Programme notes on Adagio di molto, Second Movement, Sibelius Violin Concerto in D Minor (Op. 47), performed by Christian Ferras

The Finnish composer Jean Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D Minor is now a popular play in recordings and concerts, but received disastrous reviews in its premier. Originally dedicated to a renowned violinist Willy Burmester who would play in the premier, the concerto was instead performed by a violin teacher Victor Nováček due to insufficient financial resources. Nováček was never considered as a great virtuoso, and as the concerto was only ready for practice shortly before the premier, Nováček’s performance was not too promising. Sibelius made several revisions and it was only until 1991 when the concerto became well-known to the world through the performance by Leonidas Kavakos, a celebrated violinist of the contemporary times.

The concerto is a technically demanding piece, but unlike Paganini who was both a celebrated virtuoso and composer, Sibelius was a failed violinist. Sibelius took up the piano at nine, and violin at 14. Persistent tremor of his hands resulting from alcohol dependence precluded the possibility of a performing career. The concerto was therefore written for his “ghostly self”, dedicated to the instrument which “took [him] by storm”.

The concerto is highly passionate and rhapsodic, with rhythmic and technical difficulties throughout the work. It combines lyricism and fortitude, making it a rather unique composition among violin concertos.

Second movement

This review focuses on the second movement of the concerto. Different from the otherworldly first movement and the thrilling third movement, the second movement is unusually dark, much exploiting the lower register of the instrument. The haunting but contemplative woodwinds opening offers a big contrast with the violin entrance at lower tones in the manner of sonoro ed espressivo. The soloist, departing from the otherworldly mood in first movement, is asked by the composer to play melodically and be reconnected with the realistic world, while at the same time accompanied by pizzicato of string instruments to keep the music moving forward. The orchestra goes quiet for rubato passage of the violin before it plays the bridging melody. The soloist re-enters with slight paraphrase of the bridging melody, this time in the form of double-stop triplets and counterpoint. The soloist, playing in the higher register, weaves the heart-wrenching climax of the movement with the orchestra. Soon after the violin melody returns to the low register, the soloist is indulged in a sonorous fantasy of ascending broken octaves. The movement ends in an equally beautiful and contemplative manner as the beginning.

My favourite interpretation of the concerto is played by Christian Ferras (1933-1982), who was regarded as the heir to the French school after Ginette Neveu’s death. Ferras suffered from chronic depression and chose to end his life by committing suicide. The drop of water on his face you may have observed towards the end of the clip was not his sweat, but tears.

Filled with agitation, passion, and remorse – this interpretation is close to perfection. His vibrato and firm bowing instils every note with profound emotions. It does not, however, follow that Ferras pours out his soul entirely. His music remains largely restrained. This does not contradict with my earlier observation that the music contains profound emotions, as profound emotions need not necessarily be expressed explicitly and totally. Instead, these emotions are placed deep below each note, making the music rich. Listeners can discover something new each time they listen to it. Switch off all the lights and your computer screen. Let yourself be accompanied only by the music of Ferras and Sibelius. You will recall all your struggles and regrets during the past year. And yet, as the music gradually grows softer and more distant with high-pitched harmonics, you break away the chains of burdens. Such misfortune that Ferras did not break free from the chains.  

“Nobody never gets to heaven… It’s just in their head.” – Book Review on Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley (Often go awry)
— Robert Burns (1759-1796), To a Mouse

The nobel prize winner John Steinbeck tells the story of two migrant workers George Milton and Lennie Small in a ranch in California. Steinbeck’s works often features ranch workers due to his summer experience at a ranch as a teenager.

George takes care of Lennie, who suffers from mental disability and is much dependent on George, as they move from one ranch to another. They share the dream of buying farmland, but is rather unrealistic in the time of depression. Lennie has a fetish for soft things and has been found petting a dead mouse in his pocket. Days go by until the flirtatious wife of Curley, the boss’s son, knows of Lennie’s fetish and allows him to stroke her hair. Lennie starts to stroke it harder and tighter and during the attempt to shush her panic, he accidentally breaks her neck. Lennie is scared and run to the place where George has promised to meet him if he gets into trouble. George comes after the other ranch workers, in particularly Curley, find out death of the wife. George mentions nothing but their shared dream of owning a piece of farmland, raising lots of rabbits, Lennie’s favourite animals. George then shoots Lennie from the back, out of mercy.

