Saturday, 22 September 2018

Deathmatch in Hell: Drinking in the Golden Gai, Tokyo

On this trip I was assisted by the Japan National Tourist Organisation.

My final day in Japan was... interesting. 

I returned to the city from the spa town of Kinugawa Onsen, dropped into the Japanese Sword Museum, checked into my Shinjuku hotel, walked to the Park Hyatt to find its New York bar wasn't open, enjoyed the over-the-top show at the Robot Restaurant, ate ramen at the local branch of Ichiran, then finally walked into the Golden Gai.

Ah, the Golden Gai.

This atmospheric warren of bars along narrow alleyways is a relic of the 20th century, when the area was associated with prostitution. 

Although areas like this were reportedly demolished by fires started by the gangster Yakuza chasing redevelopment profits, the Golden Gai miraculously survived; partly thanks to locals taking turns to act as lookouts overnight.

The legacy is a fantastic area that feels separate from the big, busy city enveloping it. The small grid of alleys is dotted with tiny bars, most with room for only a handful of seats. 

The result is that each bar has its own distinctive, warm personality, and patrons and bartenders end up chatting to each other.

I enjoyed wandering through the maze, but I also had a mission: to drink at Deathmatch in Hell, the metal-themed bar which a friend had put me onto.

Like all Golden Gai bars, it was tiny - but the owner had packed a lot into the decor:

Two Japanese whiskies and a bourbon later, I was feeling the Golden Gai vibe. 

I had a flight to catch... but I didn't want to leave this ethereal Tokyo enclave. Like MacArthur, I shall return.

Thursday, 13 September 2018

How to Eat Ramen in Fukuoka, Japan

On this trip I'm being assisted by the Japan National Tourist Organisation.

I arrived in Japan yesterday by ferry from Busan, South Korea, and one of the first things I did was eat ramen. Fukuoka is famous for its particular style of the noodle dish, known as Hakata ramen after its most historic district.

The best place to go for the real thing is Ichiran, a ramen chain which has outlets dotted across the city. I found one in an underground food hall near Hakata train station.

There's a little bit of self-education required so you can order, but there's English language signage so it's not too difficult. 

The first thing you see upon entry is this vending machine:

If you have a closer look, you can find an array of choices beyond the basic ramen dish. 

Note that there's no credit card option here. Japan is still a cash-oriented society for small purchases like this, so you'll need to have cash ready. The machine very efficiently accepts notes and coins.

I ordered the ramen and their special vinegar. I could have added lots of toppings to that, and maybe a beer or a tea, but I wanted to keep things simple on my first try. And that came out to 1,010 yen (A$12.60), which was easy to produce as a 1000 yen note and a ten yen coin.

It's worth noting at this point that even without adding an extra order of pork slices on top, this is not a vegetarian dish. The broth which is the foundation of Hakata ramen is made by boiling pork bones, which is what gives it its characteristic taste. I'm usually vegetarian, but today I was being 'flexitarian' for research purposes.

The machine spits out some tickets, and you take these with you into the dining area, which is a compact space of private alcoves - one per diner:

Once seated, you'll find a form in front of you which is to be filled out with the provided pen, allowing you to tailor your dish in a number of ways from noodle firmness to level of spiciness:

When this is completed, You press a button on the table top, and a partly concealed staff member behind the screen takes the tickets and your order preferences. Once cooked, it's delivered to your table via the same gap, and the curtain is then drawn down.

There's another form on the table for extras which you can order while eating - an extra serve of noodles to dunk into the soup, for example - but otherwise you're all set. You have ramen!

Hot, tasty, Hakata ramen...

Who's hungry?

You can find Ichiran outlets at its English-language website.

Friday, 7 September 2018

Between North and South Korea: Into the DMZ

I was hosted on this visit by the Korea Tourism Organisation.

Today I had the chance to do something I didn't have time for the last time I was in Seoul: visit the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea.

