5 Things to Do on Okinawa Island

(Map of Locations)

Okinawa Prefecture is a chain of four main islands and smaller ‘island groups’ that stretch for over six hundred miles. Okinawa Island is the largest, its natural beauty dominated by the bustling capital Naha and a number of controversial American military bases. A weekend allows you to explore the most basic of tourist attractions, but leaves no opportunity for adventure on the paradises offshore.

Okinawans are known as ‘Ryukyuan’ for the chain of Ryukyu Islands of which they are part. They are quite used to the influx of foreign tourists and famous for being some of the longest-lived people on the planet. Alongside them is the resident United States military, whose presence is keenly felt. The sight of service members and their families is common around the island. Their American-style housing compounds are visible behind chain-link from the highway, and their cars are easy to spot thanks to the distinctive ‘Y’ on the license plate. Even the English-language music station serves both as reminder of home and unintentional source of humor due to its decidedly odd military commercials and public service announcements.

Tip: Stay in a Hostel Hostels in Naha are cheap, centrally located, and generally safe and clean.

It was a hot and muggy November when I arrived. I took a bus from the airport into the city, and spent some time trying to find my hostel. The staff at the Guesthouse Okinawa Monogatari were friendly and welcoming. The dorms had better security than most hostels, and the beds came with privacy curtains.

Naha has a half-tropical feel that many foreigners find incongruous to their preconceived image of Japan. We see the country in films as covered in rice fields and bamboo, mountainous, boasting festivals in summer and cherry blossoms in spring.  We’re not taught to expect Naha’s palm trees, beaches, or tropical skirts being sold to tourists along the streets.

Habu-shu or ‘snake liquor’ is sold in shops along the main road. The giant jars of alcohol contain a coiled habu snake - deadly pit vipers native to southern Japanese islands - with its mouth open and fangs out, as if ready to strike. A tempting drink for someone seeking an exotic experience, at least until I learned the somewhat horrifying methods used to create it.

Tip: Rent a Car The bus and monorail system in Naha is clean and safe, but for anyone wanting to explore outside of the main city, renting a cheap car is the easiest - and arguably only - way to properly do so.

The next morning I enjoyed a complimentary pancake breakfast and made friends with a cheerful Japanese guest in the hostel common room.

My travel partner arrived around noon with our rental car, and we settled on a small parking lot near our hostel. The system here was a complicated one; first one parks their car in one of the tightly-packed spaces, then gets the attention of an elderly woman living on the second floor above the parking space. She sends down a bucket on a string, into which you deposit your car keys. When you wish to retrieve your car, the bucket descends again; you give her the money, and get the keys back in return.

Then we set off to explore Okinawa Island properly.

The Castle

Our first stop that morning was Shuri-jo or Shuri Castle. Built in the 1300’s and a former jewel of the Ryukyu Kingdom, much of it was destroyed during WWII and rebuilt in the 1990’s.

The castle is pretty, if somewhat standard in size. The patterns painted on its walls differ from the usual Japanese castle aesthetic, outlining an unexpected contrast between Japanese and specifically Okinawan culture. We admired it, but decided against paid admission to the central courtyard, which is visible from afar if you take the footpath that circumnavigates the walls.

The castle also hosts frequent demonstrations of traditional and beautiful Okinawan dances.

The Beach

The beaches of Okinawa Island cannot compare to those of smaller islands like Miyako-jima and Ishigaki, so we simply chose the one most readily accessible.

Araha Beach is not the prettiest or most unique stretch of coastline I have ever visited, but lying on the warm sand was a treat for mid-November, and there was some interesting scenery offshore. It seemed popular with foreign couples and their children - we saw a number of the ‘Y’ plated cars in the parking lot - but was far from swarmed, likely due to the time of year.

Relax (Massage and Hot Spring)

One of the things I most looked forward to in Okinawa was getting a massage, and we decided on the female-run, well-reviewed Secret Garden Aromatherapy Salon. Half an hour from central Naha, it was a clean and tranquil little place, with very skilled service for a very reasonable price. They cater to women and couples only. They worked magic, fixing months of back pain in under an hour. It was a revitalizing experience, and a relaxing end to the day.

We started the next morning at an onsen or Japanese hot spring.

Bathers with tattoos such as myself face something of a challenge, as hot springs generally ban us from using the facilities. This is so they can refuse - without explicitly stating so - to cater to the yakuza, or Japanese mafia. Of course, it is irresponsible to flout a country’s rules as a foreigner, and some hot springs will forcibly eject tattooed persons from the baths. On the other hand, tourists are very obviously not members of the Japanese mafia, and the country is beginning to relax its rules for foreigners, especially since smaller tattoos can be covered by a strategically-placed towel.

We decided on Ryukyu Onsen Senagajima Hotel, slightly pricey but not far from Naha. The morning rush cleared out around 8 AM, and we had the place entirely to ourselves. Though not large, the onsen was almost entirely salt-water - a rare treat. It had a number of fun baths, pools, and enormous clay pots suitable for a single person to soak in. There was also a standing pool, which submerged me up to my ribs and was situated overlooking the ocean. The sea view was gorgeous.

