Another type of aquarium

If you’ve been with me for awhile you know that we like to visit aquariums. We’ve been to some great ones and always look forward to them. Today we visited an ‘aquarium’ unlike any we have visited before.

It is called the ‘Art Aquarium’, and it is not new, even though it is in a new location. We watched a drama series on Netflix called ‘Fishbowl Wives‘ in which the Art Aquarium was featured, and then this summer the NHK series Japanology did a program about gold fish, and there it was again.

The new location is on the 8th floor of the Ginza Mitsukoshi department store (the kind of department store where the main floor escalators are flanked by Boucheron and Bulgari boutiques).

The exhibition is an exquisite little jewel, and is all about 金魚(kingyo) – aka gold fish.

Everything about the design was so interesting. Here – columns of small goldfish.

But with lights and mirrors there is suddenly and infinity of goldfish…

In this area the fish are displayed in small shallow tanks. The pedestals are wrapped in beautiful obi fabric.

I’m here just for the beautiful marbles, let alone the pretty fish! Each one is a little work of art.

In addition to light and mirrors for effect the magnification effect of water is used. Those fish are not actually as big as they look. The big glass ball is huge, but the fish are normal goldfish sized. (By the way – that’s my brother Bill, who joined us on our adventure yesterday!)

And there was every type of goldfish that you could imagine. Puffy faced ones.

Goldfish that looked like they had been hammered out of metal.

Same scene, different light, different mood.

And everything was perfect and pristine. All the glass was immaculate. There wasn’t a flake of fish food floating in the water, nor a single poop. All the fish looked healthy. In tanks with lots of bubbles they were feisty and in other bowls and tanks they drifted languidly. We were a bit boggled at the thought of the animal husbandry and cleaning that goes on to make this all so beautiful.

And yes, there was a Halloween themed area

Lost in Translation – the Sharon and Wilf edition

Not that we’ve been chomping at the bit, but one week after the Japanese government opened their borders to independent travelers – guess where we are! Usually Wilf has our big trips planned in great detail well in advance. And, in the past two years, he has discovered the world of city video bloggers on YouTube, which means he has been ‘visiting’ Tokyo virtually since the spring of 2020. This trip is not like the usual for us. We booked a hotel for a month in Tokyo and just showed up. We’ll figure the rest out as we go.

We are staying in the Asakusa district. Way, way back the city of Edo, the precursor to Tokyo, was founded in this area on the banks of the Sumida River. Besides the great temple of Senso-ji, which has endured through the many versions of the city, this was at one point an entertainment district and a horse racing area. There is still an amusement park, and venerable theatres. Wide modern streets cut through little areas of narrow streets packed with shops and restaurants. Much of this area was destroyed during WWII, so while people have lived here for a very long time, it is mostly a modern district.

Usually when we come to Japan we have Places to Go! Things to See! Trains to Catch! Food to Eat! We hit the ground running and get to it. I suppose we’ve been jet lagged, but we’ve been to busy to notice. Let’s just say the pace this time is more relaxed – and we’re both fighting the time difference. I’m writing this at 5:30 pm and trying to figure out how we’re going to stay awake until 9:00 so that we can sleep. And not be up at 4:00 like we were this morning

Thank heavens our hotel room is big enough that there is a bedroom with a door and a sitting room with a couch. At 40 square metres this place is positively capacious! Most regular hotel rooms are about half that. I’ll take pictures later and show you what the place is like.

When we were here in 2009 we found a shrine to the tanuki, the raccoon-dog patron saint of good times and prosperous business. I wrote about it here: Tanuki shrine. And here is an article about who he is and where he fits in Japanese culture. Every time we come back to Tokyo we make a visit to the shrine to say hello. And we have learned that there is a small street in Asakusa with little lampost shrines to various aspects of tanuki-ness. It is called Tanuki street and it runs between Hoppi and Orange street.

Looking a little bleary, I’m saying hello to Mr & Mrs Tanuki

All you have to do is look up to know you are on Tanuki Street.

This shouldn’t be a surprise!

Merry Christmas! We woke to a white Christmas this morning – the first one since 2017. That shouldn’t be a surprise. After all this is the year where we’ve had the highest temperatures on record, the longest dry spell, the greatest single day rainfall and I don’t know how many other weather events. So – snow and forecast serious cold is not a surprise.

The view to the west.

Bit of snow – not too serious yet. That almost looks like a chinook arch over Cowichan Bay, but we don’t have those here!

And to finish up – here is our Christmas letter for this year. Wishing you all a 2022 of good health, good friends and good times.

