Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Okinawa: Churaumi Aquarium 沖縄美ら海水族館

And now for the highlight of our first day (and maybe the whole Okinawa trip) - Churaumi Aquarium, renowed for having the world's second largest aquarium viewing tank (it was the largest until Dubai took the honour in 2008). Churaumi is also one of the few to have whale sharks in captivity, and is trying to breed them.

Schoolgirls at Churaumi Aquarium, Okinawa
"Chura 美ら" means "beautiful" in native Okinawan, and "umi 海" is Japanese for "sea".

Beautiful fish at Churaumi Aquarium, Okinawa
This "beautiful sea" aquarium is part of the Ocean Expo Park, which is a pretty big place with lots of other non-marine exhibits. In fact, there's a Tropical Dream Center that has over 2,000 orchids, including species not seen in Singapore!

Right at the entrance of Ocean Expo Park, you'll be greeted by a colourful explosion of flowers.

An explosion of colours at the entrance
Hard not to be cheered by the sight.

Menso-re (Welcome!) to Ocean Expo Park
This says "Menso-re ("Welcome!" in the Okinawan dialect) to Ocean Expo Park". The park's been around since 1975, but the aquarium was built in 2002.

Walk the grand sloping staircase down and enjoy the sense of space.

Stairway at Ocean Expo Park, Okinawa
There are travelators on each side in both directions (something we appreciated after traipsing around a lot).

En route to Churaumi Aquarium at Ocean Expo Park in Okinawa
It's a slight walk to the aquarium, but it's no sweat at all for the many schoolkids who come here.

This was also the day that I discovered that in colder weather my DSLR camera gobbles up battery life like crazy. While it lasted four days in sunny Telunas (Indonesia) on a single charge, here in Okinawa, it couldn't take half a day and chose to die soon after we entered the aquarium. So I can't believe it, but I have to settle for iPhone 3Gs photos to show you the epic tank.

Whale sharks in Kuroshio Tank at Churaumi Aquarium, Okinawa

Anyway, I thought it would be better if I showed you videos than stills. That's the real appeal of an aquarium, watching fish alive and moving. Sorry the quality isn't better on my iPhone (gah, need 4S, but everyone telling me to wait for iPhone 5!)

Yes, the grand Kuroshio tank with the fish gliding by like ethereal beings - that's 7,500 cubic metres of water there with an acrylic glass panel measuring 8.2m by 22.5m. The viewing panel is 60mm thick! The tank name comes from the Kuroshio current which is what bathes the Okinawan islands and give it life.

More than 16,000 fish live here, including three whale sharks, giant manta rays and lots of tuna. And guess what? The manta rays are breeding here! Four have been born so far! That can only mean happy fish. Animals don't breed unless they feel the environment is safe.

As mentioned earlier, they are gonna try whale shark breeding next. Fingers crossed for baby whale sharks!

We also witnessed a peculiar incident where a deathly pale-looking zebra (or leopard) shark turned belly up, and some other sharks came over to try to help or revive it. Yes, you'll see it around 1:20 after the huge whaleshark glides past.

At first we thought the other sharks were trying to eat it, but they didn't tear it apart. Instead, they seemed to guide it to a safe corner. Visitors were going, "Shin da?" (Is it dead?) and a little boy going, "Oyogi! Oyogi!" (Swim! Swim!).

Some curious sting rays also came to take a look. But the cluster of fellow zebra sharks kept watch over their fallen brother. Amazing.

Kuroshio Tank at Churaumi Aquarium, Okinawa

The tank is indeed breath-taking. I am reminded of the Osaka Kaiyoukan, which also has a huge tank (a whopping seven storeys high) with a whale shark in it. That's where I was first wowed by seeing a live whale shark.

Well, after some time, you see the whale sharks circling around for their nth time, you start to have anthropomorphic pity for the creatures. And start wondering if it's too crowded or if it is really cruel to keep them enclosed like that.

But I feel these exhibits still serve a purpose to inspire the younger generation to learn about these animals and to take care of the marine environment.

Giant shark skin!

