Japan

AsiaDestinationsFoodJapan

The Path of Peace

IMG_5120

In Ryukyuan legend, Nirai Kanai is the mythical realm across the sea where deities dwell and when invited, bring blessings into the home of the villagers. However seductive that imagery really is, present day Okinawa still styles itself as the island paradise (there’s even a bridge here named after this place), if the tree-lined paths, the beautiful coastal roads, the constant warm sea-breeze and the island vibes are any indications of what’s plastered on tourist sign boards.

IMG_5131

After days of driving along the coast and staring at Okinawa’s turquoise waters, it is beyond difficult to go back to the cramped streets and buildings of Naha and not feel somewhat claustrophobic. The place I’m putting up at is close to the shopping street, better known as Kokusai-dori, and the overwhelming display of tourist wares and food stalls along this mile-long road is so similar to what I’ve encountered in other major Japanese cities.

DSCN1766

IMG_5110

DSCN1775

IMG_5114

I returned the car, then promptly and impulsively rented yet another for the next 24 hours so I could simply get out of the city for more breathing space and more of the coast. And for more of the glorious food too, which I’ve liked for years before visiting. Okinawan cuisine, much like the region and the people themselves, falls in the gap between Japanese, American and Chinese cuisines: stir-fries – or better known as Champuru – with wheat gluten, taco rice, peanut tofu, soba (that looks more like udon or Chinese egg noodles) in clear broth with braised sanmainiku (pork belly) and soki (pork ribs) are staples of the Izakayas and restaurants, made to differing standards. My carefully chosen encounters with these dishes however, thus far, in Yunangi in Naha and Yomitan Monogatari have been nothing but bliss.

dinner

IMG_4978

IMG_4974

Admittedly, the alluring wildness of and the strange, odd mix of cultures found in this tropical place are hard to resist. In the dazzling sun, sand and sea, it’s almost easy to forget Okinawa’s bloodied past that culminated in the a 3-month battle in 1945 in the Pacific theatre of war, termed by the locals as tetsu no bōfū, or Typhoon of Steel because of the endless artillery fire and bombing raids that happened here.

prefmuseum

There is only “dishonour in war” as the Okinawa Prefectural Peace museum strives to remind its visitors, corroborated by the horrors of the eyewitness accounts about the severity of the campaign. The thrust of its message is neither quite anti-American (not too overtly at least) nor pro-Japanese but Okinawan-centric; the heavy focus remains the massive loss of civilian lives and the brutality they endured on an island made hell during the attacks.

IMG_5117

It’s difficult not to be anything but profoundly moved by the whole area, its solemn, quiet, gentle atmosphere – barring the noise from school groups and tour groups – jarringly ironic considering how much of Okinawa was burnt, defaced and ravaged 7 decades ago. Yet built on the site where the former Japanese Imperial Army headquartered and where thousands of Okinawans committed suicide under the orders of the Japanese government to avoid capture, the memorial park’s stark reminder for peace couldn’t cry any louder.

read more
AsiaDestinationsJapan

Route 58

IMG_4952
If route 66 has become synonymous with the ultimate American road trip, Okinawa’s own version is found on route 58, a road that narrows in parts and widens in others and stretches from the south to the very far north of the main island. I spent a couple of days plying this route from Chatan northwards, loving every minute along this stretch of capes, winding curves and the constant, unchanging view of the aquamarine of the sea.

IMG_4911

IMG_4847

IMG_4831

The cars thinned out the further north I got, eschewing the rural part of Okinawa, but the distances aren’t as great as I thought they would be, unlike Hokkaido’s roads. The expressway makes the journey easier, but the tolls to pay each time aren’t exactly easy on the pocket. It is possible to go to Cape Hedo, walk around the hiker’s paradise in Dai Sekirinzan (a quasi national park), then loop around Motobu, Kouri Island as well as visit the Ocean Expo Park all in a day, which I somehow managed to do. But to the Japanese, this is considered a long trip and most of them prefer to break this journey up, spending the night in one of the few villages in the Kunigami district.

IMG_4888

I eventually got around to Blue Cave, a spot on Cape Maeda where dive and snorkel companies quite literally operate out of their vans. It’s all chaotic and desperately hectic and to walk alongside people dressed in wetsuits and wet gear made me impatient to start. Picking one that had a spot free (with a non-English name), I managed to secure a dive with a wizened Japanese owner himself, who, with his limited English, gestured how much he loved diving with certified people while shouting out the words ‘panic’ and ‘scream’. I laughed, then remembered the amused horror I felt when the area around the blue cave was filled with people being towed around underwater.

