Sake: Japan’s Liquid of Choice

Sake is such an integral part of Japanese culture. There are so many different types of sake, different brands, different ways to drink it, different occasions to drink it on. Having gone out with my Japanese colleagues (surprise, surprise, teachers love to drink!) on many occasions, I feel like I’ve learnt a little about this complex alcoholic liquid. Continue reading “Sake: Japan’s Liquid of Choice”

Island Hopping in Japan’s South (Part 3)

After 3 days exploring Okinawa, I realized I had been crazy to ever doubt whether this place was worth a visit. I now completely get why so many people love this prefecture, and return year after year. And in fact I’m a little surprised at how underrated it is. For those of you who haven’t been to Japan, how much do you know about Okinawa, I wonder?

Days 1 & 2 had taken us around Okinawa-honto, Day 3 to Ishigaki Island and Taketomi Island, and we had just 1.5 more days left to soak up this slice of paradise before heading back to Tokyo.

Day 4: Iriomote Island & Yubu Island – the slow life

Our 4th day was spent exploring two more islands in the Yaeyama chain. From Ishigaki, we took a jet boat 25km west to Uehara Port on Iriomote Island. The sea was calm and flat as a pancake, which made for a very relaxing and peaceful ride.

Iriomote Island is a place where you could easily forget about the rest of the world. Time seems to stand still here, or at least ticks by at a very leisurely pace. Despite being the second largest island in Okinawa, only about 2,000 people live on Iriomote and few people travel here because of its remote location. There is just one main road that follows the coastline partway round the island, so your view is always the emerald sea on one side and dense, mountainous forest on the other.

The island is packed with activities for nature lovers – hiking to waterfalls, kayaking down rivers, cruises through mangroves, snorkeling at beaches and diving in reefs. In the mangrove forests, you can see the fascinating Looking Glass trees, famous for their buttress roots. The largest tree is said to be 400 years old. The fauna on Iriomote is also amazing. I swear I’ve never seen so many butterflies fluttering around in my life. I felt like we were driving through a butterfly sanctuary! And incredibly, the island is home to its own unique wild cat called the Iriomote-yamaneko which the locals are especially proud of.

Unlike Kaiji Beach on Taketomi Island, Iriomote’s northern Hoshizuna Beach is actually full of star-shaped sand. You literally just have to scoop up a handful of sand and you will see hundreds of teeny tiny stars. It’s so amazing! There are apparently 2 shapes – one is the standard star, the other can be described like how people draw suns, circular in shape with a bunch of lines pointing outwards. If you manage to find the latter, you should consider yourself very lucky!

 

Located a few hundred metres from Iriomote’s east shore is Yubu Island. There’s no bridge or road connecting the two islands, and the only way to get there is by water buffalo cart. I’d heard about these buffalo carts that cross between islands during low tide and was so excited to see them in real life. Our driver sat at the front singing traditional Okinawan songs with his sanshin, an Okinawan banjo, as the buffalo ambled through the water, definitely in no hurry at all. Though the ride was short, it made us slow down and appreciate everything around us – the great big blue sky, the mountains behind us, the island in front of us, the ocean out in the distance.

Sometimes we forget to breathe deeply, we worry about things out of our control, stress about things that don’t matter and end up missing out on our own life. Places like Iriomote, and the whole of Okinawa for that matter, make us hit the pause button and reevaluate what’s important.

 

 

Day 5: Ishigaki Island – beach day

Our last day had arrived. It was finally beach day – an actual chilling on the beach, swimming and snorkeling kind of beach day. The hotel we were staying at had direct access to a beach, so as soon as we finished breakfast, we were out, sand in our toes, smiles on our faces! Snorkeling was tons of fun and I was ecstatic to see so many Nemos. They’re just so cute! The reef wasn’t too colourful, though. I’m sure it’s better further out, as is the same for the Great Barrier Reef. It was great to see the kids having a great time in the water and on the beach. Next year they will be in their final year of high school, so this was the last big school trip for them before things get more serious.

 

As we got on the plane back to Tokyo, we were all completely exhausted but extremely happy. An unforgettable 5 days. Okinawa is a magical, tranquil, unspoiled dot in the ocean. Even though it’s technically a part of Japan, they have their own culture, language, traditions, music, food and drink – it’s like the Ryukyu Kingdom is still alive. I will leave you with some snaps of all the food and performances we enjoyed, and a link to my favourite Okinawan song:  BEGIN 島人ぬ宝

Okinawa
A piece of Okinawa at home

 

Hokusai

As much as I love my small, rural hometown in Australia, nothing can compare to some of the incredible opportunities living in the city gives you. Last month, I got to see some impressionist masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay at the National Art Center here in Tokyo. It was surreal to stand in front of paintings like The Fifer by Manet, Gare Saint-Lazare by Monet, and Ballet Rehearsal on the Set by Degas – inspecting the detail, being surprised by the real-life size (whether smaller or larger than expected), and wanting desperately to touch them but not being allowed!