The Aquarium

Churaumi Aquarium lies on a peninsula one-and-a-half hours north of Naha. Once the largest aquarium in the world, it boasts a nice collection of aquatic animals and a cute gift shop.

The range of sea life is fascinating, and the whale sharks are especially stunning in their gorgeous main tank. However, while the sea creatures look healthy, their tanks are not large in comparison to their body size. Some tiny creatures in side-exhibits even seem to reside in fish-bowls.

There is also a shark ‘study’ room. Despite the fact that humans slaughter thousands of sharks daily, the room focuses almost entirely on shark dissection rather than preservation. More of the room is devoted to shark meat delicacies than educating visitors on natural shark behavior.

I also must unfortunately give a complete thumbs-down to Cafe Ocean Blue, the aquarium’s only restaurant. Their literal only option for non-meat-eaters was onion rings. The pasta, shrimp rice, and even corn soup (???) included meat. The staff was very kind  about trying to assist me, but there was not much they could do. On the plus side, the cafe was directly beside the beautiful main tank. It provided a welcome distraction from my hunger pangs and mediocre onion rings.

The Food

Naha has a number of interesting restaurants, bars, and clubs.

Our first night was concluded with a visit to Bacar Okinawa, a lovely pizza parlor. From the counter you can see chefs making and baking some of the best pizza in Japan. The mixed drinks are also delicious, and the service very nice. Go early or make a reservation - they were full except for a few pre-booked seats, and only let us kip there provided we finished eating before the next customers were due.

The next night we spent several hours at Mafali Cafe, close to our hostel. It was a very nice African-themed restaurant and bar with good food and fantastic drinks. I recommend the cheese platter.

xoxo

Life on the JET Program: Adventure of the Headless Fish

So you're sitting at a desk in one of your students' classrooms, lunch tray in front of you as you watch thirteen-fourteen-fifteen-year-olds ladle rice and soup and meat onto small dishes. They are wearing aprons, caps and masks.

After everyone is served, everyone puts their hands together. "Itadakimasu," proclaims a chosen student.

There is a great scraping of chairs; the girls, holding their bowls of food to put some back into the pot; the boys, to get any and all of the leftovers. Then the fight begins. (It's always louder in the older students' lunchrooms.) "Extra milk! Extra pieces of fish!" The boys crowd around, playing rock-paper scissors furiously. The winner screams his victory, walking back to his seat with fists in the air and two cartons of milk. The losers scream too; one collapses against a wall, clutching it like a fainting maiden; another falls roaring to the floor, arms raised to the sky in supplication.

It's like this every day.

The third dish on your plate is always a mystery; usually some mixture of vegetables. Today, it is potatoes and greens mixed with fish. Tiny fish. Tiny, pale, whole fish, no longer than three-quarters of an inch.

I can do this, you think.

You stare some more. You lift a chopstickfull; there seem to be tiny sesame seeds speckling your food.

They are not sesame seeds. They are the heads of decapitated tiny fish, soft from cooking, mushed into your potatoes.

You really can't do this.

Carefully, you use your chopsticks to separate the fish from the potatoes, and set about eating the latter.

This chopstickfull is speckled with seeds, too. You inspect them, wondering if they are poppy seeds.

They are eyeballs.

My friends, indeed, they are eyeballs.

Life on the JET Program: The Squeaky ALT Chair

I have the squeakiest desk chair ever created by mankind.

Either everyone else in the Board of Education has a normal chair, or they are possessed of some congenital ability to move with the weight of a powder puff. Like an elf, or a ninja.

In the quiet of the office there is a shuffling of papers, a cough, an answer to a phone call.

All is silent.

I shift.

My chair squeaks.

Nay, it erupts, fracturing the silence like Vesuvius in the quiet of Pompeii.

Silence again until, butt numb from sitting and back starting to ache, I deign to move once more.

My chair squeaks.

I have insulted the emperor; I have brought shame upon everyone’s mother; I have shit in the milk.

Quietly I subside, mortified and wide-eyed.

My coworkers carry stoically on.

Britain on a Shoestring - Operation Find Merlin

(Map of Locations)

(Train & Bus Schedule & Info)

(Sightseeing Schedule & Info)

The Adventure Begins:

March of 2013.

The Goal

: To find Merlin.

Travel Method:

Trains and Buses via 8 Day BritRail Pass.

Planning:

One year of compiling train times, bus schedules, hostel contacts, rail maps, and campground bookings in a journal.

Travelers:

A trio of college-age females.

Packed

: Tent, sleeping bags, first-aid kit, energy bars, rope, hiking boots, cell phone.

*

Our adventure begins at four o'clock on a cold spring morning, on a train from Birmingham New Street headed straight northwestward into Wales.

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We, sleep-deprived travelers as we were, snoozed in our seats, waking up some hours later in the brisk and bright morning at Lladudno Junction. Unwilling to wait for the next train, we began walking toward Conwy before being offered a free bus ride by a friendly driver.

