Tuesday, January 25, 2011

2nd week of trip - Tokyo, Hiroshima, Kyoto

Okay okay - the pressure is really getting to me now! It's lasted longer in the writing stage than it did in the doing it! Here it is... the second half of the holiday!
It was a bit difficult to leave Miyako. Even knowing that we were headed for another week of adventures and the chance to see my sister, I was sad to be leaving the "tropics" behind.
We were booked into a chain of hostels for the rest of the trip. It was really easy to like the K's House Hostels as they were very clean and comfortable and they had everything we needed - including easy directions to get "there" from "here". We followed the breadcrumbs and found ourselves where we needed to be - and my sister was already tucked into bed trying to recover from her travel ordeal (that's her story though).
Joisan continued to take excellent, detailed notes of our adventures which I'm using as the kick starter for my failing memory. Rather than get into a detailed day by day, moment by moment description though - I'm going to stick with the highlights of each city...

We were very fortunate in our Tokyo sightseeing day in that my mother had the foresight many moons ago to have taught a nice young man who himself had the foresight to relocate to Tokyo so he might be of use to us!! Shaun is currently teaching English at a private school near Tokyo and miraculously he had a day off of work on our only full day in Tokyo! He took us to several cool places. We started in Shibuya, where we could do some first class people watching. We parked ourselves at the Starbucks on the corner and watched while everyone crossed the street all at the same time because the traffic lights all change to red at once. Afterward, we headed to the Tokyo Metropolitan Municipal Government building to take advantage of the free observation deck on the top of the north tower. It was a beautiful, clear day and we were even able to see Mt. Fuji! There was a lot of walking through some of the unique areas of Tokyo. We had a bit of a `small world` moment in the middle of the Ameyoko shopping district when we engaged in conversation with a shop owner who's daughter had gone to high school at LCSS in the Cowichan International program! Eventually we ended up in Ueno Park where we parted ways with Shaun and headed for the Sumo stadium with hopes of getting some cheap tickets to watch the wrestling. It turns out that we would have had to line up first thing in the morning to have a chance of seeing any of the wrestling so we satisfied ourselves with taking a few photos outside as some of the wrestlers were leaving and then going back to the hostel and watching it on TV.
We had such a short time in Tokyo that we considered ourselves very lucky to find out about the huge festival that was on at the Tokyo Dome while we were there. There were booths from every prefecture in Japan, featuring the specialties of that region. We saw some dancing and drumming performances, we ate interesting things (tomato ice cream) and we bought some great souvenirs! It was awesome but a little overwhelming! When we had all had enough we headed back to the hostel to get organized for our flights to Kobe. Once we were packed we had just enough time for a quick walk to a very famous temple that was near our hostel. Unfortunately, we didn't have enough time to go in and look around so we had to settle for a few quick photos outside.

Other than the mad dash to the gate at the Haneda airport our flight to Kobe was pretty uneventful. We went directly from the airport to the train station and took the Shinkansen to Hiroshima. We were all pretty exhausted by the time we got on the train but it was still an enjoyable experience to have. We were pretty tickled to be offered something from the trolley - we felt like we were on the Hogwarts Express! We arrived at the hostel in Hiroshima and settled right into our beds. The next day was Taran's 17th birthday. We were able to find a place that served waffles for his special birthday breakfast but it was a bit of a downer birthday for him as our focus that day was the Peace Park and Peace Museum. We approached from side of the Hiroshima A-Bomb Dome which is a building that has been preserved as it was immediately after the bombing. We all seemed to feel the weight of the tragic history of the place and despite the sunshine we felt quite "low". We walked through the park, passing a memorial for the students who died in the bombing and the children's memorial where they keep and display the hundreds of thousands of paper cranes that are sent every year. We stopped and took some photos at the peace arch with the dome in the background.
We weren't allowed to use the cameras in the museum itself but anyone who is interested in it can find photos and explanations on their website here: http://www.pcf.city.hiroshima.jp/index_e2.html I was very impressed by the impartiality of the explanations of the events leading up to the dropping of the bombs. The authentic artifacts were well explained and impactful. It was interesting and heartbreaking and I am so very glad to have seen and experienced it. I am grateful that we had the opportunity to go as a family and that the kids now have some context on the realities of war.
After the museum we went out for a birthday dinner for Taran before heading back to the station to catch the Shinkansen for Kyoto. Mum was sitting beside a woman on the train who had some great suggestions for things to do in Kyoto so by the time we hit the hostel we already had some plans made.

