Wednesday, April 17, 2013

And Sakura Makes My Seasons Complete

Between the last post and now, I have visited Japan, or specifically, Tokyo, TWICE; admired the beautiful autumn maple leaves (koyo), and 3 months later, finally, FINALLY, saw with my very own eyes the elusive cherry blossoms aka sakura on my 6th Japanese trip. So now I can say that I have been to Japan in ALL seasons - from spring to winter. Sakura is like a cherry (hur-hur) on top of my cake, a life-long travel dream come true, and life feels complete (at least for the time being).
More fragile than maple leaves, less lasting than snow, the sakura blooms in unpredictable fashion, and lasts anything from a few days to two weeks. I never thought that I would have the opportunity to experience the hanami season (i.e. sakura viewing season) until the Samurai is retired, not least because he is a teacher and he does not have school holidays in April (usually the month of full blooms).  Amazingly, this year the school holidays fell in late March, and after one of the coldest winters in recent memory, it was turning into an unusually warm spring in Tokyo. On a whimsy, I decided what the heck and booked our flights to Tokyo (never mind we just visited 3 months ago. I figured, if we were lucky, we could at least see a few budding cherry trees. Better than nothing right?
As God would have it (and serendipity!!), Tokyo announced its EARLIEST first sakura bloom in 53 (or was it 56?) years since the authorities started recording the start of the cherry blossom season (based on a single tree at Yasukuni Shrine), on 16 March 2013. Full bloom was expected a week later, which coincided with our travel dates!!!! Suffice to say, I totally worked myself up into a frenzy at the thought of finally seeing sakura in its native setting. I went ballistic researching the best hanami viewing spots in Tokyo, checked the weather and cherry blossom charts from JTB and Japanese weather channels fanatically to make sure that they DO BLOOM at the right time, never mind that it was not within my control. I dreamt about all the sakura-related produce I could buy, the types of pictures and self shots I could take against all those gorgeous flowers - basically I went sakura-berserk. :P
Now, the question you must be asking is that did they match up to my expectations? I did not know why, but I half expected cherry trees to be lining all the streets of Tokyo; the fact that I was no Tokyo virgin, and know for sure that the urban areas have very few trees (unlike here in Singapore) did nothing to stem my slight disappointment when I only saw one miserable tree on my first day at Ikebukuro (where our hotel was). But of course, all the awesome sights that you see from the various pictures on the Internet come from either the large parks/gardens/shrines etc, where sakura trees abound to create wondrous scenes. And once we started visiting all the famous sakura spots, suffice to say, it was an out-of-the-world experience. You do not need to be crazy about flowers or be a horticulturalist, to appreciate the sights you see during the hanami season. The Samurai, with zero flower boy-ness in his blood, was equally awed and humbled by the sakura views as I was. I was floored. I was in pink and white heaven.
I swear I have never taken so many pictures of flowers and plants, even during my koyo season visits where the colours were more vibrant and abundant. Sakura does that to you. Everywhere you go, the Japanese and foreigners are snapping pictures like Brad Pitt (or Takuya Kimura) is in the house. In fact, Takuya may have walked past me and I would be craning my neck to get a better view of the sakura trees. We turn into crazed photographers with glazed eyes, as we mentally debate on which are the best angles to get that row of trees, or this bunch of flowers. How to frame that shrine among the blossoms, how to capture that falling petal....Madness. You will think the Japanese will be cooler since they get to see this every year, but NO. They are as insane as the Ga-Jin (foreigners) are - the obasans and the ojisans, the giggling schoolgirls and the salarymen, and rosy-cheeked kiddos. I term it, Sakura-Magic.
So here are a FEW (only a few, mind you) of my pictures from the trip.

Our first stop was the Yasukuni Shrine, since the benchmarked tree is there. There were mostly the white Somei-Yoshino cherry blossoms, and the shrine looked pretty and dreamy, shrouded in white!

My absolute favourite sakura spot was actually outside Tokyo, when we went on a day-trip to Izu Peninsula. This was at the Mishima-Taisha Shrine, and all the trees were in full bloom, and most of them were gloriously pink.

If I can decide how heaven would look like, this would be close to it.

Our last visit was to Shinjuku Gyoen, which had the largest varieties of sakura trees. This particular one was dark pink - gorgeous.

Japanese kid playing with the flowers @ Shinjuku Gyoen.

