Spectacular Colours in Kyoto

Kyoto is incredible any time of the year. No two visits are ever the same, and there are endless places to explore. With its World Heritage temples and shrines, geisha district, traditional foods and ancient history, it’s no wonder it’s one of the most popular cities in the world. Continue reading “Spectacular Colours in Kyoto”

Journey to the Soul of Japan

Two thousand years ago, the emperor of Japan sent his daughter on a mission.

She was to find a new home for a sacred mirror, one of three items that had been passed down from their ancestor, Amaterasu, the sun goddess and the creator of ancient Japan. The mirror was worshipped as though it was the goddess herself, and its new resting place would become the centre of Shinto festivals, ceremonies and rituals. Continue reading “Journey to the Soul of Japan”

A to Z: 2016 Review

It’s a bit late but, Happy New Year! How is it already the end of January?

For my 2016 review post, I thought I’d change it up again and sort my fave memories according to the letters of the alphabet. I love doing these yearly wrap up posts as I get to look back at all of the awesome places I got to visit and fun activities I got to take part in, and share them with you in one go. Continue reading “A to Z: 2016 Review”

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

 

Island Hopping in Japan’s South (Part 2)

The first two days of our Okinawa trip had been a fascinating glimpse into the history of Japan’s southern islands. I had been shocked by the horrors that had taken place there during the war, learned about the Ryukyu Kingdom which existed before Okinawa came to be, and been just metres away from some huge whale sharks at Churaumi Aquarium. The Main Island was lots of fun and a great introduction to Okinawa, but I had no idea of the pristine natural beauty and displays of Okinawa’s unique culture that awaited us on the smaller islands further south. Excited for some island hopping, it was time to hit the sky again!

Day 3: Ishigaki Island & Taketomi Island

Our third day in Okinawa was packed from start to finish. After a 1-hour flight from Naha, we landed on Ishigaki Island, part of an archipelago called the Yaeyama Islands. With Taiwan only 30 minutes away, we may as well have been in a foreign country. Tokyo felt a long, long way away.

Ishigaki is about 140km around, surrounded by a beautiful coral reef and covered in an interesting mix of sugar cane, pineapple farms, banana plants, palm trees and pine trees! Outside of the main town and agricultural plots, the island is largely untouched. Driving down roads lined with overgrown vegetation made it feel like we were exploring a deserted island!

And boy, the sky – it was constantly painted in the most beautiful shades of blue, dotted with bright, snow-white clouds. Everywhere we went, I was always drawn to the vast sky above us. Maybe I’m just too used to the city life, especially in Tokyo, where we are crammed in and there’s always some building obstructing the view. With much less pollution than many parts of the world, the sky in the Yaeyama Islands seemed the purest and most radiant I’d ever seen.

Our first port of call was Yaima-mura, an open-air museum featuring a small collection of traditional buildings set up like an actual village. There were displays explaining the life of the Yaeyama fishermen – including giant sea turtles and giant shells used for cooking over fires. We were kept busy with craft activities, an enclosure full of cheeky and playful squirrel monkeys, and a restaurant where we tried yaeyama soba topped with pork, fish cake and green onions.

After a few hours at the village, we headed to the port to catch a ferry to a nearby island.

Though the smallest island on our itinerary, Taketomi was by far my favourite. I wish I could have stayed there forever! I love going to remote locations and this island couldn’t have been more perfect. The only way in is by boat, and with a population of only 300, it never gets busy.

Taketomi is only 9km in circumference, and the best way to get around is by bicycle. Especially under the intense summer sun, there is no way walking is an option! With loose, sandy roads, the going is not so easy but that’s part of the charm. It was so much fun going from beach to beach, feeling the wind in our faces as we pedalled down palm tree-lined roads.

In the middle of the island is a quaint village of traditional Ryukyu houses – all with “shisa” statues out the front warding off evil spirits. The red-tiled roofs, stone walls, and water buffalo-drawn carts sauntering through the white sandy streets, was the quintessential Okinawa view I’d seen in pictures many times before. It was as though those images had come alive before my very eyes.

Aside from the village, it’s the beaches for which Taketomi is most famous. I can still clearly picture in my mind walking out from the clearing at West Wharf and seeing the crystal clear, turquoise waters for the first time. Ahh-mazing. The sky was dreamy. The air was fresh. In the distance we could see Kohama Island. In the water we could see fish swimming about. Everything just took my breath away!

The crescent-shaped Kondoi Beach was by far the most heavenly, with pristine, shallow waters, and fine, white sand stretching out into the distance in both directions. It was one of those pinch-me moments and a place I’ll never forget.

Kaiji Beach is known as one of only two places in Okinawa you can see ‘star sand’. These stars are actually incredible, tiny pieces of coral that get washed ashore after the coral dies. These days it’s hard to find star sand at Kaiji, but it’s fun to wander the shore searching for them. And if all else fails, you can buy cute little bottles of them from a local vendor.

So far, we had been to three islands – Okinawa Main Island, Ishigaki Island and Taketomi Island. Each were so beautiful and offered something different. The days were extraordinarily humid and boiling hot and the nights also very warm, but that’s a small price to pay for being able to visit paradise!

We still had two more days and one more island, the most remote of all the places we visited, on the itinerary. Stay tuned for Part 3!

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