Japan ski adventures

View of Mt Yotei
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For any food-loving Aussie skier, the mere thought of Japan is enough to get one salivating. There is an abundance of light fluffy powder, it’s less than 11 hours away (that’s on the doorstep from our perspective!), and even the Japanese food is worth a visit alone.

I know it must seem crazy to some to take flight from a gorgeous Australian summer to seek winter cold in Niseko, but passionate skiers and boarders know that it’s worthwhile. There are pretty much guaranteed snowy conditions, fantastic off-piste skiing, and of course, the food. And compared to the predictably icy Australian snow conditions and extortionate lift ticket prices, it ends up being much better value than a week at Thredbo.

 

On the mountain at NisekoIt snowed every day, which meant that every morning was filled with the excitement and anticipation of getting on the mountain. The weather was very cold, with temperatures of around -8C in the village and -15C on the summit, but you didn’t really notice too much until you were sitting high up on a lift, a slave to the elements. All I can say is thank god for the gondolas and the hooded lifts!

My favourite ski area was the Hanazono area, where there were some fun off-piste runs through the trees. It was my first time skiing through trees so I wasn’t game enough to go hardcore through the gates and outside the resort boundary and patrolled area, and Strawberry Fields area in particular had some narrow steep drops with some nice powder stashes, as well as wider open areas through the trees.

Niseko Hirafu

Hanazono ski signThe best thing about visiting Japan (right up there with the snow!) is all the delicious food. They take such pride with the serving and presentation of their food, that you can even get tasty snacks in their convenience stores. It’s fine dining compared to the dry sausage rolls or tasteless egg sandwiches in the Australian convenience stores.

We sampled a range of Japanese food throughout our visit, including sashimi, teppanyaki, sukiyaki, soba, and lots of ramen. It was cool to see that food vans were a thing in Niseko too.

Sukiyaki

Soba noodles

Ramen with snow crab legs

Potato ramen

Potato ramen

Peace out!

Deep fried oysters

Gyoza at Little Red Mimoji

Fresh sashimi

Niseko food vanWith so many Aussies in Niseko, the bar scene is hip and happening. The most trendy bar would probably be the Fridge Door Bar, properly called Bar Gyu+ but known for it’s distinctive front door.

Fridge door bar NisekoInside it’s a cosy European feel with warm wood panelling and wooden furniture. The menus are hand illustrated, and there is a great selection of whiskies, as well as hot alcoholic drinks and my first ever absinthe (the stuff knocks your socks off).

Niseko fridge door bar menu

Ev with a drink

AbsintheSkiing and eating aside, we managed to find some time to squeeze in some karaoke. For the equivalent of around A$20 for two hours of singing and all-you-can-drink, you can be assured to hear some high quality vocal performances. Oh well, when in Rome, or Japan…

Karaoke

Hooded up in the snowDid you take off for any snow adventures this winter? Or are you looking forward to the upcoming Southern Hemisphere winter for some snow action?

Taipei’s Shilin night markets

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On our recent trip to Japan, we stopped over in Taipei for a night of feasting at the famous Shilin night markets. The markets first opened in 1899 and has a huge variety of delicious Taiwanese street food and snacks. During the day, the streets are empty and quiet, devoid of food carts, but come nighttime, it’s jam-packed with hungry people throughout the night.

A country still at war

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With South Korea and its northern neighbour still technically at war, the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on the border of these two countries is a really fascinating visit.

On one of my trips to South Korea a few years back, I joined a tour to check out the DMZ to see the stand off between the two Koreas. We were taken around on a guided tour of the Joint Security Area and the Freedom House, where delegates from the two countries have met for talks. Soldiers from the Republic of Korea (as South Korea is technically known) stand stiffly without cracking any hint of emotion. The border between the North and the South runs straight through the centre of the building.

Outside, ROK soldiers stand on guard, half exposed and half hidden while facing their northern counterparts.

These are some of my favourite photos of my South Korean trips, including the walled city of Suwon, Namsangol traditional houses, and Gyeongbokgung Palace.