The tour run by Panmunjom Travel Centre takes the traveller to a number of sites connected with the border, culminating in a brief visit to the Join Security Area (JSA) itself - the heart of the DMZ, where the two Koreas literally meet in a small 'negotiation village'.

Interestingly, we were joined on the bus by a North Korean defector, a woman who fled the north in 2011 with her daughter. It was fascinating to ask her questions about her life and former country as we headed to our first stop.

This was the Mount Odu Unification Observatory, where one can gaze upon North Korea across the point where the Han and Injin Rivers meet, forming the border at this locality. Across Korea the DMZ is four kilometres wide by agreement; but at riverine sections like this, it narrows significantly so the two countries are only a few hundred metres apart.

We then visited the Freedom Bridge, across which prisoners of war returned after the Korean War ended...

... and nearby, saw this massively damaged locomotive which had been trapped between the opposing forces, and later moved within South Korea as an an emblem of the conflict:

The highlight of the day was the visit to the JSA, a slow process involving barricades, checkpoints and passport checks - even a dress code inspection, as North Korean soldiers used to take photos of sloppily dressed Westerners to use as propaganda with their people.

Finally we stood inside the simple blue conference room at the heart of the zone, constructed so the border literally runs through the centre of the conference table.

We were allowed a few minutes to take photos, as long as we didn't bother the South Korean soldiers who were our escorts and protectors.

Here I am standing briefly within North Korea, with my military protector. The door behind leads to even more North Korea... but I didn't fancy stepping through it.

Our video briefing earlier had, after all, described the JSA as "the most dangerous place in the entire Korean Peninsula."

In the circumstances, I was glad to get out of there in one piece.

Find details of the Premium Panmunjom Tour at this link.

Friday, 31 August 2018

Walkways of Wellington, New Zealand

This article was the very first I had published as a full-time freelance writer, and appeared in the Christchurch newspaper The Press in early 2004. As it never went online and is still relevant, here's a lightly rewritten version. The trip was taken at my own expense.

If you want to let yourself go and expose your inner tramp, you ought to head for Wellington. But it’s not what you think – 'tramping' is the Kiwis' term for hiking.

Walking is one of the great attractions of New Zealand: including treks through stunning landscape, sleeping in huts or tents, living rough in the company of nature.

But if you’re an urban kind of person and the great outdoors doesn’t appeal, you can still get in some walking and be at a restaurant or theatre by sunset, if you’re visiting Wellington. This hilly city has a series of walking tracks, or walkways, running through its green spaces.

Upon the founding of the city in 1839, extensive swathes of land were set aside for the recreation of the inhabitants. Although areas of this 'Town Belt' have been chipped away since then, it’s still an impressive amount of greenery.

The three major Town Belt trails are the City to Sea Walkway, the Northern Walkway and the Southern Walkway. All of them have their attractions, running variously past botanic gardens, historic sites and scenic highlights.

The Southern Walkway is the most varied and interesting. Starting at Island Bay, it meanders north through hilly green space above the city, then descends to the attractive harbourside beach at Oriental Bay.

Along the way, there are impressive views of both the city and the south coast. The walk is tranquil in parts like Mount Victoria, where several Lord of the Rings scenes were shot, then becomes wild along the coastline.

Since the walkway is so close to civilisation, it’s easy to break it down into smaller sections, using public transport to get there and back.

I set out on a good five kilometre tramp from Island Bay. The sea is stunning here, a stretch of pale blue-green dotted with islands. The most significant of these is Tapu Te Ranga, known in local Maori legends as a place of refuge.

Its name means 'Isle of Hallowed Ways', distinctly classier than the names given to it by European settlers: Goat Island, then Rat Island.

From here, the walkway hugs the coast to the treacherous waters of Houghton Bay. Along the way, I saw an unusual selection of houses hugging the hillside just back from the coast. Wellington is hilly almost everywhere, so local architects have been inventive. Triangular buildings, thin tall buildings, and steep steps slot into the landscape.

