To the snow in Vancouver!

Last night, I flew for one of my last trips obtained through the Zuji and American Express 30 K points tickets. This flight was to Vancouver, in Canada. It must be said however, that my wife was unfortunately part of the trip as the Canadian immigration delayed her visa examination.

Air Canada: not a great flight

I flew on Air Canada, as that was the airline on which the promotion carried.

I understood better why they had to partake in similar promotion: the plane was not even filled to capacity. I chose a “preferred” seat which entailed I could stretch my legs in full, but as to having space for moving around… It was not a perfect seating either. The average age of the flight attendants was quite high and kindness and service seemed to have gone away just as much as their youth.

Food was disastrous as they come, both in the presentation (trays that a canteen would be ashamed of serving) and the taste. There was no menu, no explanation. All the flight attendant would tell you is: “chicken or beef?” Drinks would be served an incredible amount of time after the food.

Chicken or beef
“Chicken or beef?” was all the explanation or menu provided…

Landing in a snowstorm

Our landing in Vancouver took place in the middle of a snowstorm, which was a refreshing occasion of seeing another landing in the snow.

Not a big deal, but it allowed once again for interesting pictures of my plane at the gate.

B777 of Air Canada
The boeing 777 of #AC8 at its gate in Vancouver

Snow fun in the center of Vancouver

Of course, I let myself be fooled by the change date line when traveling from east. As such, my reservations are only valid… tomorrow! I had to find a temporary hotel for the night. Later, I went out again to shoot some pictures of the snow storm along with some videos of the kids and adults sledding on the snow. It was lovely to see so much fun being had in the center of the city!

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Here is a video of the kids and adults sledding in Vancouver:

Tomorrow, I will be grabbing a rental car and exploring the surroundings.

Running barefoot

Some of the readers of this blog may know from following my instagram or other posts that I run barefoot. As originally explained, this arises from a physical constraint. Indeed, I underwent an ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) reconstruction in September 2016. Since then, unfortunately, my knee has taken quite a long time to recover – partly also because I have not been as rigorous as I should have been with exercises to strengthen my knee.

Barefoot running to… resume running!

In the end, after reading some online posts about the benefits of running barefoot for knee pain, I decided to give it a try. After all, my single attempts at running with shoes since my operation saw me stopping as my knee was hurting. Although the knee first felt the impact, past the first two laps (around 500 m), once the knee was warmed up, it became incredibly comfortable to run barefoot.

I took it easy at the start, running for 1/2 hr and not really focusing on time. To my surprise, I was running fast. In fact, running barefoot, you are somehow obliged to run faster if you wish to keep an optimum form. Despite this, at the beginning, there were some small issues, such as blisters and skin abrasion. From online forums, the general opinion is that it indicates bad form rather than anything else. Over time, blisters became something of the past.

Exploring the world barefoot

A logical extension of running barefoot was to start hiking barefoot. Indeed, I had already done several hikes in Hong Kong, with shoes. On the occasion of my trip to Kaohsiung, in Taiwan, I made a barefoot hike in Shoushan national park. While my skin was still tender, the variety of surfaces, and meeting other Taiwanese barefoot hikers was an excellent experience.

Barefoot hike
Walking barefoot in Shoushan national park

I didn’t have much the occasion of running barefoot in Kaohsiung, mainly because I was biking a lot (barefoot, of course) and was traveling across the city to visit the various sites. Nevertheless, on my return to Hong Kong, I continued running barefoot.

On average, I run around 30 to 45 mins, averaging 5 to 6 kms. I managed to run by 8° to 10° C (while cold, as long as you cover up the top, it is fine, but it can be draining).

 

Barefoot running abroad

Running barefoot on a daily basis is pretty easy for me, as I do it in a park just in front of my condo, where the terrain is pretty much safe and level. In general, barefoot hiking is done on hiking trails, and, as such, always gives rise to comments or interrogations (often positive!). But as I grew in my training and level of proficiency, I was not shy about running barefoot abroad too. My best memory of this was running at 6AM by 12° C in Barcelona on the Paseig de Gracia, the main avenue of Barcelona.

Casa Battlo, barefoot running
Here, before the Casa Battlo of Gaudi.

