Sweden (Part 10 – Lunch cruise, and Pippi Longstocking at Junibacken)

Archipelago Tour and Lunch Cruise

After breakfast, we arrived at the ferry terminal in the city and boarded the Östanå I cruise ship for a 3-hour archipelago tour with lunch cruise. The ship is one of the traditional ships of the archipelago. It was very windy so after getting a few snaps on the deck, I stayed inside and waited for lunch to be served. There was a guide introducing all the sights and islands that we passed by but it was very difficult to hear anything that she was saying over all the noise on the ship. I just sat and chatted with a few other teachers and enjoyed the sea breeze and watching sailboats sailing back and forth. There wasn’t really much to do except for eating lunch and walking around the deck. It would be lovely to take the cruise with a special someone and enjoy a romantic dinner. For the price of SEK 390, it’s really not that bad.

Pippi Longstocking at Junibacken

As we were approaching the shore to disembark, I heard the guide say something about a Pippi Longstocking Museum! My eyes lit up and I began asking our tour leader where this museum was. He had no idea what I was talking about. I immediately Googled it and at first didn’t see anything such museum in Stockholm. Then I saw on TripAdvisor that it was called Junibacken. The tour leader did not know anything about this place and we had to get on the bus to go to some underground supermarket. After he said that we could have three hours of free time, I located the museum and found out that it was actually near the ferry pier where we were before, next to the Vasa Museum that we had visited on the second day. It was a half an hour walk but it looked simple enough. Another teacher wanted to join me as she didn’t have much interest in shopping either. We walked together and finally arrived 30 minutes later.

The museum was full of kids with their parents. We were probably the oldest visitors without children or parents! We bought our tickets and explored the different rooms and immediately felt like a kid again – it was a magical experience! I wish we had this kind of museum or cultural centre in Hong Kong. It’s hard to describe what it is like and there were a lot of scenes that I didn’t really recognise. They use Pippi Longstocking as the main attraction and we saw that they were having the live performance in the theatre.

There was a Storybook Train that you can only ride once with your ticket. I was so excited when I started lining up. The train takes you on a journey through some of Astrid Lindgren’s stories. The scenes are presented in tableaux with lighting and sound effects and dialogue which comes out from the speakers in the individual carriages, you can even choose from twelve different languages. The whole production of the Storybook Train took almost two years to create and it involved doll-makers, scenic artists, prop-makers, theatre carpenters, who were all under the direction and vision of the illustrator Marit Törnqvist. The result is truly amazing. It almost felt like it was a fairytale or adventure ride at Disneyland, but with a beautiful story. It was not easy to take photos or videos because it was quite dark in a lot of the scenes. The way each carriage moves in and out and through each scene is so well-planned and thought out. Hidden doors and windows would open suddenly and different figures would move unexpectedly. Check out some of the photos and video below.  

After the Storybook Train ride, we exited and arrived at the theatre room where Pippi Longstocking’s house, the famous yellow Villa Villekulla, was standing. We had arrived just in time for the next performance starting in a few minutes! We quickly sat down among all the cute toddlers and children and waited for Pippi, Tommy and Annika to come out. The show ‘Pippi Moves In’ is performed in Swedish but it really didn’t matter to me! The actors performed really well and really brought the characters to life. They climbed up and down the house, danced and jumped all around having the time of their lives! Knowing the story helped me to understand what was happening during the performance but it was the whole atmosphere, setting, music, dancing, all the kids chanting ‘Pippi! Pippi!’ that made the show so memorable and magical! I didn’t want to leave!

Finally, we went into the book and souvenir store and I bought a Pippi doll, a comic book version of the story, and some postcards. I would have bought more stuff if I had the money or the suitcase space!

End of Part 10

Back to Sweden (Part 9)

Continue to Sweden (Part 11)

Sweden (Part 9 – Gothenburg, Abytravet, horse racing and a random live interview)

Now, back to the less serious parts of the trip…

One of the most memorable experiences of the trip took place at the ÅbyTravet racetrack in Gothenburg. It was located right next to our hotel, Best Western Plus, which is entirely horse racing themed – from the lobby to the hotel rooms. After our whole day of school visits and meetings in Gothenburg, my roommate and I decided to head to the racetrack for a quick peek before going back to our room. Entrance is completely free and nobody seemed to care that we walked straight up to the side of the track. There were even visitors walking through the track to the other side to take photos. The horse racing is quite different from I’ve seen in Hong Kong. They do trotting instead of galloping, where the horse pulls a two-wheeled cart (sulky), with the driver in a sitting position behind the horse. It was the first time I had seen this kind of horse racing before.

