Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Shopping in Southern Okinawa

My sister and I didn't plan to do much shopping in Okinawa, but we did visit two pretty nice shopping places so I thought I'd share them! Also, I'm heading to Malaysia soon so this is just a quick post(:

Ashibinaa Outlet Mall (English Site)
This is pretty famous and was a stop of several day tours of South Okinawa that we looked at. It's basically an outlet mall like Marinoa in Fukuoka. Parking is free, if you're thinking of driving here. It's quite far from the nearest station, but there are buses.

Quite a few brands are high-end brands but there are a few mid-range shops. My sister managed to pick up a pair of shoes at the ABC mart there.

There's also a tax-exemption for tourists. I'm not sure if every shop is like this, but for ABC, we had to pay tax at the register and then get a refund at a specific location in the outlet mall. So you should factor that in, especially if you're pressed for time.

And if you see this sweet potato cart, you should definitely buy a sweet potato! It's sold by weight and the potatoes were extremely sweet and very, very soft.

Haebaru Aeon Mall
The word "Aeon" may sound really pedestrian, especially if you live in Singapore/Malaysia, but this was a surprisingly good shopping place. As with Ashibinaa, parking is free and there are tons of shops.

We found a big Uniqlo shop (which oddly, we didn't see near Kokusaidori), and the shop list included Best Denki, Daiso, Village Vanguard, GAP and many more. There are also a lot of restaurants and even a foodcourt, if everyone has different ideas on what they want to eat. Not to mention the Aeon supermarket and drug store, which is perfect if you want to buy snacks like kitkats, pocky, senbei, or facial products, makeup, and the like. It's great if you want to get omiyage at a lower cost or just buy some snacks for the hotel room.

And that covers everything my sister did in Naha and Southern Okinawa. The posts from now on will be about Onna and the northern part of mainland Okinawa (click here for the masterpost)

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Okinawa Prefectural Museum

I decided that I wanted to visit one museum during my trip to Okinawa. After a bit of googling, I decided to visit the Okinawa Prefectural Museum because it seemed like the most interesting and comprehensive.

The museum is a roughly 10 minute walk from Omoromachi station. It's basically a straight line from the station, so it was pretty easy to find.

By the way, there's a discount if you have the one day or two-day monorail tickets so if you have it, show it to the staff. There was a temporary exhibition at the museum, but I decided to just go for the permanent exhibition.

Entrance to the gallery! 
The museum covers ancient Okinawa (before it was even the Ryuku kingdom) to modern day Okinawa. There are also 5 galleries attached to the general exhibition:

- Natural History Gallery (pictured below)
- Archaeology Gallery
- Arts and Crafts Gallery
- History Gallery
- Folklore Gallery

And here are some interesting things that I learnt. Disclaimer: I did not try to summarise all the information here. These are just a few facts that caught my eye.

- The Ryukyu Kingdom was formed in the 14th Century, after the period where the islands were divided among the three powers, or Sanzan. That reminded me a bit of the three kingdoms period in China!

- The Ryukyu Kingdom lasted for 500 years and only became a part of Japan in the spring of 1879, during the Meiji era.

- While it was still the Ryukyu Kingdom, it engaged in a lot of trade and had close ties with both China and Japan. One bell in the museum described it as being as "closely related to China as spokes to a wheel" and "as closely related to Japan as lips to teeth".

- During the Yayoi period, people in the Ryukyu islands traded conch shells and seashells with the Kyushu lords. And when the demand for shells decreased, the demand for green snails increased.

- Since the Jomon era, there have been two types of tombs. And somewhere along the way, the practice of 洗骨 (senkotsu) arose, where bodies were disinterred when there were only bones left and the bones were washed, placed in urns and the urns placed in tombs.

- Okinawa has its own 'Rosetta stone' with pictographs that have not been deciphered. The stone was found in 1933, near the grave of Noguni Sokan. Noguni Sokan is also the man who brought sweet potato to Okinawa and there's a festival which bears his name.

- In Okinawan dialect, 'agi' means land.

- There are sacred places called 'utaki' in Okinawa, and religious rituals are held in it. If you're interested Wikipedia has an interesting article on the Ryukyuan religion.

- There is a belief that gods come from across the seas and bring blessings.

- The sanshin is a traditional Okinawan instrument. Originally brought in from China in the 14th or 15th century, it underwent changes to become what it is now.

The museum has a free audio guide, and since the amount of English explanations vary from gallery to gallery, it would probably be worth borrowing the audio guide.