Then the walkway climbed through Sinclair Park. To my mind, 'park' means a stretch of lawn framed by cultivated plants. But this was bushland, thick with trees and often steep. The payback was the impressive set of views on the ascent, with Cook Strait stretching out below.

I eventually reached the top of Mt Albert, 178 metres above sea level. From here, the city stretches away in all directions. To the east is Wellington Airport, with its regular flow of aircraft, looking ridiculously small from this distance.

On either side are the waters of Wellington Harbour and Cook Strait, and northward lies the city centre, sprawled across the flat land known as Te Aro. On a clear day, the walker can see the mountains of the South Island from here.

From Mt Albert, the trail descends, eventually squeezing between the mountain and a solid-looking fence. I was surprised to see apes wandering about on the opposite side. Then I realised this was Wellington Zoo.

It’s also the halfway point of the Southern Walkway. Feeling that five kilometres of occasionally steep walking was enough, I called a halt and checked out the wildlife. The zoo houses some distinctive New Zealand creatures, including the tuatara, kiwi, mopoke and weta.

I'd had enough walking, and caught a bus back to the city centre.

Installed in one of Wellington’s many cool cafes, the tired tramper composed a postcard home, recounting the perils and ordeals of hiking in New Zealand. While enjoying that cafe latte I’d so richly earned.

Maps and other details of the Wellington Walkways are available at this link.

Friday, 24 August 2018

Montreal, Canada: What Lies Beneath

This article from my first visit to Canada appeared in The Sunday Age newspaper in 2011, but never went online: so here it is. I was hosted on that trip by the Canadian Tourism Commission.

When the architects of Montreal’s underground shopping mall beneath Place Ville-Marie drew up their plans in 1962, they had little idea what they’d started.

As newer malls and office buildings were constructed, they were all linked together. Thus the Underground City was born.

RÉSO, a play on the French word for network, “réseau”, is now the largest underground complex in the world, stretching some 33 kilometres and linking malls, museums, train stations, government buildings and hotels.

All can be reached without ever setting foot in the outside world; a compelling alternative in winter, when temperatures can plunge to minus 15 degrees.

I’m usually allergic to shopping malls, but RÉSO intrigues me and I decide to walk its entire main loop (with a Metro trip in the middle)...

10am. I pause to look up at the statue of a young Queen Victoria in the centre of Square-Victoria, then spot the RÉSO entry sign and head down the rabbit hole. Below ground, I enter a long, strangely curved brick-lined tunnel, its curves accented by wavy tracks of lights in the ceiling.

10.25am. Nearing Place Bonaventure, I’m surprised to realise I’m back at street level, as I can see manicured lawns out of the occasional window. Soon after I descend into the ominous-sounding Le Passage. It’s pure 1970s down here, with exposed concrete walls and stained timber handrails.

10.50am. After twists and turns, I emerge into the lofty hall of the Gare Centrale, Montreal’s main train station. Above me there’s a magnificent bas-relief frieze depicting stylised figures engaged in everyday activities with a 20th century gender bias - men working in construction or playing lacrosse, women teaching or planting trees.

11.15am. I’m heading into prime retail territory now, up pebble-dash steps into a sunlit atrium with a low glass ceiling. There’s a cafe beneath the glass, dotted with low black couches on which shoppers lounge. It’s surrounded by shops, and I realise this is Place Ville-Marie, the mall that started it all.

11.25am. A few more turnings and I’m beneath Rue Ste-Catherine, Montreal’s major shopping strip. Above me towers the upmarket Centre Eaton, the largest shopping mall in the city, with 175 stores over four levels surmounted by a vast glass roof.

11.35am. I catch a train from McGill Metro station to Place-des-Arts. At the end of the Place-des-Arts station concourse is a huge and beautiful backlit artwork depicting Montreal’s musical history across multiple glass panels.

