Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Different Christmas in 2011

Well, my posting has been slack to say the least. No, I haven't disappeared off the planet. Not quite yet. But I've been finding it harder and harder to dedicate time to blogging. Some might say that's a step in the right direction. And indeed, what with my G+ goings on (just look me up on +Ben Adelaide) I've been struggling to work out what it is that I do, or even what I want out of this so-called social media. And I continue to struggle...

In the meantime, I'll post a few moments from our Christmas this year... a very strange Christmas. Expecting a second child is much easier in many ways, but also quite unusual too. It's also the last time L-kun will be the sole centre of attention too. And yes, it wasn't exactly a Japanese Christmas (whatever that means... for instance, not a single KFC in sight).

In the mean-time, we had a great Christmas this year (full of the usual ups - and downs). It started off with a great little party over at our house.... with four of L-kun's favourite friends (and their mothers of course). A great time was had by all, and T-chan had a great idea to make Candy Christmas Trees which all the children loved to make.

L-kun write his first letter to Santa (that had to be express delivered by the Priority Elf Mail... 1 day before Christmas). 

He was so happy the mail was sent, and his Samurai DX Megazord was on it's way. Even if he did need a little help from Mummy and Daddy. It was great that he'd finally been able to settle on just one thing.

We also popped down to the Torrens River Christmas display at the Brewery (of all places)... It was pretty much the same as last year (which you can check out here). Though - to be honest, this year was somehow lacking something. There were quite large crowds there (and unfortunately a car+pedestrian accident just before we arrived which looked quite serious), but the displays lacked a sense of fun. Part of that could have been an over commercialisation (the Jack-In-The-Box had been replaced by a popping out add for one of the major sponsors... a TV station). Still there were still the basics there... the nativity scene mixing it up with Hey Diddle Diddle... only in Adelaide.

But it was a time to be merry, and to think about Christmas. And poor old Santa had a lot of visiting to do...

L-kun decided to offer a few extra wishes to his letter... the wishing well is always there to lend an ear.

Christmas - as I've mentioned - was an uncharacteristic occasion for us... and we don't tend to have traditional Christmassy dinners. Our menu: stuffed mushrooms, meatloaf, fuji-san-styled potato salad and pilaf. [ok... it wasn't supposed to be Fuji-san!... ]

And to finish it all off... a wonderful tribute to Japanese Christmas cakes from my wonderful (and exhausted) wife, T-chan.  Kawaii!

And for that final, final touch... L-kun insisted that we just had to leave cookies and milk out for Santa. Which of course Santa consumed with appropriate gusto (late at night). 

Now as for whether L-kun's letter was answered... well, that's between him and Santa Let's just say that L-kun will still be writing to Santa next year. If he's not totally NAUGHTY (in which case extra measures may need to be put in place).

So, even though this post is decidedly late (and I'm going to have to change my watermark shortly), I hope you all had a great Christmas. This is a special one, as it will soon be a Christmas for 4, rather than 3. The important thing is to find those things that make the day special for you - and make the most of it. And most important of all. Don't let the stress of Christmas get you down.

Merry (belated) Christmas 2011.

PS - it seems to me that this year has been a strange Christmas season all around, and despite media reports suggesting a good retail year, I just don't buy it (literally). The shops seemed mostly normal or even quieter than normal, and no matter how many late night shopping nights they had, it just seemed to be a very, very un-exciting Christmas shopping season. Australia has had it pretty easy coming through the GFC (mark I and now mark II). I suspect that the second and third order effects are only now beginning to make themselves felt here. It's times like these that the meaning of Christmas, and the importance of family and hope are not forgotten. I hope that your Christmas was a good and safe one... Ben

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Yarra River - The Casino to the City

One of the best parts of the city of Melbourne is actually the Yarra river that runs along the south-eastern edge of the city. I was staying at the Crown Promenade (part of the Crown Casino complex on the South-Bank Precinct) and whilst it's a nice hotel, it is a little bit of a walk into the city. But that was good for exercise. It also had some added bonuses of being a great place to take some photos. I'm not sure if everyone in Melbourne knows - but if you're from elsewhere, I'd definitely suggest you head down to the Crown, along the Yarra, of an evening for some great fire displays.