As for photography, my impression is that the 5 galleries generally allow photos while the main one doesn't. So please remember to check before taking photos.

I really want to read more about Okinawa history and culture after visiting the museum, but sadly, the museum gift shop doesn't have anything in English and I don't think I can concentrate that long in Japanese!

Bottom line: If you're interested in history and finding out more about Okinawa, you should definitely visit the museum.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Okinawa World

Back to the Okinawa recaps (Masterpost here, if you want to see the other posts)! Okinawa World is an attraction located in Nanjo, in the south of mainland Okinawa. You could take bus 54 and 83 from Asahibashi station to Gyokusendo-mae bus stop, or you could drive there. My sister and I drove there (parking was free) and we found that to be really convenient.

Okinawa World basically has three sections: Gyokusendo caves, Habu park, and a cultural village. You can buy tickets for the sections that you want to go to, although if you go to the caves, you will have to buy the tickets for the cultural village because you'll have to pass through the village to get back to the entrance.

My sister and I got the tickets for the caves and the cultural village. We decided to pass on the Habu park because we decided we weren't that interested in snakes.

First stop: the cave!

Gyukusendo cave is a 5km long cave, although right now, only about 890m are open to the public. The longest cave in Japan is actually Akiyoshi cave in Yamaguchi, and I found that to be more interesting (then again I went with a bunch of talkative people), but this is pretty impressive in its own right.

At the entrance to the cave!

I will say that it was a lot easier to take photos in this cave, though. I remember it being extremely difficult in Akiyoshi.

The temperature in the cave is supposed to be around 21 degrees all year round, but it felt warmer than that. According to my sister, it felt more like 26 degrees, which was still cooler than the temperature above ground.

There were several points of interest, complete with signs. For things like the fossiled bones, the signs were really useful because I would not have noticed them otherwise. In fact, I still find it hard to see with the arrows!

I'm not too sure about the name of the stagmalite below, but I think it translates to something like "golden cup" and it's basically notable for being really big.

This vase has been covered with stalactites after being submerged for 5 years in the waters of the cave. We actually saw another vase undergoing the same process as we continued walking towards the exit.

There was a photo spot too!

There was a blue fountain too! The fountain didn't look like it was lighted to me, but my sister says it has to be, so if anyone knows why the water appears so blue and bright, please let me know! Any geography students reading this?

We actually took our picture at the entrance of the cave, and we got a small copy at the exit. Larger photos are available for sale as well.

After the cave, we decided to head through the village towards the entrance. The cultural village has different experiences and performances so you might want to plan your visit around them. The first area is basically a plant area and it felt like a lot of the plants came from Malaysia and other South East Asian countries.

And I had my Blue Seal ice-cream here! Blue Seal is ubiquitous in Okinawa, but for some reason I was always too full when we passed by a shop. So I took my chance and had the salted chinsuko flavour ice-cream and it was really good!

And the village:

Experiences available (all for an additional fee) include: Bingata studio (Okinawa traditional dyeing), Indigo dyeing studio, Weaving studio, Papermaking studio, Glass studio, Tea house, Kimono experience.

We actually planned to do the tea house, because I wanted my sister to experience Bukubuku tea, but there was an awful smell at the area. We asked around later, and it seems like there's a waterbuffalo living next to the village and its smell carried across. I would not recommend you have the tea here (assuming the smell is still here) and would recommend the shop near Shuri Castle instead.

Since we didn't do the tea, I managed to persuade my sister to try on the kimono and take a photo with me. According to my sister, it's the first and last time I'll ever get her in a kimono, which explains why I went overboard with the photos.

It costs 500 yen per person and each person can take photos with their phone. So for us, we took photos with a DSLR and a camera phone and could switch the poses for each.

They also sell the larger photos and since my sister claimed that she wouldn't wear a kimono again, I bought them. It's 1600 yen for both photos or 1100 yen for one photo, so I got both photos. I think the photos turned out really nicely too!

You can choose your own kimono, which I thought was fun. The staff were extremely nice as well, so if you're looking for a picture of yourself in an Okinawan kimono, this would be a good option too.

Please note that both this kimono experience and the one at the Ryukyu village only consists of the outer layer (although the Ryukyu village can let you have the full experience too) worn over your daily clothes. If you want the full experience, you might want to go somewhere else - Bene from Bene Fukuoka had a great experience on Miyakojima and her photos are absolutely beautiful! Unfortunately, I can't seem to find her English post, but here's a link to the French post if you want to check it out.