The bus approaches the walled castle town via a bridge, the stone walls stretching tall as it trundles over the water.

The castle itself is closed in early mornings and requires a small entry fee, but visitors are free to wander the outside and take the spiral staircase and up onto the crenelated castle walls.

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After grabbing food from the Spar, we sat by the water, flinging bits of food for the seagulls and slowly warming as the day properly dawned.  We left before noon - the schedule was packed - and took the train from Lladudno to Blaenau Ffestiniog.

We stood in the freezing wind surrounded by snow-capped mountains, faces red, lips chapped and noses running, squinting at bus schedules and puffing at barely-lit cigarettes. We took refuge in a nearby tea shop, sipping milky, sugary concoctions and warming our hands on the painted china while at the next table over, bushily bearded men spoke contentedly in Welsh.

When the bus came, it took us to Minffordd, from which we walked to Port Meirion, an odd paradise in the middle of the Welsh towns surrounding it.

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It was also the iconis filming location for the 1960's TV show

The Prisoner

, and well worth the somewhat exorbitant entry price.

There was a quick debate about whether or not we had time to visit

Dinas Emrys

which is where Merlin, according to legend, prophesied about the red and white dragons (representing the British and Saxon forces) battling beneath the castle. But there wasn't enough time, so we took the train right to Abergavenny and then got a taxi from there to Llanthony Priory.

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It was pitch dark when we arrived, and we pitched our tent for the first time, put on our warmest clothes, crawled into our sleeping bags, and tried to fall asleep. We  - or more specifically I, since it had been my job to plan - were dumb as fuck. None of our supplies were suited for the extreme cold. We were fine until sometime past midnight when the temperatures dropped below zero and the ground froze solid, the cold creeping up through the tent and into our sleeping bags. At this point, we abandoned all pride, and ended up whimpering and crawling on top of each other.

We awoke early the next morning, surrounded by chickens, crisp air, and snow-capped mountains. Cows mooed on the farm behind us.We walked into the nearby inn for a fortifying breakfast - carrot and coriander soup has never tasted so unbelievably amazing - and then explored the Priory.

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The Priory is some hundreds of years old, and possibly most famous for being the place where Edward the Confessor stopped before continuing on to the castle at which he was murdered.

We freshened up a bit and then called a taxi, after which we took the train to Cardiff.

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It is a glorious place for fans of Doctor Who.

We ate at Eddie's Diner, an American themed restaurant where the 'American' Doctor Who episode

The Impossible Astronaut

was filmed.

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We made one stop after, which was Caerphilly Castle.

It was beautiful. It was also the site of the Who episode The Almost People.

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We didn't have time for Chepstow Castle but went straight on to Kidwelly, where we stayed for the night, unfortunately arriving too late to visit the nearby Carmarthen and Bryn Myrddin, one of Merlin's alleged birthplaces.

We left early the next morning, wearing slightly nicer clothes than our usual rough sweatpants and messy hats, and took the train straight into Bath. Our first stop was the Fashion Museum, followed by the Roman Baths themselves.

The architecture is unbelievable.

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We left, had amazing Indian food on George Street, and then took the train to Salisbury. Stonehenge is only a short drive away - or a walk after taking the bus to Amesbury.

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Stonehenge is only a short drive away - or a walk after taking the bus to Amesbury.

The UK's National Heritage site offers cheap, special after-hours passes that, unlike the usual highly expensive and guided tour where you have to stay behind the ropes at all times, let us inside the stone circle, free to wander as the sun set.

Anyone who says that 'all the atmosphere is gone' from Stonehenge has either never been inside, or is lying to themselves. It's impossible to explain, other than to say that besides the high winds and setting sun there was a feeling none of us could describe. A vibration, maybe, in the ground or in the air.

It was almost impossible to conceive, the idea that we were standing inside something so extremely old.

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We stayed for the night with a lovely woman from Couchsurfing.org, and the next morning took the bus back into town. The minimum price for two hours at Thermae Bath Spa was more money than we'd spent thus far, but was more than worth it after days of trekking and freezing. We soaked, steamed, and soaked again until our time was up.

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We took the train down toward Avebury, where we didn't have time for much besides an odd lunch at the very pretty Red Lion Pub and a quick jaunt around the stones.

We then spent about five years on the trains, headed straight south to Dorset and the Jurassic Coast. That night we Couchsurfed near Bournemouth with an amazing artist and her wittily hilarious girlfriend. They fed us the most amazing Spanish cooking and we talked late into the night. Although it was unfortunately too dark to see the famous Jurassic Coast, they drove us around the city and showed us the water, the air balloon, and Mary Shelley's grave.

We packed up the next morning, made the painful choice between

Durdle Door

and Corfe Castle, decided the finnicky and unreliable bus schedule was not worth getting stuck on the coastline for an entire day, and headed to Corfe.

It was bright, sunny, and magical.

It's easily one of my favorite castles I've ever been to, and it proved to be thoroughly climbable.

