Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Up Devil's Peak to its summit and now ruined redoubt (Photo-essay)

More than a year ago, my regular hiking companion and I went along Stage 3 of the Wilson Trail. Now that no small amount of time has passed since that we went on that excursion, I can look back and remember enough good things about that hiking experience to actually think that it might be worth taking other friends along that particular section of the 78 kilometer long hiking trail named after David Wilson, the 27th British governor of Hong Kong at some point.

On the day of the hike itself, however, I was more prone to rant about the problems encountered along the way -- specifically with regards to the poor (placements of) signage on what is, after all, a major Hong Kong hiking trail. And to put things in context: This really was the worst sign-posted trail that I went along of the 120 hikes that I've now gone on in the Big Lychee!

At the same time though, as I hope that the following photo-essay will go some way in showing, a hike along Wilson Trail Stage 3 does yield some scenic vistas, cool sights and -- if one allows for a short detour up the first hill encountered on the trek -- a visit to a ruined early 20th century redoubt up on Devil's Peak!

Unlike the two earlier sections of the Wilson Trail,
Stage 3 is located across Victoria Harbour

from Hong Kong Island

A sign post along the way that has
no mention
whatsoever of the Wilson Trail

A view that shows how close city and countryside
are to each other in Hong Kong (with few,
if any, suburban areas existing in between)

Although the ruins of the redoubt at the top
of Devil's Peak
is not officially part of Wilson Trail
Stage 3,
we couldn't resist detouring up to it

One of many treasured snaps of a trigonometrical
that I now have in my photo collection ;b
View from the former military site that takes in
part of the huge Junk Bay Chinese Permanent Cemetery

As improbable as it may seem, someone (or more)
has decided that the top of this 222 meter high peak
-- including the sections that are a former military
facility -- is a good place to cultivate a garden!

For the record: Carving noting for posterity
that the redoubt was built by the 40th Company
(of the (British) Royal Engineers) in 1914

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Grilled blowfish sperm -- and more -- at Sushi Kuu!

Feast your eyes on this sumptuous
sashimi starter selection! :b

The main event: grilled fugu milt (sperm)
in all of its delicious glory! ;b

Three years ago, I made the first of my now annual visits to Sushi Kuu for an omakase (trans. chef's choice) dinner with people including my über foodie friend. Because she and I both had gotten a great urge to try eating grilled fugu sperm after watching Yojiro Takita's Departures, she had called ahead and asked her friend, the head chef, to check to see if this particular delicacy was in season. To our delight, he had indicated that this was so. So imagine our disappointment when we arrived for dinner on the appointed evening to be told that there was no blowfish sperm to be had at our meal!

As it turned out however, that evening's feast was superb enough even minus the sought after fugu shirako -- and so much so, in fact, that I was moved to declare later that it was the best meal I had in 2010! So, even without counting the fact that chef Satoru Mukogawa had nicely included a serving of cod sperm into our meal as consolation for there being no fugu sperm on the night, I resolved to return the next year for another try.

A little less than one year later, my über foodie friend and I returned to Sushi Kuu. This time around, there was fugu sperm on the menu... but only fugu sperm tempura and fugu sperm chawanmushi because Satoru-san had decided after checking it out one more time at dinner time that the fugu shirako was not good enough to be eaten grilled! So we were again disappointed by our not yet being able to try the dish we had now craved for some time now even while returning the next year to attempt to finally achieve our culinary ambition.

As it so happened, the first time this year that my über foodie friend went in search of grilled fugu sperm at Sushi Kuu, she got her wish. Although I wish I could say otherwise, I was not with her that evening -- because I had to bow out of that dinner as a result of my nursing a nasty cold. But good friend that she is, she promised that she would return there with me when I got over my cold and could properly taste and enjoy my food again.