While we were watching the practice starts, we got stopped by an old Swedish man with the big camera around his neck. He just started talking to us and asking us what we were doing there. I guess they don’t see many Chinese or Asians around the area. He shared that he had been homeless for a period of time and will soon become a famous photographer so he asked if he could take our photos. We humoured him and let him take a few snaps. Then we saw one of the principals and pretended that we needed to go with him.

Just as we were about to leave, we got stopped by another man – a much younger one this time (and more handsome) – and he asked us similar questions. Then out of the blue, he asked if they could interview us on camera that would be broadcast live on their big screen! We hesitated but the principal said ‘Yes!’ and encouraged us to go.

As an overly anxious, shy, introverted, easily embarrassed human, it took so much for me to walk out there and go on that stage. It didn’t hurt that the guy who invited us (his name is Patrick, by the way) was super nice and sweet and kept smiling at us which relaxed me a bit. I don’t think anyone knew I was totally panicking at that moment. I just kept smiling and saying to myself that this is totally going to be fine and I’m sure that he won’t ask me difficult questions… How did I ever become a teacher – I have no idea.

Patrick introduced us to the presenter with the microphone, whose name I’ve forgotten, and the camera started rolling. He said a brief introduction in Swedish and turned over to ask us questions. The principal stood beside the camera man and took a video on his phone as well. I don’t really know what happened in those two and half minutes but I couldn’t stop laughing about it afterwards. I also think I smiled way too much during the interview and I was totally staring at the presenter the whole time. It was only afterwards that he told us the video would be uploaded onto YouTube! So, at the risk of totally embarrassing myself, and also my roommate, the YouTube video is here, or watch the phone camera video version below.

The first question was a bit awkward because I think my roommate misheard the question, which was “How did you end up here in Gothenburg in Sweden when you are English teaching in Hong Kong?” and gave a somewhat random response. I explained that we were actually there to visit schools and learn about the education system in Sweden and how they do STEAM education.

I kind of pretended to have experience in horse racing by saying that I live close to a racetrack but clearly, the proximity to the racetrack has no bearing whatsoever on my knowledge about horse racing and horses. I said that I could look out my window to watch the horse racing and that I enjoyed the view, which is completely not true since there is only one small window in my mum’s room that can see a tiny little part of the track and I have never once looked out that window to watch a race. But when put on the spot, I just forget what is real and not real sometimes…

The presenter ended the interview by suggesting “Then we could start something new in Hong Kong, you and me?” I might have answered “Yeah, sure!” a bit too quickly and eagerly. Don’t get too excited… context is important here – he was referring to the trotting style of horse racing (or was he?). Here’s the video…

End of Part 9

Back to Sweden (Part 8)

Continue to Sweden (Part 10)

Sweden (Part 4 – Drottningholm Palace, Nobel Prize Museum)

Drottningholm Palace

After breakfast, we arrived at Drottningholm Palace. Constructed in the 17th Century, it is Sweden’s best-preserved royal palace. It has been the permanent residence of the royal family since 1981. It was also the first Swedish attraction to appear on the UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. The style and architecture of the palace was inspired by French architecture such as the Chateau de Versailles, and was built by architect Nicodemus Tessin.

The rooms in the southern wing of the palace are reserved for the royal family but the rest of the palace and grounds are open to the publich all year round. The Palace Gardens are stunningly beautiful and very peaceful. There is an English-style park, a Chinese Pavilion and a Baroque Garden.

We were thankful for the cool breeze and sunshine and got to capture some beautiful shots. Once again, we had very limited time to explore and mostly just wandered around outside and didn’t get a chance to tour inside the palace. I saw some of the guards make their rounds around the palace. I was surprised by how quiet it was and enjoyed the beautiful sights all around the palace gardens. It really did remind me of Versailles but it is much more peaceful.

