Lanterns, Revisited

Lanterns in Nagasaki
Lanterns in Nagasaki

[Note: I wrote this up almost a month ago, but somehow never got around to posting it. Apologies for the delay!]

It’s amazing to think that a little over a year ago I embarked on my first solo trip. It feels like ages ago. A few weeks ago it was once again the lunar new year, celebrated in Vietnam as “Tet” and other parts of Asia as “Chinese New Year.” Japan, like much of the rest of Asia, sees the New Year as one of the most important holidays, but moved the date in line with the Gregorian calendar in the 1800s. But while China, Vietnam, Singapore and Taiwan use the same calendar these days as well, the lunar calendar is still used for holidays and religious celebrations (just like in Judaism, though they do disagree on when the new year is).

While Japan as a whole doesn’t celebrate the Lunar New Year anymore (though they do have holidays that still work on a lunar calendar) there is one part of the country that does: Nagasaki. The port city of Nagasaki was the country’s most prominent center of trade, and was in fact the only city that remained open to outsiders during Japan’s period of isolation. Because of its proximity to the rest of East Asia, and its status as a gateway to the outside world, it has long catered to outside influences in a way the rest of Japan still often resists. The population of foreigners and people of foreign descent is also much higher in Nagasaki than other areas. And it’s for this reason that they hold a Chinese New Year Lantern Festival every year.

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Lanterns in Nagasaki

When my friends told me about the festival I pretty much decided on the spot that I would go. I loved the feeling of Tet and Chinese New Year in other parts of the world, and missed that atmosphere living in Japan. I also heard good things about the lanterns themselves, which turned out to be really beautiful. In fact, they were very similar to those that the Missouri Botanical Gardens used during their own lantern festival.

In any case, I booked a hotel back in November (Japan is not a great place for last minute travel decisions, especially if there’s an event) and invited my neighbor. When the date of the festival got closer, my neighbor said she couldn’t go, but luckily the festival is a popular event, and it wasn’t hard to convince other friends to go.

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Lanterns in Nagasaki

So on Thursday, February 11 I drove up to Nagasaki with my friends Mei and Eddy. We had the Thursday off for a national holiday and decided to take the Friday as well and make it a long weekend. Nagasaki is around a four or five hour drive from where I live, but to hear my coworkers talk you’d think it was more like 10 or 12. I’ve learned that Americans tend to think a lot less of long car trips, since our country is massive and we can basically drive across the whole thing (and many of us do). I mean, Nagasaki is about as far from Miyakonojo as Kansas City is from St. Louis, and I’d barely consider that a road trip. But Japan, being a series of not-so-big islands, really isn’t as on board with the road trip idea in general. Also, speed limits are waaaaay lower in Japan than in the US, and highways are almost all toll roads, which all serves as a bit of a barrier for travel. Regardless, we were determined to make it work.

After a full morning of driving, with a necessary gas/ice cream stop or two along the way, we made it to our hostel in Nagasaki. If you’re a traveler of the hostel-going variety and find yourself in Nagasaki, I’d definitely recommend AKARI, which was right on the edge of Chinatown, walking distance from all of the excitement. We unloaded and chatted with the very friendly staff before setting out to see the lanterns for ourselves.

Small lanterns lined the streets and shopping arcades, and larger lantern installations sat on street corners and along the river that ran on the outskirts of Chinatown. We made our way through the crowds and happened upon a parade. There were dragon dancers and children playing instruments, and we decided to follow them. They led us to a stage, where we learned there would be Lion Dancing. We settled in and watched a really fun show.

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If you’ve never seen Chinese Lion Dancing before, it’s pretty amazing. Each “lion” is made up of two people, wearing a joined costume. One person mans the head and front legs, while the other plays the back legs and tail. This may sound like the old joke of a two-person donkey costume, but there’s really no comparison. The two dancers move together to give the illusion that the lion is one animal, and they dance, jump, and run round the stage and through the crowd. The costume has puppet components as well, and the lions bat their eyes, waggle their tails and sometimes “eat” gifts thrown in their mouths by audience members. Below is a short clip of a professional lion dance, which is definitely a step above what I saw, but you’ll get the idea.