Greetings to you all. In ‘The Before Times’ we would be recounting our travel adventures from the year that was. In 2021 our adventures have been more of the domestic variety. In June there was the heat dome. In a temperate climate such as ours it was rather a shock. And then in November we had a series of atmospheric rivers that threw stunning amounts of water at us. Sometimes we grumble about the constant fight against gravity that living on a hill brings, but we were very happy to watch all that water pass right by.

We made travel plans for 2021 which didn’t happen, and have made travel plans for 2022, which it looks like might not happen either. We did have visits from Sharon’s brothers this year. Sharon’s Mom continues to live independently but is considering a move closer to us in Sidney.

The garden got a lot of attention this year, which was good, as it seems like everything reacted to the combination of rain and heat with a desire to grow. If we hadn’t been on our game we fear the house might have been swallowed by vegetation!

Sharon has continued her Japanese language studies at the University of Victoria, and after several years of hard work can now communicate at the level of a kindergarten student. She figures that by the time we return to Japan she may have worked her way up to a grade school level!  がんばって!(Do your best!)

Everything old is new again

My Instagram feed has a lot of sewing content, and lately there have been many rapturous posts with people posting about the new wonder garment, the Shacket. Yes, just what it sounds like – a combination of shirt and jacket. Now those of us who were young during the 1970’s are totally familiar with the concept of the shirt jacket. A piece of outerwear, cut like a shirt but made from a outdoor weight woolen fabric. Probably plaid. Perhaps corduroy was involved.

I submit as evidence the Stoneman family Christmas card for 1972.

That picture would have been taken in October of 1972 when we were visiting family friends in Choteau, Montana.

Being that I’m an Old Person™ I just thought ‘Aren’t those young uns and their shackets cute.’

Then I remembered. In 2018 we were packing up the Stoneman vacation home in Bigfork, Montana. The back hall closet had a whole bunch of utility coats – mostly older things that were used for yard work and such. But way in the back was a red Pendleton shirt jacket. Belonged to my Dad. It was such a nice jacket that I took it home, even though I couldn’t really imagine when I would wear such a thing – maybe in the garden.

I went looking for it and lo and behold!

A windy walk in Sidney – but I was warm in my shacket! We’ve had a lot of Big Weather here lately – you can see where I’m standing the stuff that has been thrown up from the water, across the beach, over the rocks, over the path and onto the lawn….

I guess it just goes to show that if you live long enough everything comes back around again and you can – entirely by accident – be on trend!

Greetings from my backyard

Back in the first week of March, when we were sweatily clambering through the jungles of Cambodia I would remind myself – ‘This is out of your comfort range, but soon it will be different. You will be back in your cool coastal rainforest and you will remember this adventure fondly’. The last bit is true, but wow! How things have changed.

When I flipped the calendar over to April I realized that the calendar was now a decorative, not a functional object. The only items on it are the recycling and garbage pick up days. And we are very grateful that those services are still operating. But, living on a dead end street with only four houses on it means it is very quiet. Self isolation is rather the norm up here on our hill. I must admit that I’m startled when I go into town to see how many people are, in fact, out and about.

We are very lucky – we can stay home. We can arrange things so that we go out for groceries every other week. We can drive a short distance to go for a walk on the path around the airport, giving us a brief change of scenery and some exercise beyond what get walking up and down our driveway. I’m baking bread, and yes, I’ve got sourdough starter underway. I am anxious about my parents, but their situation seems to be stable right now. Other family members are working from home and everyone is staying in touch.

So – rather than be a blog about our travel adventures this will be about our at home adventures. There are things to make, things to bake and a garden to tend to. I’ll be back to report on what we’re up to.

And until then – the view from the back door.

Early spring

Southeast Asia 2020 – wrap up

A quick post, mostly for my own reference, to sum up details of our trip.

It has been just over two weeks since we returned home and the world looks like a completely different place. I don’t know what travel will look like when we reach the other side of this. Right now the idea of going anywhere seems crazy. But someday again, perhaps. So, in that spirit:

Firstly, however, I want to sing the praises of Cathy Larsen, our travel agent/advisor. Cathy is the co-owner of Departures Travel in Sidney, BC. We have worked with her on our trips since 2013. Among her many great qualities, Cathy loves to solve problems – a great thing for a travel professional, no? We know that when we are traveling with Cathy at the helm that if things start to go sideways she will be working tirelessly to get us sorted. And on this trip that is exactly what happened. Those of you who know Wilf and I know that our approach to travel involves Research! Plans! Questions! Cathy has been great every time with our endless questions. And she knows all the neat places to go and things to do. And if you are not all about the research she can build you a fantastic trip so all you have to do is pack your bags.

