Thursday, February 09, 2017

Anecdotes of the Holy Land

26 Jan - 5 Feb 2017

Madinah and Makkah, Arab Saudi

It was my second time here, back after almost 8 years. Some things have changed: There were so many more people now, perhaps because of the extension of the masjid area - but now the Umrah visa is only limited to 10 days. We had to set out for the masjid earlier, at least 1 hour 15 mins before prayer time as the main road leading to the masjid will be closed 1 hour before. Most of the time, we prayed at the first level as the ground level were always already full (for women only; for men there seems to be space still).

The clock tower was our landmark to indicate the street back to our hotel (Ibrahim Al Khalil street)

I didn't see any blonde, blue eyed mat salleh (Caucasian) this time around. But there were more Turkish people now, and some North African nationals such as Algerians and Tunisians (it was based from their uniforms / flags on their bags / clothes). Yes, more people came in wearing uniforms this time around - not just Indonesians, but also from the Indian continent.

some of the uniforms

We see more technology now - smartphones are allowed inside both Masjid Nabawi and Masjid Al Haram, but you are not allowed to take pictures inside, although everyone was doing it. I was caught once by a woman police , but she just told me no, didn't confiscate my phone though. If you wanted to take pictures, just do it discreetly / make sure the police is not around, and only after you have completed your rituals (tawaf or saie). I did see people making video calls at Raudhah (Masjid Nabawi) and on the way to Masjid Al Haram. It was humbling to see a man of Indian descent skyping with his mates in bunk beds, showing Masjid Al Haram live to them. You wonder how much sacrifice and funds they had to raise to be able to make that journey to the Holy Land. Not everyone have sufficient funds / are physically able to perform the Umrah, let alone the Hadj.

Masjid Al Haram now has escalators

That delicious ice cream near the entrance at King Fahad gate cost 3 riyal now

Some things remained the same: the women police in the masjid were still as garang (stern) as before; you couldn't see their facial expression as their faces are veiled, so I've always wondered if they were constantly annoyed or perhaps they are just merely doing their jobs. One thing for sure, you do not stand around waiting for people in the masjid before prayers. I was shooed away after 3 times being told to move (I was waiting for partner in crime to perform his ablutions). Alhamdulillah, I managed to find him back after making 1 round outside the masjid area.

Strangers around you in the masjid shared their food with you - dates, breads, tea, fruits etc especially if it was time to break fast on Monday or Thursday.

There is still no coins transactions - my balance were rounded up to the nearest riyal and I received them in riyal notes. No chewing gums as substitutes for the cents balance this time around.

A few things I've learned - there is no jamak (combining) prayers at Masjid Al Haram, only wajib/tunai (compulsory) and sunat (optional) prayers. You need to come very very early for the Friday prayers - we weren't able to pray inside Masjid Nabawi in Madinah (but there are carpets at the outer area where you can pray) as we came 1 hour before. So for Masjid Al Haram, we were already in the masjid 2 hours before Zohor time. (This is for the Women prayer area only). Bloodshed is also haram (forbidden) in the Holy land.

At the end of the journey, I appreciated that the Holy Land became a congregation place for millions of Muslims, regardless of race, age or creed. We were all unified in prayers despite the differences.

a depiction of old Masjid Al Haram and Kaabah at the Haramain museum

Read here also of my anecdotes from my first visit in 2009

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Sunday, November 06, 2016

Sematan, Lundu, Sarawak

28 - 29 Oct 2016
Sematan, Lundu, Sarawak

Heard of Sematan before? Neither did I. It is actually a small seaside town on the northwestern tip of Sarawak in the district of Lundu, about 1.5 hours driving from Kuching.

It was the Deepavali holiday, and sister in law and her teacher friends had booked a 1 night stay in Sematan, organizing a BBQ party and beach activity, so she asked us to tag along. We stayed at Dynawood Beach Stay.

There's also a small waterfall nearby too at the Sebat village (Kampung Sebat) but do be careful, as we were told the water was contaminated with rat urine during our visit, so we only took pictures.

