Ben's visit to JB

I received an email from our friend, T. Matsumoto, in April saying that he was coming to Johor Baru for a visit in August.

Ben also captured this view of
Kota Iskandar from the Sultan Ismail Building
I realised that JB remains close to his heart because when he had plans to attend a conference in Kuala Lumpur in August, he extended his stay to visit us in JB.  

When we first met him, Matsumoto-san told us to call him Ben, so to many of the younger ones, he is Uncle Ben. 

We got to know Ben when he lived and worked in JB and I remember we even had an interesting tour of his work place, a manufacturing plant which produced wet tissues.  Since he left JB some ten years ago, we remained in touch through email.

My dad had a good rapport with Ben because dad enjoyed practicing his Japanese language with Ben.  Like thousands who lived through the Japanese Occupation in Malaya, dad had to sing the Japanese anthem daily and learnt to speak the language.

Ben signing the guest book after his tour of the
JB Chinese Heritage Museum
All that is in the past but our Japanese friends recognised that it was a sad period in history and I remember how they solemnly apologized to us with deep bows.

In every email, Ben would ask about my dad and send his regards to him.  After dad’s passing in January, I shared the sad news with Ben through my blog posts. 

I’m deeply touched that Ben actually remembered my recollections because when we drove pass that hospital, he pointed out that this was where it happened.  This just reflects what a dear friend he is to our family.

Since receiving Ben’s email in April, I had in mind various ideas to show him the changes in the JB he once knew – from the heritage quarter to the new developments in Iskandar Malaysia –and planning meals with friends who are also acquainted with him.  I wanted to make him feel welcome and maximize his time here to see as many places and meet as many friends as possible over the weekend.

Reading the information inside the Drums Cafe
In the last ten years, a great deal of change has taken place in our city and as I was showing this to Ben, I realised that not only is our city skyline is changing, our shoreline is also changing.  Our Lido Beach no longer exists and what new beaches we have now are artificially created and no longer open to the general public.

As we observed lighter vehicular traffic on Friday and Saturday – at least free from school buses – I explained to Ben about Johor’s weekend, which is now changed to Friday and Saturday while the private sector still maintained their weekend on Saturday and Sunday.

Checking out the layout plan of Educity in Iskandar Puteri
When we explored the heritage area, Ben was fascinated to see the long queue outside Hiap Joo, the traditional bakers at Jalan Tan Hiok Nee.  Standing first in line, Ben had the chance to read the poster with a list of products and zeroed in on his choice for buns filled with red bean paste and shredded coconut!

To give him an overview of our city’s early development, I took Ben on a tour of the JB Chinese Heritage Museum.  On level two of the museum, the display outlines the various periods of political developments in Johor before Merdeka in 1957 and this included the turbulent period of the Japanese Occupation and the Emergency. 

Food fellowship over South Indian cuisine
I did not give much commentary as the display which included a Japanese soldier’s cap and sword along with information printed on plaques, were self-explanatory.  From vivid recollections that I heard from my grandmother and my dad, I have a clear picture of what took place in Malaya and Singapore during the dreadful war. 

As I stood next to Ben, I could sense his sadness at the atrocities of war but this was the reality in the Asia-Pacific region during World War Two.  I’m just grateful that this is all in the past and we have such records to remind us that war is really not the answer.

There was even Peking Duck for lunch!
When I explained the significance pepper and gambier in Johor, its cultivation and export to the world in the 1800s, Ben learnt how these humble plants earned its place of honour in our state.  Later when we drove around the city and visited Kota Iskandar, he was able to spot the prolific use of pepper and gambier motifs everywhere!

We continued our heritage tour into the Drums Café where I introduced Ben to a proudly Johor-born art of drumming in this café with a theme, inspired by the 24 Festive Drums.  We sat at a table designed from an old drum and had cups of delicious coffee decorated with a Chinese character, gu for “drum” – Ben read it comfortably and explained that the Japanese language also used similar Chinese characters.

A delectable Chinese banquet for lunch
To balance his visit to the older part of JB, I showed Ben the newer developments in Iskandar Puteri.  He was impressed to see the model of the planned projects displayed in the Puteri Harbour clubhouse and even pointed out the tiny flag that indicated, “You are here” as a perspective of how huge this entire development is.

When I showed Ben the various developments in sectors like Educity and Medini, he was suitably impressed.  The interesting exhibits in the gallery in the Sultan Ismail Building, Kota Iskandar, gave him another glimpse of Johor’s rich history and modern development happening in the city he once lived in.

This was what Ben missed eating here - the thorny fruit!
Besides showing Ben the changes in our city, I was pleased to share various food options with him.  As the bonds of friendship may be renewed over good food, the plan was to invite as many friends who could join him for meals here.

A quick check with Ben confirmed that he was ready to taste any food ranging from hot and spicy Tom Yam and South Indian cuisine to typically Chinese food.  Before I could ask him if he had in mind, any local food that he longed to taste again, Ben volunteered the info: The king of fruits – durians!

This made planning for each meal much easier and I was glad he could enjoy a range of food with a host of people who were delighted to catch up with him.

Ben enjoying the taste of Malaysian durian!
So Ben’s itinerary here included good food and warm fellowship over lunch, dinner and afternoon tea – topped with what he longed to taste again – plenty of thorny fruits as well as creamy durian in crème puffs!

The clear weather gave him a beautiful backdrop for photo mementoes but I saw that the time shared together was ever so precious not only to Ben but also for all of us.

I sent Ben to the airport and he left JB for his midnight flight from KLIA to Osaka and the next day, I received an email from him saying that he was safely home. 

I smiled as I imagined him speaking in his Japanese-accented English when I read his line, “I think Malaysia is more comfortable than Japan in summer season.”  That was because he got home to very hot weather – a sweltering 36 degrees C…

Thanks Ben, for coming to revisit JB and renew our special bond of friendship, established here so long ago.  We look forward to welcoming you to JB again – maybe in 10 years’ time – or maybe we will meet in Osaka someday soon!  

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