So – when the world is traveling again I would suggest you think of Cathy. And if you are in Sidney you can stop by to meet her – and her very sweet, very shy dog Sadie. And if you are afar – Cathy and her team have all the tools to help you wherever you are.

Cruise Line – Silver Sea. We cruised on the Silver Spirit, their largest ship which carries 608 passengers and about 400 crew. It is hard to talk about the cruise without referring constantly to the unusual way this particular cruise went. But let me start with some basics. The ship is beautiful and our stateroom was fantastic. It was a room to spend time in, not just get out of. The public areas of the ship are all gorgeous and full of interesting details. They obviously take a lot of care in the hiring of staff ,who were all highly professional and warm and friendly. The food and beverage options were all first class. Shore excursions were interesting and well organized. Embarkation and disembarkation were very well organized, both on shore days and at the start and end of the cruise. The pre-cruise communication was excellent. Really, everything was exceptional.

In the unusual situation of the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic I felt that Silver Sea did an excellent of managing the situation. Their biggest strength was communication – throughout the experience, beginning before we even left home, they kept us informed about what was happening. Onboard we were kept up to date as changes were being made and we never felt that they were hiding things from us or dissembling. At the same time they were managing a huge amount of disruption to their processes – the switch from Hong Kong to Manila as our departure port meant that they did not pick up three containers of supplies before the cruise started. I’m sure below decks it was all paddle paddle paddle but to us they presented an air of calmness and competence.

Tour Companies – for our Cambodia overland tour we worked with Cathy and a company called TourCan Vacations. They took our requirements and came back with itineraries that worked for us and in the end they put together a tour that we were very happy with.

TourCan is an aggregator, and they used a company called Trails of Indochina for the actual delivery of the tour. And it was great! We were met by Mr Sim and our driver at the airport and for the three nights, four days we were in Cambodia they took excellent care of us. We had an excellent driver and a very comfortable air conditioned van to tour in. They kept us hydrated, refreshed with cool towels and spritzed with alcohol hand sanitizer to make sure we didn’t succumb to the heat or germs. I’m sure there were times when they would have like to have hosed us down from top to bottom before putting us back on their lovely clean bus, but there it was. Mr. Sim was a terrific guide. There was not a question, historical, political, you name it that he could not answer. His English was excellent. We really appreciated his candour. We had many questions about Cambodia and what happened in the 20th century. The impact of war, of the Khmer Rouge, the rebuilding of the country. These wounds are so recent and so deep I never know if it is appropriate to ask about that history. Mr Sim shared his history and how he felt about his country and its path forward.

People ask us – why travel so much? And this is it. I will hold close the memory of sitting on the steps of an ancient temple, listening to Mr Sim tell his story and the story of his country, his hopes and his plans for the future. It was a privilege.

Okay – back to the trip wrap up. Trails of Indochina subcontracted our evening food tour of Siem Reap to Vespa Adventures. I’ve written about that adventure – they were great. And they have locations in several southeast Asian countries, so check them out if you are in that part of the world.

Hotels – well, we stayed in some of the most beautiful hotels in the world on this trip. My only regret is that it was only for one night in each one! Based on that short experience I can speak highly of :

The Peninsula Hotel, Manila

The Fullerton Hotel, Singapore

The Carlton, Singapore

And of course, Phum Baitang , in Siam Reap, Cambodia. We had three lovely nights there.

It was a great trip, and now, almost three weeks later it seems like a dream. So much has changed since then. But while we are being socially distant we have our memories of a wonderful experience to linger over.

Fourth Time Lucky

This trip included our fourth trip to Singapore. If you had told me some years back that Singapore would become one of my most visited cities/countries I would have been very surprised. And yet, there it is.

One thing we had never managed to do, though, was try Singapore Chili crab. Never seemed to line up. Last year when we were in New Zealand we met Liz P, who lives in London. She was in Singapore in January of this year and when she posted pictures of a crab fest we were all over it!

And so it came to be!

The restaurant is Holy Crab. I checked it out on Google to find the best way to walk from our hotel and saw that they took online reservations. Being a cautious type I of course made us a reservation – after all, a lot of people live in this city. Yes, it is taking me awhile to adjust to the situation on the ground. We found the place with no difficulty. And were greeted by name, being that we were the only customers, let alone the only reservation.

Anticipation. And beer
Satisfaction! Messy but oh so good!

So many temples!

It is really hard to talk about the temples of the Angkor Wat complex. Everything is so huge in scale. This was a highly developed civilization, supporting as many as a million people back when London May have had 50,000.

