Tamgaly Rock Carvings

We are lost.

We must be lost – we have been driving for almost 3 hours and haven’t seen a sign for Tamgaly for about 45 minutes. I forgot to mention, our driver has never been there, and has no GPS.

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Thank you, Google maps

But how can we be lost? There is only one road to Tamgaly, and we are on it. It’s a road that stretches forever, beyond the horizon, slicing through mile after mile of pale yellow fields, where once in a while wild horses kick up storms of dust, and other than that, there is almost nothingness.

Up ahead, a large tree drapes some shade across the road, and as we approach, a figure that was laying down there, waiting for who knows how many hours, stands up, dusts himself off, and sticks out his thumb. This is a common way to get around in Kazakhstan, and almost everyone is willing to take you somewhere, for a small fee.

We pull over and the young man perks up. Finally! he must be thinking. But he will be disappointed. We are not stopping to give him a ride – our car is full, and we just want directions.

Our driver asks how to get to Tamgaly. The man peeks in the backseat at us, the tourists, probably wondering why in hell foreigners would want to drive out into the middle of nowhere on a hot summer day to look at some old rocks. After a brief exchange, we take off. Apparently it will only take another 30 minutes. The young man lays back down in the road to wait.

And finally, there! We see it, up ahead. A small fenced compound, with two large white yurts, one car, a horse with a saddle, two port-a-potties, and a sign – TAMGALY.

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There is only one person at this UNESCO World Heritage Site, an old copper coloured Kazakh man who is missing his two front teeth. We pay the meagre entrance fee, and just then a big 4×4 pulls up. An old English gentleman, a young Chinese photographer and a translator join our tour group, and we set off for a walk in the Tamgaly Gorge. Our driver and his friend, who came along for the journey, decide instead to wait in the shade and drink vodka. To each his own.

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The Tamgaly Petroglyphs are a stunning collection of more than 5,000 rock carvings dating from the Bronze Age, around 2000 B.C. To make them accessible to the public, they are separated into seven main groups, spread out around the valley, and each one is different. A rough footpath has been created to allow people to get close to the rocks, but some are so high up you can’t reach them. Thousands more are said to be in this area, but have not yet been excavated.

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The first group of carvings we see are quite simple, but beautiful, depicting almost child-like shapes of animals, such as horses, elk or deer, even camels, and people. As we walk and climb, they become more intricate, showing hunters, dancers, tools and weapons.

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We climb from one to the next, looking closely at what people chiseled into the stone thousands of years ago, and are delighted over and over again by how they are at the same time simple and amazingly expressive. My daughter surprises me by wanting to go higher and higher to see more, and she was excited every time she found one.

The ones that I like the best are the group of bizarre, far out ‘sun head’ gods, which, according to the booklet, have also been found elsewhere in Kazakhstan, and are referred to in the local language as ‘the images of the disguised‘. To me, they look like aliens, come down to earth.

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I just love the ones of people dancing!

Some of the petroglyphs are a bit damaged, with bits and pieces missing, and it can be hard to make out what you are looking at. But stand there and look closely, and you’ll get it.

All in all the tour took about an hour and a half, perhaps closer to two hours. The guide didn’t speak any English but was friendly and helpful, showing you which way to go, and pointing out the most interesting petroglyphs. The route is rough and climbing is involved so wear good shoes. There are no facilities other than a few benches, and little to no shade, so stock up on hats and sun block.

 

It is hard to believe that this incredible historical site is just sitting there, unprotected, and completely vulnerable to anyone who may want to come along and do some serious damage. Some of the groups of carvings actually did have grafitti, and some smart ass drew a horse on one of the rocks! The translator with our group said that during past excavations, many carvings were removed and stolen. There is literally nothing protecting this UNESCO World Heritage site, other than the old man with no front teeth.

It was a long day, but truly unforgettable. In my opinion this was also more interesting than the Charyn Canyon, which is a pretty view, but not much else. This makes you feel like you are walking in the footsteps of ancient civilisations. Or maybe I’ve just seen too many Indiana Jones movies when I was growing up. Either way, I loved it, and it stands out as the highlight of the entire trip. The remoteness of the location just adds to the feeling that you have stepped back in time. There is nothing around, as far as the eye can see. That is something that you can never, ever get in a crowded place of Hong Kong, so I really enjoyed the sensation of finally being far away from civilisation.

When we returned to Almaty, we were exhausted and starving, so went immediately to a restaurant nearby. And much to our shock and delight, what did we find painted on the walls of the bathroom??

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Life imitates art, isn’t that what they say?

 

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Charyn Canyon – the Valley of Castles

I hate long drives, unless I’m the one doing the driving. There is just something so tedious about sitting in the back seat for hours on end. Especially with a 4-year-old in tow for 200 kilometres! ARE WE THERE YET?

Unfortunately, as a first time tourist in Kazakhstan, I was not willing or brave enough to rent a car and test my wits against the insane local drivers or have to bribe the ever present car chasing cops.

So, we hired a driver for the day, a very responsible driver (thank goodness) who had a very powerful 4×4, because to get to the Charyn Canyon, you simply cannot rock up in your little Hyundai Accent rental. The highway leading out of the city is fine, and the ride is very scenic. But after passing through a deep, winding valley, you then turn off the main road and drive on a really, really rough and bumpy dirt path for a good half hour or so.

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But finally, FINALLY, you arrive, and are rewarded with the most incredible scenery. I’ve never seen a canyon before, so it really blew me away. And we only saw a small section of it!

