The best and worst year of my life

I don’t even know how to describe this past year. It felt like it was the longest and also the shortest year. It was one of the worst and also one of the best years of my life. For the first six months, I felt a deep uncertainty, pain, and hopelessness in my heart; not knowing how long my dad would be here. And for the last six months, emptiness and sadness were added to the list, and every emotion in between, after he was taken to heaven. There isn’t a word that can even describe how I have been feeling and how I feel now. Since he’s been gone, I would wake up every morning missing him and holding back the tears. Some days, I just wanted to lie in bed and stay there all day. But I know that he would not want me to waste the precious time I have crying about something that cannot be changed. After a while, I started to see him smiling at me and I could hear him say ‘I’m so proud of you!’ He had never once told me my hopes and dreams were silly or impossible before. He had never doubted me or told me I couldn’t do whatever I wanted. I think back to the day I made the crazy, life-changing decision to take a year-long break, three weeks after he was gone. I felt that he was telling me, ‘Do it! Don’t be scared! I support you!’ And I did it! And I wasn’t scared! And he supported me – 100%, just as he had promised! And it was the best decision I’ve ever made! I felt a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders and I don’t regret a single moment since that day.

Even though I do stay in bed a little longer than before, I get up eventually and do the things that make me happy. I write. I read. I draw. I think. I pray. I travel. I take pictures. I wonder. I try new things. I laugh. I care about myself. And I don’t care about what people think. I still don’t really know what my future will be like but I like where I am now, in the present. I still have so much I want to do and see and experience. I am not going to make any more excuses for myself. The things I’ve experienced so far have been incredible and I can’t wait to have more adventures and try new things. You’ve brought me to life, Daddy! I know you’d be so proud of me right now!

 

5 days in Fukuoka, Japan (Part 2)

Day 3 (1 November 2017)

1. Nokonoshima Island Park

2. Canal City

After exploring the city for the last couple of days, we decided to head farther out to Nokonoshima Island Park to see some flowers and beautiful nature. With our 2 day pass, we took the subway to Meinohama Station (K01), which is 10 stops away from Hakata Station (K11) on the Kuko Line. The subway ride was about 25 minutes long. From the Meinohama Station, we had to catch a bus to the Meinohama Ferry Terminal. The ferries run every half hour in the morning and every hour in the afternoon. (See http://nokonoshima.com/en/access/ for more details) It is 230 yen one way and takes just 10 minutes to get to the Nokonoshima Ferry Terminal. Once you arrive at Nokonoshima Island, you still need to get on another bus to reach the Island Park. The park entrance fee costs 1,200 yen. But if you do your research, like me, you can get a 10% discount if you purchase beforehand from Lawson convenience store ticket service using the this code: L CODE 81604. I asked the cashier who was kind enough to help me get the voucher from the ticket machine and then exchanged for the discounted tickets for 1080 yen. (See http://nokonoshima.com/en/service/)

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We got to the Island Park and started our walk in the Flower Field. Unfortunately, there were not many flowers to see there, but there were some very tall and green trees! You can also play golf around there!

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We took a short break near the entrance/exit area and bought some snacks. They sell fried chicken, sweet potato, chips, and okra. On the opposite side is an ice-cream vendor. The fried chicken was absolutely mouth-wateringly good! It was greasy but, so worth it! The fried sweet potato was great too!

We followed the path down and admired the flowers and trees all around. Along the way, we played with some of the games in the Children’s Playground and bought some souvenirs from the shops nearby.

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Finally, we arrived at the Panorama Flower Garden. We lied down on the grass and looked out to the sea and sky and just relaxed for half an hour.

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We went to the udon noodle shop for lunch, and I know I’ve been saying ‘the best’ for everything I’ve eaten, but this is the best udon I’ve ever had! The texture is so smooth and soft, it just slides into your mouth. The soup broth is not too salty either. If you go there, make sure you try the udon noodle shop! Unfortunately, I did not take a photo of the delicious udon there as I was too hungry and gobbled it all down!