One of the rare and small sakura varieties, a peachy pink colour with bigger blooms.

White-ish pink variety, and then suddenly a red sakura among all its pale pink siblings! This particular oddity sent many photographers (including me) into a snapping frenzy.

Almost purplish variety near the pond @ Shinjuku Gyoen.

Another of the famous sakura spots is at Chidorigafuchi, just directly opposite the Yasukuni Shrine, where rows of cherry trees surround a lake. Absolutely gorgeous.

For night time sakura, Nakameguro is a great place to visit. A man-made concrete canal is transformed into Sakura paradise during hanami season.

The sakura at Nakameguro is crowded together, and forms a seamless overhead canopy. Just romantic beyond belief.

Of course, who can forget Ueno Park? It is crazy crowded during this time of the year (but so are many of the places) and the sakura trees lining the main boulevard is just stunning to walk through.

Sakura and the Pagoda @ Ueno park

Close up of the Somei Yoshino - the most common white variety.

One of the rare street Sakura trees I see, which is stunning in this dark red colour, at Ningyocho.

Writing this post makes me want to go back there again, right now. Will I want to try to see the sakura again now that I have already seen it? You bet I will. And before the Samurai retires. We just need more sakura luck in the coming years.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Tokyo Hour - and Why I Still Love Japan

Me wanna visit Sky Tree this time!!!! (Photo not mine)

Gasp! It has been more than half a year since I wrote a blog post, to my everlasting shame. Before I have time to finish waxing lyrical about all the wonderful things on my Hokkaido trip LAST December, I am getting ready for my next trip to Tokyo NEXT month, and then the Samurai and I are jetting off to Italy in late December for our proper year end holiday (yes you can start drooling in envy now).
Originally, we were supposed to go on the Italy trip only (since we have been to Japan almost every year since 2008, and our last European trip was to Greece in 2006!). But there was JUST this itch that must be scratched - we absolutely, utterly, NEEDED to get our Japan fix, so with Samurai T's birthday coming up, we used it as an excuse to celebrate his birthday (ON MY account, I might add). Although it would be a very short 5-day trip, both of us were completely jumping in anticipation once the flight and hotel were booked, and I planned the itinerary within A DAY (as opposed to taking my own sweet time reading the Rome guide book).

A planned day trip to Kawagoe (Pic from Wikipedia)

Our dinner conversation last night went something like this:

Fat Geisha: Which trip are you more excited about? Japan or Italy?
Samurai T: I dunno, but I think Japan.
Fat Geisha: I know right?!?!?! Aren't we weird?? We have been to Japan so many times! And there are so many new things to see and do in Italy!

The upcoming trip would be our FIFTH time to Japan (in almost as many years), and I can only think of Thailand (mainly Bangkok) being anywhere close/on par to that record (and maybe China but I mostly go there for work, not leisure, because seriously you need to PAY ME to go Beijing to inhale all that pollution). I have always been disturbed by friends who absolutely NEED to go on their yearly trips to Bangkok and/or Hong Kong, and I could never figure out WHY. I have nothing against Bangkok, but after the first couple of visits, the remaining trips were because our friends wanted to go (and for cheap long massages), and dragged us along. In the case of Hong Kong, you would need to PAY the Samurai to go, since he always developed respiratory problems on both his holidays there. I too, hated the bad air, the crowds (weirdly enough crowds in Japan are different, cos they are so well behaved!!!) and I was NOT at all interested in HK shopping. Disneyland? No freaking way. Food wise was the most appealing aspect (otherwise I would not be called Fat Geisha for nothing), but there is just how much dim sum you can take in one day, although the Samurai would sell a bit of his soul for roast goose. So why not pay a LITTLE bit more, sit for another 3 hours on the plane, and go Japan instead?! At this point I sound like I am from the Japan Tourism Board - and yes they should recruit me as the spokesperson! Seriously! (They probably won't since I am doing it for free anyway.)

You have to go to Japan at LEAST ONCE to appreciate the addictive charm of the country. Many people (who have yet to visit Japan) to this day still think that Japan is very expensive, and YES if you compare it to Thailand, it is obviously more expensive, but HALLO? have you been living in Singapore lately?? We now have one of the highest cost of living in the whole world, and we have long caught up to Japan (which has been suffering from deflation for the past 20 or more years - poor things). Add that to the excellent service that they give you, the top notch quality of the majority of their food, products and services, and you feel it is worth every single cent of your money. As a friend told me once, "You feel HAPPY spending money there!"