Nobel Prize Museum

We went back to Gamla Stan and the Old Town square to the Nobel Prize Museum. Our group booked a private tour at the museum. They usually close on Mondays but they opened to receive our group. We felt so special!

We were led into a small theatre and listened to a presentation about the history of the Nobel Prize, Alfred Nobel’s life and legacy, and the various Nobel Laureates and special events held. Lunch was served at the Bistro where we enjoyed delicious grilled salmon and potatos, followed by a smooth, refreshing and delicious Nobel ice cream. A chocolate Nobel Prize was served along with the dessert, which I didn’t eat and tucked it away into my bag instead. After our coffees, we were given a guided tour around the museum. It is quite a small museum but it is still worth a visit. A lot of information is given about how the Nobel Prize first started, the selection process of the Laureates and background information about the winners. The Laureates are also invited to donate an item that is significant or special to them and the items are displayed along with their introductions in glass cabinets. Our guide also told us an interesting fact about the Bistro chairs. Laureates who have visited the museum have been invited to sign the bottom of the chairs! Flip a chair over and you’ll find different signatures of Nobel Prize winners. On the ceiling of the museum is a rail-like contraption where the profiles of 900+ laureates pass along for your quick perusal. At the time of our visit, there was a special exhibition on Martin Luther King Jr.

Some facts about Alfred Nobel and the Nobel Prizes

Alfred Nobel was an engineer and inventor, most known for his invention and development of dynamite. He and his father experimented with explosives, especially nitroglycerine. The experiments caused numerous accidents, one of which killed several people, including Alfred’s younger brother. He eventually developed ‘dynamite’ and got it patented in 1867. He became one of Europe’s richest people and had 355 patents at the time of his death in 1896.

The Nobel Prize was established after the death of Alfred Nobel. In his last will and testament, signed on 27 November 1895, he stated that he would give a large share of his fortune to a series of prizes to those who have done their best for humanity in the fields of Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature and Peace. The will was opposed by his relatives and questioned by authorities that it took four years for the executors of his will to convince everyone to follow Alfred’s wishes. The first Nobel Prizes were awarded in 1901.

The Prize in Economic Sciences was established in 1968 by Sweden’s central bank, Sveriges Riksbank, in Memory of Alfred Nobel, but the prize money is provided by the bank.

We ended our sightseeing activities and started our visits to educational agencies and schools. (See next post… Coming soon)

End of Part 4

Back to Sweden (Part 3)

Continue to Sweden (Part 5)

 

Sweden (Part 3 – Vasa Museet, Skansen, Metro)

Day 2 started a little later because the museums don’t open until 10am. We had a relaxing breakfast and headed out to pick up another local guide and arrived at the Vasa Museum.

Vasa Museet

The Vasa Museum provides a comprehensive history about the Vasa warship from the 17th Century. The ship was launched in 1627. It is 69 metres long and stands over 50 metres tall, weighing over 1200 tonnes. In 1628, the Admiral ordered the ship to sail ahead, despite warnings from the captain supervising the construction. Little did he know that it would be its first and last voyage. It was also the shortest voyage in history – sailing no more than 1300 metres – it sank to the seabed within minutes, 32 metres below. Years later, divers found the wreck in astonishing condition, with decks intact and the foremast still standing.

On 24 April 1961, the Vasa is salvaged and lifted after 333 years in the deep. Teams of conservators, carpenters and other technicians work together to preserve the ship. It is a tremendous challenge to reconstruct and preserve the ship. When the waterlogged wood dries out, and the moisture in it evaporates, it shrinks and cracks. Polyethylene glycol, PEG is needed to be used to replace the water. It would still take many years for the wood to dry in this way to avoid cracking and for the ship to stablise completely. The Vasa Museum was finally built in 1990 by Swedish architects. Astonishingly, over 98% of the original structure had survived and does not look like a wreck at all now. Since it was salvaged in 1961, the Vasa Museum has received well over 40 million visitors, making it one the top 10 world’s best museums to visit on TripAdvisor.

The museum that houses the ship and artifacts is dimly lit because the ship cannot be exposed to sunlight, making it an extremely popular spot for pickpockets to make their rounds. They would pay entrance fees to go inside to find unsuspecting tourists as targets. One member from our group got his wallet stolen while he was taking photos. It is best to keep all bags in the front at all times and to keep a hand on it. Several announcements were made to remind visitors to keep their valuables safe and be alert of pickpockets floating around.