There's something completely fun - and yet deeply stirring - about hearing, seeing and most importantly feeling the synchronised fireballs. Great fun! Though it doesn't seem to last as long as I remember it from a few years ago (or at least in my memory). It's on every hour on the hour from 9pm to Midnight Monday to Friday, and from 8pm on Saturday and Sunday.

Crown do a few things right - and another one is the light and water displays inside. Mesmerising... but alas, not something that was easy to capture with the camera. Definitely worth seeing in the flesh. Having said that however, I'd quite happily recommend turning around at that point and not going any further. I'm not a big fan of gambling, and having to walk through the Casino every day, I'm even more convinced it's actually a really crap way to have fun. I'd suggest you take your partner out for a dinner instead... or even read a good book. But hey, that's just me.

The other star of the Yarra is the night-scape. Now I have to admit that Melbourne's night-view isn't the most exhilarating in the world - but it ain't all that bad either. Even in B&W, it has some appeal. wasn't always called the Yarra, but started out being called the Birrarung (it's aboriginal name). The name Yarra actually comes from the Yarra Ranges (I did not know this, thanks Wikipedia)...although this too is an aboriginal name, but apparently was mis-translated.

And the one thing you get used to is the many bridges across the Yarra - both for cars and for people-powered locomotion. 

Ok - and here's some more gratuitous night-lights on water shots.

I showed an example of the art on Sandridge Bridge - well, here's another look.

One of the things I think Melbourne's architects get right is their attention to the small things. For example, along Flinders Street Station, there's a walkway that travels along the river. Not the most scenic of places (what with all the trains), but the flow of the footpath invites pleasant strolls, it's undulating lines reminding us of waves, or sand dunes - anything but train tracks. And then there's the piped music echoing from everywhere. Overall, a clever idea and shows that even a train-yard can have it's ambiance changed with a bit of creativity.

There's a healthy tourism sector built around the Yarra - though I'm not the sort of person to jump onto tour boats (normally). As you might imagine, it's also a great place to jump into a canoe, or kayak - or of course go rowing. It's a shame however that the river, by the time it's arrived to Melbourne, is no longer safe enough to swim in due to pollution.

And whilst Melbourne might be the Little-Europe of Australia, it's not quite Paris....and I'm not sure it had got it's romantic serenading image quite right. Still, it's an arts city and music always makes a huge difference in breathing life into a cityscape.

And I thought I'd just throw in a couple of shots of Melbourne's Yarra during the day, this one also of the Flinders Street Station.

And for those that remember Melbourne a decade ago (before the recent drought), it's reassuring to know that Melbourne's weather (known for being 4 seasons in one day) has returned. Yes, there's definitely some rain about these days, which is always good to see (unless you're out and about in it).

Ok... that's the Yarra. It's not quite a MIGHTY RIVER in the epic sense, but at least it's a good flowing river, unlike Adelaide's River Torrens (which is more like a lake when it gets to the city). I'm not sure I'd say it was the lifeblood of the city, but it is an important part of it (and also the theme behind Melbourne's Moomba Festival in mid March each year). But perhaps most importantly for me during the trip, it made for a very pleasant walk, from the Casino to the City.

I'll take a break now from my Melbourne Series.... and get back to some more Adelaide-based stuff. Hope you enjoyed so far.

Melbourne Series - Food Glorious Food

I thought I'd just put together a post on the food that I had the pleasure to enjoy on the trip to Melbourne... Now, I love food, but I'm no foodie gourmet.... perhaps a gourmand (driven by the excess of eating and drinking....). I am certainly not someone that actually enjoys going out (especially to restaurants or nice cafés) by myself. So normally when I travel I'm a cheap eater. I thought this time around I might like to explore some of the eating places around Melbourne - a city that enjoys a reputation for good food experiences.

I arrived late on Sunday evening, and didn't have much time to find a good place to eat... and I was sort of keen to start my photography. So I took ran into the Ajisen Ramen on Bourke Street. Now I've been to Ajisen Ramen here in Adelaide, and we had mixed feelings about it (which you can read here). But I thought I'd give them ago... and after 9 there wasn't too many options for a quick meal.