I read this book once years ago. As a reader who almost forgets every plot of the book, all I can remember is some character petting something soft in his pocket and the feeling of deep sorrows. Having reread the book I understand why I forget everything else but the fetish and sorrowful feeling.

This world preys on the weak

Lennie is kind-hearted and innocent, and yet his innocence, which brings nothing more than sympathy and compassion, leads to self-destruction. It does not follow that innocence is not a good virtue. To me it is. Only that in this world which preys on the weak, innocence may not be the most preferred way of survival.

George, although sometimes short-tempered and may scold Lennie on his inappropriate demeanour, is a loving character. He takes good care of Lennie across ranches like a brother. Same as innocent Lennie, George has a simple dream of earning enough to buy his farmland, where he can live peacefully with Lennie, away from all troubles that may be caused by unpleasant people at the ranch. He strongly believes in this dream that he retells it from time to time to Lennie, who gets elated listening to it. However, the death of Curley’s wife caused by Lennie crashes his ideal. He comes to realise the cruel nature of the society. With the impulsive and mean personality of Curley and his authority as the boss’s son, George knows that Curley will definitely kill Lennie mercilessly. He also understands that the society does not welcome and takes advantage of the weak. “If I was alone I could live so easy. I could get a job an’ not have no mess,” said George to Lennie before shooting him.

Nevertheless, George loves Lennie deeply. There exists also a unique bond between George and Lennie – they are not lonely wanderers in the age of depression and wanderings; they are two connected souls that together, they are ready to stand against the world. Indeed, prior to Lennie’s death, the two distinguish themselves from other lonely ranch workers: “Guys like us got no fambly. They make a little stake an’ then they blow it in. They ain’t got nobody in the worl’ that gives a hoot in hell about ’em. But not us, because I got you an’ … We got each other, that’s what, that gives a hoot in hell about us.”

One thing to note is that oppression does not only come from the physically strong or powerful authority. It may also originate from weakness. George sadly exhibits his oppression against Lennie at his moment of utmost weakness and helplessness through killing him.

Dreams are always dreams

Lennie’s death also represents the destruction of George’s dreams – the capability of sustaining themselves, becoming the masters of their souls, and the absence of harm and troubles from ill-intentioned people. These dreams are not much different from any other American dreams which advocate for following one’s own desires. The American Dream centres on the freedom and possibility of achieving what one wants. However, with oppression and the unfavourable circumstances in time, upward mobility is rare and difficult. Freedom can be hardly traced in this world which tends to confine people to established social orders. The American Dream, is merely a myth.

I seen hundreds of men come by on the road an’ on the ranches, with their bindles on their back an’ that same damn thing in their heads. Hundreds of them. They come, an’ they quit an’ go on; an’ every damn one of ’em’s got a little piece of land in his head. An’ never a God damn one of ’em ever gets it. Just like heaven. Ever’body wants a little piece of lan’. I read plenty of books out there. Nobody never gets to heaven, and nobody never gets no land. It’s just in their head.

Although set in the early 20th century, the hope to find a comfortable position for oneself may still be an unreachable dream nowadays haunting many of us.

Loneliness

Loneliness is a recurring theme in the novella. Curley’s wife admits to Lennie that she is lonely and often flirts with other ranch men to escape from the loneliness, but it causes herself and others troubles. Same for other ranch workers. Crooks is a black worker. Because of his skin colour, he has to live elsewhere and cannot join others to play cards. He would get fury when others go into his dwelling place. Candy is an aged man with only a dog as friend, but it gets killed by another ranch leader for it was “old and useless.” When he learns about the plans for Lennie and George, he participates in the discussion with strong interest and hopes to contribute for the farmland, and more importantly, a place where they can safely call home. They are all lonely people, either trying to connect to the world by their own means, or repel company in fear of re-encoutering loneliness having get used to friendships. Except Lennie and George. Although alienated from the world as migrant workers, they are not lonely souls like other ranch workers, because they got each other. However, this all ends when George kills Lennie.