So I am very happy to be able to announce that this past Wednesday, while seated in between her and another good friend, my big night finally arrived! And no, it really was not an anticlimactic experience at all to finally partake of that which I found to be amazingly rich and creamy tasting -- and truly decadently delicious. Also, for the record, blowfish sperm really does taste better grilled than as tempura or as part of chawanmushi. (And speaking of chawanmushi -- we also had a fantastic chawanmushi concoction that evening; one that was topped with sea urchin roe and what may well be finely chopped up truffles!)

All in all, this was another incredible meal at Sushi Kuu for me. But I have to admit that this time around, my memory of dinner will be bitter-sweet. Lest there be any doubt, the bitter/sad bit has nothing to do with the excellent food but, rather, is the result of this dinner having been my final meal with a very good friend who will shortly be leaving Hong Kong for Toronto where a better -- and better paying too! -- job awaits. As I have already told her, I will miss her a lot. At the same time, I really do have lots of great memories of good times spent together -- including, now, a wonderful dinner where I -- at long last! -- finally achieved one of my foodie ambitions!! :)

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Loud and Old (This week's Photo Hunt themes)

Back in fall 2009, my mother and I went on a visit to The Land of the Morning Calm. On the morning of our third day our South Korean vacation, we went to Jongmyo Shrine, South Korea's oldest Confucian royal shrine which has existed in its present form since the 16th century.

Although this UNESCO World Heritage-listed locale is indisputably old and dedicated to commemorating the dead (specifically, the deceased kings and queens of the Joseon Dynasty that ruled over Korea from 1392 to 1910), it can be a less quiet place than one might think. One reason for this is that royal ancestral rites and ritual music continue to be performed in this part of Seoul from time to time.

As it so happened, the day we visited this site was one of those special days when the Jongmyo Jerye ancestral rite took place. The first inkling my mother and I had that this was going on came shortly after we passed through the entrance of the Jongmyo Shrine and heard what we initially mistook for loud piped music but soon realized was being produced at a live performance in the outdoor area of the complex's main Jeongjeon compound.

Somewhere along the way, we also found printed pamphlets informing us about the ceremony -- one that involved movements so formal I almost hesitate to describe it as a dance along with music and still more ritual activities -- that we got to witness when we entered that physically stark but still nonetheless pretty impressive space.

Looking back at my 2009 Korean visit as a whole, I definitely think that being witness to that ancient traditional ceremony at the authentically old Jongmyo Shrine was one of that trip's highlights. And while I did previously blog about it soon after, I reckon it's worth another blog post -- not least because this entry for Sandi's and Gattina's Photo Hunts allows me to put up three more photos of the shrine and its attendant ceremony that I hadn't previously done before! :)

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Lin effect -- Brigitte Lin, that is!

Even when she's in the background, Brigitte Lin Ching Hsia
can't help but stand out in a picture!

For much of this month, much of the world (including myself, actually) has been in the thralls of Jeremy Lin mania -- Linsanity, as the phenomenon has been termed. But long before Jeremy Shu-How Lin first appeared on the professional basketball and pop culture scene, another Lin with Taiwanese roots had captured my imagination and carved a place in my heart.

I first experienced Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia mania back in the late 1990s when I was still living in Philadelphia and rediscovering the magic of the cinema of Hong Kong after years of not having given the territory's movies so much as a single look. One fateful day in a Philly Chinatown video store that was a veritable treasure trove for a filmophile like myself, I rented VHS tapes of Peking Opera Blues and Boys Are Easy without realizing that they both starred the actress known to much of the Chinese speaking world as Wondrous Beauty -- and consequently went through what really could be described as a life-changing experience.

Put another way: Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia played a not insignificant part in leading me to return to Asia, change career paths and eventually move to Hong Kong itself. So it's rather ironic -- even if somewhat explainable in that my favorite actress of all time (and in the world wide world!) hasn't appeared in a new movie since 1994 -- that I actually haven't had many opportunities at all to view her films and her on a big screen here in the Big Lychee.

