Planning for a Mt Pinatubo trek

 Photo: Dave Harlow | USGS

Photo: Dave Harlow | USGS

I’ve always been fascinated with Mt Pinatubo. On a clear day I can see the Zambales Mountains from where we live, so had we been living here in 1991 when the volcano erupted, we would have had a clear view of the ash cloud that reached 35 kilometres into the atmosphere and lowered temperatures by one degree Fahrenheit around the globe.

Since moving to the Philippines in 2010, I’d heard about treks to the Mt Pinatubo crater lake, but assumed it would be too tough for an old guy like me to do.  But I came across this article the other day on a travel adventure website that said the trek was only rated 2 out of 10 for difficulty.

That prompted me to research trekking to Mt Pinatubo in more detail and convinced me that it is a trek I could manage. According to several articles I read, trekkers over 60 need to bring a medical certificate from a doctor certifying that they are fit enough to complete the trek, but that shouldn’t be too difficult to do in the Philippines.

The trek is 5-6 km long, which is about the same length as a trek I did of the same difficulty in the Andes a few years ago - and that was at a height of about 13,000 ft - which I managed despite an Australian doctor advising me against it.

I think the most important thing for guys my age to do on treks of that length, is to take plenty of water in a comfortable backpack and just take it easy, and not push yourself too hard. 5-6 km is really not a long distance.

From what I have read on a number of travel blogs about trekking to the Mt Pinatubo crater lake, the most uncomfortable part of the trek is the ride to the starting point in old jeeps, because they travel over the lahars (giant mudflows), which creates a lot of dust which obviously is not good for the lungs.

So I guess another item that I should remember to pack in my luggage for the trip is a good dust mask - or maybe two, one for the ride there and one for the ride back.

Although a few people who have written on blogs about their trek to the crater lake have said that it was tiring, nobody has said they regretted doing it. Everyone has said the trek was worthwhile because the crater lake is very beautiful.

One thing I did notice from the various blog posts that I read, was that those people who were able to trek on cooler days when the sky was overcast with a few light showers around, enjoyed it more than those who trekked on hot days.

But picking a cool day is hard because they really only exist around December and January (and this year we don’t seem to be getting many of them) and the odd day during the rainy season (but the downside there is that sometimes the treks are cancelled during the rainy season if there has been too much rain in the days prior).

The coolest days we had in December were those when tropical storms were passing through the Visayas, and although we didn’t get a lot of rain in Central Luzon, the extensive cloud-cover kept temperatures below 30C. Perhaps I should plan to do the trek next December if similar weather conditions occur, and be prepared to go a short notice. That’s one advantage that I have living less than 100km from Mt Pinatubo.

If anyone is interested to read more about the 1991 eruption of Mt Pinatubo and the devastation that it caused, I found a good fact sheet that was published by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) at, and there are some excellent photos of the eruption on the Getty Images website at

The photo I’ve included at the top of this blog post is not mine of course. It’s a photo from the USGS website. If I am able to do the trek next December, I will share my own photos of Mt Pinatubo, and what it looks like today.



Duped buying Rainbow Gums in the Philippines

Rainbow Gum trunk.jpg

The Rainbow Gum (Eucalyptus deglupta) is one of the most beautiful trees in the world.  That’s not just my opinion, but one that is shared by gardeners in tropical countries right around the world. Its colourful trunk makes it a spectacular landscape specimen in any garden. But it’s a big tree so really only suited to large gardens.

It’s the only Eucalyptus species that is native to the northern hemisphere, including the Philippines - hence its other common name, the Mindanao Gum.

After moving to the Philippines to live in 2010, one of the first things I wanted to do was to find some seedlings of the Rainbow Gum to plant in my garden. Despite it being indigenous to Mindanao, finding seedlings was a hard task, and it wasn’t until 2015 that I managed to buy some through a nursery in Laguna.

I planted five seedlings in prominent positions in the garden, and they grew really fast, with two of them already well above the height of the house. But I was worried that the trunks weren’t showing any indication of colour, so I became concerned that perhaps I had been sold a different species of Eucalyptus.