After lunch, we visited the rabbit enclosure and the goat houses. I bought some rabbit feed from the machine and fed the adorable rabbits. There were so many roaming around, all different colour fur too! The goats were quite cute, poking their heads through the fence, looking at us. While I was taking some photos, one of the goats pushed another goat down the hill! It was so aggressive and scary! That poor baby!

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I really didn’t want to leave this park but we had to catch the ferry back to town. I think this park would be worth visiting in the summer or spring when more flowers are in bloom. I can just imagine a field of multiple colours stretching far and wide!

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We took the ferry, bus and subway back to Hakata. After a short rest, we headed out to Canal City. It is about a 20 minute walk from our hotel. We got a bit lost and had to ask a few locals for directions. They suggested taking the bus but we knew it wasn’t that far so we kept walking and eventually arrived. There was a fountain and light show there in the middle. We watched a bit of it and went to dinner. We tried their sets which looked quite enticing with nine squares filled with different delicacies. I wasn’t quite sure what everything was but they all tasted very nice.

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After dinner, we walked around some of the shops there. There is a store selling lots of Studio Ghibli design stuff, especially Totoro. I bought a cute little towel for a friend. I kind of wish I had bought one for myself too! At around 9:00 p.m., there was a bigger and more exciting light and fountain show with animation projections on the walls. It was quite entertaining, even though I didn’t understand the story. The animations were from the One Piece manga series.

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Day 4 (2 November 2017)

1. Hakata Machiya Folk Museum

2. Kushida Shrine

3. Traditional Craft and Design Museum

4. Bayside Place

5. Uminonakamichi Seaside Park

We decided to check out some local museums in Hakata in the morning. We took the subway to Gio Station and walked about five minutes to the Hakata Machiya Folk Museum. The entrance fee is 200 yen. There is a discount coupon on the back of the Visitor’s Guide, but I discovered this a little late. It’s very cheap already anyway. The museum had lots of dolls on display and models of the old Hakata. There was a video showing the tradition of the Yamakasa Festival in Fukuoka. They spend a few days making the floats which would be used in a race between seven neighbourhoods in the Hakata city. The whole race course is five kilometres long, starting from the Kushida Shrine and ending near the Asian Art Museum.

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On the other side of the museum, we saw a hall where a weaving demonstration was taking place. I even got to try doing some weaving myself too! Further in, there was a painting demonstration as well. If you have time, you can also try some painting yourself!

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The Kushida Shrine was just next to the Folk Museum so we took a walk in the area before going to the Traditional Craft and Design Museum. People like to come to the shrine to pray for success in business, youth and long life. The Yamakasa Festival will take place there in the summer in July.

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Next, we went to the Hakata Traditional Craft and Design Museum. Entrance is free. If you fill out a survey, you can get a postcard as a souvenir! The museum exhibit showed how silk was made and the whole process of dyeing and weaving. There were several videos explaining the whole process but we only watched one of them. I was totally amazed by the detail and the effort involved in this craft! They sold many products from the silk weaving at the souvenir shop and I bought several items for my friends. They really are quite beautiful!

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These designs are amazing!

After our museum hopping, we headed to Bayside Place by bus. Originally, we wanted to have a seafood lunch there, but we needed to catch a ferry to the Uminonakamichi Seaside Park and there wasn’t a lot of time for a seafood lunch. So we just bought some bread from the bakery. They were surprisingly good and really cheap! Only 100 yen each! We bought a selection and ate them on the waiting chairs next to the ferry terminal. We took the ferry to Saitozaki terminal. The ferry ride was so quiet as there were hardly anyone on it! Other than our group, there were only three other people there! We could sit anywhere we wanted! When we arrived, we still had to walk about 15 minutes to reach the Uminonakamichi Seaside Park.

