Kyoto – getting naked with the natives

I decided to hop on a bullet train and spend my first weekend in Japan in Kyoto.  It’s about 90 miles away, but as the train gets up to 175 mph, the journey only takes 35 minutes and there’s a train every ten minutes or so – what an amazing service!  It’s fairly expensive – £28 for a single ticket on Friday, and £36 to get back on Sunday – but the trains are immaculately clean, with reclining seats and a snack trolley, and of course they are on time, down to the very last second.

When I got to my hotel, I was thrilled and terrified in equal measure to discover that they had a sento – a public bath – for their guests to enjoy.  I knew I’d have to try one some time while I’m in Japan – I just didn’t realise it would be quite so soon.

The receptionist gave me an etiquette sheet, which I studied carefully –

The leaflet also explained how the Japanese manage to be so efficient; they appear to have 25 hours in their day, unlike the rest of us.

Once I’d read it, it was time to go … before I changed my mind.  So I put on the special shoes –

– and changed into the special pyjamas for wearing to and from the sento

– and I was good to go.

The baths are strictly segregated, which is apparently a modern phenomenon, and mixed bathing used to be the norm.  I can’t yet understand how people who are so modest that even a millimetre of cleavage is unacceptable, will quite happily strip off and show all their saggy, flabby bits to friends and strangers alike.  I have to confess that I was very relieved that my first sento experience was in front of total strangers – but most women there were in groups, chatting away unconcernedly together.

I used my colour-coded female room key to open the door, took a deep breath and walked in.  The changing room was full of women dressing, undressing, sitting at vanity tables with hair dryers – just like any old gym.  So this bit was easy – I undressed and locked my basket of clothes in a locker.

Then came the difficult part.  I opened the door to the sento, which was like opening the door into a sauna, and could see all the women doing the pre-bathing wash at the showers around the edges of the room.  They all had a white wash cloth, and I didn’t – but a very kind woman rinsed hers out and gave it to me, so I felt less of a conspicuous newbie.

I knew from the etiquette sheet that you mustn’t splash your neighbours when showering, but that’s quite difficult, as the wash stations are all quite close together –

I found this pic online, just to show you, as there is obviously no photography allowed inside the sento.

Once I was scrubbed clean, I went down the steps into the large bath, carefully avoiding eye contact with anyone else.  I was surprised by how hot is was, but there are two levels of seating, so you can be immersed up to your neck, or just to your waist, or even sit on the edge and just dangle your legs in the water.

Once I’d sat down, an elderly lady came over and sat beside me and struck up a conversation.  So there we were, discussing her grandson who’s at university in Nagoya, just as though we were at any social occasion – the only difference was that we didn’t have any clothes on.

I was a little disconcerted that she had a small towel plonked at a rakish angle on her head, and it stayed there the whole time she was talking to me.  I wondered if she was perhaps a little eccentric or confused, but afterwards I found a very good website, Sento For Beginners, which explained that you must never put a towel or your head in the water, so people often put the towel on their head to keep it out of the way.

After ten minutes of sweating and conversation, I got out, showered again and got dressed, feeling a great sense of achievement.

And you know what?  I went back the next day and did it all again.  So now I feel that I’m practically a sento pro.


Yay! It’s Cherry blossom time!

I arrived in Japan on Tuesday, and I have to say that it’s a lot more foreign than Malaysia.  On the bullet train from Tokyo to Nagoya I felt just like Harry Potter on the Hogwart’s Express when the trolley lady arrived with the refreshment trolley; I had absolutely no idea what anything was, and as she spoke no English and I speak no Japanese, there was no way of finding out.  I scanned the boxes desperately, looking for a clue, but there’s no English writing, and everything is triple-wrapped, so you can’t even see what’s inside the box.  All I could do was select one at random, and once I’d fought my way into it, it turned out to be a beef cutlet sandwich – perfectly fine, but not necessarily what I’d have chosen.  At least I don’t have specific dietary requirements or food allergies; that would turn a difficult situation into a nightmare.

But once I arived in Nagoya, I had two very nice surprises:

1.  I have a hot bot loo, complete with washing and drying programmes

– it’s great fun – but you have to make sure you sit right at the back, unless you actually want to wash your jumper at the same time.

2. I live within walking distance of the castle and castle park in Nagoya, which are the places for cherry blossom in town, and it’s the peak viewing time for cherry blossom here at the moment, which is something that’s been on my bucket list for ever.

So on my free day yesterday, of course I strolled down to the park to enjoy the sakura

I was thrilled to see the families and groups of friends all sitting enjoying a picnic under the blossoms, just as I’d been told they do –

I was surprised to see that some groups were obviously work colleagues who’d come to spend their lunch hour sitting on a tarpaulin under the trees in their suit and tie.  Apparently some firms give their employees time off to go and picnic under the blossom – the event even has its own name  – Hanami.

But having already spent time in Asia, I wasn’t surprised at the number of photos being taken.  I soon got the hang of the requirements – you either hold a blossom-laden branch close to your face –

or you pick a few flowers and put them in your hair –

And if you haven’t brought your own photographer, there’s always the tried and tested selfie to fall back on –

or – for a bit of one upmanship – why not choreograph your very own cherry blossom dance? …

She kicked off her shoes and leapt onto someone else’s picnic tarpaulin, that the poor man was trying to sweep clean, and then proceeded to twirl with abandon while her adoring husband filmed her.

It was all getting too exciting in the park, so I went off to see the castle.

It was built by a shogun in the 17th Century, but flattened in 1945, so it’s  mainly a reconstruction – although some of the towers seem to be original, judging by the rickety stairs I climbed up to get a view from the top floor –

The Palace, which is inside the castle walls, was refurbished and reopened at the end of last year.  We all shuffled around in our socks admiring the beautiful painted screens and cloisonne work –

I was interested to note that the castle has a Ninja of the day –

and I saw one of them – or at least I think I did –

– but looking a lot scarier than on the poster.

I discovered that the hardcore cherry blossom posers were all inside the castle grounds too –

I just hope those kimonos are warm, as there was a very cold wind blowing.


