Monday, 30 March 2015

Japan at Chinese New Year

Our time in Taiwan is limited. One day we will have to head home to the UK for the sake of our son's education. So while we're here we try to make the most of the opportunity and visit other countries in the region. In previous years we've visited Okinawa, South Korea and Palau. This Chinese New Year it was Japan's turn. Okinawa is kind of Japan, but not really. Tokyo and areas round about are quite different and, in February, much, much colder.

But we did get to appear in some manga art.
I'm going to split this account of our Japan holiday into two, and post my favourite part, our visit to the snow monkeys, next week.

Flying to Japan from Taipei is super easy and not very expensive, even at Chinese New Year. A few airlines fly from Songshan Airport in the city centre, so it's very convenient. We caught a direct flight to Tokyo, which takes about three and a half hours. While we were in Japan we visited Nagano, Kyoto and Osaka, before returning to Tokyo to fly home.

We managed to do all this in eight days with the help of the wonderful shinkansen, or bullet trains. We bought Japan Rail Passes, which you must order at least a week or so before you leave because they're only available outside of Japan. Then when you arrive you must get them converted to proper rail cards. This takes ten minutes or so, and involves both parties filling out forms. Japan Rail Passes cover many, but not all, bullet trains, and some other rail lines, such as the line between Kyoto and Osaka. Adding up the cost of all the journeys we took, the rail passes were definitely the cheaper option.

Our first day was spent at Joypolis, an indoor amusement park. A whole day of noisy fun for an eleven year old.

My husband and son are big anime and manga fans, so the next day they were in their element wandering the streets of the Akihabara District. My husband was pretty skillful at steering my son away from the more adult manga merchandise. I was quite impressed. (With my husband's steering, not the merchandise. I'm sure it is impressive. I just didn't have a close look!)
Random observations I made while hubby and son were engrossed in their hobby was that lots of Japanese eat alone, and many man pluck their eyebrows. (I had noticed this in Okinawa so I was on the look out for more evidence.)

Soon, we were leaving Tokyo behind and flying along on train tracks to our overnight stay at a ryokan in Nagano. This is a traditional Japanese guest house, with mat flooring and roll out beds.
The guesthouse also supplied traditional Japanese robes for the obligatory dressing up session.

A traditional Nagano breakfast was served. My son was very suspicious of this.

But I liked it.

After visiting the snow monkeys (next week's post), we caught two trains to Kyoto. Holiday time was running short now. We had a day in Osaka, where we managed to squeeze in a visit to a graveyard, a temple and the science museum.
Our final day before heading back to Tokyo and flying home, was spent in Kyoto. Kyoto is temple city, and we didn't see a single one! The shame. Instead, we went up Kyoto tower to look at the view, and visited the Manga Museum, where an artist drew the portrait at the beginning of this post. Do I even have to ask which was the better option?

Next week - snow monkeys!

Monday, 23 March 2015

Fujoushan Park

Acclimatisation is a serious problem for expats from cold countries who live in Taiwan. After a couple of years, 15 degrees Celsius starts to feel cold, and anything under 10 degrees is positively freezing. This is my excuse for not doing much in the way of trail walking over winter.

A few weekends ago the weather warmed up, and we broke our hiking fast with a pleasant walk Fujoushan (Fuzhoushan) Park. We were just in time to see the rhododendrons coming into bloom, which reminded me of our visit to Maokong last year.

Fujoushan Park is for the least ambitious of hikers. It isn't even difficult to get to. About ten minutes' walk from Linguang MRT Station on the brown line, the entrance to Fujoushan Park lies in Wolong Street.

It was cloudy but warm the day we went for our walk. Near the entrance to the park is a handy set of guidelines on unacceptable activities. I love reading these, because they're an indication of what some people would like to do in the park, given the chance.
In this case, as well as the usual littering, destroying park facilities and urinating, it seems people would love to bring their own desks and chairs, gamble and wash and dry their clothes in Fujoushan, were it not for the intervention of the authorities.