I took this photo because I thought the explanation was cute:

There's also a brewery at Okinawa World called Nanto Brewery. They make both beer and habu liquor. Habu liquor is basically awamori (Okinawa's sake) with a habu snake inside and my sister and I did not have the guts to try it. Perhaps next time?

According to the sign on this photo, they leave the poison in the snake when they put it in! But the alcohol dissolves the poison so the end-product isn't poisonous.

Overall, Okinawa World was a really fun place. A few things in the cultural area overlap with the Ryukyu village, but the caves provide a unique experience that you can't get elsewhere in Okinawa. If you're interested in finding out more about the place, here's a link to the official English site.

On a completely unrelated note, I'm well aware that these posts are extremely delayed. I'm back in Singapore, as my previous post indicated, but I'm planning to continue with the Okinawa recap before moving on to the last few days in Japan. If you'd like the order to be changed, just let me know via comments or email!

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Kindness from Others

I arrived back in Singapore yesterday. After five and a half years, my journey in Japan has finally ended. I'm still processing the change, so I'll probably write about the last few days later (I'd like to finish writing about Okinawa first). But I wanted to pen this post while the memories are still fresh. I suppose this post is more for me, to remember the kindness shown during my move back and to remind me to show the same kindness to others.

The kindness of strangers

The day of my move from Sasebo, I made a last minute trip to the post office. While struggling there with my box (which turned out to weigh 7.5 km), I passed by an ojiisan. After greeting him and making some small talk, he offered to give me a lift to Aeon! That's right next to the station and about 1 km away from where we were, saving me a lot of time and helping my tired arms.

I thought that was the end of it, but then I met a salaryman at Sasebo station, who helped me with my luggage (I had four fairly huge bags + my backpack). We were chatting while waiting for the train cleaning to finish (apparently the amount of luggage I had didn't look like it was for one person). When the train doors opened, I grabbed one of the luggages to bring it into the train, intending to come back for the second one. When I turned around, I realised that the salaryman had taken my second piece and saved me the trip!

When I arrived at Fukuoka, I waited until I was one of the last to get off because there were a lot of bags and I know I'm a bother. But the second last person looked at me and asked: "can I help?" And thanks to him I managed to exit the train!

A while later, I was struggling to get to the turnstiles, another salaryman came up to me. Apparently I dropped something from when my bags fell (and they fell 12345 times on the journey). He took one look at me and helped me carry one of the bags all the way to the taxi stand!

Fast forward to the airplane ride back to Singapore. I went overboard with the presents for my family and ended up with one carry-on luggage and three bags of snacks, and my camera bag. There was the air stewardess who helped me carry the bags to my seat, the uncle who helped me take the bags down from the overhead compartment, the stranger who realised I forgot my camera bag and chased after me to get it, as well as another uncle who helped me carry my bags to the trolley.

Without all these strangers, I might not have made it back to Singapore!

The kindness of friends

Of course, I can't forget my amazing friends. I have one friend who came to help take some furniture off my hands. After she left, the BookOff staff came and I ended up not being able to sell everything. Since I no longer hand a car, I called her in a panic and she immediately came over to drive me (and some furniture) to the recycle shops to sell! We ended up going to three shops and she helped me reduce my large trash fee by a significant amount. She's also the one who sent me to the station and was the one who convinced me to send at least one piece of luggage via Kuroneko because 「何とかならない!」(you won't be able to manage). If it weren't for her, I might never have been able to leave Sasebo.

And there are my coworkers, who helped take my bulky furniture (and reduce the amount of money I had to pay) and still gave me cakes and dinner!

Not to mention another friend, who I trained with in the hotel. We haven't really talked since April, but she not only helped take some of the furniture, she also came by with lunch the next day and helped me to clean the house as well.

If it weren't for all of them, I probably would have been 10000000x more flustered during the move and would probably have spent a lot more money trying to get the house in a suitable condition.

It really goes to show that people are kind and that God is good and sends people to help me even before I open my mouth to ask! May this post be a reminder to do the same to others.

Monday, 30 October 2017

Takachiho Gorge

A couple of days ago I did a very foolish thing. Sick of the stress of packing up (and other bad news), I impulsively decided to rent a car and drive to Takachiho Gorge. In my defense, I did google it and according to Google, it was a 3.5-hour drive, which sounded doable. Plus there were quite a few articles from people who drove there and back.

Unfortunately, I forgot to take into account that those people drove from Fukuoka. From Fukuoka, it's a little over two hours. But it takes another two hours to drive from Sasebo to Fukuoka. Which made it a 4 plus hour drive. And since I went alone, it meant that I had to drive there and back by myself, which is definitely not a good idea (please don't learn from me).

