Monday, February 19, 2018

Enjoying the festive but quiet time of the year that's the first few days of Chinese New Year in Hong Kong

No resident in sight at Pak Tam Village
on the first day of Chinese New Year

Near deserted overhead bridge in Kwun Tong
on the second day of Chinese New Year

Shuttered shops are the rule in Sai Ying Pun
on the fourth day of Chinese New Year

The Hong Kong Tourism Board has a lot to answer for.  That's what I find myself thinking every time I see foreign tourists looking particularly befuddled as to why so many stores, restaurants and businesses are closed during the first few days of what's popularly known as Chinese New Year (but also is celebrated by others who use the lunar calendar such as the Vietnamese and Koreans).  Heck, even the museums and such are closed for at least the first two days of these holidays that tends to be celebrated with the family in the privacy of private homes; so visitors to Hong Kong can't even go museum visiting during this time of the year!

Even on Chinese New Year's Eve, things start to wind down: with many businesses closing early so that their employees can go home early to prepare for, and have, dinner with family; many restaurants not serving dinner due to a dearth of on duty staff; and those restaurants that have stayed open being quieter and far less crowded than usual since many of their (potential) customers are eating at home rather than eating out that night -- or have left town to go on vacation in some other part of the world where more things will open at this time of the year!

So why do I stay in Hong Kong at a time of the year where the city can be as quiet and shuttered as when there's a typhoon in town?  For one thing, I actually enjoy the experience of the city being so much more peaceful and less crowded than usual.  For another, I find that, because the factories and such on the other side of the Hong Kong-Mainland China border are not operating during one of China's "Golden Week"s, the air is often noticeably less polluted in Hong Kong (as well as presumably over there) over the first week of Chinese New Year.  

In addition, over the years, I've figured out how to enjoy myself during Chinese New Year, including by going hiking with friends in the peaceful countryside, and watching Chinese New Year movies that, more often than not, tend to be on the silly side but also are full of goodwill and deliver plenty of laughs.  And while a lot of restaurants and bars do close for at least the first few days of these holidays, I also know of quite a few that stay open for business.

A tip for those who find themselves in Hong Kong sans family and/or friends to visit and provide food and drinks during this time of the year: convenience stores (such as 7-Eleven and Circle K) and fast food chains (foreign and local) do stay open; and ditto with most (if not all) restaurants serving Western or South Asian food.  And with each passing year, it seems that more and more Chinese as well as Vietnamese restaurants have opened for business over the Chinese New Year period here in Hong Kong -- though in these cases, be prepared to be asked to pay double the service charge you normally would in restaurants where a service charge is included, and for a service charge to appear on the bill in restaurants where that normally would not be the case.

Then there's the matter of the red packets filled with money which are given (by some) and received (by others) at this time of the year.  They're not mandatory to give to the staff of restaurants and such but I must admit to actually enjoying seeing the smile on someone's face when they get handed a lai see; and this especially when they are the sort who are thoroughly deserving of a tip, yet really didn't seem to expect any reward or recognition for their good service! :)

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Hiking with two good friends in southwest Lantau on the third day of the lunar new year of the dog :)