Tokyo National Museum at Ueno - another planned destination.

There is just something about Japan that makes my insides light up. I can be tired, I can be depressed, feeling stressed and crappy but the minute I disembark from the plane, all is right with the world again. There is something so relaxing (which is weird epecially in Tokyo and Osaka, which are the busiest cities in the world) that it sets my mind at ease. I don't worry about being robbed, getting lost, eating bad food, getting ill-treated, using dirty public toilets (ha!). When I am tired of the city I can take a comfy train ride to see the mountains, rivers, lakes or seas. I can eat the best tasting, freshest sushi, their innovative gorgeous looking desserts and shop for the cutest unqiue knick-knacks (which are not China knock-offs, although they have that too!). There may be the occasional unhappy incident (e.g. Samurai slipping on snow in Hokkaido and hurting his butt - hehe) but these disappeared quickly and we always, ALWAYS enjoyed ourselves tremendously.

And we would like to visit a Maid Cafe this time too, at Akihabara!

And that is why I still love Japan so much. Sigh, if only my love can help me in my Japanese learning. To think I will be taking the N4 exam immediately upon my return. Oh noes! Will I have time to study?? Methinks I gotta catch a few Japanese men to practice in my five days there. Takahiro and Takuya, where are you?

Friday, June 29, 2012

EXILE Spectacular - Sapporo Dome Tower of Wish Concert 24 December 2011 Part II

So we last saw the Evil One literally flying into Paradise as she managed to snag a precious photo with the fake Atsushi-san. Still, the REAL deal himself (thinner, hotter, sexier!?) awaits within the concert arena. After satisfying our stomachs with a relatively blah dinner, which improved Samurai's mood significantly (the man gets grouchy when he is hungry), we rushed in to take our seats which is somewhere in Section 55-56 (I forgot our exact seat numbers). The first thing that greeted my eyes as we entered the arena/stadium was this cavernous space that extended outwards in a circular direction and this MASSIVE stage in the centre, like this:

A more elaborate stage than that for our National Day parade!

Not surprisingly, since the concert was called "The Tower of Wish", the centerstage was hogged by a ginormous lighted tower which throughout the concert would change into a myraid of different wonderful settings, from a chimney with a climbing Santa Claus - for the Christmas song segments, to a Clock Tower in "Anata E" (to die for moment), to a space station, a sun monument (for "Rising Sun") - such a spectacular feast for the eyes. Unfortunately due to VERY STRINGENT patrolling around the arena, I was unable to take many pictures during the concert to showcase these wonderful stage marvels. You would not believe the number of mobile phones that were confiscated during the concert (which we saw being laid along the corridor on our long march out - post concert). No matter how one tries to hide, the concert police with their super sharp eyes could find you and your handphone!!!! 

The number of concert goers was also jaw-dropping awesome. Obviously the capacity of our own Indoor Stadium is significantly less and my latest Anzenchitai concert had only about 7,000 - 8,000 people. The biggest concert I attended was probably the Michael Jackson one (may he RIP) at our old National Stadium and that was very crowded, but I could hardly remember anything of it. Here at Sapporo Dome, all 50,000 seats were sold, and they sold out for two nights!!!

Just a look at the crowd. Excuse me your HEAD!

Needless to say, the atmosphere was electrifying. We had the fortune (or misfortune?) of sitting in front of a gaggle of teenage (I think) girls who screamed over any and everything. "Nani? nani, nani???" (i.e. "What's up? What? What?") all throughout the concert and with every change of the stage setting or costumes, etc. It was funny if not a little irritating.

The concert itself? Sigh. It was truly the BEST concert I have EVER attended. And I didn't even know ALL the songs (now I do), nor have I learnt sufficient Japanese to understand what my darlings onstage were talking about (10% maybe). And they were so far away! But the Evil One was beyond delirium, "So long as I am under the same roof and breathing the same air as Atsushi, I am happy." But it was a magical three hours. EXILE was, needless to say, beyond amazing with their live energetic performances and solid heavenly vocals. Atsushi and Takahiro, small and far away as they were, were PERFECT - perfectly handsome, perfectly muscled in all the right areas, perfect voices. The ever morphing stage sets, the laser lights, the glittering costumes, the committed dancers and enthusiastic but orderly audience gave me a night I would never forget. I think I spent half the time with my mouth hanging open with my senses assaulted on every front (in a very good way.)

