reception corner that sells drinks and snacks.

Blueberry Lodge consists of a row of double-story country-like houses made up of four units to a cluster. Named after the blueberries that grow on the trellis in the courtyard, the lodges are accessible through a flower-lined covered walkway.

Blueberry Lodge under the moonlight.

Each lodge is quite spacious with a kitchen/dining area, a living room and a balcony. We stayed in a two-bedroom unit – one with a typical Western-style design with twin beds and the other, a traditional Japanese tatami room equipped with futons that can be rolled up and stored during the day. All the rooms echo a blueberry theme with blue headboards on the beds, blue curtains, blue-on-white wallpaper, a blue front door and blueberry prints on the drinking mugs.

I must admit that after sleeping on futons during my first six nights in Japan, it was nice to sleep on a bed where I didn’t have to wake up feeling pain in my hip bone every time I turned on my side.

We took a short walk to Slow House Villas to see what we had missed out. The thousands of tiny lights gave me a feeling of entering a fairy-tale world of giant mushrooms in a magical garden. The first round house we came to belonged to Peter Rabbit himself. His neat little garden was decorated with rabbit figurines.

Peter Rabbit lives here.

Besides the villas with Peter Rabbit themes, some rooms carry the Little Prince theme as well as the resort’s newest addition in 2015 – the Bear theme.

Villas with the Little Prince theme.

These villas are a popular choice among locals and can accommodate up to six persons in a room. For the young children, it’s a dream come true to break free from the corners of a standard room and stay in a round room instead. Next to the villas is the Big Bang playground that is lit up in the evening to resemble a wonderland, adding to the fun factor for kids.

Buffet breakfast was served in a nearby hall right next to a church. The menu selection was really wide, with appetising servings to cater for both Japanese and Western palates. There’s a huge ceiling-to-floor window at the end of the hall, offering stunning views of Mt. Fuji. I didn’t get to see anything as the whole mountain was covered in mist and clouds that day.

The weather was really unkind to us for most of this trip. The only time I managed to get a brief glimpse of Mt.Fuji was from the Front Office car park when we were about to check out of the lodge.

As if by clockwork, it started to rain very heavily again as we made our way to the shuttle stop. As there was no shelter available, some of my friends took refuge in the earlier breakfast hall, while I stood in the church next door. By the time our luggage got loaded inside the shuttle, everyone was already soaked to the skin!

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Taking shelter in the breakfast hall.

 

A Street Festival in Gotemba

At Gotemba, we found out that we had just missed the local bus bound for Lake Yamanaka and Oshino Hakkai and would have to wait another hour for the next one to come along. As we had some time to spare, we decided to cross the road for a quick bite and check out the place. This town looked interesting with its fusion of modern buildings standing side by side with the more traditional wooden shops and eateries. The whole place seemed a bit quiet for a weekend and most shops were shut that afternoon. Hmm. It must be a holiday here, I thought to myself. After several unsuccessful attempts at finding a place to sit down and eat, we had to settle for a bag of french fries while we made our way back to the bus stop for our next destination.

For those who read my post on Oshino Hakkai, I mentioned that we had to leave the place sooner than we wished, in order to catch the last bus back to Gotemba. Frankly, I was feeling a bit disappointed that we didn’t get to spend more time in Oshino Hakkai.

As the bus exited left into a slip road and made its way slowly towards the station, I heard a lot of noise outside. I peered out of the window to see what the commotion was about and saw a huge crowd standing in the middle of the street watching a children’s martial arts demonstration.

What do you know! The “quiet” town of Gotemba had completely transformed into a roadside stage of entertainment and colour. What a big difference in the mood and atmosphere from the afternoon! Huge loudspeakers were placed to carry the voices of the announcers over the throbbing beat of music. The air was filled with merriment, music, dancing, karaoke, local bands and the beating of taiko (drums). The sidewalks were lined with many stalls selling an assortment of local snacks as well as fruits and drinks. It seemed like everyone, young and old alike, was out on the streets to celebrate this festival. Some dressed in the traditional kimono and yukata as they strolled under the darkening sky lit by colourful Japanese lanterns. It was thrilling to get the chance to join in the celebrations. By this time, all disappointment was forgotten. We ended up spending more than two hours soaking in the festive atmosphere of the cool evening air infused with the tantalising aroma of Japanese street food.

Beating a taiko for the first time.
Street entertainers

Hawaii comes to Gotemba.

Further down the block, the street was temporarily cleared for an Owaraji race. This involved a member of the team lying on his stomach on a giant straw slipper (owaraji) while being pulled by two other team members in a race to the finish line. Everyone looked tired after the race, but it was clear from their faces that they had had a lot of fun.

Owaraji Race
The winning owaraji team
Queuing up to have their fortunes told.