Out on the hiking trail with couple of friends in Southwest Lantau
Not the edge of the world, though it sometimes looked like it! ;)
A veritable Chinese New Year flower bonanza this afternoon!
After resting for a day (during which I went and watched A Beautiful Moment at the cinema), I got back to hiking ways on the third day of the lunar new year of the dog.  And even though we're just into February, I already have an early candidate for hike of the year in the form of the one I went on earlier today!    
Ever since I came across Man Cheung Po and Lung Tsai Ng Yuen (along with a "flying dragon") back on February 12th, 2012 while going along Sections 5 and 6 of the Lantau Trail, I've wanted to go back there and spend more time there as those sections of Lantau Island really did seem to be very pleasant sections of Hong Kong.  And a little more than a year ago, I did return to that part of Hong Kong's largest island by way of the Keung Shan Country Trail that allowed me to avoid having to go up (and down) the many hills of Section 5 of the Lantau Trail.  
As it turned out though, I ended up not lingering in the area as much as I had wanted to because the conditions I encountered there were far more misty than I had hoped would be the case.  But thanks to that hike on the second day of Chinese New Year last year, I now knew of an easier way to get to that area: one that seemed very much following again -- as was the case this afternoon!
This time around, the weather gods were also cooperative: in that, while it rained a bit in places in Hong Kong in the morning, it was dry where my two friends and I ventured this afternoon, far from misty and even sunny at times, with bright blue skies peeking out from the clouds every once in a while.  And at various parts of our excursion, scenic, even downright spectacular views revealed themselves; with today's visual highlights for me including the spotting of clumps of pretty pink Chinese New Year flowers and a point during the hike when one looked out at a sea so similar in shade and color to the sky that it was hard to see where one ended and the already began!
At times even more enjoyable than the beautiful scenery around us, and as far as the eye could see, was the company of my two hiking buddies: one of whom used to be my regular hike companion until she returned to Canada a few years back and is currently back in Hong Kong to celebrate Chinese New Year; the other of whom is the erstwhile regular hiking buddy who coined the phrase "non-competitive hiking" to describe our preferred hiking style.  Here's the thing: I really like that we never obliged to hurry to make particular times and, instead, just walked along at a pace all three of us were comfortable with -- and did quite a bit of shooting the breeze while we were tramping along too!
Back when I was at secondary school in Penang, I used to regularly walk up and down the school field during recess while chatting with a friend (or was it vice versa?).  I also made it a habit while attending college at Beloit of spending quality time talking with friends while strolling up and down the campus.  And I have enjoyed my share of conversation-filled long walks with friends when I lived in Philadelphia too. 
In Hong Kong, I do quite a bit of chatting with friends over meals and in bars but I also still very much enjoy chatting with friends while doing a bit of walking, or hiking as the case may be.  And as it so happens, the conversations today contributed quite a bit to making this afternoon's hike as fun as it was -- and, to my mind, helped further cement the friendship between the theree of us who went out hiking in Southwest Lantau together today. :)

Saturday, February 17, 2018

A Beautiful Moment delivers smiles, laughs, and many beautiful movie moments (Film review)

One of these Chinese New Year comedies I enjoyed viewing;
the other I plan to give a miss...

A Beautiful Moment (Hong Kong, 2018)
- Patrick Kong, director, co-scriptwriter (with Ja Poon) and co-producer (along with Jason Siu)
- Starring: Carina Lau, Simon Yam, Michelle Wai, Phillip Keung, Ivana Wong

Patrick Kong is one of those Hong Kong filmmakers critics love to hate but whose films have had quite the loyal fanbase in his home territory, especially among females of a certain age and class.  Often given a modest budget to work with, his movies tend to perform respectably at the box office but could hardly be considered "must see" blockbusters -- until now.

Super star-studded and featuring a bona fide A-list headliner in Carina Lau Ka Ling, A Beautiful Moment not only has the filmmaker working once again with many regular collaborators (such as Alex Fong Lik Sun and Jim Chim) but also a plethora of actors and actresses who collectively represent several generations as well as eras of Hong Kong cinema, from veterans like Patrick Tse Yin, Nancy Sit and Helena Law Lan all the way to youngsters like Cecilia So (who made such an impact with her 2015 feature film debut, She Remembers, He Forgets).  

Many of them have the kind of "blink and you'll miss him/her" screentime but those who notice their appearance will surely take some delight in their being part of this very local Chinese New Year movie that also sticks to this season's traditional conventions by being the kind of cinematic offering which focuses on family goings-on, delivering plenty of laughs and being sure to have a happy ending.  A Beautiful Moment additionally throws in the kind of mahjong- and poker-playing scenes that those who enjoy gambling movies will delight in, and ditto with regards to a pretty obvious allusion to the God of Gamblers.

Considering how many characters as well as jokes this sprawling movie manages to pack into its approximately 109 minute running time, I think Patrick Kong and co are to be applauded for keeping the main plot and sub-plots fairly coherent and the focus rather firmly on psychiatrist supreme Bo (Carina Lau), her martial arts expert daughter Michelle (Michelle Wai), and rich businessman Simon (Simon Yam) whose heart gets torn between his latest love and old flame.  Something else that's worthy of commendation is how much room Carina Lau and Simon Yam are given to show off their acting range; and, frankly, it's really wonderful to get a reminder of how these versatile talents can and do excel in comic and romantic roles.