Getting into hot water

One of the strangest things about North Island is suddenly coming across a patch of ground that’s smoking –

or hearing a glooping and plopping noise coming from a muddy puddle, which is bubbling away happily all by itself.

The volcanic hot springs are wonderful.  You can either pay to go to the pools –

– where every pool is at a slightly different temperature, ranging from 36-40 degrees, and it’s a good idea to work your way up from warm to hot, rather than leap enthusiastically into the hot pool first.

Or if you want a freebie, just ask the locals where the nearest hot spring is.  We found this one –

just off the main road between Taupo and Rotorua – a waterfall of wonderfully warm water in the middle of the bush … bliss.

And – even better – the geothermal water from these volcanic springs has a lot of health benefits.  The Polynesian Pools in Rotorua are fed from two separate springs – the Priest Spring works wonders on your muscles and joints, and the Rachel Spring offers ageless beauty.  I made sure that I spent an equal amount of time in both sets of pools as I couldn’t decide which benefit was most important to me.

And there’s also hot mud on offer at Hell’s Gate.  The clay in the mud purifies and detoxifies the body, neutralises free radicals and stops ageing, according to the blurb – and so, of course I had to have a go.  You clamber into the pool and scoop up the mud from the bottom and smear it all over you –

and then sit and wait for it to dry and draw all your impurities out –

then you wash all your impurities down the drain, and immerse your newly purified body in the sulphur water to keep the ageless beauty theme going.  The only drawback to all these geothermal springs is the eggy whiff you get from all the sulphur, but that’s a small price to pay for ageless beauty in my book.

Hot Water Beach on the Coromandel Peninsula is another freebie – unless you count the $5 spade rental, which is essential to get the most out of the experience.  There are a couple of hot water springs on the beach, and for two hours either side of low tide you can dig yourself a spa bath and wallow away to your heart’s content.

It’s a very strange sight; the beach is empty apart from the middle section where the springs are, which is full of people digging frantically.  And there’s a skill to the digging too – you have to find a source of hot water to run into your hole, and a source of cold water too, as the spring water is too hot on its own.  One group I spoke to were already on their third hole – rather like the three bears, the first hole had been too hot, and the second one too cold, so they were hoping that the third one would be just right.

Of course you don’t have to do the digging yourself –

– you can always bring your digging bitch with you.

And once your hole is at the correct temperature, you can lounge, wallow, chill, or catch up on your emails –

I’d never seen a geyser before either.  I do remember learning about them in geography, but I don’t think I’d realised that the water that shoots out is hot – yet another example of my failing to pay attention in class.

We saw the tallest geyser in New Zealand, Pohutu, which gets to 100 feet high, and the one called the Prince of Wales because the shape it makes looks like the Prince of Wales’ Feather, apparently –

That’s the two of them behind me, with the Prince of Wales Feather growing out of my head.  When they erupt there’s gurgling, hissing and sulphurous odours in spades.

Another by-product of geothermal activity is the silica terraces –

– the shape is so regular it looks like amphiteatre seating.

The pink and white silica terraces near Rotorua were considered the eighth wonder of the world, and were NZ’s biggest tourist attraction, until they were destroyed by a volcanic eruption in 1886.

And that’s really the biggest drawback of living on a fault line – the smell of sulphur and the risk of third-degree burns in a spa pool are nothing compared to the risk of an earthquake or a volcano flattening you, your home and your family at a moment’s notice.  Perhaps there’s something to be said for hot water out of the hot tap in a country that’s well away from any earthquake zones.




Hobbiton was at the top of my list for NZ North Island.

Having seen lots of countryside locations where Lord of the Rings had been filmed, I was now keen to see something that had been built especially for the film.

Hobbiton is big business, with 3,000 people a day visiting in peak season.  Although, bafflingly, our tour guide told us that 40% of visitors have no idea what Lord of the Rings is, so why they fork out $80 each to do the tour is a mystery.

We’d already been told about Peter Jackson’s obsessive attention to detail, but it was really brought home when we walked around the set and saw the level of detail involved.

There are two sets of hobbit homes.  The first set are built to 90% human scale –

– so the hobbit actors look the right size for their homes.

The second set are built to 60% human scale –

– so that Gandalf looks enormous when he stands next to them.

Every hobbit hole has a functioning chimney, and during filming one member of the crew had to run around and light each chimney with special beeswax lighters just before it was needed for a shot.

The clothing on washing lines was also in either 60% or 90% scale –

– and someone was employed to hang out the clothes every day, so that they looked like a load of washing put out to dry, and not like costumes that had been left on a washing line for the duration of filming.

There was also the problem of nature not doing its stuff properly.  The story required a plum tree, but it was the wrong season for plums, so Peter Jackson ordered plums to be wired onto an apple tree – and then the tree was never seen in any of the films anyway.

And there was another tree whose leaves, according to PJ, were ‘the wrong shade of green’.  So he employed people to strip all the leaves off the tree, and then wire on fake ones in the right shade, instead.  All that trouble and expense for just one tree among many in Hobbiton.

And the most expensive tree of all is the tree above Bilbo’s house, Bag End –

The story required a large oak tree over Bag End, and there wasn’t one.  So they cut down a tree in nearby Matamata, sawing off and numbering all the branches.  They transported it to Hobbiton, bolted the branches back on, fixed it in place in the ground, and wired 376,000 silk leaves onto it, imported from Taiwan … and you thought people went to a lot of trouble for the Chelsea Flower Show.

Every hobbit home had a clue to the owner’s trade –

– except for Bag End, and I seem to recall that Bilbo was a gentleman of leisure, so no beehives, cheese or freshly-baked loaves there.

All the wood you can see in the photos was aged with vinegar, and then coated in yogurt to encourage lichen to grow, and all the gardens were planted a year before filming began, to make them look mature and established.  Everything was done that could be done to make Hobbiton look like a real, lived-in village.