This park is so much bigger than Nokonoshima Island Park. The entrance fee is even cheaper! 410 yen per persona and if you are a senior, it’s only 210 yen! There is so much to see here! Unfortunately, we only arrived at around 2:00 p.m. We had to select a few places to visit only. We decided to hit all the flower gardens including the Flower Museum, Rose Garden, Canal Water Fountain Terrace and the Floral Art Garden. We barely saw half of this enormous park and we were so sad to leave this place after only 2.5 hours there. We really need to return another time and seriously explore this place! They have animal houses, kids playground, put put golf area and several large ponds. We only saw two of them. On the other side is the Marine World Aquarium which we didn’t have time to see. I wouldn’t mind spending two days here and staying in the hotel there! I highly recommend this island visit and is so worth it! The flowers would definitely look beautiful here as there are really large fields and gardens all over this park. The parts we got to see, the flowers were quite scarce and some were damaged due to the typhoon that hit last month. However, I wasn’t too disappointed. The Flower Museum and Rose Garden are very quiet and peaceful areas with some tables and chairs to sit down and relax. The Water Fountain Terrace was a really amazing sight. We took so many photos there!

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We reluctantly walked back to the ferry terminal and waited for the ferry to arrive. It was around 5:00 p.m. so we would be able to see the sunset from our ferry ride! Just before stepping onto the ferry, I saw the moon appear as well! I held up my camera on the ferry to capture the seaside view of the sun setting. What a lovely scene!

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We even bumped into some sumo wrestlers when we got off the ferry!

We arrived back at the hotel and enjoyed yet another buffet dinner because they were serving Hokkaido crabs! We went totally crazy at the buffet and I don’t even remember how much food I got! I still saved some room for dessert though!

Day 5 (3 November 2017)

We went out for a traditional Japanese style breakfast and did just some more shopping around as we needed to head to the airport at around 1:00 p.m. We bought our lunch from the Hankyu Department store – sushi bento boxes, salad, and chicken wings. I also went to the book store and bought a book about Japan culture written by a self-proclaimed geek. It is quite entertaining!

I returned the wifi device when we arrived at the airport and we checked in our luggage. We then learned that our flight had been delayed and would have to wait for another hour!

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Japanese breakfast – fish, rice, miso soup, tofu, egg, seaweed

This had been one of the most exciting trips I’ve had. As we did not join any tours, we navigated everywhere on our own and took public transportation. It was not as scary as I had thought and it was quite relaxing to do things at our own pace. I am looking forward to my next trip already – Nagoya!

(End of Part 2)

5 days in Fukuoka, Japan (Part 1)

Day 0 (29 October 2017)

We landed in Fukuoka at around 5 p.m. I had originally ordered a portable wifi device that I needed to pick up at the HK airport but we went to the lounge and totally forgot about it until we had already boarded the plane! Unfortunately, there was no refund either. So we had to get one when we arrived in Fukuoka instead. It has unlimited data and connects up to 10 devices! It is definitely better than getting multiple SIM cards with limited data usage. The connection and speed was very stable, so it’s definitely worth renting one.

We took the shuttle to the domestic terminal to get to the subway station and made our way to Hakata station. We booked Hotel Centraza which is very close and convenient. After some exploring, we found that there is an exit (East 4) that links directly to the basement floor of the hotel where their restaurant is. We checked into our rooms and explored the JR station area to find dinner. A number of ramen places have ticket vending machines for ordering so you basically don’t need to talk to waiters. (Restaurants in Japan serve ice-cold water, which is something I was not used to at all. Whenever I asked for ‘no ice’ or ‘hot water’, I got weird looks and stares.) We ordered their ‘special’ ramen with beef brisket and seaweed, which turned out to be extremely salty and needed several glasses of water to wash down. Note to self: if the restaurant doesn’t have many customers, it probably means the food isn’t very good.

Day 1 (30 October 2017)

  1. Yangibashi Market
  2. Tenjin area
  3. Hakata area

We headed to Yanagibashi Market as the first stop. To get there, we had to take a bus from the BCD bus stop which was next to the Kitte department store in Hakata, not the bus terminus. Several buses go there actually. The digital schedule is pretty accurate and shows which stop the buses are at the moment.

You actually have to board from the back of the bus and retrieve a ticket which will show the number of the stop you boarded. When you alight, you present the ticket to the driver and pay the fare that comes up on the screen. The driver was nice and patient with us. But the whole process can be time consuming when there are many passengers.

