#49 Koyo in Nikko, Japan


When we think about koyo, amazing colours come to our mind. Gold, crimson, marigold yellow, maple syrup brown, tangerine, plum red…

Going leaf spotting is a tradition in Japan — there is even a specific term for it — momijigari. It is simply the act of enjoying the gorgeous autumn foliage. In this tech-obsessed world, a little spot of koyo is just what we needed.

For some, it could be a lot of fuss for nothing. Then again, the whole idea is to chill and relax. It’s for scenery and nature lovers, and for people who just want to take their mind off the hustle and bustle of real world. A refreshing change indeed for many who travel on a tight itinerary, and a great break for those who have spent a couple of hectic days in Tokyo.

I love trees and autumn is my favourite season. So yes, observing the koyo is just right up my alley. :-)

Here’s my trip report, hopefully it helps you get all the manic planning out of the way and focus on the beautiful scenery.

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#42 Up Java’s Big Boss Semeru in 2D1N – Volcano Weekend Part 2

Climbing Mount Semeru was insanely difficult especially since it was my first official volcano trek. In fact, I was pretty sanguine because I had no idea what I was in for. Sometimes that sort of ignorance can be bliss since I would’ve fretted endlessly. With three weeks between having decided and actually going, even bringing the gym game super strong was barely cutting it for me. If you are a seasoned hiker who have done other volcanoes and a couple of multi-day treks, you should have no problems. In any case, the trail towards Semeru is mostly dry and through temperate forest, which is more enjoyable for me than rolling around huge buttress roots in a tropical forest which is often dim and muddy. At 3,676 metres above sea level, Semeru is the highest volcano on Java, and the 3rd highest in Indonesia.

Hillsides spewing gases - taken on the way back to Cemoro Lawang from Ranu Pane

Our trek up Mount Semeru to the Mahameru summit was a 2D1N journey. A few people have asked me if it was possible with the condensed itinerary, since this trip was commonly advertised as 3D2N, and the answer is yes!

(This is the fast and furious version as some of us cannot take too many vacation days and a longer trip was out of our budget. There is the usual version at 3D2N, where you set up camp at Ranu Kumbolo before continuing on again. Skip to the end of this post for the itinerary.)

Having a good night’s sleep the night before is crucial, since the next evening with no proper bed and the anticipation of the summit attack we barely got any sleep. On the day of the hike, we started out bright and early at around 8, with the Jeep picking us up from our hotel. We passed the Bromo entrance and continued on down toward the Sea of Sand, and then went a bit further.

We had two pit stops on this Jeep ride – the first one is the Whispering Sands and the second one is Teletubbies Hill, before moving on to our actual starting point of the hike – Ranu Pane.

These sands don't really whisper but they do get into your eyes!!!

The Whispering Sands, or Pasir Berbisik. There was a lot of ash and sand swirling in the air and we could not see further than 50 metres, let alone the actual horizon. We didn’t hear any whispering from the sand, just excited shouts of other tourists jumping off their Jeeps. The Mad Max sensation of crossing the desert was stronger here. After a few photos, we were choking on the sediment-filled air and happy to move on.

The Jeep lurched and jerked and rattled on. Continue reading

#35 In The Heat Of Mount Papandayan, Indonesia

Mount Papandayan is not exactly the first place that comes to mind when people plan a trip to a volcano. With more than 120 volcanoes all over the Indonesian archipelago, it’s only natural that a lot of gunung apis get completely sidelined and ignored by tourists and visitors. While every volcano may have something interesting to offer, there are definitely a few that stand out because they are well-linked to cities, have more media coverage, better tourism infrastructure and better marketing, and/or are simply more beautiful, at least in the conventional way, than others, like Bromo, Ijen, Rinjani and Merapi, to name the popular ones.

Located in a highly tectonically active region, Indonesia is the go-to place to experience the raw and potentially dangerous beauty of these lava-spewing devils. So it’s a good thing that a volcano lover like me is living a short plane ride away from these hot spots. I was planning a trip to Bandung and as usual one of the first things I started hunting down is somewhere to go absorb the great outdoors. Tangkuban Perahu came up tops in searches, but the reviews about pushy touts and heaving crowds totally put me off. No matter how gorgeous a place is, it defeats the whole idea of invigorating oneself in Mother Nature when all the crowd-fighting just sucks the life out of you.