Maybe ever’body in the whole damn world is scared of each other.

La noyée – Serge Gainsbourg

Many should know Serge Gainsbourg as one of the most influential figures in French pop music history, but few may have listened to his work La noyée. As what the narrator said in the beginning of the recording, “You haven’t heard of this song before, and perhaps you never will hear it again. So please treasure the opportunity and listen to this unpublished work.” Gainsbourg wrote the song for Yves Montand, who is known for his interpretation of Les Feuilles Mortes (Autumn Leaves). However, Montand refused the work and no reasons were provided by Gainsbourg. Some suspect the refusal to be related to Montand’s relationship with Edith Piaf and the comparison of Piaf with bitch in the lyrics. Piaf, older than Montand for six years, discovered his talent and nurtured him. As Montand shared similar childhood experience with Piaf, her love for him was both romantic and motherly. In 1946, the year where Montand had achieve great success in his career by selling more than a million copies of his record, Piaf left him for reasons unrevealed. The lyrics use river to represent reminiscence of the beloved, who is drowned in the river of memory, wobbling along the waters, to never be seen again.

The following is my translation of the lyrics. This is my favourite French song, and it has strongly reinforced my interest in French music and culture. Some people tend to hide from the world what is precious to them. I hope more people can listen to it and enjoy its beauty.

The Drowned (La noyée)

As you drift along the river of memory
I chase on the bank and howl for you to return
But gently, you recede
And in my frantic run
Bit by bit, I gain back
Bit of my lost terrain of yours.

From time to time, you sink Into the restless liquid
Or as you brush against brambles,
You hesitate and await me
Obscuring yourself
In your rolled up dress,
Fear of distorting
With shame and regrets.

You are merely a pathetic wreck,
Bitch dying in water
But I stay as your slave

And plunge into the stream
When the memory rests
And the ocean of oblivion
Shatters our hearts and our minds,
We shall reunite, forever.

Movie Review on God Help the Girl (2014)

God Help the Girl is a 2014 musical film debut directed and with song written by Stuart Murdoch from Belle and Sebastian, telling the story of a once depressed teenager who recovers and marches on her way to making good music. Eve, an anorexic patient escaping from psychiatric hospital, meets James, a lifeguard, and his music student Cassie. Together they write songs and form a band with other local artists. As Eve’s boyfriend fails to deliver her tape to the radio station for screening and James has been distancing himself from his crush Eve having found out she has a boyfriend, Eve takes drugs and is sent back to the psychiatric hospital. Eve stays strong and has decided to attend music school in London. Before she leaves, the band performs in a concert with great success, and the radio station has played her tape. Online reviews on God Help the Girl are of mixed opinions. While some appreciate the creativity of Stuart Murdoch, others may find the separate musical episodes barely linked together by the story of Eve recovering from anorexia. True that the storyline is weak and the development of story inadequate with prejudiced focus on the musical parts, this first attempt by the Murdoch adds unique colours to the cinematic landscape. The costumes The main characters provide plentiful fashion inspiration to the audience – cute little black dress brought to life by Audrey Hepburn, bold leopard prints, and tartan trousers that were adopted as golf wear in the 1920s and are welcomed by the preppy fashion – their costumes are a pleasure to see on screen. Satchel used to be an exclusive item of English schoolboys in the 1950s and 60s, and yet have now become a necessary accessory of indie pop. The exquisite satchels carried by Eve and Cassie add a sense of independence to the characters and music but do not diminish any melodic softness. The bold use of colours – peach pink peter pan collar on orange floral dress and red hairband against red-blue strikes make you feel like starting afresh in the morning. The music Of course, the move is much more than that. Its music featuring Eve (Emily Browning) as the vocalist melts your heart. The simple backdrop and cute dance moves add to your anticipation of each little musical episode in the film. The songs describe simple things and emotions from daily life. Their melodies are lightly sonorous – contradicting it may seem, the apparently unintentional music circulates your mind and body long after your first perception. You can also sense independence from the music. Even without arrangement or ornaments, the blossoming melody can stand well on its own. Perhaps this is what makes it a gem. “Collective idiocy” The plot features a small argument between Eve and James towards the end. James once says, “I don’t mind people. I just can’t stand collective idiocy.” While it is difficult or almost impossible to distinguish between collective idiocy and general intellect, James has the tendency to isolate himself both out of superiority and inferior complex. He finds himself too good but at the same time unable to meddle in the turbid waters of the world. He stays as a lifeguard writing songs for his own pleasure. Indeed, the three main characters have been escaping from the world through music, especially Eve. It is certainly alright and a matter of personal choice as to the purpose of writing music – whether for personal pleasure, commercial value or gaining recognition. Only that as Eve gradually recovers from her emotional problems, she understands the importance of connecting to the world. By connecting to the world, she can receive more support and resources to produce better music. It is perhaps right for the critics to say that God Help the Girl is filmed for a certain niche – some cannot stand the isolated musical episodes and the lack of in-depth discussion through dialogues. However, it can certainly put you in a dreamy state for close to two hours. Same as the main characters, you can take a break from the reality for a while. Get yourself immersed in indie pop and wonderful vintage vision, and add in your own imagination to fill in the gaps – that surely is a pleasant experience on its own!