Kyoto was awesome. There were several special events while we were there, including a craft fair and an annual archery event that involved shooting arrows across the courtyard of a temple. We saw many of the "must see" tourist sights including Kinkaku-ji Temple (the Golden Pavilion Temple), Nijojo Castle, and the Gion District (the Geisha and Maiko district).
There were two things in particular that stood out for me in Kyoto. We went to the Kyoto Handicrafts Centre where there are 7 floors full of traditional crafts ranging from the truly magnificent (and incredibly pricy!) to the truly trashy tourist specials. On the top floor though, they have hands-on crafts that you can do. There were many different crafts to choose from - woodblock printing, cloisonne jewelery making, doll painting, etc. Joisan and my Mum both did a gold foil craft that involved brushing coloured foil onto a pre-glued background. They created amazing, original works of art! Having had a similar experience in Miyako at the basketweaving place, I think there is no doubt that a souvenier that is personally made is much more meaningful!
On our last day in Kyoto, after our walking tour of the Gion District where we caught sight of a few real Geisha, Joisan got her birthday present from Nana. She signed up for a Maiko dress-up experience. (The Maiko are the apprentice Geisha.) Girls can be dressed up and have make-up and hair done and then a photo shoot. We left Joisan to get made up and came back a half hour later. Joisan did not look like Joisan any more! Between Mum and Aurora and I we got a ton of photos and some of them are really good! I think Joisan enjoyed the experience and I certainly enjoyed watching and taking pictures! Now I just have to figure out a way to make myself actually do something with all of these pictures!
Our plane left Kobe at 8am which meant that we had to be on a ridiculously early train from Kyoto to make it to the airport on time. The sunrise at Kobe airport was a great bookend for the trip!
Being suckers for punishment, when we landed in Sapporo Mum and Aurora and Joisan and I decided to let Ian and Taran take the luggage back home while we took the train to Otaru, so that Mum and Aurora could check out the music box factory. We didn't count on the heavy snow that had fallen prior to our arrival and found ourselves inappropriately shod as we tried to navigate the snowy, icy streets. We did get to have a good look around and Mum bought a couple of stuffies to take home (coals to Newcastle!?!). After a major slip and fall for most of us we opted to cab it back to the train station and head back to Chitose. Ian picked us up and brought us home where we collapsed!
Whew! That's it! An all around awesome holiday! Now I can start working on the bits and pieces that have happened since we got back! We're gearing up for some excitement and some big changes here... Stay tuned!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

First week of trip - 7 nights in Miyakojima

I realize that consumer confidence is low here and nobody really believes that I'm going to be updating this regularly again but I am! I am! If you haven't already checked out the Happy New Years post please do that while you're here.
So... on to the trip - and apologies for the book-like length and format of this post - I'll work on keeping things to novellas in the future! I have already posted a selection of our trip photos - be grateful I didn't post all 2000 of them!
On January 4th we got up at 4am so that we could be ready when our rides arrived. I say rides because we had to have two vans take the five of us and our five suitcases to the airport. Our friend Ato-san and one of his employees did the driving and we made it to the airport with plenty of time for our 7am flight.
We actually had three flights that day - Sapporo to Haneda, Haneda to Okinawa (Naha) and Naha to Miyakojima. We were met at the Miyako airport by Akiko and taken to our tiny condo. It was a self contained suite at Miyakojima Paradise with everything we needed except elbow room! We crammed ourselves in and managed to organize to make everything fit for the week.
After settling in we went for a walk looking for a grocery store. Along the way we met a woman who kindly walked us to the grocery store and exchanged contact information with Ian. Being that we were in the Okinawa prefecture and therefore much closer to the American base, there was plenty of western style food at the store. We bought what we were willing to carry and headed back to the apartment to deal with dinner. We were a bit wiped from the long day and the walk so we cleaned up and set up our futons and went to bed.