We booked a day tour via our hostel in Bandung. The sun rises earlier here in Bandung than in Singapore, and there’s traffic to beat, so we left a little past 7am. We passed small non-descript towns that resembled one another – mobile phone stalls, roadside hawkers selling bakso and batagor, vegetable sellers, and witnessed the occasional cluster of goats tied to wooden posts awaiting their fate of being sold and slaughtered. It was the Islamic festival of Eid-al-Adha. After two and a half hours, the driver brought us to Garut, a sleepy village near the volcano, to meet our guide Danny, and then we bounced for 20 minutes on rocky, bumpy terrain up to the foothills of Mount Papandayan. Danny told us that this volcano is classified as Type A, meaning it can “blow anytime”. Not very reassuring to say this now, especially since we are just about to climb up. The last time it blew its top was in 2002, and he seemed confident that volcanic eruptions of this kind is a once-every-100-year event so it “shouldn’t” happen again. Something from my geography undergrad days tell me this theory is flawed but I tried not to dwell on it, considering my penchant for entertaining irrational fears.

Do we want the standard route or “Danny’s Special Route”? asked Danny our guide. We figured we hired him to show us something ‘interesting’ so Danny’s way it is. Little did we expect to be literally walking on sizzling hot ground!

Panoramic view at Mount Papandayan

Panoramic view at Mount Papandayan

The first part of the “Special Route” was a shortcut through a series of skin-grazing, low-lying shrubs. Around 40 minutes later, we arrived at a vantage point to admire the spectacular view. The initial ascent was steep and I had to pause a few times before reaching the ‘top’, which was one of the accessible summits (not the ultimate one). Here we enjoyed panoramic views – looking far and wide, we could see all the way down to the flat rice plains and another mountain, Gunung Cikuray, in the distance. Down below, a trail of backpack-wielding hikers was making its way up to the other side of the volcano where apparently you could camp overnight on a grassy clearing.

Time to explore sulphur-emitting geysers, colourful ribbons of water, cascades of steaming hot liquid, and bubbling mud holes! Continue reading

#33 Off Peak Travel and Hiking in Cinque Terre, Italy

Cinque fishing villages,
Far away from the world,
by the Mediterranean.

Off peak travelling has its obvious perks – less to pay for accommodation, no jostling at the ‘perfect photo spot’, and best of all, having plenty of beautiful spaces all to yourself. But then it’s also the season for locals to hoof it to their own holidays – meaning shops and restaurants are more likely to close, and it would be just the right time for maintenance works to take place – which could mean unexpected closures and potential disappointment, not to mention disrupting your itinerary (if any) and travel expectations (naturally).

Something’s gotta give, unless you perpetually hunt down the sweet spot of shoulder seasons, you’re bound to bump into either extreme. I used to shun travelling during the off time, because in my mind I would have painted a lovely picture of strolling down a cherry-tree lined promenade in Tokyo (did not happen) or a spectacular sunrise at Yosemite (did not happen either), and I have this immense fear that my experience is not nearly complete if the product didn’t look exactly like what was shown to me on paper. I’m telling you, these are silly preoccupations that the sooner you get over, the better off you are.

Most people ogle at the pretty-as-pink villages but take some time to admire the breathtaking Ligurian coastal scenery found in Cinque Terre.

Most people ogle at the pretty-as-pink villages but how about taking some time to admire this breathtaking Ligurian scenery?

Cinque Terre between Christmas and New Year’s is something I’d consider off peak. People do go away on these dates, but I’d imagine most Europeans would be shredding snow and ice on Alpine slopes or sipping Chang beer on Thai beaches, while travellers from faraway lands would choose to go to places like Vienna or Hamburg, which are still sexy as hell when drowning in ankle-deep snow. I imagine that mainstream hikers would not find joy in bagging Cinque Terre hills in 10°C weather and the chilly winds on the slate-gray beaches would also make damn sure you won’t be frolicking in your bikini or board shorts (unless you are Scandinavian or suicidal), either.