Such is the  popularity of the tour, that groups walking around the set are just five minutes apart and can easily bunch up if one group has a lot of narcissistic selfie-takers, who slow the whole group up.  Sadly, I was just too late to photograph a woman in the group in front of us who toppled headlong into the shrubbery while attempting a selfie perched on a very small bench.  Needless to say, I managed to sit on the bench very successfully, without upending myself in the bushes –

Finally …

…time for a ginger beer at the Green Dragon –

Unashamedly touristy – and I loved every minute of it!

Starstruck in Marlborough Country

Touring the vineyards in Marlborough made me feel like a film fan doing the Hollywood celebrities’ tour,

‘Ooh, look – it’s … Villa Maria/Wither Hills/Brancott!’ as famous name after famous name rolled by, and I leapt out of the car to take a pic –

With my liver’s best interests at heart, we didn’t stop at all of them, but I did have to do a tasting at my absolute favourite …

… Cheers!

And then, in a serendipitous twist of fate, we happened to be in Blenheim the very day of the annual Wine and Food Festival.  So of course we bought tickets, queued up with the rest of New Zealand –

and finally got to enter Wine Lovers’ Paradise – every Marlborough wine maker had their own stand in a sunny field just the right size for me to get to any one I wanted within ten minutes.

And just to make sure everyone stayed hydrated, there was Liquid Action Man –

– ready to leap into action and fill up your glass or water bottle.

Very sensibly, you could buy a glass or just a taste of any wine you fancied, to stop people (like me) feeling they had to drink the entire glass of every wine they bought just to get their money’s worth.

The food was great too –

– I love NZ oysters!

And the mussels weren’t bad either –

I got a good tip from the mussel chef – if you want tender mussels, don’t steam them, you should open them and grill them in the shell.  These were grilled with breadcrumbs, garlic and butter and they were delicious.

It was a definite frock and hat day, and everyone was out to have a good time –

My outdoor adventure hat didn’t quite measure up, but at least I’d made the effort.

The northern part of South Island isn’t just about wine – it’s also got the most stunning scenery.

Abel Tasman National Park is considered to be the most beautiful Park in NZ – and deservedly so –

I took this picture on a Sunday at about lunchtime – so a busy time leisure-wise – and yet there’s hardly anyone on the beach.

Nor is there on this equally beautiful beach –

We’re so used to any beauty spots in the northern hemisphere being packed with tourists, that an empty beach on a sunny Sunday seems weird.  Although, if I was being picky, I’d say that the water is a little on the cool side – well, it is for someone who’s now used to swimming in warm tropical water, anyway.

We were lucky enough to catch this large pod of dolphins on a boat trip in the park –

And this is my new friend, Al –

at least, I think we’re friends – now that I’ve convinced him that my hat is made of cotton, and definitely not alpaca.



Mad museums on South Island

I have to say that some of the strangest museums I’ve been to are here in New Zealand.

They have the world’s only steampunk museum on South Island, with some very unusual displays … sort of Dr Who meets Narnia in Steptoe’s yard –

But the descriptions were the highlight for me.

This – if you hadn’t already recognised it – is a lunar dismembulator cannon …

And if you’re not sure what a lunar dismembulator cannon is, there’s a helpful description –

Likewise, some people might have thought that this was simply a room filled with pretty coloured lights –

But they would have missed the point entirely –

– a space-time travel gateway … blimey.

The World of Wearable Art Museum in Nelson offers a different kind of gateway; it’s the gateway to looking otherworldly, rather than actually travelling to other worlds.

I imagine this outfit would make daily life rather difficult, whichever world you happened to live in –

But on the other hand, I could see the appeal of this one –

– particularly on the tube in the rush hour.

And this would be an excellent way to use up a spare bit of shag-pile –

Then there was a section called ‘Bizarre Bras’, which showcased the winning entries in a bra-designing competition.  No matter how outlandish they look, they are all wearable, and have all been worn on the catwalk.

This one won first prize –

It’s called Uplift, and the turbine blades go round as the model walks.

I liked this one, called Step Right Up –

– but it would be difficult to know what to wear over it; a fitted shirt or clingy top would be a definite no-no.

And this one would be quite practical for a wet climate like  Malaysia –

– at least part of you would stay dry if you were caught in a downpour.

NZ museums are so zany that I couldn’t understand how the country gained its reputation for being a tad staid – but then I decided that all the sheep farmers must come home at night and pour all their creative energies into designing wool based creations to showcase the material they spend all day producing –

– like this one, called Cell Belle and inspired by a single cell organism.  They’re versatile people, those sheep farmers.

In which I discover that Fox Glacier isn’t a mint, after all

Apparently, there’s an entry on many a bucket list which reads, ‘heli hike on a glacier’.

It’s not on my bucket list because I’d never even heard of heli hiking before I got to New Zealand, and once I found out about it, I wasn’t really sure how hiking on a glacier differs from slithering around trying to get to work on a snowy January day in England.  So we decided to go on a guided walk to the glacier, and not on the glacier, with an expert guide to tell us all about the glacier … but from a distance.

Fox Glacier is behind us in the picture.  What you can see here is the snout of the glacier – but the whole thing is 13 km long, and it’s one of the most accessible glaciers in the world.  Given that you have to access it by helicopter, I can’t imagine how inaccessible all the others must be.

We learnt that glaciers constantly retreat and advance, and Fox glacier is currently in retreat, and has been since 2009.  Great lumps of ice drop off the retreating glacier –

– and end up in the river where you can pick them up and marvel, or stick them in a gin and tonic.

There are all sorts of weird and wonderful plants growing beside the glacier, including the elephant killer –

– which our guide is pointing out to us here.  There are no elephants in New Zealand (I’m sure I must have known that before he told us ) but several circus elephants have died after eating this plant while grazing out in the countryside, hence the name.

And the elephant killer is not to be confused with the fern –

which is:

a) the national smbol of New Zealand,

b) doesn’t kill elephants, and

c) tastes of walnuts.

These tiny young shoots are delicious, but not very filling, it has to be said.