Obviously, at 6 am, not a lot of other people around, so no big deal to face in terms of comments etc.

 

Running in difficult conditions

Another challenge which I had to face since running barefoot was that the weather quickly changed to winter. Temperatures of 8-10° C were common in Hong Kong, and while the cold is manageable even barefoot, when it gets wet and cold, then it gets tough. Feet and toes in particular tend to get colder with the water, and low-intensity running does not create enough warmth to keep you comfortable. Nevertheless, I managed to run several times with 10° or approaching temperatures. Below, a video of my running in the rain.

Running in the rain has been probably one of the most exhilarating experiences, as it is absolutely lovely to be splashing in the puddles.

Barefoot in the rain
Running barefoot in the rain and splashing in the puddles

 

Health advantages

The one, most direct benefit for me, has been to be resuming running painlessly, and as a side effect, to be able to strengthen my legs’ muscles. There are a lot of talks of the benefits of “earthing” among the barefooting community, but I don’t believe in these theories. I just do it because a). it allowed me to resume running; b). it is fun and healthy to do.

Running barefoot does demand the use of a different set of muscles and so, your feet and your calves and feet muscles end up dramatically reinforced as a result. The other advantage is that your sense of proprioception also develops and you feel more stable on your feet. Finally, on wet terrain, as recently, I did not slip at all, although I know that with my trail running shoes I would be guaranteed to have a straight fall on some slippery sections (granite pavement).

 

How to start running barefoot?

Maybe, after reading this article, you wish to start running barefoot too? It can do a lot of good, it can also be discouraging when starting. You will face a lack of understanding from other shod runners, social discomfort (depending on the place), your family may disapprove and finally, it may hurt (a bit!) at the very beginning. The best way is to focus on the positive aspects, namely the increased sensory feedback when walking, then running barefoot. At the beginning, walking on a twig in the park would cause discomfort, now, the feet have adapted to the feeling and just mold around the twig.

It will depend from person to person, but two general advice come out: firstly, to take it easy and not overdo it at the start; secondly, to learn to run forefoot. At the beginning at least, while your running form is not yet perfected, and when you are still learning, you will probably have blisters or higher abrasion of the skin. You must obviously avoid running too frequently or as heavily as before, at least for a period of time. Eventually, you will be able gradually to increase your distance. It must be however said that few people run marathons barefoot, if any. Indeed, the repetitive abrasion on the ground (especially cement) ends up using even the hardest bare feet.

Later, running will become more and more easy. And as you progress, you will not want to look back to the days you ran with shoes.

 

Where to find more information?

One main reference website is “Run Forefoot“. Written by a neurobiologist, Bretta Riches, it contains a good deal of arguments with scientific backing on the technique of barefoot running. Another main online (and current) resource is the reddit “barefoot running“. This latter forum is more based on practical experience by barefoot runners (although many write about minimal shoes versus “real” barefoot running. Nevertheless, the advice can be useful for novices, and those seeking to learn from the experience of others. Finally, if you are interested in barefoot hiking, the reddit “barefoot hiking” can be also useful (but mostly filled with the accounts of those who did it, like me, rather than advice). My own personal advice is to do at least once or twice the path shod before going for a barefoot hike.

If you did start barefoot running or hiking, drop me a word either in the comments or by mail, I would be glad to hear from your experience!

 

 

Another barefoot hike on the Dragon’s Back

On this extended week-end of Chinese New Year in Hong Kong, it was exciting to go for a hike. The easiest option available was, obviously, to go for another barefoot hike on the Dragon’s Back.

A crowded hike

On week-ends, habitually, the hike is pretty crowded, but on Chinese New Year, it became worse. Indeed, between mainland Chinese, expats and a throng of Filipina maids, the hike became quite busy.

However, as we started earlier, it was a bit less crowded at the start in the forest. You can see the terrain is pretty flat, with just some roots to watch for and the odd pebble.

Dragon's back beginning
Walking through the first part of the hike, which is a forested flat hike.