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If you are planning to do this trip on your own, don’t worry, it is easy enough. Our driver was just that – a driver. He was not a guide, he couldn’t give us ANY information about where to descend or come back up, or how long it would take, or which paths were steep or dangerous. Oh and he didn’t speak a word of English. So here’s my advice for a self guided tour:

After you enter the park and pay the entrance fee, you can park your car pretty much anywhere. There are lots of foot paths along the top, leading to look out points with a bird’s eye view of the canyon. There are also official descent paths, on your right, which are marked with signs in English. The recommended route is to descend down the first down-path sign that you see, walk through the canyon (about 3km), and then ascend again before you reach the Eco Park, where you can camp or rent a cabin for the night.

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Be aware that to climb down and climb back up again, it can be REALLY steep and the rocky path is loose and slippery! You need proper running shoes at a minimum, but hiking boots would be better. Carrying 18 kg children is also something best avoided.

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Many tour companies recommend doing the canyon in a 2-day or even 3-day trip, partly because of the 3-hour drive to get there, and partly because there are a lot of different parts of the canyon to see. The Valley of the Castles is the closest one and most frequently visited. I’m sure camping under the stars in the canyon is incredible, and if it wasn’t 32’C we might have considered overnighting. But personally, I was happy enough to do this as a day trip. After 2 hours of walking around, climbing back up, and almost hyperventilating, we were ready to get back. Seriously, the canyon was incredibly hot and there is NO SHADE except for a few rudimentary stone huts they have built. No wonder they do not recommend going in the summer. Be prepared!

Anyway, we had 400 km of driving, 6 hours in the car, and some mild sunstroke…. but the really fantastic scenery definitely made it worth the drive.

 

 

 

 

In the Land of the Wanderers – Trip to Kazakhstan

I had only been in Almaty for about 20 minutes, and already I had managed to embarrass myself.

We were all sitting in the backseat of a smoke-scented taxi with a busted windscreen, heading to our hotel, and chatting with the driver Andre, who could speak some pretty decent English, having spent a few years living in Belgium as a young man.

After chatting for a while, I asked him something that I had not been able to find out about online: “Do you know where we can sleep in a yurt?”

Andre frowns, and takes his eyes off the road for entirely too long to look at me very strangely.

“A yurta?” He makes the shape of the round house ubiquitous with the nomadic tribes of Kazakhstan. “You want to sleep inside this?” He starts to laugh and shakes his head. “No no, this is crazy. Smell inside is very bad. Nobody will do this. Why you want to do this?”

Maybe it would be the equivalent of a tourist arriving in America and asking if there was some dodgy trailer park they could spend the night, rather than a nice clean hotel? I have no idea. Maybe once upon a time a yurt was still commonly used as a dwelling, but is disappearing in the country’s march to modernity. I had thought that it might be a nice experience to sleep in a yurt once in my life, if only for a night. Oh well!

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Jokes on him! I did manage to sneak into a yurt to snap some pictures. 

Never in a million years did I ever expect to have the chance to visit the ‘glorious nation’ of Kazakhstan. But when my husband’s job had to send him there for two weeks, I knew this could be once in a lifetime opportunity not to be missed.

Not being familiar with Central Asia, I had to do some serious research to understand a bit about where I was going, and what there was to see. And the more I read, the more excited I became.

But first, you may be wondering, where the heck is Kazakhstan? (Don’t worry, I had to brush up on my geography too.)

It’s the largest land-locked nation in the world, bordering Russia, China, Kyrgystan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. And, like its neighbours, it is an ex-Soviet Union country, with a very strong Russian influence. Russian is the number one language, followed by Kazakh. The people there are a really fascinating mix of ethnicities, some with blond hair and blue eyes, some with Korean and Mongolian and Chinese backgrounds, and the ethnic Kazakhs, a traditionally nomadic people who had tamed wild horses around 8000 B.C.. And that description just barely scrapes the surface of the incredible history and culture of this place.

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At a beautiful local restaurant, Rumi

A surprisingly easy six hour flight from Hong Kong took us to the old capital city, Almaty. It turned out to be quite a scenic place, with large tree-lined boulevards, large parks with fountains and monuments, and, of course, the ever present mountains that tower over you at all times.

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Fantastic view from the hotel

Some parts of the city seem modern, with trendy cafes, shopping malls, Starbucks cafes and Toni and Guy hair salons. But the old USSR influence is still very tangible. You can see it in the architecture, and feel it in the imposing walls, gates and fences that surround presidential palaces, with a seemingly never ending supply of policemen who take great joy in stopping people for bad driving, and trust me, everyone drives badly. I mean, I thought Trinis were bad, but Kazakhs really took it to a new level!

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While in the city, we did the typical sightseeing of popular spots, such as the Green Bazaar, a massive marketplace selling fresh produce, meat, spices, dried fruits, and lots and lots of honey. You can also stock up on some great counterfeit goods like fake Lego from China. Nearby was the Panfilov Park, and the famous Zenkov Cathedral, which unfortunately was getting a facelift and was covered in scaffolding. We did, however, get to see an orthodox baptism ceremony for a Russian family.

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All in all Almaty is an interesting place, and thanks to Uber incredibly easy and cheap to get around, with most things within a 15 minute car ride. But the real interesting stuff was what came next, when we drove 200 km out of the city, and into the middle of nowhere, to see the wild side of Kazakhstan.

Stay tuned for the next post!

Thailand Temptations

Thailand is the kind of place where after a day or two your brain switches gear and starts thinking crazy things, like whether you are too young to get a retirement visa (you have to be 50, for the record), or if there is some other way you can get a visa to stay there long term, some way some how, because you simply just don’t need or want to go back to where you’ve come from.