Butterflies were the best part of the walk for me. I managed to take a couple of blurry snaps.
 I've since found out this is a Common Bluebottle (Graphium sarpedon subsp. connectens)
Not sure what these are. Some kind of swallowtail?

As usual, there were various small exercise facilities, viewing platforms and rest spots around the place. My son had fun on monkey bars meant for monkeys much smaller than he.

Fujoushan adjoins the more famous, but much smaller, Fuyang Eco Park. This park is divided into areas devoted to tree frogs, butterflies, flying squirrels and other wildlife and ecosystems. Fuyang Park is just a few minutes from Linguang Station. By wandering around Fujoushan for an hour or so and over to Fuyang, you can complete a round trip for a couple of hours without backtracking.

It was cloudy, and the air was a little smoggy, but we enjoyed our short trek through Fujoushan. Hopefully the first of many more walks this year.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Danshui Day Trip

We live in the far south of Taipei, and Danshui is in the far north, so when we go there it's a day trip for us. But it's worth the effort getting there, as the hoards of daytrippers that descend on Danshui most weekends can testify.

Danshui offers everything you could wish from a tacky seaside resort, except the sea. Sited next to a wide river, there are no beaches at Danshui, only plenty of junk food, cheap arcade games and poor quality souvenirs. Not hoping for more than this is the key to enjoying a day in Danshui, plus a tolerance for crowds and excessive noise.

My son loves visiting Danshui. Despite the distance from us, it's very easy to get to, lying as it does at the end of the red MRT line. We take books to read on the train, and arrive there in about an hour.

First on our itinerary are the arcade games. Simple 'shoot the balloons' or 'get the ball in the hole' entertainments, they offer the inevitable terrible, cheap toy prizes that are worth less than the cost of playing the game, and require no effort to win. 

My son loves them.

Next, we indulge in unhealthy snacks. Danshui is most famous for shrunken, black eggs. More to our taste are curly crisps on sticks and tall ice-creams.

There's also a DIY candyfloss machine that's good for a laugh and a malformed product.

Candy floss making is clearly a line of business closed to my child.

Over the last few years, I've noticed Danshui is slowly becoming more upmarket. Trendy shops with slightly more ethical products are beginning to appear among the souvenir stores.

But mostly it's the same streets heaving with slow-moving crowds and scooters.

The views over the river are pleasant, and there are many old fishermen who judge the water clean enough to offer edible fish. I sometimes wonder what changes these old men have seen in the town over their lifetimes.

Danshui is often portrayed in official tourist brochures as the place to catch the ferry to Bali, on the opposite bank of the river.

The Government website also details other attractions such as Hongmao Castle, and refers to Danshui by its more Taiwanese name of Tamsui. This was adopted by the MRT system a year or two ago as well. Danshui, Tamsui, whatever, is the Taiwanese equivalent of British Blackpool, with appropriate entertainments, such as buskers singing hokey songs and accompanying themselves on sythesisers, and living statues.

Another great entertainment for the locals is this man. I believe he's Turkish, and he used to run a kebab shop in Danshui Old Street. He progressed to selling ice-cream, which he does in an entertaining way by withholding it from the buyers with many teasing twists and turns. He also moves his - quite large - stomach and chest muscles in time to music. Very amusing. It's difficult to get past his stall, the crowd he attracts is so large.

This entertainer really captures the spirit of Danshui - fun, silly and lowbrow, and with no pretensions of being anything else.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Trampolining at Flipout

Having reared three boys I can tell you that they're very bouncy, so it was with joy I heard that a trampoline centre had opened up in central Taipei. Called Flipout, this center is a branch of a company that opened originally in Linkou, But this was too far distant for us to contemplate travelling to, despite the attractions of bouncing.

At Flipout, the varieties of trampolines available would satisfy even Tigger. There are small ones and large ones, and even ones that allow you to launch yourself into piles of foam cubes. We visited on a local holiday, and thought we were hard done by having to wait behind a group of ten or fifteen adults and kids, all taking an age to sort out their tickets. That was until we looked behind us and saw the queue had grown so much it went up the stairs and disappeared around the corner. Word had got out.