Last Friday evening, however, saw me attending a screening at The Grand Cinema of All The Wrong Spies courtesy of Schoolmates Culture Club's Teddy Robin Panorama -- and I'm really happy to be able to report that the screening took place in a pretty packed house filled with a wonderfully receptive audience that got me thinking once again that one of the best cinematic experiences involves roaring with laughter and generally enjoying a comedy with people you may not have much in common with besides a shared appreciation of a particular film's rib-tickling moments.

The 1983 spy comedy that was Teddy Robin Kwan's directorial debut effort is admittedly not perfect -- not least in terms of its wince-inducing final joke. Set in 1938, the zany movie's story involves various people and factions trying to get hold of a secret hydrogen bomb formula that was stolen out of Nazi Germany by a Jewish scientist who wants to put into the hands of the Americans but somehow ended up in Hong Kong and lots of trouble.

Initially, the focus is on the film's two leading men, George Lam along with director Teddy Robin Kwan. But once Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia appears on the scene, she easily steals the show. To his credit, the film's director fully recognized the beautiful asset that this great actress was -- and played up her beauty to the hilt (e.g., when his character first sets eyes on her, he literally is moved to float several feet up in the air!) as well as gave her ample opportunities to shine and sparkle (again, sometimes literally!!). And almost needless to say, the movie's star actress really did go ahead and show off her charisma and talents with great aplomb.

Watching the movie with a knowing audience (i.e., one familiar with other films in which many of the people with prominent roles in it have made), it was fun to hear the chuckles when Tsui Hark and Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia sparred on screen in one scene -- and, in particular, when he made a gesture that got people recalling another 1983 movie, Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain (which he had directed and she had been its lead actress) -- and she showed how handy she can be with a whip (10 years before she would wield that weapon with great panache once more in The Bride with White Hair).

Re-viewing All the Wrong Spies for the first time in years, I also got to thinking again that this movie must have planted some seeds in Tsui Hark's imagination that would bloom three years later into Peking Opera Blues. For, without wanting to create "spoilers" for either movie, here's pointing out that Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia shows in both these films that she is very good indeed at playing the kind of characters who can assume multiple guises and are far more multi-layered and deeper than they often are initially given credit. And even while Peking Opera Blues is undoubtedly the finer cinematic work, I also do sincerely believe that both these films owe a significant percentage of their "watchability" to her very presence in them! :)

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Ma On Shan Country Trail done in reverse (Photo-essay)

Many moons ago now, I went on that which I've come to think of as "the hike from hell" -- an arduous excursion that had me seriously wondering at one point whether I'd need to call on Hong Kong's helicopter rescue service for help! Happily, that experience didn't put me off hiking in Hong Kong altogether. And close to three years later, I decided to go along the Ma On Shan Country Trail with my now regular hiking companion -- with the full realization that one third of this official trail would involve my re-visiting sections that I had previously ventured along on that scary "hell hike".

One reason for doing so stemmed from my recalling that parts of that hike really did go through very lovely countryside indeed. Another was that, feeling quite a bit fitter now as well as more experienced than when I went on what was only my seventeenth hike in the Big Lychee, I figured that going back to this area would help me exorcise some demons as well as provide me with a good sense of my fitness levels now versus then.

As it turned out, this later hike proved to be a pretty pleasant one indeed. And even while the (only) 4.5 kilometer long Ma On Shan Country Trail did feel on the short side, this hike did yield a number of interesting sights as well as splendid views on the day during which we were so happy to be outdoors and making the most of pleasant weather and beautiful blue skies. :)

We hiked the Ma On Shan Country Trail in reverse --
and consequently began by climbing up several steps

Before too long, the steps up the hill disappeared
-- and beautiful vistas opened up to be viewed

The views inland included ones of Pyramid Hill --
one of those Hong Kong peaks I aspire to get up
some day... just not that particular day!