The museum is very big too and has six floors. There is so much to see so you need a few hours to explore and look at everything. It is worthwhile to watch the short film that explains the history and process of salvaging and preserving the Vasa ship in the auditorium. They play it in both Swedish and English with subtitles. I wanted to spend it little more time in the gift shop but I didn’t really plan my time around very well. We only had 1.5 hours to walk around there.

Skansen

After lunch, we arrived in Skansen – the world’s oldest and only open-air museum with wild animals. At Skansen, you can learn all about Sweden’s history and understand how the Swedes used to live, their customs and traditions, how they worked, various celebrations and everyday life. There are many fun and exciting activities held at Skansen, such as singing and dancing and concerts in the summer, and Christmas markets and concerts in the winter. There is a Children’s Zoo featuring domestic animals, farm animals, as well as wild and exotic animals.

We saw an early 20th Century school, Väla School (Väla skola). It is an example of how schools were built in the Swedish countryside. The building contains a schoolroom as well as housing for the teacher’s family. In 1842, the parliament passed a law requiring school attendance of all children in all parts of Sweden. No homeschooling is allowed either. However, teachers’ salaries were quite low. Teachers often housed beehives in their gardens and sold honey as an additional source of income. They would easily be earning more money from selling honey than from teaching. The garden provided the family with vegetables and it was also used as a educational tool for children to learn how to grow vegetables. Children were taught scripture, reading, spelling, writing and arithmetic. Bible knowledge was considered to be especially important.

I was very surprised to hear that teachers’ salaries were so low. Teaching is not a very popular profession in Sweden and there is very big shortage of teachers right now. Almost 50% of existing teachers are not professionally qualified as teachers either. But it is quite amazing that education – from kindergarten to university level – is completely free, though it comes at a cost of extremely high taxes.

Our group of 27 stopped outside the Väla School for quite a long time and even took a large group photos together when a ‘teacher’ walked by. A family with two kids came up as well and one of the principals in our group picked up the little boy and played with him. The parents were so sweet and friendly as well. The kids wanted to take photos with us as well and we gathered outside the school for a shot. It was so lovely to see parents spending time with their kids too. We also the cutest little baby girl holding her dad’s hand, chasing geese. She was pointing at the geese and laughing so innocently and joyfully. It was so sweet and cute!

We also saw a man and a woman chipping away at a long log, which would become a new blade for one of the windmills. We stopped and chatted with the pair for a little bit. They were extremely friendly and didn’t mind us taking their axe and having a go on the log!

We walked a bit farther in and arrived just in time to see a big peacock fanning out its feathers! It was so beautiful! It kept turning round and round, proudly showing everyone around how beautiful it was. It was the first time I had ever seen a peacock fan out its feathers all the way out like that! We also saw chickens, sheep, cows, reindeer and goats. Many families laid on the green grass for a picnic and it reminded me a little of Australia. I don’t think I have ever sat on the grass in Hong Kong.

Skansen also hosts one of Stockholm’s largest Midsummer celebrations. When we came across the maypole, we learned about the Midsummer Festival, the tradition of wreath-making and dancing around the maypole. An important tradition among the younger folks, especially for the single ones, is to pick seven different species of flowers and lay them under their pillows on 23 June, Midsummer Eve, so that the love of their life would appear to them in a dream, according to the legend.

There are so many buildings, cottages, farmsteads all around Skansen, and we only saw a few of them. I would love to visit this place again and spend more time exploring on my own. You could spend a whole day there! It really makes you feel like you have travelled back in time as you walk around Skansen, seeing people in period clothing! I was extremely sad to leave this place.

(See my Instagram for videos and more photos. Link in the navigation bar.)

Metro Experience

Next on our itinerary was the Metro Experience. We got on at Gamla Stan station and only rode one stop to T-Centralen to Stockholm City. We admired the impressive artworks inside the stations. The Stockholm Metro is described as one gigantic art gallery, with more than 90 of the 110 stations featuring artworks created by 150 artists. Artworks range from sculptures, mosaics, paintings, installations to inscriptions and reliefs from the 1950s to 2000s. Each station has different designs and art pieces. For the price of a metro ticket, you can see a wide range of impressive artworks by talented artists in Sweden! I would love to just spend one day riding the metro and making a stop at every station just to look at the art!