So I decided to check the structure of the leaves to confirm that they were in fact Rainbow Gums.  Googling “Eucalyptus deglupta” produced a myriad of different images - and clearly many of them were mislabeled - but after spending some hours looking at photos on different sites, and weeding out those that did not appear to be from reliable sources, I concluded that the leaves of Eucalyptus deglupta were opposite. This was devastating because the leaves on the gums that I had planted were alternate!

The clearest photos of the leaves of the Rainbow Gum that I could find on the web were on the website of the Urban Forest Ecosystems Institute which showed not only that the leaves were opposite and not alternate, but they were much broader than the narrow leaves on my trees.

So obviously I had been sold another Eucalyptus species. I suspect they were Blue Gums (Eucalyptus globulus) or Grey Gums (Eucalyptus punctata) - both species that are native to southern Australia, not the Philippines.

Did the seller in Laguna know that he was not selling me Rainbow Gums, or was he swindled by his supplier too? (He didn’t grow them himself - he got them in for me from another nursery).  It’s so frustrating when this happens, because now I have to decide whether to cut these trees down and start all over again.

I haven't made a decision yet because I'm still looking for another supplier of Rainbow Gum seedlings. For a tree that is native to the Philippines and regarded as one of the most beautiful in the world, it is quite extraordinary how hard it is to find (and the fact that 9 out of 10 nurserymen here have never heard of it!)



Manila: The 6th most dangerous city in the world?


I read an article in the Economist this week following the release of the 2017 Safe Cities Index, which is produced each year by The Economist Intelligence Unit, listing the safest and least safe cities in the world. The article attracted my attention because Manila was rated as the 6th least safe city in the world.

The index is based on 49 indicators that cover not only personal safety, but also digital security, health security and infrastructure security. So it may not totally represent the situation on the ground in respect of personal safety.

I’ve been to 9 of the 10 safest cities, and 9 of the 10 least safe cities, so I think I’m probably as well qualified as anyone to comment on the findings.

The survey results were:

The 10 least safe cities:

1. Karachi (most dangerous)

2. Yangon

3. Dhaka

4. Jakarta

5. Ho Chi Minh City

6. Manila

7. Caracas

8. Quito

9. Tehran

10. Cairo

The 10 safest cities:

1. Tokyo (safest)

2. Singapore

3. Osaka

4. Toronto

5. Melbourne

6. Amsterdam

7. Sydney

8. Stockholm

9. Hong Kong

10. Zurich

I’m not surprised that Karachi is listed as the most dangerous city in the world because it’s the only city of which I don’t have any photographs, because I never felt safe taking a camera out there.

When I was in Rawalpindi once, and taking photographs, I was set upon by a group of men in a market who accused me of taking photographs of women, which they said was forbidden in Pakistan.  I am sure that is not the case (and anyway there wasn’t a woman in sight on the street), but the experience was very frightening and I felt lucky to get out unscathed.

  The Rawalpindi market where I was set upon by a group of men for taking photographs of women. As can be seen from the photograph, there wasn't a woman in sight.

The Rawalpindi market where I was set upon by a group of men for taking photographs of women. As can be seen from the photograph, there wasn't a woman in sight.

Karachi is a far more intimidating place than Rawalpindi, so I kept off the streets in Karachi and never took my camera out there.

What does surprise me is that Yangon is listed as the second most dangerous city.  I’ve walked the backstreets of Yangon and never felt unsafe. I would have thought that Sana’a would have been listed as the second most dangerous, but perhaps the survey excludes cities that are now in war zones.

Cairo is rated as only the 10th most dangerous city, but I would have put it higher on the list – probably above Jakarta.

And Moscow and Johannesburg are listed as safer cities than Cairo. Personally I feel less safe in all those three cities than I do in Manila

The ironic thing about this listing is that I’ve walked the backstreets (sometimes at night) of 8 of the most dangerous cities (Caracas is the only one to which I’ve not been), and yet the only cities in which I have been mugged in the world are St Petersburg and Sydney – the latter listed here as the 7th safest city in the world!

So I guess the takeaway message is that despite all the surveys that are done each year, it ultimately comes down to being in the wrong place at the wrong time as far as personal safety is concerned.

Update 28 October 2017:

When I posted the above commentary about the 2017 Safe Cities Index report a week ago, I had only read the Executive Summary. I also posted a link on one of the Manila expat Facebook groups and that produced a lot of indignant comments about Manila being rated as the 6th least safe city in the world.