There's lots more to the aquarium - a full coral exhibit, deep-sea creatures, micro creatures, giant squid (preserved), huge lobsters with stubby lobsters, and even a shark research lab.

Here fishie, fishie, fishie...

Outside the aquarium are areas for dolphin performances, manatees, and sea turtles.


The Churaumi Aquarium is one of the most visited attractions in Okinawa. You could easily spend a whole day at the Ocean Expo Park, with an afternoon in the aquarium. It's great to take your time and not rush through the exhibits, as there are lots of interesting facts and details to take in. I'm glad we had a few hours here.

For opening hours and ticketing details, please see their website. The aquarium is located on the northern part of Okinawa's main island. Here's how to get there.

This media trip to Okinawa was made possible by CTC Travel, Okinawa Visitors and Convention Bureau, and Okinawa Tourist Service). There are no direct flights from Singapore to Okinawa yet, but CTC Travel organises specially chartered flights and tours.


Saturday, March 24, 2012

Okinawa: Cape Manzamo and Nago Pineapple Park

The grand Cape Manzamo is one of the top tourist scenic spots in Okinawa. It faces the East China Sea and is famous for the elephant shaped rock formation, with the trunk or nose ("zoe no hanna") dipping into the ocean. See? It totally looks like one, although the rock would probably disagree, "Who're you calling an elephant?!"

The weather was still a little chilly when we were there (early March). I have seen in pictures how the waters are gorgeous shades of turquoise during summer.

Cape Manzamo means "10,000 could sit here in this field!"
With this significant icon, you'd assume Manzamo means Great Elephant Rock or some sort, but no. In the local dialect, Manzamo (万座毛) means "ten thousand men sitting on the grassland" - because Ryukyu King Sho Kei who visited in the 18th Century was so impressed with the wide plateau that he dubbed this place Man 万(10,000) Za 座(to sit) Mo 毛(field/grassland) as an indication of its size. That would be one huge picnic.

No mention of the elephant shaped rock by the King. Was it visible back then? Maybe the limestone didn't look like one yet, or maybe the king had not seen many elephants before. I can't help but think that someday the limestone will erode and the elephant will morph into something else. Catch it before it does!

Pensive rocks at Cape Manzamo
Still, besides the elephant limestone outcrop, there are other rocks equally worthy of your imaginative contemplation.

Cold waters in spring

There's even some good diving to be had here, at the funnily named Toilet Bowl. No, not this one above. There are tide pools with lots of interesting marine life to see, but beware the jagged rocks. There is also a pair of little known twin Jizo statues, (read more at the link).

The plant life here has to be able to withstand some harsh weather
Plant life here can be a little different as it has to withstand harsh coastal weather.

Cape Manzamo area is a bit like Great Ocean Road
The whole area reminds me of the Great Ocean Road near Melbourne. It's a pretty place to see, but if you're on a bus tour, you're likely to be hurried off to your next destination without the opportunity to really explore the area.

Ah yes souvenirs...
So off we went, past the souvenir stalls in the parking lot, to our next stop - Nago Pineapple Park.

Okinawa main island
The main Okinawa island is divided into southern, central and northern zones. Manzamo is in the centre near the town of Onna, and the pineapple park is at Nago just slightly north of it. The southern part, where Naha is, remains the most heavily populated.

We covered a lot of ground on the first day of our media trip (organised by CTC Travel, Okinawa Visitors and Convention Bureau, and Okinawa Tourist Service). The places shown on the map - Manzamo, Nago, Ogimi Village, Churaumi Aquarium - are all more than an hour's drive up north.

Nago Pineapple Park in Okinawa
OK, here's the Pineapple Park. Well, Singapore's right next to a huge pineapple producer (Johor), so you might wonder if there's anything interesting to glean here.

Driverless self-navigating buggy tour cars
The theme park is really small - the first part is a driverless buggy ride that brings you on a (very brief) trail to see pineapple plants and related flora. Our tour included commentary in English.

Flora at Pineapple Park in Okinawa

It then deposits you to an even longer trail - pineapple products of all kinds! And free sampling of everything!