In view of how very good the movie's two leads are, it might seem rather annoying that they have to share their screentime with so many others.  But Michelle Wai also proves to be pretty watchable and the likes of Ivana Wong (as Kiki, Bo's aspiring actress daughter) and Phillip Keung (as a major client of Bo who happens to be Simon's major business rival) manage to make what would otherwise be incidental as well as outrageously silly parts into ones which are pretty memorable as well as entertaining.

There are times when this film's cast is so good that it's tempting to think that they didn't need all that much directing.  At the same time though, I do also reckon that they were given some pretty primo dialogue to work with; with the ones likening men to Bluetooth devices and women to wifi being particularly amusing and also clever.  Regardless of who is (or are) primarily responsible for this effort, the main takeaway from all of this is that A Beautiful Moment delivered lots of smiles and laughs -- and, for that matter, many beautiful movie moments -- as far as I was concerned. :)     

My rating for the film: 8.0

Friday, February 16, 2018

The path less taken on the first day of Chinese New Year

Not the usual flowers I expect to see on a Chinese New Year hike!
Bauhinia in bloom in mid-February!
So were a bunch of smaller and less colorful flowers 
that attracted a scary amount of bees!
Since moving to Hong Kong, it's become a tradition of sorts for me to go hiking with friends on the first day of Chinese New Year.  And there have been occasions when, seemingly on cue, I'd catch sight of the bell-shaped flora known as Chinese New Year flowers on one of these hikes.
On today's excursion, which saw a friend and I trek from Lady Maclehose Holiday Village over to Sai Sha Road (but this time via Yung Shue O rather than Kai Kung Shan), however, I got to thinking that my chances of seeing the flowers that I will readily admit to looking forward to spotting at this time of the year would be on the slim side since it had turned unseasonably warm in recent days.  And as it turned out, today's turned out to be the warmest day by far of 2018, with highs of 27.7 degrees Celsius registered over in Sha Tin and Twa Kwu Ling, and the temperature in Pak Tam Chung having hit the 27.5 degrees Celsius this afternoon!
I hope that my chance to make some Chinese New Year flower spottings this year aren't completely gone though; and I really can't believe that it'll stay this warm through to the whole Chinese New Year period (which traditionally goes on for 15 days!).  I also take some consolation at today's hike being far from flower-less.  Not only that but I actually came across some bright pink flowers that I had never seen before, or at least not in the state of blooming that they were in, along with some bauhinia that had a different coloring from what I'm used to seeing.
Other visual highlights from today's excursion included my coming across rock pools that, even while I know they are completely natural, look so attractive that it sometimes seemed like they had come out of a movie set designer's imagination.  And while I'm not normally tempted to jump into one, I must say that if the temperature had risen a few degrees further, I might have wanted to take advantage of there having been few other people out on the trail my friend and I went on this afternoon and letting myself be cooled by those waters!
All in all, today's was a pretty pleasant hike along what really did feel like the path less taken since my friend and I spotted fewer than eight other people on the sections of trail between the Lady Maclehose Holiday Camp and Yung Shue O.  Actually, to judge by what we observed in Sai Kung town and while catching the minibuses to, further into and out of the Sai Kung Peninsula, the first day of Chinese New Year may well be the quietest and thus most optimal day of the year to go hiking in this part of Hong Kong which normally attracts many hikers and lots of others wishing to enjoy the outdoors on their day out!

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Snow in Japan!