DSCN1752

IMG_4918

Cape Maeda is shore entry at its finest – and perhaps at its most rigorous, for me at least – where I’ve had to trudge across the car park with the full get-up and then down the steps and into the sea. Blue Cave’s selling point is the blue waters one sees when emerging out of a cave and even if it wasn’t the best dive or had the visibility that I’ve experienced, it was somehow the most relaxing and fun one I’ve had in ages, despite the crowd.

read more
AsiaDestinationsJapan

Okinawa’s draw

IMG_4758

When I first decided that I wanted to dive as well as see things, few places came to mind. Okinawa was one of these places, because it seemed ‘cultural’ enough with things to do apart from dive, yet small enough to cover in a short period of time. For about a week away, Okinawa seemed like a fantastic compromise and so different from what I know about Japan: subtropical region that showcases its mix of cultural influences so boldly (particularly in the cuisine) such that calling Okinawa an integral part of Japan sounds almost like a misnomer. But it is in any case; standard Japanese is spoken here, as are incomprehensible dialects and ruins that mark out this former Ryukyu Kingdom – an independent Kingdom that ruled over the islands between Japan and Taiwan from the 15th to the 19th centuries – like a proud rebel standout.

Hong Kong was my transit point into Okinawa and I’d already placed a reservation for a rental car with Rental OTS which did offer considerably lower prices than other rental companies, especially for advance online bookings. It is self-explanatory then, that many from Hong Kong head to Okinawa for that resort experience, even though the main island itself feels way more like a city than Hokkaido did. The drawback? The large number of people hiring their cheap cars, the long queues at the counter and the long bus journey from airport to rental station.

oki map

Chatan (about 45 minutes away by car, or in my case, a hybrid Toyota Axio) from the decidedly ugly urban Naha is my first stop. Getting to Sunny’s Stay or rather, the collection of buildings known as Ocean Front Apartments wasn’t too difficult with an English-speaking GPS although wrangling with sunday traffic was another story. My apartment faces the Sunabe Seawall (Miyagi coast) and the ocean, a long walkway by the water along that offers spectacular views of sunset and it’s all relatively peaceful until the roar of the planes break the morning silence at 6 a.m. Tourist or resident, the unwelcome wake-up call is probably the only reason I can’t wait to get out of this town and out to the northern villages.

IMG_4739

IMG_4748

The significant American presence here because of the military bases is jarring; there is about a fifth of the island that is still under American sovereignty after it was returned to Japan in 1972. More importantly, the friction that exists between American and Japanese relations is rubbed raw here, when assault and murder cases in connection with the Americans have prompted mass protests and top-level discussions on base relocations to more isolated sites. Yet businesses around Chatan clearly cater to ‘Western’ tastebuds and food in the Izakaya(s) can be an alluring mix of Japanese, Tex-mex and Chinese cuisines.

I’m neither Japanese nor American but watching the drama play out is disconcerting. It is nonetheless  strange to see 2 very separate and distinct groups of people here however; the Americans and the locals (as well as the tourists) occupy the same geographical space but don’t entirely interact unless by necessity. The latest furore over the murder of a 20-year old woman by a former Marine and a military contractor has only pushed the island into the media spotlight again. At ministerial level, Shinzo Abe has made an official call for military discipline when when Barack Obama made his historic visit to Hiroshima.

The draw of this place is the very laid-back, chill-out vibe that’s clearly missing from dense urban centres like Tokyo or Hong Kong, which probably explains the rush of tourists here dying for their resort-island fix. Perhaps it’s nowhere better seen as the dive boat headed for the Kerama Islands for sun, crystal clear waters and circling planes overhead. I met Richard on board, a Brit who has been living here for 3 years and loves everything about Okinawa and the Japanese.

DSCN1680

DSCN1642

We argued over English tea, Japanese tea and in general, English accents and other dives sites, until the day ended with a nose bleed (on my part) and severe sinus blockage. Dai, my guide for the day, simply crowed over our disagreements as he cut a kiwi, then offered its skin to Richard.

read more
AsiaDestinationsJapan

Through the fog and mist

IMG_1354

Many, many hours after I checked out of the hotel, I find myself in my own bedroom trying to recall the last hours I spent in Lake Akan and Kushiro. I draw a blank, mostly because tiredness and jet lag addle my memory, but also because I think I didn’t do very much at all even with the aimless driving around.