Before we went back to Kuching the next day, we stopped by at the nearby Sematan town to have lunch at D'Ketam restaurant. As the name suggests, we had a nice lunch of chilli crab (sambal ketam).

Enjoy the pics!

junction to Sematan

scenic view on the way

scenic view on the way

small monument at Sematan town

Sematan jetty

Sematan beach

Sematan beach


sunrise by the beach

trees by the beach

Sebat waterfall

crab BBQ


Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Compact Tokyo

3 - 4 June 2016
Compact Tokyo

We went back from Takayama to Tokyo Shinjuku station by bus. Ticket costs JPY 6690 per person. We booked our bus trip online via this website and paid for the ticket at Takayama bus station. We departed at 8am and arrived Shinjuku around 1.30pm. Our bus stopped at Hirayu Onsen Hotspring and Suwako for a 10 minute break.

bus ticket

Suwako rest area
Suwako lake
Shinjuku station

In Tokyo, we stayed at Flexstay Inn Higashi Jujo this time (JPY 7150 per room per night). It is an old and tired inn, we don't recommend staying here. Wasou Hotel Asakusa (the hotel we stayed on our arrival day in Tokyo) was already fully booked on this date. Of course, we would have preferred to stay in Asakusa as Nakamise shopping street (we delayed shopping for souvenirs until we get back to Tokyo) and halal food are there.

facilities in between the bed

our room

fold the bed to have more space

Later that afternoon, after checking in, we went to Asakusa for shopping and dining. We ate again at Naratiya halal restaurant. We wanted to go to Sekai Cafe, but it was closed.

Tsukiji Market

Early in the morning, we checked out of our hotel and took the Keihintohoku line to Ueno, then changed to Hibiya line to Tsukiji station (JPY 340). We walked to the market which is not that far from the station. We didn't go to the tuna auction though, as it was too early for us to come, i.e. at 5am. We walked around the stalls taking in the sights and sounds of traders peddling their seafood, local delicacies, fruits and vegetables. We then had a sumptuous breakfast of tuna, salmon and yellowtail fish with rice (JPY 1000); tuna, salmon and caviar with rice (JPY 1300) and miso soup (JPY 100 ) at one of the stalls near the market.

Tsukiji Fish Market

Tsukiji Fish Market


stalls around Tsukiji Fish Market
some of the sushi breakfast menu

sushi breakfast eatery

salmon, tuna and caviar with rice breakfast

miso soup with clam


Next, it was Partner In Crime's mission to get a view of the huge Gundam robot statue at DiverCity (a shopping mall ) in the modern, man made island in Tokyo Bay, Odaiba. We walked a bit to the Shiodome station and took the elevated Yurikamomi line to Odaibakaihinkoen station. (JPY 320). On the Yurikamomi line, we took some pictures of the Rainbow bridge.

rainbow bridge at Odaiba

Tokyo port

Partner In Crime was admiring the Gundam robot, taking pictures of it, and with it, 360 degrees and all (I'm exaggerating a bit here). We were not aware that there are showtimes when the robot will perform. Well not really, just some illumination, moving of the hands and smoke coming out of the robot exhaust. Partner In Crime had to buy a / some robots, so we went to the Gundam front shop nearby the robot statue, but unfortunately the items on sale are by cash only.  I enquired at the cashier, we were told there's a bigger Gundam robot store inside the DiverCity mall on the 7th floor. We wasted no time, and made our way there. The Gundam Front museum is also there, with entrance fee of JPY 1000. But you can enter the shop for free. Partner In Crime bought the same robot as the statue model of the 1/48 scale (375 mm) or Mega size model (the biggest size on sale) for JPY 8023. I let him sink it all in -his total Gundam experience.

Gundam robot at DiverCity

view from behind

entrance to Gundam Front store and museum inside DiverCity

From DiverCity, we walked to Aqua City (also a shopping mall) across the road to take a peek of Tokyo Bay. We saw a replica of the Statue of Liberty and took some pictures there.

Tokyo's statue of liberty at Odaiba

Aqua City Odaiba


I wanted to go to one of the biggest Daiso (a store where all the items cost JPY 100) in Japan, so we made our way to Harajuku. To go to Harajuku, we walked to Teleport station (unfortunately, we cannot be teleported anywhere from there), taking the Rinkai line to Osaki. Then we changed to Yamanote line towards Harajuku. The metro costs JPY 500.