“Swan” Lake Yamanaka

When Mt. Fuji erupted years ago, the lava flow resulted in the formation of lakes surrounding its northern edge known as Fuji-Goko or Fuji Five Lakes. Of the five, Lake Yamanaka (Yamanaka-ko), is the largest in terms of surface area (6.46 sq km) and the highest in terms of altitude (980.5 m). Ironically, the lake is also the shallowest of the five, with a maximum water depth of only 13.5 m. Due to its high altitude and relatively shallow water depth, Yamanaka-ko freezes completely during winter.

Some Japanese families have second homes here to take in the picturesque lakeside scenery. On a clear day, Mt. Fuji can be seen standing proudly in the distance. Unfortunately, I did not manage to get a glimpse of this famous mountain as it was covered in clouds and mist.

Yamanaka-ko is a popular recreation site for boating, fishing, water skiing, wind surfing and swimming, as well as camping, cycling and other activities along its shores. Japanese-style hotels, resorts, restaurants, cafés, onsen and museums have sprung up to cater to the inhabitants and visitors in this area.

Yamanaka-ko is home to various types of swans – the natural ones, the paddle boats who think they are swans and lastly…

…one giant swan spotting an elegant neck, a crowned head and an observation deck! No wonder Yamanaka-ko is sometimes affectionately known as Swan Lake!

“KABA” meaning “hippo” is an amphibious bus that goes on land and water.

The look of astonishment at being photographed.

I had great fun photographing the well-behaved dogs that got to join their humans on the 25-minute cruise excursion at Yamanaka-ko.

The surrounds are lively with birds
A single plant with two types of flowers.

Fuji Springs at Oshino Hakkai

Oshino Hakkai is a rustic village of thatched roof houses located in the Fuji Five Lakes area between Lake Kawaguchi and Lake Yamanaka in Japan.

It looks like there hasn’t always been five lakes in the Fuji Five Lakes area. Centuries ago, there was a lake called Lake Utsu. When Mount Fuji erupted in 800 A.D., the lava flow divided Lake Utsu into two – giving birth to Lake Yamanaka and Lake Oshino. So for a short time, there was six lakes in that area. Over time, Lake Oshino dried up but some springs being fed by Mt. Fuji’s underground water reservoir remained. The water from Oshino Hakkai’s eight ponds come from Mount Fuji’s snow melt that seeps to the bottom and is filtered through a series of porous lava rock, to finally arrive at Oshino Hakkai almost 80 years later!

With such an elaborate and extended filtration process, you can be certain that the crystal-clear water from the springs of Oshino Hakkai is pure and loaded with mineral goodness.

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Waku Spring is so clear that you can see the lava rock at the bottom of the pond.

Each pond is home to different freshwater plants and marine life at varying depths. The water is so clear that even with 8 metres in depth, we could still see the bottom of the pond with shiny blue “gems” and trout swimming around.

Because it comes from Mount Fuji, the water here is considered sacred and highly revered by locals. In olden times, people making a pilgrimage up Mount Fuji would first come here to purify themselves by washing in the eight ponds.

Oshino Hakkai is nationally recognised as having one of the best water in Japan. It is not often that one can boast of having water that has undergone 80 years of purification! I was really looking forward to catching a glimpse of Mount Fuji’s reflection in the pond, but sadly it rained yet again and the mountain got lost behind mist and clouds.

Locals filling up their plastic bottles with spring water at Oshino Hakkai

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Water wheel previously used in a corn mill.

From the main road or car parking lot, the village is not apparent. You need to walk through an ordinary-looking lane for about 50 metres before reaching Oshino Hakkai. You know you’ve arrived when you spot an unusually large crowd of people at one corner of the street. Oshino Hakkai is open every day of the year and entrance is free.

Besides being well-known for its scenery, Oshino Hakkai is also a great place for a walkabout. It has many souvenir shops and food stalls along both sides of the street to entice visitors to part with their money. I really enjoyed wandering around the food stalls. So many mouth-watering food to choose from. It is enough to make any diet addict abandon her original plans and stuff all that sumptuous goodies inside the stomach. We bought a few nice-looking peaches to eat for supper and tried some toasted green tea mochi with red bean filling. The con-on-a-cob was out of this world and we dutifully queued up to try out the village speciality – soft tofu topped with a special dressing!


A resident tending to her plants.
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The homes are neat and well-maintained.

As we made our way out, I spotted a lavender field behind one of the shops and ran to have a closer look at the flowers.

The charm of Oshino Hakkai lies on the assumption that the scenery can be enjoyed in peace and quiet. Sadly, Oshino Hakkai has become too touristy and overrun with foreign tourist arrivals by the busloads. By late afternoon, the atmosphere became more serene and pleasant as most of the tour groups had already departed. This was a good time to linger around a bit longer, but we had to hurry to catch the last bus leaving Oshino Hakkai at 5:00pm.