What Will Your Verse Be? – Movie Review on Dead Poets Society (1989)

Dead Poets Society is a 1989 American film set in the 1959 Welton Academy, an elite and conservative preparatory school that oberves tradition, honour, discipline, and excellence. John Keating is a former Welton graduate who has recently joined the school as English Literature teacher with unorthodox teaching that centres on critical thinking. Having learned that Keating was a member of the unauthorised Dead Poets Society, which is set to encourage the youth to “seize the day”, his students restart the society and are gradually inspired to pursue their dreams. Among them is Neil, who has discovered his passion in acting and has obtained the main role in a Mid-Summer Night’s Dream production. Tragedy happens when Neil’s father strongly opposes against Neil’s participation in the play and is sending Neil to military school to ensure that he can get into the Harvard Medical School. Devastated by the totalitarian attitude of his father, Neil commits suicide. Another student Cameron blames Keating for leading to Neil’s suicide. Keating eventually leaves the school.

On carpe diem

The society is full of adults, who may have stumbled on challenges and failures when young, directing the youth on how to live out their lives. While wisdom from the aged is precious, it is not absolute truth. Conforming to adults’ expectations may bring stable income, but it kills the passion in hearts, and it will be too late when they realise this. In the first English Literature class, Keating brings the students to look at school photos, capturing boys with similar temperament and confident smiles that the world is their oyster – they have all become fertilising daffodils. Instead of encouraging conformity, Keating’s ideal of carpe diem rings in their minds – “Carpe diem, seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary.”

As Henry Thoreau wrote in Walden,

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

To teach the boys to “seize the day”, Keating brings them to the courtyard to stride in personal style. He tells them to rip pages of “Understanding Poetry” out of the book, in which a PhD scholar suggests measuring the greatness of a poem by a mathematical formula. To Keating, one reads poetry as a member of the human race; the passion and artistic impulse of human race cannot be measured by static mathematical formula. Also, proposition of scholars needs not be blindly trusted. Instead of submitting to the authority, “consider what you think.”

However, “sucking the marrow out of life doesn’t mean choking on the bone.” This is what Keating said to Charlie, who has published an article in the school newspaper under the name Dead Poets Society demanding girls be admitted to Welton and made fun of the headmaster Nolan in assembly. While carpe diem means living the most out of life, it does not suggest reckless behaviour  – “there is a time of daring and there is a time of caution, and a wise man understands which is called for.”

On burning with passion and being burnt

However, poetry is unrestrained like fire. Some may create greatness with burning passion, but some may be burnt by the passion itself. What makes the difference? The valour of making concession when necessary, of not taking carpe diem to its extreme. As said, seizing the day does not mean living recklessly. Apart from living life to its fullest, it also means keeping up with the changes in life. When life goes against you for following your heart totally, it may not be a good idea to confront the blockade directly. Sometimes one may gain more in the end by circumventing direct confrontation but solving the problem through other means.