Stay, Thailand beckons. Just stay.

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Wouldn’t you rather be here?

Thailand is a seducer. After three days in Koh Samui, I had already adapted to Thai Time, as if my previous life did not exist. I could easily have not come back to Hong Kong. Possessions? Who needs them, when every day you awake to a perfect blue sky, to squirrels climbing in the bamboo outside your window, to the lush green mountains and sandy beaches.

And the food. THE FOOD. What an orgy for your tongue, a rich cornucopia of green curries, noodles, mango and coconut rice, spicy papaya salad, and a whole bunch of other things I can’t even begin to pronounce.

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YES MORE PLEASE

Strolling through the weekly Walking Street night market, the colors are so vibrant, the sounds of the tinkling ranat echo through your ears, the smells of cooking all around you…. you just want to inhale everything, taste everything, touch everything. And when it’s so cheap, buy everything.

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Local entertainment at Walking Street, every Sunday in Lamai

 

Just stay! your brain says. Come on, you know you want to. It would be so easy….

My father moved to Koh Samui ten years ago, and no matter how many times I go to visit, somehow it still grabs me. I’m still amazed at the cool, fun vibe, it’s still fun going to the same bars, I’m still excited to be there. And I think maybe something that appeals to me is that in some ways it reminds me of Trinidad. It’s decadent. It’s sexy. It’s slightly lawless. Anything goes, once everyone is having a good time.

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Duffing around at Royal Samui Golf Club
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View from Lamai Lookout Point

After 10 blissful days, I reluctantly accepted that all good things must come to an end (do they HAVE to? Really? Who made up that bullshit? Surely there is some way….) and boarded the plane back to Hong Kong, and to reality. Sigh.

Ah well Thailand, until we meet again.

 

 

Bangkok Family Fun

Thailand’s crowded, traffic clogged capital, Bangkok, is not exactly the first place that comes to mind when you think of family friendly activities. Shopping, yes. Food, yes. Night time ‘entertainment’, ladyboy cabarets, street markets, definitely. But family fun?

Yes!

You would be surprised to learn that in the past ten years, this mega city has built so many attractions aimed at kids, including safaris, aquariums, ice skating rinks, science museums, and more. Most of them are right outside the train stations too, so getting around is easy and cheap.

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Bangkok has a well organised and easy to use transport system

On this short trip, we only managed to scratch the surface by visiting two places.

The first was Snow Town – a place that perhaps got a bit of inspiration from the infamous ski slopes in the Mall of Dubai. It might be 30’C and 100% humidity outside, but inside Snow Town the ice machines are creating a nice slope for sledding, as well as ‘snow’ for making snow men and snow balls. And of course living in Asia she’s never seen ‘snow’ before so it was a good novelty.

You can rent sleds of all sizes, but I recommend getting a bigger one or else your kids will get very wet butts. It was my daughter’s first time and I couldn’t get her off the sled!

The other place that was a LOT better than I expected it to be was Dinosaur Planet. Unfortunately when we went, it was pouring with rain, and the ticket staff were reluctant to let us in because more than half of the attractions would not be operating. But we decided to go anyway and it was worth it. If your kid likes dinosaurs, then this place is fantastic. They have dinosaur skeletons, fossils, and eggs. In one section, a ‘scientist’ pretends to examine some eggs, until a T-Rex comes down from the ceiling and tries to eat him.

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Another part is a ‘4D’ movie complete with shaking seats and super sound effects as fierce beasts chase you. My kid also loved the sand pit where you can excavate bones and fossils. Too bad we could not do all of the other attractions.

 

And of course, a good part of a vacation is just chilling by the pool, eating good food, and taking it easy. Bangkok is an INTENSE place with lots of noise, lots of crowds, and lots of traffic. So sometimes it is nice to just stay in the hotel and get a bit of peace and quiet. And room service, of course. Because some cold Singha and a green curry is absolutely fantastic after a long day of sightseeing.

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Sesoko Island

On a hot and sunny Saturday, there’s nothing better to do than fill up the tank of gas, grab your snorkel, and hit the beach.

Sesoko Jima (island) is connected to the main Okinawa island by a tiny bridge, and about a 90 minute drive from Naha city up the east coast. After exiting the expressway you drive along the western side of the Motobu peninsula and it is very easy to follow the signs to Sesoko.

The tall bridge takes you over some really pristine blue water – even blue enough to rival the famed Kerama islands.

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Just after crossing the bridge you turn left, and take the first left down to Anchi Beach. ¥500 for parking was fine with us. There are also showers and life vest rentals on the beach.

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It’s always funny to see how in the west, when people go to the beach they lay down for hours in the sun. But in the east, people avoid the sun as much as they can. Me included! I was happy to have a huge piece of shade to set up our stuff.

The swimming right under the bridge is really beautiful, and over to your right where the boats are parked is a small reef. As you enter the water it seems as though the reef is dead from people walking on it. But if you swim out a bit more, the reef is pretty healthy.

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There isn’t much else to see or do on Sesoko Jima, although Sesoko Beach is on the other side of the island. I was happy enough to stay at Anchi Beach to soak up the salt water and drink a cold Orion under the bridge! This might be a good place to go for a swim if you happen to be up in Motobu at the Aquarium or visiting something else in Nago.

 

Lake Shikotsu

As mentioned in the previous post, after liming in Sapporo for a night, we were ready for the real adventure – two nights at the Marukoma Onsen hotel at Lake Shikotsu, and a kayaking trip on the lake.