But, I have absolutely no regrets. Takachiho Gorge is gorgeous!

Let's start from the beginning. I got lost on the way to the gorge because the car navigation system led me down a closed road in Kumamoto. In the end, I had to ignore the navigation and just follow the signs for Minami-Aso and Takamori and managed to get the system to fix itself (while using Google maps as a backup). While Takachiho Gorge is in Miyazaki, it's actually pretty near Kumamoto, as my long detour will attest.

the road in
When I reached there, I was directed to a car park where I had to pay 500 yen for parking (other car parks seemed to be full)

The car park was pretty scenic, so I felt really happy just looking at it. Or perhaps I was just glad that the long, long drive was over.

To get to the entrance of the trail, I had to cross a small bridge which had really gorgeous views.

According to the map, the boat rental was here (about 2000 yen for 30 min) but the boat rental was unavailable due to the weather. And if I'm being honest, I wouldn't have rented the boat since I was by myself.

Other side of the bridge:

And this is the entrance to the trail! It's a 1km walk and takes about 30 minutes if you're walking slowly and taking photos. There are a lot of steps, but according to the map, there's a barrier-free course as well!

Walking in, I saw a little pond.

According to the sign there, this is called Onokoro Island. Long ago, there was a shrine located here and the sacred birds served the shrine. During the Takachiho Shrine Spring Festival, an omikoshi is carried around the pond three times for purification.

Just a little further away, I saw this:

Apparently, visitors can buy a heart and write their wishes on it.

The board next to it was filled with hearts!

And then I started on the trail! The map points out locations of interest, but to be honest I didn't really look at it. I was basically looking at the scenery, so I might have missed a few things.

Here comes the photo spam:

I saw little waterfalls here and there!

I feel like the next photo is the one that everyone takes when they come to Takachiho

I thought the following cliff was interesting.

Random shot of the path:

I'm not sure what happened, but there were lots of signs warning people not to go to the sandy or the rocky areas beause they were dangerous.

And this little rest house marks the end of the trail! I didn't take a close look but it seems like they sell both drinks and food. I also saw a carpark here.

To get back to the start of the trail, you basically have to retrace your footsteps. It sounds a bit boring, but actually I got to see everything from a different angle, which I really enjoyed.

Near the start of the trail there are a few restaurants and shops. Since I was feeling hungry, I decided to check them out:

I saw this shop, which sells nagashi somen. And according to them, they're the shop that invented the dish!

Plus they had delicious looking dango (350 yen for one) which is supposed to be a local speciality.

For nagashi somen, they basically let noodles flow down a bamboo trough and you have to try and pick it out of the water. Trying to get it out is half the fun.

I got the nagashi somen set (1000 yen). If you've got a bigger appetite than me, you can pay 500 yen more and get grilled fish added to the set meal.

I remember trying nagashi somen at Shiroito Waterfall during my first year at Kyudai. That year, I missed most of the noodles. This time was better, and I caught about 80% of the noodles, which means that my chopstick skills have finally improved!

By the way, they'll give you the noodles you didn't catch, so there's no need to worry about wasting food. The noodle tsuyu has ginger in it, which I liked quite a lot, and there was a nice yuzu-miso sauce on the konnyaku too!

Of course, the dango was delicious! I wish I could have eaten more but I was stuffed! 

After my meal, I decided to visit the aquarium next to the car park! According to the sign outside, the aquarium features fishes that used to be plentiful in Japan (quote says "I used to catch and eat these fish when I was young") and local fishes. Entry was only 300 yen so I decided to just take a look!

The aquarium is small but I saw a lot of interesting looking fish (and other aquatic animals)!

They even have a doctor fish corner, although I didn't try that.

All in all, I enjoyed this a lot more than I expected (for such a small place) and I think that it's worth going if you're at Takachiho and you like marine life.

With a time limit for the rental car, I made my way back to Sasebo. I was originally planning to drop by the Amano Iwato shrine because of its connection to the Shinto myths, but I wanted to play it safe. And it's a good thing I did because I made it back with only five minutes to spare!

I did see Bambi's father on the way back, though, which has to count for something! I also realised that I get sleepy on long drives, which is fine if you're in the passenger seat but definitely not good if you're the one driving. So I had to stop once (which is probably why I barely made it back in time), stretch my legs and then turn the aircon to the coldest setting before setting off again. I may have frozen my fingers by the time I reached back but at least I wasn't sleepy again!