I ordered the 'Chasyu Ramen' ... that should most probably be Chāshū by the way... which is like a roasted pork. Ramen often comes with 1 of 2, but this dish has a extra helping or two. Yummy. Ramen's a wonderful noodle+broth dish that's very easy to eat. Especially when washed down with some Yebisu Ale.... lovely. I have to say though, once again, this Ajisen Ramen was also Chinese owned and influenced. The flavours aren't quite the same, but they're quick and relatively inexpensive. If you've never had ramen before, then give them a try. Oh - and ramen is often used to describe noodles in general in Japan, rather than a specific type...

And here's where it is..
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Changing tact for a second, another sort of favourite watering hole is the P.J. O'Briens pub on the South Bank precinct of the Yarra.

Ok - I know - Irish Pubs are so 2000's....and the world has moved on a bit from then. But, there's something nice about a good Irish Pub... espeically the use of wood and metal finishes.

And of course there's the beers and ales. You can still buy Guinness there, but they realise they now have to diversify a lot. Though Carlton Draught on tap?.... very disappointed. 

This is just a short walk through Flinders St Station and across the river. If you're in the vicinity, pop in and have a Guinness for me.  Now that's got to be a convincing reason to drink beer if ever there was one. And yes, you can buy a meal here as well.
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The next place I was going to mention was Izakaya Chuji Restaurant - where an Izakaya is sort of a Japanese eating pub. It's where you go with lots of friends, eat, drink and be merry. Melbourne has quite a few, but this is the closest I've found to the real thing. It's not particularly attractive, but there's a truly excellent selection of traditional (and modern) izakaya-style foods. 

The one problem I have however is that because these dishes are best enjoyed sharing among a group, it can be difficult to get the right mix when it's just yourself. This night I went with a mix of favourites and something a little different.

First off the yakitori was nice - but not the best dish. I sort of regret buying this, as yakitori should ideally be cooked right there on a special grill, and this looked like it was cooked normally in the kitchen. Still they went down very nicely.

I then went with the geso karaage - or deep fried squid served with a delicious mayonnaise (by the way, seriously, Japanese mayonnaise is sugoi oishii). Normally I'd grab the chicken karaage, but the squid was just as yummy. I was quite satisfied with this dish.

The next dish was gyutan shioyaki (ox tongue grilled with salt). Now, before I met my wife I would never have eaten ox-tongue, but now I love it. As long as it's cut thinly enough. And Chuji's way of cooking was spot on. This is the sort of dish that really is nice to share.

Now - I love gyoza. There's no two ways about it. However, I don't know why I buy this, as I honestly think my wife's gyoza is the best I've eaten. I always end up being a little disappointed. And whilst these gyoza were nice, they didn't come close to home-made ones. Of course, not everyone has the benefit of having my T-chan cooking for them... so... please try.

As I mentioned before, this is quite an authentic Japanese restaurant - and definitely Japanese chefs. I don't want to sound snobbish about this, but it makes a world of difference in Japanese food preparation. Of course, you might prefer more Chinese or non-traditional flavourings to your Japanese dishes; but for me I love the authentic tastes.

And the one thing that Japanese love is fresh ingredients - and it's encouraging when they put their ingredients out front and centre. Shows you the freshness, as well as adds a wonderfully exotic ambiance. I will definitely be taking my family here next time we come to Melbourne together. It is however a little on the pricey side, so not so much every-day food if you know what I mean. Also - I discovered one thing about myself...I really am indecisive when it comes to choosing food. Especially for myself.

You can find Izakaya Chuji on Lonsdale Street in the CBD. It's a great authentic Japanese-style restaurant.

Now the last one I'll mention is the Taiwan Cafe on Swanston Street. On Monday tuesday night I tried to get in here (looked kinda interesting) only to find that the place was sold out for the whole night. That was ok... I asked if I could make a booking for the next night. "sorry no bookings". Hmmmm - this piqued my curiosity, so the following evening I came about 10mins before opening only to find about 40 people waiting outside. Seriously - this cafe has amazing support. I waited in line (ok it was more a mob than a line), and when it eventually opened (late) there was already another 10-20 people outside waiting to get a seat only 5 mins later. And then they started issuing numbered tickets. Mind you, this is on a regular Wednesday night. Amazing. The sort of popularity that even McDonald's (right next door) can only dream about.