Once again, the Dragon’s back is one of the easiest and most accessible hikes of Hong Kong. I did it several times, and at least once before, barefoot at night. So, the whole first part of the hike went excessively well, if I except the habitual “barefoot!” exclamations of other hikers, or Chinese sniggering in my back. A few people gave me the thumbs up, some commenting that it was pretty “hardcore”. Filipina maids, generally look aghast…

 

On the Dragon’s Back

Once on the Dragon’s back, it was just the habitual ups and downs on the ridge… I decided not to fly the drone because of the high wind speed in altitude. In addition, the slight haze visible did make it less interesting to take pics (I had better pictures with better lighting and atmospheric conditions from previous visits). My wife took her turn photographing this time, and I played model.

Dragon's back
Past the first leg of the Dragon’s back.

Walking further on the trail, there was always that mixture of marvel, stupefaction or admiration in the other hikers. Seldom indifference, if at all. For a society tolerating plenty of devious behaviors, seeing someone barefoot seems pretty shocking…

My wife, this being said, wore her hiking boots. She gave me, also the occasion of shooting some pics of her along the trail.

Mitchy on Dragon's Back
Mitchy wearing hiking boots on the Dragon’s Back trail

Riding the Head

Reaching the end of the trail, this time, we pushed further to what might be deemed the “head” of the Dragon’s back: a cliff dominating the village of Shek O.

While situated beyond a warning panel, the views on this cliff are quite gorgeous and deserve a visit. However, the crowd present on the Dragon’s Back kept taking risks.

I noticed especially the Filipina maids, who have a propensity to take risks for the perfect selfie. Here, one of them kept posing on one leg right at the edge of the cliff (and it was quite windy!). The moment after this pic was shot, a wind gust blew away her cap…

Dragon's back maids
A Fililpina maid poses in equilibrium on one leg

The interesting of this last part of the hike from a barefoot hiking point of view, is that the granite of the cliff is a perfect terrain for walking barefoot. Where I used to find the terrain particularly slippery with hiking boots (the sand is rather treacherous!) or even trail running shoes, here, the rock was just perfectly adhesive with my bare feet. So, while this picture (courtesy of my wife!) may appear risky, it is well below any real risk-taking as there is a further ledge on the other side of the cliff, and there was no risk of slipping. The big issue is when people try taking selfies and don’t appreciate the distances behind them.

Barefoot on dragon's back
A barefoot portrait on the cliff above Shek O. Photo @mitchayfern

Shek O beach

The final goal, after coming down from the Dragon’s back, was to go to Shek O village. We did arrive there, had lunch, and then headed to the beach. With the strong winds the waves were quite powerful, and nobody was swimming. It was a perfect occasion to use the drone and shoot some spectacular scenes over the water.

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The interesting part was that some Filipina or Indonesian was having her prenuptial pictorials on the beach. I pirated some pics.

Prenup pictorial
Prenup pictorial on Shek O beach

Sometimes, some pics can be just as telling or as funny as you can imagine. Composition-wise, it was also interesting.

Prenup pictorial
Criss-crossing looks on the pictorial

Later, I also took a video of Shek O beach with my Mavic Pro:

How to get there?

I previously explained this point in a previous post. Please consult it for information. Once you complete the Dragon’s back trail, you can catch the bus n° 9, heading to Shek O. Be warned though, on crowded periods, the village and the beach can be quite busy… and the bus waiting queue can reach epic sizes.

 

Victoria park on Chinese New Year eve

Yesterday night was Chinese New Year eve. It is a tradition for honkongers to go to Victoria park on Chinese New Year eve. Mainly because of the local flower and plushes market taking place there. Chinese New Year eve is the last day of the market, so vendors are hard pressed to sell their goods as soon as possible to avoid having to throw or to give them for free after midnight, when the market closes.

Learning business “on the job”

Victoria Park is also the setting of a real life “business school” for high school students. In fact, many students use the CNY market as an occasion to learn the basics of doing business. From starting a business plan, to pricing, sourcing, setting price, marketing and then adapting to competition on the market;

High school student selling plushes
A high school student texts while selling plushes with her comrades in Victoria park

Highly valuable, the experience sees the teenagers throwing themselves into the fray, rivaling with ideas to attract customers. Some even tried the idea of hanging plushes with sticks above the heads of the crowd!

Victoria park hanging plushes above the head
Students try to attract customers by hanging plushes above their heads

The Flower market

The other big attraction of the Victoria Park CNY market is, of course, the flower market. Replete with mandarin trees and various other plants or flowers, it is an occasion for Hongkongers to come and find cheap flowers to decorate their house.