Still, those are my guesses. Proof came in the form of having to drive around for more than an hour looking for somewhere to eat dinner on our first night in the Cinque Terre area. You might say, well we wouldn’t have a problem if we’d chosen to stay in Riomaggiore – but for me that’s considered cheating when you make things too easy. We ended up at a pretty decent pizza place (oh wait, it’s Italy) on the outskirts of Sestri Levante – the kind where everybody just pops in to pick up their takeaway pizzas and the doe-eyed pizzaioli spend a lot of time baking pizzas with just one another. We wolfed down the slices in the car, for fear the pizza guys might want to make conversation (no, not really), then drove back in the pitch-dark, winding mountain roads.

We stayed at the Perla del Levante hostel in a perched little village called Ravecca, still nearby but considered totally off the touristy trail (~42km to drive to Riomaggiore). The hostel has a terrace where you can enjoy a great ocean view and hear the sound waves crashing down below. We could also park our car for free at a nearby roadside.

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#6 Trekking in Coloane Island and Yummy Egg Tarts, Pt. 2 – Macau, China

On the second day, we are ready for a different Macau experience!

Exploring the great outdoors out on Coloane Island, hiking around the Coloane Trail, visiting the A-Ma Cultural Village, eating Lord Stow’s Bakery’s tasty egg tarts, trying out authentic Portuguese cuisine and more!

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#4 My fingers are bluer than the Blue Mountains – Sydney, Australia

Never doubt the weather report. Even if most of the time it isn’t too accurate. Because the time when you decide not to listen to it, as much as you don’t like or want to believe (for fear of disappointment or overconfidence in own abilities to predict weather), it is going to turn out pretty damn accurate. Arriving at Katoomba after a gruelling (ok, it wasn’t so bad…just really excruciating slow) 3-4 hour train ride from Sydney’s Central railway station, we hopped off the train, ready to stretch our legs but were instead greeted rather rudely by the startling chill. How cold can it get? We scoffed, but now we swallowed hard and braced ourselves for the 4°C cold at an altitude of more than 1,000m.

Sunset view of the Three Sisters!
(managed to take a picture before the battery died from the cold)

Confident that there would still be hostel vacancies (since it’s off peak season and all), we marched up to the YHA in the dwindling sunlight, a half an hour trek around the town area of Katoomba which felt like 3 lifetimes, and managed to secure some beds for the night. The YHA hostel in Katoomba is a cosy wooden two-storey building with the likes of a ski lodge, complete with a rec room, a dining hall, a spacious kitchen, and all the things you’d find in a comfy hostel. (Wished I remembered flipflops though, because I ended up walking around in socks.)

The town was awfully eerie after sundown, for good reason, with the teeth-chattering wind chill that seeped through to the bones. Occasional, strong gusts of freezing air rushed up to us whenever we passed a street junction, where the straight and squat rows of cinnamon-red cinderblock buildings gave way to a little road for cars to pass through. Popped right into a toasty and busy little pizza parlour where business was brisk and people wove in and out endlessly. It was as though the whole town felt like pizza that night — rowdy families, cosy couples and raucous college kids formed a varied backdrop whilst the stifling aroma of ham and cheese sizzling in hot oil filled the boxy little space. You wouldn’t have expected this from the silence of the streets outside. Post-pizza, time for a little drink to warm us up a bit…!

The Old City Bank Bar & Brasserie looked rather inviting with warm orange lights illuminating the interiors of the stately-looking brick house. In here, it was like a completely different world from the pizza place, sophisticated twenty to thirtysomethings gossiped and flirted with one another in little pockets, nursing one fancy cocktail after another, while the older crowd looked like they were having one of those “philosophical chats” over a gin and tonic or two. It was virtually impossible to talk over the cacophony of 2,000 simultaneous (non-)conversations in the cavernous high-ceiling room, but somehow messages were conveyed through an overly vehement nod or merely a seductive gaze in one’s direction. The atmosphere was a little sultry with a live band blaring right in our faces, the music had a vintagey, folky feel… a symphony of sounds from a classical guitar, harmonica and drums, and the singer’s hauntingly high warbling notes. For a moment, everything seemed to blur into the background, into the orange light, into the many beautiful alien faces…and you could almost, just almost, forget about the world.