The area that comprises the Shikotsu-Toya National Park is very volcanic, and the two lakes are calderas, meaning they were formed by the collapse of a volcano following an eruption. Indeed all along the lake front you can see the sand is black.

What is special about Marukoma Onsen is that it is one of the few places in Japan that has a genuine open-air onsen spring flowing directly into the lake. Over the decades the residents of the area moved the stones to trap the mineral water and turn part of the river bed into a pool deep enough to sit down in and have a good soak. The water level rises and falls with the lake. And with no neighbours around – the hotel is literally at the end of the road – you don’t ever have to worry about anyone seeing you in your naked glory.

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The lakeside onsen
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View from the bedroom
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So damn happy to be there! And, ready to eat.

After an amazing dinner of local specialties served in our tatami room, we then went to onsen, and when we came back everything had been cleared away and our futons put out for the night. Gotta love Japanese service, it’s amazing.

Next day we headed out to explore the nearby village and the Shikotsuko Visitor Center, a tiny area with some restaurants and cafes, and activities such as bike and boat rentals. We took The Kid on the glass bottom boat which was all right, but in a volcanic lake there isn’t exactly a lot to see under the water other than some fish. But, it was definitely a child-friendly activity.

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Following this, we drove to the other side of the lake to meet up with the kayaking guides of the Otaki Outdoor Adventures, and this was definitely the highlight of the trip. The lake has incredible clarity – number one in all of Japan and at times it looks as though the kayaks are not even touching the water. The weather was perfect and the wind was low so it was smooth sailing. The guides also took us over the dropoff, where suddenly the water gets so deep and the most incredible blue colour that I’ve never seen before.

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Good use of the paddle
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The floating kayak

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And the happy guides. Wouldn’t you be happy if this was your job?

We also stopped twice on the shore to stretch our legs along the lakefront and admire the view. On the ground next to the river we could see deer prints and rabbit prints in the sand. Very cool! We also saw four deer during the drive home. But thankfully no bears which, no doubt, are plentiful in this area.

We were all incredibly sad to leave the warm, soul soothing waters of the onsen, and the stunning blue sky on Hokkaido, and return to Hong Kong. But, that is life I suppose. For sure Hokkaido is a place I am dying to explore more of, as soon as possible.

Eat me!

One of the things that I made sure to bring with me from Japan was all of my super cute amazing tools for making bento – lunch boxes – because I knew it would not be available in Hong Kong. Thankfully in Japan they are a dime a dozen, and every dollar store sells them.

So how to make kawaii bento? It doesn’t take much fancy ingredients; the trick is in turning something ordinary, like a carrot, into something cute, like a heart. A lot of times I think kids also want something small and bite sized for their tiny fingers instead of something big and messy, so cute little bites seem to do the trick.

Here are some of the easy and fast things I like to put in The Kid’s obento:

  1. Carrot hearts – slice the carrots and use a heart-shaped cookie cutter to punch out the shape
  2. Big eyed shrimp – I bought frozen shrimp, pan fried it, and stuck the eye picks in the top

  3. Three little bears – Slice a pice of Spam and use a bear-shaped cookie cutter to punch the shape (you can use any shape, really). Place the bears on a bed of rice (let the rice cool though)

  4. Edamame – Out of the pod though in the pod is OK too
  5. Rabbit/Bear Eggs – Put a hard boiled egg (peeled) into a plastic egg mold to get a cute shape/face, in this case a rabbit

  6. Silicone cups of salad – Tiny tomatoes, cucumbers, broccoli, whatever kid likes
  7. Pan fried dumplings – If your kids does like them, that is
  8. Sandwiches – But using a Hello Kitty bread stamp. You can put anything inside – ham and cheese, or honey and PB

     

    I know exactly what you are going to say……

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But really, it does not take long! The ingredients are simple enough – rice or pasta, some kind of meat, kid’s favorite veggies or fruits, eggs, cheese, easy right? And no lie, every single day my kid comes home with a 100% empty lunch box. So why not put in a little bit more creativity to encourage kids to eat? A plain old sandwich and an apple every day is pretty dreadful. Really, this cute shit is pretty easy once you get the hang of it and I think worth the effort, because what is the use of your child coming home every day with a half eaten lunch box?

However…. making this stuff may not be so easy if you don’t have the required tools.

So, if anyone out there is interested in embracing the concept of cute obento, I have a specific limited time offer.

I will gladly send you a package of stuff through the mail in exchange for a few packages of Chief Brand Curry Powder, because my stocks are running low and I cannot make curry out of anything else.

Whose interested?

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Springtime in Sapporo

It is May in the city of Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaido, Japan’s second largest island. Often referred to as ‘Japan’s Wild North’, the name is well deserved, because although it has a lot of space, Hokkaido remains largely underdeveloped. Just outside the city centre, bears and deer roam free, and within an hour’s drive or train ride you can be in a totally rural setting, with lakes, active volcanoes, and snow capped mountains.

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A wild north it is indeed, and most people come here in the winter to enjoy the popular Snow Festival, and skiing on what is considered some of the best snow and powder in the world. (Being a Trini girl, I’m not sure exactly what that means, because I’d hate to think what would happen if I ever strapped skis to my feet, but it has made Hokkaido world famous.)

Being the tail end of spring, our plan was to rent a car and go explore Lake Shikotsu, about an hour’s drive from Sapporo, and stay in an onsen hotel right by one of Japan’s most active volcanoes.