Fun in the Filipino sun

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For many years, I’d heard of the great diving in the Philippines – beautiful reefs, lots of fish, and loads of historical wrecks.  I recently managed to get there to experience it for myself, along with my brother, his girlfriend, and our mate Steve.

We went to the dive centre of Puerto Galera, which was a 2 hour drive from Manila airport to the port town of Batangas and then a 1 hour ride on a bangka boat to La Laguna beach in Puerto Galera.  We arrived at our amazing resort, Out of the Blue, where we had a villa right at the top of the hill that had great views over Sabang Bay.

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We didn’t dive on our first day there, but took the opportunity to unwind with cheap beers, mangoes, and massages.  One thing I didn’t expect was the number of older, foreign men with young, pretty Filipino women.  Call me naive but I had thought that this was a dive destination, not a seedy, girlie destination!

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Thankfully, the diving was fantastic and it was well worth the trek here.  The diving was relatively easy here, with mild currents at most, but the reefs were colourful and teeming with fish.  We even saw a few turtles!

divers on a boat

On our last day in Puerto Galera, we took a day trip around the island in our own private jeepney, one of the flash buses common to the Philippines that were former US military vehicles.  We went to check out the stunning views from the mountaintop Ponderosa golf club, White Beach, and a lunch at Tamaraw Falls.

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After we’d had our fill of diving, we island-hopped to the premier beach holiday destination of Boracay.  I usually find top rated beach destinations a disappointment whenever I go on holidays because we simply have amazing beaches in Australia, but this was one beach that definitely lived up to the hype.  Walking across the beaches of Boracay is like a heavenly dip in powdery, silky soft talcum powder, and the water is a beautiful turquoise blue.

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Boracay is a fun holiday destination, with loads of restaurants and bars, sunset sailing, and checking out the local seafood markets.  We had one night out on the town with a pub crawl group, where we met lots of great fellow party people from the Philippines, the US, Saudi Arabia, and a few other Aussies too.

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For great diving and beaching, and a cheap Asian holiday destination, I would definitely recommend the Philippines.  It’s a laid back country with friendly locals, and has the advantage of being an Asian country where English is widely spoken. I’m looking forward to heading back to the Philippines sometime to check out more of the country’s spectacular diving and beaches.

Similan Islands diving

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After many years of hearing that the Similan Islands in Thailand were a must-dive destination from my diving friends, I finally managed to make my way there this month.  It was pretty late in the season, which was beneficial in getting a half-empty (or is that half-full?) liveaboard boat and a cabin all to myself, however the weather was starting to turn slightly foul, with cloudy skies most of the time and lashing rain on occasion.  The glimpses of blue sky were very welcome.

Similan island white sandy beach

The diving was quite easy, although there was often a bit of current at the sites to keep things interesting.  The visibility ranged from 20-40 metres and the water temperature hovered around 29C, which made for easy and comfortable diving.

I love seeing big stuff and colourful reefs, and the sites here were not disappointing.  The coral growth on the reefs was looking pretty healthy, apparently making a good recovery after the tsunami of 2004.  The reefs attracted loads of colourful reef fish, which in turn attracted some bigger fish such as trevally and tuna.  On one particularly memorable dive we saw a majestic manta ray that slowly checked us out, before turning around to swim past us again, then swimming off into the blue.

Liveaboard diving is a continual cycle of diving, eating, sleeping/reading, diving, eating, more sleeping and reading.  The diving can get a bit tiring at the end of the day, but it’s definitely worthwhile.  We even checked out one of the white, sandy beaches of one of the islands, which had the whitest powdery sand I’ve ever seen.  It felt like I was standing on a large strip of flour!

White sandy beach at Similan Islands

Thai fishing boats

How did you bring in the new year?

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It’s a big call to escape the Australian summer willingly, but when it means dry, fluffy powder on the slopes of Japan you don’t have to ask me twice!

It snowed on and off for the 5 days that I was with my mate Ed in Furano, Hokkaido, meaning we had amazing powdery conditions.

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The light and feathery snow here puts Australia’s icy/slushy conditions to absolute shame, particularly when the lift tickets were only $57 a day compared to the $110 rip off at Perisher and Thredbo.