That prompted me to download the full report and read it. Having now done that, I now have a better idea how the Economist reached its conclusion that Manila is the 6th least safe overall – but it’s not related to personal safety.

That’s because the index is based on 49 indicators that are classified under four domains: digital security, health security, infrastructure security and personal security.

Manila was rated second from the bottom in digital security. In fact it almost tied for bottom place with Jakarta on that domain.  Digital security relates to the ability of citizens to access the internet “without fear of privacy violations or identity theft”. It also takes account of each city’s “awareness of digital threats, the level of technology employed and the existence of dedicated cyber security teams.” It’s understandable that Manila wouldn’t rate very highly on any of those indicators.

The city was rated fifth from the bottom fifth in infrastructure security. This relates to the condition of the city’s physical infrastructure and its vulnerability to natural disasters and terrorist attacks. It also takes account of transport safety and the number of fatalities in traffic-related accidents. So again it is understandable why Manila is not rated highly on any of those indicators.

But Manila was not listed in the bottom 10 for either health security or personal safety. The index methodology part of the report states that equal weighting was given to each domain. Therefore it appears that in order to end up 6th from the bottom overall, a very low score on digital security must have dragged down Manila’s overall rating.

So whilst it may be correct to describe Manila as the 6th least safe city in the world according to the indicators evaluated in this report, that conclusion relates primarily to digital and infrastructure security – not personal safety as the headlines might suggest.



A strange palm tree in San Mateo


I was stuck in a traffic jam on J. P. Rizal St in San Mateo on my way home (unfortunately an all too frequent experience) when I noticed this strange looking palm tree in the backyard of a house opposite the SM mall. 

I worked out that it must be the trunk of a dead coconut palm that either got decapitated in a typhoon, or died because of a coconut beetle infestation, onto which a bird had dropped a seed (probably a fig tree seed) which had produced a small tree that is now growing out of the top of the trunk.

As a dead coconut trunk is very fibrous and will hold a lot of water in the rainy season, the tree will probably survive a few months more.  But once the dryer weather comes towards the end of the year, I doubt it will survive very long. But it will be interesting to see how long it does survive.



An honest vulcanizing shop employee


I got back from Australia yesterday afternoon and discovered that one of the tyres on my pickup was flat. I swapped it with the spare and took it down to a vulcanizing shop on IBP Road at Batasan Hills that I had used before.

The young guy in this photo fixed it in about 10 minutes and put it back on the car. I asked him how much that was, and I thought he said 550 pesos. Having just spent three weeks in Australia and still thinking Australian prices, that didn't seem a lot, but he looked surprised when I pulled 550 pesos out of my wallet.

"No, no," he said, "that's 150 pesos not 550!"  I was slightly embarrassed because I should have known that 550 pesos ($11) was too much for a tyre repair in the Philippines, when that's more than what these most of these guys earn in a day.  But I was impressed with his honesty because he could have easily taken my money without me being any the wiser (maybe later on I may have thought it was a bit expensive).

In some parts of Manila repair shop employees might take advantage of foreigners who don't know the local prices. But not many foreigners live in this part of Manila, so it's not part of the culture to charge foreigners more.

I gave him a 50 pesos tip, and he seemed happy with that.



Missed opportunity for an aerobatic adventure flight


I caught up with an old friend this afternoon, Troy Smith, an ex-TV industry colleague. We both worked for North Queensland Television in Townsville for many years before moving overseas to work - me to Malaysia and he to Hong Kong and the UK.

He was lucky enough to be able to retire from all the pressures of the corporate TV world earlier than me, and is now pursuing his passion of flying with the only ex-USAF Mentor T-34 in Australia. He bought it in the US for his Aerotrek Adventure Flights business which operates out of the Caboolture airfield in southern Queensland.

His T-34 is in superb condition, and is a fully aerobatic aircraft. He would have given me a demonstration this afternoon but unfortunately it was a rainy day with low cloud. And maybe that wouldn't have been such a good idea so soon after my eye surgery!