Harajuku station

Harajuku is of course, famous for bizarre fashion styles. We got a few glimpses of that along Takeshita Dori shopping street. It was very crowded with shoppers, it was a weekend after all. After shopping, we made our way back to our hotel at Higashi Jujo. Of course, there are other sides of Tokyo that we did not cover within just 1 day, but we had to make do due to our time constraint.

Takeshita Dori shopping street
Daiso Harajuku

After packing up our souvenirs and collecting our backpacks, we made our way to Ueno station, then took the Narita Sky Access line to Narita airport (JPY 1240) to catch our flight back to KL at 9.30pm. There is a prayer room available at Narita airport, complete with ablution facility.

prayer room at Terminal 2 Narita airport

ablution facility inside the prayer room

Goodbye Japan, it has been a great experience journeying through the scenic Alpine-Takayama-Matsumoto Area and the hectic city of Tokyo. The public transportation is superb, we did not experience any harassment or scams and we totally enjoyed our time there. We hope to see you again Japan!


Thursday, July 28, 2016



2 June 2016

Shirakawa-go means white river village. It is a mountain village that is surrounded by mountains in the Gifu Prefecture. It is a Unesco World Heritage site, acknowledged for their traditional gassho-zukuri farmhouses, some of which are more than 250 years old. As mentioned in the Takayama post, Gassho-zukuri means hands in prayer, as the farmhouses' steep thatched roofs resemble hands pressing together in prayer. We took the J Hoppers half day tour (morning session from 8am to 12pm) to Shirakawa-go, which cost JPY 4400 per person. We booked online through their website and made the payment in cash on the bus. Shirakawa-go is about 1 hour away from Takayama.

Our guide Yamamoto was a bubbly person, giving some information on Shirakawa-go and Takayama; and some basic Japanese language lesson.  According to Yamamoto, the population of Shirakawa-go are mostly elderly people. There is only a primary school in Shirakawa-go, the nearest secondary school is in Takayama, so the students will have to travel 2 hours daily to school. There is no university in Takayama, so most of the graduates would leave Takayama and Shirakawa-go to find jobs outside, hence only the elderly remained.

our guide Yamamoto

It is a peaceful little village. Visitors are greeted by Shokawa river at the entrance and would have to cross the suspension bridge. The village is so small, you could just walk to cover the whole area. We were given 1.5 hours to walk around the village. Yamamoto recommended us to visit the Kanda house (entrance fee JPY 300) to experience a Ghasso-zukuri farmhouse and treated to a cup of hot matcha. Since we already visited the Folk Village in Takayama the day before, we skipped entering Kanda house. It was already a full house anyway.

Shirakawa-go from the view point

Map of Shirakawago (source: official site)

suspension bridge

shokawa river

The villagers of Shirakawa-go mainly are farmers, cultivating their land with paddy and vegetables. The drains around the houses are so clean, they rear fishes in them. The stream is so cool, they refrigerate their drinks in the stream water.

ghasso-zukuri houses

Kanda house

fishes in the drain

natural fridge

Shirakawa-go manhole cover

Shirakawa-go peak season is during winter where visitors get to see the ghasso-zukuri roofs covered in snow, with the climax in January and February with the winter illumination. But be warned, it would be freezing cold!

Later, back at Takayama, we had a sumptuous early dinner at Heianraku, a small home styled cooking restaurant (sits 12 people). We chose the vegetarian dishes of tofu teriyaki (JPY 850) and yaki miso (JPY 850). The restaurant owner who is also the cook and waitress- Naoko was really warm and friendly, chatting with us and ensuring we had a great meal. She provided us with some appetizers and cookies as well to finish off our meal. Such a nice little eatery.



our table
appetizer. notice the hello kitty chopstick holder


tofu teriyaki
yaki miso

We savoured our last day of serenity at the village of Shirakawa-go and Takayama before making our way back to the busy metropolis of Tokyo tomorrow.