Another national symbol is the kiwi –

– but they’re much harder to spot than this sign would have you believe.  The kiwi is an endangered species and there are so few in the wild that the only place to see them is in a kiwi sanctuary.  The fact that they are nocturnal birds only makes it harder to see them, because it’s so dark inside the kiwi house that you can hardly see anything at all – you can just hear rustling in the undergrowth and see a dark coloured blob at the back of the enclosure.

Anthony and I went to the kiwi sanctuary at Franz Josef Glacier – and the best view you get of a kiwi is this one –

Entrance to the sanctuary is $40, and they have two kiwis – so that’s $20 for each dark, rustling blob … not exactly a snip.

But in compensation, there are lots of other wonderful birds here, in much more plentiful supply.

This is the weka – another flightless bird – but they’re not nocturnal and there are lots of them around in the wild, so much more satisfying than the kiwi experience.

There’s also the pukeko –

– which has a little white tail that bobs up and down endearingly as it walks.

There are lots of flightless birds in New Zealand, and I started wondering why.  What is the point of being a bird if you can’t fly?  It looks like a serious design fault to me.




What sound does a Sound make?

Fiordland, in the south-west of South Island, is full of Sounds.  To be honest, I wasn’t quite sure what a Sound (with a capital ‘S’) actually is, so I had to look it up.  It turns out that a Sound is a large sea/ocean inlet, formed when the sea fills a valley, so it’s surrounded by hills or mountains – which makes it very picturesque –

In fact, it’s so pretty that it inspires even the most unlikely photographers –

What’s the matter with this child?  Why isn’t he playing a game on his iPad?

There are some dramatic waterfalls, and the captains of the tour boats liven up their day by getting in as close as they can, to soak all the passengers –

– and I can attest to the fact that the spray is absolutely freezing.

We saw fur seals lolling around on the rocks, and then a pod of bottlenose dolphins came into view –

– and everyone got very excited.

Fiordland also has the world’s only alpine parrot, called the kea, which seems to spend all its time hanging around in the tourist car parks, begging for food –

They hang around humans for two reasons according to the information panel: firstly, they have a fondness for fast food and secondly, they like ‘to exercise their strong, manipulative beaks in the destruction of our unguarded possessions’  … bloody delinquents.

Fiordland is extremely wet – they get between 8 and 12 metres of rain a year.  To put that in perspective, Kuala Lumpur, which seems very wet to me, gets 2.6 metres of rain a year, and London’s average annual rainfall is 60 cm.

In addition to the waterfalls, many of which are periodic, there are also rivers flowing at high speed down the mountains.  They pick up hard, crystalline pebbles which get swirled around and around in the current and grind out weird and wonderful pothole shapes –

The rainwater in Fiordland is stained brown by tannin, and it sits on top of the sea water in the Sounds, making it very dark underneath, and allowing deep sea creatures to live much closer to the surface than they normally would.  This means that scientists and divers love this area just as much as we daytrippers do.

We cruised around Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound on two different days, and these boat trips are quite expensive, so I sat outside on the deck and made sure that I got the most out of the experience.  But not everyone shared my enthusiasm –

Oh well … more room on the top deck for the keenies.

And finally …

Q: What sound does a Sound make?

A: The Maori name for Doubtful Sound is Patea, which means ‘the place of silence.’  Perhaps, with a nod to accuracy,  we should call them No-Sounds from now on.







Albatrosses and Orcs

We landed in New Zealand at Christchurch, and the temperature was 32 degrees.  We just accepted it, having become used to Malaysian and Australian weather – but it turned out to be a fluke, and as we drove south to Dunedin the temperature dropped by more than 20 degrees, until it was just ten above freezing, and there was a cold wind and driving rain.  I thought I’d escaped the British winter, only to find it again 16,000 kilometres away, and at the height of the New Zealand summer.

But we doughty Brits aren’t put off by an Antarctic wind blowing right up our Bermuda shorts, so we pressed on to the very end of the wild and windswept Otago peninsula, in search of albatrosses.  Despite studying Coleridge for A-Level English, and still being able to recite several verses of the Ancient Mariner, I’d never seen an albatross, and was keen to remedy the situation.

In the information centre, we were invited to handle a replica albatross egg –

Verdict: bloody enormous and very heavy.

Then we watched a video all about the life of the albatross, and how, once they learn to fly, they spend the first five years of their life out at sea, never touching land once.  Then after those five years, they come back to the place where they were born to spend three years indulging in laddish behaviour, with lots of squawking, posturing and banter, before they find a mate and pair up for life.  And a very long life too – one of the albatrosses at the centre, known as ‘Granny’, was still breeding at the age of 60, poor thing – no chance of getting empy-nest syndrome if you’re an albatross.

The young birds weigh more than their parents – a whopping nine kilograms after several months of being fed the special oil their parents regurgitate for them.

And we all got the chance to feel just how heavy a 9 kg baby albatross is when you hold it –

And finally, we saw the Northern Royal albatrosses themselves, swooping and gliding over the cliffs where they live –

The wingspan is about 3 metres and they soar and glide effortlessly, but sometimes have trouble landing and either crash to the ground or have to abort the attempt and circle around and try again.  Our guide told us that the Japanese name for albatross means ‘stupid and clumsy bird’ and I felt rather sad about that.

After Dunedin we headed to Queenstown, where it was just as cold, so I dashed into the first outdoor shop I saw and bought some warm clothes.  Unless it warms up, every photo of me from now on will show me wearing my bright blue fleece and grey leggings, as they are the only warm clothes I possess.

Luckily, our next trip involved wearing cloaks, so that was one extra layer of warmth.  We went to Glenorchy to see some of the locations for the Lord of the Rings films.  Our guide took us to the locations, and showed us stills from the film and told us lots of stories about what happened during the filming.

The wargs were ambushed on the hill behind this lake, and the Rohan refugees struggled across the plain in front of the lake.

Incidentally – the Riders of Rohan were all teenage girls from the pony club.  So the long, blonde hair is real, but the beards are not – bet you didn’t know that.

Then …

out came the swords …

And we got cloaked up and ready for battle.

