Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Sakana, the friendship song

On a Saturday afternoon back in 2007 as Raymond, Irene and I were walking along the sushi and sashimi aisle in Jusco* Mid-Valley we heard a Japanese song playing in the background. It sounded like a nursery song but it also sounded like an adult song. We couldn't make up what it was but it did tickle us at the time.

I've finally seen the video (below) awhile ago. The name of the song is O-Sakana Tengoku which means "Fish Paradise". The music video actually made it appear sillier than it sounded! A typical masterpiece of silly Japanese song I would say.

It was very easy to follow. We soon got hung of it and started singing along. As I just returned from Japan at the time, (on transit to the UK for my masters), I roughly made up that the lady was singing about fish. It was a befitting song for the sushi aisle.

Two years have passed. On my recent trip back to KL, I visited the same spot and to my delight, the song was still playing! I exclaimed to Irene, "Oh listen! That's the funny song!" We burst out laughing and recounted the good old days we had with the three of us.

Video of the Sakana song by Shibaya Hiromi

The song sticks to the mind like singing the ABC for the first time. Whenever I hear that song again, it will remind me of the three of us. "Fish!", you may say, but I shall now make "Sakana" our friendship song.

*Jusco is the largest Japanese store chain in Malaysia

Monday, October 26, 2009

London with Air Asia X

People raise their eye brows and follow on with plenty of questions whenever I announce that I flew on Air Asia X on my trip back to KL this time. Sympathy comes through their face as if I've lost a limb in a war.

But their reactions are completely understandable. For the past few years, Air Asia X have been known to provide cheap and new flights in exchange for uncomfortable black leather seats and outward bound school treatment by the cabin staff. So the assumption that I went through the same treatment for 14 hours must have surprised them. In fact, the two FAQs to me were on legroom and service.

My experience with Air Asia X flight to and from London was completely different. It was more pleasant than I expected. One of the reasons the London flight was more comfortable than other Air Asia X flights was because of the aircraft. I read that the aircraft was leased from full service Air Canada for a year to test the viability of the route.

The Oakland Raiders Air Asia X aircraft.

When it was time for boarding, I saw for the first time the hideous aircraft we were boarding in. You don't know how embarrassing I felt as a Malaysian to know that this "chav" design aircraft was going to land in London! It's like knowing the guy on the street in a yellow tank top, with a scarlet feather scarf around his neck and in tight pink jeans, a pair of orange socks and light green leather shoes, is your cousin. I was prepared to betray Air Asia and announce that it's a Singaporean-owned company should I be asked if it was actually Malaysian.

Anyway I have some photos taken during my flight back to London:

For a start, the legroom was much better than I expected. To provide a meaningful description of the space in my seat, I have taken The Star newspaper as a measure of the legroom.

A good half-foot space available

Then there's the adjustable headrest

I have pre-booked my meals. Two meals were served - the first, one hour after take off, and the second three hours before landing. Don't expect to be filled up by the meal box. They are served in calculator-sized boxes. You can estimate the size of the mealbox by looking at my mobile phone case placed next to it.
First meal

Second meal

I took the international meal option on my trip back to KL. They served lasagne on the first meal and pasta on the second. In hindsight, it was surprising no one was killed eating that sort of stuff. It was the worst flight meal I've ever eaten. I'm glad I took the Asian option on my trip back to London.

If you're not filled up, you can buy an extra. But I was quite put off by the size and indiscriminate charging of the mealbox. For example, it cost me RM12 for Pak Nasser's nasi lemak on my flight to Taipei but the same thing cost RM36 (£6) on my flight to London! That's a complete rip-off! Don't get me wrong, I am not against paying £6 for a plate of nasi lemak and Pak Nasser's nasi lemak is up to mark. I've paid more in London and they satiate me. It's the size and two-pricing arrangements that I am against.

Flight menu and price discrepancy
In terms of service, I think they have improved a lot since I flew with them to Hong Kong. There were smiles most of the time. The cabin crew were also friendly and polite throughout the flight.

Another drawback is the lack of in-flight entertainment. As you can see from the photo below, the personal visual display units have been taken out of the seats. You can rent their entertainment kit for £6.

All in all, it was a pleasant flight. 14 hours is not a long flight if you can sleep most of the time or have a book to read in the absence of in-flight entertainment. But these sacrifices and the inconveniences of traveling to Stansted (which is a setback) for the flight must come with a lower fare price.