The food is a good mix of different Taiwainese "street" food, and the flavours are all there. I was curious to try a more Chinese/Taiwanese style gyoza, or dumplings. Not so keen... there's something about eating food that looks like one thing, but tastes quite different. In my head, this should have been oishii gyoza... but it wasn't. It was definitely Chinese. Der! It's a Chinese restaurant you idiot! Still... my head is now hard-wired.

I was also convinced to try the special Crispy Chicken (from the photos outside) which looked so yummy my stomach just about ate through my body to get to it. However... the reality when it came out was quite different. It wasn't bad at all - but didn't quite live up to my expectation. The chicken was huge (perhaps too much so), and it felt like it needed a sauce or something. In this case, a bottle or two of Tsingtao would have to do.

So I have to admit that I was just a little disappointed with the dishes - and it just goes to show how expectations can be a double edged knife. But given how popular this place is - and given how hard it would be for the kitchen to handle such a sudden mass of orders, I was happy to be a little generous. I do wonder however if this is a case of popularity of quality?.

Despite my luke warm review, I would definitely come back - but perhaps try out the lunch-time option (they close between lunchtime and dinner, which nominally starts at 6pm). I am interested in trying some of the other dishes, as the menu looked wonderful. And remember - expect to be lining up whenever you come.

I couldn't find a web-site for them, but it's pretty easy to find... just look for the crowds around the corner of Swanston and Lonsdale.

And that brings my food journey through Melbourne to an end. Unfortunately I couldn't do much for lunch (a work thing) but it was nice to get out and about in the evening. I also did pop into a place called Funky Curry on Bourke Street for a late night curry as well. The place didn't really seem that photogenic, and the food was served on what looked very much like (what I would imagine) gaol food is served on. Ok... jail for all those people that use US spelling. Whilst the place looked a little ordinary, the curry was very yummy and very cheap. Would recommend giving it a try... even with gaol plates.

POSTSCRIPT - now many people would often think food in Melbourne would be greek or italian - and would go to Lygon Street, Acland Street (St Kilda) or any number of other locales. That's the good thing about Melbourne... there's so much to choose from. But they will have to wait for perhaps another trip to Melbourne.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Melbourne Series - Sculpting City Life With Art

 Now the trip was actually a work trip, so that meant that I didn't have much time to do my own thing. My evenings however were mostly my own. Mostly. So I'd walk around the city to check things out. And there's a lot to check out indeed. These fellows are famous in Melbourne (on the corner of Swantson and Bourke Street Mall)... what are they doing? I don't know. But they're truly captivating little fellas.The sculpture is called "Three Businessmen Who Brought Their Own Lunch", by Alison Weaver.

Street sculpture adds so much texture to a city - even if I'm sure they start to become invisible if you live there.  But even then I suspect it adds a lot at the subliminal level. And not that far - the other end of the Bourke Street Mall... a little bit of commercial street sculpture - though some might have thought this bad luck for the local traders. The purse being well and truly shut that is. Behind the Post Office... yet another grand old building from Melbourne's past. This sculpture is from Simon Perry and dates from 1994.

And it's not just sculpture - the city has had a wonderful development since it's founding in 1835 - yes, that's only one year before Adelaide was founded - but there's a huge difference in characters. The architecture has a good mix of European stylings, and the city has gone to lengths to make sure that the heritage is maintained, even as it has become a vibrant modern international city.

And here's yet another bit of Melbourne culture... Good ol Larry La Trobe... a wonderful bronze sculpture created by Pamela Irving in 1992.  A little known fact is that in 1995, the poor little fella went missing (thanks to some very enthusiastic supporters, with some major hardware). Actually - now keep this just between the two of us - the original statue was never found. And could indeed be sidling up to a lamp-post or hub cap near you. Larry's replacement is now a little more securely fastened.

Just down from Larry you'll find that rather grandly titled, Beyond the Ocean of Existence, by Loretta Quinn, sitting along side St Paul's Cathedral. The sculpture that has a fairy atop a rather dramatic bronze plinth is meant to be an all-things-to-all-peoples sculpture. Of course - if you're all things includes fairies. Which mine does (and no, not those sorts of fairies). It goes to show just how integrated Art is into the Melbourne landscape.

