7 Cool Museums to Visit on a Rainy Day in Tokyo

Tsuyu, the rainy season, is here. Unlike a lot of people, I really enjoy June. I love being able to wear my rain boots. I love the glossy neon lights reflected in puddles all over the streets. And of course, I love that it brings the hydrangeas and turns the whole city into a kaleidoscope of colours. Continue reading “7 Cool Museums to Visit on a Rainy Day in Tokyo”

Le Petit Prince in Hakone

Hakone is home to a very bizarre mixture of things. To most Japanese, it is known as an onsen town. The many hot springs in the area are thanks to the volcano complex, Mt Hakone. You can even go up to the crater where you’ll find black onsen-boiled eggs that add 7 years onto your life! Continue reading “Le Petit Prince in Hakone”

Island Hopping in Japan’s South (Part 1)

To be completely honest, for the longest time I really didn’t have much interest in going to Japan’s southernmost prefecture. From what I’d seen in pictures, Okinawa looked pretty similar to Australia’s east coast – white, sandy beaches and clear, blue water – and I thought what would be the point of travelling to the other side of the planet only to go somewhere that looks just like home?

But then, I kept meeting more and more people who raved about it, some saying it was their favourite place in Japan, others claiming it to be one of the most beautiful places in the world. Little by little, I started getting curious about this far away archipelago until last year I decided that was it; I was going to go in 2016!

As luck would have it, my new position this year at school allowed me to join the Year 11 class trip. Any guesses as to the destination? Yep – Okinawa! To say I was stoked is an understatement. But I had to keep reminding myself I was going on a work trip, which meant being partly responsible for 360-odd students, and not sitting on the beach drinking cocktails all day. What a shame! (Just kidding). The way everything worked out could not have been more perfect, and I consider myself extremely lucky and grateful!

Day 1: Okinawa Main Island – learning about history

After a very early start to the day, we arrived at Naha Airport around lunchtime. From the plane window, I’d seen some of the smaller islands and was super excited to touch down. My first impression after having stepped off the plane: the humidity! Holy, it was terrible. Sticky, stifling, unbearable. Everyone had warned me about how hot it would be, but it was worse than I’d ever imagined. And the most shocking thing – it wasn’t even the middle of summer yet at that time. All we could do was try to distract ourselves with the beautiful scenery!

Hotel for Day 1
Hotel view for Day 1

 

Being a school trip, we weren’t there just to swim in the sea and eat delicious food. It was also an educational trip, and being Okinawa, we were there to learn about the war. Prior to visiting the Peace Memorial Museum and hearing talks about WWII, I knew very little about what had happened.

The Battle of Okinawa had been fierce, destructive and described by the Okinawan people as hell on Earth. Okinawa had only become a part of the Japanese empire in the 1870s. Possibly for this reason, the people were not much of a priority to the Japanese military whose main goal was to prevent the Americans from creating a base from which they could attack the 4 mainland islands. Every day for almost 3 months, from April to June 1945, Japanese and American soldiers fought on land, air and sea. When the Japanese Army retreated to their last defence line at the southern tip of the island, they became cornered and thousands of soldiers and civilians were killed, resulting in what’s known as the killing fields or the Battleground of Hell. The surviving Okinawans fled for their lives and hid in dark underground caves called gama. Many died here from sickness and starvation. But the most gut-wrenching stories to hear were that the Japanese Army forced mass suicides of the Okinawan people, as though they were the enemy. I really can’t comprehend this. In total, over 200,000 people died, the majority of whom were innocent civilians, young and old.

The Peace Memorial sits on the top of a cliff near that final battleground. The names of 240,000 Japanese and foreigners have been inscribed as a way to remember those who lost their lives and so that future generations can learn from this battle and make sure it never happens again. Inside the memorial museum, you can read about exactly what happened, watch video clips, read testimonies and see life-like exhibits which are very confronting. After the museum, we got the chance to visit an actual gama. It was disguised from the ground level, and I didn’t even notice the entrance till we were actually walking down. And boy, was it hot in there – no escaping the heat. And to think we were there around the same time the battle occurred. It was an eye-opening experience to say the least.