View of Sai Kung from the edge of the Ngong Ping
plateau located in Ma On Shan Country Park
(as opposed to on Lantau Island)

View from Ngong Ping plateau of Pyramid Hill
and saddle-shaped Ma On Shan

The descent from the plateau down towards the old
mining settlement of Ma On Shan Tsuen and Ma On Shan
new town was surprisingly quick and easy

An unexpected "find" on this hike -- a building that
played a memorable role in the 2009 Milkyway
Image movie, Tactical Unit - Comrades in Arms! :b

Also spotted at the tail end of this hike: entrances
to the now disused iron mine at Ma On Shan

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Unusual sightings while hiking in southwest Lantau

While it's true enough that most Hong Kong hikes
yield their share of mountainous or hilly vistas...

...I do think it's pretty unusual to come across a herd
of super placid cows near the summit of 490 meter high

Ling Wui Shan -- like was my experience earlier today! :O

Many probably will be of the opinion that it's even more
singular to spot a flying dragon (statue) while out hiking
-- in Hong Kong, or anywhere else for that matter! :D

Since it's such a rare sight, I simply had to go take
a closer look at -- and photo of -- the thing...! ;b

Earlier today, a friend who began hiking with me last September and I went on a very enjoyable hike -- whose completion gave us a nice sense of accomplishment -- along Lantau Trail Stages 5 and 6. (Since Lantau Trail Stage 5 ends far from any roads, those going on it must then go along Stage 6 or another walking trail in order to get to a place where they can get a bus or taxi.)

Our 11 kilometer hike took us into parts of Hong Kong where few people venture and up three peaks, including the very summits of Hong Kong's 56th and 64th highest hills. As one might expect, such a route offered up some splendid natural vistas -- which we were able to appreciate even though today was one with less optimally clear air than we wish could be the case.

Less expected, however, was our coming across a herd of cows basking in the sun a stone's throw away from the top of the highest hill we climbed today -- though it could be said that there were plentiful signs of their presence on the hike up in the shape of several cow patties, some of which were considerably fresher than the others! Honestly, until I saw them with my very own eyes today, I never would have thought that cows would be able to climb up such steep inclines as the ones we were on earlier today!

Although some might be surprised at the sight of a flying dragon in this part of the Big Lychee, I actually wasn't -- because years ago, when doing research for an article about dragons in Hong Kong, I learnt of the existence of the flying dragon statue built by the Venerable Master Hua who also founded the nearby Tsz Hing Monastery. Still, I have to say that it's quite the experience to see it in the setting in which it is located -- but will also state that this colorful but rather obviously amateur-constructed statue actually is more impressive viewed from afar rather than up close! ;D

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Point and circles (This week's Photo Hunt themes)

This year's edition of the Hong Kong Arts Festival started a month earlier than is usually the case but I've yet to check out any of its offerings. This time last year, however, I already had taken in a performance of Hobson's Choice by the Birmingham Royal Ballet and the Power Plant show (which also originated from Britain) that were two of the 39th Hong Kong Arts Festival more unusual -- and, to my mind, inspired -- offerings.

The Power Plant show -- which I wrote about previously but am doing so again for this week's contribution to Sandi's and Gattina's Photo Hunts, took me out to Kowloon Walled City Park. Even in the daytime and bereft of the special effects, sounds and visuals that make up the Power Plant show, this public park is a place where the imagination can go pretty wild due to its colorful historical connections. (This now beautifully landscaped park stands on the site of the infamously more or less lawless Kowloon Walled City that began life as an imperial Chinese outpost but went on to become one of the most densely-populated places in the world.)

However, this magical mystery tour of a night show truly transformed the Kowloon Walled City Park into one where the unexpected would be found whenever one rounded one of the space's multiple corners -- with such as balls of fire dancing near the surface of one of the park's ponds, colorful circles of light floating about in another area and what at first glance looks like circular-shaped luminescent fruit stuck on trees in yet another area.