Kings being kings they wanted to build things and to be remembered. The empire of these kings did not endure and the great cities were abandoned. People still lived amongst the ruins and knew of the vast lost cities. When Europeans were colonizing south east Asia they ‘discovered’ the ruins and began to explore.

It should be noted that the 20th century was a huge challenge for Cambodia and its people. They have persevered and worked hard to create a better future for themselves and that effort has included preserving their storied past.

Part of the impact of the place is the size. The main temple at Angkor Wat is huge. Pictures hardly do it justice.

The iconic view of the temple
It was a long climb up to this level

And everywhere the carvings. A full panoply of Hindu gods and attendants, images of Buddha. Some in good repair, some not so much. But that any of it has been reclaimed from the jungle is amazing.

We had a wonderful guide who could tell us all about what we were seeing. He also knew all the best places for pictures and how to use features if our phone cameras that we didn’t know about.

Like this picture, taken at the exact centre of this complex looking up into the vault.

And look what you can do with the pano feature of an iPhone!

Truth be told the heat nearly did us in. But a delicious lunch and a rest had us ready to go again.

Next up – the temple of the trees. Famous for being itself, then famous again when Angelina Jolie dropped in to film the first ‘Tomb Raider’ movie. It’s pretty cool!

Looks suspiciously like a stegosaurus doesn’t it!

Last up for day one was Bayon, famous for the faces carved into the towers.

On our second day we went to see the pink temple which turned out to be a little jewel. Smaller in scale it was constructed mostly of a fine grain pink sandstone, which allows for incredibly detailed carvings.

You could spend a lot of time roaming from temple to temple – these pictures are only a portion of what we saw.

As I’ve mentioned before tourism has taken a tremendous hit during the coronavirus situation- as much as a 70% drop in tourists in this area. Huge parking lots with no buses, temples with no lines, vendors with huge unsold inventories. It really brings home how connected we all are and how an event in one place can send ripples out in many many directions.

This is where I give my pitch – hire local guides! They know so much and care so much. Guidebooks are great, but we learned so much from our guide Mr Sim. In a country with such a turbulent history it was really wonderful to sit down on a ledge of a temple that is a thousand years old and hear the story of the temple and the story of the man telling it.

Another day, another infinity pool

I didn’t mention how hot it was in Singapore. And it was. But we found hotter. OMG Cambodia! 35C! We flew from Singapore to Siem Reap in Cambodia, which is the gateway city for the Angkor Wat temple complex. We arrived, visited the museum for an overview of the area history and then had lunch. After lunch we were dropped at our hotel. You guys! This place! It is incredible. It is called Phum Bairang, which means Green Village. We went off the main road and down several very dusty red dirt roads – passed along a white wall – a man opened a gate and waved us in. Almost the first thing we saw was the resident family of water buffaloes munching on the grass. Scattered across several acres were small villas. We were greeted and formalities completed and then we took a leisurely walk across a board walk through a rice paddy to our villa. It is so beautiful! When our guide came the next morning he said it reminded him of the village where he grew up- rice, small houses, water buffalo, etc. I don’t think his village has this, though …

Not too hard to take

Our tour of the temples starts in the morning. The tour we booked had several options for the first night. We thought a boat ride, but it is the dry season and there isn’t enough water in the river. So –

A nighttime tour of foodie places by Vespa. The face masks are for dust and fumes, by the way. Our resort is a ways out of town, so the first adventure was driving first then back roads and then the busy roads to get to the city. Just a weaving back and forth through the traffic. The boss man led the way, and Wilf and I hung on as our drivers kept up.

We visited a brew pub for beers, then walked the local market to see what people were buying for dinner. We then headed to the night market, which sprawled for miles along the side of the highway.

My mother will be so proud of me, strolling the streets, beer in hand.

I think the tour group thought they were going to have a couple of rugby players on their hands ‘cause they had loaded up on beer and kept trying to get us to drink some. Actually they may have been rather taken aback when we appeared – probably old enough to be their grandparents. You should have seen them carefully getting us on and off the scooters, snapping our helmets on. They were very sweet to us.

Oh yes they are. Oh no we didn’t.

This lady was selling a wide variety of deep fried bugs. Crickets. Ants. Grasshoppers. Water beetles. Couldn’t do it, sorry. At the next stop we did have grilled stuffed frog, chicken and quail. You know what I’m going to say – tastes like chicken.

The gal who was my driver was also the photographer. She has sent me a bunch of great photos of the evening but I’m having trouble downloading them on my phone. I’ll have to post them later.

Let’s just say that in addition to drinking beer, eating grilled critters and zooming all over town we also played games of chance, and tried exotic fruit. And then had dinner. It was hoot and a night we will long remember

Next up – temple overload.