But first we spent some time in the city, which turned out to be a surprisingly beautiful place, with tree-lined avenues, parks, and an almost Vancouver-like view of mountains every time you look down a road. It was easy to get around, people were helpful and friendly, and many places had English menus – all things that are hard to find in Japan. Unfortunately, the first day was quite rainy and cloudy.

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We stayed in the popular Susukino area, which is an ‘entertainment district’  (i.e. red light district), with loads of izakaya, bars and restaurants. We also went through the long Tanukikoji Shopping Arcade, which was mostly full of overpriced souvenirs, but fun to see anyway.

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Another thing that was good to do on a rainy day was to stroll through the Nijo Market where they serve seafood so fresh that you can literally point at, say, some oysters or scallops, and then the auntie will pluck them out, put them on a dish for you, and you can sit on the tiny chairs on the sidewalk to eat them with chopsticks. The Chinese tourists were really going full on about this.

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The next day in Sapporo I also did some obligatory touristy things, such as the Mt Moiwa ropeway – a cable car just on the western edge of downtown that takes you up a beautiful mountain to give you a view of the city. From the top you can see the Sea of Japan, nearby volcanoes, and all of Sapporo. My goal was to take the cable car to the top and then walk down on the foot path, but it was closed that day. FOR BEARS. No lie!

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Last on the list of touristy things to do was the Maruyama Zoo, which proved to be like all other zoos: mostly sad and depressing. We didn’t spend so much time at the zoo but the Maruyama Park was stunning. Everything was in full bloom, schools were on field trips, little groups of old ladies and gents were foraging in the forest for wild mushrooms and edible greens. The cherry blossoms were still blooming and though the peak was over it was still beautiful.

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How lucky I think the people of Sapporo are to have a vibrant city centre, but also so much incredible nature all around. In Tokyo you can sit on a train for two hours and literally STILL be inside the city – it’s that big. But Sapporo seems like a wonderful place to live.

Up next – the trip to Lake Shikotsu

Dai Seki Rin Zan

Do you see it, hiding the rocks? What does it look like? Is it an alien face, peering out?  *cue spooky music*

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How about this one? A shaggy camel perhaps?

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And this lovely is most definitely a big crocodile!  Can you see its mouth?

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Look closely up to the top of the hill – can you spot the sleeping cat?

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And what a cute lizard! Perfectly formed.

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These are just some of the amazing rock formations that happen to look like animals at the Daisekirinzan National Park. The name, 大石林山、literally means Big Stone Woods Mountain, and is a fantastic natural wonder of limestones carved away by what scientists believe was 200 million years – yes you read that right, creationists! – of rain.

Considered a sacred spot by the original settlers of Okinawa, I can only imagine how it must have been thousands of years ago, walking through the dense jungles, and seeing the strange formations all around you. Today it is part of a national park and has well laid out trails and walk ways. However, it still remains a spiritual place where people come to pray at the ‘power spots’. I myself made sure to walk through Reincarnation Rock which, if you walk through three times, you receive ‘another life’.

Daisekirinzan is also home to a forest of giant gajumaru, which is the Okinawa word for banyan trees. This one is the biggest in Japan.  The locals believe that a forest spirit called a Kijimuna lives in the gajumaru trees.

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These were the views from the Ocean View Trail. You could see some islands that belong to Kagoshima prefecture, some 25 kilometres away.

 

 

There are three walking trails, and each one takes about 30 minutes. We first did the Wonder of Rocks Trail, and then the Ocean View Trail. After that you can take the shuttle bus back down to the parking lot, or walk through the Subtropical Forest Trail. I highly recommend you do all three because it is an easy walk downhill on the forest trail, and that is where all the big gajumaru are. It is incredibly beautiful and the views are very rewarding. Be sure to wear good shoes because those limestone rocks can be very hard on the feet!

A sky full of stars

When was the last time you actually saw The Sky at Night? I mean the real sky; not the mild glow of towns and cities that we are accustomed to. The one that is no longer visible to most of the world, the pitch black, diamond encrusted vastness of the universe? How many places are left on Earth where one can be far away from light pollution, where one can be surrounded by darkness, and turn your face to space in absolute awe at how many stars are out there?

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Image from the guest house, Soranoma Indigo

We had to drive almost three hours north from Naha to see the real sky, and it had been so long that I’d forgotten what it actually looks like. At the northern tip of Okinawa is the Yanbaru region, a place full of dense forest and jungles, stunning coastline, and a few small villages here and there.

Most people drive straight north up the 58 highway on the west side of the island because it’s faster, but instead we got off the expressway at Ginoza and crossed over to the east side to explore what is the only area of Okinawa main island that has not been ‘developed’. Took a long time, but what a beautiful drive! Be aware that once you hit the east coast, there is not much around in terms of conveniences. There are NO convenience stores, and only a handful of tiny shops selling basic necessities. So you might want to stock up on snacks and drinks before starting your road trip.

 

We were staying at a small guest house up at the northern tip called Soranoma Indigo. The couple who own and run the place built the entire property by hand, using locally sourced materials, such as timber from their acreage, and freebies such as driftwood and coral.

 

They have two cabins to rent, and there is a path to a nearby private beach. And at night, after a lovely dinner served by the ‘swing bar’, there was nothing to do but lay back, gaze at the stars, and bliss out.

It was very cool… for a night. But could I live up there in the forest like they do? I guess it takes a very special kind of person.

If you are going to Cape Hedo, I highly recommend making a night of it and staying at Indigo in one of the cottages (the picture above is of the bigger cottage). And be sure to lay back, and enjoy the stars at night, while you still can.