Day 2: Okinawa Main Island – sightseeing

After a sobering first day, we spent the 2nd day sightseeing around the Okinawa Main Island. The most memorable place for me was Churaumi Aquarium, which is one of the most well-known aquariums in Japan. The main tank is insane! Made from 1m thick glass, it’s home to many manta rays, countless varieties of fish and huge whale sharks! I could have sat there all day watching the mantas swim through schools of fish and twirl round and round, while the whale shark glided by so peacefully. It was also a great place to escape the heat outside!

Another historically significant place we visited was the World Heritage Shuri Castle in Naha city. Before Okinawa was taken over by Japan, it was part of the Ryukyu Kingdom and the capital was Shuri city, present day Naha. In the centre of the city was Shuri Castle, originally built in the late 1300s. It has only 2 storeys and is painted vermillion red from its Chinese influence, making it look more like a shrine than castle in my opinion. Over its 500-odd year history, it was damaged from fire many times, before being completely destroyed during the Battle of Okinawa. Inside the current reconstructed castle is a museum with lots of artefacts – like the beautiful king’s chair – giving a rare glimpse of a lost kingdom.

The Okinawa Main Island is the most developed and largest of the 5 main islands in Okinawa. I was expecting a bigger presence of the U.S. military since they have a major base there, but actually I really didn’t notice them – maybe it was just the places we visited. And although the seashore did resemble Australia a little, after the first 2 days, I realized how completely different it was due to its unique culture and history. It was awesome to explore the Main Island and I was excited for the next few days of island hopping away from the crowds!

Bibi Beach Itoman
Hotel view for Day 2

 

Edo-Tokyo Architectural Museum

In my last post, I talked about the thing I loved best about New York – the buildings and architecture. I swear, it was a complete coincidence that I went to the Edo-Tokyo Architectural Museum on the weekend! My mum was visiting, and I decided to take her there since I’d been wanting to go for a while and I knew she’d enjoy it, too.

I’d first seen the open-air museum back in April when I visited Koganei Park to see the cherry blossoms there. It was closed at the time, but I took a peek through the fence and it seemed very cool! I put it on the “to-do” list, which is where it stayed until this past weekend!

The museum is an open-air village full of buildings collected from around Tokyo (old Edo city). They’re all buildings that are thought to be valuable for one reason or another and were relocated here to help preserve them. There’s about 30 buildings, originally used both privately and publicly, over a huge 7 hectare area. To see every building definitely takes a whole day! Keep in mind, in true Japanese style, you have to take your shoes off every time you enter a house – so you can’t just waltz in and out of each building as you like!

Edo Tokyo Architecture Museum

Walking down the main street “Shitamachi-naka” (downtown) was almost like travelling back in time (except for the bitumen road!). There are lots of different businesses, like a stationery store, soy sauce store, and makeup store, as well as public buildings like the giant public bath and a very old bar! Everything is so well reconstructed and restored that you can really get a feel of how these places were in their heyday!

 

There are also quite a few residential houses from across Tokyo. Most of these houses belonged to the “upper class”, or at least important people, and therefore look pretty nice! There used to be a massive divide between the upper and lower classes of Japan. I’m sure the poor farmers did it tough, while the wealthy lived it up in places like this!

 

Until December 14 (2014), there’s a special exhibit in the main entrance building featuring work from Studio Ghibli. I didn’t realise it was on actually, but the Ghibli movies are my favourite Japanese animation flicks, so I was pretty happy! I’ve been to the actual Studio Ghibli museum which is in nearby Mitaka, but the paintings, sketches and miniature models on display here were amazing. The detail the artists are able to produce is incredible! If you get the chance, I highly recommend you go! (Although don’t be like me and go on a long weekend – it was too crowded!)

 

Wondering how to get to this awesome place?? (click on the top left box on the map for more detail)

Visit the English webpage for more information >> http://www.tatemonoen.jp/english/