Outside Japan: Bon Odori 2017

In Japan, the period between July and August is when people pray for the spirits of their deceased relatives and ancestors to be able to obtain Buddhahood without suffering. It is believed that the spirits of the ancestors revisit their family’s household alters and shrines during the three days that Obon traditionally lasts.

Two nights ago, I join three other friends to attend the 2-day Bon Odori 2017 festival held in the township of Gelang Patah in Johor, Malaysia. “Bon-Odori,” as the name suggests, refers to a dance (odori) held during Obon. The dance is performed all over Japan to receive spirits and send them off again.

The celebration of Bon in Malaysia started as a small affair over 40 years ago, with Japanese expatriates stationed here wanting to immerse their own children into their native culture. It has now morphed into a huge and much-awaited event, attracting crowds by the thousands. Presently, the religious aspect of Bon has been mostly lost, and the dance is held as an event to liven up the summer festival.

In Malaysia, Bon Odori aims to promote and strengthen cultural ties between Malaysia and Japan, as well as showcase to locals a part of Japanese custom that’s been around for the past 500 years. The celebration in Malaysia is believed to be the largest Bon Odori festival in the world, outside of Japan.

The carnival-like atmosphere is made all the more merrier with stalls selling a variety of Japanese food and drinks, lively dance, martial arts and taiko (drums) performances, Japanese karaoke, games and even a lucky draw. This noisy and colourful event also attracts Japanese companies to participate and promote their products.

As Obon occurs in the heat of the summer, participants traditionally wear colourful yukatas, a traditional Japanese robe, or light cotton kimonos.

Then, there’s also the attire worn by today’s youth, where any style and combination goes…!

The typical Bon Odori dance involves people forming a circle around a high wooden scaffold made especially for the festival called a yagura.

There are many instances where the hand movements are made to coordinate with the lyrics, describing actions like “harvesting the rice” or “scooping the mud”. This makes the dance easy to follow so that everyone can join in and dance round the yagura.

In Sight Johor: Parit Jawa, Muar

Since I’ve not posted anything for the last three months, I thought I’d share some photos of my day trip to Parit Jawa, a river town on an estuary that opens out to a seemingly endless sea.

The majority of its residents are engaged in fishing and other related activities. You can see lots of fishing boats moored alongside the quay.

A short walk around this river town will take you past seafood restaurants, old shop houses, boat repair workshops, a mosque and two Chinese temples. There’s even a Fishermen’s Association established in one of the old buildings.

What I like about this place is that it has remained largely untouched and retained its rustic simplicity. Visiting Parit Jawa brings back the nostalgic feeling of being transported back to the 1950s. Life here appears to be relaxed and easy-going. During hot afternoons, it’s not unusual to find some senior residents chit-chatting and enjoying a game of Chinese chess in one of the restaurants. The younger folk, on the other hand, prefer to get on their motorcycles and round the vicinity for a bit.

Migratory birds like egrets and swallows scour the area in the evenings when the tide is out and the weather cooler. They compete for food with the many wild monkeys who seem to be everywhere – by the road side, on top of roofs, mangroves and exposed sea rocks.

Parit Jawa is known for its seafood, and in particular, a dish called Asam Pedas. Translated directly, it means “sour and spicy” where the method of cooking fish is not by frying or grilling, but by boiling the fish in spicy, sour broth.

There is little doubt that this fishing village is a haven for fishing enthusiasts and bird photographers. It’s a nice getaway from urban life and makes for a great nature outing with the children.

On the Edge of The Blue Lake

The weather here has been unpredictable lately – with sweltering mornings turning very quickly into heavy showers and thunderstorms in a matter of minutes. This makes planning for an outing difficult and frustrating. Three weeks ago, however, I felt that I had had enough of waiting for the weather to improve and decided to check out a mysterious lake  that I had read about on the internet.

I was feeling pretty disgusted with myself for not knowing that this lake is just a 33-minute drive away from home. Notwithstanding the fact that many residents who have lived here all their lives are unaware of the existence of this lake sitting in their backyard.

Better known as the Seri Alam Blue Lake, it is not a natural lake but an abandoned granite quarry – with the bluest water ever! While a lake with blue water may not seem a big deal, it is certainly not a common sight here. In fact, I’ve never come across a blue-coloured lake in Malaysia, let alone get to know that one has been practically outside my doorstep all along!

The trip was fraught with obstacles from the beginning. It started to rain heavily just as I was about to drive off. The downpour set me back by an hour but did not dampen my resolve to check out the lake that same evening.

