Let’s explore: Furano Marche (フラノマルシェ), Furano, Hokkaido, Japan

I’ve said it before and I’m going to say it again – the Japanese have incredible desserts and products. While in Furano, we dropped by Furano Marche (フラノマルシェ), which is a little cluster of shops selling a variety of things. At the back, we’d find a supermarket selling some of Hokkaido’s most famous treats.

I wanted to give you a quick look around Furano Marche – so come along, let’s go!

Travel Diary: Journey through Bangkok, Thailand

Our taxi came to a halt behind a row of cars as the light turned red. A little girl, barely seven or eight, was standing next to the front door of the car in front of us, speaking to the driver. She was motioning with her hands, showing off something. I leaned over to the right and caught a glimpse of orange and yellow. They were flowers. She’s selling flowers in the middle of a main road. The intersecting traffic slows, and the drivers ready for the green. She turns, swinging a pole with garlands of flowers hanging from its ends, and quickly dashes to the road divider just as the vehicles begin to pick up their pace and get back in tempo. As we pass, I notice her head bent at a slightly downward angle, her shoulders slightly slumped, her feet grubby. I noticed that she had no shoes.

I remember the countless number of street-side stalls as being one of the most striking things about Bangkok. We would walk down pavements along shop fronts which felt more like narrow back alleys. The street-side stalls formed a blockade between us and the road, and would go on endlessly – light cotton apparel, thai boxer shorts, cheap plastic sunglasses stacked high, in between which were food stalls – letting in no air and no light. People walked past in a constant viscous stream, squeezing past each other to go in opposite directions, while groups of bored-looking Thai girls sat outside massage parlours, fanning themselves in the midday heat, calling out every once in a while to prospective customers an invite to come in.

Bangkok was everything I’d expected it to be. Crowded, lively, chaotic. In Platinum Mall, you would see that people from all around the world have come, dragging huge plastic trolley bags going from shop to shop to source for bargain apparel to sell at a profit. It was energetic yet exhausting to be part of, and we ended up finding solace at Starbucks.

Street side food stalls in Bangkok Roadside stalls in Bangkok Thailand

Food in Bangkok was cheap and readily available, although I did end up rushing to the toilet about 4 times a day (which, by the way, is not usual). Every once in a while, smells of food would be interrupted by the smell of sewage coming from the gutters and drains, and would inspire cringed noses and a quicker walk.

Corn based dessert at a street side stall in Bangkok Thailand

Whilst touristy, Jaktujak Weekend Market was a highlight of my trip. The sections selling apparel did not appeal to us but we did find much to our fancy at the other end of the market where they sold dried food items ranging from mango to ginger, and also aromatic oils of bergamot, rose, and lemongrass, packed into display-worthy bottles forged from glass. Leaving Jaktujak, cabs were lined up alongside the road near the exit, their drivers standing by the curb. A cabby approached us to ask where we were headed. Upon hearing Sukhumvit, he made a face, waved and said that it was “very very far” but would take us there for 600THB. I’d seen the map; it wasn’t that far at all. We walked farther from Jaktujak and got into a metered cab which ended at 150THB.

Sad to say, the cabs were a major reason for my schlocky impression of Bangkok. We once boarded a cab waved in by a Bo.lan staff from the road which claimed he was on “meter”. It was a sort of van that looked more like it belonged in a zoo; heavily dented, with masking tape around the handles and on the doors where parts were on the verge of falling off. We were even more appalled at the state of its interior – cans stuffed between the top of the seat and the ceiling to prevent it from collapsing, a stool supporting the seat where my mother sat, and a lot of rubbish everywhere else. We were laughing about how shocked the hotel staff would be at seeing this “sampan” (a Chinese flat-bottomed boat, but literally meaning “3 planks”) come into their lobby, when my dad noticed the meter was off. The driver then insisted we would pay 250THB, and when we refused, veered to the side of the road and forced us out- but not before he demanded 50THB from me.