12 noon. Entering the Musée d’Art Contemporain from beneath, I encounter a huge wall projection called Le Tournis, in which a camera spins dizzyingly around the centre of a room while glass smashes loudly between the foreground and the far wall. Oddly, its unrefined chaos makes a refreshing counterpoint to the controlled nature of the Underground City.

12.30pm. After the art, it’s startling to return to RÉSO and enter the Complexe Desjardins’ vast terraced shopping mall. At ground level there’s a fountain with a 30 metre high jet that almost grazes the lofty skylight. I wonder whether the settings have ever slipped, resulting in a soggy ceiling.

1pm. Back above ground at Square-Victoria, I discover the morning’s clouds have departed and it’s turned into a perfect day - bright, sunny and warm. The perfect day, ironically, to be outdoors.

Friday, 17 August 2018

Trying American Pie in Bismarck, USA

This article from my very first visit to the USA appeared in The Age newspaper in 2010, but never went online: so here it is. I was hosted on that trip by North Dakota Tourism and Virgin Australia.

To visit America for the first time is to encounter the strangely familiar.

Like every Australian, I’ve spent a lifetime immersed in the television and film output of the USA, absorbing the nuances of its culture. I even understand why it’s upsetting to have been cast as Benedict Arnold in the school play (thanks, Brady Bunch).

Which is why it’s mildly disconcerting to find that America is, in fact, much as it appears on screen.

Not that I’m spending quality time in the urban hotspots of Los Angeles or New York. I’m part of a media contingent that’s wending its way across Montana and North Dakota, two states as unknown to Australians as they are big.

When I’m travelling as a travel writer, I pay attention to the sights: Glacier National Park is impressive, as is the Badlands cowboy town of Medora. But I’m personally fascinated by the food culture, and how it matches our preconceptions of Americans and their collective weight problem (a problem, in all fairness, shared by many Australians, including this writer).

After several meals in roadside restaurants in small country towns along the Hi-Line, the east-west highway that runs parallel to the Canadian border, I decide that American food operates on two essential principles: choice and quantity.

“Choice” lies mainly in the micro-management of a dish’s accompaniments. By the time I reach our Bismarck hotel’s restaurant and the waitress rattles off a list of dressings to accompany my salad (“Green Goddess? What’s that?” “I don’t know sir, it comes out of a packet.”), I’m suffering choice fatigue.

The next day, while the rest of the group is riding horses and wranglin’ li’l dogies, I slip away to experience an aspect of American cuisine that’s always fascinated me: the humble diner.

North Dakota, it turns out, is not the obvious place to find one of these fast-vanishing icons, as diners were largely a feature of industrial cities along the east coast. Thus, Kroll’s Diner off the Memorial Highway in Mandan, Bismarck’s twin sister across the Missouri River, is a replica of the streamlined steel diner popular after World War II.

“I was watching a PBS special and they had a program about diners back in the early 1900s,” says owner Keith Glatt when I meet him a day later across town. “And I thought it would be really neat to do something like that. Then I was looking through a restaurant trade journal and they had these prefabricated diners. They’re built in Florida. They ship them to wherever you want them, and there you have a diner.”

Modern or not, it’s a beauty. I’m astounded by the sheer shininess of the building, a long structure of super-reflective metal. It’s easy to curl a lip at the architecture of the modernist era, but occasionally, when I see a building like this, I sense the postwar positivity behind it.

Inside, the nostalgia continues via a wealth of stainless steel, pink patterned laminate tabletops, cushioned booths, and strips of pink neon lighting. Then I take a seat within a booth, and notice a culinary element that’s very Bismarck - the number of dishes based on German cuisine, brought here by 19th century settlers.

For starters I order knoephla soup, an old-fashioned cream of chicken soup dotted with rectangular potato dumplings. It’s tasty and filling, but it’s nothing compared to the weightiness of my main course, fleischkuechle.