Just F*cking Killme

In the west we tend to have a long standing superiority complex, and assume that other places — you know, those funny far away places with funny names that you can’t find on a map — must be below us. The same applies to international travel. Say the names Delta, Air Canada, American Airlines, and you think they must be good, because they are North American. Do you want to fly Qatar? China Airlines? Aeroflot? Sounds kind of dodgy?

You’ll be surprised to know that the Ten Top Airlines in the World does not include one airline from North America. NOT ONE. Four are out of the Middle East (Emirates, Qatar, Etihad and Turkish), four are from Asia (Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, All Nippon, and Eva Air), along with Qantas (Australia) and Lufthansa (Germany).

Year after year, these airlines top the list due to spanking new aircraft, personal entertainment systems, amazing food and great service. And recently, the airports from these places have been topping the list too. In the Skytrax Top 10 list of best airports in the world, six of them are in Asia, and the others are in Europe. Again, not one in North America.

I’ve recently finished a gruelling, soul crushing, ass numbing trip to and from Okinawa and Trinidad. Travel time — about 30 hours each way. And unfortunately, this trip required me to go through what I think is just the worst airport in the world…. JFK. Which I have determined stands for JUST FUCKING KILLME. Because after spending a few hours waiting for my connecting flight, I wanted to die. Nowhere to sit, few options for food and drink, absolutely nothing for small children to do to pass the time, and absolute crap service from the people working there. No goddam wifi. Hundreds of tired travellers sitting on the cold, hard floor for hours, waiting for their check in. It’s just inhumane. It’s what you imagine a third world airport would be, yet it’s New York. And the immigration officers at JFK have the nerve to treat all these travellers as potential criminals and terrorists? They should pay ME to go through JFK!

In contrast, I also had to wait a few hours in the incredible Taipei International Airport. And what a contrast! It was incredible. I did not mind spending a few hours there. There were free computers with free wifi all over the airport. Free libraries with big comfy seats to sit down and read. Art galleries to peruse. Lounge chairs to stretch out on and sleep. Shower facilities. Rest areas. A place to try Chinese calligraphy for free. Play rooms with toys and Lego. Kids playgrounds — more than one! Nursing rooms for breastfeeding mothers. A Butterfly Garden. A massage area. Imagine – an airport that actually WANTS people to enjoy themselves! After losing a piece of my soul in JFK, it was such a relief to just walk around Taipei Airport and see what they have to offer.

 

Wake up JFK — YOU SUCK! YOU SUCK YOU SUCK YOU SUCK!!!

 

Under the sea

Recently I tried my hand at some underwater photography during a day of snorkelling at Hanagusuku Beach, on the south coast of Okinawa. These pics were taken with just a normal point and shoot, and I think they are not bad. Not amazing, but not bad for a first try in somewhat low visibility. My favorites are the hairy crab, and the stunning blue clam. Can you spot the crab?

Kings and Queens

Once upon a time, Okinawa was its own ‘nation’, the Kingdom of the Ryukyus. With a distinct language and culture, it was, and in some ways still is, very distinct from mainland Japan, which took it over in 1879.

Every five years, Okinawans living abroad hold a massive reunion on Okinawa, with tens of thousands of people with Okinawan roots returning to the motherland. It’s the Uchinanchu Festival, and it turns Okinawa into a huge sort of party, with festivals, concerts, and inter cultural events.

One such event that I happened to catch was the Shuri Castle Festival, with its procession of the Kings and Queens of the Ryukyu Kingdom. It took place not at the castle itself, but on Kokusai Dori, the ‘main strip’ of downtown Naha.

First came the King and the Queen, followed by other members of the court. The procession turned out to be a solemn affair, with people in traditional costumes making slow steps down the street, some playing instruments such as sanshin, or doing a dance.

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The costumes were all very interesting – and totally different from anything you’d ever see at a festival in mainland Japan. But for me, the stars of the show arrived at the very end of the procession: the ladies with the large elaborate hats known as Hanagasa. A true symbol of Okinawa, the Hanagasa represents a red hibiscus, and the blue sections represent the waves of the ocean.

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They were gone too soon! And they really stole the show. Everyone wanted to follow them to take pictures. Their kimono are also special because they are made with the bingata designs, an Okinawan art style using stencils and dye.

The longer I stay here, the more I begin to understand why people consider themselves Okinawan first, and Japanese second.

Manzamo and Cape Zanpa

During our recently staycation (see post below), we stopped at two scenic spots – Cape Zanpa and Cape Manzamo. Okinawa is blessed with a beautiful, rugged coastline, and there are lots of ‘capes’ to go visit. Usually there is a lighthouse, and in some cases a beach nearby. In this case, there were goats!

The first stop, Cape Zanpa, in Yomitan, is a pretty spot to go peer at the ocean, and Zanpa Beach is right next to it. But the thing that everyone with kids likes the best is feeding the goats carrots. I don’t know why there is a small goat enclosure at the cape, but for ¥100 you can buy a cup of carrots to feed them. Little kids just love this. But I have to say, goat’s eyes really freak me out.

Cape Manzamo, a bit further up the coast, is a real icon of Okinawa, due to the unusual rock formation that locals believe looks like an elephant’s nose. The limestone cliffs are very beautiful, as is the untouched reef hundreds of feet below. Beware though, there are lots of tour buses pulling up at Manzamo, and it was a bit crowded on the weekend.

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The iconic elephant’s nose

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The snorkelling here must be great! Perhaps no access? 