IMG_1337

IMG_1350

Exploring the Kushiro Marshland was a total washout, quite literally so, when the most I could see was a few metres ahead. Kushiro city itself looked drab and grey in the early afternoon light. In desperation to pass the time, I decided that looking at cranes was in order and personally didn’t find them very interesting. The signs in English – which looked like they’d been run through Google translate – provided more amusement but even that didn’t last long enough to keep it all interesting.

I gave up and got myself to the airport early, walked a few hundred times around the shops and waited…and waited…and waited.

Mileage of the day: 172.1 kmTotal mileage of the trip: 1332.3 km.
Total amount spent on fuel: 12, 988 Yen.

read more
AsiaDestinationsJapan

Separation anxiety

IMG_1291

I woke up a blustery, drizzly day and found that temperatures have fallen a whopping 18 degrees celsius from yesterday, which placed us firmly back in Spring weather. Ichiro Baba suggested that I paid Lake Onneto a visit in Ashoro-cho, a trip that I took and in all honesty, found useless given the weather. All lakes look the same when it’s raining – grey, washed out and sort of colourless.

IMG_1224

I turned tail and headed back to Lake Akan, the last place I’m stopping at before I depart from Kushiro airport tomorrow. A half-hour drive from rural Teshikaga, it’s a place that appears to be built solely for tourists. The main street is lined with hotels and souvenir shops and the Ainu Kotan (Village) at the end of the street is more like a collection of small shops that offer wooden knick-knacks of the indigenous people.

IMG_1308

IMG_1301

In the slight drizzle, I took off for the short hiking trail at the end of the town that led to a small bubbling mud pool, heated volcanically and then up into the forest to look at…vegetation.

Then it was back to the hotel to check in properly. I was completely unprepared for the separation anxiety I felt when I left the Subaru to a valet to park it somewhere out of my sight. They even kept my keys! Bereft of a car, I sulked for a while, went to my room, changed and proceeded to visit all of the hot spring baths available to women in the hotel.

IMG_1319

IMG_1322

Now, if only my room would stop smelling of roasted seaweed.

Mileage of the day: about 85 km
*7.30 pm update: Still feeling the loss of the car, but I suspect it’s not even close to how I’ll feel when I turn it in at the rental station tomorrow.

read more
AsiaDestinationsJapan

Lakes, allergies and spam folders

IMG_1113

I got the distinct feeling that I was intruding when I pulled up at the door of Pension Polaris at noon, my accommodation for the night. Curtly, I was told that there was room for me but I could only return at 4pm. Peeved at the shortness of Ichiro Baba’s reply and the less-than-welcoming manner of his, I drove off, contemplated choosing another place to stay, then decided against it grumpily because I didn’t have an internet connection to book anything online at a discounted price. Cheap of me, yeah.

IMG_1075

IMG_1135

IMG_1104

IMG_1157

In the end, I found myself stopping at various lookout points in the hills and mountains to get a look at Lakes Kussharo and Mashu. The latter is stunning and the former, less so. The soaring temperatures for the past couple of days seem unusual for this time of the year (it was 30 degrees in certain places) and funnily enough, I could walk around rather comfortably in the mountains in a short-sleeved tee with thick snow still around me. The roads are trickier than I thought and dare I say, more challenging than the other mountain routes I’ve driven thus far, complete with the police speed patrol just to make life a bit more bitter and interesting.

Finally returning to Polaris after doing the whole circuit of panoramic lookout points, I dropped unceremoniously into bed with an allergy that had me sniffing (after taking a quick bath, for those of you who are hygiene-obsessed) to shake off the fatigue, no doubt helped along by that big glowing thing in the sky.

IMG_1187

IMG_1188

IMG_1186

IMG_1192

IMG_1190

Only during the elaborate dinner was it made clear that all my confirmation emails over the past few weeks had been going into the Ichiro’s spam folder; my seeming lack of replies had made him assume I wasn’t coming after all. Being the small, petty person that I am, I showed him my backlog of emails as evidence of my earlier earnestness in wanting to stay at his place.

IMG_1183

Now replete with the food, I think I can be magnanimous: Polaris is a beautiful place – despite the grief that spam folders, internet communication and language barriers has given me – combining Japanese clean lines and wood furnishings that the aesthetic part of me greatly appreciates. The 2 cats here help raise the cuteness factor.

Mileage of the day: 239.7 km

read more
AsiaDestinationsJapan

Caution, no bears in sight

IMG_1036

“This is a Mandarin duck. And that is bear faeces. The bark of this tree has been clawed by a bear. This is a bear paw print. This mushroom is good for rashes, but you can’t take it out from this place.”