End of 14 years of eye surgery

Stellarossa espresso bar.jpg

My eyes are a little sore today. My right eye is still recovering from last week's cataract operation, and I've just had a retinal examination of my left eye.  Usually eye doctors use something called a binocular indirect ophthalmoscope for routine retinal check-ups. They wear that on their head and there is no direct contact with the eye. But as I had reported some flashing of light in the left eye in recent weeks, my eye surgeon used the the type of ophthalmoscope that incorporates a slit lamp, and inserted a large contact lens into the eye after placing anesthetising drops on the cornea. I believe this enables the doctor to see much more detail that with the ophthalmoscope that they wear on the head.

Even though the cornea is numbed, it's still a very uncomfortable procedure, and the doctor kept apologising for the "torture". But he could find no problems with the retina, and surmised that the flashing could be due to scar tissue around the buckle that was stitched into my eye when I had my detached retina back in 2003.

I'd had a retinal check-up in Manila a few weeks ago, but the doctor there only used the ophthalmoscope that they wear on the head, and he didn't even turn the lights off in the room, so I didn't feel it was a very thorough examination. So having a second opinion from my Australian eye surgeon was very reassuring.

After two rounds of surgery for a detached retina and two cataract operations, I now have great vision and better than 20/20 in both eyes. So I hope that will be the end of my detached retina story because it's been a long haul over a period of 14 years getting my eyes fixed.

The cataracts were a direct result of all the surgery previously done on my eyes, and I still have to put eye drops in them every day to control the ongoing glaucoma (another consequence of the surgery) but hopefully what I have now should serve me well for the rest of my days.



The new Westfield Chermside dining precinct

I'm in Brisbane, Australia, for a couple of weeks for some eye surgery. My daughter suggested I check out the new dining precinct adjacent to the Westside shopping centre at Chermside near where she lives. It was opened about three months ago.  It is very well done and includes more than a dozen different restaurants as well as wine bars and other eating places.

I used to have to go all the way to Brisbane city for restaurants as good as these, but now we have eating places as good as any on the northside right here in Chermside. There's more to chose from here than there is at Park Road, Milton, and parking is much easier.

Click on the photo above to view some additional images. The last photo is my pan fried barramundi with bok choy and mushroom wontons which I ordered at BIN 931. It was delicious.



Meals on Wheels at U.P. Town Center


I was shopping at the U.P. Town Center mall in Quezon City this afternoon when I noticed these food trucks tucked away between the Phase 1A and Phase 2 buildings. They weren't doing much business - in fact there were no customers at all both times I passed (although the first time it was raining, so that was understandable).

I wondered whether they were intended to be a permanent fixture of the mall, so later checked the mall's Facebook Page. It seems that they are intended to be there permanently. They were introduced at the end of last month under the banner of 'Meals on Wheels'. But they are not going to do much business in the middle of the rainy season, and the location where they are parked is not very attractive - right under big exhaust grilles.

And I wonder whether the mall management knows that the term 'Meals on Wheels' is the name of a charitable programme in the UK, Ireland, US, Canada and Australia that delivers free (or very cheap) meals to elderly people who can't afford to cook or buy their own meals. I wonder how long this initiative will last?



Coffee options at San Pablo City, Laguna

If you are a coffee lover like me, traveling outside of the main urban areas of the Philippines often means being deprived of real coffee for a while, because Nescafe and 3-in-1 (instant coffee with powered milk and sugar) is all that is available in most rural parts of the Philippines.

If you are traveling by road back to Manila from the Bicol region, then you've most likely experienced the anticipation of a real coffee as you get closer to San Pablo City where there is a Starbucks out the front of the SM mall on the Pan-Philippine Highway.

But if you are not a Starbucks fan, there is an alternative that I discovered yesterday on the way back from Quezon province. It's called Espresso de Kaldi and the coffee is as good as, if not better, than Starbucks. It's on the right hand side of the Pan-Philippine Highway about a kilometre before the SM mall, just after the Petron gas station.

San Pablo coffee shop.jpg

My only disappointment was that they do not serve coffee in mugs, only paper cups - which is not good for the environment. But given that 95% of Starbucks coffee in the Philippines is served in paper cups, I can't penalise them for that.



Short visit to Bangkong Kuhay Valley

We attended the christening of a friend's new baby daughter in San Pablo City, Laguna, this afternoon, after which we headed to Dolores in Quezon province for the reception which was held at the Bangkong Kuhay Valley nature resort.