The cold has this amazing ability to sap one out of energy in a short period of time. To escape from the bristling winds on our walk back from the bar to the hostel, we popped into one of the bric-à-brac stores that lined the main streets. I was pretty surprised that it was still open at nearly 10pm in such a small town, but was more than glad for the respite. There were many interesting trinkles and second-hand items on sale, and one that caught my eye was a huge oil painting of Frida Kahlo. Plenty of antique vases, ceramics, old sewing machines, military uniforms, handmade furniture and ornaments, silverware, designer purses, carpets, huge ugly fur coats and lots of curios… a good place to spend half an hour poking around things that piqued our curiosity. But enough was enough, we needed rest for our hike in the Blue Mountains.

Just so you know, the Blue Mountains aren’t exactly as blue as you’d imagined them to be. Earned its name from the blue haze that is generated from the vaporizing moisture from the eucalyptus forests, the Blue Mountains is also recently listed as a World Heritage area. Truly breathtaking, and lauded as one of the must-have day trips when visiting Sydney (besides Hunter Valley)…

“The rugged beauty of the mountains captivated my heart as well as my soul the moment I laid my eyes upon the scenery.”

The skies were turquoise and clear, not a cloud in sight. The sun blazed but my skin just felt a tinge of coolness. We were about to go bushwalking! Since there was the case of a 19-year-old British tourist who went missing for 12 days (he survived) after going off into the mountains a few weeks before this, we needed to record our names down at the front desk in the hostel before heading out. Well, better safe than sorry, I guess.

We didn’t head straight to Echo Point, but instead took a scenic walk from our hostel and went into the hiking trail from a side entrance of the Blue Mountains National Park. Wise choice, because we could enjoy the fresh air, the birds chirping and the calming silence of the forest…well if I ignored the quiet crunching of gravel and dry leaves under my boots. By the time we reached Echo Point, there were busloads of Japanese and Chinese tourists there marring the landscape with their gaudy inappropriate-for-hiking attires and camera flashes doing their touristy thing. We avoided the mob by popping over to the Information Centre to grab a couple of maps at and went on our way back into the mountains again.

Look, you can’t even see the end of the stairway…and this is only part of it.

One of the main attractions called The Giant Stairway was no joke, with nearly 900 steps of it all! Good thing we planned our route in advance (lazy hikers as we are, heh) and descended the stairs instead of going up. By the look of the blue-faced hikers who decided to challenge the Giant Stairway climbing up, we knew we made a good decision.

The highlight of the morning was the Scenic Railway. We could see The Three Sisters as we rode upwards and the adrenaline rush combined with the view just took my breath away. For just A$10 per person, this would be your best bet if you want to save time and money, instead of having to do the Scenic Skyway or Cableway, which of course would allow you more time to take pictures and enjoy the view at your time. And as if the view and the experience weren’t enough, the Scenic Railway is also the steepest incline railway in the world; so you can add this to your list of Firsts that you have been proudly expanding.

The weather so good, everyone wants a piece of it…even if it meant having lunch on the road divider!
(Did I mention my BF has the best camera ever? The blue in the sky…perfectly captured)

Wanting to fit more into the itinerary, we headed out to Leura Village on the Blue Mountains bus (because it was waay too far to walk), and had a little jaunt around the beautiful quaint little town of Leura before conquering the rest of the hiking trail back to Echo Point. Leura is a very sweet and beautiful town. But the trail was waiting for us. Had a fabulous mouthwatering mindshatteringly yummy meat pie before the trek began. The calories were very much appreciated.

We went past many many viewing points, some of them with picturesque panoramic views worthy of more than a Panasonic Lumix advertising campaign. I was out of breath and frankly out of fuel. The sun was setting and I was freaking out because we were barely 40% of our journey back. My BF was very supportive, both physically and metaphorically, kept my spirits alive by telling me stories and carrying my pack to keep my mind off the fact that my legs were as heavy as lead and that I have already walked a hell lot of a distance. You would be surprised that I was the one who suggested doing this, and he came out unfazed, and amazingly not as bombed out as I was. Not only was the hike filled with words-cannot-describe-how-beautiful-they-are views, it was also a refreshing workout and a great bonding time for us. After the exertion, we also visited the Jenolan Caves the next day to wrap up our trip to the Blue Mountains.