There wasn’t a lot to see or buy at the market as some of them hadn’t opened yet. We were mostly attracted to the stall that sold seaweed and we pretty much bought all his stock for that brand and packet. There is a very nice coffee stall there too. I was attracted to their colourful signs and range.

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Next, we headed to Tenjin Chikagai Underground Shopping Mall for lunch and afternoon shopping. We suddenly saw a large group of school kids walking along following their teachers. They must have been on a school trip or something. We walked around the area outside and found City Hall as well. There is also the ACROS building which looks a giant green staircase. It’s truly an impressive architectural design.

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We didn’t find much to shop or buy in that underground mall so we went back to Hakata early. Near the Hakata Station, there is the Hankyu Department store, Amu Plaza, Kitte Department store, Tokyu Hands… all within walking distance of the station. Closer to the bus terminus, there is a huge DAISO store. We bought so much there! Souvenir shopping done!

For dinner, we had buffet at the hotel because they had discounts for hotel guests. One free per three or 30% off. This definitely makes up for the awful ramen we had the night before! After dinner, we wanted to do more shopping but discovered that many stores close at 8:00 p.m., unlike in Hong Kong where everything is pretty much open until 11:00 p.m. If you need to shop, must remember to go early! Though Lawson is always a good convenient store to get late night snacks and drinks.

We had a pretty slow-paced day, mainly for shopping. Now that that’s out of the way, the next few days would be all sightseeing!

Day 2 (31 October 2017)

  1. Fukuoka City Akarenga Culture Center
  2. Fukuoka Castle Ruins and Maizuru Park
  3. Ohori Park
  4. Fukuoka Tower
  5. Momochi Seaside Park

We decided to buy a two-day subway pass so we can go to more places and not have to buy a ticket all the time. You can only get them if you are a tourist. The ticket machines don’t sell them so you have to go to the station customer service office located in the central gate, not just any of them. I asked several officers where to buy them and got directed all over the station. One told me to go upstairs, and when I got up, they told me to go downstairs! I ran everywhere and finally found the office! It turns out that there was an office on both floors but neither of them knew about the one on the floor they were on! You need to show your passport to get the pass, which costs 700 Yen. It’s much cheaper if you travel long distances or multiple trips since the pass lets you do unlimited trips. It also gives you discounts on some entrance fees to tourists spots if you show them the pass.

Our first stop was the Akarenga Culture Center. It’s free admission, and you quickly learn why. There is not much to see there except for displays on the history of the building. There are two floors and the second floor showed meeting rooms with desks and chairs. It’s also all in Japanese so I had no idea what I was looking at. They have a library full of reference books and archives so it’s mostly meant for people to do research, not really a place for tourists. Don’t waste your time going in there. It’s good for taking a photo of the exterior, as the building itself is quite impressive.

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Fukuoka City Akarenga Culture Center

Next, we made our way to Ohorikoen Station and walked towards the Maizuru Park where the Fukuoka Castle Ruins were. It took about 20 minutes of slow walking. We hadn’t had lunch yet so when we saw a hotdog truck, we rushed to buy some. They were surprisingly delicious! The lady making the hotdogs was extremely nice. Each hotdog was prepared on the spot and made individually fresh from the oven. It was one of the best hotdogs I’ve ever had! I don’t know if she is there permanently, but the truck is located right next to the entrance steps of the Castle Ruins. I highly recommend trying the hotdogs from this lady!

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Hotdog truck

When we finished our delicious hotdogs, we walked up the stairs and arrived at the site. Entry to the site is free of charge. The remains of the castle are mostly the stone walls. It was explained on the information board that it was previously believed that there was not castle tower, but recently, the possibility of its existence has risen. A speculative image of the castle was shown as well. It used to be the largest castle on Kyushu but was almost completely torn down, leaving only the stone walls and some turrets, during the Meiji period.

Maizuru Park itself was a bit of a disappointment as there were no flowers to see. There is peony garden there, which I imagine to be really beautiful when flowers are in bloom. Cherry blossoms are also supposed to be lovely there during March and April. We saw mostly wilted stems and leaves.