There’s no way to describe this dish gracefully: it’s a hamburger patty wrapped in an envelope of pastry which is deep-fried, then served on a skillet with a side of mashed potato and gravy.

The done thing is to squirt a dollop of ketchup into the pastry pocket before consuming. Strangely, the final concoction tastes satisfyingly like an Aussie meat pie.

I finish the meal with pumpkin pie. I’ve never had pumpkin pie before - in fact I don’t much like pumpkin - but it’s such a staple of American TV and movies that I have to give it a go.

The smooth, solid orange-brown filling packed with cinnamon and nutmeg doesn’t look promising, but it tastes great. With a side serve of cream, it’s damn good.

Another dessert Glatt recommends is his rhubarb crisp. “Rhubarb is very popular in this region,” he says. “You can’t kill it. You try to dig it out of your garden and get rid of it, next year it’s back. It handles the extreme climate we have up here.”

And though today is mild, it does become very cold in North Dakota in winter. I imagine the snow and ice piled up outside the Mandan diner, with myself slotted into a cheery booth and looking out at the whiteness while waiting for my hot apple pie to arrive, and somehow that seems just fine.

Kroll's Diner is located at

Friday, 10 August 2018

Wrecked in Stockholm: The Fatal Voyage of the Vasa

As much as I love history, I don't make a beeline for historical museums when I'm visiting a new city.

As a travel writer I need new or under-explored attractions to write about; and chances are, a long-established historical museum will either be overexposed or a bit dull.

So I reluctantly set time aside to visit the Vasa Museum when I visited Stockholm, Sweden in 2012. It had been open since 1990, after all, and housed a ship that was almost 300 years old.

But I'm glad I did go. It was magnificent.

Here's the story. On 10 August 1628 the splendid new warship Vasa set sail on its maiden voyage, crowds cheering it from the docks.

It managed to cover a full 1300 metres out from Stockholm when it keeled over and sank.

Awkward. Especially since the Vasa was headed to the war raging between Sweden and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

The Commonwealth was Eastern Europe's great power of the time, covering a million square kilometres from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and this was the fourth conflict in a row between the rival Baltic kingdoms.

Seventeenth-century Sweden's loss was our gain, however. Surprisingly well-preserved by the brackish conditions of the Baltic, the ship was rediscovered and salvaged in 1961. After decades of treatment, it was installed in its current home.

Walking around its hull in dim light, peering at it from different angles, it was easy to imagine it was the 17th century again and the Vasa about to undertake its disastrous first voyage.

I recommend a visit to the museum if you're ever in Sweden.

Which goes to show, you should never write off a history museum because the subject sounds a bit, er, dry.

The Vasa Museum is located at Galärvarvsvägen 14, Stockholm. Find opening hours and entry fees at its website.

Thursday, 2 August 2018

Capital! All the Capital Cities I've Visited

A model of the Houses of Parliament, London,
within the Mini-Europe theme park in Brussels, Belgium.

I was musing the other day about national capitals, those cities in which the government of a country is based.

Often they're the most prominent city of a nation, and thus the most popular destination for international tourists as well: think London, or Paris.

Other times they're not so prominent, though may still draw overseas visitors: Canberra perhaps, or Ottawa. Some capitals are barely known to tourists, who usually visit another part of the country entirely: Suva, Fiji springs to mind here.

Some countries are so big, of course, that you can see quite a lot of them without reaching the capital. I've been to the USA eight times now, and still haven't visited Washington, DC. Nor have I got to Beijing while in China.

Does it matter? Not really, unless you're fascinated by attractions connected with government.

I am, as it goes, because my university degree was in history and politics. So it occurred to me to list in order all the national capitals I've visited, and in what year that visit happened.

Note that I didn't get to the capital of my own nation before visiting that of neighbouring Indonesia. I was living in Perth then, and from there Jakarta was more accessible by air than Canberra in those days!