We spent the afternoon frolicking before grabbing a cup of tea at the local pub and leaving on the next bus.  

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It was a long journey from there into Cornwall. We spent a few hours on the train before transferring onto two different buses, with just enough time to shop for groceries - bread, vodka, the essentials - and board the next leg of the journey. We paused several times in our journey for the driver to get out and have a communal smoke with the passengers. One woman riding the bus offered him some soup from her thermos. It was definitely the countryside.

We ended up in Camelford as dusk was falling, and called a taxi to take us to our campsite at Trewethett Farm in Trethevy.  Our campsite was on the sea. We pitched our tent overlooking the water, took much-needed showers, and sat in our tent demolishing our bottle of vodka.

We checked in the next morning with some very lovely women at the front desk, who were kind and welcoming. Then we left our bags behind, took our valuables, and with a sturdy map to guide us on our way, walked the Southwest Coast Path to Tintagel.

We found carved Neolithic spirals in the rock and some kind of shrine along the way.

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It was a two hour trek, up and down stairs and around hills - easily the hardest thing we had done so far.  It was also one of the most gorgeous things I have ever seen. The views were completely unbelievable.

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Winded and windswept, we stumbled into the restaurant at Tintagel, fortifying ourselves with warm food and cider. Then we climbed onto the castle.

It did not disappoint.

It was, I decided, a bit like Hogwarts - a sprawling magical castle that Muggles like us simply could not see properly.

We stopped to boulster our strength with cream teas, and our last stop was to sit at the water's edge and stare at the caves.

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Very tired indeed now, we called a taxi and raced to the Boscastle Museum of Witchcraft. It was just closing as we arrived, but the nice woman behind the front desk let us have fifteen minutes. It's an incredible museum. It features both local and international history, and unlike the disappointment one is more likely to run into in Salem, it was filled with a huge amount of very credible information.

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Then we walked the two hours back to the campsite, arriving very weary indeed. The owners asked us if we would like to move our tent to one of the empty storage sheds, where they hoped we'd be slightly more protected from the wind, because they were quite worried about us out there all alone. They then also gave us a space heater, and asked if we were quite sure we didn't need anything else before leaving us. We fell asleep on the couches, happy as clams.

The next morning we caught the first bus, then another bus to the train station. We rode to Penzance, at the very tip of the Cornish peninsula, and took the bus to Marazion and St Michael's Mount. That day, we took a boat across at high tide, and feasted on yet more cream teas before making our weary way back. The next morning, we returned at low tide, and walked across the stone pathway to the castle.

We had lunch - and more cream teas! Before heading slowly back toward the train station. This was our last full day in England. The adventure was done.

Japan on a Shoestring - Nine Million Years on a Train

Japan on a Shoestring

Nine Million Years on a Train

It is common for the university student to undertake adventure while abroad. Vacation draws nigh, and the student sets off to explore the world. Oftentimes those of us with less spare cash either curl up in our dormitories and pretend not to be envious, or we get inventive.

I am happy to say that during Winter Break in Japan, my roommate and I got inventive.

Japan has four main islands that stretch latitudally 1,800 miles, and span from temperate to tropical climates. Those departing (main island) Honshu’s northern Akita Prefecture in below-freezing temperatures ride south to find the five-foot snow drifts disappear and the air warms upon reaching the more southerly Kyoto.  Shaping a trip to suit your needs is easy.

Look For:

  • Upcoming festivals and cultural events. Eg. Obon (August, festival); Kamakura (Winter, igloo); Karatsu Kunchi (November, parade).
  • Shrines, temples, and statues.
  • Natural hot springs, or onsen. (Remember: This means getting naked.)
  • National Heritage sites, scenery, and movie locations.

 

Tip: Check your resources and calculate how many days you can travel before winding up stranded in a ditch. Then get online and make love to Google and Google Maps.

 

I journeyed in the only way college students such as myself, penniless but full of wide-eyed enthusiasm, could. That is, slowly and without much glamour. But nothing matches the freedom of long hours spent dozing fitfully, rocked to sleep while rice paddies and persimmon trees pass by the windows, the sound of train tracks clattering below.

Public transportation in Japan is expensive. The famous ‘bullet train,’ or Shinkansen, can cost significantly more than a cheap hotel, or over $100 per ride.

What to Do?

  • If you are a student, look up the Seishun Juuhachi Kippu, or ‘Youthful 18 Ticket.’ Available during off seasons, 10,000 Yen (or somewhat over $100) will give you five days of unlimited travel on all ‘regular’ slow trains.
  • Try Night Buses. Reliable budget companies such as Willer leave late at night to arrive early morning, and can travel between major cities for 4,500 Yen ($50).
  • Peach Aviation is a domestic low-cost carrier, providing flights in and out of Osaka for often less than $50.

 

What to Expect:

  • More time on the train than off it.
  • Falling asleep on your backpack; alternatively face of your travel companion.
  • Waking up to paw frantically at drool while old ladies seated across from you giggle.

 

Tip: Go to www.Hyperdia.com for train schedules. Then double check at the nearest major train station how to get from point A to point B and C. Print out train lines, departure times, and transfer stations.