Massive product sampling area

Pineapple wine, pineapple jelly, pineapple kasutera (a type of sponge cake), pineapple cookies, pineapple candy, pineapple. Other fruits also get a chance to star - shikuwasa (the local calamansi). If you're interested in the kasutera, wait til you get closer to the end where the Gold Award winner is. The Bronze and Silver ones you'll encounter first, and there are cashiers all along the way, but hold those impulses.

There are even beauty products like soap, pineapple charcoal, etc.

Okinawan pineapple is really juicy!
The actual pineapple is exceptionally juicy. I don't know how they manage to pack in that much water into the fruit!

Peach pineapple from Ishigaki
You can even try unusual species like peach pineapple, like these from Ishigaki Island. It really does taste faintly of peach, and is not as tangy as regular pineapple.

Umibudou! Sea grapes that pop in your mouth
I also got to try umibudou or sea grapes, a kind of seaweed. By themselves, they have a cool popping texture, but not much flavour. Dip them in ponzu, however, and it's an explosion of flavour. These are also available outside the pineapple park, of course.

It's hard to make it through the trail without buying something. At the very end there are souvenirs, and at the exit/entrance - ice cream cones, with pineapple as a flavour choice, of course.

Ice cream
Ice cream, we came to realise during our stay, is a big thing in Okinawa.

Park entry fees are 600 yen for adults, 300 yen for children aged 7-12, with a 10 per cent discount for groups.

Next up - Emi no Mise for a traditional and naturally organic Okinawan lunch, and the world's second largest aquarium tank at Churaumi Aquarium!


Friday, March 23, 2012

The TANGS Cook-Off: Win KitchenAid Mixer, WMF Pots, Dinnerware

KitchenAid KSM150 Brushed Nickel Mixer S$1299

STOP PRESS! Yes, I'm interrupting my Okinawan posts to show you this gleaming beauty, and how you can win one! The KitchenAid Artisan Brushed Nickel Stand Mixer, worth S$1,299 is up for grabs in the TANGS Cook-Off contest.

TANGS is recreating the perfect America family dinner, and you're invited to submit (via Facebook) your favourite Western-themed recipe from that era. You can submit from now til 31 March 2012, so hurry!

The best three recipes will be chosen via public voting from 15 April to 30 April 2012. These three contestants will get to compete in May at TANGS Vivocity to see whose dish is the best. They will each get guidance from renowned chef John See (former chief chef to Aussie Prime Minister John Howard) in preparing their special dish. But everyone will be a winner, as the second and third prizes are also quite enticing.

I superwaaant that KitchenAid mixer. But I cannot win it. Because I am judging the contest! Oh yes, I get to decide (partly) who gets to take home this gorgeous beauty. The judging panel will also include lucky Facebook participants who prefer not to cook but to judge. Just vote for your favourite dish, and you stand a chance to judge the TANGS Cook-Off too!

Check out the TANGS blog for full details, and their Facebook page for participation. Good luck and have fun!

This post is sponsored by TANGS.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Okinawa: JAL City Hotel Naha and Its Wonderful Buffet Breakfast!

Lobby of JAL City Hotel Naha - there's wi-fi here, and three Internet PC terminals

We stayed at the JAL City Hotel Naha which is smack dab on Kokusai Street, the shopping belt of the capital.

The hotel is clean, modern and well-appointed. Very decent Western-style business hotel, with English-speaking concierge staff. There's free wi-fi in the lobby (see above), and three computer terminals with Internet access for guests to use.

Nice rooms in JAL City Hotel Naha
Hotels in Japan tend to be infamously cramped and small, but this one is quite decent.


Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Haisai Okinawa! A Quick 10-Fact Intro to Japan's Tropical Side

kume island2

"Haisai" is the Okinawan way of saying "Hello" - they have a dialect that is different from Japanese.

Situated between Japan and Taiwan, Okinawa is also known as "Hawaii of the East" with its beautiful sub-tropical islands and sandy beaches. (photo above courtesy of Okinawa Tourist Service)

Okinawa is both exotic and familiar at the same time. Because of the Chinese influence, I found certain aspects very recognisable (like the guardian lion statues, traditional architecture and large familial tombs), but it is mixed with so many other cultural influences (Japanese, Korean, American, and even Latin/South American from  Okinawan emigrants there who returned).