Finding the lake was a bit of a challenge. There were no road signs to indicate that there was even a lake in that area! You would not expect to find a lake hidden behind a hill, with a university campus and a residential development project nearby. This quiet stretch of road transforms into a racing track in the evenings for Mat Rempit, the term used to describe local youths who race on their modified motorcycles at daredevil speeds with dangerous stunts thrown in.

Upon arriving, I was taken aback to see that metal barriers had been erected at the entrance to the car park, effectively sealing off access and rendering the Blue Lake off-limits to visitors.

I certainly had no intention of turning back without satisfying my curiosity about what was behind those barriers. We drove a little further down the road, trying to figure a way to circumvent the barrier. We spotted an opportunity where the barriers ended and joined up with the road railings. In the end, I decided to lie flat on the ground and wriggle my way under the railing to get to the other side.

We then made our way across the uneven, sandy slopes and continued uphill…

….until we spied what appeared to be a chasm in the distance.

On reaching the edge, I was greeted by a stunning blue-green body of water cradled by granite cliffs and green foliage. It felt unreal, overwhelming and sad to see this beautiful, quiet lake in such a forgotten state. I made my way carefully down a protruding rock to get a closer view of the blue water and its surrounds. The damp ground was narrow and slippery, allowing enough space for only one person at a time to take in the scenery. One false step would have meant a one-way ticket all the way down to the beautiful but toxic waters of the lake.

Photo credit to CY Lim    Panoramic view of the Blue Lake.

The fate of the lake looks uncertain. The water level appears to have dropped considerably, reducing the size of the lake and exposing the granite rock underneath. If left to the elements, it’s just a matter of time that the lake will dry up and disappear forever. With all the building and construction taking place in the surrounding area, I am hoping that the lake will be retained as another attraction within a recreation area in the vicinity. The worse thing that can happen is if all that water is drained out for land reclamation.

The Blue Lake is certainly a fetching sight. I am waiting for clear day to sneak back in to catch the sunset.

Singapore’s Pulau Ubin – Where Time Stands Still

Two Saturdays ago, I joined about twenty other photography enthusiasts in Singapore for the Scott Kelby Photowalk 2016 at Pulau Ubin. This island lying north-east off the Lion City is considered to be Singapore’s last authentic rural village (kampong) and retains the simplicity of the bygone era of the 1960s.

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Pulau Ubin’s wooden houses and jetties, colourful wildlife, old rubber plantations, abandoned quarries and mangroves and laid-back lifestyle give the visitor a glimpse of the “old” Singapore that existed before industrialisation and modernisation. With no access to the modern and efficient public utilities on mainland Singapore, the 100 plus or so residents in Ubin rely on wells for water and noisy diesel generators for electricity. They used to engage in traditional farming and fishing for subsistence, but now those activities have been greatly reduced. Due to the growing attention on going back to nature, many of the residents have switched to bicycle rental services, restaurants and the occasional provision shop to cater to the needs of mainland Singaporeans and tourists who throng the place during weekends and holidays.

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Getting there entails a 10-minute bumboat ride from Changi Point Ferry Terminal in Singapore. Each bumboat will depart as soon as there are 12 passengers on board for a one-way fee of SGD3.00 per person. If you’d rather not wait for the bumboat to fill up, the boatman will gladly bring your group across for a flat fee of SGD36.00.

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Bumboats ferry passengers between Pulau Ubin and mainland Singapore.

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The best way to get around Ubin is by walking or cycling. It’s a place where you can stop holding on to your mobile phone, grab the handlebars of your bicycle instead and go on a cycling journey of discovery round the island with friends and family.

You can rent bikes from the many rental shops at the main village near the jetty. A wide variety of bicycles is available from mountain bikes to tandems and children’s bikes for a rental fee of between SGD5.00 – SGD15.00 per day, depending on the type of bike and number of gears. You are allowed to test out as many bicycles in the open area in the main town until you find one that you’re comfortable to ride on.

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Pulau Ubin is home to one of Singapore’s mountain bike trails, Ketam Mountain Bike Park. This trail is approximately 8 kilometres long and features a wide range of terrain from open grassland to dense forests. There are numerous levels of gradients, well-marked with signs that indicate the difficulty level of each section.

I have been to Pulau Ubin several times in the past especially during those working years when I was tasked with organising company retreats and teambuilding activities in the island. Not much has changed since then. Ubin has so far resisted the lure of urban development and remains a rural, unkempt expanse of jungle. I did not rent a bike this time round, as I didn’t want to have the added weight of camera gear on my back while I struggled to pedal up and down the gravel paths. I can say from experience that some of those cycling trails are really challenging. I still remember having to get down from the bike and pushing it uphill when traversing some of the steeper sections. At other times when I had to lead a group, I would stop for a quick rest on the pretext of admiring the view!