We got a late-ish start the next day which was okay since we still had to wait a bit for the bicycles we rented to be available. We made some sandwiches for our lunch and set out as soon as our bikes were ready - heading for a famous beach called Sunayama beach. About a minute into our ride Joisan made us turn back to fetch our bathing suits. Her arguement was that we would rather have them with us and not want to use them then be caught wanting them and not having them with us. As it turned out we grovelled at her feet for the rest of the trip because it was by far our best weather and swimming day!
We changed into our suits at the bathroom/shower building just above the beach and started our walk down the sand mountain (suna = sand yama = mountain... Sunayama beach!) We were completely awed by the picture - it's actually one of the most famous views of Miyakojima so it was really cool to be there in person. When we first arrived there was only one other person on the beach so we felt free to do whatever we wanted. Of course playing in the water was what we wanted! The air wasn't hot - only about 21 degrees (although compared with the frigid temperatures we had left on Hokkaido it was pretty tropical!) The water was slightly warmer than the air though so we were able to comfortably play in the water - jumping waves and body surfing - for about two hours. It was awesome! I pulled out our goggles after a while and we enjoyed watching the movement of the sand with the waves. Joisan spotted a crab that was the same colour as the sand and we looked at the growths on the rocks nearby. When we had thoroughly exhausted ourselves we sat in the sand and ate our lunch before Taran and Ian (and eventually Joisan too) started digging a big hole to ... where? In Canada when we dig we always say we're digging to China - being that we are in Asia now I'm not sure where they were digging to.
While we played in the water and sat on the sand in our bathing suits busloads of tourists began to arrive. They would troop down the sand mountain and take a few photos, look at us like we were crazy and then head back up to the bus. Some were even taking photos of us! We wanted to wait for the tide to surround the big hole but it was taking too long so eventually we headed back up the sand mountain to shower and change before heading back. Once we got back and organized again we decided to head for a larger grocery store that we had seen on our way from the airport. Mum was struggling a bit on the ride - the way there being mostly uphill. She was a bit gratified to learn that it wasn't all about the uphill though - she had a flat tire. We were able to get it fixed and get ourselves and our yummy sushi dinner back to the studio - not too difficult since it was all downhill to the beach! We were able to spread our sleeping out a bit since Ian and Joisan moved their futons to the small deck. Unfortunately the weather turned a bit in the night and Ian woke up at 5am to rain on his head.
There were some heavy winds and rain on day three so we stuck fairly close to the studio. We took advantage of a brief lull in the storm and went for a walk on the beach across the street. After lunch we played some Wizard and then Joisan and I braved the winds and went looking for some adventure. We made up a story to tell the others while we were walking into the wind. I can't remember all of it but it did involve being attacked by a group of evil ninja monkeys and of course we triumphed in the end (although Joisan maintains that she did the butt-kicking, I of course feel confident that it was my moves that sent the evil ninjas running!)
With a few noteable exceptions, the rest of our time one Miyakojima was spent in much the same way - lots of biking, exploring, braving the winds and the rain, and just enjoying the fact that it was closer to plus 20 degrees than minus 20!
Joisan took incredible notes that I could use to give a play by play of each day but we're already at such a length here that I think the highlights and the photos will suffice.