“O Captain! My Captain!”

Subsequent to Neil’s suicide, the headmaster Nolan has started an enquiry into the cause of Neil’s death upon request of his parents. While others may easily realise that the domineering father plays a central part in causing Neil’s suicide, the wrongdoer often refuses to recognise one’s own faults, and will find faults in others to alleviate one’s own guilt, if any. Neil’s father is a good example. Cameron tells the school authority about members of the Dead Poets Society, and puts the blame all on Keating for his unorthodox teaching and zealous ideals. One by one, the members are forced to sign a paper attesting to Cameron’s allegations. The boys sign the paper, understanding that there is nothing they can do. At this stage, they lack the power to change the adults’ mindset. No matter how noble their intention is, with pressure from the school administration, the possible sacrifice of future and the burden of their parents’ expectations, each of them alone in the headmaster’s room is too weak to fight back.

Nolan then takes over the English Literature class. When Keating comes to fetch personal belongings from the classroom, Todd, who was once shy but has discovered his potential in poetry through an improvisation exercise, stands on his desk and says that Neil’s suicide is not Keating’s fault. Keating has before asked the students to try standing on the teacher’s desk, learning to look at things from a different perspective. With Nolan shouting and ordering him to sit down, Todd stands up straight and salutes Keating with the phrase “O Captain! My Captain!”, a poem Walt Whitman wrote to honour Abraham Lincoln.

One by one, the boys stand on their desk, saluting the Captain as he leaves.

“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,

Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
                                       Answer.
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
Keating asks, “What will your verse be?”

Kansai in a Glance

 Following my solo traveling in Kansai in summer 2013, I returned to Osaka this winter. 

2014-12-16 10.31.19 HDROsaka welcomed me with early morning drizzle. Most of the restaurants and shops were not opened as I strolled in Hozenji Yokocho (法善寺橫町), where Hozenji (法善寺), the temple housing Mizukake Fudo, a Buddhist figure covered by moss due to believers splashing water onto it, is situated. Different from the busy touristic district Dontobori nearby, the tranquil Hozenji Yokocho adds a stark contrast to the canvas of Osaka.

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As an avid ramen lover, I decided to start the trip with a bowl of good ramen. The ramen shops advertised in travel guides did not bring much surprise as per my experience from last summer. Therefore, I looked for other recommendations and found King Emon (金久右衛門), which has ranked first for soy sauce ramen for three consecutive years in Osaka. The broth was dark and devilish. The satisfying experience was complemented by simple conversational exchange with the chef – where I was from, that I love his ramen very much, and his shy smile of appreciation.

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Meoto Zenzai (夫婦善哉), serving red bean soup, was opened during the Meiji period in the 19th century. “Zenzai” has the same pronunciation as that of “red bean soup” in Japanese. The dessert includes a piece of salty kombu to avoid the soup being too sweet. This dessert place became famous because of the well-known Japanese writer Sakunosuke Oda’s novel titled with the same name Meoto Zenzai, and the movie adapted from the book. Posters and photos of the movie can be found inside the dessert place. Of course, its fame is well-supported by the high quality of the red bean soup.

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This is the magical curry rice with sunny-side-up from Jiyuken (自由軒), another traditional restaurant opened during the Meiji period in Osaka. Jiyuken opened as a coffee and snack shop in 1910, and was then known for its delicious curry rice. An autographed picture of Sakunosuke Oda seated in Jiyuken was clearly visible in the restaurant. In fact, Oda’s writings also mentioned Jiyuken. The current owner is an elegant old lady with good manners and polite disposition to all her customers. Having been craving for the curry nice the second I finished it last summer, I returned to this small but decent restaurant on the first night of my trip.