I screamed and danced as if I was 18 again (and paid the price with aching bones and muscles the following day.) When "Choo Choo Train" came on, the Evil One and I went ballistic. We were definitely louder than the teenage girls behind us, and the Samurai probably wanted to slink under his seat and pretended he never knew us. But please! we saw adult men and hordes of Obasan attending the concert too - surely we were not the only crazy (old) ones in the house. However, it was my turn to want to disppear when the Evil One started sobbing!! when Atsushi sang his solo piece "Ittsuka Kitto". Without a doubt he sang it beautifully, although I was more moved by the earlier "Anata E", but the Evil One cried as if Atsushi has just proposed to her. Momentarily I was worried she would faint from overwhelming happiness and emotions! But I could moderately understand her feelings. Her year long dream to see him finally FINALLY came true. It was surreal, and fantastic at the same time.

During the concert encore, we started to blatantly take photos again. Think the one on screen was Atsushi.

Objectively speaking, even if I was a non-fan, I would rate the EXILE concert as one of the best ever based on their awesome production values. Can you imagine the cost of shipping that DAMN tower overseas if they wanted to hold an overseas concert? It certainly did not made financial sense. And with such a fervant domestic market, it is no wonder J-pop acts hardly need to pander to overseas fans. Which is sad. But it matters not at that point, since Rome could not come to us, we went to Rome instead! And what a worthwhile trip. And what a once in a lifetime experience!

Thankfully I now have a copy of the concert video (legally purchased at SGD50) to relive every joyful moment. Thanks to the Evil One and her boundless determination, and thanks to EXILE for the memories, and thank GOD for a most wonderful Christmas Eve.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Fat Geisha is in Korean Craze Mode

Omo! My bad! I realised it has been TWO MONTHS since I updated my blog. I feel so embaressed. Sumimasen, my secret admirers. As usual, work took over my life, and Japanese homework became too dreary to look forward to - at several points I was on the verge of quitting but I told myself, "You have stuck with it for TWO years. What's a few more?" LOL. Probably my sanity. It is really, REALLY difficult to study when you are old.
And the last few weeks, Fat Geisha is in Korean mode, watching K-dramas by the truckload. Like seriously the reason why I don't watch many Japanese dramas is the utter lack of GOOD LOOKING or charismatic actors. What is this Japanese obsession with weak, skinny, girl-like (or drug addicted) FLOWER boys? (The hilarious thing was when I googled "Japanese Flower Boys Images", all the images that came out were those of KOREAN stars! Ironic or not!?)

Just a sample of the pictures I found on the net. Like ERM........NOT doing anything to Fat Geisha's hormones.

Fat Geisha needs a MAN PLEASE! Or at least someone that is considered traditionally good-looking? You know like TAKAHIRO?! And even though I don't have the hots for Atsushi, I would have preferred him over a "flower boy". Please just clone Takahiro a zillion times and put him on Japanese TV. Onegaishimasu! Even when you have a mature hunk like Fukuyama, you put him in a boring historical drama like Ryoma. Even the Samurai, who devours 50-episode historical dramas from China and Korea, could not make himself complete the series because it is JUST.SO.DRY. My dear fellow Japanese, can you learn from the Koreans, please?? Chaebal?! Oops I am already turning half Korean here.

So I am going to break my own blog rule and talk about my latest K-drama craze. I HIGHLY RECOMMEND you to go watch. A shout out to QUEEN IN HYUN'S MAN (shortened to QIHM thereafter). Best K-Drama EVER. And that's saying a lot since I have been watching K-dramas for 10!!! years!