Cabbing in Bangkok Thailand

Nightmare cab in Bangkok Thailand

I didn’t know much about the Somboon Seafood scam until I got back to Singapore after experiencing it first hand. We’d tried to get to the restaurant several times, and every cabby we’d encountered said there was no Somboon Seafood, only some variation pronounced Som-boon-dee. We eventually got into a cab whose driver said he knew where it was, only to inform us halfway that “Somboon Seafood doesn’t open on Sundays. I take you to Somboondee. When my friends say they want Somboon, I bring them to Somboondee because Somboondee is better! I know the boss – he will give you 10% discount because you’re my friend.” The liar took us down some quiet gravel road where a wire light was poorly bent an attached to a flimsy fence to form “somboondee” in a wiggly writing. He lowered the side window and hollered to the owner, who’d been sitting at a table smoking and didn’t look at all like he’d been expecting guests, and straight away we knew something was amiss. The “restaurant” was practically empty except for a poor family of four seated in the dark, all of whom promptly looked up, surprised, stared at us miserably and totally halted their meal. The seafood selection was miserable, the prices steep, and the whole place was barely even lit. It was eerie, and we promptly said we’d had too similar a meal the previous night and started to walk briskly back out to the main road. The cabby had parked by the side, and upon seeing us, ran up to us to ask why we were leaving. As we walked, the discount steadily increased from 10% to 15% to 20%. We kept walking.

Mango Sticky Rice at Siam Paragon Bangkok Thailand

Unfortunately, Bangkok just wasn’t my kind of city and left much to be desired, but it still could be yours, just as I’ve had friends who’ve gone back twice or thrice. While there was beauty in some of it, such as their piousness and cuisine, and of course, it is an inexpensive holiday destination, I especially wished the cabbies were more friendly and honest (to me, they’re sometimes tour guides who can teach you about the city, and are often the first locals you encounter extensively upon setting foot in a country; the ones in London were fantastic) – that would’ve helped preserve the impression that I’d gone to Bangkok with but sadly departed without, and that is “the land of a thousand smiles”.

Religion in Bangkok Thailand

Travel Diary: A day in Moscow City, Moscow, Russia

It was a cold day in Moscow. Overcast and cloudy, there was a distinct grey over the city which reminded me a little of London. After breakfast at кофемания (Kofemaniya), I set out to explore the city on foot, and began to head down the street. Retracing my footsteps to the St. Regis, I continued straight on and took a left round the back of the hotel down a street called Никольская ул. (Nikolskaya ul.).

The street was straight and long. Large grey tiles lay underfoot, arranged neatly in a diagonal manner, and low-rise buildings lined the path on either side. People in long coats walked up and down purposefully, veering off into specific shops, often the cafes. On the right, I saw a neon “Subway” sign and took note of that, given that we’d established that Russian food wasn’t really to our fancy. As I continued walking, the row of shops on my left were replaced by a taller upmarket-looking building with display windows set in gilded frames and brass handled doors; the GUM mall – an upmarket mall which was started as a mall in the early 1900s, but was converted to office space for Stalin’s committee in 1928, and was now a high-end mall housing international luxury brands.

The street led right into the Red square, and suddenly, I found myself standing right smack in the centre of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, flanked on all sides by the iconic buildings I’d seen only in photographs – straight ahead, stood the high walls of the Моско́вский Кремль (Kremlin), the red bricks reaching upwards with hardly any semblance of windows, looking very much like an impregnable fortress (which, I suppose, was the point). To my right, the Государственный исторический музей (State Historical Museum) stood tall – Its façade was a mosaic of shapes – triangles, keyhole shapes, square shapes – in a complex dissonance which I now thought to be rather characteristic of Russian architecture. It looked like giant lego pieces had been joined together. I could see the different blocks and towers, each topped with a conical-shaped roof of light grey and a gilded ornament at its tip. And on my left, there it stood at the far end of the Red Square – a work of art, indeed – the Собор Василия Блаженного (St. Basil’s cathedral).

Domes of St. Basil's Cathedral Moscow Russia

I hate to say this, but my first introduction to this building was through playing Forza Motorsport on the xbox 360. The game had a track set in Moscow which required drivers to do a circle around St. Basil’s, and I remember thinking cool building. I’d love to say that I was so mesmerized by it that I crashed the car, but really I didn’t – I was just having a lot of fun drifting and using the inner straight on the circle to overtake opponents.

Nonetheless, seeing the Cathedral in person felt rather unreal. It was the building I most closely associated with Russia, and there it was. It seemed to be a fabric of multiple inspirations – corbel arches of Byzantine architecture, while the domes reminded me strongly of the mosques I’d seen in the UAE. It was fascinating to look at, to say the least. From where I stood, I could make out 5 of the 8 smaller churches which surrounded the core. The inside was a labyrinth of narrow and winding staircases opening up into small (or on occasion, tall) rooms. One could easily get lost in the narrow corridors which joined together like interlocking loops. While I was visiting, a choir started singing in one of the chapels, their harmonies echoing throughout the halls, resonating off the bare stone walls.