New years eve was spent with a whole lot of Japanese folk in the freezing cold and eating snacks from the market stalls such as steamy ramen noodles, sweet red bean soup, and grilled frankfurters.

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Shivering with strangers in -10C snowy conditions – what a way to kick off 2012!

A piece of tropical paradise

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The diving at Sipadan is known to be some of the best in the world and I wasn’t disappointed.  There were more turtles than you could poke a stick at, massive schools of giant barracuda, ugly bumpheaded parrot fish and loads of colourful tropical fish.

Despite the limited number of permits to dive Sipadan each day (120 permits between 10 operators!), I managed to dive 4 out of the 7 days I had there.  Before I went, I was only guaranteed 2 days, but even waking up at 4:30am to fit in 4 dives at Sipadan before lunch was well worth it.

The staff at Sipadan-Kapalai resort were just fantastic, especially the dive crew, who were on hand to do everything for you from setting up your gear and putting it on the boat, to being ready after a jetty dive to take your fins with a smile!  I think that many of the crew took a liking to me, being the only single female diver at the resort at the time – one of the dive crew even tried to kiss me!

This place is just paradise.  I think I’ve found my annual holiday destination – I can’t wait to come back next year!

Sabah simians

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Just mentioning the word “Borneo” conjures up all manner of images from rainforest to monkeys to friendly, dark-skinned locals.  Especially monkeys, and Borneo is renowned for its population of curious orangutans and the just plain curious-looking proboscis monkeys.

Back in November, I managed to snag super cheap Air Asia X launch fares from London to Kuala Lumpur for only £198 return!  At this price, it was madness to think of not booking a holiday.  With the flight saving, I decided that I wanted to splurge and do a diving trip to Borneo, specifically diving Pulau Sipadan in the Celebes Sea – known as one of the best reef and wall diving spots in the world – and staying at the very awesome Sipadan-Kapalai resort.

With two days to pass in Kota Kinabalu, I went to the Klias Wetlands yesterday, which are 1.5 hours west of KK.  These mangrove wetlands are an ideal spot to see the hideously ugly proboscis monkeys.  These simians come out in the late afternoon and early evening to play, and we cruised along the river in a speedboat searching the surrounding trees for any signs of monkey movement.  We were lucky enough to spot quite a few proboscis monkeys as well as playful macaques, a monitor lizard sunning itself on a branch overhanging the river, and a fisherman with his catch of tiger prawns!

After a delicious buffet dinner, we headed out on the boat again as darkness descended to check out fireflies.  In the pitch black night, the fireflies light up the surrounding trees so that they are akin to Christmas trees – very cool.  What was not cool though, was being ravaged by hordes of mosquitos.  Despite slathering myself in enough insect repellant to ward off a plague of locusts, I still ended up with itchy red bites over my legs.

Today I escaped to the mountains to escape stifling heat and to check out Kinabalu Park, of which Mount Kinabalu is a part, as well as the Botanic Gardens.  I didn’t climb Mount Kinabalu, since I didn’t actually have any footwear besides thongs!  It’s also a two-day trip, so it’s definitely something to put on the itinerary for next time.  The Gardens were quite small but had quite a nice array of colourful flowers, including a few orchid varieties.

 

Then we piled on the bus to check out the Poring Hot Springs and canopy walk, which involved a fair climb in the rain to the canopy tower up broken rubble steps.  All in all, both the canopy walk and hot springs were pretty disappointing, with neither being particularly exciting or interesting, but it was nice to see a bit of the surrounding KK area.

The most interesting KK experience was my dinner last night at a random local restaurant with the menu written in Chinese on the wall, but a photo menu for dumb foreigners as myself!  From the pictures of pigs’ bladders and cows’ stomachs, it seemed like the restaurant specialised in stewed offal.  Feeling a bit fragile after a 13-hour flight from London and a 7-hour stopover, I went for the safe soup noodles option with sliced beef!

I might wait until I meet up with my parents on the 30th of April to try stewed animal innards – better to waste their money if I don’t like rather than mine!