It was my first time there and I was impressed with the beautiful forest views from the resort.

Bangkong Kuhay Valley view.jpg

The road up to the resort was very narrow in places and a couple of times I had close calls with motorcyclists (locals I presume) racing down the hill at speeds far in excess of what the road is safe for. Towards the top, the road becomes a dirt road and is very rocky in places. I doubt a small two-wheel drive car would make it up to the resort if it was raining.

The only part of the resort that I saw was around the function room where the reception was held, so this is not a review of the place. Maybe I will return to write a proper review one day when I have more time. But I was impressed to see an honesty bar in the garden - the first time I have seen that in the Philippines. Normally hotel and resort owners in the Philippines are the least trusting people in the world, and won't let you leave their premises until someone has checked out the minibar to make sure what you have written on your minibar tab agrees with the hotel's reckoning. I've assumed that's always been because guests have taken advantage of the honour system that hotels in other parts of the world generally adopt.  So it will be interesting to learn of this resort's experience with an honesty bar.  Not only does this resort trust its guests to record what they have consumed in a book on the bar, they leave the cash that guests have paid in a basket next to the book.

  The honesty bar at the Bangkok Kuhay Valley nature resort

The honesty bar at the Bangkok Kuhay Valley nature resort

  The outdoor seating area at the honesty bar

The outdoor seating area at the honesty bar



Treatment of animals in Asia

I went to a landscaping materials supplier in Antipolo today to buy some ara-al stone, and was playing with this friendly kitten whilst waiting for my pick-up to be loaded. I noticed that his whiskers had been cut off, so I asked the nursery owner what had happened to it.  

She told me that her kids had cut the whiskers off. I suggested to her - as politely as I could - that maybe she should tell her kids not to do that. I explained why cats need their whiskers and that they can become very disoriented and distressed if their whiskers are cut off.  Fortunately this little fellow didn't seem to be suffering any ill-effects, but it annoyed me that the mother didn't seem concerned about it, even after I explained why cutting off a cat's whiskers is a big no-no.

Unfortunately, living in Asia exposes you to a lot of ill-treatment of animals. Cutting off whiskers is a comparatively mild form of physical abuse compared to some of the things I have seen. I frequently see kittens dumped on median strips of busy highways where they are unlikely to survive more than 24 hours unless a passing motorist stops and picks them up (something I have never seen happen, or been able to do myself, because usually the traffic is moving too fast and it would be dangerous to stop).

A Filipino friend told me recently that his cat was blind because neighbourhood kids had poked its eyes out "for fun". What was almost as disturbing was that he too seemed to be unconcerned about it.

And then of course there are the dog-eating festivals in China where pet dogs are stolen from suburban streets and boiled alive, and the bloody dolphin-killing rituals in Japan that attract international condemnation every year.

Why do people in Asia treat animals so badly? I don't know the answer to that question.

Yes I know my question is based on a generalisation, but from my observations from 50 years of traveling the globe, it seems to me that the treatment of animals in Asia is far worse than in any other part of the world.



Good coffee in the Philippines

I've been living in the Philippines for nearly seven years now, and as a coffee lover it's been hard going at times because up until recent years we had little more than chains like Starbucks, Seattle's Best Coffee and Coffee Bean to choose from. That was until Costa Coffee started opening stores a few years ago, so now the situation is much improved.

However, the nearest Costa Coffee stores are all close to an hour away from where I live, so most of the time I make my own coffee at home using my espresso machine.

Finding fresh beans with good body and flavour was also a challenge for many years too. I tried many different Philippine coffees because I assumed those would have been fresher than imported ones, but most were too bland or too bitter.

So for the past couple of years I've been using the Costa ground coffee in tins, despite them being about twice the price of other brands.  But the problem with Costa is that the supply of their ground coffee is very erratic.  They will have some in stock for a few weeks, then nothing for several months.

So I was absolutely delighted to discover a new local brand today called 'Brillo' that has an Italian Roast blend that tastes almost identical to the Costa coffee that I normally buy.

 My 'old' coffee on the left, and my 'new' coffee on the right, with a cup of freshly made 'Brillo' coffee in the middle.