IMG_1047

IMG_1028

IMG_1009

I, along with another lady dressed in inappropriate attire nodded dutifully as Ayano Yuji (my guide through the lakes and a friend of Yamanoto in Iruka) spoke and made exclamations when needed. He conveys the wealth of information in slow, halting English, all of which I appreciated. My interest in ducks, admittedly, is restricted to the Peking duck on a dinner table so his ability to point out ducks’ gender, pregnant deer, weight of bears by paw-prints and distant sounds of woodpeckers from a distance amazes me.

IMG_0990

IMG_0953

The mercury has shot way up high today but this hike is surprisingly breezy – even though the deep ice that piles high above the boardwalk in places. Winter, according to Ayano, was warmer than usual, but Spring had sprung a cold surprise; the ice has barely begun to melt in some spots on the trail. In my rented wellies, the cold of the deep ice seeps through my heels like an ice-pack on sore muscles.

 

The primeval forest is carefully left undisturbed as small, guided tours make their way around on the boardwalk. We saw signs of bears and deer but none of the elusive creatures themselves. However, it’s a pleasant contrast to my individual and possibly ill-timed forage through the 2km trail that leads to the Furepe waterfall as well as my earlier try at going up half of the Shiretoko-toge (the mountain pass that leads to Rausu) with a tour bus.

IMG_0934

I returned to Iruka to pay my accommodation charges and in all my years of travel, I’ve never seen someone scramble for change like the way Miyoko and Yamamoto did. She ran back and forth looking for loose bills; he asked the cook for some bills in desperation and raided the vending machine for coins.

My truthful opinion of this place? Paper-thin walls meant that a guest’s loud snoring next door kept me up at night and the funky odour that permeates the place couldn’t quite be gotten rid of with room spray. But the hosts are nice enough. So I’d stay here if I were on a budget…which I sort of am.

Mileage of the day (just up and down the mountain): 49.9 km

read more
AsiaDestinationsJapan

The wild frontier

IMG_0750

I had lots of time to kill today, seeing as the distance to Shiretoko from Abashiri isn’t as great as the one I covered yesterday. The Shibazakura Park in Ozora-cho after checking out was my first stop at about 10am and already it was overflowing with tour buses.

After a short climb uphill to see the sprawl of pink flowers that really look prettier from a distance, I made a long U-turn and went back to Abashiri to visit the Hokkaido Museum of Northern Peoples, a permanent exhibition featuring the indigenous cultures of the North. A woman who thought I was a student gave me a discount for the entrance fee and frankly, I wasn’t about to complain.

IMG_0762

IMG_0800

Then it was onto Utoro via Shari, a coastal route that was long and boring – with speed traps! Thankfully, the Sapporo Drug Store in central Shari provided a smidgen of entertainment and broke the monotony as I went around looking for facial scrub as the stench of manure wafted in from outside.

The drive got more interesting and scenic towards the end and the place I’m staying at – Iruka (or Dolphin) Hotel – was hard to find; it’s somewhere along a small road off a tunnel leading straight down into town and the narrow parking makes it even more difficult to get down to it. Iruka’s like a budget hotel, simple and cheap by Japanese standards and the biggest issue I have with it is the smell of cigarette smoke that permeates the entire place, apart from the creepy feeling of walking to the Bates Onsen in the dark alone. Otherwise, the owners are great and take the pains to arrange whatever you’d like to see.

IMG_0850

IMG_0861

IMG_0865

IMG_0892

Shiretoko has oft been compared to the Yukon territory, the wild frontier equivalent far north of Japan but because the Japanese are out in full force during the weekends (today’s a Sunday), it’s hard to believe that right now save for the fact that some straggling deer are wont to wander in drains and by the roadside. My reason for coming is pretty much the same as these tourists: to see the nature park and the Shiretoko-pass, all of which lie at least 15 km out of town. The latter is closed to my extreme disappointment but the Goko lakes are still open, part of which can be seen on the short but brilliant walk on the elevated, wooden boardwalk affording incredible views of the mountain range and the Sea of Okhotsk.

Mileage of the day: 170.5 km

read more
AsiaDestinationsJapan

Hit the road, Jill

IMG_0716

I woke up at 5.30am (and it was already bright with some skiers doing their thing next door), having not slept that well last night because of the strange feel of the pillows, apart from the long journey ahead.

The first half of the epic journey was exciting and the second half, hellishly monotonous.

