Sunday 20 July 2014

Something a little less normal - Penang, Malaysia

I hope you will allow me to depart from my usual blog theme of Japan for one post.  I recently went on vacation to the island of Penang in Malaysia and spent an amazing few hours walking in the heat and humidity around the historical town of George town.  I saw things around Georgetown that are similar to the things that I love about Japan - tradition and history.

George Town was founded in 1786 and very quickly became an important trading post for the region.  In 1957, George Town, along with the rest of Malaysia gained independence from Britain.  In 2008 George Town was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for having a unique architectural and cultural townscape different to anywhere else in East and Southeast Asia.  In 2010, George Town was ranked as the most liveable city in Malaysia and number 8 in all of Asia.  That's pretty impressive!  George Town is also the sister city to my city in Australia, Adelaide.

I had been planning this trip to Penang for quite a while and had been eagerly looking forward to it as it had been over two years since my last real holiday!  I had done a bit of research about places to go and where to eat good food as Penang has a reputation of being the food capital of Malaysia.  The great thing about Penang is that the street food is completely safe.  You can go to almost any Hawker stall and confidently each what they prepare.  One of the dishes that I was looking forward to trying was something called Nasi Kandar which is a dish of steamed rice upon which they put a variety of curries and side dishes.  The most famous of which can be found at a street restaurant called "Line Clear".  Remember that name if you ever visit Penang!

So one day during my recent trip I, along with some friends I was holidaying with decided to check out Penang and set of from our hotel at Batu Ferringhi.  The taxi dropped us of near the historical Clan Jetties.  The Clan Jetties are groups of houses built on stilts over the water.  They were built to house the immigrant Chinese port workers.  The cost of land was too high for these people, so they built over the water.  There are about seven left and most of the descendants of the original occupants have since moved on, but the houses are still tenanted.  We started walking out along one of the jetties and out into the bay.

Just in front of me, a guy had left his girlfriend to make her way along the jetty.  She was clearly not used to walking along a jetty with nothing but water on either side as she was terrified!!

She heard me approaching her and turned around and looked at me with a very scared expression on her face and I asked her if she was okay.  "No......" she said.  I told her to take her time and not rush and soon enough we made it to a wider section of the jetty where she visibly relaxed and then hit her boyfriend!

There were other jetties on either side of the one that we were on,

and part of me wanted to jump into the water and go for a swim.  I didn't as I couldn't see much more than 30cm into the water, so who know what else was down there!

In case you were wondering how the toilet system works on the jetties, I have the answer for you....

We reached the end and turned around to have a look back at those who were not game enough to walk all the way to the end...  Not surprisingly, the girl who had been carefully walking out had decided to stay at the wider section and not continue out to the end!

We walked back along the jetty to dry land again and went off in search of a special street nearby.  A number of buildings along the streets of Georgetown have had art painted over them by Lithuanian street artist Ernest Zacheravic.

I don't think all of these were by that artist, I think maybe some other amateur street artists decided to display some of their own works.....

Also it looked like the local government had added some of their own pieces to add to the atmosphere.  Each of them explaining a little piece of George Town's history.

We kept on walking and pretty soon we started to see signs that we were approaching Little India.

Now we were starting to get to the area that was responsible for George Town's World Heritage status.

But there was more to come, a lot more.  It was at about this time that I parted from my friends who wanted to do some clothes shopping in Little India.  I had good intentions of catching a bus to a nearby shopping mall to do a bit of clothes shopping myself so I walked off in the direction of the bus route.  Suddenly I saw something that looked interesting.  

Those who read my blog often know that I love exploring so i couldn't resist walking over to have a closer look.  It was at this point that my day became an adventure, full of surprises!

It appeared as though some kind of religious festival was happening.

The smell of incense was thick in the air as people were grabbing whole handfuls of incense, lighting them and praying.  Nearby there were big incinerators that were constantly burning wood to supply the coal to light the incense sticks.

Not wanting to disturb everyone or intrude on the ceremony I walked back out and started back down the street.  Outside the temple were stalls selling goods related to the ceremony.

A little further down the street I could once again smell incense and I soon found the source.  A few giant incense sticks burning away, their fragrant smoke drifting down the street towards the temple.

I came to a corner and turned and walked down a different direction and was faced with more of the beautiful colonial style buildings.

Turning another corner, I was confronted with a small street market.  All of the restaurants along the street had stalls and tables set up in front of their restaurants and were selling food to people walking past.

I found a guy selling coconuts so I asked for one and he set about opening the top and handing it to me with a straw and on such a hot and humid day, it went down beautifully!

Refreshed, I continued walking along the streets and enjoying the architecture, sights and smells of George Town.

One of the things that was amazing for me is represented in this picture.

New, recently opened shops (The Mugshot coffee shop and Rainforest bakery) sitting alongside guesthouses and hardware stores that looked like they had been there for generations.  This is what fascinates me about Japan, and continues to make life in Japan enjoyable and interesting.  The old, traditional parts coexist beautifully with the new, modern side.

I was starting to get hungry and saw something that looked good, unfortunately it was closed.....

Yes, I am a lifelong Manchester United fan.

I kept walking along streets and turning down side streets, getting more and more lost and loving every minute of it!

I heard the familiar sound of the bicycle bell of a trishaw behind me and turned and told the guy that I was okay walking.  He gave me a happy smile and continued riding in search of business.  When he was about 10 metres in front of me, he looked back at me and lifted his hand to his mouth in an eating action then rubbed his stomach and pointed off to the left.  Intrigued I walked off in the direction he had pointed in (as I was quite hungry by now) and I was left speechless by what I had found......