My 'old' coffee on the left, and my 'new' coffee on the right, with a cup of freshly made 'Brillo' coffee in the middle.

Actually Brillo is not that new. According to their website, which I checked out when I got home, they were established four years ago, but I only came across them today. I will be switching to them now because their coffees are half the price of the Costa ground coffee (but I shall still continue to enjoy Costa's famed flat whites when I am in the vicinity of any of their stores because I can't replicate the thick layer of crema on my home espresso machine).

The Brillo company was established to roast and package imported coffee beans in small batches, recognising that the secret of good coffee is to use freshly roasted beans.

Brillo is a strange name for a coffee brand (when I think of Brillo I think of a soap-filled scouring pad) but I guess they are using it as a Spanish word (which means brightness). The Philippines used to be a Spanish colony so it is quite common here to see Spanish words being used as brand names.

But what surprised me most of all when I checked out the Brillo website, was that their Italian Roast was a blend of a local Arabica bean (from Mt Matutum in southern Mindanao) and a Java Robusta bean (which I guess is why they can keep the price low).  The coffee tastes so good I had assumed it must have been 100% Arabica beans because the Robusta beans don't add any bitterness at all.

They have three other blends that I will try in due course, but at the moment I'm more than happy with their Italian Roast - let's hope they can keep the taste of that blend consistent (something that Starbucks struggles to do with their coffees).



Jeepney rollover protection?

I spotted this jeepney driving through San Mateo, Rizal, this afternoon, with dozens of pillows tied to its roof. I wondered whether these belonged to a passenger who was using the jeepney as a cheap means of cartage, or whether the jeepney driver had installed them in case of a rollover.



Flying on a wing and a prayer

Flying back from Cebu on Cebu Pacific Air yesterday, I was not impressed to see advertisements plastered inside the aircraft cabin carrying this worrying message.  I'm sure most passengers are like me and prefer to be reassured that the plane is well-maintained and being flown by skilled pilots - not being told that someone is praying that we will make it to our destination! 




Beautiful Camiguin Island

I spent a few days on Camiguin Island this week. It's a beautifully scenic island made up of five volcanoes, but only one of which is still active (it last erupted in 1953). Ironically that one is known on the island as the 'Old Volcano' (official name Mt Vulcan), but geologically speaking, that one is the youngest because it's a parasite cone of the larger Mt Hibok-Hibok. I tried to climb it whilst I was there, but the sign to the path up the volcano from the coastal road is misleading (see last photo), as the path only goes as far as a grotto about half of the way up the mountain. When making enquiries later, I was told that the only access to the volcano crater is from the other side of the mountain, and you need a guide because the path is not well defined. I didn't have time to try from the other side, so I will save that trek for a future visit.

Camiguin Island has some great restaurants, but no good coffee shops yet, which for a coffee addict like me was a bit of a disappointment. But there's a road right around the island, and many up the flanks of the volcanoes where you'll find waterfalls and pools to swim, so it's a great destination for cycling, hiking and getting back to nature.


 A view of the north-western part of Camiguin Island from White Island - a sandbar which can be accessed by small ferries from Agoho, about 5 kms west of the main town of Mambajao.

A view of the north-western part of Camiguin Island from White Island - a sandbar which can be accessed by small ferries from Agoho, about 5 kms west of the main town of Mambajao.

 There are many waterfalls and cool swimming holes on the flanks of the volcanoes of Camiguin Island. Most of them are easily accessible by road.

There are many waterfalls and cool swimming holes on the flanks of the volcanoes of Camiguin Island. Most of them are easily accessible by road.

 If you stay on the west coast of Camiguin, you'll enjoy some beautiful sunsets. This is a black sand beach not far from the airport. Most of the popular tourist spots are in the north-west quadrant of the island where the airport is located.

If you stay on the west coast of Camiguin, you'll enjoy some beautiful sunsets. This is a black sand beach not far from the airport. Most of the popular tourist spots are in the north-west quadrant of the island where the airport is located.

 This sign on the circumferential road south-west of Agoho is very misleading because the path from here does not lead to the Old Volcano crater - only halfway up its flanks.

This sign on the circumferential road south-west of Agoho is very misleading because the path from here does not lead to the Old Volcano crater - only halfway up its flanks.