So, one might ask, was the point of all of this? The short answer looks to be "to entertain, of course!" A longer answer might well be that this show demonstrates how wonderfully art can combine with nature and, also, that the artistic experience is a sensory experience that utilizes the audience's as well as artists' abilities to imagine, share a love of fun surprises and reach out to one another and, in the process, rise above linguistic and cultural differences. :)

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Okinawa's UNESCO World Heritage listed-Shuri Castle

Pass through these gates that are part of Shuri Castle...

...to get to inner sections of this complex, including
the ornate Seiden (Main Hall) of the castle complex

Although it may not look like so, pretty much all
that you see at Shuri Castle are reconstructions
due to the castle having been reduced to ashes
during the second world war

Once upon a time, Japan was home to hundreds -- thousands even -- of castles. However, few of those castles exist today -- with close to 2,000 having been dismantled or destroyed during the Meiji period alone.

The general consensus appears to be that there are just 12 original castles left in The Land of the Rising Sun. Although little of what the visitor to Shuri-jo beholds is actually original (on account of much of this complex having been destroyed during the second world war), he or she can take solace in the reconstructed Ryukyu royal palace nonetheless being part of the UNESCO World Heritage listed sites on the Okinawa Islands.

As outlined on UNESCO's official site, Shuri-jô (Shuri Castle) built in the second half of the 14th century, was the main castle of the kings of Chûzan and, after unification, of the Ryukyu Kingdom. The hill on which it stands dominates Naha City and its port. It is divided into inner and outer enclosures, conforming with the topography. The castle's enclosure walls, built with random bonding of coralline limestone, extend over 1,080 m.

From what I could see when I visited the complex on the final full day of my recent Okinawa vacation, the castle's restorers have done a splendid job. To be sure, this former royal residence actually is generally more modest in decor than I expected -- but it occupies a commanding location atop a hill and a space that is so large that my friends and I didn't actually cover all of its grounds despite spending several hours there.

A visit to Shuri-jo also helps one to recognize how substantial was the cultural as well as political influence of imperial China on the Ryukyu kingdom for centuries. Thus it is that even though Okinawa is officially part of Japan nowadays, my two friends with whom I met up with this past holiday were agreed that this part of the world actually felt more like a cross between Japan proper and Taiwan than other parts of that East Asian country that we have visited.

At the same time, despite more than one source having described Shuri Castle as being reminiscent of, inspired by or resembling the Forbidden City in Beijing, I saw little at the Okinawan site to remind me of that truly magnificent and sprawling Chinese palace complex that I visited some years back (but whose photographs I took of it I've sadly lost!). For what it's worth though, I also don't think that Shuri-jo is all that similar to other castles I've visited, including the beautiful Himeji Castle.

Instead, this Okinawan castle is one that seemed to me to have its own unique touches and identity -- and I really am glad that it has been restored to something approaching its past glory and open to the public to appreciate and learn some episodes of Okinawa's colorful history from.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Okinawa's Underwater Observatory and Glass Bottom Boat Ride (Photo-essay)

On the morning of the same day that my two friends with whom I rendezvoused with in Okinawa and I made our way out to Manzamo, we headed for two cool attractions located near each other that both are part of the Busena Marine Park. What with our visit to Okinawa's world class Churaumi Aquarium the day before having thoroughly whetted our appetite to view more of the islands' marine life, we decided to go down into the Underwater Observatory located 170 meters off the coast of Cape Busena and also take a ride on a glass bottom boat moored nearby.

Looking back, I definitely would consider my visit to the Underwater Observatory and the ride on the glass bottom boat to rank among the highlights of my Okinawa holiday. So I'm truly sorry that the photos I took while I was safely from inside that wonderful facility just doesn't do that amazing experience any justice.