Exception #1 The Botanical Gardens
We were on a bike excursion to a vegetable market (where we bought goya - explanation to come!) when we spotted a sign for the Miyakojima Botanical gardens. Despite grumbles from Taran we went exploring and eventually - after a ride down a long hill (which we would need to ride back up eventually!) we found the Botanical gardens. We were all (including Taran!) so glad that we did. We did a bit of exploring through the many crafting huts that they had there - including some pottery, woodworking, jewelery making, indigo dying, weaving and one where you could create your own pattern in your flip flops. Along the path we ran across a cave that kept going and going! We wished we had a light with us to explore it further but we did our best with the flashes from our cameras. Mum really wanted to make a grass basket so after we paused to eat our lunch under the shelter (it was raining a bit) she and Ian and Taran settled themselves in the weaving hut while Joisan and I went to check out the other crafts a bit closer. We didn't find anything that called out to us particularly so we went and joined the weaving in progress. Mum was well into her beautiful basket and Taran was working on a knotted bag. There were many people working who tried to help me get started on a knotted bag but my brain and my fingers were not connecting so I just admired what everyone else was doing! One of the people there took a shine to Joisan and gave her all kinds of beautiful shells and things. It was an awesome way to spend a rainy afternoon!

Exception #2 Snorkeling!!!
On our fifth day we went on a snorkeling trip. We arranged for our host Loic to take us to the best snorkeling beach on the island. The deal was supposed to include transportation, lunch, equipment, training and the use of an underwater digital camera. Unfortunately Loic had some issues - he got sick so he couldn't go in the water with us and then he couldn't find the charger for his underwater camera. The weather was not as good as our previous swimming day but it was better than some of the days in between so when Loic was able to find another camera for us to use we decided to go for it! (A good thing too - because the weather over the next few days just went downhill and we would have had to scrap it altogether.)
Because Loic felt bad for making us wait while he found a camera for us to use, on the way to the snorkeling beach we were given a bit of an island tour. We stopped at a 7km long beach (Maehama Beach) that was absolutely gorgeous! It just went on and on - white white sand and blue green water! We also saw a cape where the China Sea is on one side and the Pacific Ocean is on the other. We eventually ended up at the beach with the coral reef (Aragusuku Beach) and after our safety chat and some guidance in putting on the mask and flippers we entered the world of Nemo. There are not enough words to describe how amazing an experience this was. We were all awed and impressed with the variety and proximity of the fish. It was a fairly cloudy day so the coral was not as brightly coloured as it can be with the sunshine but it was sooo amazing! We brought some rice from our lunch into the water and fed the fish from our hands. They swarmed around whoever had food and we got some cool photos with the underwater camera. We didn't know exactly how to work the camera though so we ended up with some videos we didn't intend which unfortunately used up some of the battery life. Still, we have evidence of our adventure and we were able to see clown fish behaving just like they do in the movies (hear Marlin's voice talking to Nemo...) "Out... and back in... out... and back in." We were at the beach for a total of about 4 1/2 hours - most of it spent in the water. Although the water was warmer than the air we were all a bit chilled by the time we were ready to go. We were so very happy that Nana took us to Miyakojima and took us snorkeling - we had a marvellous time!

Exception #3 - Irabujima Island Excursion
Taran was feeling out of sorts the day after the snorkeling so he opted to lay low while the rest of us took our bikes on the ferry to a nearby island. We were welcomed to Irabujima by a torrential downpour which was at least not cold. We pushed on and rode across Irabujima to a smaller island called Shimojijima where there were some interesting pools and beaches we had planned to see. Our ride across the island was not on a main road (because we got lost!) and seemed to be either flat or uphill and we consolled ourselves with the thought that the way back would be flat or downhill. The rain came and went and came again with a vengance. We made it to the pools which were partly fresh water and partly sea water - being connected underground by caves which went out to the ocean. While we were looking at the pools the wind picked up and made us change our plans a bit. We crossed the beaches off our list and looked for the shortest way back to the ferry. Distance-wise it was shortest to go around the airport on the cement retaining wall that separates the airport from the ocean. Wind-wise this was not the most comfortable route but with some judiciously timed walks and the eventual tail wind on the third side, we made it. With some guidance from a taxi driver to put us on the right (main) road we headed for the ferry. Of course, owing to Murphy and his laws, our different route was all uphill on the way back >:( We did make it home eventually - very much looking (and feeling) like a crew of drowned rats!