Fat Geisha, despite her dubious occupation in the entertainment industry, is (er-hem) a romantic at heart. She LOVVEES reading romance novels and watching romance dramas/films, etc. So I have basically come across all types of flawed or supposedly perfect heroes, heroines and the gazillion complications that they have to overcome to get their happily ever after. QIHM is a fantasy time-travel fusion sanguk where the hero is from 1694 Joseon dynasty and the heroine lives in 2012. Their love story is straightforward and comes with none of the bullsXXt baggage (class/wealth differences, hate-at-first-sight, hero-has-yet-to-grow-up, heroine-is-naive-and-innocent, parents-hate-each-other, etc.) that you see all the time on TV until you can write the script yourself. A drama detailing the process of falling in love devoid of fuss and with cackling (and by cackling, I mean the "fry-your-computer" type of chemistry!? I don't remember watching something like that. Add that to the element of time-travel complications which is intelligently thought out and makes the viewer invested and thinking. It is comedic, romantic, dramatic ALL at the same time. Wow, that hits me in all the right spots and I am officially declaring it as a PERFECT 10 in the pure romance genre. Oh and throw in the absolutely PERFECT MAN ever written/shown of my dreams:  A scholar who is book smart (he loves libraries) but at the same time has superb EQ and great observation skills, able to fight, RAWR!!!, is courteous, tender, loving, humourous, kisses LIKE A DREAM - DOUBLE RAWR!!!! Has a pair of long legs that stretches from here to eternity - TRIPLE RAWR!!!!! No flower boy, my Kim Boong Do. Oh and the heroine? For once, I did not want to shove her over a cliff despite her hogging the luscious lips of MY boy - so that surely counts for something. Ok, just go watch the damn show. Seriously.

Below are some of the pics that I stole from the Facebook International Fan page, done by fans of the show who are equally if not more obsessed than I am. Separately I promise I will finish up my EXILE Concert Part II post SOON (Once I can get my mind out of those long legs...hmmm.)

The Cause-and-Effect Couple

Such mind-blowing chemistry. I am refraining from posting kiss pictures. You can find them elsewhere.

Definitely not a flower boy. No siree!

I find men in libraries the HOTTEST. 

Did I mention long legs?

Ok right, this is gratuitous. But I am sure The EVIL ONE will like.To quote the perfect man himself: "How can I not like it? It is all very LUSTFUL and good."

Thursday, April 12, 2012

EXILE Spectacular - Sapporo Dome Tower of Wish Concert 24 December 2011 Part 1

The Evil One was supposed to help me post on this, but busy woman that she is... oh well. And I started writing this some two months ago, and was halfway through when my computer crashed and I lost my inspiration.
But in recent days, I have been watching a lot of EXILE MVs and concerts on Youtube, for the sole purpose of salivating over Takahiro (sooooo cute and delicious looking), and I am now moderately inspired to write about my once-in-a-lifetime experience attending EXILE's concert in Sapporo, Hokkaido, on Christmas Eve 2011. (I know right? What a greatttt Christmas present that was!)  
Although I would have travelled to Japan anytime without any reason, our recent trip to Hokkaido came with a BIG objective: to catch EXILE live in concert at the famed Sapporo Dome. Sometime in August last year, after the Evil One found out that EXILE was holding their concert in Sapporo around the same time that we were intending to visit there, she literally moved mountains and oceans in order to get her hands on tickets for us. J-pop concert tickets are notoriously difficult to get, although we wouldn't think so because according to our limited knowledge, no one really knows much about J-Pop, and who cares since we have Lady Gaga??! So. Wrong. The Japanese  are CRAZY about their pop groups, and there is a damn good reason why groups like EXILE and SMAP don't bother travelling overseas to cater to poor overseas fans like us, but I will touch on that in more detail later.
So apparently tickets are sold through a balloting system due to overwhelming demand, and only to LOCALS!!! so the Evil One had to pull all strings and plead her Japanese contacts to help her ballot for 3 miserable tickets. I was like, "What if more than one of them wins the ballot?" but apparently my fears were unfounded because it was literally like striking lottery. (Initially I did not think so but while we were in Hokkaido, all the Japanese who knew that we were going to the concert - from ANA air stewardesses to hotel managers - were telling us HOW LUCKY we were to get those tickets!) And the Evil One must have moved some Higher Powers with her great love and effort that she (and we by default) struck the EXILE lottery through her first contact and the rest came up blank. OMG!!!! We were going to be watching EXILE LIVE at Sapporo Dome!
I hardly even attend concerts in Singapore, and to think that I was going to Japan to attend ONE just blew my mind. God was definitely smiling down on us - surely.
The concert came towards the end of our Hokkaido trip. The Evil One was gradually working herself up into a full blown frenzy and swore that she would get the attention from Japanese reporters in her "Mrs Atsushi" T-shirt (which she specially made for herself JUST for this concert) and put her on front page news which Atsushi would then see and fall in love with her yadda yadda.... The Samurai and I got a little surprise when she presented us with matching Mrs Atsushi T-shirts. Words cannot describe what they were but the picture below should be more than sufficient to express what we felt then:

Our LOL Concert Gear for EXILE. Obviously The Evil One is in the centre.