After the dance we ate a bit of street food and continued to wander and take pictures. Somehow in our wandering we realized it was late, and most of the restaurants were closing. We couldn’t make up our minds about what to eat, so we ended up with a conbini meal. Not ideal, but also not the worst thing in the world. We decided that the next day we would plan out our meals better, and went to bed.

Day two was mostly driving around the outskirts of the city. My friend Mei had developed an interest in kimono, so we spent the day in second hand stores looking for kimonos and the various accessories that go with them. She even convinced me to buy one or two things, which I have no idea when or where I’ll ever use, but they’re really beautiful. I’ve given some thought to taking up sewing, because used kimono are so cheap, and the fabrics used are just gorgeous…. Every time I see one in a shop I can’t help but picture how it’d look as a skirt, or a dress…. but I haven’t worked up the motivation to really pursue this interest.

In any case, after a full day of shopping we found ourselves in Sasebo, a town north of Nagasaki near a US military base. While military bases are often controversial, they do have one uncontested positive point – the plethora of restaurants that pop up around them. We ate an amazing Mexican dinner, and I remembered exactly why I missed cheese so much.

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On our third day in Nagasaki we decided to walk around the city. Nagasaki has a fair amount of tourist attractions if you’re historically or religiously minded, but my friends had been there before and already done most of them. They insisted that they’d go again if I wanted, but they didn’t sound like the idea was super appealing. Instead we wandered the streets and found cool shops, snacks and art, which is pretty much my idea of a good day anyway. We also stopped outside of Dejima, the island where the Dutch were confined to during Japan’s period of isolation. It was tiny, and honestly not much to look at. The ramen shop we found down the street was much more interesting, but it’s hard to compete with a bone marrow and chicken skin broth.

In the evening we drove to the neighboring prefecture, Saga, to check out a lantern festival. Saga is known for its ceramics and massive kilns. In fact, when we showed up we realized that it was a ceramic lantern festival, and the lanterns lined a path up the hill around a very large walk-in kiln. They had set up a cafe inside the kiln just for the festival, so we went on in and drank some coffee. It was an interesting experience, but once we went back outside it had started to rain, so the festival was a bit of a bust.

On our way back to Nagasaki for the night Eddy’s friend contacted him and invited us to dinner back in Sasebo, this time for Thai. We made our way over and had yet another fantastic meal, at a restaurant I was sort of glad we went to at night, since it sat right on a cliff. I’m sure it was a gorgeous view, but I didn’t mind not seeing the drop.

The next day it was time to leave. We packed up and checked out, then made our way to our final destination for the weekend, a massive field of plum trees. February is when the plum blossoms bloom in Japan, and while they are planted in parks and gardens all over, this place was actually a plum farm. There were thousands of trees in various stages of bloom, mostly with white flowers but with a few pink and red throughout. The really lovely thing about plum blossoms, called “ume” in Japanese, is their smell. They have a lovely cinnamon scent, which a friend described to me as “exactly like big red gum.” Standing in a whole grove of them was fabulous.

After snapping some photos and breathing in the cinnamon smell, we left the farm and headed for home. Looking back, I’m glad I made the somewhat impulsive decision to go for this trip. It was a lot of fun, and a great chance to see a unique part of Japan.

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Central Vietnam – Huế for a Day

After landing in Ho Chi Minh City I had a long layover that ended up taking even longer than anticipated. In the six hours I spent in the airport I learned that pizza in Asia is not to be trusted, even if it comes from Dominoes. Just say no to Asian pizza, unless it comes from Pizza 4 P’s in HCMC, which, oddly enough, is a Japanese pizza place. Go figure.

Apricot blossoms - the official flower of Tet
Apricot blossoms – the official flower of Tet

Anyway, after a long delay I finally landed in Huế, the old capital of Vietnam. Getting off the plane I was super sad to discover one of my earbuds had gone missing, rendering my sound-canceling headphones all but useless. I waited around while they cleaned the plane to try and recover them, but apparently they were gone for good. Fortunately I had picked up a new pair of “sleeping headphones” in Singapore, which are basically a large headband with headphones built in, so I would not be entirely without music and podcasts. I don’t know about you, but I find headphones pretty essential when I travel. Before a trip, especially one with a sizable commute, I always load up my iPod with podcasts to pass the time. This is particularly useful on buses, when reading isn’t always possible, and the sound-canceling feature is great when the bus plays loud variety shows on the tv.