On Chinese New Year eve, you can literally see “live” vendors discounting their wares as the hour advances.

Discounted plants
A merchant holds signs to attract customers for his discounted plants

As the hour advances and it gets closer to midnight, customers also hurry to get their shopping done. After midnight, the vendors must throw or donate their flowers, as they cannot be sold anymore.

Buying flowers on CNY eve
A mother and her daughter are buying flowers at a stall in Victoria Park on Chinese New Year eve

It must be said that the flowers look magnificent and are a welcome decoration.

Flowers on sale
Flowers on sale as hongkongers pass by.

Finally, if you are not there to buy flowers, then maybe you just go there to take pictures and selfies. It is a bit what these three pretty girls were doing in Victoria park, with their smartphones.

3 pretty girsl on CNY eve
Three pretty girls stroll into Victoria Park on Chinese New Year eve

In conclusion, although it was quite crowded, going to Victoria Park on Chinese New Year eve is an experience to try! You can also read about my similar experience with Chinese New Year in Bangkok, here.

Chinese New Year in Bangkok

Over the past five years, I managed to see a number of celebrations of Chinese new year in Bangkok. While similar to some degree to the traditional Chinese festival, they differ too. Indeed, the Thai version has a more marked Buddhist flavor to it. Of course, this goes together with the Thai syncretism and the hotchpotch of beliefs which mix Hinduism, Buddhism, Chinese traditions and animism.

 

Red is the color

Of course, wearing red is almost an obligation on Chinese New Year, as this color is said to bring prosperity.

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Even little kids dress up in quipao, the traditional Chinese dress.

For tourists, this is also the occasion to bargain to buy some traditional red garb and attempt to “blend in”…

 

A family reunion

Just like in China and in Hong Kong, Chinese New Year is mainly a family reunion. Families often go together to the temple, but mainly just like in China, it is an occasion to meet relatives.

Incense in Chinatown temple
Chinese Thais are lighting incense in a temple of Chinatown

People often go in family to the temple. Like in this case, the mother and daughter.

Chinese New year Wat Traimit
A mother and her daughter pray at Wat Traitmit on Chinese New year

The biggest event however takes place on Chinese New Year eve. Indeed on that occasion, it is believed that wishes have the best chance of being realized upon the passage to a new (Chinese) year. Hence, beyond burning incense, Thais also splurge on huge candles as can be seen in the picture below at Wat Traimit in Chinatown. Obviously, the most expensive or biggest candle is believed to bring the most “luck”.

It is a money thing…

There is a heavy confusion among Westerners between what they see as “faith” or “religiosity”, and the own view of Thais on their practices. Thai modern Buddhism is, with some exceptions, mainly oriented on materialism and obtaining immediate material benefits. It goes to the point that some temples have been shamelessly riding the wave of greed, by posting publicity for Mercedes at their entrance! The most uanabashed Thai invitation to relinquish your money to get more money is probably the “garlands of banknotes” hung in the temples…

Garlands of Banknotes.
ON Chinese New Year eve, garlands of banknotes are hung in the temple to incite people to give more.

On some occasions, monks can be rude enough to be checking their smartphones under the nose of the worshippers…

Monk and smartphone
A monk checks his smartphone while faithfuls pray at a Chinatown temple

Probably the most outrageous was seeing a famous brand of German cars “sponsoring” a temple on that occasion:

 

Sponsorship of temples
A German car sponsor a temple in central Bangkok

 

The bigger candle brings the biggest luck…

The Chinese tradition says that you should be burning incense as soon as possible after midnight on Chinese New Year. Where in Hong Kong, this causes regularly some scuffles, to the temple, in Bangkok, things are taken way more easily. People go to burn incense no matter what the time, as long as it is done on the eve of Chinese New Year.

Candles of Wat Traimit
Giant candles set alight at Wat Traimit in Bangkok’s Chinatown

Of course, the candles, themselves make for interesting subjects at night time.