In a nutshell, both the Samurai and I were just back-up singers used to highlight our leading lady - Mrs Atsushi - and to make sure that she would get the requisite attention from Mr Atsushi. Samurai was nothing short of flabbergasted, but the sport that he was, he eventually wore the outfit to the concert. I was more than up to the challenge, although I would have thought this sort of craziness was something I would do during my teenage years, and I am like almost 20 years late. Thank god no one knows me in Japan, and they cannot laugh?!

So concert gear check, winter clothes thrown over, and we set off about 3 hours earlier as we were keen to shop for EXILE memoribilia before the start of the concert. Thank goodness we left early, because getting there was sheer madness. The Sapporo Dome has about 50,000 capacity, and since the concert was sold out, there were A LOT of people going to the Dome. Already trains going to Sapporo Dome were crazy packed. And when we alighted, a walk that was supposed to take about 15 minutes turned to 45 minutes. (And don't even get me started on the journey back!)

Mostly women on the trains. Like Hallo?!! But of course.

People, people and more people moving towards Sapporo Dome.

The sun was already setting at 4.30pm, since it was winter. There were like 10 or 20 policemen managing the throngs of EXILE fans (poor things) and a couple of them were livening up things by making jokes and even singing through the speakers. It was a cold day, but everyone seemed to be in a partying mood, and although it was a drag to trot slowly behind the crowd, the Japanese were thankfully an orderly bunch.

And finally!!! we got our first sighting of the massive Sapporo Dome. Awesome! I was getting seriously excited. Samurai was gloomy because he HATES crowds, but I was feeling a rush of adrenaline.

We entered the Dome all prepared to do some shopping, but it turned out that the shopping area was outside a square nearby and we could not get out. Darn it! So I was snivelling in envy at the hordes of fans in their EXILE gear - from shirts to scarves to bags, flags, etc. Then we realised we had to get ourselves dinner and there were only fast food options inside the Dome unfotunately, and all had long queues. But in the end, this was our dinner....

I think it was KFC - fries look different from Singapore's right??

And we sat ourselves on the steps near our seating sections. Did I mention that the Dome is HUMONGOUS?? While it obviously wasn't the best dinner in the world, especially after all the delicious wonderful food we were having throughout the Hokkaido trip, the most amazing happened. The Evil One saw the Man of her Dreams - Atsushi-san, sitting next to us on the steps. With a young daughter?! So, it turned out to be his Doppleganger, but after explaining her great love for Atsushi (for the nth time) and her wish to take a picture with him (in garbled Japanese), he finally agreed. I was the photographer, and even I was taken aback by the resemblance - see for yourself.

The Real Thing - Wow?!

AMAZING resemblance right? Unfortunately for privacy sake I am unable to show you the Evil One's expression, but she literally looked ESCTATIC. She probably wished he was the REAL deal so that she could jump his bones there and then. There were quite a number of people staring at us for all the commotion we were creating. Remember this concert was supposed to be only for locals, then suddenly you have this 3 English speaking foreigners crashing the party. How fortunate were we again? To do this? Really really really? Even now, 4 months later, I am shaking my head in wonder.

Will describe the actual concert in detail in the next post. Till then!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Asahiyama Zoo in a Blizzard

One of the most memorable experiences (and there were many) on my recent Hokkaido trip was visiting the famous Asahiyama Zoo. Never heard of it? I didn't too, until my "crazy about Japan" friends told me to check it out, as in "You MUST GO to Asahiyama Zoo! It's fantastic!" And now it is MY turn to tell you: Visit Asahiyama Zoo if you are in Hokkaido. You will not regret it.

The Eastern (Higashi) Gate of Asahiyama Zoo.

Located in Asahikawa City, Hokkaido, about 2.5 hours away from Sapporo, Asahiyama Zoo is one of the most popular, if not THE most popular zoos in all of Japan. Chief reasons for its popularity are 1) its unique variety of animals on display (apparently there are about 800 animals but we did not see that many because it is deep winter), which included the Red Panda (so cute), the Hokkaido Crane (graceful), the Emperor Penguin (funny!), the Timberwolf (majestic!), etc; 2) the well thought out enclosures they were kept in, to maximise visitors' viewing experience; and 3) the famous "Penguin Walk" by the Emperor penguins around the zoo.