 

Finding cheap food and accommodation is easier than you might think. We avoided hotels and restaurants, focusing on what was easy to find, quick to grab, and cheap. Remember, you may be arriving late, leaving early, and fueling up on the go.

In Japan, English fluency is hard to come by outside of big cities.  Smile through wonky grammar and horrid misunderstandings, and be prepared to draw childish diagrams, do interpretive dance, and possibly cry. Carry a dictionary, familiarize yourself with the kanji of your destinations, and know basic phrases. When is the train? Where is food store? Can I stay here tonight? Why am I being eaten by domesticated deer? Etc.

Stay:

  • The manga kissa or ‘manga café’ is the refuge of the penniless traveler. For as little as 900 Yen per night (just over $10), one gets a private cubicle with television and computer, free drinks, and access to shelves of Japanese comic books/movies. Fancier cafes have showers and food.
  • CouchSurfing.org is the perfect tool for finding a free bed. Exercise caution (I recommend staying among your own age group and gender) and it can be a wonderful, safe experience for those hard-up for cash.

Eat:

  • The main Japanese travel food of yours truly was the onigiri. Flavored rice balls wrapped in seaweed, they are easy to snag off the shelf at Family Mart in the breaks between train departures. The best bottled drinks included lemon and milk teas.

 

Tip: Look up 24-hour cafés and hostels online, in English and Japanese. Print out street maps and directions.

 

*

A Further Account of Our Heroic Journey

Accompanied by a List of Helpful Japanese Words and Phrases

(Which May Not Be Entirely Accurate)

Night Zero

Wherein Our Heroes Kind of Embark

 My traveling companion – Daphne – and I had planned things to the minutest detail. The departure time listed on our train schedule (which we had printed out at the station the day before) was earlier than the first bus leaving our campus, so we stayed in the city center for the night, within easy walking distance of Akita Train Station.

We found one of several nearby manga cafes, and checked in.

Apparently, checking in is one of the many times when one’s scant language skills can become painfully obvious. After fifteen minutes of trying to communicate in English, Japanese, hiragana, and kanji – all of which failed – we progressed to doodled diagrams of stick figures, interpretive dance, and a silent moment spent weeping and crawling about the rug on hands and knees.

It turned out the poor mortified clerk was just trying to ask for our IDs.

Don’t be like us.

Carry a goddamn dictionary.

We eventually settled in for the night, warm in the silence of the café, refreshed by the free drinks (I was partial to the hot matcha tea – Daphne developed rather a disturbing obsession for melon pop) and feeling oddly dazed by the electronic light reflected on the ceiling by computers and televisions all around.

We set our phone alarms, crawled into our cubbies, and fell asleep under our coats.

Check-In Phrases:

  • I would like to stay here tonight. ここに泊まりたいんです。Koko ni tomari tain desu.
  • I want to leave by XYZ o’clock tomorrow morning. 明日の朝、XYZ時までに到着したいんです。Ashita no asa, XYZji made ni touchaku shitain desu.
  • Can I see your ID? 身分証明/IDカードをお持ちですか? Mibun shoumei/ID ka-do- wo omochi desu ka?
  • Do you have a member card? メンバカードをお持ちですか?Membaka-do wo omochi desu ka?

 

Writing: 

  • Manga Café. 漫画喫茶。Manga Kissa.
  • Internet Café. インターネットカフェ。Inta-netto Kafe.
  • Hostel. ホステル。Hosuteru.
  • Hotel. ホテル。Hoteru.
  • Hour. 事。Ji.
  • Yen. 円。En.
  • Television. テレビ。Terebi.
  • Computer. コンピューター。Konpyu-ta-.

 

Day One

Lots of Time Asleep


We dragged ourselves from the depths of sleep and trudged through the snow to depart on the 5 AM train. We rode south from Akita, traveling along the eastern rail line.

The train schedule was our most precious possession – a list of train lines, stops, transfers, and exact times all written down in order. We were on the train for more than 10 hours, and transferred nearly as many times.  

In retrospect, one of our most memorable stops was Sendai, which was a big, bustling, warm indoor station. Months later the same city would be slammed with the tsunami of 3/11, leaving houses destroyed and thousands displaced or dead.

We spent our time in Sendai like we did every other station – using our 30 minute break on solid land to run to the restroom, snatch onigiri and sandwiches from the in-station convenience stores, and find the track for our next train.

Back on board, we passed the time by dozing on one another, head on shoulder or head on head. Sometimes we drifted off curled in the seats and one another’s laps. Schoolgirls, grandmothers and grandfathers chatted quietly amongst themselves all around us. Daphne scrap booked, her giant knitted rabbit gloves lying on the seat beside her. I spent hours staring at the window at passing persimmon trees and rice fields, burrowed deep into my coat.

The going was slow, but it allowed us to experience the culture-seeped life and scenery of the countryside, and watch as the climate and landscape changed out the windows.

We arrived in Tsukuba after nightfall, having achieved proximity to our first destination and the assurance of another manga café.