Snow falling while I waited for my train to arrive at 
Hiroshima Station on the second day of my recent Japan trip
I found the snow to be really pelting down and 
settling on the ground the day that I went over to Hikone!
 Not a scene I expected nor wanted to see on a Japan visit!
For the first twelve years of my life, I only ever saw snow in picture books, on TV or in movies.  On a visit to England a few months after my thirteenth birthday though, I saw snow for the first time and was pretty ecstatic to have had this then exotic -- to me! -- experience.  
After I moved to England to attend boarding school though, snow became less of a thrill and more of a bother, especially after it melted and then re-formed into super slippery ice.  And the four years I spent at college in Wisconsin (aka the Siberia of America) definitely made me like the cold white stuff even less, with the subsequent years I spent in Philadelphia -- during which the city would regularly run out of salt for the roads in winter -- making it so that by the time I left the USA on July 4th, 2003, for far warmer climes, it would have been perfectly fine by me if I never ever saw snow again!
Since then, I've actually been pretty successful in avoiding seeing snow for the most part.  Indeed, it wasn't until 2015, on a May visit to Norway, that I came across -- and even tramped on -- the cold white stuff again!  And after a brief encounter with falling snow while on transit at Munich airport later that same year, I had not had more encounters with that which can be so pretty to look at but not all that great to be in until my trip to Japan last month!
I won't lie: the first time I saw snow falling in Japan (upon coming out from Hiroshima's Okonomimura. where I had just enjoyed a delicious lunch of Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki), I let fly an expletive -- and it wasn't because I was excited by the sight of the cold white stuff but, rather, because I actually was horrified by it!  But after I realized that the falling snow wasn't sticking onto the ground, I calmed down somewhat -- to the extent that the knowledge that snow was falling did not dissuade me from going ahead and journeying by shinkansen later that day to Osaka Funassyiland (and back later that evening) in order to get a 60cm Funassyi!
Over the next few days, as I saw more snow fall but almost never accumulate on the ground, I relaxed even more.  Indeed, I could be accused of having become rather blasé about the uncommonly snowy conditions that the Japanese media appeared super excited about; and this especially when the snow that I saw falling on my way to the Asashi Shuzo brewery up in the hills of Iwakuni prefecture also didn't seem to be sticking much at all to the ground.  Thus it was that I wasn't all that bothered when it began snowing once more my train journey from Hiroshima to Hikone, one that involved my switching trains at Shin-Osaka and moving from the Chugoku region over to the Kansai region.     

Some forty minutes after the second train of my journey passed Kyoto though, I began to see landscapes that were distinctly snowy in nature, with the snow getting thicker and thicker the closer I got to my destination that day.  By the time the train rolled into Hikone Station, I was thinking that some of the winter scenery I was passing could easily be mistaken for Siberia's rather than Japan's! 

I have to admit: there was a part of me that wanted to get on the next train out of Hikone soon after I arrived in that part of Shiga prefecture; and this especially it wasn't just snowing when I got there but pelting down pretty heavily!  But after reminding myself that I had experienced similar -- and even worse! -- conditions in Wisconsin, I not only kept to my plan of staying the night but decided to go out and walk around in the town since I was there for a bit before going and getting dinner (and at least one alcoholic drink!) in a nice, warm izakaya in the evening!
As I tramped about in the snow, I got to remembering how slippery the not completely cleared paths can get, how wet snow actually is, how few people are keen to be out walking about when it's snowing heavily, and how bleak but also beautiful it can turn landscapes into.  In addition, long before I completed my walk around Hikone town, I was thinking how happy I am that I no longer live in a part of a world where snow falls during winter but also how cool it actually was -- metaphorically that is, not just literally! -- that I was getting to see truly snowy conditions for the first time ever on a visit to Japan! :)   

Monday, February 12, 2018

A visit to the rural sake brewery that makes Dassai! (Photo-essay)

Back when he was the Asahi Shuzo Company's vice president, I met Kazuhiro Sakurai when he visited Sake Bar Ginn while he was on a stopover in Hong Kong.  Over a shared bottle of Dassai Sparkling 50, we chatted about subjects ranging from the films of Studio Ghibli to how one can get Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki topped with oysters.  And at one point in the conversation, the man who's now the company president told me that if I ever did get to Hiroshima, I was welcome to visit his sake brewery, which is located in the neighboring prefecture of Yamaguchi; something I duly proceeded to do on my trip to Japan last month!

It took two trains (including a very local one with just one carriage and a driver who, at some stations, would do double duty collecting the fare from passengers getting off his train) to get from Hiroshima to Suo-Takamori, the nearest train station to the brewery that I hadn't previously realized is not only located in a really rural part of Yamaguchi prefecture but fairly high up in the mountains.  But it was so totally worth the effort to get there to see how the sake that -- as I told Sakurai-san -- I've drank thousands of liters of gets made. 

Adding to the experience was my getting extended incredible courtesy and serious VIP treatment: as in I got picked up from (and later dropped off at) the train station, given a personalized tour of the place, and met Sakurai-san again, this time over on his home turf.  Oh, and after I toured the brewery facilities, I also spent some time at the Dassai Brewery Side Store, where I got to not only sip glasses of the familiar Dassai 23 but also the even more amazing Dassai 23 Centrifuge and simply incomparable Dassai Beyond!