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Back in Hong Kong one of my favourite snack shops is Sweet ChaCha from City’super selling obanyaki (with red bean, custard, and matcha paste) at HK$15 each. When I was starving at Shin Osaka station before heading to Kyoto, I found Gozasoro (御座候), a small store near the entrance gates of the station selling obanyaki with red bean paste at only 87 yen each (less than HK$7)! The red bean paste is perfect with an appropriate degree of sweetness. This piece of obanyaki alone made me happily full for my sightseeing in Kyoto. 

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This day of Kyoto trip was mainly to visit Tenryu-ji (天龍寺) on Arashiyama (嵐山), my favourite place of Kyoto. I went there too late last summer and the temple was already closed for visits, leaving regrets. This time, the visit not only helped overcome my regrets, but also brought new experiences and feelings.

Tenryu-ji is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is highly significant in Japan, due to its association with the shogun Ashikaga family and Emperor Go-Daigo (後醍醐天皇). Emperor Go-Daigo (14th century) yearned for imperial dictatorship like that of the emperors of China. Emperor Go-Daigo battled with Ashikaga Takauchi (足利 尊氏) and lost. Ashikaga Takauchi then became the first shogun of Ashikaga shogunate. His rule also marked the beginning of Muromachi period (室町時代). Historians argued in his final years Emperor Go-Daigo was merely a pretender emperor. The Muromachi period ended when the last shogun was driven out of the capital Kyoto by Oda Nobunaga (織田 信長), who initiated unification of Japan towards the end of Warring States period (戦国時代).

(By the way, a good and interesting way of introduction to Japanese history would be through watching Taiga drama – although not entirely accurate.)

Upon stepping into the yard of Tenryu-ji a pond of withered lotus flowers entered into my sight. Such is the power of nature. While men attempt to govern the nature, the latter is filled with mysteries beyond human understanding. All men can do is only to alter the current state of being under the framework of the rules of nature, no matter how sophisticated the level of technology has reached.

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One of rooms of the Teaching Hall allows tourists to step into it without slippers. Being the only person in the well-preserved room, I walked around and took my seat while appreciating the fascinating scenery of Sogen Pond.

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One of the calligraphy works in the room – reminding us not to fantasise on the totally unrealistic issues (莫妄想).

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Behind me is the Sogen Pond, which is designated as a Special Place of Scenic Beauty by the Japanese Government. One of my biggest regrets last summer was not being able to go there a take a walk! Although I haven’t seen many ponds, I am certain that few can surpass its beauty. The garden and the Sogen Pond in winter, showing struggles and battles against the freezing weather, offers another kind of experience.

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Togetsukyo (渡月橋) outside the temple and near to a dam. All I heard were raging waters and exclamations of sugoi (meaning “awesome”) by the Japanese.

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Tofu feast at Kyo-ine (稻 嵐山) with high ratings. They also offer Tofu hotpot but I would not be able to finish it on my own. Looks yummy though!

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Every December after 5pm, tourists can enjoy hanatouro (花灯路) at Chikurin no Komichi (竹林の道). In addition to usual bamboo woods (which are awesome enough on their own), tourists can walk in the woods with lights on. I arrived at 6pm and the sky was already dark. The mantis and zaffre lights added tranquility and romance to the woods.

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The Osaka City Central Public Hall (大阪市中央公会堂) is a Neo-Renaissance architecture with brick red hall built with donations from a Osaka broker Einosuke Iwamoto (岩本栄之助), who was impressed by how the American businessmen made huge contributions to build public halls like the Carnegie Hall.

Again in December, the Public Hall will be lit by colourful lights and a surprising cute light show will be played by projecting it onto the wall of the Public Hall.

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Late “tea” with apple pie and Darjeeling milk tea at Kitahama Retro-Tea House. I originally planned to go to Patesserie Gokan (GOKAN 五感北浜本館). However, as told by the doorman, the dine-in place was closing and I could only pick cakes from their bakery for takeaway. Nothing was of interest to me. I left the stop and kind doorman came to me and recommended me to Retro-Tea House as “they should be selling cakes and close at a later hour”. Gratitude overflowed for his kindness to a stranger.

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Late night fatty noodles with extra meat portion at Menya Gaten (麺屋 ガテン). Funny moment when the chef asked me if I was sure about ordering extra meat and including garlic in the noodles.