I recommend Tsukuba’s green curry, especially eaten late at night after a weary day of travel.

Train Phrases:

  • When does the train depart? 電車は何時出発しますか? Densha ha itsu shuppatsu shimasu ka?
  • What track number is the train for XYZ? XYZまでの電車は何番線ですか? XYZ made no densha ha nambansen desu ka?
  • When is the next train for XYZ? 次XYZまでの電車は何時ですか?Tsugi XYZ made no densha ha itsu desu ka?
  • Where is the train for XYZ?  XYZマでの電車はどこですか?XYZ made no densha ha doko desu ka?

 

Writing: 

  • Train. 電車。Densha.
  • Track Number. ~番線。 ~Ban Sen.
  • Train Station. ~駅。~Eki.
  • Arrive. 到着。Touchaku.
  • Depart. 出発。 Shuppatsu.

 

Day Two

What’s so Aristocratic About this Forest, Anyway?


We arrived at our first destination – Shimotsuma in Ibaraki Prefecture of Shimotsuma Monogatari (Kamikaze Girls) movie fame - in the early morning. Having watched the film a great many times, we knew exactly what to expect: A great deal of rice fields, rather too many cow patties, and a single department store.

We set off from the station on foot and found ourselves in a sleepy residential town.

Quoth Daphne, “I sort of thought there’d be more rice paddies just... right here. And a Jusco.”

We soon found ourselves trekking along the highway, tired and cranky, with nothing recognizable in sight.

“Daphne,” said I. “Let us hitchhike.”

“Nay,” said she. “Nay.”

We eventually found the Jusco. It was not unlike a holy experience.

The next stop had been a surprise – another 20 minutes’ track to the ‘Forest of the Aristocrats’ restaurant featured in the film, where we sat eating ice cream Sundays and happily missing our train to see the Ushiku daibutsu nearby.

At last, with aching feet, sweaty clothes, and windswept hair, we wrote Shimotsuma Eki in poor Japanese on the back of my sketchbook and walked along the road, thumbs stuck out in the hopes of finding a helpful stranger. Within ten minutes we were picked up by a lovely woman and deposited back by the station, hitchhiking successful.

That night we missed our very last connecting train to Kyoto, and were stuck in not-quite-Kyoto-but-almost for the night. There were no more trains, and our pre-booked hostel was waiting for us, warm and unreachable.  With sleeping huddled in the cold, empty station looming in our minds as a likely option for the night, we sat down to conserve body heat and tried not to cry, scream, or poo ourselves in front of Japanese late-night commuters.

We were, of course, eventually saved.

There was a manga café nearby.

Phrases for Journeying:

  • Could you please take me to XYZ Train Station? XYZ駅に連れて行って下さいませんか? Watashi wo XYZ eki ni tsurete itte kudasaimasen ka? 
  • I am going to XYZ Train Station. XYZ駅に行きます。 XYZ eki ni ikimasu. 
  • Where is XYZ? XYZはどこですか? XYZ ha doko desu ka? 
  • Is there a manga café nearby? 漫画喫茶は近くですは? Manga kissa ha chikaku desu ka? 
  • Where is a very cheap hostel? とても安いホステルはどこですか?Totemo yasui hosuteru ha doko desu ka?

 

Day Three

On a Downbound Train


Our journey inevitably clashed with that of the everyday Japanese commuter. Tight ponytails and schoolgirl skirts, business suits and ties, worn canes and bags of shopping – whatever the outfit of our fellow companions in the train compartment that day, we clashed.

We ate in public, slept in public, one with a headscarf and the other with a head of increasingly tangled, greasy hair. We tucked ourselves and our packages tight into corners so that we could doze off without bothering those around us, and inevitable curiosity followed us wherever we went.

Daphne helped matters considerably. More than once I woke to find the old ladies across the train giggling silently as my companion snapped a photo of my uncomfortably close, sleeping face.

This is fine. Daphne knows I know that she zonked out and began drooling on those very same seats more than once.

In this manner, we entered Kyoto – the Old Capitol, a city of legendary historical and cultural wealth, and ours to explore for barely the span of a single day.

We found our hostel, available to us for just another few hours as the morning faded into noon. Daphne chose sleep. I chose a shower and shave.

We saw what nearby temples we could and then hopped on the local train to Nara, half an hour away. The helpful folk at the station provided us with a convenient local guidebook and street map, and we found Nara Park with little difficulty after a 15 minute walk.

There are two things to enjoy in Nara Park. One is the many temples and statues, including the massive daibutsu (Big Buddha) in Todai-ji Temple. Massive and bronze, it has been rebuilt more than once after fires many centuries before. At its oldest base, it is over a thousand years old. Having studied the sculpture in university some years before, seeing its beauty right in front of my eyes was difficult to comprehend.

The second thing to see, of course, is the deer.

They roam the semi-enclosed park much like pigeons do city squares, nearly domesticated, close enough to pet, and very happy to receive food. They have a tendency to swarm when you have it, and because deer crackers are sold on every corner, you always have it.