The island is home to lots of birds, insects, monitor lizards, monkeys and wild boars.

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The Oriental Pied Hornbill
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A Grey Heron spotted at Pekan Quarry.

Ubin’s main tourist attraction is Chek Jawa, that used to be a coral reef 5000 years ago. You can stroll on the boardwalk to explore this six-in-one ecosystem that boasts of mangroves, beaches, coastal forests, sand flats, mud flats and coral rubble.

Before boarding the bumboat back to mainland Singapore, I ordered a coconut drink and sipped it under the shade of a huge umbrella in Ubin’s main town. Be forewarned, though, that food and drinks prices in Ubin are higher than in mainland Singapore!

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Sunrise at the Boardwalk, Changi Village before setting off for Pulau Ubin

In Sight Johor: On the Water’s Edge – Kukup Village

Sitting on the south-western edge of Johor is the small fishing town of Kukup that’s built on stilts. An entire community, comprising mostly Chinese fishermen, live behind the row of shophouses fronting the main road that ends at the town’s ferry terminal.

Kukup is known for its fresh seafood, kelongs (fish farms) and houses built above the water. The houses are connected by a series of concrete walkways above the muddy mangrove shoreline. All services that support a community are also be found here – schools, temples, shops and restaurants.

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When strolling down the narrow walkway, it is easy to forget that you are actually walking along a “main” road for motorcycles and bicycles. In Kukup, everyone seems to know how to ride a motorcycle or scooter. Not only the men, but also the women and even children as young as 12 years old! They seem to enjoy riding fast, sounding their horns at any pedestrian that blocks their path.

While we were sitting under the shade in someone’s compound and waiting for the sun to set, a middle-aged lady on a motorcycle sped right in front of us and made a sudden turn to the left without slowing down. She lost control and fell off the bike, stopping short of rolling over the side and into the mud below. We rushed to help her, together with four or five other villagers who seemed to appear from no where! After she was back on her feet, she dusted herself, got on the motorbike and sped off, without so much as an acknowledgement or “thank-you” to those who had come to her aid! Maybe living in a close-knit community like Kukup means never having to say thank-you!

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The ferry terminal found here links Kukup to Tanjung Balai in the Riau island of Indonesia. It departs every hour and the journey takes an hour and forty-five minutes. 

There are many floating fish farms (kelongs) in the channel between Kukup and Kukup Island National Park. For a mere USD1.25, visitors can take a boat ride to these kelongs to get a closer look at the sea critters being reared here. 

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The shops at Kukup specialise in selling dried fish products like keropok (crackers) and belacan (shrimp paste). The restaurants nearest to the main road are the biggest and busiest, serving a full range of fresh seafood at reasonable prices. My favourite dishes are crabs in salted egg yolk, buttered prawns and deep-fried baby octopus served with piping hot rice. 

Over the years, the number of tourists to this town has increased. Some enterprising owners have seized this opportunity to convert their stilt homes into resorts, chalets and homestays. So finding a place to stay for one or two nights in Kukup is a piece of cake if you’re game for the experience of living like the locals and watching the sunset from the kitchen or backyard!

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Of Mangroves and Wildlife : Singapore’s Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve

Some time in the first week of August, I was invited by three of my friends to watch Singapore’s pre-National Day Fireworks Display at 8:00pm that evening. Not wanting to get caught in the traffic jam across the Johor-Singapore Causeway Link, we set off for Singapore at 10.30am. Although it happened to be a Saturday, there was strangely not much traffic and we managed to breeze across the Causeway in record time! Since we had plenty of time on our hands we decided to explore some of Singapore’s nearby attractions in the northern part of this small but vibrant city. The Singapore Zoo? I’ve been there countless of times especially during my children’s growing up years. We were Friends of the Zoo then! River Safari? Not under the scorching heat of the noonday sun. Singapore Orchid Garden? Nice place but spending five hours there? Not really! Besides, one of my friends has a phobia of flying insects – butterflies, in particular.

Finally, we settled for Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve. I am ashamed to admit that I had never made any real effort to visit this Wetland Reserve during my many years of working in Singapore.

It turned out to be a walkabout that I enjoyed immensely because it was fun to return to nature, away from the fast pace and towering buildings of digitally-connected Singapore. This Wetland Reserve showcased a rare and unique side of Singapore that I never knew existed.

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One of the many views seen along the Mid-Canopy Walk

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Lotus pond at one of the two entrances to the Reserve

Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve is Singapore’s last surviving “wild” place. Here, you will find 202 hectares of mangroves, mudflats, ponds together with lush walking trails, boardwalks, bird-viewing huts and lookouts. This Wetland Reserve has been designated an ASEAN Heritage Park for its rich biodiversity. This secondary rainforest is ideal for watching migratory birds as they brave the long journey from Siberia to Australia during winter.