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Nara is a lovely town full of lovely deers! You start seeing deers everywhere right outside the JR station! They go after tourists for food and they also know how to pick the best spot to nap – right at the entrance of Todai-ji, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

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A sumo competition for teenagers was held in Nara Park. It was a rather unfair game with the huge difference in weight. The relatively thin competitor had tried his best regardless.

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After hours I finally arrived at Fushimi Inari Taisha (伏見稲荷大社), where I was supposed to go in the afternoon. However, because I took the wrong trains, I ended up at a small remote station with few trains that would actually stop by. That was my birthday. I was shivering, starving and feeling hopeless on the platform. Occasional snow reinforced my hopelessness. I was glad I could make it in the end although it was all dark. Still, I made it.

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Fushimi Inari Taisha is known for its Tori path and fox statutes. Each orange pillar, or torii, is donated by a business and has its name engraved, as Inari is regarded as the patron of business (Inari is the god of rice). Foxes are regarded as messengers with keys for rice granaries in their mouths. A walk through the path in darkness was indeed a test of courage…

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I had okonomiyaki for dinner back in Osaka at 福太郎, a resturant much favoured by the locals. Unlike other dining places I went to, people were loud and drinking beer. Great atmosphere.

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Pork okonomiyaki – doesn’t look that good, but tastes perfect.

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With utmost faith in my stomach, I ordered a bowl of Ichiran ramen. I chose the usual flavours I would have in Hong Kong – the broth tasted the same, but much less oily. #mystomachisablackhole

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Early next morning, I was back at my favourite cafe – Murufuku Coffee Shop (丸福咖啡店千日前本店). It had long history and was opened in 1934. I love how in Osaka restaurants opened long ago could still survive and continue to be part of the city’s history. It was the same smiling waitress and grandpa-looking chefs serving customers. It felt like home.

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This was what I used to have every day last summer – hot cakes and coffee. They make the best start of a day.

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Another day of sightseeing – this day at Nijo Castle (二条城), the residence of Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川 家康), the first shogun of Tokugawa bakufu (徳川幕府) and Edo bakufu (江戸幕府). The Castle was famous as the venue where the 15th and the last shogun of Edo bakufu, Tokugawa Yoshibonu, returned the governing power to the Emperor. Japan then entered into Meiji period. This is the garden of Ninomaru Palace (二の丸御殿).

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View from the original site of Tenshu (天守閣), the main keep of a Japanese castle.

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Phoenix trees exposed to atomic bombs in Hiroshima have been planted across the country. Some find homes in Nijo Castle.

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View of the Kamo River (鴨川) from the Sijo Bridge (四条大橋). A perfect place to just sit and daydream and feel the emotions running inside.

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Hanamikoji, south of Gion district. I have to visit Kyoto again for the Geisha show at Gion Corner. The moves of Geisha are extremely elegant as shown from the video. If not for the long-awaited ramen I have to try on the last day of my trip, I would have watched it already. Another regret of the trip.

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Menya Saisai (麵屋 彩々) is the best ramen place with the highest ratings in Osaka. I got lost and actually ran to the ramen place before it closed. It was all Japanese on the vending machine. When I asked the staff what was the most famous flavour and I couldn’t understand his Japanese, he would imitate pig and chicken and told me both to be the top choices of the shop. I tried their ramen in chicken broth and it was the best ramen I have ever had in my life. I finished all the soup. It was a touching moment, when you really like something and you have found your favourite so far. Another reason to visit Kansai again.

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I treat solo traveling as a means to recharge after a year of busy schoolwork, job applications and unfortunate events. It is a time for me to finally think less for others and their needs, and can focus totally on myself, what I want, and how I want to live. Much has changed since my last time here, and my attitude has been very different. Nevertheless, the fact that I do not feel lonely remains the same.

I enjoy solitude. Sometimes I warn myself not to enjoy it too much. It has always been a struggle. Most of the time I would just want to be left alone with no attention whatsoever from other people. I am still learning not to indulge in solitude.