National Capitals Visited:

1. Jakarta, Indonesia (1981)
2. Canberra, Australia (1989)
3. London, UK (1990)
4. Paris, France (1990)
5. Cairo, Egypt (1992)
6. Budapest, Hungary (1993)
7. Vienna, Austria (1993)
8. Prague, Czechia (1993)
9. Damascus, Syria (1994)
10. Amman, Jordan (1994)

11. Warsaw, Poland (1994)
12. Berlin, Germany (1994)
13. Bangkok, Thailand (1997)
14. Suva, Fiji (1999)
15. Rome, Italy (2001)
16. Vatican City (2001)
17. Wellington, New Zealand (2003)
18. Santiago, Chile (2005)
19. Vilnius, Lithuania (2008)
20. Bratislava, Slovakia (2008)

21. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (2009)
22. Ljubljana, Slovenia (2010)
23. Ottawa, Canada (2010)
24. Delhi, India (2011)
25. Dublin, Ireland (2011)
26. Stockholm, Sweden (2012)
27. Seoul, South Korea (2014)
28. Muscat, Oman (2014)
29. Brussels, Belgium (2014)
30. Singapore (2015)

31. Copenhagen, Denmark (2016)
32. Kiev, Ukraine (2016)
33. Pretoria, South Africa (2018)... though South Africa is more complicated, as its Parliament actually sits in Cape Town, and its judiciary in Bloemfontein.

And I'm hoping to be in Tokyo before the end of the year! Capital.

Friday, 27 July 2018

Art in Albury: MAMA Knows Best

Something that's impressed me in recent years is the quality of art galleries in Australia's regional towns and cities. As someone remarked a few years ago, they seem to have taken over from churches as the spiritual hub of communities in these secular times.

Last week Narrelle and I visited Albury, a city in New South Wales on the Murray River border with Victoria. I was keen to have a look at the Murray Art Museum Albury, MAMA for short.

It's certainly an attractive building from the front, housed as it is in the former Town Hall building on Dean Street:

The interior, however, is anything but old-school, with a modern extension stretching out behind the original structure:

As for the art, there are several galleries with interesting exhibitions. On the ground floor, the main gallery houses items from MAMA's permanent collection.

One that particularly caught my eye was this untitled piece by Allan and Phil Murray, Indigenous men from the Yorta Yorta people of the region west of Albury. It's a fascinating mix of ancient craft and modern presentation:

More works from an Aboriginal creator were on display in Flyblown, a series of large framed photographs with elemental themes, the title hinting at the effect of colonisation on the original peoples of Australia.

MAMA specialises in photographic art, and one gallery displayed entries in the 2018 National Photography Prize. I was particularly taken by the work of Kieran Butler, a Mauritian-born artist who upends conventions by mashing together photos and other materials to explore identity.

The most intriguing set of photos in this gallery was created by Tully Arnot. His large images, draped and curled around the space, featured high-definition shots of the human body, augmented by artificial intelligence filling in gaps.

The most engaging exhibition at MAMA, for me, was Flagging Opinion, which had a story behind it.

For a mural project in the town of Tallangatta, artist Ashlee Laing had painted a Muslim woman in a niqab (the traditional veil which covers most of the face) bearing the pattern of an Australian flag. The owner of the building which it was painted on had then removed it, igniting an intense debate about identity.

For MAMA, Laing recreated the original piece, and paired it with a Ned Kelly figure in a helmet decorated with an Australian flag.

Speakers dotted around the room played recorded comments from members of the public about the original work. It was bold and provocative art, sparking a conversation about the Aussie identity - and stereotypes of it - that is well worth having.

If you're passing through Albury by car (or my preferred option of train), I recommend MAMA for a dose of thought-provoking art.

MAMA is located at 546 Dean Street, Albury, Australia. Free entry, find opening hours and other details at its website.