But before I go into my tour of Okinawa, here's a quick ten-fact introduction to the islands.

1. Its Kanji name 沖縄 means "rope awash" as the archipelago of 160 islands literally looks like a string of rope floating in the sea. I love the vivid imagery the name conjures. (photo is screen capture of a tourism video)

2. The weather here is balmy and mild, ranging from 16 degrees C (in winter) to 28 degrees C (in summer). It also gets quite a bit of rainfall (2300mm) per year. You'll see rain about 125 days in a year.

3. Okinawa was once an independent nation called the Ryukyu 琉球 Kingdom from the 15th to 19th century, with close trading and cultural ties with China, Japan, Korea and South-east Asia (including Malacca!). Actually the name Ryukyu appears as far back as 605 A.D. in ancient Chinese texts. The term Ryukyu is still used today to refer to the islands.

4. It's the birthplace of karate! This martial arts form was developed when the Ryukyu king outlawed weapons and warriors. The inhabitants learned to fight with "empty hands" (which is what "karate" means).

Okinawa Heritage Sites
5. Thanks to its rich history, there are many heritage sites, dating back to the 13th century. The main island of Okinawa alone has 9 UN World Heritage Sites.

6. Okinawa has the most long-lived people in the world, and the highest number of centenarians. No, these are not feeble folks but some of the healthiest, most active seniors you will ever see. Island living must be good there.

7. Many popular singers, artistes and groups are from Okinawa - High and Mighty Color, Mongol 800, Da Pump, Begin, Orange Range, etc. Did you know Gackt and Namie Amuro are Okinawans? Takeshi Kaneshiro is half-Okinawan and half-Taiwanese. Actress Meisa Kuroki (Space Battleship Yamato) who just broke many hearts by marrying Jin Akanishi, is also from Okinawa. Here is Gackt performing "Shima Uta" with Sadao China (知名定男) a famous Okinawan singer who plays the sanshin, a local three-stringed lute, purportedly the precursor of the shamisen.

8. Okinawan cuisine embodies the "nuchi gusui" philosophy - food as life's medicine. Traditional Okinawan food is low-calorie but nutrient-dense. Of course, I will be going into more detail later on their food, which very likely contributes to their longevity.

9. While it looks like cheerful paradise now, Okinawa has been through plenty of hardship. The bloodiest battle of the Pacific War took place here and more than 250,000 people died - more than the death toll in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. So there are significant sites, museums and memorials if you are interested in the history of World War II.

10. It's pretty safe. There are usually no direct earthquakes or major tsunamis here, but Okinawa does get typhoons several times a year (mostly during July, August and September). Most of the people just retreat to the shopping malls when that happens, our guide tells us. Being so far south, Okinawa is also more than 1,100 miles away from Fukushima. I know a lot of people are still concerned about radiation woes in mainland Japan. Well, there should be no worries here. And like many places in Japan, it's quite safe in the streets too, even late at night.

Bright lights on Kokusai-dori in Naha, Okinawa

I had the good fortune to join the inaugural media trip to Okinawa jointly organised by CTC Travel, Okinawa Visitors and Convention Bureau, and Okinawa Tourist Service. It was a specially chartered flight as there are no direct flights from Singapore to Okinawa. The chartered flight only takes four hours to Okinawa (as compared to Tokyo which is seven hours)! So Okinawa is not much farther than say, Shanghai.

We landed in the capital Naha at night, and were very warmly greeted by the Okinawans.

The Okinawa International Airport looks small, but their domestic terminal just 100m away is huge and one of the busiest in Japan (Okinawa is a top resort destination for mainland Japanese).

Pink hibiscus in Okinawa
I have much to show you from our five-day trip. Over the next few days, I will post more.

Meanwhile, you can also download the free Okinawa2Go iPhone app. You can read more about it here.

I leave you with a famous Okinawan folk song, "Nada Sou Sou" sung here by Rimi Natsukawa - take a listen; I am sure you've heard covers of it.