But in any case, I sadly said goodbye to my headphones and caught a taxi to my hostel in the city, about a half hour ride from the airport. The long delay meant I didn’t get to my hostel until around midnight, and all of my roommates were asleep. Good thing I had that headlamp!

The next morning I woke up around 8 and had a pancake breakfast at the hostel. Afterward I rented a bicycle ($1 for a full day) and went out to explore the area surrounding the city. Huế is located on the Perfume river, nestled in the central highlands. The climate is a bit more mild than the delta, but it was pretty hot when I visited. I rode my bicycle through town and out to a famous pagoda.

Famous pagoda up on a hill
Famous pagoda up on a hill

The pagoda was lovely, and the bike ride allowed me to get a nice feel for the area. It’s a really small city, with no tall buildings and far fewer people than Can Tho. My ride took me along the river and past several smaller temples before I reached my destination.

The Perfume River
The Perfume River

This pagoda was full of tourists, but when I pulled up on my bike I was not sure where to leave the bicycle. Outside the pagoda were a string of drink stands and food stalls, and as soon as I pulled up and started looking for parking, they all beckoned over and yelled at me to leave my bicycle with them. I was a bit worried, but in the end decided to leave my bike (after locking the wheel) with the owner of a tiny cafe and hope for the best.

Up close at the pagoda
Up close at the pagoda

I walked around the pagoda and the grounds, enjoying the riverside views and beautiful architecture. I was a bit surprised to see an antique car on display, and upon further inspection I learned that this was the car that drove Thich Quang Duc to Saigon, where he famously self-immolated in protest of the American-Vietnam War. I walked away a bit sobered, reminded that Huế is only a short distance away from the former DMZ, and the region, while bustling and comfortable now, saw horrible things.

Leaving the Pagoda I returned to the cafe where my bike was thankfully tucked away in the back of the shop. The woman clearly expected me to stay and have a drink in return for the service, so I bought a soda and took it to go. I had already gone through my entire water bottle, it was so hot!

Huế Imperial Citadel
Huế Imperial Citadel

After the pagoda I made my way to Huế’s main attraction – the Imperial Citadel. At $5 for admission, this was one of the pricier attractions I’ve visited in Vietnam, and I’m not entirely sure it was worth it. Built in the 1800s, the citadel was the capital of the Nguyen Dynasty, who unified the north and south. The building claims to be unique in that it combined features of Eastern and Western architecture, or something. Honestly it was too hot for me to care much about reading signs, I was more interested in hanging out in the shaded gardens.

A ticket to the Citadel also give you access to a nearby museum, but when I made my way over I realized it was lunchtime, and they were closed. I returned to my bicycle and figured I would find food. My map labeled one area “food street” so this seemed like a safe bet. I found a small street stall and was offered the choice of noodles or rice. Rice turned out to be the wrong choice, since it was really just a lot of onions that tasted like shrimp and almost no rice. Oh well, live and learn.

On my way back to the hostel I decided to check out a “local market” that was recommended by the hostel. Pro tip for travelers in Vietnam – markets are overwhelming, and rarely as interesting as you anticipate. Most are full of low-quality clothes and knicknacks that you really don’t need. When I saw the market I got off my bike to walk around, but didn’t even approach the stalls, I didn’t have the energy to bargain for a “Viet Nam” tshirt.

The rest of my day was pretty uneventful. I ate dinner in a small restaurant off the main drag and packed up in preparation of my departure the next day. I don’t think I’d go back to Huế, but I’m certainly glad I went.

Next stop, Hoi An!

Going Solo in SIngapore

Head’s up, this post is LONG. I didn’t mean for it to be, but I started writing and it somehow got away from me. I will try to make future posts a little less lengthy. 

After leaving my friends in Ho Chi Minh City it was time for me to fly to Singapore. The city-state had been on my radar for a while, but a few months earlier I had learned that a famous drag queen would be making a stop in the city, and since the show fell over the holiday I figured why not!

Welcome to Singapore!
Welcome to Singapore!

 

I was a bit nervous as I boarded my flight because, while I would consider myself fairly well-traveled and am generally comfortable with the ups and downs of exploring new places, this was the first time I would be truly on my own. In the past I have always had a travel buddy, a friend I was visiting, or someone to meet me on the other side. Even coming to Vietnam I knew that I would be received by people from the English Center once I made my way to Can Tho. But this time it was just me. I didn’t know anyone in Singapore, and didn’t even really have a plan beyond going to the drag show, and I had four days to fill. This was both scary and exhilarating.