I don't think I am asking too much for the price they are currently charging. If I remember, they are supposed to be a no-frills airline! To justify my argument, I checked recently on Emirates doing £400, MAS £500 and Air Asia £404 (w/o meals and checked-in luggage) for a return ticket to KL. The first two flies out from Heathrow and Air Asia from Stansted. At the current price, I struggle to find a reason to fly with Air Asia except that I save two hours by not transiting in Dubai. But that's marginal difference. Therefore Air Asia's fares must go lower. I would start paying attention to anything near £300ish inclusive of meals and checked-in luggage.
Friendly cabin crew

Air Asia X is now the second airline company that flies direct to Kuala Lumpur from London. The first is Malaysia Airlines. If Air Asia X can offer more competitive fares than MAS and other full service flights, I wouldn't mind flying with them again. For now, I need to stop flying back to Malaysia and start exploring Europe. That's why I am based here in the first place!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Once Taihoku, Now Taipei

For those who are crazy about Japan but can't afford to travel there, there is an alternative - Taiwan.

I went to the capital of Taiwan, Taipei, last week with Irene and Dr Ray. I am really grateful to both of them. Irene has planned the itinerary and Dr Ray flew from HK to join us. We have planned for this trip months before I returned to Malaysia. We chose Taipei because of what it has to offer - food, scenery, friendly people and value. It was also highly recommended by friends and relatives.

Chiang Kai Shek's memorial

National Palace Museum

One of the main characters of Taiwan (or at least for Taipei) that was never mentioned to me was that Taiwan has a close resemblance to Japan. At first I thought it was just my observation based on what I experienced in Japan. Then I Google-ed for affirmation and found that this observation was discussed some three years back (I believe it was much longer than that even before there was such a thing as the internet). The forum was interesting and you can read it here. The Chinese characters of Taipei (台北) when translated in Japanese is Taihoku. Therefore when the Japanese ruled Taipei, they renamed the capital to Taihoku.
One of the high streets in Taipei.
Doesn't this crossing look like the one in Shinjuku?

A busy Taipei Main Station

From the building architecture, road design, sundry and departmental store arrangements to the way Taiwanese present themselves, they are every bit Japanese. Their train stations have as many Yamazaki bread stalls and sushi take-aways as they are in Japan. The only missing fixtures are the Tokyo Banana and Goma Tamago omiyage (souvenir) stalls. They even call their High Speed Rail "shinkansen", which is the Japanese term for bullet train.
All of these further convinced me that Taiwan is like a copy of Japan

Throughout my stay in Taipei, I kept seeing things with strong association to Japan. Dr Ray was rather annoyed by this. Oh well, I do miss Japan if u ask me.

However it's difficult to blame the Taiwanese for having an identity crisis. After all they were once colonised by the Japanese for half a century. Like the British in Malaya then, we can easily draw parallels to what they have experienced - our roads and judicial systems are as much similar to the British, as the Taiwanese are to the Japanese.

But if you take these resemblance off Taiwan, there are still plenty the country has to offer. Food and scenery to name a few. They command an epic proportion of all things Taiwanese. The night markets alone are typically Taiwanese. One can easily name a few of their food off the cuff - sausages, bubble teas, beef noodles, fried chicken and pineapple cake. On the scenery side, they are known to have one of the best sunrise views in the world.
Night market in Shilin

Some of those food we tried
Magnificent views from Jiufen

In terms of weather, Taiwan doesn't get any colder than London's summer - mid 20s. However, Taiwanese fashion follows a virtual four season religiously. At the time when we were in Taipei, it was October and the temperature was hovering mid to late 20s but the people on the streets were in fleece and scarfs! I couldn't even take enough layers off to prevent a wet forehead! Once we were looking for swimwear to go for a hot spring in Beitou. However, we were told that the swimwear collection has been taken off the shelves as it was autumn (which our trip coincided with). What autumn I was asking!

Four days in Taipei were certainly too short a stay but we have done plenty within this short period of time. We explored out of Taipei - Danshui, Keelung, Yehliu and Jiufen. Packed to the brim, we managed to cover the historical monuments of Taipei towards the last day before we flew off. Yes, I am still very much a last minute person. One of the attractions we found was the changing of guards in the Sun Yat Sen memorial. We also managed to catch another in the Chiang Kai Shek's memorial. Guess it was our lucky day as we didn't plan for this.

Changing of guards at the Sun Yat Sen Memorial

Lover's bridge at Danshui

One of the benefits of traveling in a group is we get to eat and see more. Traveling in a group is also cheaper and faster. Our travel time to Yehliu and Jiufen (some 35km away from Taipei and 15km from each other) was cut half and the cost for three of us to take the taxi worked out to be only a slight difference from taking the public buses.

Trip to Keelung

Stunning rock formations in Yehliu

Eating in a group helped us eat many different types of food. We did not have to have one dish for one person but a different dish shared among us. So we get to try lots of different things in the end. While this means we have to share the delicious ones, this arrangement has also saved us from having to finish the lousy ones all by ourselves! We once had a bad experience with a vegetarian dish (from the sewer) which looked as bad as it tasted! So we were glad we did not have one for each of us.
We guessed this was from the sewer

On the last night of our stay, we celebrated Dr Ray's birthday in Ximending, one of the hippiest parts of Taipei. We had a wonderful catch up with the latest happenings between our last meet up for a good few hours.