And this of course isn't a new thing - but back in the olden days (he says dropping his false teeth into a glass of water), statues were there to remind us of our glorious past, to inspire us to future greatness... or just to show that some of our most important founding fathers (to borrow an Americanism) were complete jerks. Take for example our viewpoint of Matthew Flinders - he nobly stood at the bow of his launch, whilst the poor schmucks had to to the hard work below. That was the times I suppose. We do however owe our modern coastline to Flinders - and if it wasn't for him, who knows what Australia would have looked like.

St Paul's Cathedral - by night and by day. This church was consecrated in 1891 - and sits on the site of the first Christian services in Melbourne. The gothic transitional style certainly makes for an impressive (though still subdued) feature on the famous Federation Square front, right next to Flinders Street Station. These old buildings cannot perhaps be described as 'public art' but they approach very close to it.

Flinders Street Station - it's one of the iconic locations around Melbourne's CBD. Both as an historic location, and also as the main commuter hub into the city. It's perfectly located on the edge of the city, alongside the Yarra River for an evening stroll. I understand that there's some future development due to take place here... fingers crossed they don't mess with it too much.

The one slightly disappointing thing was this evening was also the night of the Rugby World Cup - which New Zealand won on their home territory against the French (Australia came third). Even though the event was being held in New Zealand, there was a lot of interest here in Australia (of course). Following the match, there were large crowds of intoxicated youths walking the streets - and to be honest, it was a throwback to some of the less than civilised parts of Australia's drinking culture that was on display... That and it reminded me that the not-so-latent gang culture still very much exists here in Australia. As a result - Melbourne's over-worked Police force was very much on duty.

And from across the road, we see St Paul's with a new (construction) light... from Federation Square. One time site for the Occupy Melbourne movement (I suspect the world is taking a break from the whole occupy thing... and I wonder how we will view it in another 1-5 years... not that you will be reading this then).

Federation Square is very much a life-centre for Melbourne, and is the focus of many outdoor public activities. Not only do they have a lot of events here, you can also find the SBS studios (Australia's best multicultural tv station), and the National Gallery of Victoria to name a couple of things. It's also a really good place to just hang out - unless of course, you're looking for somewhere to occupy...

Interestingly, the Federation Square buildings themselves were given a rough time - being labelled as some of the ugliest buildings of all time. I for one, don't mind it's post-modernist cubist-come-camouflage look. It adds to the sense of energy to the city, and sets itself apart. 

Not far away is the Melbourne Arts Centre, with it's stylistic tower, adorned in night-sculptural lights...

It's a combination of rock and metal - lit up with light. Beautiful.

If you go for a walk off the road you'll find this wonderful sculpture - artist unknown, sorry - of a post modern tribe. Aboriginal or artistic? Still, it was nice to see the night-scape populated with art. I would very much like to know what this sculpture was for/about/crafted by.

Right next to the Art Centre is the National Gallery of Victoria... Not sure about the whole see-through shirt thing, but that was a crazy German art exhibit. I think that says it all.

However the gallery also has a wonderful water wall sculpture - and it's totally entrancing (and on all the time). It just beckons to run your fingers through the water.

Water + Light = Magic.

And when you slow it down - it just looks plain funky. Outside the gallery there's a number of fountains that just call out - fast shutter speed, fast shutter speed... but alas my hand-held technique could only go so far with the light I had.

The last sculpture I'll throw into the post is actually on the Sandridge Bridge over the Yarra river... and is called the Travellers (I've only shown a little bit here). It's an amazing steel sculpture. Part celebration of indigenous art, part celebration of migration, it's a stark but impressive sculpture by Nadim Karam.

I have to admit that I had a great pleasure in walking through the streets of Melbourne in the evenings... the weather, as is typical of Melbourne of old, was a little variable. Still, it was a fun time - and whilst I don't often get the chance to take out my camera on work trips, this was an opportunity I couldn't waste. By the way - if you're looking find what sort of public art there is in Melbourne, check out here. I wish I had something like this before. The streets of Melbourne are alive - and they also capture that life through it's sculpture. Hats off Melbourne. You are the cultural centre of Australia.