Here I am re-enacting the tea break at the battle of Isengard –

Then we went to the location where Sam and Frodo cook some rabbits –

Where we got into character and pretended to cook our own rabbits –

I haven’t had so much fun since I used to dress up in woolly tights and a jumper and swing from my bedroom curtains, pretending to be Tarzan’s girlfriend Jane – and this time I didn’t get told off for it either.




Doing shots in Tasmania

This is a shot – Tassie style –

It’s an oyster shot –

– sake with wasabi, pickled ginger and a plump, fresh Tasmanian oyster … delicious!

The seafood here is so good –

– I devoured these six scallops cooked with brioche crumbs and herbs in about three minutes, in a little restaurant on the quay in Hobart.

I rapidly came to the conclusion that I absolutely love Tasmania, and I wondered why I’d never been here before during my trips to Oz.  The weather is perfect, the scenery is spectacular, the seafood is stupendous and the people are delightful – I’m just glad it’s so far from Europe, otherwise it would be as crowded as the Lake District, or probably even more so, as the weather is considerably better.

The beaches are wonderful – soft, fine sand and clear water – and totally empty –

We travelled up from Hobart to Wineglass Bay, on the East Coast –

– which is the most perfect crescent of white sand, filled with turquoise water.

The description in the guide book says that nobody is sure how it got the name Wineglass Bay.  I found that rather puzzling, because if anyone has ever seen a wineglass, they would surely notice its resemblance to the shape of the bay?

This is a wine glass –

And this is an aerial shot of Wineglass Bay –

And it’s not as though the Tasmanians are unfamiliar with wine.  They have some fantastic wineries, including my favourite Antipodean sparkling, Jansz –

– and hundreds of others in beautiful locations, where ladies who lunch can sit and enjoy a glass of wine in the sunshine –

and then nip into the appropriately signed ladies loo –

There’s a very down-to-earth quality about Australians, and it’s particularly noticeable at MONA, the Hobart art museum, described by its owner as ‘a subversive adult Disneyland.’  Where else but Australia, would the audio guide for the museum have a selection button thus labelled …?

It’s actually the selection that gives more information about the artist – but that doesn’t sound half so intriguing.

The museum encourages you to listen at doors –

watch goldfish swimming in a bowl with a knife –

and admire the tattooed back of a live exhibit –

This is Tim, and he sold his back to a German art collector in 2008 for $150,000.  Presumably the collector has to wait until Tim dies to get his artwork, and in the meantime, Tim sits in the museum listening to his iPod day in and day out … I think death might be preferable.

Cradle Mountain is billed as one of the last wildernesses on Earth.  It has ancient rainforests and alpine heathland, plus loads of wildlife and the iconic Cradle Mountain itself (I put my phone into the metal bracket next to the path, helpfully provided, to ensure that everyone can get the perfect shot!)

It was a beautiful day when we visited – like pretty much every other day when we were in Oz – and the views were spectacular …

We didn’t see any wombats, it was a bit hot for them that day, but a highlight of the trip was a night walk to see the wallabies at our Airbnb in the middle of nowhere next to Cradle Mountain.  Our host took us out walking in his paddocks and we saw the wallabies just the other side of the fence, feeding. thumping their feet in warning and hopping around.  Don had a bright torch and he balanced it on his head so that I could get my first shot of a wild wallaby –

It won’t win any photographic awards, but it’s a great reminder of a uniquely wonderful experience.


Melbourne: trees in skirts

Having spent a few days in Melbourne, I feel just that little bit hipper and cooler.  I’ve been hanging out in bars with uber-cool names like …

which has a series of unusual collages on the walls –

And Melbourne’s the sort of city where you can get a Shiatsu massage in the market –

I don’t know of anywhere else that you can do that.  Certainly not in Bedford, that’s for sure – if you lay down in the market square there, you’d be trampled by the hordes stampeding towards the freshly-picked Brussels sprouts.

Because the Australian Open is on at the moment, there are lots of tennis-related promotions and freebies.  I was offered a free fan on a hot day, so I accepted it gratefully and spent the whole day happily fanning myself with what I assumed was a fan advertising sun screen –

– it was only later that I discovered it’s actually advertising condoms.

The food is pretty hip too.  The stall selling these whole, spiralled fried potatoes on a stick had a huge queue –

And so did the whole roasted stuffed pig –

– sporting a fashionable pair of glasses.

What I particularly like about Melbourne is the way it’s preserved its heritage – like the Victorian architecture –

Thanks to the 1850’s gold rush, it was the second wealthiest city in the British Empire, and the newly minted inhabitants wanted their houses ‘draped in an iron petticoat’. Apparently the British thought this was very brash, and Ruskin described it as ‘cheap and vulgar’ – but the Melburnians couldn’t have cared less.

I think they look splendid, and even those that haven’t been restored –

– have a dignified, faded grandeur about them.

And what’s with the trees in skirts?

They’re to stop possums climbing them and then destroying the trees by eating out the centre.  Like the other inhabitants of Melbourne, Possums are discerning eaters and only like imported trees, so the native species don’t need skirts.

And it’s not just in trees that possums are a nuisance.  My Melbourne friend, Gordon –

– drinking Pimm’s with me here at Naked for Satan – had a dead possum in his basement, which exploded and filled the house with noxious fumes for six weeks.

We have deer that damage trees in England, but at least they don’t creep into people’s houses and explode … and we should definitely be thankful for that.




Question: What’s the weather like in Perth?

Answer: It’s Perth-fect!

I’ve never been in such a perfect climate … wall-to-wall sunshine with horizon-to-horizon blue sky all day, every day,  and with a slight breeze to stop it getting too hot.

This is what the sky looks like all the time –

So … apart from the flawless weather, what else is Perth like?

Well, it’s a clean, tidy and very relaxed city with extremely friendly locals – but if I’m being honest, it’s a bit staid and manicured for me.  I prefer a bit more urban grit and buzz in my cities.

But it’s not totally bland; Perth does have its quirks.

These birds, living in a suburban garden, are decidedly quirky –

And when I saw this woman relaxing in a park I thought, ‘Oh my, she has a dog with purple ears!’ –

But when they got up to go, I could see that she actually had two dogs and they were even quirkier than I’d thought –

And how about this cream, for yet another quirk? –

Is it made from placenta, or do you apply it to your placenta?  And why?