The Reserve is also a good spot to catch a view of monitor lizards, mudskippers, tree-climbing crabs, mud lobsters, snails and spiders. Many species are shy and observation hides are available where you can observe the flora and fauna undisturbed.

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Giant spider spinning its web across the wooden balcony of the Main Hide

Believe it or not Sungei Buloh is also the only place in Singapore where you can catch sight of estuarine crocodiles, and I was lucky enough to spot one on that day!

An esrtuarine crocodile resting under the shade. Seen from the Main Bridge at the Wetland Centre
An esrtuarine crocodile resting under the shade. Seen from the Main Bridge at the Wetland Centre
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View of Johor, Malaysia from one of the five huts along the Mangrove Boardwalk
Colourful prints and artwork decorate the wooden roofs of the huts along the Mangrove Boardwalk
Colourful prints and artwork decorate the wooden roofs of the huts along the Mangrove Boardwalk

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Painted stones from one of the many children's activities organised at the Wetland Centre
Painted stones from one of the many children’s activities organised at the Wetland Centre

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Main Bridge across the Sungei Buloh Besar River

All too soon, the hours flew by and it was time to make our way to the East Coast for the fireworks display.

There are still many parts of the Reserve that I did not have time to visit. If you happen to be a nature lover, Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve should be at the top of your to-do list in Singapore. It is open from 7am to 7pm daily and admission to the reserve is free. The Visitors’ Centre has educational exhibits, an audio-visual show, a cafe, vending machines, clean toilets and lockers. It links to the Coastal Trail (1.3km), Forest Trail (300 metres) and Mid-Canopy Walk (150 metres). The 1.3km Coastal Trail links to the Wetland Centre, where the Migratory Bird Trail (1.95km) and Mangrove Boardwalk (500 metres) are found. Several observation pods can be found along the trails, most notable being the Aerie Tower with views of Malaysia.

In Sight Johor: The Sungai Johor Link Bridge

Three weeks ago, J and I made a trip to a town called Kota Tinggi to hand a pair of customised 2017 desk calendars to a food stall operator. This friendly old man had sportingly agreed to pose for some portrait shots during our last trip there. Needless to say, he was thrilled to see his photo on print and started to show the calendar to his customers.

After a quick meal of char siew and chicken rice at his stall (incidentally our drinks were complimentary), we proceeded to drive around a bit to explore the surrounding area. There was really not much to see along the trunk road except rows and rows of oil palm trees. By and by, we came to a handwritten sign pointing in the direction of a rumah rakit (raft house). We hesitated. Checking out the place meant doing a 7-kilometre drive inside a vast oil palm estate. Deep, dark, deserted – pretty scary, on the whole. After some deliberation, however, we decided to venture into the plantation. After all, no pain no gain, right?

There were some pretty anxious moments as the car made its way deeper into the thick, undulating forest. As the minutes ticked by, we became increasingly doubtful about where the road was leading us. The whole place was so remote that internet reception became erratic. The quiet, winding road seemed never-ending and we began to wonder if the sign seen earlier was out-of-date. To make matters worse, the petrol gauge showed that we were down to one bar. Earlier on, we had stopped by the only petrol kiosk at Teluk Sengat to fill up but guess what? All petrol had been sold out! A local resident told us that the next available kiosk could only be found on the opposite side, requiring a 26-minute drive to get there. As we couldn’t be sure about getting to top up even in the next town, we decided to continue exploring with the optimistic hope that there would be sufficient petrol to last until we reached home.

We drove uphill along the meandering road until we came to a slope cutting through an expressway tunnel. We found ourselves inside another oil palm estate but on the opposite side of the highway. I began to understand the actual meaning of the phrase, ‘So near and yet so far‘. Civilisation was right in front of us but the car could not get across as there was a shallow ditch and fence separating the estate road and the highway. By then it was already too late to turn back. We pressed further up until we were about to reach the highest point of the hinterland.

It was during that moment of approach when the Johor Bridge revealed itself, rising out from the lush green valley and river below. Woo hoo!  🙂 🙂

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Did we make it to the raft houses on the river? Yes, we did, walking around the jetty area before hurrying back up to our newly-discovered spot to catch a glimpse of the sunset.

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It would have been ideal to get a shot of the sun going down behind the bridge but that didn’t happen. From where we were standing, the bridge was a few degrees off from the sun.

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All in all, it was a successful day trip. Who would have known that such a pretty view can be found within the deep recesses of a dull oil palm plantation? And now that I know that the sign did not lie after all, I hope to visit Kampung Tanjung Buai again and spend a night in a raft house.