Getting off the plane it was obvious I wasn’t in Vietnam anymore. Singapore is one of the wealthiest countries in Asia, and their airport is one of the nicest in the world. The national languages are Chinese and English, so everything was easy to navigate, and I quickly made my way to the airport MRT station. After a friendly stranger asked where I was going and pointed me in the right direction, I was on my way. Riding the train I got a glimpse of the city, which is extremely modern, but has tons of green space. The views weren’t particularly exciting, but that didn’t really matter. Once I made it to my stop I found my hostel with no problem and began plotting what to do next.

For the first day I set out for lunch a bit late, and was disappointed that the local Hawker Market was closed for the Lunar new year. After settling for a small Chinese restaurant I took a quick nap and decided to walk around and see what was close by. While I was only a 10 minute walk from an MRT station, the area surrounding my hostel wasn’t particularly interesting. After a bit of walking I found myself in the Arab Quarter, which had beautiful mosques and interesting shops. This part of town is supposedly known for its boutiques and coffee shops, but I figured I would come back later to explore a bit more in depth.

Next I found myself in the Bugis area, which is my kind of place – shopping heaven! It had been so long since I saw a mall, and I don’t know if I’ve ever seen malls quite as big as these. Once again, a lot of places were closed for the new year, so I resolved to come back in a few days when everything would be open again.

Chinatown lanterns at night
Chinatown lanterns at night

After walking around I hopped on an MRT to Chinatown to see the fireworks for the first day of the New Year. It was so crazy crowded! I wandered through the night market, enjoyed the displays and bought a few trinkets and finally found a place to eat. A mix up with the server left me with more food than I needed, but it was very tasty and I was feeling happy, if tired. I decided to head home before the fireworks because the crowds were a bit much for me, and on the way a friendly stranger told me about a less-crowded MRT station nearby, then walked with me to make sure I didn’t get lost. I made it back to the hostel without a problem and learned how useful the red bulb setting on my headlamp is – if anyone out there is planning on traveling to hostels, I highly recommend getting one. The red light is less intense and wont wake your new roommates. So great!

Supertrees - a massive network of artificial trees overlooking the marina
Supertrees – a massive network of artificial trees overlooking the marina

The next day I  ate my free hostel breakfast and went down to the marina to see the Gardens by the Bay. You may have heard of the Singaporean Supertrees, and this is where they are. The gardens are free, unless you want to visit the two bio-domes, which are a bit on the pricey side. I decided to splurge and visit the “Cloud Forest” which ended up being pretty cool. The whole structure reminded me a bit of a Ghibli monster (Castle in the Sky, anyone?) and the cool temperatures were a nice break. I also met a trio of women from Chicago who were doing almost the same trip as me, but in reverse. They offered suggestions for my time in Hoi An (which I’ll tell you about next time) and were very friendly.

After lunch at a tourist trap I visited the Asian Civilizations Museum, which is pretty interesting and also free. I sort of wished I had gone there first, since I was a bit tired, but I learned a lot about the history of Singapore and the various ethnic groups that call it home. And their gift shop was nice too.

I walked back through Bugis and the Arab Quarter again, and this time I walked through the famous “Haji Lane” which is known for street art and boutiques. After snapping some photos and drinking some delicious (but expensive) coffee, it was back to the Gardens to see the light show. The show is free and happens twice a night, and there are plenty of great places to sit and watch. It was really cool to see the “supertrees” light up, and the music was fun. At one point they used an instrumental version of a popular Korean Pop song, which was funny.

The supertrees at night
The supertrees at night

Walking back to the MRT proved to be a bit more complicated than I’d anticipated, and I found myself a bit lost. A man walking the same path was in the same predicament and we decided to try to find an exit together. Once again I was surprised at how friendly people could be, and I ended up talking to this man the entire long walk and train ride back towards the hostel. We said our goodbyes and I ventured out in search of a late-night Thai dinner, which was amazing. Sitting at the restaurant enjoying my pad thai, I made a decision to come back to Singapore again sometime, as I was already positive my time would be cut too short, and I was loving it.