For Taiwan, Flipout is not cheap. One hour costs NT$250 and two hours cost NT$400, or about GBP 5 and 8. If you're a non-bouncing parent like me, it's absolutely free. It is very easy to get to. At No. 45, Lane 59, Zhōngshān North Road Section 2, B2, Zhōngshān District, Taipei (台北市中山區中山北路二段59巷45號B2), it's very close to the Shuanglian and Zhongshan MRT stations on the red line. 

What else to say? Loud popular music is obligatory, as are crowds of over-excited children.
The assistant gave a safety talk to all the customers, and generally everyone was very well-behaved, obeying the one-at-a-time rule for the trampolines, and doing as they were told by the helpers.
There's a small cafe bar, but while we were there this was unmanned. Perhaps this was due to understaffing, or maybe the centre is so new this facility hasn't been brought online yet. Toilets and a few lockers made up the rest of the amenities.
Flipout Taipei is a little basic, but great fun.

Monday, 2 March 2015

Strawberry Picking

When we lived in England we used to have a large garden, where I grew many vegetables and fruits, including strawberries. Growing your own strawberries is a bittersweet experience. Perfectly ripe strawberries, just picked, taste better than any other strawberries you've ever tasted before (strawberry harvesting tip - wait until the strawberries are completely ripe, then wait one more day), but you never enjoy shop-bought strawberries in the same way ever again.

My son discovered an early age that nice-tasting things grew in the garden, and from the moment he could walk independently he treated it as his very own PYO paradise. At such a young age his taste was not discerning, and he assumed that if one strawberry tasted good, the one next to it must taste good too, notwithstanding that it was green, or dirty, or slug-eaten. In fact, as far as we could tell, he really did find all those unripe, soiled, holey strawberries just as delicious as the juicy red ones.

Spring is strawberry season in Taiwan, when the temperatures are warm but not roasting and the days are growing longer. The plants are usually grown in polytunnels to protect them from subtropical rainstorms and pests. By summer, temperatures under the plastic must be unbearable, but in spring conditions are cosy and dry.

This is my long-winded way of introducing our latest expedition.

A kind poster on Forumosa responded in detail to my enquiry about where to go strawberry picking. The nearest MRT station to the farm we visited is Neihu. Behind the station, in Neihu Road Section 2, is the Bihu Elementary School bus stop. Here, minibus no. 2 picks up passengers heading to Bishanyan Temple and the following stop, the strawberry picking field.

Unfortunately for us, we happened to choose a day when lots of people had the same idea, and after waiting an age for a bus, it became so full we couldn't get on it. We caught the next instead, after about an hour in total of waiting. (This bus departs from City Hall Bus Station, which, we realised, would have been a much better place to catch it).

When we finally arrived at Bishanyan Temple, just a 10- to 15-minute drive away, the bus driver advised the passengers its was quicker to alight there and walk to the strawberry farm through the nature park. This was actually hooey, as we discovered later, and I'm not sure his reasons for wanting all the passengers off the bus.

Anyway, we found the place in the end, and much strawberry picking ensued. I think my son regressed eight or nine years in the process.

Baskets and scissors are supplied by the owners, and the picking process is very civilised. Everyone is careful not to damage the plants or fruit, and no one helps themselves to fruit they haven't paid for (though this may be due to worries about pesticide sprays).

Most people only bought half a basket or so of strawberries (about one pound). The price was no cheaper than buying them in a supermarket, but these were far nicer than supermarket strawberries, which are varieties bred to withstand manhandling. These strawberries were tender, sweet and juicy.

We went a little overboard.

We had a late lunch at the Farmhouse Cafe in the nature park, and walked back to the strawberry field to catch the bus back to Neihu. This turned out to be a good idea because, again, we had to wait for a second bus before we could get on, and there was no room for anyone waiting at the temple stop.

I would definitely recommend strawberry picking as an excursion, but on a weekday morning or other less popular time.