Exception #4 - Goya
Don't do it. We did and we offer you this sage advice... don't!
Goya = bitter melon. We are still unsure of why this melon has been cultivated and not exterminated. While Ian and Taran made a trip to the grocery store, Mum and I attempted to cook up the Goya we had purchased at the vegetable market. Raw, it tasted like butt. We went online and found some ideas for cooking it and did our best. Really really we did! Cooked, it tasted like cooked butt. DON'T DO IT! It's not worth it! We had bought it in a package of 2 so we gave the 2nd melon to Loic and Akiko before we left - we couldn't believe that he said they LIKE it! We went out for dinner on our last night in Miyako and the restaurant had goya chips on the menu. Joisan felt it was so important that we try it again that she paid for it. We all tried it and found that cut very thinly, deep fried with lots of batter and salt - it was more tolerable but it tasted like... deep fried butt!

There were other days - spent biking and getting lost and meeting kind local people; shopping and admiring the beauty of the islands, relaxing, playing Catan, eating yummy food. It was a great escape from the reality of Hokkaido and we didn't see one single snowflake!

Coming up next... week 2... Tokyo, Hiroshima and Kyoto

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Happy New Year!!

Wow! I started this oh-long-ago! Of course the extent of starting it was opening it up and putting in the title! Oh well, I'm going to use this as the beginning of the big update and the next one will encompass the trip...
My mum arrived on December 30th.

We picked her up at the airport at 8:40pm and brought her right home. She was really wiped - despite the comfy first class pod on the big flight to Narita she was unable to rest very much on the plane. I will also add that the flight from Vancouver to Narita is (barely) tolerable. To then have to add an hour and a half on the ANA flight to Sapporo is absolutely brutal. We found that ourselves each time we have made the flight.
Anyway, despite her exhaustion we pushed on with our plans and we prepared for our New Year's Eve celebration with Ian's friend Takaaki and his daughters. I had been given a very elaborate case with three layers of special New Years food from one of the people at the office, so we brought that and a few other things with us.

Takaaki really wanted us to stay over night so that we could all relax and enjoy ourselves so we brought our gear and headed over to the Finland cabin behind Takaaki's place.
His daughters were really lovely girls and we enjoyed their company very much. It is traditional to eat soba (buckwheat) noodles on New Years so Takaaki decided to go one better and we ground up the soba he had grown on his little farm and made flour and then noodles!

My mum ended up having to crash for a nap partway through the evening so she missed the grinding of the soba but she woke up in time for the rolling, cutting and eating! It was an amazing, ongoing feast that seemed to never end! Takaaki and his daughters cleared out at about 10:30 or 11pm and left us in the cabin to bring in the New Year by ourselves. We were really grateful for the opportunity to experience some of the traditions of a Japanese New Year - although we all struggled to make it until midnight!
On New Year's Day we cleaned up and came home where we were able to Skype with our family in Ontario and watch them ring in their New Year there. Mum was pretty tired but she still managed to put together an amazing roast deer and yorkshire pudding for us for New Years dinner. Yum! We had been given the deer tenderloin back at the end of November and I'm glad we saved it for the special dinner - it was awesome!
On January 2nd we were invited to a traditional mochi pounding party with my friend Natsumi and her family and friends. It was held at an old ski lodge that's not much used so it was very cold! We all took turns pounding the rice and then some of us (Mum included) helped to form the mochi balls. We only lasted a couple of hours before we were too cold and had to bail on the party and come home and get warm. It was fun while it lasted though.

The next day, January 3rd, Mum and Joisan and I went into Date to have lunch with my friend Yasuko and some Mice Club members and then go shopping. Mum was much impressed with the Daiso - a big dollar store type chain. It's one of my favourite stores and it was fun to turn Mum onto it! When we finally made it home we had to get ourselves packed and organized for our stupid-early departure for the airport. I'm all for leaving yourself plenty of time but wow! I could have used some more sleep!
Okay - that's it for now - I'll move on to trip stuff in the next entry. I apologise in advance for the length of the next entry... it's going to be ridiculously long! Two weeks of fun and excitement - coming your way!!