The last night was also one of my most memorable experiences as we went up to Taipei 101, the world's tallest building. One would expect that the tallest building would be located amongst other tall buildings like the Petronas Twin Towers adjacent to Menara Maxis and the multitudes of high-rise condominiums. Taipei 101 is different. It is located amongst midgets. It wouldn't even have the chance to dwarf other high-rise buildings, because there aren't any near it!
Night views of and from the Taipei 101

View at dusk

Damper to prevent Taipei 101 from swaying violently

We took the lift up to the observatory at the 89th floor. The lift experience was much better than I expected. We were on the fastest lift in the world! The speed of the lift was recorded at 1010m/minute; that's 60kph!

I couldn't feel it was moving at all even though the digital display showed how fast it was moving! The floor numbers on the display changed like the count of a stopwatch! If I were blindfolded, I wouldn't have known I was being shot up to the top of the world except for the change of pressure in the eardrum. The ride was over in 37 seconds (45 seconds to go down). At the time when I was in the lift I did pray that there wouldn't be an earthquake! We were fortunate there was no earthquake and the outdoor observatory on the 91st floor was opened to visitors at the time of our visit. The outdoor observatory is only opened when the weather is good. So we actually went up two floors higher than we paid for!

A video of the digital display in the Taipei 101 lift

All in all we had a wonderful trip to Taipei. The company was great and the weather wasn't too bad in the days we were there. Thank God the two typhoons that were forecast to hit Taiwan missed the island entirely. They went for Japan instead.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Wedding in Tampin

I flew back to KL on Thursday to coincide with three weddings. Two from Eric's. No he's not marrying twice! One from my cousin.

Even though I have been a "best man" on two past occasions, every ceremony was different from each other. The first was a Christian holy matrimony and the other was a low-key event. This time was a typical formal Chinese tradition with a rich array of customs and superstitions.

The pick up and return time from the bride's house were planned months ahead by the "Superstition Master" (sorry I have yet to find a suitable name for this person). The belief is that certain times of the day is the most auspicious time for an individual to do certain things; this include the time to get married, to pick up the bride, to return to the groom's house and probably to procreate?? Hmm...

But no one has bothered answering my question what if these times were not followed? After all, $h!T happens. Marriage wrecked? The sun turn green and the moon red? I guess no matter what happens, these times must be followed - do or die. Yes that is why we broke all traffic rules on the way to the bride's house in Masjid Tanah, some 45 minutes away from Tampin, just to be on time, as instructed by the Superstition Master.

Wedding car

We left to pick up the bride at 5.30am and this meant we woke up much earlier - at 4.30am! This was the earliest wedding ceremony I've ever attended.We flew past almost every red light but thank God the roads were deserted in the wee hours of the morning. Eric warned us to look out for cows (yes, we were in the suburbs) while we did a 140kph on a winding trunk road! As best man, I could only sit and act calm. With him telling us at every 5 minutes that the ribbon across the windscreen was blocking his view when he did 140kph made my stomach churn.

Eric pleading for the bride to come out

We arrived safely - of course we did. As best man, my role was varied. The role went from anything like wiping off the sweat of the groom to keeping a stash of cash (red packets) near him. Yes, read butler. Cash and tissue papers were the currencies of the day. Another important role of the best man and groomsmen is to help the groom overcome the "obstacle course"planned by the bridesmaids. This include doing all the silly things like eating a raw bitter gout, bursting balloons between legs, wearing lipsticks and dancing like synchronised swimmers.

Dancing our way to the next obstacle course

E&C 's wedding had one unique aspect that set them apart from the rest of the Chinese weddings I've attended. A pair of dogs were anchoring the set of their wedding photos and ceremony. This underlined their love for dogs. The couple even dressed the dogs up.
Hebe and Hugo

It was a tiring day but we had a few hours to rest before the wedding banquet. The nap made plenty of difference afterward. We had to show the guests to their seats and double as photographers at some point.
"Flower girls"??

One of the things I've learned in this wedding as a city boy, is that people in the suburbs are very punctual. All of the guests turned up by 7pm, as stated in the invitation card. We were served a 9-course dinner. Being someone who comes back from overseas occasionally has its advantage. I was treated very nicely by my friends. They fed my favourite dishes to my holding plate to the point I had double and triple servings! We even had extra portions from an adjacent table when we ran out of food. I was really touched. I guess I have drawn the sympathies of those who kept saying that I have lost too much weight.
Dinner spread

One done. Two more to go...