This month, it’s been all about Hokusai!

Since September 13th (and until November 9th), there’s been a special exhibition on at the Ueno Royal Museum, featuring 142 Hokusai “ukiyo-e” woodblock prints. These prints are kept at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where they’ve been for the past 120 years! Despite how well-known some of Hokusai’s images are, like the “Great Wave” and “Red Fuji”, both from the Thirty-six Views of Mt Fuji series, this is the first time they’ve been on display in Japan. So as you can imagine, it’s been an extremely popular exhibition.

I tried to go last week but actually gave up because there were just too many people – a 40 minute line to buy tickets at 5:30pm! I knew it would have been even more packed inside. So I waited until I had a day off from work, and went again this week. Thankfully there was no waiting time outside, but inside was another story. The middle of the day on a weekday, and it was still so crowded that I could hardly see the paintings! Where do all these people come from?! But, putting up with the crowds was all worth it to see these paintings!

Hokusai
「富嶽三十六景 凱風快晴」”Red Fuji” (1831)
Hokusai
「富嶽三十六景 神奈川沖浪裏」”The Great Wave” (1831)
Hokusai
「諸国名橋奇覧 かめいど天神たいこばし」”Drum Bridge at Kameido Tenjin Shrine” (1833-34)

These are picture cards of three of my favourite prints. The first image depicts sunrise at Mt Fuji, when the day’s first beams of light tinge the mountain red. I can definitely vouch for this, having seen Mt Fuji transform into ‘Mars’ when I climbed it in July! The second image is by far Hokusai’s most famous print. The wave is thought to be a tsunami, about to engulf some boats and a tiny Mt Fuji. The last image is a depiction of the drum gate at Kameido Tenjin Shrine. The header image on my blog just so happens to be this exact bridge! I visited the shrine last year to see the annual Wisteria Festival there. It is a beautiful garden and shrine.

So, aside from visiting the museum (twice), I also had the lucky chance to see another ‘Hokusai’-related event. This time, it was in the form of a movie. Right now, the Tokyo International Film Festival is on, and one of the special presentations was a talk and screening about an upcoming movie called Miss Hokusai. It’s an animation movie, directed by Keiichi Hara, to be released next year. It’s based on a historical manga by Hinako Sugiura which tells the story of Hokusai’s daughter, who actually helped her father to complete some of his famous pieces of art! At the presentation, the producers told us the project’s background and where they were at with production right now. We also got to see snippets of the film that have been finished – one scene is of the iconic Great Wave! Although I’m sure it’s all for promotion, in their modest way they announced that with all of the detail they’re putting into the movie, this could be the one film that could land them an Oscars nomination. Keep your eyes peeled next year for Miss Hokusai!

Kimono Galore!

Monday was Coming of Age Day here in Japan, known as Seijin no hi. It’s a public holiday dedicated to 20 year olds, marking their transition into adulthood. It’s especially popular for girls, who put a huge amount of effort into getting all dolled up with hair and makeup and wear a super-expensive, formal kimono called furisode. These kimono have really long sleeves that almost touch the ground! The long sleeves signify that the person is unmarried. There’s actually another kimono with short sleeves for married women.

These ‘new adults’ take part in a ceremony at a city hall and also visit a shrine before continuing the celebrations with their friends. 20 marks the age when they can legally drink and smoke, so as you can imagine there were a few people across the country getting a bit loose on Monday night!

I checked out Meiji Jingu on Monday to try catch some of these girls during their shrine visit. Perhaps it’s because I went a bit late in the afternoon, but there weren’t as many girls as I thought there would be. Or maybe they just have better sense than to visit the most famous shrine in all of Japan! I did manage to see about a dozen beautiful kimono. I felt a bit invasive, like I was a paparazzi photographer, clicking away on my camera. Luckily, most of the girls didn’t seem to mind, and some were more than happy to pose for a few photos.

Coming of Age Day

Coming of Age Day

Coming of Age Day

Coming of Age Day

Coming of Age Day

Coming of Age Day

Coming of Age Day

Coming of Age Day