Aerial view of Mt Fuji

Flying back from Haneda to Manila this morning, I had a great view of Mt Fuji from the right hand side of the aircraft:

I love the shape of the carbon fiber composite wings of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. They are so elegant. New aircraft technology is impressive, but it's a pity they haven't found a way to keep the windows clean yet.



Japan's beautiful Wisteria gardens

Today I visited the beautiful Ashikaga Flower Park, north-east of Tokyo, to see the Wisteria vines in flower.  I’ve just missed the cherry blossom season on this trip, but the Wisterias are almost as impressive.  

There are two big Wisteria gardens in Japan - Kawachi Fuji-en and the Ashikaga Flower Park. The Kawachi gardens are probably the most well known to international tourists because that’s where the photographs of the famous Wisteria tunnels are taken, but it’s a long way from Tokyo on the southern island of Kyushu. To get there you need to fly or take a bullet train, which takes about 6 hours. But the Ashikaga Flower Park can be easily done in a day trip from Tokyo.

Just take any main-line train or bullet train to Oyama, which is 1-2 hours out of Tokyo, and then a local train on the Ryomo Line from Oyama to Tomita (don’t go to Ashikaga Station because that’s the next one along, and is further away from the gardens). The local trains on that line run every hour.

Get off at Tomita Station and walk to the main road (a short distance) and turn right.  Walk down the main road about 750 meters and you will see the entrance to the gardens on the left.  At this time of the year, the train is full of people visiting the gardens, so all you have to do is follow the crowd.

As will be seen from the photos below (click on the images to enlarge), there are Wisterias all over the gardens from vines that look like trees because they are over 140 years old, to young specimens in tubs that are beautiful in their own way. The oldest Wisterias in Japan are in these gardens, and one covers almost 2,000 square metres.

These gardens have many other flowering plants, and strolling through them is a very relaxing way to spend a springtime afternoon. There are excellent facilities in the gardens including restaurants and snack bars, and even an ice cream parlour selling Wisteria ice cream.



A sleepless sleepless night

Last night I didn’t sleep a wink. Not for a single solitary moment.

That was the first time that had happened to me in my life. Yes, like most people I’ve had the odd night where I’ve had difficulty getting to sleep because of illness or just too many things on my mind, but eventually I know I will fall asleep. Even on long haul night flights I can usually sleep for a few hours, but I’ve never experienced being unable to sleep even one minute for the whole night.

I went to bed about 2 am which I guess would be late for most people but pretty much the norm for me when I am writing or editing photos. Usually by that time I am quite tired so will rarely take more than a couple of minutes to drop off to sleep. But last night when my head hit the pillow, I realised something wasn’t quite right. I felt hyped up – sort of like I would expect to feel if I had downed a couple of espressos before bedtime – and my stomach was feeling unsettled too.

After half an hour I got up and took half a Travelan tablet because that usually fixes an unsettled stomach very quickly. But on this occasion it did nothing.

I tried listening to my iPod for a while because that usually sends me to sleep if my mind is on other things. But on this occasion it didn’t work.

I tried turning on the air-conditioner because often the hum of that will send me to sleep, but that didn’t work either.

So at about 3.30 am I got up and went back to my office and did some more work for about an hour.

At about 4.30 am I decided I must surely be ready for sleep now, so went back to bed. But I still couldn’t sleep. I tossed and turned for a while, tried counting sheep, but couldn’t fall asleep. It was a strange sensation - my body clock seemed stuck on daytime. My stomach was still feeling unsettled, so I started thinking about what I had eaten during the day. Breakfast had been the same as usual, a toasted cheese and tomato Panini for lunch – nothing unusual there – and for dinner an item off the menu at my local Italian restaurant that I had eaten a dozen times before. Coffee mid- morning and mid-afternoon, a glass of Sangria in the evening – nothing out of the ordinary at all.

Then it struck me. I had done one thing that was different to my normal routine. Normally I will make a fruit smoothie before or after lunch, but I’d been running a lot of errands yesterday so didn’t make it until a few hours after dinner. And I’d added an extra ingredient that I’d never consumed before.