Perth is one of the remotest cities on Earth.  It is nearly 4,000 km by road to Sydney or Melbourne, and is so far from all the other populous parts of Australia that it has a whole host of unique plants.

This is a 750-year-old boab tree –

Spot that blue sky again!

And I finally got to stand ‘under the shade of a coolibah tree’ –

There was no billabong, but you can’t have everything.

Unsurprisingly, as the climate is so warm and sunny, it’s ideal for growing grapes –

– and the Swan Valley and Margaret River are famous wine-producing areas.

But please learn from my mistake, and don’t sign up for a full day of wine-tasting that starts off at 11 am with 15 different wines in the first winery –

with another 9  wines before lunch, then six after lunch, followed by 5 artisan ciders –

This was definitely a bad move, and I now know less about Western Australian wines than I did before I started.  The first ten were all wonderful, the next ten were ok, and after that it was all a blur.  I seem to remember that I liked the Fatt Granny –

but whether it was just the name I enjoyed, I have no idea.









What a whopper!

To wrap up my time in Malaysia, we did a little strawberry picking up in the Cameron Highlands –

– it must be the unique climate that makes them grow so big …

The Highlands are ideal for growing tea, and in some places there are tea bushes as far as the eye can see in every direction –

And there is also cloud forest, which is a tropical forest at altitude, so it is often in the clouds.  The high moisture level means that there is an abundance of moss, and with a flash of inspiration, they named it –

– Mossy Forest.

It’s creepily atmospheric –

– and if the Black Riders had galloped around the corner, in pursuit of The Ring, I wouldn’t have been at all surprised.

We stayed in a rattan hut in the jungle –

accessed via a bamboo bridge over the river –

And I took the opportunity to hone my blowpipe skills –

It was a bit too back-to-nature for Anthony, who spent the whole time grumbling about how noisy the jungle is at night, and how few mod cons there are in a rattan hut.

On the way back to KL, I insisted that we stop for durian as it’s an essential part of the Malaysian experience, and it’s the durian season now.

This is Olivia demonstrating the typical beginners’ durian face –

– as she tries a dessert called cendol, with added durian garnish.

Whereas I’m an old hand and can eat it without grimacing –

In fact, if it wasn’t for the smell and the rotting-vegetation aftertaste, I’d happily eat it every day.

There was just one more experience to cross off my list before I left KL … a visit to the luxury screen at the local cinema, where you get a reclining seat and a duvet –

– a duvet might sound ridiculous in a city that’s 217 miles from the equator, but the airconditioning in the cinema is cranked down so low that you’d be at risk of hypothermia without it.

Then there was just time for a farewell dinner with all my chums from school –

who I’ll miss enormously – and then I packed up and left Malaysia.

Next stop – Australia …


Krabi … but not Crabby

After a hectic Christmas day at the pool –

and an exhausting evening posing around the Christmas tree at the Majestic Hotel –

We were definitely in need of some R & R on Boxing Day, so headed off to the beach in Thailand.

Krabi was not quite what I was expecting.  Despite the severe penalties for drug use in Thailand, the first thing we saw on our boat to the hotel was a stringy, tattooed expat in a santa hat –

– smoking a large joint.

Surprisingly, he didn’t appear to work here …

– but there were plenty of others in town.

I also saw my first magic mushrooms, which were a bit of a disappointment –

– I was expecting them to look more like unicorns and fairy dust, and less like a tupperware full of compost.

But Anthony wasn’t put off and eagerly got into the queue for his supernatural cuppa –

And if I wasn’t expecting drugs, I was expecting crabs.  Why bother to call a place Krabi if there are no Krabs?  Just imagine going to Cheddar and not being able to buy any cheese.

But if there weren’t crabs, there was very good fish –

– salt-crusted barbecued red snapper is my new favourite.

And we took a cookery class and made some splendid local dishes –

Although the heat in the kitchen did make me look slightly mad –

The geology is spectacular, and very similar to Halong Bay in Vietnam.  There are all sorts of lumps and bumps rising out of the water –

– which are called Karsts and made of limestone from coral reefs which existed millions of years ago.

The karsts also form caves, and whilst I was slightly wary of visiting caves in Thailand, there was one at the end of the beach that was attracting a lot of attention, so I went to have a look.

It’s called the Princess Cave, and local people leave special gifts for the princess there.

She’s obviously not your average Disney princess. There’s not a tiara in sight … the whole place is full of rampant todgers –

I was interested to see that the description of the cave ended with a plea for appropriate gifts only –

It’s hard to imagine what sort of gift this particular princess would consider inappropriate.

But it wasn’t all hard work you’ll be pleased to hear.  As well as slogging along beaches for cave visiting and whipping up culinary delights, there was also time for a few beach massages –

and the obligatory cocktails at sunset –

So, here’s to an equally splendid 2019 …

… cheers!







Taiwan: Temples, Trains and Toilets

Taiwan is an intriguing mix of the old and the very new – Taipei 101, shaped like a piece of bamboo, was the tallest building in the world until 2004 –

– and it’s considered cool to have your picture taken perched precariously on a wet and slippery rock halfway up the mountain behind the tower.

But there are also thousands (more than 12,000 currently) of Buddhist and Taoist temples-

where people  still come to ask for favours, give thanks and burn paper gifts for their ancestors.

These are the traditional papers to burn –

But, as our guide is showing us here, these days you can get all different types of currency to burn, such as US dollars if you think your ancestors would prefer them –

The locals use moonblocks to get advice from the gods on thorny issues, and I was shown how to use them.

You throw the two blocks on the ground and ask your question, which must be very specific, nothing wishy-washy.  If the blocks both land flat side down, the answer is no, and if they both land flat side up, the answer is maybe.  But one up and one down means yes.

Once you’ve got your answer from the moonblocks, it’s time to move on to the finer points of your answer, via the sticks.