Friday, 20 July 2018

Review: BNE-YVR in Air Canada Business Class

On this trip I travelled courtesy of Destination Canada, and was upgraded by Air Canada.

Last year I took the 13-hour flight from Brisbane to Vancouver aboard one of Air Canada's Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner planes, right up the front in seat 1D. This is what it was like.

The seat

As expected, there was plenty of space to move in Business Class. My seat was a pod in a central set of two, with the seat angled toward the centre of the plane.

The seat was heavily cushioned though still fairly firm, and could be reconfigured to personal taste by touchscreen controls - all the way down to a lie-flat bed.

Storage space was not as generous as some versions of Business I'd experienced on other airlines, and there were no bins directly above the central seats. However, there were sufficient slots and shelves into which to load my personal belongings.

A personal comfort pack contained toiletries, an eye mask and socks, with a choice of earbuds or quality headphones within a concealed compartment.

The screen

In front of me was a large entertainment screen. Its menus were highly responsive to touch, and contained details of food and drink, as well as shopping options.

Neither the movie nor TV show selections seemed very impressive, and it was difficult to find recent cinema releases. However there were some decent viewing choices among each: cutting edge television comedy such as Atlanta for example, and popular Hollywood movies such as Logan.

Something I hadn't seen before was a Pride category under movies, with critically-acclaimed films with gay themes including Milk and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. A clever innovation was a Personal Favourites menus you could build, then click on to watch.

The eats

Lunch was the first meal of the flight, for which I chose barramundi fillet with ginger-soy glaze and bok choy, which was attractively presented and tasty. It was preceded by an excellent smoked salmon appetiser and a green salad.

Other main courses on the menu were lamb cutlets, braised chicken breast, and a vegetarian pasta. Afterward there was cheese, fruit, blueberry cheesecake, or ice cream.

Snacks were available on request during our journey, including a chicken leek pie, smoked salmon, a tuna sandwich, and hummus. No mere packet of pretzels in Business Class!

Before we landed in the Vancouver morning, we were served brunch with the choice of an omelette, Belgian waffles, or a chicken pasta.

The judgement

Air Canada's Business Class service on the Dreamliner was a comfortable, relaxing experience, providing a good way to arrive in shape on the long trans-Pacific haul. A good choice... if you can afford it.

Friday, 13 July 2018

Art Barracks of Singapore

On this trip I was hosted by the Singapore Tourism Board.

On my 2015 visit to Singapore, I spent an afternoon at Gillman Barracks.

Formerly a British army camp set up in the 1930s, it's now a "contemporary arts cluster", with art galleries strewn throughout the numerous buildings remaining from its military days.

A work by Filipino artist Winner Jumalon, on display at the Yavuz Gallery in March 2015.

There's a focus on contemporary art within its galleries. Though there's plenty of international work, the complex as a whole has an emphasis on emerging Asian artists.

It's a fascinating place, both for the breadth of its contemporary art exhibits, and also for the village-like setting of the barracks.

I had a very pleasant few hours there, eating lunch at one of the onsite restaurants and wandering between galleries.

As it's a gently hilly site with plenty of tropical greenery, there's none of the drabness you might expect of a former military facility.

Instead, it's a relatively quiet corner of Singapore, which allows you to take a breather from the city's usual traffic and crowds, and reflect on art.

For opening hours and other details, visit the Gillman Barracks website.

Friday, 6 July 2018

Great Exhibition of the North, UK

On my Newcastle visit I was assisted by the Newcastle Gateshead Initiative.

From now to the end of September 2018, the UK's sister cities of Newcastle and Gateshead are hosting the Great Exhibition of the North.

It's a big multi-venue event showcasing art, design and innovation.

Drawing on the region’s industrial heritage, three walking trails with those themes link events and venues, including free shows.

When I visited the city last year, I walked along the Tyne’s riverside and visited key locations which are being used for the Great Exhibition.

Here's a look at a couple of them.

The Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art is a prominent local landmark.