Tuesday, March 20, 2012

World Down Syndrome Day - 21 March

Tomorrow, 21 March, is the seventh anniversary of World Down Syndrome Day and for the first time, it will also be observed by the United Nations. This date (21/3) marks the three copies of Chromosome 21, which is unique to people with Down Syndrome.

Activities and events held on World Down Syndrome Day can have a tremendous impact, showcasing the abilities, talents and accomplishments of people with Down syndrome. I encourage you all to tell the World what you are doing to celebrate this important day.”

Liam Neeson OBE
Oscar nominated actor
Patron – Down Syndrome International
Otherwise known as my favourite Jedi Qui-Gon Jinn!!!

Plan Your Day and you can do a little bit too, to help raise awareness. Even just by telling someone about this day, is something already.

Watch the video and see the sweet smiles from all over the world. Hey, there's Kyle from Singapore - he used to be Nadine's classmate!

Nadine will be six years old in July. She's at her final year at Rainbow Centre. Today the Education Minister announced more mainstream integration programs for all 20 special education schools. Integration and inclusion is always such welcome news. Kids with special needs often improve a lot by interacting with regular kids, and regular kids can learn more about diversity, kindness and acceptance. And there is such joy generated by both. I see it every day.


DBS Masterclass with Tomonori Danzaki of Joël Robuchon Restaurant

Chef Tomonori Danzaki (right) with his able assistant

Executive Chef Tomonori Danzaki has been with Joël Robuchon so long, he's part of their DNA. From Tokyo in 1994 to Las Vegas in 2005, he has helped launch restaurants that won three-star Michelin rankings. Now he oversees Joël Robuchon Restaurant and Le Atelier de Joël Robuchon at Resorts World Singapore.

It was fitting that he was the one to top off the series of DBS Masterclasses last year.

So nice of him to have brought his kids too!
Danzaki's kids came along

Dishes Featured:

Salad of tomato, basil infused olive oil, tomato gelée topped with mozzarella
La Tomate
en salade, huile d’olive au basilic, tomate et mozzarella en gelée
Salad of tomato, basil infused olive oil, tomato gelée topped with mozzarella

Of all the dishes, I remember this one best of all. You really didn't know what to expect but it surprised the palate with zing and zest.

Pan fried sea bass with lemongrass and stewed baby leeks
Le Bar
poêlé à la citronnelle avec une étuvée de jeunes poireaux
Pan fried sea bass with lemongrass and stewed baby leeks

This was really good too, with delicate and harmonious flavours.

Le Foie Gras de Canard
Le Foie Gras de Canard
rôti, fruits verjutés, zeste d’agrumes confits et poivre noir écrasé torréfié
Roasted duck foie gras, verjuice fruits, candied citrus peel and coarse black pepper

Foie gras expertly prepared is always a celebratory experience.

Chef Tomonori Danzaki of Joel Robuchon Restaurant
If you are interested in the recipes, you can download the handout here. Monsieur Danzaki waves these off as the "simpler" recipes they have. But simpler is relative. I'd probably need months of practice to get them right! Trust me, just go to Robuchon's to try the real deal.

Well, the DBS Masterclasses are starting again in 2012 with Chef Gunther Hubrechsen of Gunther's Restaurant.

28 March 2012 (Wednesday)
7:30pm – 9:30pm
Venue: AFC Studio at Orchard Central

These masterclasses are a fabulous way to get insight into how these top-name chefs work, and get firsthand tutoring on their recipes. Plus there's the food sampling (and often wines plus dessert) after the cooking demo!

Check out the DBS Indulge page or Asian Food Channel website for more details on how to sign up.

Thanks to DBS and AFC for inviting me to the masterclasses in 2011.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen - Movie Review

I have a new interest in travel destinations and that's the Middle East, so when I saw this movie title, I was intrigued. Plus "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen" makes you go, "What?!"

Surely that's a joke. And that's precisely the reaction Dr Alfred Jones gives when he's approached to make a rich sheikh's dream of fly-fishing in the desert come true.