I had stumbled across (with a lot of help from my trishaw friend) the same Nasi Kandar restaurant that I had heard and read so much about, Line Clear!  I walked inside and the old Indian guys turned and gave me a smile.  The smell was incredible.  The odour of curry filled the air and I knew I was in for a treat!

I had a look at the food that was on display.  About 10 different varieties of curries, some vegetable side dishes, naan bread,

tandoori chicken, fried chicken, deep fried fish heads, plain rice and biryani rice.

I asked them to pile my plate high with biryani rice, tandoori chicken, mutton curry and then they ladled a spoonful of each of the curry sauces over the top.  It looked and smelt and tasted amazing!

Line Clear seemed to be popular with locals and tourists alike

and seemed to be proud of it's long history, as it should be.

Full and extremely satisfied, I thanked the chefs and walked back out to the street.  Again, having no idea where I was, I hailed a taxi and asked him to take me back to the hotel where I settled in for a well-deserved nap!

George Town had proven to be an amazing place; it had taken me by surprise and given me a wonderful day.  I had found new adventures to be had, new experiences to be discovered around every corner, and had enjoyed every moment of it.

Thanks again for reading, and thanks for allowing me to write about something a little different to my usual posts.  I hope you enjoy this one too, but I will be back to my regular topics from now on.

Take care, and see you next time.

Tuesday 8 July 2014

Shinbashi after dark

Shinbashi (pronounced Shimbashi, meaning "New Bridge") was the Tokyo terminus of the first ever train line in Japan that first started operations in 1872 between Tokyo and Yokohama.  It is now a major business centre in Tokyo and the train station remains a hub station for the Tokyo rail network.  In a recently released article naming the 50 busiest train stations in the world (of which 46 are in Japan!!), Shinbashi came in at number 12.

In fact, they have one of the old Steam Locomotives on display outside of the station.

Shinbashi is now the home of the headquarters of some of Japan's biggest companies including Yakult, Fujitsu, All Nippon Airways, advertising giant Dentsu, cosmetics company Shiseido, Panasonic, Nippon Television and the major telecommunications company Softbank.  As a result, Shinbashi is also home to thousands and thousands of "Salarymen and Office Ladies".  What are Salarymen and Office Ladies?  Simply put, office workers.  There is a big culture of drinking with your coworkers after work as a valve to relieve stress, afterall, the average office worker works very long hours so, therefore, there is a lot of stress to be released.  With so many office workers in one area, there needs to be a whole lot of bars, restaurants and izakayas. This post is a look at the Shinbashi area after dark, on a Friday night when it is at it's busiest!

I walked down some stairs that led under the station where there are a few subway lines that flow through Shinbashi. I stumbled upon a maze of shops and restaurants running through an underground walkway that eventually led to nearby skyscraper office buildings.

Further away from the station there is an area behind glass sliding doors.  I went through the doors and was hit suddenly by the strong but amazing aroma of Japanese curry.

I walked around a corner and was confronted with a sight that one of my friends described as "Deep Shinbashi"!

Lining either side of this area was tiny izakayas, bars and restaurants that I imagine salarymen and office ladies flock to after work to unwind and relax.  Now this was a real local gathering place!

I walked back outside and it was soon after 5:30 and staff from the nearby izakayas had started gathering outside the station waiting for the salarymen and office ladies to start streaming out of their offices.  It is actually a lot of fun to watch them at work, running around from group to group trying to tempt them into their izakaya.

Other people were standing around enjoying "streetbeer" and waiting for coworkers or friends to arrive before going to find somewhere to drink some more.

So i decided that when in Shinbashi, I should do as the locals do!

I sat down and watched the world go by and pretty soon, as happens quite often to me, someone wandered over to where I was sitting and started texting.  I knew what was happening right away.  She was using me as a landmark and texting her friend, probably saying something like "come out of ____ exit and look for the foreign guy.  I'll be standing next to him."

I guess I was probably the easiest person for her friend to see!  Sure enough, 10 minutes later her friend suddenly appeared and walked straight over!

Some young girls walked past in their kimonos

and then some more!

At around this time I had to go over Rainbow Bridge to quickly catch up with a friend so I made my way to the Yurikamome train line and encountered more girls in Kimonos!  I should probably explain at this time that these girls were not driving the train, the trains on the Yurikamome line actually have no driver!

It is a little strange the first couple of times, but it makes for an interesting ride!

After finishing up at Odaiba I came back across to Shinbashi and the outside the station it was just starting to come alive.  I started taking some photos and got ready for the action to begin!

Once leaving work, most people head to a restaurant or izakaya in the area.  The choices are almost endless!


tuna sashimi rice bowl,




tonkatsu (crumbed, deep fried pork cutlets, doesn't that sound amazing except to the vegetarians and vegans reading I guess.  Pretty much anything is going to taste great if it is crumbed and deep fried!).

beef rice bowl.

Endless numbers of bars,

and izakayas......oh so many izakayas.......

A lot of the younger office workers often go to the karaoke bars that line the streets for entertainment.

Then there are also these ladies lurking on the street corners appearing suddenly in an attempt to sell " massage" to the salarymen roaming the streets.

After drinking their fill, the dish of choice for the younger salaryman heading back to the station is ramen, while for the older ones it is soba.  I chose the latter on this night.

Beautiful in it's simplicity.

However, even amongst the craziness that is Shinbashi, I was still able to find this....

Having had a good night and celebrated the end of the week in style, the salarymen and office ladies made their way back to the station to make sure they got home by last train.

Sadly, a few just don't quite manage to make it home though, the week was just a little too difficult and long for them.

Well, that's it for another post.  Thanks again for reading and until next time, take care.