 

In Sight Johor: Teluk Sengat

In one of my earlier posts, “A Twist in Sungai Rengit”, I related how I sprained my ankle when I unwittingly stepped into a big crack on the concrete walkway. It was just punishment for not paying enough attention to where I was walking and ignoring an off-limits sign! What I did not mention was that after the incident I did not go home immediately, thinking I was suffering more from shock than anything else and that my leg would recover if I just allowed it to rest until we got to our next destination.

So we drove to another town called Teluk Sengat and stopped at a sloping rocky outcrop overlooking the sea. To the left, we could see a long jetty and J suggested that we make our way there to check out the view. By that time, however, the pain had become downright unbearable so to cut a long story short, we decided to leave the place and come back again when my leg was much better.

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Fast forward two years later…we made our way again to Teluk Sengat in the hope of catching the sunset.

Teluk Sengat is a quiet seaside town on the bank of the Johor River. You know you’ve arrived when you see the long jetty, as well as a row of open seafood eateries along the river bank. It’s a nice place to dig into an array of tasty seafood offerings while watching the sky change colour. The abundance of marine life here makes it a popular fishing spot, giving rise to a number of raft houses (rumah rakit) where fish, shellfish and crustaceans are bred.

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From the jetty at Teluk Sengat, you can see the Johor River Bridge in the distance. This 1.7km bridge is the the longest single plane cable-stayed bridge in Malaysia connecting Kong Kong Village in the west to Teluk Sengat in the east. It pales in comparison with the other bridges around the world but nevertheless, it makes for quite a pretty sight at night-time when the bridge is lit.

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Sadly, the appearance of heavy clouds that day dashed any hopes of capturing a brilliant sunset. We could have stayed back and waited for the Johor River Bridge light-up, but that would have meant driving on a rural road with little or no street lighting for most of the journey home.

Oh well…guess I will have to make another trip to Teluk Sengat. Who knows? I might be third time lucky!

In Sight Johor: Air Papan

While cruising along the east coast of Malaysia I came across this beautiful 3-kilometre stretch of beach, hidden away from the main road. Naturally, I had to stop to have a closer look. The tide was low and I managed to walk quite a distance out to sea. It was a good day to catch a glimpse of some of the surrounding islands in the vicinity. I did wonder if the water was shallow enough to get to the nearest island but didn’t attempt as there was nobody nearby to call in case I needed help!

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A little further up the road…

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In Sight Johor: Tanjung Balau

If you would like to get away for a day from the hustle and bustle of city life, then Tanjung Balau is a good place to visit. Just an hour and fifteen minutes’ drive away from the city centre, this rather laid-back village on the east coast has a nice beach for swimming, fishing and relaxation. Established more than a hundred years ago by fishermen from the north-eastern Malayan states of Kelantan and Trengganu, Tanjung Balau is the oldest fishing village in Johor, Malaysia.

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For those who are keen to know a thing or two about the livelihood of traditional fishermen and its historic legacy, there is a Fishermen’s Museum right by the beach. Artefacts on exhibit include fishing nets and tackles, and traditional tools used to fish. Visitors also get treated to a dose of local seafaring superstitions and techniques to determine a good catch.

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The entire seascape at Tanjung Balau is especially beautiful during low tide as this is when the hidden marine life are revealed. There are lots of seashells in various shapes and sizes, small fish trapped in shallow pools of water between rocks and sandbars, and tiny crabs skittering across the sand, then disappearing just as quickly into unseen holes.

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However, the most unique feature about Tanjung Balau are the wind-stressed rock formations seen only during low tide. The rocks are believed to be from the Permo-Carboniferous age, which is more ancient than those of the Permian period that began 275 million years ago!

It is possible to have a closer look at these prehistoric formations if you take the cement walkway that extends out to sea, circling round a little bay on another side of the promontory, before crossing a small bridge that joins up with the mainland. A number of shelters have been built along the walkway to allow visitors to take in the lapping waves against the rocky surrounds.

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Wild monkeys are a common sight in Tanjung Balau. The family of monkeys living inside the forest next to the car park are rather mischievous. When they see a car approaching the parking area, they start chattering among themselves, as if deciding as to whose turn it is to prank the car driver. By and by, one of them walks to the middle of the road and lies down, pretending to be dead. This forces the oncoming car to stop. The “dead” monkey then gets up and starts to usher the rest across the road. The other monkeys take their time to cross, running back and forth before finally disappearing into the bushes. Usually, I would get out of the car and start taking photos. However, after my last experience in Chiangrai, Thailand, I decided to give this one a miss!