Wat Traimit Candles
Flames burn as the giant candles of Wat Traimit consume themslves

Business at the forefront

Chinese New Year is also an occasion for doing business. On that single day, the police is rather understanding with the small-time hawkers which populate Bangkok. Yaowarat road, the main artery in Chinatown becomes  a  pedestrian area on that day Despite this, the heavy crowds and the sheer number of vendors make it a very difficult area to walk through.

Crowd on CNY eve
The huge crowd pressing in Chinatown on CNY eve

Of course, among the stuff sold, you have the habitual “snake oil” peddlers as below (with English advertisement too!).

Chinatown on CNY
Chinatown in Bangkok on Chinese New Year eve

 

 

Bangkok adds a Buddhist touch to Chinese New year

Traditions, for Chinese New Year in Bangkok, are mostly similar, with incense being offered, but an interesting departure from Chinese tradition is that instead of food, the offerings are often lotus flowers as the two ladies below can be seen holding at Wat Traimit, the main temple in Chinatown.

Wat Traimit Chinese new year
A lady places incense at Wat Traimit on Chinese New Year 2017.

The meaning of the lotus flower is very Buddhist in its core, but very few Thai are aware of the roots. In fact, the lotus flower means the purity of the body, speech, and mind. Indeed, while rooted in the mud, its flowers blossom on long stalks floating above the muddy waters of attachment and desire. In Thai temples, the symbol of detachment, becomes another reason to earn mone.

Lotus flowers
Lotus flowers are presented as an offering at Chinese New Year 2017 in Wat Traimit.

Within Chinatown itself, Wat Traimit, the main temple of the area hosts a 2-ton massive gold Buddha statue. On Chinese New Year eve, many Thais come to pray for favors (or take selfies in front of it).

 

Buddha of Wat Traimit on CNY
The 2-ton massive gold Buddha of Wat Traimit is particularly sought on Chinese New Year eve.

Selfie Mania

Last but not least, Thailand would not be Thailand if there was not a selfie mania on Chinese New Year. In temples, when giving offerings or anything, Thais will try to grab a selfie to post on social networks.

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How to get there?

Yaowarat is a quite long road extending through Chinatown and large parts of the area are reserved to pedestrians on Chinese New Year. Your best bet is still to take the MRT to Hua Lamphong, then to walk on foot to Yaowarat. On the way, very near to the train station, you will see Wat Traimit. To have a glimpse of the agitation and the vibe of Chinese New Year, do drop there.

Chinese New Year fireworks cancelled in Hong Kong after deadly bus accident

On Sunday 11 February one of the most serious bus accidents ever took place in Hong Kong. A double-decker bus overturned, killing 19 passengers and injuring scores of others. While social media have been rife with rumors about the accident, some even alleging the driver committed the accident on purpose. While the investigation goes on and prosecution is mulling manslaughter charges against the driver, the HK government decided to cancel the Chinese New Year fireworks.

Chinese beliefs

In a previous article, I wrote about how intricate was the belief in ghosts in the Chinese tradition. In the case of the accident, the Chinese New Year festivities and the fireworks in particular, were to take place seven days after the accident. For Chinese, this is the moment where the spirits of the deceased visit their family for a final farewell.

Given the brutal nature of the accident, it is fair to assume Chinese believe those spirits are upset at the moment… So, while Westerners view the decision as “respect” for the deceased, in the view of Chinese, it has more to do with not wanting to be cursed for disregarding the suffering of the spirits.

A big economic impact

Opinions have been divided on whether the cancellation was an appropriate decision. In fact, Chinese New Year is one of the biggest touristic periods for Hong Kong. A lot of mainlanders come to Hong Kong for the Chinese New Year, and one of the main appeals of the city was the sumptuous firework display over Victoria Harbour. With this appeal gone, it might be so that less tourists come to Hong Kong, but obviously, we will only be able to tell after Chinese New Year.

Caring or superstition?

The new HK Government is facing an uphill battle not to be perceived solely as the voice of Beijing. It is for this reason, that some suspect Carrie Lam, the chief executive decided to cancel the fireworks.The argument of the Chinese tradition and ghosts probably have also their unspoken influence in this matter to some degree.

Despite the cancellation of the fireworks, accounts of indemnity for the victims of the accident mention the paltry amount of 300,000 HKD per head, which is truly symbolic. To add insult to injury this amount is paid by…. a charity!