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We continued our walk towards Ohori Park via some small streets and past some village houses. The park is huge and stretches over 40 hectares of land. There is a large pond with several small islands in middle which are connected by stone bridges. Many locals run and jog in this park. It’s a very relaxing place to spend an afternoon. There is also a Japanese Garden located in the park, which we forgot to visit! We were too mesmerised by the beauty of the pond and the bridges that we wanted to cross them to get to the islands, that we missed the entrance to the garden. (They charge a small entrance fee of 240 yen.) It would have been nice to visit but we decided not to walk back as we wanted to make it in time to watch the sunset at the Fukuoka Tower (more on that below).

There were many swan boats floating in the pond which are available for hire – another thing to try if we have more time. Close to the end of the bridge, there is a hexagonal pavilion extending out to the pond. It’s definitely worth taking a photo there. We also saw many birds all around the park, especially this one tree where they were just perched on every available branch that was there! When we made it to the other end of the park, we spotted a frozen yoghurt shop, Pinkberry and bought froyos and smoothies and pastries there to enjoy with the view of the pond. Great for a rest stop!

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We checked the time of sunset was 5:27 p.m. so we decided to head straight to the Fukuoka Tower to watch it. It is located near the Nishijin Station so we took the subway from Ohorikoen Station. It’s actually a 15 minute walk from Nishijin Station. The City Museum was along the way but we had no time to check it out. When we arrived at the Tower, it was 5:20 p.m. We rushed to get tickets to go up. (With the 2 day pass, you can get a 10% discount on the entrance fee.)

We made it up the observation deck just in time to watch the sun set and dusk fall over the Hakata Bay. It was one of the best views I’ve seen from a tower. It’s not to be missed! They had many Halloween decorations on the deck and even a costume corner for visitors to put on the costumes for photos. Some windows had Halloween stickers on them, making it a cute photo frame with the city in the background.

The Tower also has a nightly light up show starting from 6:00 p.m. We decided to head down to the Momochi Seaside Park to catch it but as it turns out, it cannot be seen from that side! So we went ahead to have dinner there instead and watch it afterwards, since it runs until 11:30 p.m. We saw some seaside restaurants and decided to try the one selling skewers and takoyaki. They were delicious! We sat outside and it was surprisingly warm with very little wind – just the right weather for a seaside dinner. After dinner, we walked to the other side of the tower for the best viewing position of the light show. It was Halloween themed, perfect on the night of Halloween!

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(End of Part 1)

‘The Art of Travel’ by Alain de Botton

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I don’t know what I expected when I bought this book. At the time, I was browsing a bookstore for books for my father; I wasn’t really thinking of buying anything for myself. But then the title of this book just got my attention. The Art of Travel – is there an art to travelling? I was intrigued. I had wanted to embark on new journeys around the world for months and eventually, I decided to take a break from work to do it. I packed up my desk after nine years of teaching and told my colleagues I would not be back in the new academic year. I want to experience and explore more. I want to appreciate what the world has to offer and not be stuck in the same place, for what would be the tenth year of my teaching career. I still have so much more I want to do and learn and places I want to go and see; and life doesn’t wait for you – you have to make it happen. So I made it happen. And this book is now going to teach me how to truly travel, understand the cultures around the world, notice the little things and observe what is going on around me, really take in the sights, and just be generally happier on my journeys.

At first, I did not really understand the concept and structure of this book. The format and layout is not like what I was used to reading. There are five main chapters – Departure, Motives, Landscape, Art, and Return. In each chapter, he breaks it down into sub themes with the relevant places that he visited that inspired his writings, and a guide that guided him to experience the different aspects of his travels in a more meaningful way. Within each theme, he divides it into numbered sections and chunks. I did not know where it was going and there was no story to it. But I kept trying. The key message I got from it was how we feel and think when we travel is just as important, if not more so, than what we see and do when we get to our destination. There really is an art to travelling and de Botton has put into words something we have all thought during our travels, but never made the effort to record or write them down. I never thought about travelling in such a way. Every time after a trip, I come back feeling a little empty and the memories of the places I had visited slowly fade away. I never documented or wrote about what I had experienced because I didn’t really understand what that experience was – what was the purpose of it? After every trip, I come back with hundreds, sometimes thousands of photos from my digital camera, most of which I would never look at again. I select some I think are ‘post-worthy’ and upload them on various social media sites and the rest remain on my SD card or computer. Is this my purpose for travelling? What have I even learned from this trip? I realized I needed to change my whole mindset and stop thinking about what’s next or what photo would impress my friends or what souvenirs I should get, and really appreciate the moment, the present scene, the feeling in my skin, the thoughts running through my mind. Let your mind take you on a journey as well.