Ewan McGregor plays the stiff and nerdy British fisheries expert Dr Jones who eventually goes against the flow to make the impossible a reality. His native Scottish burr is cute, although I sometimes wish he could still pull out a light saber instead of casting a fly.

What really drew me to the movie was Kristin Scott Thomas who plays a sharp, bossy press secretary Patricia Maxwell to hilarious effect. You just have to watch the trailer to see what I mean.

The romantic part I don't really care for. All the couples in here have zero chemistry. In fact, I think Dr Jones has more warmth with his estranged wife than with his newfound love interest. There's enough comedy that has the audience laughing out loud, but the stilted and forced love story really ruins it for me. I also wish the movie had a different ending, which would give it more indie edge.

Still the film is a delightful poke at dysfunctional bureaucracy and the Western unease with the Muslim world. The mischievous and mystical sheikh is too cool to be true, and it would be nice if the other characters could relax a bit more like him.

The film is directed by Lasse Hallström who also brought us Chocolat, Hachi: A Dog's Tale, What's Eating Gilbert Grape and The Cider House Rules. Script by screenwriter of Slumdog Millionaire.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen opens March 22 in theatres in Singapore. Thanks to omy.sg for the preview screening. And yes, I still want to go Yemen. In a private jet. Any cool dude sheikhs out there?

Fancy Supper with André Chiang?

Chef Andre Chiang

Due to overwhelming response, DBS Indulge is offering a second session for the Underground Supperclub with Chef André Chiang at his phenomenal Restaurant André.

The DBS Underground Supperclub is a small gathering that lets you get up close with renowned chefs as they dish out their take on "Food for the Soul". There are usually only 20 or less diners at the event.

The original session on Friday 23 March is fully booked, but if you're keen, don't miss the new session they've arranged for Thursday.

Date: Thursday, 22 March 2012
Time: 9:00pm - 12:00 Midnight
(Registration begins at 8:30pm)
Venue: Restaurant ANDRE, 41 Bukit Pasoh, Singapore 089855

Check out the DBS Supperclub page for details on how to register.

Price: S$180++ per pax (for DBS / POSB Card members only)
S$250++ per pax (for DBS / POSB Card members only, with wine pairings)

The DBS Underground Supperclub kicked off last year at St Regis with Chef Anthony Genovese.

I'm very happy to be able to attend the Friday 23 March session. André has long been on my wishlist, and I'm glad I'll be able to experience his artistry soon.

DBS SupperClub Web Banner AC_696x184(Click)

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Goodwood Park Hotel Durian Fiesta


It's durian time again at Goodwood Park Hotel. The much loved Durian Fiesta runs from 1 March to 31 July 2012. This year they have introduced two new items:

Durian Banana Chocolate Mousse Cake
1. The Durian Banana Chocolate Mousse Cake (S$10.80 per slice; S$58 per 1.3kg cake) - a cake filled with layers of D24 durian mousse and pulp, rich chocolate mousse, chocolate sponge and caramelized bananas, then enrobed with dark chocolate powder. The combination of chocolate, durian and banana works a lot better than I expected. Definitely worth trying if you love durian.

Durian puffs and Durian Macadamia Nut Crumble Tartlet
2. The Durian Macadamia Nut Crumble Tartlet (S$28.80 for six pieces) shown in the middle here with two durian puffs. The tartlet is a decadent treat of creamy D24 durian pulp covered with a crunchy macadamia nut crumble. If only it was as big as a pie. One is just not enough!

Of course, the usual favourites are still there - durian mousse cake, durian cappuccino cake, durian puff, durian crepe, and even durian ice cream. There's going to be a Mao Shan Wang Power Puff too in June.

You can call the Deli (9am – 9pm daily) at: +65 6730-1786 to reserve your durian delights, or place your order online at http://festivepromotions.goodwoodparkhotel.com/ and get a 15% discount on selected items. View all prices on their order form which you can fax back (+65 6730-4073) to order too.

First photo courtesy of Goodwood Park Hotel. Thanks to Sixth Sense Communications and Goodwood Park Hotel for personally delivering samples.
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