You lift the bundle of sticks and drop them back into the holder, and whichever one is sticking up highest is your answer.  My stick was number 75, so I had to go to the correct drawer and find my answer –

Luckily for me, in this temple there was an English translation of each answer –

It would appear that I’m looking for an intelligent zoologist.  I wonder if David Attenborough is too old for a spot of tiger carrying?

There are gods to cover all needs – love, travel, medicine, exam results and so on.

This is the lonely hearts shrine –

with a few success stories on the other side –

And these are all pleas for good exam results –

As a teacher, I would have told these students to spend their time revising, rather than praying for good results.

And they do start them off very young –

I do hope he’s praying for sweets and toys, and not for excellent exam grades.

I took my first ever bullet train to visit the south of Taiwan –

and we sped through the countryside at 299 kmh.  For some reason, the sunset looks really pretty at that speed –

I was very excited to discover that my hotel in Taipei had a heated loo seat.  I’ve since discovered that all hotels in Taiwan have them, but I’d never tried one before, so I kept sitting on it, just to enjoy the experience.

I then noticed that it had other interesting functions –

and decided to try those out too.  I was slightly hesitant, because the diagram looks as though the force of the water lifts you off the seat, but I went for the girlie pink button, rather than the manly blue one.  The jet of warm water – I’m talking hose rather than water cannon – was quite pleasant, and I sat there waiting for it to stop, like a loo flush … only it didn’t.

I looked at the panel again – but there was no obvious stop button.  Then I looked at the more detailed instructions on the lid –

There were a few worrying exclamation marks, but I still had no idea how to turn it off.  I knew that if I stood up, water was going to start squirting all over the floor, so I stayed firmly seated and fell back on my usual strategy of pressing every single button randomly until the flow finally stopped.

I then said a quick thank you to the god of unfortunate events, that I hadn’t had to use the emergency phone to call reception and explain what my problem was.





Street food in Taiwan

When you tell anyone in SE Asia that you’re going to Taiwan, they roll their eyes ecstatically and say, ‘Ooh – the food!’

So when I arrived in Taipei, getting to grips with the local food was my number one priority.

I really like walking food tours, where the tour guide walks you around an area of the city and talks about the history, the culture and the food – and takes you to some great eateries.  It then gives you enough of an understanding to be able to strike out on your own afterwards.

Taiwan is all about street food, so I booked a night market food tour, where my guide, Joanna –

took me around the stalls and explained what everything was. She then let me try whatever I fancied, with a few recommendations thrown in.

These baked pork dumplings were delicious –

The stallholder makes about a million a day, I should think, and as they only serve one thing, they’re pretty good at making it.

I didn’t try the duck head –

– I didn’t think it would be very substantial.

Then we moved on to the intestines in the picture below, and the ones on the left, wrapped up like a pair of earphones, were quite nice.  These are the small intestines – the large intestines are on the right, stuffed with spring onions which makes them look like wrinkled brown carrots.

This is pigs’ blood on a stick –

I was dubious at first, but actually liked it when I tried it.

And this is a pancake filled with vanilla ice cream, crushed peanuts … and fresh coriander –

No, I wasn’t sure about the coriander, either – but somehow it works!

One useful tip I was given – if you see a long queue at a stall, join it, because whatever they’re selling is going to be good.

There was a huge queue at this stall for their fried taro balls, which were hot and crispy on the outside and fluffy in the middle.

I’m now a confirmed taro fan.

These strange-looking things are fresh water-chestnuts  –

– that the stallholder is painstakingly peeling one by one.  I’d never seen a fresh one before, only the tinned ones that were the height of adventurous eating in England in the 1970s.

Then I tried a steamed bun stuffed with pork and pickled vegetables, which was divine.

I realised that I’d gone from a pork-free country to a pork-obsessed one, and Joanna told me that Taiwanese pork is highly prized because they castrate the male pigs, which makes them taste better.  So I shall be passing this advice on to any pig farmers I meet in the future.

Last stop was shaved ice with different toppings –

but it wasn’t nearly as good as Malaysian cendol.

Emboldened by my experience, I signed up for another food tour – this time at a very local night market – where I got to try the most famous Taiwanese dish … stinky tofu.  They’re very proud of it, in much the same way as Malaysians are proud of their stinky speciality, durian.

I learnt that there are three levels of stinkiness, according to the way it’s cooked:

Level 1, or entry level, is fried

Level 2, or GCSE level, is barbecued

Level 3, definitely PhD level, is boiled.

I tried Level 1 – served with kimchi –

and then skipped straight to Level 3 – served in a bowl of broth with a large portion of duck blood, which is the liver-like lump just being put into the bowl in this picture –

Unlike pigs’ blood, which is chewy and savoury, duck blood is gelatinous and slimy, and was the one thing I didn’t enjoy eating on the food tours.

Stinky tofu is pungent and lingering, and is often compared to blue cheese.  So, if you like a bit of Stilton, you won’t be fazed by even Level 3 stinky tofu.

Now that I was becoming a pro, I branched out and tried pigs’ blood with a peanut coating –

– and then rolled intestines again – but this time served on the side with a bowl of oyster and noodle soup –

Do you know what they use to clean intestines ready to eat?

Coca-Cola is the answer.

This made me wonder two things:

  1.  What does it do to our intestines when we drink it?
  2. What did they use before Coke was invented?

Here are some octopus balls –

crunchy and chewy and served with mayonnaise and some flaky stuff that looked like onion skin, but tasted of nothing.

And a chicken foot – no bones, just the cartilage –

a bit gristly for me, but a very popular snack for the locals.

And finally, just to reinforce a point I made earlier, here’s one of the two most popular exhibits in the National Palace Museum –

It’s a piece of banded jasper, lovingly crafted to look just like a piece of pork.

I think the British Museum should take note, and commission a stone shaped like a Yorkshire pudding, a Cornish pasty or – for a touch of colour – a slice of Battenberg cake.

Two weddings and a funeral – and a blow to my ego


I feel that I’ve hurtled at breakneck speed towards the end of my final term at school here in KL.  The tempo increased when, sadly, I had to make a second flying visit back to England, just three weeks after Sam’s wedding, for my dad’s funeral.