I also developed a deeper understanding of God when he discussed the misfortunes of Job in the chapter about sublime landscapes. The universe is so vast and mysterious, we will never understand why things happen the way they do. With Job as a guide, we are led to discovering the sublime and the beautiful. God explains to Job that the world is unfair, but when we encounter sublime places, “see how small you are next to the mountains.” We must realize that we are merely “playthings of the forces that laid out the oceans and chiselled mountains… Our life is not the measure of all things: consider sublime places a reminder of human insignificance and frailty.” And if we spend time in such places, “they may help us to accept more graciously the great unfathomable events that molest our lives and will inevitably return us to dust.” We are a part of the earth; that is what God created us from. In the end, we must accept our fate that we become one with the earth’s foundation. As we look at such sublime landscapes, we become fascinated and begin to wonder about a greater majestic power, a force so great and divine that we can only conclude is the work of an almighty God. We are merely dust in His creation.

When we travel, we are always worried about what we will do when we get there, yet when we get ‘there’, we are not really ‘there’. We are worrying about our next destination or next stop and never truly present in the moment. This book teaches us to forget everything we know about how to travel from the guidebooks we read. To truly be present in the moment, we need to develop a different mindset. Are we really seeing what is there in front of us when we arrive at tourist spots with our cameras and selfie sticks? Do we really understand what the building, tower, castle, monument, mountains, lakes, etc. represent and why they are special to the city? Why did we choose this destination and not that one? How many photos do we need to take to be satisfied that we have documented evidence that we were in fact present at this place? These were the questions that popped into my mind as I was reading this book. No photo can capture what we see before our eyes. So just enjoy the moment and appreciate the sublime and beautiful world.

De Botton describes each scene so vividly using the teachings and philosophies of various artists and writers that leaves you amazed and ashamed at the same time. I started to reflect on my recent trip to Osaka, during which I finished reading the final 50 pages on the flight back to Hong Kong. I regret not finishing it earlier so that I could practise some of what de Botton suggests – drawing or sketching, writing or word painting as a way to remember the sights. It doesn’t matter if you are not an artist, we can all become one and everyone has the ability to pay attention to beauty. No artist is able to fully capture the magnificent landscape, not even the renowned Van Gogh. You can only select certain details and that choice varies from artist to artist. They do not simply reproduce. The key is on seeing and not capturing. As we write about a place, we can also in some way ‘possess beauty’ through understanding it. Though, I have never tried word painting, de Botton did and realizes his own limitations and expresses that, “Attractive places typically render us unaware of our inadequacies with language.” I found this quite ironic for a writer of his calibre.

Reading this book was a journey in itself. I never thought about noticing how letters look on the signs at airports, or the minor details of a carpet, a train compartment or a hotel room until I read this. One of the most memorable parts of the book was the last chapter on Return, in which he suggests being a traveller in your own room – a novel idea inspired by Xavier de Maistre’s first book, ‘Journey Around My Bedroom’. We are always searching for new destinations to travel to but we seem unable to appreciate our own home. In fact, having lived in Hong Kong for so many years, I still don’t think I know this city very well. There are so many places I haven’t explored or thought to visit. Travel does not have to involve long distance flights or train rides to foreign cities or countries. You can travel around your own home or simply to the building across the road and discover something you didn’t know before.

The most important takeaway from this book is best summarised by this quote, “The pleasure we derive from journeys is perhaps dependent more on the mindset with which we travel than on the destination we travel to.”