 

Lifestyles of the rich and famous… on a pension

It’s been eight months since I’ve been on a plane. For me, that’s a new record. While living in Hong Kong it seemed that we were jetting out as often as possible. But since moving to Okinawa, we’ve just sort of stayed put and nested. I guess that is a good sign, that we don’t feel the constant need to fly OUT of the place where we live.

Nonetheless, I still get ‘hot foot’ and want to venture out. So this weekend past, I tried out the concept of a ‘staycation’. You know – taking a vacation in the place you actually live. And Okinawa being such a big island has a lot to offer in terms of places to explore and stay for a night or two.

So I booked us into a ‘pension’. That’s the Japanese word for guest house. Nothing fancy, but nice enough. Tatami room and kitchen. No meals, not on the beach front but close to restaurants and beaches. Seemed like a fine place to spend one night while exploring the coastline around Onna.

By sheer coincidence, a friend told me her and the family were staying in that area too for the weekend. But not at a pension. Oh no, quite the opposite. They were staying in the incredible and huge Renaissance Hotel. Private beach. Dolphin shows. Banana boat. Multiple restaurants. Room service. Gift shop. Macaws perched at various locations in the lobby (really!). Indoor and outdoor pool. A big, proper resort.

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So, we snuck in for the day, essentially, to meet up with these friends. Enjoyed a great lunch. Went down the waterslides in the pool. Took advantage of all the amenities. As we left, a giant white stretch limo pulled up to deliver some guests. Sigh!

Checking into the pension – after seeing the lap of luxury at Renaissance – was like letting all the air out of our balloon. Don’t get me wrong, it was perfectly fine, and clean, and comfortable, but it’s like comparing champagne to box wine. By evening we were so tired anyway, we pretty much just crashed for the night, and checked out the following morning.

Deciding to stay on the theme of pretending to be rich and famous, the next morning we paid $10 to spend the day at the beautiful Intercontinental Hotel, because Manza Beach is within the hotel grounds. As we walked onto the beach, my daughter looked around and said quietly, ‘Wow, I feel like this is my home’. Even at the age of three, she has figured out how to enjoy the finer things in life! And good for her. I pointed at the big hotel and promised her that next time we come back, we’ll be staying there instead. She nodded wisely.

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Anyway, if you don’t have the coin, but want to feel like you are staying at a big fancy hotel, then staying in a guest house and just paying to enter for the day is a good way to do to. But next time I stay at a hotel, it won’t be on a pension budget.

 

The beach in the city

Naminoue Beach, the only beach within Naha city limits, is a small but very pleasant patch of sand to go stick your toes in. Situated beneath the scenic Naminoue Shrine, and unfortunately now located under a huge, concrete overpass, it is not a beach that has a good reputation. But hey, I will let you be the judge.

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Pretty nice, right?

If you can mentally overlook the highway in front of your eyes, Naminoue Beach is actually really nice. And if you only have, say, only 24 hours, or a brief cruise ship stop in Naha, it is worth going to take a swim and relax.

Two Okinawan locals have told me that compared to beaches further up the island, or on other islands, Naminoue is considered pretty much the worst beach in Okinawa. I beg to differ though. The water was crystal clear, no pollution or junk floating around, and hey, ten minutes from my house… well that’s pretty hard to beat. It was a pleasant surprise, really, to find that there is such a thing as a clean city beach.

If you are staying in Naha and don’t drive (or don’t want to struggle to figure out the local buses), Naminoue is a great place to go soak up some sun, feel the sand between your toes, and have a cold beer as the sun sets. Plus, it’s walking distance to lots of hotels, near to the Fukushuen Gardens, and the city centre.

 

Please don’t go to this place

Under no circumstances should you go to this place, a tiny island off of Okinawa called Aka-Jima. Just trust me, don’t go. You won’t like it.

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The environment there is so polluted and destroyed, it cannot support any true wildlife.

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The food at the minshuku, or guest houses, is boring, bland and disgusting. You’re guaranteed to still be hungry after each meal.

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There is nothing to see or do on the island, and very little local atmosphere.

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And the worst part is, there are so many goddam tourists everywhere, you’ll feel like you’re on a beach in Phuket during Christmas. There is no escape from the crowds, you will regret ever going there.

Believe me, I wouldn’t lie to you.

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But sarcastic jokes aside…. I was this close to not writing about the trip to Aka Jima, because I want it to stay the way it is: untouched, pristine, and most of all, QUIET. It’s one of the most unique places I’ve ever been to, and a true island paradise.

This tiny island in the Kerama Marine Park has only 300 human residents, and much more in terms of sea turtles and wild Kerama deer who roam the tiny streets. There is a string of tiny guest houses and dive shops along the beach front (the entire town only has three streets), and little else, other than two small supermarkets and two or three restaurants and cafes. At night the sky is so dark, you can see the satellites crossing the sky.

Just incredible. I didn’t want to leave. Every beach had amazing snorkelling, and one beach is home base for a big group of turtles who you are 100% guaranteed to see. One day after watching the turtles, we came back to the guest house and saw wild deer outside our door. And of course….. the blue. Kerama Blue, they call it. The unspoilt beauty of the clean, clear ocean. Ahh.

Yes, DON’T GO!!! In fact forget you read this. Don’t ever go!!

 

Yonabaru Giant Tug-of-War

We could hear the festival coming from a distance, starting with the low, mournful sound of huge conch shells being blown, somewhere up the street. Booooooo-eeeee. Booooo-eeeeee. The road had been closed off to vehicles, and a smallish crowd of people were on the sidewalk, waiting, and watching. Then we heard the drums and percussion, and saw them coming; the two teams, red and purple, who would vie that day to become the winner of the Giant Tug-of-War.