There are toilets, shower rooms as well as a food court for day trippers. However, I wouldn’t bet too much on getting a meal and drink at the food court. I thought a glass of iced coffee would be a good way to cool down and keep awake during the ride home. As it turned out, only one drinks kiosk was open and there was no one manning the place. I made my way into the kitchen, placed my order, then went outside and waited…and waited…and waited for ten minutes! There was no sound or activity from the kitchen! That was when I concluded that the residents at Tanjung Balau must be earning such a good income from fishing that they are not interested in any other trade to supplement their income!

I left Tanjung Balau without coffee.

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For those who wish to stay overnight, there are chalets nearby as well as tents for camping on the beach. Just remember to bring along your drinking bottle and fishing rod!

 

 

 

 

Close Encounters of the Koala Kind

Mention the word ‘koala’ to me and the first image that comes to mind is a cute, furry grey animal with a white stomach and no tail, found in souvenir shops, wildlife magazines and at best, in an Aussie zoo! Yes, I’ve caught glimpses of koalas in the wild. However, those sightings were not only rare, but difficult to spot as koalas usually sit high up in eucalyptus branches.

Driver: Look, there’s one up there!

Me: Where? Where?

Driver: See the big tree in the middle? (Duh???) She’s right there.

Me: I see only lots of trees. Where? 

Driver: It’s a bit dark but you can still see her. Up there. Look, she’s moving now.

Me: Where? Where?

Everyone else: Yes, there she is! Aww! That’s so cute! 

Me: Where? Where?

Driver: That’s all, folks. The koala’s gone!

I had never really seen a koala in its natural habitat until I visited the Koala Conservation Centre in Phillip Island. The Centre plays host to a special koala breeding programme, ensuring it remains a key player in the conservation of these iconic animals.

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The unique treetop boardwalks in a eucalypt woodland area gives visitors the chance to see how these amazing creatures live as they would in the wild. Even while strolling, two or three koalas could be seen relaxing in the trees directly above me.

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IMG_4782aIt was super exciting to see them face-to-face. Never in my life had I come this close to a koala. This fella was like on a branch five feet away from me and I could literally touch him if I leaned forward and stretched out my hand.

I was half expecting the koala to move away but instead, he moved even nearer towards me, bringing the both of us to eye level by his sheer weight on the branch. We just stared at each other for around a minute, waiting to see the other’s next move. It was perfect timing for a photograph (or selfie) but I didn’t want to scare him off with a lens in front of my face. That was a very special moment for me and one which I will never forget.

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Certain stretches of the wooden boardwalk have more koala poo than others, indicating that koalas have their favourite spots to hang out. When walking along this part of the bridge, you need to be on your toes (pardon the pun) to avoid stepping on koala poo and keep looking upwards occasionally to make sure that no koala does its toilet business on you!

I have to admit that I’ve never ever seen a koala walk on the ground before! It was specially thrilling to see this cute fella casually climbing down the tree trunk and sitting on a log for a quick rest…

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…before making his way under the boardwalk where I was standing. He appeared on the other side and proceeded to climb up another tree! How I wished I had videotaped the scene but I was so excited to see the koala on the ground that I couldn’t think straight!

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Kennett River situated along the coastal bushland between Lorne and Apollo Bay on the Great Ocean Road is one of the best places in Australia to see koalas in the wild. This area is home to hundreds of colonies that live in both the forests and more urbanised areas. You are practically guaranteed close koala sightings if you drive up the Grey River Road. Here, they can be found in trees surrounding the houses, in peoples’ gardens, relaxing on someone’s balcony and occasionally crossing the road!

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Hearing this catchy tune on the way back to Melbourne, “Please Don’t Call Me a Koala Bear‘ by Don Spencer, sealed the end of a thoroughly enjoyable day with the koalas!

Please Don’t Call Me a Koala Bear

I’m a koala not a bear
And I don’t think it’s fair
The way that people always add a word that isn’t there
I’m a marsupial and proud of it
And there can be no doubt of it
I’m closer to a kangaroo than I am to a bear
 
So please don’t call me a koala bear
Coz I’m not a bear at all
Please don’t call me a koala bear
It’s driving me up the wall
If your name was Tom
And everyone called you Dick
Perhaps you’d understand why I’m sick, sick, sick
I’m simply a koala
And I want the name to stick
 
So please don’t call me a koala bear
I live here in Australia
In a eucalyptus tree
I’m as cuddly, cute and charming
as an animal can be
I don’t understand fair dinkum
How anyone could think them
Grizzly bears and polar bears
Are anything like me
So please dont call me a koala bear
Coz I’m not a bear at all
Please don’t call me a koala bear
It’s driving me up the wall
If your name was Tom
And everyone called you Dick
Perhaps you’d understand why I’m sick, sick, sick
I’m simply a koala
And I want the name to stick
So please don’t call me a koala bear