When I went to the fridge to get the yoghurt and wheat germ that I always add to my smoothies, I spotted a small jar of chia seeds on the shelf that I'd bought some time ago but never got around to trying. I read the label and it suggested adding a tablespoonful of the seeds to smoothies. I’d heard of chia seeds being described as one of nature’s superfoods, so thought I would try some in my smoothie. I wasn’t sure how they would taste, so I only added about a teaspoonful.

Could I be suffering from some sort of reaction to the chia seeds, despite the small quantity that I had consumed?

I got up and went back to my office and googled “Will chia seeds keep you awake” and lo and behold there was a page of results littered with the words “chia” and “awake” in a bold font. One search summary simply said “Do not take Chia after 2 PM as it will keep you awake at night”.

So despite having taken only a teaspoonful of chia seeds, it seems that was the cause of my sleeplessness. And probably because I had never taken them before, my stomach was reacting to them because I had taken them dry (many of the links I started reading recommended that they be soaked in water and made into a gel before adding to smoothies because they absorb large amounts of water and can therefore cause dehydration in the body if taken dry).

Many of the sites to which the search results linked told stories of Aztec and Mayan warriors marching through jungles for 24 hours on nothing more than a handful of chia seeds and some water. Health food sites raved about how rich they were in anti-oxidants and omega-3 fatty acids, and loaded with vitamin B-17 and phytonutrients. Other sites described them as better than coffee for providing an energy kick to enable people to work through the night without the side-effects of caffeine.

One health food site maintained that chia seeds “will let you fall asleep when you want to without disrupting your biorhythms” but that was a solitary site amongst hundreds of others saying the opposite. (I later noticed that the same site said “chia’s high levels of vitamins and nutrition won’t just help keep you awake, but they’ll give you the energy to operate at the very top of your game both in a physical and mental sense” – which seemed to contradict the earlier claim that they wouldn’t keep you awake).

So I came to the conclusion that it must have been the chia seeds that were keeping me awake – despite the relatively small dose that I took (perhaps being the first time I had consumed them, they had a greater effect on my body).

By this time I had been on the Web for more than an hour, and it was already dawn. I still didn’t feel sleepy so decided to have a shower and breakfast. At around 8 am I headed out to run a few errands and came home just before 10 am. I went into my office, turned on the computer, and started answering emails, but then realised I was nodding off in front of the computer. So just after 10 am I went back to bed, put my head on the pillow, and in less than five seconds I was fast asleep.

Despite being an advocate of natural foods with a strong interest in medicinal plants, I have always been a skeptic when it comes to many of the claims that health food purveyors make about their products (especially those that claim to cure cancer or make you look 30 years younger) but I seem to have stumbled across a product here that was definitely living up to its claim that it would “feed the body with a steady supply of energy that can last for hours”.

Unfortunately it supplied me with a steady supply of energy at a time when I didn’t want it, but having been subjected to its effects without realising what was causing them, I had unknowingly undertaken a sort of blind trial without being influenced by the claims for the product.

Sometimes when you consume a product that claims to give you more energy, and you subsequently feel energised, you are never sure whether the product is really working or whether it is a psychological reaction to the marketing claims. In my case I experienced the feeling of having more energy without realising what was producing that feeling. So it does seem that the claims being made by promoters of chia seeds are real.

Today I am feeling completely washed out because my body clock got thrown so much out of kilter by taking the chia seeds late at night (I feel like I have jet lag right now) but assuming I can get to sleep tonight, tomorrow I will try some chia seeds with my breakfast and see if they give me an energy boost in the morning.

The ‘offending’ chia seeds. I note the bottle says this is a 7-day supply. Based on the reaction I had to one teaspoonful, I don’t think it would be wise for me to try consuming the contents of this bottle within a week – I think I would be jumping out of my skin.



Orchid book back in stock again

WOC Library Shop.jpg

After selling out a second time, the library shop at the World Orchid Conference (WOC) here in Singapore has received more copies of our new book Growing Orchids in the Tropics. On the first day of the WOC - 13 November - the bookshop sold out by 3.30 pm. The next batch to arrive sold out in two days. The bookshop manager told us that our publication was the top selling book at this event, so that's why they've now given it pride of place on top of the white table in the middle of this photograph. They've even placed a beautiful Phalaenopsis right behind the display copy.