Inside the industrial-looking rice-polishing facility 
which was the first stop on the tour

 Unpolished Yamada Nishiki sake rice on the left and 
the same rice post polishing on the right

The Asashi Shuzo Company's main building

Before entering the working section of the main brewery,
one needs to put on protective clothing and spend time in an 
air shower room to reduce the risk of contamination of the facilities

The polished sake rice is (still) washed by hand
rather than machine at the Asahi Shuzo brewery

 I feel incredibly privileged to have been allowed into the area
where they make rice malt when people were in the process of 
sprinkling koji onto the steamed rice

I also thought it very cool to be allowed into the vast room
where hundreds of large vats filled with steamed rice, koji 
and water are mixed to make mash that's left to ferment

Filled bottles of sake about to have the famous 
Dassai label affixed onto them :)

Sunday, February 11, 2018

An evening of great sake and good food at Hiroshima's Koishi Sake Bar

Great sake and good food are to be had at the
Koishi Sake Bar in Hiroshima
I knew I was in good hands when this sake
was offered up to me! :b
Probably my favorite sake of the night :)
More than five years ago now, I had a revelatory evening at a sake bar in Tokyo called Sasagin.  Until that night, I had never known that the drink the Japanese call nihonshu and the rest of the world refers to as sake (which, actually, is the Japanese word for (all) alcohol(s)!) could taste so good and pure, with certain varieties tasting like alcoholic mountain water to my mind!
Since then, I must have drank thousands of liters of sake as well as come to have a favorite sake bar in the city where I live, Hong Kong.  And before my most recent Japan trip, I decided to solicit recommendations from a sake industry insider for good places to drink sake in the city that I'd be spending the most evenings: Hiroshima; and consequently ended up spending a few very pleasurable hours at the Koishi Sake Bar located in the heart of the city's entertainment district.

The sister establishment of Ishimatsu Sandaime, an izakaya specializing in seafood from the Seto Inland Sea, the Koishi Sake Bar is located right next door but quite a different beast in terms of atmosphere and set up.  Very elegant looking and really quiet when I got there, I actually was the sole customer there for the first hour or so; something I took full advantage in terms of my having the undivided attention of its single, knowledgeable and friendly bartender who initially appeared to have been rather intimidated at the prospect of having to speak English but calmed down considerably and opened up after I told her that I'm no stranger to sake bars and usually start with a carafe of Dassai!
Since the Koishi Sake Bar had a selection of over 100 sakes, I opted to drink by the glass on the evening concerned but did, partly out of habit, and partly to see how it would taste in its native land, opt for a Dassai -- the 23 (as in made with rice whose grains have been polished down to 23 percent of the original), to be exact.  To go with it, I had the otoshi that came with the seating charge and, this time around, consisted of herring roe (yum!), ankimo/monkfish liver (more yum!) and kuromame/sweet black soybeans (actually also pretty yum!).  

After I asked the bartender for recommendations and she brought out a bottle of the flagship sake of the brand known in Japanese as Kuheiji but also has Eau du Desir written on its bottles, I knew I was in safe hands -- as I had tried sake from this brewery on a visit to Sasagin and loved it!  And while the third sake I tried that evening was not as incredible, the fourth -- a Juyondai junmai daiginjo -- proved to be very tasty indeed and may well have been my favorite drink of the night!
To go with all that sake I drank that evening, I had a plate of assorted sashimi that was not super exciting but perfectly respectable, a delicious abalone dish that made use of its liver as well as meat, and a bowl of vegetable chips that really was the kind of bar snack that I wish all bars would have.  And while all that food may not have seemed to be on the substantial side, I honestly can attest to it appearing to have been sufficient to help me to avoid having a hangover the next morning.  Oh, and I do think it helped that a large bottle of mineral water -- which I did completely drain -- was part of the bar's otoshi
And yes, I know that some people consider it rather sad to drink alone.  But I must say that I often enjoy being out in Japanese bars on my own.  In izakaya, I tend to end up fixating on -- and very much enjoying -- the food and drink.  And in sake bars, I really do get much pleasure from tasting some really excellent nihonshu and love that once they realize that you're a sake lover, the people behind the bar invariably get super into introducing (and talking about) good sake to you! ;b