If you are staying in Sapporo on a free and easy holiday, you can choose to do a day trip organised by Chuo Bus, located at the Esta Building very near to the JR Sapporo Station. It costs about 4,700 Yen per person (close to $80 SGD) and is a full day trip, taking up some 9 hours in total, and travelling time to and fro is almost 5 hours (with a rest stop in between)! But I will tell you that it is worth suffering an aching butt, particular if you are fond of animals.

As with most of our other trips, we were not spared the drama that day. It was like deja vu all over again when the Samurai and I could not locate the travel counter even though we were in the right building and we were in full panic mode (just like our Hakone trip in 2008). While I had the address (kindly supplied by the hotel concierge), all the entrances to the higher levels (where Chuo was located) were shut (as it was early morning). I had also forgotten to note down the name of the travel company. My Japanese finally came into good use when I desperately asked a cleaning lady, "Sumimasen, ryoko no kaisha wa doko desu ka?" (Excuse me, where is the travel company located?). Tip: go down to the bus terminal (at the bottom of the building) and take a flight of steps to the level where the Chuo bus counter is.

Thank God, we made it in time again, and we hunkered down for a long journey to Asahiyama Zoo. As the bus progressed up north, we noted that the snow was falling heavier and heavier and the sky was dark and ominous. Strong winds were also rocking the bus slightly - scary! There was a tour guide with us on the bus, but this was a Japanese speaking tour (no English tours were available). Despite focusing my entire brain power on her chatter, I probably only comprehended 10-15% of what she was saying, namely, what time to report back at the bus after our zoo visit.

And so we finally arrived. And the snow was so heavy I think in my limited knowledge it qualified as a blizzard. And it was freezing. Yet there were still busloads of people rushing off into the zoo. I knew then for sure this was going to be an entirely unique zoo experience.

Overview of the zoo from the Eastern entrance. White out.

Visiting an open concept zoo in a blizzard sounds quite romantic, BUT!!! 1) It is almost impossible to stand admiring animals out in the open for more than 5 minutes before your teeth starts to chatter and you have to rush to the nearest shelter for warmth. Even IF those animals on display are strolling around the enclosures like it is a walk in the park. 2) It is difficult to look at the animals with snow pelting on your face and eyes and you have to clear snow off your head every 2 minutes, lest you get buried. 3) It is near impossible to take a good picture with your camera since the lens is covered with snow every 30 seconds. 4) It is a juggling act trying to take a picture with your thick gloves on, failing which, you try to take the quickest picture in record time with your gloves off before your fingers drop off from frost bite. 5) There were not that many animals on display - I suppose the non-arctic ones are in hibernation mode (smart!).

Nevertheless!!!!! The animals that we DID manage to see were the most unique and interesting. And it was fascinating seeing them in their natural element in deep snow. As I mentioned before, while we were freezing our asses off, they looked to be having tons of fun. I guess it helps to have layers of fat and fur under such harsh conditions. From here on now, I will just let my pictures do the talking (And I took MANY pictures, at great risk to my fingers!).

The famous indigenous Hokkaido Crane.Blissfully unaware of the snow and pecking at unseen food.

An elk (not a reindeer) chilling out in the open while it is getting buried under.

The graceful timberwolf trotting around its enclosure non-stop. Working up a sweat perhaps?

The cute Red Pandas frolicking in the snow!

The enclosures are designed such that they were climbing across trees over visitors' head. Happy as a clam - this one.

The majestic polar bear in its element. What snow?!

The fat spotted seal that refuses to swim and chilling it out too. Being fat is an advantage here.

The kissing seals - Come back and play!

The Japanese macaque foraging in the thick snow.

A group of Emperor penguins standing as still as statues. And we thought they were statues initially until one flapped its wing.

The Penguin Walk!! Everyone was squealing "Kawaii!!!!!"

Happy Feet!

Leader of the Band. So close I could poke it!

Baby of the Band - still not molted yet and so so cute!!!

The Asahiyama Zoo visit was a test our of physical stamina and endurance. But I had so much fun, as did the Samurai. Seriously, go check it out.