Kremlin Moscow Russia

I decided to navigate around the Kremlin on the side of the river so that I could get to the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. On this side of the Krem, the red brick walls were uninterrupted, leading on for a good distance, embroidered with notches and punctuated with towers.

Russian sweets and drinks Moscow Russia

In the late afternoon, our Russian friend Galya brought us to the top floor of GUM to try some Russian sweets and drinks at a cafe. On the table, there was a little standing paper sign which read Пomorи, тoваpищ, нaм – yбepи пocyдy caм! I had no idea what it said, until I turned to the reverse which read Comrade, let us have a deal – clean your table after meal! I guess the Russians have a good sense of humour too.

We got a few traditional items to share including something called a Ptasie Mleczko (also known as Bird’s milk cake) and some colourful traditional drinks. The cake tasted like a giant less-springy marshmallow coated in a thin film of chocolate. The drinks tasted like the syrup with the jellies which we used to buy at the supermarket when I was still in elementary school, and came in the same bold colours. I thought the similarity was uncanny. Afterwards, we picked up our coats and headed back out into the streets, beginning our walk towards our dinner destination, Turandot.

Moscow Russia

Travel Diary: The Golden Hour in Moscow, Russia

Russia, a colossal country in the North, relatively undiscovered and labelled “exotic” by many, has always remained, in my mind, a place full of mystery. It is vast – so broad that it takes up almost half the width of the world map, with its borders reaching all the way to Asia and Europe. Of course, we’ve had some sort of exposure to Russia, however limited and whether accurate or otherwise, be it from reading about its history of Tsars and Tsarinas, or gazing in awe at the beauty and intricacy of Fabergé eggs.

In October, I made a rather spontaneous trip up into this somewhat mysterious region, prompted by an invitation to attend the inaugural formula one grand prix in Sochi. I’ve always wanted to see Moscow. I had a friend who did her exchange at a University in Moscow three years before, and she’d told me about how lovely it was. But even before that I’d always wanted to go because I thought of it as an exciting country full of secrecy and spies, and of course, those of you who know me personally would know that I’m fascinated to no end by that sort of stuff.

We’d all thought she was pretty brave because it was rare for anyone to choose Russia. It was also because of the ideas we’d come to have about Russia from all the things we’d seen in the movies – I mean, Quantum of Solace and Die Another Day were both set in Russia, and Jason Bourne went to Moscow in the Bourne Supremacy as well – and sometimes in the news, but of course we made no mention of any of that. And then there was the language barrier, although I did just as well by going to Barcelona on exchange without knowing any Spanish besides Hola and Adios.

We got to Moscow late on a Monday, around 4pm, were picked up by car for the St. Regis Hotel in central Moscow, and for the next two hours were stuck, bumper-to-bumper, in a massive jam all the way in. My travel companion was sound asleep within minutes of the start of the jam, but I stayed awake to observe this new city. It was about 5pm now and we were still inching along. This far out from the Moscow city centre, there wasn’t a whole lot to see besides the buildings in the distance on the left, and the tall coniferous trees to the right, but at this time of day, the setting sun swathed everything in a beautiful golden glow so I kept awake.

I guess I’m weird like that – even the tour guide in Dubai laughed at how curious I seemed to be all the time, and kept making faces at me through the rear view mirror, grinning as I remained wedged in the rear seat of the vehicle between my friends who were fast asleep to both my left and right. I suppose it’s because I like to capture every moment into a distinct memory – all the sights, the sounds, sometimes even smells, and maybe how I might be feeling there and then. Perhaps it’s also because I don’t want to miss a single moment – a moment, which, in a flash, might pass me by and be lost forever.

I knew the moment we were approaching the city centre. The greenery made fewer and yet fewer appearances, and what were previously wide open spaces transformed into buildings on both sides. It was quite a sight. I sat up. Beside me, my companion was still sound asleep, his head resting on the camera bag on the seat between the both of us.

A building shifted past, and in the next moment, I realised we were on a bridge above the река Москва (Moskva river). To my left, a magnificent white dome stood in the distance, with a gilded cross at its summit. Ah, I thought, that’s the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. It was glorious, even from this distance. The sun was setting behind and to the right of it, caressing the sides of the Cathedral in such way that highlighted its design. I sat up straighter and looked on for, perhaps, a hint at the things to come.