To give really the impression of “caring”, the HK government should do far more than just symbolic gestures. Helping the families of the victims with some amount of money allowing them to really live would be far more preferable.

Japan: a visit to Sensoji shrine

When you visit Tokyo, a must visit if you are in the area of Asakusa is certainly Sensoji, the oldest shrine of the city. A visit to Sensoji shrine is not only the occasion of watching Japanese and their beliefs which intricates elements of Shintoism along with Buddhism. It is also the occasion of watching numerous ladies and men dressed up in elaborate ceremony kimonos.

A very old shrine

Sensoji (浅草寺)is so called because it is another way to read the character for “Asakusa”, where the temple is located. I mentioned earlier that Sensoji was the oldest temple in Tokyo, and its establishment dates back to 645 AD. Obviously, the current temple looks too new to still be the original temple. All the more as the area was destroyed in the WWII bombardments.

Despite the current relative “freshness” of the shrine building, Sensoji still carries a special weight in the heart of the Tokyo dwellers. Before entering the temple grounds themselves, there is a very famous shopping street, Nakamise street, mainly targeted to tourists, but still very interesting for visitors. Originally, the street appeared when traders obtained the permission to set up shops in the street leading to the shrine, several centuries ago. While the shops may have been chased away from time to time, and were destroyed to the ground in WWII, today they are back into their prime.

Nakamise street
The incredible vibe of Nakamise street, near Sensoji

Things to buy in Nakamise street

Since you are already there, you may want to buy some souvenirs. It might be the occasion to buy some Geta, those traditional Japanese wooden sandals (very comfortable, by the way).

There are shops like the below shop, but while expensive on the main street, you find some interesting deals either in made to order geta or generally sized geta in side streets.

Geta shop
A geta shop in Nakamise street

I got my own geta from a side street with a very lovely couple. They fit well, and are just as comfortable as the Berkemann slides I habitually wear too.

My Japanese geta
The pair of Geta I bought in Japan. Stylish and easy to wear.

There are plenty of sites explaining how to wear geta, but the general idea is that they should be slightly smaller than your foot. That way, your feet hangs out a little bit.

Besides geta, the side streets also display some lovely fans as these hand painted ones (a bargain at 1,100 JPY).

Hand-painted fans
Hand painted fans near Nakamise street

The gate to the shrine

The gate to the shrine itself is painted in tones to remind of thunder. This is logical, as it is called Kaminarimon (雷門, “Thunder Gate).

Kaminarimon
The Kaminarimon gate of Sensoji

It is nearby that I asked the two lovely Japanese girls if I could take their picture in kimono and they kindly agreed.

Japanese girls in Kimono
Nihonjin girls in Kimono

As much as possible, it is recommended to ask the permission of people to take their picture, as generally, it is frowned on taking pictures even in a public space. A smile and a few words in Japanese help a lot in that respect.

It must be said that shrines and temples are often places used for photoshoots of kimonos. Like this group where they were focusing on the elaborate obis (the “belt”) of these furisode. A furisode is a ceremony kimono worn by unmarried young girls and is typically recognizable by the long floating sleeves.

Photoshoot of kimonos
A photo shoot of kimonos focusing on the elaborated obis.

When shooting your picture, if you know some Japanese, it will allow you to distinguish between the “real” Japanese in kimono and those tourists who wear kimonos to have photo sessions.

For example, the two young ladies below were from Hong Kong (!) and immediately corrected me when I asked if I could take their picture. They kindly agreed nevertheless to have their picture taken.

HK tourist in kimono
A Hong Kong tourist posing in Kimono

The shrine

The meaning of Sensoji probably escapes me a bit, but from inside the shrine itself, you can have a nice view on the bustle in the courtyard as well as on the Kaminarimon .

View from inside of Sensoji
A view from the inside of Sensoji

Later, as we went back, our daughter, Maria-Sophia fell in love with the gacha machines. She was too cute, asking to buy one of those little balls with premiums inside.

Little girl and gacha machine
When a little girl falls in love with a gacha machine

In short, either for shopping or for visiting the shrine, Sensoji is absolutely the place to go if you come to Tokyo.

Nakamise street another angle
Nakamise street and the bustling activity