When I packed my suitcase to visit Hakodate in Japan last December, the last thing I expected to see was a reminder of home at almost every corner I turned.
Thousands of kilometres away from Singapore, in the southern tip of Hokkaido, there is someone so fascinated with Singapore that he brings back whatever he can, to remind him of the Lion City.
I had heard about the man who had a merlion built, but what I didn't expect to see was a shrine of sorts.
There was not one, but three, merlions - one full-sized and two babies - perched in a park in the city centre of Hakodate. If it wasn't 3 deg C and threatening to snow, one could have easily imagined that this was Singapore.
The merlions - erected on Nov 18, 1989 - didn't look too out of place even though one was spouting water into a pond that was partially frozen. According to my guide, they were built as a symbol of peace and safety after a sea accident in the vicinity killed thousands two decades ago.
At the entrance to the little garden is an arch that says 'Merlion Park'. Below is a plaque explaining that 'the merlion is a national tourism symbol of Singapore...'.
After I checked into Hotel Hakodate Royal, I walked around the lobby and saw a rickety trishaw with a Singapore nameplate. The souvenir shop was named Sentosa Shop, the bar served Singapore Sling, and there were orchids in each guestroom.
I couldn't wait to meet the man responsible for this - 64-year-old Masaru Yanagisawa - a hotelier, fishery boss and philanthropist. He is also chairman of the Singapore Association, whose members are mainly Japanese with an interest in Singapore.
A taste for Singapore: Philantropist Masaru Yanagisawa is chairman of the Singapore Association, whose members are mainly Japanese with an interest in Singapore.
When I met him for 30 minutes before a dinner he was hosting, he was in a suit and tie, looking nothing like the fishery boss who goes to the port at 4am to bid for the best sea produce.
As he later told me with a chuckle: 'When I have my wellington boots on, I'm earning money. When I wear my suit and tie, I'm throwing away my money.'
For a man who owns virtually half of Hakodate, from the Hotel Hakodate Royal to the morning market to the museums and restaurants that dot the city, he was refreshingly candid and humble.
When I asked about his fascination with Singapore, he said that he had seen it grow over the last four decades. This mirrored the rise of his business, so he felt 'this affinity' for Singapore.
Hakodate, the third-largest city in Hokkaido, is a quieter and more conservative cousin of bustling Tokyo, but it is no less charming. It is most famous for its spectacular night view from the top of Mount Hakodate and its fresh sea produce.
The night view from Hakodate-yama, as the locals call it, is considered the third best in the world, after those in Naples in Italy and Hong Kong.
But it was the cable-car ride up the 334m-tall mountain that was the most thrilling for me. As we ascended, I watched the city buildings shrink. The children with another tour group, standing beside me, gasped in wonder at the pretty sight.
To Singaporeans, Hakodate is probably more well known for its gastronomic delights. Before I visited, friends had told me to go for the seafood, dairy products, biscuits, chocolates, potatoes and sweets.
I started with a decadent seafood breakfast of kani (crab) and salmon sashimi with rice at the morning market for about $15 per bowl.
Get crabby: Huge crabs are cooked on the spot.
'All fresh from the fishing boat this morning. You can't get this anywhere else,' my guide said proudly.
Three ocean currents meet in the waters around Hakodate, bringing in an abundance of seafood.
The succulent salmon sashimi left me wanting more, while the large chunks of tender crabmeat, steamed without any dressing, were perfect.
A sight to behold were the giant crabs, squid and shrimp. You take your pick, and the chef grills it over a hot pit in front of you. Prices range from $10 to $30, depending on the item and portion.
Lunch was at a crowded shio-ramen restaurant. Shio, which means salt, is used to enhance the flavour of this homestyle noodle-soup dish. At slightly less than $10 a bowl, it came steaming hot with vegetables and pork - wonderful in freezing weather.
For dinner, I had a taste of raw seafood. From tuna and mackerel to sea urchin and salmon eggs to squid and scallops, the array was mind-boggling, and fresh. At $80 for a platter shared by six, I thought it was reasonable.
Surprisingly, it was also there that I truly appreciated a baked potato, served western-style with a slab of melting butter. The locals think nothing of having a whole potato alongside their sashimi, which I had initially thought an odd combination. But if it works, why not?
For goodies to bring home, I entered the Hakodate Factory at West Market Square. Prices were similar to those charged by other outlets around the city and even in the hotel I stayed, but the factory had a wider selection. Prices range from $10 for a cheese cake to $30 for intricate-looking, nicely-packaged Japanese snack boxes.
It started snowing on my second night there. The tropical city girl in me had prayed for snow. But I could walk on the streets and enjoy the light snowfall for only a few minutes, as my gloves and cotton socks were not made for zero-degree temperature.
Numb fingers and toes notwithstanding, it was a scene out of a fairytale at the Bay Area, where small stores were brightly decorated for the festive season.
Park favourite: The Onuma National Park with the dormant volcano, Mount Komagatake, in the background. In summer, people cycle around the park or go canoeing on the lake.
In the morning, I saw that the streets, buildings and trees were blanketed with snow. It had also fallen in a national park 20km north of Hakodate, the Onuma Koen, making it look like a scene from the popular Korean drama, Winter Sonata.
By the time I reached the park in mid-afternoon, the snow had begun to melt and the roads were slippery. I was thankful that my guide had arranged for a boat ride, instead of a jungle trek.
There is a beautiful lake dotted with tiny islands, set against the backdrop of the magnificent dormant volcano, Mount Komagatake. The latter looked very pretty and harmless with a snowcap. But when it last erupted decades ago, it killed hundreds, said my guide.
Walking out of the park in the evening, I was struck by how scenic it was, and how perfect it would be for a romantic interlude. I would be back, and hopefully not alone.
Picture perfect: Lake Onuma in Onuma National Park. According to the local guide, the swans only appear in winter.
For information, call the Japan National Tourist Organisation's Singapore office on 6223-8205 or visit www.jnto.go.jp .
5 things to do
1 Do visit the waterfront warehouses. The single-storey brick buildings now house a variety of commercial facilities including gift shops, supermarkets and restaurants.
2 Make a trip to the Goryokaku Tower, especially if you don't make it up Mount Hakodate. The 107m-tall tower in the Goryokaku area offers a panaromic view of the city. An adult ticket costs 840 yen (S$10.60).
3 Take a walk along one of Hakodate's slopes from the foot of Mount Hakodate (below). The many slopes lead to the sea and wind past historical buildings like the Hakodate Church - the oldest Protestant church in Hokkaido - and the British Consulate.
4 See some of the more offbeat museums in the city. For example, there is one that is devoted to photographic history, and another to classic cars, with more than 80 models all lovingly restored. Admission to the Classic Car Museum is 1,000 yen.
5 Go to the nearby town of Nanae. Apart from admiring the scenic Mount Komagatake at Onuma National Park, you can also cycle or canoe your way around.
There are also interesting museums like the seaweed museum and the Hakodate winery en route to Nanae. Most of these museums also produce their own products, so you can try or buy them.
You can book with local travel agencies for such trips.
1 Don't stinge on buying edible souvenirs. I regret not buying more of the chocolate-coated strawberries and Hakodate fruit wines. At prices between 750 and 1,700 yen, they are affordable gifts for the family.
2 Don't expect the locals to speak much English, especially at non-tourist hangouts like the morning market. Instead, learn some simple Japanese words for seafood or take along a phrasebook, so you won't be totally lost.
Photos by: Jane Ng