Still, with the thought that something is better than nothing, here's going ahead and offering up some photos taken while in that facility as well as of that facility and the glass bottom boat. As for the boat ride itself: I have to say that this happened to be one of the times where I was really so focused on the act of looking that I decided against doing anything that would distract from that activity such as attempting to take good and clear photographs of what could be seen under the sea -- but yes, it sure was a great experience, particularly because I got to see far more marine life (including many brightly colored fish but, also, beautiful blue-grey starfish, sea cucumbers of varying lengths and colors, and three seriously scary-looking striped sea snakes) over the course of the ride than I expected would be the case! :)

Two children play at the water's edge --
with a
glass bottom boat and the Underwater
visible further in the distance

A closer look at the Underwater Observatory
and -- I kid you not -- the
seafood restaurant
located nearby! :O

It was so windy on the walkway out to the
Underwater Observatory that Puppet Ponyo
trouble standing up straight (and I worried
a bit
that she would get blown into the sea!)

Fortunately, she and I (and my two friends) did
manage to make it to the facility -- and down

four meters inside of it -- without any mishap!

View of -- let me emphasize here -- marine life that are
actually out in the sea (rather than in an aquarium!)

It was amazing to see the waters teeming with life!

Seemingly so little separated those of us
inside the
Underwater Observatory
from the life -- and sea water -- outside

Lest it not be obvious: I would most heartily
recommend that
a visit to Okinawa Honto include
a ride on one of these glass bottom boats
along with
a visit to the Underground Observatory! :)

Sunday, February 12, 2012

On Okinawa Honto's Manzamo, and more

View of the elephant trunk-like feature
that's Manzamo most famous sight

Another part of the scenic Okinawan cliffs that
many a photographer's attention and fancy

These two islands joined together by a rope
that I viewed from that vantage point surely
have an interesting story surrounding them...

Two weeks ago, I was in Okinawa. Perhaps because that part of Japan feels like a majorly different world from Hong Kong -- particularly since one place represents an idyllic vacation spot for me whereas the other is the often super intense and busy place where I live and work -- the time that I was there actually feels like it was further in my past than a mere two weeks ago.

Indeed, I had to check the calendar to make sure that it really was the case that just two Sundays ago from today that I had strolled about the green area atop the coral reef cliffs at Manzamo and beheld breathtakingly beautiful views like the ones in the photographs at the top of this blog entry.

Located just off Highway 58 on Okinawa Honto, Manzamo faces the East China Sea and is part of the Okinawa-Kaigan Quasi-National Park. A splendidly scenic spot, it invariably attracts a number of visitors -- almost all of whom were either Japanese- or Cantonese-speaking. (The definite sense I had from my visit to Japan's southernmost prefecture is that the vast majority of tourists visiting it are Japanese from other parts of the country -- and that Hong Kongers make up a dominant percentage of Okinawa's non-Japanese visitors.)

Strangely, however, neither of the two guide books I've used on my recent trips to Japan (i.e., the third (i.e. 2005) edition of The Rough Guide to Japan and the current edition of Frommer's Japan) give Manzamo so much as a mention. And ditto re Japan-guide.com -- an on-line resource that I've found pretty helpful and useful when visiting other parts of that East Asian country.

Especially when reading Frommer's Japan, I wonder if English-speaking visitors to Okinawa are predominantly Americans whose greatest knowledge of, and interest in, this part of Japan stems from it having been the only part of the country on which ground battles -- and horrifically bloody ones that saw hundreds of thousands of casualties at that -- were waged during World War II? (And I guess this may well be so, what with there being 14 American military bases on Okinawa.)

In any event, I have to say that I'm glad that the two American friends with whom I had an Okinawan rendez-vous shared my preference for checking out Okinawa's beautiful natural sights over visiting sites where large numbers of people -- civilians as well as military personnel -- prematurely lost their lives, and in terribly violent ways at that. For even while I do realize that it is important to not forget the past, I also do not want to dwell too much on its sadder parts -- and prefer to be able to enjoy and celebrate the fact that beauty exists in this part of the world which, particularly after a visit to the Okinawan Prefectural Museum, I came away from a visit realizing has seen its share of tragedy yet still has endured.