This imposing former flour mill [pictured left] stands over the other side of the river from Newcastle, across the Millennium Bridge [above] in Gateshead.

I had a wander through its cavernous interiors, perfectly suited to exhibiting large, bold pieces of art.

During the Great Exhibition, the Baltic will house several exhibitions connecting with its themes.

One of the most interesting is Idea of North, a multimedia exploration of local identity.

A key component will be a photo exhibition of women of northeastern England, captured across the decades (including a glimpse of the obscure 'cave rave' scene of the 1990s).

Another interesting nearby space is Sage Gateshead. Within its ultramodern facade, it presents music performances. It certainly stands out in its eye-catching building above the river:

After you've explored these venues, I suggest you step back over the Tyne to Newcastle's Broad Chare pub and support a local brewery by ordering a Wylam beer.

As a writer, I couldn't go past the Writers' Block pale ale. I recommend it. Unlikely to solve that literary affliction, but it tastes good.

For more details of the Great Exhibition of the North, see the event's website.

Friday, 29 June 2018

Nostalgia at the Derwent Pencil Museum, UK

Guest blogger this week is author Narrelle M Harris, whose new book is A Dream to Build a Kiss On: a contemporary Sherlock Holmes/Watson romance told in chapters of 221 words. 

I love a one-note museum – a space dedicated to one just one idea or one thing.

I’ve tasted the peculiar delights of the Morbid Anatomy Museum in New York, the fossils of the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, a sulphur museum in Poland, and on one memorable occasion, a Hungarian salami museum.

Basically, I can’t resist an oddball museum. When I found I would be near the Derwent Pencil Museum in the Lake District, you bet your best set of coloured pencils I went to see it.

Pencils, whether grey graphite or brightly coloured, have a more intriguing history than you might give them credit for, and this museum in Keswick is all over it.

A special HB Derwent Pencil Museum pencil is yours on paying the entry fee of £4.95.

It's rather a lot for a pencil, admittedly, but my heart still beats a little faster in the presence of a pristine new writing implement, never before pressed to paper.

Visitors can also get a quiz to fill out during their exploration of the museum, which charts the history and social impact of the pencil.

Among the things I learned was that the term ‘black market’ originated with the trade in stolen graphite in the 1700s, when the stuff was worth more than gold and used in munitions as well as writing.

Notorious graphite thieves with names like ‘Black Sal’ and ‘The Dandy Wad Stealer’ are surely deserving of some great swashbuckling novel by a latter-day Robert Louis Stevenson.

I also found that the real-life 'Q', Charles Fraser-Smith, liaised in World War Two with the Cumberland Pencil Company to devise a pencil containing a hidden compass and map which was otherwise indistinguishable from a regular pencil.

The program was so secret that, decades later, Derwent pencil makers had to reverse-engineer how it was done, in a technique that was not as simple as you’d think.

There’s a giant pencil in the museum which holds a Guinness Book of Records award.

There’s also one of only two special pencils made for the Queen’s Jubilee (Queen Elizabeth II has the other one) and case upon case of pencil sets in all their deliciously bright, charming glory.

The Derwent Pencil Museum may appeal to kids, but I can’t help feeling the greatest allure is for adults.

We grown-ups are the ones soaking in the nostalgia of our childhood days of carefree colouring and untrammelled creation, before anyone pronounced judgement about whether we were any good.

The back room of the museum is adorned with beautiful drawings done in Derwent – of animals, landscapes and flora.

Tubs of both ordinary and watercolour pencils sit on tables, along with squares of art paper, inviting all to travel back to the creative days of our youth.

Using a photograph I’d taken of a forbidding looking swan at Windermere the day before, I succumbed to the urge.

I took up my colours and didn’t care that I’m no artist. I drew my little swan and I was happy.

The Derwent Pencil Museum is located at Southey Works, Keswick, UK. Find opening hours and other details at its website.

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