This part of the festival, the procession up the road before the battle, is called michijyune. The street filled with people dancing in traditional Okinawan yukata (robes), their hands moving in the air. In the crowd I could also see a handful of men in very elaborate kimono, representing previous kings from when Okinawa was the Kingdom of the Ryukyus.

Once the michijyune was over, the crowds all headed towards the field where the battle would take place. We found the teams laying the rope out on the road — it was massive! Apparently it weighs five tons. No wonder it takes dozens of people to carry and pull it.

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The rope enters the field
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The rope is so big, the Kings can stand on it
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The two teams push one loop through the other using long sticks, and then a large pole is inserted to lock them in place. Only then do they drop the rope and start pulling

And then, BOOM. The rope fell to the ground, the kings standing on the rope almost tumbled off, and people exploded into action. The crowd swayed and moved to either join in or avoid the rope. The air filled with the sounds of people chanting hai-ya! hai-ya! But then, much to my surprise, the whole affair, the actual pulling, only lasted a minute and a half! The purple team took victory. Apparently the longest contest ever was only 15 minutes. But after such a lead up to the tug-of-war, it felt a bit…. anti-climatic!

However, the event was not done. The second tug-of-war, obviously designed to please the crowds, allowed families and small children to get in on the action. So we decided to join in too, from the very back of the rope, because with little kids it’s not so safe to get too close to where strong men are pulling with all their might. At the back of the rope, there are smaller sections to hold on to.

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This little boy does not look so enthused
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Pull! PULL!

Boy did our hands hurt from all that pulling! The second tug-of-war took a bit longer, but the opposing team won. Afterwards we even took a bit of the rope home. Apparently it’s good luck to tie up a piece of the rope and take it with you after the event. I watched as the officiators took a mallet and break open a huge straw barrel of awamori (Okinawa liquor), so I guess it was party time.

The next tug-of-war takes place in Naha, but apparently attracts thousands and thousands of people. So if you are averse to crowds, then smaller events like the Yonabaru tug-of-war may be more your style!

 

 

 

Tomori Stone Lion

Tucked away on a hill overlooking the quiet agricultural town of Yaese, southern Okinawa, sits the island’s oldest, and perhaps most historically significant, shisa.

(Yes yes, ANOTHER post about shisa!! Sorry!)

Sometimes Google leads you on an accidental wild goose chase. In my search for information about the origins of shisa, I just happened to click on a black and white photo that piqued my interest. After reading a bit more about it, I decided it was worth a little day trip to check it out. With map in hand, we set out to find it.

This dear old shisa, with its friendly looking face and slightly goofy, perpetually grin, endured one of the fiercest gun fights during the Battle of Okinawa, and still has the bullet holes to prove it.

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We attempted to recreate the battle scene. Not quite the right angle, but close enough, I guess!

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From the same spot today, you can see lots of farms, schools and villages, as well as a beautiful blue ocean in the distance. The scorched earth has also regrown and now has a beautiful big gajumaru tree.

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There isn’t much to see in Yaese town, but it is worth visiting the Tomori Stone Lion if you happen to be in the area.

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This one is waiting for the bus!

 

 

Legends of the Shisa

It’s only a few minutes away and I drive past it five days a week when I go to school in the morning – an uninteresting looking mound of green grass tucked away behind some yakiniku restaurants and a Family Mart. I had no idea that this tiny hill had such significance!

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Everyone knows about shisa. They’re everywhere. They’re on top of houses, in front of banks, on the roof or entrance of every library and hospital and school. The protectors of properties and chasers away of bad spirits are the icon of Okinawa. And heavily branded too! T-shirts, souvenirs, posters, on the sides of buses, anywhere you could possibly use the image of a shisa, it’s there.

So, I started looking one day for information about the legend of the shisa. And during my search, from click to click to click, I just happened to find out that the real legend of the shisa starts right there on that lump of earth I drive by every day.

It’s called Gaanamui — Gaana Woods — and it’s where it all began.

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Here’s the story, summarised. Long long ago, at Shuri Castle (yes, the same red castle in the previous post), the King of the Ryukyu Kingdom received a visitor from China, who brought with him a necklace which had a tiny stone lion-dog creature on it. The emissary tells the king that it is a protective amulet, and the king wears it under his robes.

Meanwhile, in the village of Madanbashi (my backyard!!), there is a dragon busy terrorising the residents, destroying their homes, and killing all in its way. The high priestess of the area has a vision that the King will use an amulet to scare away the dragon. She sends a young boy named Chiga to relay the message to the King.

The King goes to Madanbashi to see for himself the damage, and face the dragon. The dragon appears, and fearing for his life, the King pulls out the tiny shisa from around his neck, and holds it up to the dragon.

According to some versions of the story, the shisa amulet emits a fearsome roar that shakes the earth. A giant boulder flies up into the sky, and falls onto the dragon’s back. The dragon lays there, and slowly starves to death. And the dragon’s body is apparently what is under the Gaana Mui mound that sits there, so unassuming, on the side of the road today, next to the convenience store.

The villagers build a stone statue of the shisa to honour it, and the village was never terrorised again. That is why to this day, people use stone shisa for protection.

If you want to visit Gaana Mui, be aware that in the summer time the hill is FULL of very aggressive kamimaze cicadas who literally dive bomb you as you walk on the tiny path and scream in your ear. Seriously! So maybe summer time is not the best time to go, when cicadas are everywhere.

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The path to the top – BEWARE OF INSANE CICADAS

 

Here’s the map: