Back to the Kong

And, just like that, life goes back to normal in Hong Kong, as though we had never left. It felt a lot like putting on an old, comfy pair of slippers that you had put in the back of a cupboard last year, and still feels great. The old friends are still here, the grannies selling veggies in the wet market still remember us, and life has pretty much reset itself. And it is a relief to know that though a year has passed, we are still welcome to pick back up where we left off in Mui Wo.

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This time around, however, we have decided to live by the ferry instead of up in the villages. It was a fun experience for two years – life on a bicycle, I mean – but I don’t really want to do the whole riding-through-the-rain thing with a kid in the backseat and a bag of wet groceries in the front. Life by the ferry pier, with all the supermarkets and bakeries and shops right downstairs, is infinitely easier.

There are a few noticeable differences in Mui Wo though – mostly the crazy amount of construction going on. The biggest eyesore is the group of new high rises that are being built. By village ‘rules’, traditionally all houses have been only three stories high, and down by the ferry pier, the apartment buildings are all around five stories high. But the new public housing being built are tall and really look out of place in this rural setting.

But, that is life in Hong Kong. No matter where you go, or whether you choose to live in the middle of the city or in a quiet island, you are BOUND to have SOME kind of construction going on around you. And I should know – this is the fifth apartment we have rented in Hong Kong!

 

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.

Life in Limbo

I have not updated this blog for two months now. So what’s my excuse? If you want to know the truth, it’s because life has not been all peaches and cream, and I have not had the motivation or will to write. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been out, doing fun things, seeing interesting places. But things have also come to a breaking point in terms of trying to adapt to life in Okinawa, and I have finally given up.

A lot of times on travel blogs, life seems so exciting and fun. Exploring and sightseeing, trying new food, meeting new people, learning languages. Yes all of these things are wonderful experiences but people often don’t mention the other side of life as a foreigner in a foreign land. Particularly in a place like Japan with huge cultural and language barriers.

To put it bluntly, despite what I feel are my best efforts, this past year in Okinawa has been possibly one of the hardest and worst of my life. And the most lonely. Perhaps living in the expat haven of Hong Kong for six years made me soft, or spoilt. Because in Hong Kong, life is so easy. A huge international community of like-minded people who like to hang out all the time and travel, locals who are not fussed about foreigners, and lots of support in English for your daily life.

But, things are different in Japan, and I just can’t do it anymore.

Half of the problem is my husband is still working in Hong Kong, so he’s just not here. I know there are lots of families who live separately and don’t mind, but I actually like my husband, and want him around.

The other half of the problem is that Japan is a difficult place for foreigners. Not that it should have come as a surprise to me; I knew that going in. But I suppose when you move somewhere, you take a leap of faith. Faith that you will meet some nice people, faith that after the initial adjustment that life will get easier and better. Unfortunately that has not happened here.

I had put my daughter in an international school, with the belief that it would help me to meet other parents in the area, perhaps other mixed families, people who could speak some English or had travelled or lived abroad. During school pick up I would be friendly, and speak to them — in Japanese!! — but the fact remains that Japanese are afraid of foreigners and very few have an interest in making foreign friends. They never said to me, hey do you want to come with us to the park after school? Do you want to meet up some time? Would you and your daughter like to come to our home to play? I kept trying and trying, but it just never happened, and I don’t know why. I’m a nice person, honestly! I don’t have a snaggle tooth, I’m not scary looking.

I had joined a language school, which did help me to learn a lot of Japanese really fast, but that didn’t help in terms of building a social life. I am 35 years old and a mother – everyone else is 18 year old and practically a kid themselves. So, that didn’t help.

The area where we live, close to Naha, has very few foreigners. And the areas that do have foreigners are all US military bases that are quite far up the island. So, that didn’t help either.

Sometimes days and days and days could go by when I would have literally nobody to talk to except for my 4-year-old child, which again, doesn’t really help because she could spend 30 minutes talking about planning a birthday party for her toy penguin. I’ve never experienced that before – days of solitude, and I hate it. I hate being alone.

When you move, you DO have to hold on and keep trying. But how long do you have to keep hanging on? And if you are somewhere and you are not happy, when you decide to give up, pack it in, and say, fuck it, I’m done?

Well I’m done. Fuck it. Okinawa is an incredibly beautiful, clean, safe place. But I don’t think I will ever feel at home here. And life is too short to be lonely and sad. What’s the point of living in a tropical paradise if the isolation feels like hell?

So last week, I made a trip back to Hong Kong, and stayed in the town we lived in just before we left. And it was wonderful. I felt the glow of meeting up with old friends and being welcomed back with open arms as though no time had passed at all. It took us forever to take a walk anywhere because we kept bumping into people and getting into long chats. Everywhere we went we saw old faces who were happy to see us again, who asked us if we needed help, if we needed somewhere to stay. We had plans with friends for every lunch and every dinner. At our favorite seafood restaurant, the granny who runs the place recognised us and came to give us a box of cookies. We couldn’t speak Cantonese to her, but it didn’t matter. After all this time struggling in Okinawa, being back in Hong Kong was like slipping on your favorite pair of pajamas. Comfortable and warm and safe.

“Just accept it,” my friend Laura said (she is also a Trini in Hong Kong). “Just accept that you are going to live and die in Hong Kong!”

Within days we managed to find an apartment to rent. So during the next two months, we will make the transition back to Hong Kong. My kid can go back to the same school she went to before. We’ll go to the same park and never be alone. There will always be people to lime with and talk to. And I will never take it for granted again.

The funny thing is, we spent years planning our escape from Hong Kong. Dreaming about life in this beautiful island of Okinawa. And now after one year, I’m heading back.

Do I ever learn from my mistakes? I feel like I sure have made a lot of them. Some the same mistake twice. I don’t even want to think about the dozen places we have lived, the different apartments we have rented. The things we tried and failed at. We were so sure we were moving away. I wasn’t counting on this happening.

I know when we move back to Hong Kong there will be days when the sky is a dark grey from the pollution and I will worry about my kid’s lungs. I know we will look around the small apartment and sigh, and think about the big home we left in Okinawa.

But, one very important life lesson that I have learnt over the past year is that material things do not provide happiness. In Hong Kong apartments are small and you have to downsize your life. You dream about having a ‘real home’, with lots of space. Here in Okinawa we have everything we thought we wanted or needed. We are a family of three yet we have four bedrooms, two cars, a storage room full of tents and camping equipment, boogie boards and golf clubs…. For goodness sake, we have a kids play space on our roof top! We have more space than we could ever use. Heck, we all sleep together in one room anyways. Why the hell do we need four bedrooms if nobody is in them?

So, stay tuned, because here we go again.

Chalk it up to experience, I suppose. What else can I do?

All you can do is live, and try, and learn from your experiences. Take risks. Learn about yourself. Learn about what you want and what you need out of life. Stay flexible. And also, know when to call it quits.

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:

Shuri Castle at Night

Every night, Naha’s most iconic castle gets illuminated after sunset, making its distinctive red colour even more striking.

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Going to see Shuri Castle in the evening is a great way to beat the relentless heat of summer. Nowadays the sun doesn’t set until almost 8pm, so we got there around 7.30 and were pleasantly surprised to also find that there was almost nobody there. It was such a pleasure to be able to stroll around at our own pace, and take pictures that didn’t include the back of Chinese tourists’ heads.

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Take note – some of the castle gates close at 8.30 or 9pm, but the iconic Shureimon main gate remains open. We had parked at the official castle parking lot, but that is only open until 9pm. If you want to stay longer to walk around or take pictures, I’d recommend parking at one of the many 24 hour coin parking lots, close to the castle entrance, and then walking to the castle grounds.

Churaumi Aquarium

It’s the third largest aquarium in the world and one of the top attractions for visitors in Okinawa. Located in the northern part of the island, the absolutely massive Ocean Expo Park is home to the Churaumi Aquarium, where you could spend hours walking through the various tanks and observation rooms, with tropical fish, giant lobsters, teeny tiny seahorses, and turtles.

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But the real stars of the show are the whale sharks, and it’s easy to see why. They’re incredible, and huge. Watching them glide around the tank, flanked my stingrays, it’s really a majestic sight.

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Um, yeah. I’m not sure what to say about this next picture. Did the designer not notice what this whale mouth resembles….?  The parents all had a good snicker, while the kids pretended to get swallowed by the beast.

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Actually, I just learnt that I’ve actually seen the second biggest aquarium in the world, too, without even knowing it. The Dubai Mall aquarium is also massive. But I still think the whale sharks and cooler than a sunken Mini.

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Dubai Mall aquarium, 2011

 

Break time

And so, the first semester of my Japanese course finished with a bang, as everyone struggled their way through the JLPT practice test on the very last day of class, before heading out for two weeks holiday. Although the last three months have been extremely intense in terms of learning and remembering SO many new words, phrases, grammar and kanji, the test was a reminder that we still have such a long, long way to go.

After the last day of school, I went with my wee family to the beach for an evening picnic, and who do I find there but my teachers! They were having a beach BBQ and there were LOTS of bottles and cans on the table. They obviously needed a much-deserved break too.

But, the brain is a muscle, and a lazy muscle at that. Stuff that you don’t use gets continuously deleted to make space for new stuff. So I promised myself I would study during the term break.

Sadly, I didn’t even open up my books during the first week of holidays, prefering instead to go out and have some fun. But this week, I’m exercising the brain again.

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Above are some of the kanji we have to know how to write for class. These are the first ones that students learn — the numbers, days of the week, in, out, left, right, ocean, mountain, etc etc etc. They test us all the time, but I am trying to test myself at home and see how many I can remember. So far we’ve done just shy of 100 characters. Apparently in order to read a newspaper, you need to know more than 1,000!

Being unable to read is a source of incredible frustration for me. Take, for example, my recent adventures in recycling.

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Every Friday, they pick up cardboard and paper. So I flattened the boxes, and tied them up with string. Then I came home to find this yellow rejection sticker on it. Out of the list of 10 possible mistakes I made, they had underlined what I’d done wrong. But of course, I can’t bloody ready the kanji.

So, I tried again the following week. I took off the string, and tied it up really tight, and put it on the curb for collection.

Again, yellow sticker. Rejection.

Finally, I took the yellow sticker to the local dollar store, and asked a friendly old lady who worked there if she could help. Her eyes lit up — she led me over to the aisle for packing, and showed me. I had been tying up the boxes with the wrong type of string. The white string is made out of plastic. I was supposed to be using brown paper string. Seriously! Ridiculous right?

I don’t have hopes to one day read a Japanese newspaper. But it would be nice to know how to read enough to deal with daily issues!

 

 

What what, in the butt?!

On Friday when I got home, I opened the kid’s backpack to find a little package with a cup, a tiny bottle, and some kind of blue round stickers on them, with the whole package to be returned to the school on Monday morning. Now what the f— is THIS I asked myself, for about the millionth time since moving here.

Ah yes… the adventures of raising a kid in Japan when you can’t read that much Japanese.

Every year, apparently Japanese schools send this little package home to test for parasites amongst kindergarten-aged kids. And I am writing this post SPECIFICALLY for parents in Japan who may one day find themselves like me, bewildered as to what to do, and looking frantically for instructions online and feeling totally frustrated. A quick search on Google showed me there are pretty much NO instructions in English, so, here it is. My gift to the gaijin parents in Japan, in detail, so that you don’t have to go and ask someone whether or not you need to poke your kid’s butt with a blue circle.

IF YOU DON’T WANT TO READ MORE ABOUT PEE AND POO AND BUTT TESTS, THEN DON’T SCROLL DOWN. If you are a desperate gaijin parent, keep reading.

  1. The Pee Test.   Pretty simple: catch the kid’s pee in a cup, and use the squirty bottle to suction up the pee, and put the bottle back in the bag.

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  2. The Butt Test. I had no idea how this worked. I peered curiously at the package. Interesting pictures. And strange illustrations that did not help at all. What’s with the little angel squatting over the paper? My mind raced. What am I supposed to do? Do I have to……….. rub it on something? Stick a sticker on the butt? Wipe something on the blue sticker?

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    Thankfully, a Japanese mom from the school who had lived abroad and spoke English came to my rescue. This is how it works.

    The butt test comes in two parts. The clear plastic sheet has two blue circles, for you to do two tests on two separate occasions. You should do the test before your kid does a Number Two. Early morning is apparently best, when parasites are most active. You take the plastic sheet, and poke the blue circle sort of onto/into the entrance of your kid’s butt hole. The squatting angel is supposed to show you a good position for your kid to get into in order to do the butt test.

    After doing both tests — on two separate occasions, don’t forget, not both on the same day — you peel off the top layer of the clear plastic sheet, and stick the two halves together.

    Once you’ve done the pee specimen and both butt tests and stuck the blue circles together, put it all back in the bag and give it back to the school.

This might just be the weirdest and most useless and most inappropriate post I’ve ever written. But if it helps even ONE parent in Japan get over a wave of anxiety and uncertainty at a moment when they feel totally alone and confused, then it’s worth it. Because there’s nothing I hate more than feeling like a moron because of the language barrier.

Those thinking of moving abroad, take heed. IT IS NOT EASY!!

But, as always, you get by with a little help from your friends. Even when it comes to what to do with butts.

Now, something to make you laugh.

 

 

 

 

The End of the Road

After arriving at Cape Hedo, the most northern tip of the long, scraggly island that is Okinawa, after being awed and amazed at the incredible natural landscape and beautiful scenery, you will no doubt look up, squint into the sun and say, ‘Wait…. What the f*** is that?’

I am referring to one of the weirdest things I’ve seen in Okinawa… or even all of Japan. A giant bird thing on the top of a mountain, that seems to be there for no particular reason at all.

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Well… there is a reason, I suppose — the bird is a kuina, an endemic and endangered species of Okinawa, found only in the northern part of the island. So of course, we had to go see what this big bird was all about.

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Look closely just to the left of the statue, and you’ll see the giant kuina on the hill top
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If you walk up to the top, you get a great view of the Cape

Cape Hedo is literally the end of the road, as far as you can drive on the island. For us, coming from Naha in the south, it was a long drive of just over two hours. But totally worth it. The scenery is amazing, every turn reveals a sweeping bay of crashing waves and pristine water, and tiny traditional villages where the residents have the world record for longevity, thanks to their lifestyle and diet. From the cape we had a clear view of Yoron Island in the distance and nothing else but ocean as far as the eye could see.

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Fantastic beauty
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View from Kayauchi Bantaa
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Classic shisa
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Cobra crushed on the road!!  Even in Naha there are signs warning you about snakes while you are walking

With one road in and one road out, the northern tip of Okinawa feels like a step back in time, where tiny towns reveal what life used to be like, before the war, before Western influence. And indeed there is nothing much in this area — the expressway deposits you into the city of Nago and once you keep driving north it’s just fishing villages. It’s really a great escape and a good day trip.

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Old village in Ogimi
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Traditional architecture
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Someone gave this shisa a raincoat – it is tsuyu  or rainy season in Okinawa.

Food wise, there is a restaurant at Cape Hedo serving some food, though everyone there was eating zenzai or ice cream. In Kunigami there is a great Michi no Eki or Roadside Station with a full restaurant serving local food. And Nago is full of restaurants. So even though you’re going to the end of the road, there are lots of yummy things to eat along the way.

Urasoe Castle

Okinawa is covered with castle ruins from north to south, with Shuri Castle being the biggest tourist attraction. We happen to live quite close to what was once the biggest castle on the island, a few hundred years ago. So it seemed worth a visit.

Urasoe Castle is just north of the capital city of Naha, and is also the final resting place of the three last Ryukyu kings. Not quite as impressive as other castles, such as Nakagusuku Ruins, it was still an interesting walk back in time.

 

Next to the castle ruins is the Urasoe Yodore, a tomb housing the remains of three rulers of the Ryukyu Kingdom, built in the 1200s. You are not allowed to cross the barrier to peek inside.

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Even for a weekend, there was nobody there, and almost zero information in English. But as we returned to the parking lot and took a look at the historical information on the sign, an elderly gentleman came up and gave what turned out to be an incredibly detailed background to the area. To my husband, in Japanese, naturally. But he then shared the information with me.

I had to take a picture of what this historical site looked like after WWII. It never ceases to amaze me how much of Okinawa’s history was completely obliterated during the bombing of Japan. It is an incredible loss and one that people feel the world over with every war. No doubt people in Syria, for example, have a lot of mourn, as their history gets bombed into rubble.

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Oh, bento!

I faced my first challenge as a wannabe Japanese mom the other day. It was obento day at school. For those who may be hearing the word ‘obento’ for the first time, it simply means a lunch box. But, in Japan, people take it to a whole new level.

Go in any dollar store, supermarket, or department store and there is always a massive obento section, full of various boxes, chopsticks, accessories, and super cute adornments for both inside and outside the box.

Japanese mamas have turned obento almost into an art form, with incredibly intricate designs (almost all edible) and creative designs. All this for KIDS! Small humans who will gladly eat what they find in their noses. Small humans who can laugh about the word ‘poop’ for a good five minutes.

But hey, when in Rome, do as the Romans.

So, I went to the 100¥ shop, and spent a ridiculous amount of time standing there, deciding what to buy to ‘decorate’ The Kid’s obento. Way too much time. Definitely a waste of time.

Then it was the question of what do I put inside? What would the other kids be eating? What would be suitable?

Finally I decided on a menu, and ta-daa! This is what it looked like:

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I have to tell you a secret though — I totally cheated. I obviously didn’t bake the bread, but I also didn’t make the meatballs. Or the omelette. I bought them at the Family Mart (along with a 6-pack of beer. That was for me, not for The Kid. Because Bento Day is stressful. For me.) But I did steam the broccoli… I swear!

Anyway, Bento Day is once a month at school and apparently kids really love it. And they’re curious to see what the other kids have too. I’ll post pictures of Bento Version 2 in June.