Once back in KL, it was a sprint to the finish line, where I slammed on the brakes and then celebrated the first day of the holidays by going to my first Hindu wedding.

It was a huge, colourful spectacle, which took place on a stage in the temple.  There were henna’d hands for the bridesmaids –

and henna’d arms for the bride –

and lots of naked flames –

I was surprised that there were no words spoken during the ceremony, the couple on stage went through a variety of rituals – washing their hands, abasing themselves in front of their parents and having stuff chucked at them – I couldn’t really see what it was from where I was sitting.  But the spectators sat and chatted; there was no sense of hushed reverence as there would be in an English church.

The groom leads the bride three times around the stage –

and then they’re married, and all the guests queue up to have their photo taken with the happy couple.

And then another surprise – once you’ve had your picture taken, you go down to the dining room and you eat … without waiting for the bride and groom.

The bride and groom  didn’t appear until long after we’d finished eating, looking rather dazed, but definitely up for one more selfie –

So, a jolly good time was had by everyone, except possibly one of the bridesmaids –

– who definitely looks as though she’d rather be down the pub.

And now … my four-month holiday begins, which is  very exciting  – I haven’t had such a long holiday since I was a student.

However, my euphoria has been slightly dented by an end of term gift from one of my students.  It was a bottle of grapefruit essential oil, with an accompanying card –

What are you trying to say, Nicholas?



A week of Thai feasting – part two

Life lessons continued:

3.  When you go to visit a friend abroad and she asks what you’d like to do while you’re there, say that you’d like to do a food tour, thereby disguising greed as cultural appreciation.

That strategy found me on a food tour of Bangkok with Angel –

– here we are with some of our fellow gluttons, enjoying one of the  best dishes we tried, chicken with finely shredded deep-fried lemon grass.  It looked just like a badly-made birds’ nest, but tasted a whole lot better.  This was an Esan restaurant – food from the north east of Thailand, but extremely popular throughout the whole country.

This woman is preparing miang kam at her stall in the street –

They are made of little bits of chopped vegetables, spices, peanuts, dried fish, and many other things, coated in a zingy sauce and then wrapped in a wild pepper vine leaf and served on a stick.

I’m afraid I ate mine too quickly to get a picture,  but I found one online –

We also tried low-calorie duck –

– not quite sure what makes it low-cal, but our guide assured us it was, so we all scoffed extra portions to make the most of our one and only opportunity to try skinny-duck.

This stall sells banana, sweet potato and taro deep-fried in a sesame batter –

This one sadly wasn’t low-calorie, but it was very good.

The Thai Muslim food was very similar to Malay food –

chicken curry – called massaman in Thailand – and stuffed roti in the photo here.  The roti is called murtabak in Thailand just as it is in Malaysia.  The only thing I passed on was the ox brain … I’m adventurous, but not that adventurous.

We stopped to buy flowers –

and then headed off to the temple to make offerings and light incense sticks.

I wasn’t sure if we were supposed to be giving thanks for good food, or asking for forgiveness for our gluttony –

– so I did both, just to be on the safe side.

Feeling absolved, we headed to a bakery for traditional buns filled with pandan-flavoured custard –

– served with sweet iced tea.  Pandan is an unfortunate mal-de-mer shade of green, but it is very aromatic and sweet and is considered to be the Asian equivalent of vanilla.

Our final stop was a restaurant which serves Thai green curry with fried roti, instead of with rice –

a definite advantage taste-wise, I felt, but unless you want to have your arteries dyno-rodded out on a regular basis it’s probably best to stick to rice except on very special occasions.

Finally, coconut sorbet, made with coconut water and little pieces of young coconut flesh, was my second favourite dish of the day –

– and then we waddled off to find somewhere to sit down and digest our gastric overload.

Thanks, Angel – it was a great trip!




A week of Thai feasting – part one


Life lessons:

  1.  When a chef brings a pot of his own Thai green curry to a potluck supper, you make a beeline for it.
  2. When a friend then invites you to dinner at that restaurant, you accept with alacrity

and Old Siam is even within walking distance for me … result!

Pad Thai is my favourite, and chef Glen makes his own sauce from scratch –

It was delicious, but it’s not the most photogenic dish, so I made sure I snapped everyone else’s meals too –

This is Thai green curry Laksa … delicious and beautiful.

And so was the mango with coconut rice –

Glen tells me that buys 700 kg of pork a week, and sells 40,000 plates of deep fried pork a year – which is a pretty impressive feat in a Muslim country.

Glen’s grandmother was from Phuket and he has inherited a lot of her recipes.  She oversees the whole operation from her place place high up on the wall –

She’s not smiling, but I’m sure I can see the approval in her eyes.


Crazy Rich Asian Parents

It’s not just Singapore that has Crazy Rich Asians – the Chinese Malaysian parents in KL are up there with the best of them.

The most ridiculous thing I’ve been asked to date by a parent, was whether I thought it would be a good idea for a five-year-old to start learning Latin ‘because it will be useful for him when he’s a doctor.’

‘But he’s five years old,’ I said.

‘And … ?’ her eyebrows seemed to say to me.

We also have a four-year-old at school with her own phone, which had Youtube installed, so she spent her evenings watching unsuitable videos instead of sleeping.  When it was pointed out to her parents that this wasn’t a good idea, they went away to think about their parenting responsibilities, and came back the next day and announced proudly that they’d uninstalled Youtube and given her Netflix instead.

And how do you ensure that you win any online game you play at school?

By bringing in both an iPhone and an iPad, of course.

Technology is also very useful for the crazy, rich Asian parents, not just their children.

So that they can secretly film their child through the fence while they’re at school.

One parent wasn’t even content with that; she wanted CCTV in the child’s classroom that she would have access to at all times.  Needless to say, her child is not at our school – English head teachers are far too sensible to accede to those sort of requests.

Then there’s also a need for our school materials to relect the lives of these families.  So we have reading comprehensions on useful topics like how to deal with your servants when you go on holiday –

How very different from the home life of our own dear Queen … although perhaps not, on second thoughts.