Supertree selfie
Supertree selfie

Day three was quite eventful, as I had decided to make the long journey to the zoo to see MANATEES. Yes, the Singapore zoo has manatees, and as soon as I learned this I made up my mind to go see them. Now, if anyone is going to Singapore and wants to go to the zoo (it’s a nice zoo) you should know that it’s pretty far outside of the city. To get there I walked 10 minutes to an MRT station, rode for maybe 15-20 minutes, then caught a 20 minute bus ride to the Zoo itself. Luckily all public transportation in Singapore is super easy and well labeled, and they all take the same EZ card (which I unfortunately lost as I got off the bus. Whoops!) Also, you should buy your tickets ahead of time. I had to wait almost an hour to get my tickets, and they were almost $30 for just the one park and boat ride. I was a bit irritable when I actually got inside, and then had to walk the whole distance of the zoo before I got to the manatees, but it was all worth it. I spent over an hour in the manatee enclosure, fighting kids for the best viewpoint. In case you were wondering, yes, I still love manatees. I walked away feeling very happy, and bought myself a little keychain to remember the experience (sidenote – the gift shop devotes way too much of its space to panda memorabilia, which is a big mistake in my opinion. Those pandas looked so sad…)

Anyway, I bought myself a new EZ Link card and slowly made my way back to the hostel to change and decide what to do next. Eventually I went for a walk and found a burger place for dinner and walked around some shops before calling it a day.

The next day was my last full day in Singapore, and my designated shopping day. I slept in until 9 but still made it out a bit too early for most of the shops in the Arab Quarter. To kill time I decided to visit a nearby cat cafe, and spent an hour petting cats and sipping on overpriced apple juice. The cafe was much nicer than those I had visited in Hanoi and Phnom Penh, but the owner was determined to spend the whole time talking with me, and all I wanted to do was write in my journal and pet some cats. This is pretty much the downside of how friendly people were overall to me as a single female traveler. I was never lonely, but I sometimes wished I could sit in the hostel lounge without people trying to strike up a conversation about where we had been and where we were going. But in any case, the cats were cute, and when I left I was finally able to check out the shops.

Cat caffe
That’s one happy cat

I won’t bore you with the details, but the shops were mostly very cute and I bought entirely too much. I even found a Kinokuniya bookstore and bought new books since my Kindle was sadly lost en route to Guam (but has since been replaced – thanks Grandma and Mom!)

By the end of my shopping spree I was feeling a bit down, I guess all of the solo time had finally gotten to me. But there was no time to dwell on sad things – I had to pack up my stuff and go to the drag show! I put on a new dress and got a bit lost in an underground MRT station/mall before finding the venue with a huge crowd lined up to get in. I found my place in line between two groups of very flamboyantly gay expats, and I spent about 20 minutes listening to their conversations. It was amusing, but also kind of lonely. I’d never been to a show by myself before, and I found myself missing my friends.

Once inside the club was pretty small, and people were standing around tables in groups, and I wasn’t quite sure where to go. I stood on the side of the stage awkwardly waiting for the show to start when a nearby woman asked me if I was alone. I said I was, and she said that was unacceptable, and promptly invited me to join her table right in front of the stage. The woman I talked to was there with her cousin, and two other solo show-goers were there as well. All of them were from Singapore, and I had a great time talking with them before the show.

Hello Adore!
Hello Adore!

The show itself was a blast. Adore Delano is fantastic live, very funny and personable, and she really can sing! I was so close I could have reached out and touched her, and she frequently walked by my table. I was so glad to be there.

After the show I went out for coffee with the girls at my table, and it was really nice sitting and talking with new friends. They were all big drag race fans, and we talked about the local drag scene, life in Singapore and their time spent abroad. I think this was my favorite night of the whole trip, just talking in that coffee shop.

Getting coffee with my new friends
Getting coffee with my new friends

I went back to my hostel feeling great, and spent some time reflecting on the wonderful experiences I’d had over the past few days. I decided that Singapore was a fascinating place I’d love to see more of, and that solo traveling was more fun than I had anticipated. As far as I could tell, the only real downside was that meals couldn’t be shared, and that occasionally it was a bit lonely. But what they say is true, if you leave yourself open to new people and new experiences, you’ll find them.

I left Singapore the next morning and made my way back to Saigon, and the next leg of my trip: Central Vietnam.