 

End of Part 3

Back to Sweden (Part 2)

Continue to Swedent (Part 4)

Sweden (Part 2 – Stockholm City Hall, Gamla Stan Old Town)

I got partnered with a GS teacher from a primary school and we shared a hotel room together. We got along quite well and we coordinated well on who would use the bathroom at what time etc. I learned that she is a mother of four daughters and enjoys playing electronic games on the iPad! Mums can be fun too!

We got up at 7:30 in the morning and headed down for breakfast. I was so impressed by the quality of the buffet! There really wasn’t a lot to choose from but the food was quite good. I had extra helpings of the Swedish pancakes, cheese and scrambled eggs. If I hadn’t gained those extra pounds after my previous trip, I would have eaten even more!

Our itinerary included ‘City Exploration’ on the first day. I hadn’t really paid much attention to the activities for each day since it was all written in Chinese so I was happy to just arrive and be surprised at each location.

Stockholm City Hall

Our coach picked up our local guide and we made our first stop at City Hall. You can only visit City Hall with a guided tour, either by joining a public tour or booking a private tour in advance. They have some strict rules for visitors and our guide told us that there are cameras everywhere. If we wander away from the group or anything, they can kick us out!

It is so beautiful, inside and outside and it was so hard to capture it in pictures. We walked around the conference room and some of the halls and admired the mosaic walls and statues all around. 

Some interesting facts about Stockholm City Hall:

The building construction took 12 years and around 8 million red bricks were used!

The 106-metre tall tower features a spire with three golden crowns. The Three Crowns represent the national emblem of Sweden. The tower is only open during the summer from May to September at specific scheduled times, and you can climb up the 365 steps inside the tower to the top with an additional fee of SEK 60. There are nine bells that strike every hour, and a tune is played at noon and 6pm each day. (Unfortunately, our tour did not include the Tower, as there were some renovations going on around it.) 

It houses the offices for 200 people including the Municipal Council.

The Nobel Prize banquet is also held here at City Hall every year on 10th December; special guests and speakers would speak from the grand marble staircase in the inner courtyard. After the dinner, the guests, laureates and royalty will gather in the Golden Hall to dance. The Golden Hall is adorned with 18 million gold mosaic tiles! 

We finished the tour with a visit to the Gift Shop where I bought a cap and a keyring, nothing at all to do with the landmark!

Outside the City Hall is a beautiful view of the city and Lake Mälaren. It was a cool and cloudy day and we really felt the cold air on our faces and hands!

Gamla Stan – Old Town

After our tour of City Hall, we made our way to the Old Town in Gamla Stan and walked around the area on our own. This is one of the largest and best preserved medieval city centres in Europe. There are many shops, cafes and restaurants there, and of course, the Nobel Museum, which you can’t miss. The buildings were strongly influenced by North German architecture. The most iconic scene is the Stortorget large square in the centre of the Gamla Stan, especially the red and orange buildings, though I’m not really sure what those buildings are. They do make a nice postcard or magnet, which are sold in pretty much every single souvenir and gift shop there! There is also the Stock Exchange Building and a very beautiful well in the square.

I walked around some of the souvenir shops and learned that there is a special kind of dishcloth produced in Sweden, invented by a Swedish engineer in 1949. It consists of 70% wood cellulose from FSC certified forests and 30% cotton, making the dishcloth highly absorbent, more hygienic than a sponge, and can be reused many times. It air dries quickly and does not breed bacteria or smell. It is even biodegrable which is very environmentally friendly! I bought a couple of them with some printed designs (of the Swedish War Horse and the Stortorget square buildings) to try at home.

I also came across a science fiction book store and was blown away by the wide selection of books and collectors’ items, from fantasy novels, Japanese anime, to Marvel and DC comics! I was a little disappointed that I didn’t discover this earlier on during my walk. (I was happy to come back the next day and bought a couple of comic books!)

We gathered outside the Royal Palace and I watched some of the guards walking about. Too bad we couldn’t go inside the Palace, but it was nice to just take some photos outside.

We also walked past the Riddarholmen islet and caught a glimpse of the Riddarholm Church, Wrangel Palace, Stenbock Palace and the Birger Jarls torg public square. The architecture all around is just breathtakingly beautiful, and I love the contrast of the colours on every building. I was disappointed that it was such a cloudy and gloomy day that I couldn’t catch the blue skies behind the buildings though.

After dinner at a Chinese restaurant (yes, I was surprised too), we arrived back at the hotel at around 7pm and the sun was still out. The sun doesn’t set until 9pm so we decided to head out to the supermarket to buy some snacks before winding down. We have another full day of exploring before we need to begin our meetings with schools and agencies.

End of Part 2

Back to Sweden (Part 1)

Continue to Sweden (Part 3)

Sweden (Part 1 – How I ended up in Sweden)

Last month, I received a message from a friend who informed me about an educational STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics) tour in Sweden organised by some principals and educators in HK. Since he was not able to go, he asked if I would be interested instead. I agreed and accepted the offer within half an hour and paid the full fee the following day. I hesitated a little at first because of my tutorial classes and volunteering commitments but I knew this opportunity was too good to pass up on and it may not come around again. I informed my students and teammates and told them I would be away for about 9 days in May for an education tour. They were all very understanding and wished me well.

In the days leading up to the trip, I read up on Swedish culture and history and tried to absorb as much information as possible and even tried learning a few phrases in Swedish (my pronunciation was so poor that Duolingo kept saying I was wrong).

The main objective of the tour was to gain an understanding of the Swedish education system, to visit different schools and education agencies, and connect with other teachers and school leaders. We would also have sightseeing and shopping opportunities, and time to explore on our own in the first and last couple of days.

It was quite a struggle for me, packing for this trip. The weather forecast said the temperatures ranged from 0 to 12 degrees Celcius and it was around 30 degrees in HK when I started packing. I dug out my winter clothes, down jackets, scarves, beanies, gloves and heat packs and stuffed everything in my suitcase. Then I spent the next couple of days re-evaluating each item, removing, replacing, folding and reorganising everything I had packed. I made sure to leave enough room for snacks and souvenirs.

We had a pre-trip briefing at the travel agency that helped organise the trip and I got to meet a few other members from the group I would be spending 9 days with. I found out that there was something called AIRSIM card that you can use worldwide and bought it from them immediately. You just need to download their App and choose the data plan you want in the location you are travelling to. You just need to top it up and you can use it for a whole year! Why did I not know about this before? I could have saved so much hassle and effort getting new SIM cards for every trip!

Finally, it was time to go to the airport and say goodbye to my mum and brother. After checking in, I met the other members of the group and the tour leader and guide, and we all introduced ourselves briefly. We took a big group photo and headed in the departure gate. I went straight for the Plaza Premium Lounge and enjoyed a light supper before heading to the gate for boarding. I was so excited and nervous, I hardly slept for the next 10 hours of the flight, even though it was a red-eye flight! I think I watched three movies and listened to an audiobook on my phone just to drown out the noise of the engine and other passengers.

We landed in London Heathrow first, and had to wait an hour for the connecting flight to Stockholm. When I looked at the flight path, I saw that we had actually flown through Sweden before arriving in London but there were no direct flights from HK to Stockholm, so we had to transfer and add at least two more hours to the torture! (Right next to the gate for Stockholm was the gate for Reykjavik! My heart jumped and I wondered when I would ever make it to Iceland – top of my bucketlist of places to travel.)

While we were waiting for the connecting flight, I got to chat to a principal of a drama and theatre school in HK and we shared about what we were both doing. Hopefully we can collaborate in some projects in the future! She said she is looking for writers to write scripts for their plays! This is definitely something I can try.

Finally, we arrived in Stockholm Arlanda Airport and made our way out without issues. We took out our jackets and warm clothes out of our suitcases. I exchanged some Euros for some Kronas and waited for a few more members of the group to arrive. After we loaded everything into our coach, we headed off to dinner, where I could barely remember what I ate, before finally arriving at our hotel – Scandic Talk. I was ready to collapse and pass out by the time we got there. I really should have slept on the plane…

End of Part 1

Continue to Sweden (Part 2)

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.”