Kushiro Washo Market, Kushiro, Hokkaido, Japan

SCRIBBLES

Category: Japanese – Seafood, Fruits

13-25 Kuroganecho, Kushiro, Hokkaido Prefecture 085-0018

The Kushiro Washo Market was the first market I visited in Hokkaido. My cousin had been to Hokkaido before, and he’d said that the markets were one of the best places to get seafood coming in straight off the fishermen’s boats and at reasonable prices. We started the day early, and although the market was supposed to open at 8AM, many of the stalls were still setting up shop when we entered at 8.15AM. Majority of the stalls at Washo sell seafood, although there is a sizeable section of fruit and vegetable stalls at the other end, as well as shops selling cooked food (e.g. all matters of dons) along the perimeter of the market.

Damage: $$

Sashimi here compared to elsewhere was definitely cheaper on the whole, but with so many stalls selling the same thing (sashimi, etc.), it was challenging to determine which stall to patronise. The crabs were not cheap though. Nonetheless, for the price we paid, we got to sample a wide variety of items including uni (sea urchin) and kani (crab), although on hindsight I can conclude that for the highest quality sashimi/crab, you should go to the notable restaurants instead because they know how to pick out their raw ingredients far better than we do.

Kani (crab) at Washo Market Kushiro Japan

To go: Nope :/ unless you want some fruit?

I wasn’t quite impressed with the quality of the sashimi and the crab, to be honest, was poorly prepared. I tasted better sashimi almost everywhere else. My first taste of uni was at Washo, and I immediately declared that I didn’t like its fishy, mushy taste which reminded me a little of ammonia. The steamed crab was surprisingly dried out and fibrous – not at all what I was expecting of the crabs Hokkaido is supposed to be famous for.

We got some fruits on the way out and they were really juicy and succulent. The stalls were most pleasing to the eye, lined with peaches of almost perfect skin and beautifully packaged giant strawberries which I gladly picked up in preparation for the long drive to the next town of Abashiri.

Fruit peach at Washo Market Kushiro Japan

Travel Diary: Farm Tomita, Furano, Hokkaido, Japan

Furano, a city to the south of the Kamikawa Subprefecture and rather central in the landmass that is Hokkaido, is a paradise of natural produce. Furano was our stop after Asahikawa and before Sapporo, and I was absolutely thrilled by the prospect of all the farms we would get to visit and the photographs I’d seen. The lavender fields would only be ready in July, but in June, we had melons, strawberries, and other delicious fruits.

It was back at the start of June 2014, a few weeks into the Hokkaido Spring, and the fields were already full of colour. For some of the later blooming flowers, the buds were transitioning into blossoms as the heat was coming on, although we could still cool down quickly by hiding out in the shade because the humidity had not risen too much yet.

Poppies in Furano

I remember trodding up the sandy path leading farther into Farm Tomita. That turned quickly into a half-run once I saw the bold dabs of colour at the end of the field. The poppies were in full bloom, spotting the lush green field with its starburst centre surrounded by its bright white or red chiffon-like petals like skirts in the wind. There are a few greenhouses near the edge of the farm as well, which houses an assortment of flowers in rows on rows. Looking out from the inside of the greenhouse, beyond the flowers potted in the window sill and to the field beyond, I tried my best to capture the beautiful scene and lock it in my memory for a future revisit.

Flowers at Farm Tomita Greenhouse

Flowers at Farm Tomita

Although the lavender was not in season, Farm Tomita was selling its famous lavender ice-cream anyway. I thought it tasted absolutely amazing and it was the prettiest shade of… well, lavender. I’ve tried lavender ice-cream on several occasions and came away with an expanded awareness of the range of taste – from soapy to powdery. But this… was a different matter altogether.

Lavender Ice Cream

It was like eating perfume. I know how that sounds, but trust me, it was great. You have to try it if you ever go that way. There was a certain sweet creaminess in the ice-cream and as I ate it, felt like I was inhaling a lavender perfume. I would describe it as “tasting the scent”, if that makes any sense at all.

I sat together with my family in the shade of an umbrella, colored in the same pine green shade that colors all of Farm Tomita’s signs, thoroughly enjoying the ice-cream while watching children run around in the sun, trying to avoid having their melting lavender ice-cream drip on their toes.