If you do not give them food, they will take it anyway. Do not enter the park holding any paper shopping bags.

The deer were adorable and highly pettable. They became our friends, and I am happy to say that I dealt with them with the utmost composure. This cannot be said for everyone.

(“Help,” shrieks Daphne.

I remain unmoved.

“Help, it’s coming after me."

Serenely, I pet the deer nearest to me.

"Quick,” and now her eyes are a bit wild, “let’s make a run for it.”)

Phrases for Finding Your Destination:  

  • How do you get to XYZ Park? どうやってXYZ公園に行けますか?Douyatte XYZ Kouen ni ikemasu ka?
  • Could you please draw me a map? 地図を描いて下さいませんか?Chizu wo kaite kudasaimasen ka? 
  • Straight ahead. まっすぐ。Massugu.
  • Turn left. 左に曲がる。Hidari ni magaru.
  • Turn right. 右に曲がる。Migi ni magaru.
  • Please don’t eat that. 食べないで下さい。Sore wo tabenai de kudasai.

 

Writing:

  • Nara. 奈良。Nara. 
  • Park. 公園。Kouen. 
  • XYZ Temple. XYZ寺。XYZ ji. 
  • Buddhist Temple. お寺。Otera. 
  • Shinto Shrine. 神社。Jinja. 
  • Kyoto. 京都。Kyoto. 
  • Big Buddha. 大仏。Daibutsu. 
  • Inari Shrine. 稲荷大社。 Inari Taisha.

 

Onward and Upward

The highlight of the day, however, remained Kyoto’s Inari Shrine (Inari Taisha).

This is a Shinto shrine – Japan’s indigenous religion. Dedicated to Inari-sama, the Japanese fox god of rice and the protector of travelers, it is massive and breathtaking. The thousand red gates – made famous in the west by Memoirs of a Geisha – wind up the hillside from the looming entryway below.

We did not make it all the way to the top. We paused briefly to gorge upon delicious udon noodles at one of the many food stops on the way up, and after venturing for a bit further, decided we could be quite proud of ourselves and decided to turn around.

At this precise moment, down from the opposite direction – having clearly climbed all the way to the top and now on her return journey – came an aging Japanese grandmother, leaning on her cane as she came trotting unsteadily back home.

We crept away in shame.

As the day crept to a close, we made our way back to Kyoto station and took one of the many busses leaving from right outside the building. Most of these will take you directly to various famous and historical sites. We chose the bus to Gion, and alighted on a fairly regular shopping street before and browsing while ignoring the yakuza unpiling form the cab next to us.

We turned down a street on a whim, and found ourselves on a cobbled path. Or feet pattered down the narrow lane, the walls of wooden teahouses stretching past us on either side. Tony and traditional, their menus displayed priced far beyond our budget range.

Moving past this, we came quite by accident upon a busfull of tourists unpiling in front of what looked to be a cultural center. After inquiring within, we were informed that there would be a performance of traditional cultural arts that night. The price was just around $25.

We were treated to a show obviously modified from the traditional and placed in a setting meant to accommodate to foreign tourists, rather than local enthusiasts. There was a high stage and rows of folding chairs; there was a narration given at least partly in English.

Despite this,  it was fabulous. We were treated to court music and tea ceremony, koto and possibly biwa. We saw a dance from two maiko, who were available outside afterward for photo-taking.

Tired and fulfilled, we staggered on aching feet back to the station and alighted the night train to Tokyo, falling asleep in our seats on the darkened train and waking in Shinjuku early the next morning.

Day Four

Tokyo, Your Stars Shine Bright


We woke up in Tokyo.

This was our last stop on our journey together; that afternoon Daphne would be flying to England, and I would not see her again for more than two years.

We went to Harajuku.

A hop away from Tokyo on the local train, one exits the station and crosses to the opposite market street. It is bustling with shoppers, food vendors, music, and clothing stores bursting with frilly, punky clothes. 

We found the store Baby the Stars Shine Bright. We bought frilly petticoats and fake tails, strawberry crepes and local noodles. We passed girls in Lolita dresses and boys with long hair and makeup. People passed in a swirl of thick soled boots and colorful wigs, hunched in the crisp wintery air.

And then Daphne was gone.

The end of the adventure was my own.  

Phrases for Shopping:

  • I would like this please. これを下さい。Kore wo kudasai. 
  • How much is it? いくらですか? Ikura desu ka? 
  • Do you have a (larger/smaller) one? もう少し(大きい/小さい)のがありますか?Mou sukoshi (ookii/chiisai) no ga arimasu ka?

 

Writing:

  • Harajuku. 原宿。Harajuku.
  • Shibuya. 渋谷。Shibuya.
  • Tokyo. 東京。Toukyou.

 

Intermission

Blue, Blue Christmas


I spent Christmas in Tokyo with friends, staying at a friend’s apartment and wandering the Christmas marketplace at Asakusa. Rickshaws (jinrikusha) passed, the drivers dressed in santa outfits.