By 8am, I found myself on the expressway by accident and decided to continue on it  for the sake of finally being able to drive within a range of 80-90 km/hr rather than follow my carefully planned route through Sounkyo and Kamikawa. The toll cost 450 yen, but hey, for about 100 km of fast driving, I’d take that option any day. Thanks to a group of helpful men who worked at the Asahikawa toll booth, I got to go through (and use their toilet at the same time) after a combination of broken Japanese words and hand signs.

After 140-ish kilometres, Subaru and I ended up somewhere near Engaru at about 10:30 am, which put me closer to Kamiyubetsu Tulip park than to the Shibazakura Park at Ozora-cho. Commercialised and crowded eve though barely anything was in bloom, I caught a glimpse of more soil and kitsch than flowers and hightailed it out of there down route 238, past Saroma and Tokoro to Abashiri.

IMG_0623

Driver-exhaustion warred with the urge to explore the surrounding nature, so after checking in (I’m quite seduced by the native Ainu architectural and interior design theme of the place) and changing my dinner reservation time, I made my way down to Cape Notoro on the advice of a helpful staff member of the hotel. What was initially a quiet exploration of the coast with the Shiretoko Mountain range in view turned unpleasant when a busload of chattering tourists clogged the trails.

IMG_0684

IMG_0698

The car and I went straight back after getting my pictures for the day, then up the other side of the hills, opposite my hotel in the vain hope of catching glimpses of Lake Abashiri from a vantage point. The only place that guaranteed a good lookout was closed; in the carpark was merely a bored van driver who sat in his vehicle and kept his eyes on his phone.

I got back about 90 minutes before dinner; weighing my options, the public bath seemed like a good idea: get hot, then clean, then hungry. My first public onsen experience was an enlightening one, and frankly, quite disturbing. As much as I would have liked to pretend that public nudity of sorts among women doesn’t bother me, it does (at least, for this first time). Or perhaps that’s also a remnant of a Methodist upbringing rebelling at seeing some nude people frolicking in steaming water while others rubbed patches of skin (and fat) vigorously as they gossiped about kings and cabbages. I hoped, as I cast surreptitious glances around to make sure I was doing things right, that no one thought I was lecherously eyeing nubile flesh.

I crept out of the place when done, still feeling like a prude.

Mileage of the day: 334.7 km, on my own, with only my ipod for company. A new record.

read more
AsiaDestinationsJapan

Spring in Hokkaido

IMG_0456

The blue expanse of sky pushed away the heavy clouds that had lingered over the past few days, finally casting the Furano-Biei landscape in hues of greens, yellows and browns. Feeling somewhat cheated at the bad pictures of the rain and all-around miserable weather, I thought to re-discover the patchwork circuit again.

IMG_0379

IMG_0343

Then, panicked at the thought that I wasn’t ever going to make it to Asahidake in time, I decided to pay Shirogane a visit (the famed Blue Pond looked a murky green in the dim light), only to realise that the exhilarating roads go straight up to Tokachidake.

IMG_0388  The Onsen at Tokachidake lodge itself was a disappointment but the drive was the highlight of the day – the roads were windy, twisty, relatively empty…and a driver’s dream (or nightmare) come true. What made it unexpectedly delightful was that the mountains were only just starting to thaw in the spring weather. So patches of white everywhere – I hesitate to call it snow because it resembled hard chunks of ice up and personal – and still quite cold to boot.

IMG_0487

IMG_0432

IMG_0525

IMG_0530

Unfortunately, the route to Asahidake meant a complete U-turn after that and an additional distance of 30km. The ropeway, according to the receptionist at the hotel, only opened today. After a period of closure for whatever, I didn’t ask. All hopes of doing the trail around the ropeway station were dashed when I was unanimously told by everyone who worked that that the snow was still at least three metres deep.

The views at least were breathtaking, but it could be my mountain fetish talking.

IMG_0474

IMG_0471

It’s my fifth night in Hokkaido and mid-way through this trip and finally, finally, I got my first dip in a private onsen. It’s fairly rewarding after a long day in the car, ruined only by my apparent inability to take heat.

I climbed hurriedly and prematurely out of the baths, only to find myself in conversation with several staff at La Vista Daisetsuzan, all of whom have travelled extensively, some around the world, and some in Hokkaido. That was when I jumped at the opportunity to ask about lunch places and speed checks.

Mileage of the day: 173.3km

read more
1 2 3
Page 1 of 3

Pin It on Pinterest