That evening, there was Turkish food and belly dancing.

I missed Daphne.

Day Five

There’s No Telling Where You Might Be Swept Off To

 

I ended my journey somewhat abruptly, deadlines fast approaching and the holidays drawing to a close.

I had exactly one full day to reach Akita from Tokyo. It was snowing heavily in the north, trains were delayed, and station attendants assured me that it was entirely impossible to achieve my goal.

And yet the will of a student with limited time and even more limited funds is quite strong; I searched train schedules for myself, and saw a clear series of connecting trains that would lead me up north.

“It is impossible,” the station repeated gravely.

I asked them to tell me how to get to the station nearest to my destination, even if I could not reach it, and after a few missed trains and false starts, they bid me adieu as I went into the night and what I’m sure they thought was my certain death.

I was twenty years old, alone on trains for ten hours in the dark and the snow, and attempting to reach Point D after being assured that the closest I could make it was Point C.

It should have been terrifying. What I felt instead was the joy of self-reliance and unsupervised exploration.

I had been correct. There was a connecting train, none of the lines were delayed, and I was home before midnight.

Moral of the Story:

  • If your (thorough, informed) research tells you that something can be done and the authorities assure you it can’t, take a chance and trust your own instincts. 
  • Travel, even if you must do so penniless. 
  • Travel, even if you spend your journey with sweaty skin, tangled hair, and aching feet. 
  • Travel Japan.

 

Media


Soundtrack:

  •  ‘Kamikaze Girls’ (Soundtrack). 下妻物語。Shimotsuma Monogatari. 
  • ‘Bulletproof Heart’ by My Chemical Romance. 
  • ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ (Soundtrack) by John Williams. 
  • ‘Watch You Sleeping’ by Blue Foundation. 
  • ‘Faithfully’ by Journey.

 

Movies:

  • Kamikaze Girls. 下妻物語。Shimotsuma Monogatari.
  • Thelma and Louise.
  • Life on Mars (TV).

 

盛岡*八幡平広域観光圏:旅の写真とレポート [Morioka and Hachimantai Trip Photos & Report]

これは盛岡と八幡平の旅の写真とレポートです。文法を間違ったらすみません。

This is my report, complete with pictures, for the sightseeing trip to Morioka and Hachimantai.

*

10月22日に6時半に出発しました。バスで朝ご飯を食べた後、皆は寝ました。9時ごろ、早く秋田犬を見に止めました。とてもかわいかったです。

We left at 6:30 AM on October 22nd. After eating breakfast on the bus, everyone slept. At around 9 AM, we made a quick stop to see some Akita-inu dogs. They were very cute!!!

小坂鉱山事務所を見ました。後は、康楽館へ歩いて行きました。道はきれいだったし、カラフルでした。15分ぐらいかかりました。

We saw the Kosaka Mining Office, and then walked to the local theater. The street was beautiful and colorful, and it only took about 15 minutes.


役者はとても上手でした。康楽館は楽しかったけど、下の写真で見えるようなことより、私はもう少し伝統的なかぶきが大好きでした。

The actors were extremely skilled. It was fun, but more than the type of performance in the photo below, I liked their first, more traditional Kabuki-style performance best.


そして、シアターは美しくて、ステージは回りました。カーテンで書いた鹿はうまくて、伝統的そうと思いました。見ながら星座で座ったり、ちょうしゅうは皆こうふんしたり、べんとうをたべたりしました。とても日本的な経験でした。

The theater was gorgeous, and the stage revolved. There were some beautiful deer painted on the curtain in the typical Japanese style. Sitting there in the midst of an enraptured audience, eating bento and watching the play, was a really wonderful, very Japanese experience.


次は尾去沢鉱山でした。バスで30分くらいかかりました。鉱山の中は寒くて、黒かったですが、とても楽しんでいました。このような所に入ったことがありませんでしたから、楽しい冒険のようでした。

Next, we went to Osarizawa Mine. By bus it took about half an hour.  Inside it was cold and dark, but lots of fun. I'd never been to this type of place before, and it was like an adventure.


22日の最後のストップは、鹿角市中滝ふるさと でした。森で散歩したり、いろいろな滝と小さな川を見ました。

For our last stop on the 22nd, we visited Kazuno-Furusato. We walked in the woods, and saw all sorts of waterfalls and streams.


夜までにいました。暗い森の仲で、滝は明るかったです。

We were there until nighttime.  In the dark forest, the waterfalls were bright.


晩ご飯は美味しかったです。私はベジテリアンですから、私と友達は、肉と野菜を交換しました。

Dinner was delicious. Because I am a vegetarian, I traded meat for veggies with my friends.


23日の朝、一番好きだった所は後生掛温泉でした。できれば、将来で帰りたいんです。

On the morning of the 23rd, my favorite place that we went was Goshogake Onsen. If possible, I would love to go again in the future.


地球は美しい惑星です。秋田県と岩手県は日本の中で、私の一番か二番の大好き所だと思います。

The earth is a beautiful planet. Tohoku might be one of my favorite places on it.