A Travellerspoint blog

Ishigakijima - Part 3

Today is the third and final part of my trip to Ishigakijima, and we're actually staying on Ishigakijima this time. First off we'll be spending a bit of time at a park that's decicated to preserving Okinawa's cultural heritage. A goal which they achieve in part by relocating traditional buildings to within the parks confines.

There are several such buildings including a fisherman's hut, traditional residences and a wealthy family's house. All of them are fitted out appropriately and are open for you to wander around. Staff members, in traditaioanl garb, also encourage you to get hands on with props provided in some of the houses and to get into the island groove.

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There are also performances of Okinawan music and dance at various times throughout the day. Though I'm not an expert in Japanese folk music styles by any measure, I can recognise Okinawan music as opposed to other traditional styles. It tends to have a quite upbeat rhythme and a includes chanted elements that are quite interesting. They also have their own unique string instruments that give a distinctly twangy sound to the music.

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Walking around though it was often the more natural elements of the park that caught my eye. plants and flowers, lines, curves and spirals; the geometry of nature.

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My favorite area by far though was the monkey walk, where you could get up close and personal witha gang of squirrel monkeys. They are so cute, it's a real pleasure to watch them chilling out or playing in the trees.

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Things get really interesting though if you invest a couple of hundred yen in a plastic ball full of food pellets. Then they come out of the trees and climb your trouser leg in a jiffy, or just jump straight onto your shoulder for the more direct approach. Being clambered over by squirrel monkeys is actaually a nice sensation in my opnion, so I really enjoyed that.

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After spending too much money on monkey food (Heck it was worth it), we walked down to the mangrove walk area of the park via a winding forest path.

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There I spent several minute laying flat on my stomach hanging my camera over the edge of the raised walkways taking pictures of ...
Well can you see what? Try and look.

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No? OK, here are some slightly more close-up pictures that are easier to see.

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Mudskippers! For some reason I've always found mudskippers pretty interesting (probably as a result of my young brain being boggled by the idea of a creature whose defining feature is that it skips around in mud all day - I remember emulating them on a family holiday one year, by jumping around in the tidal mud flats, when the sea went out and getting pitch black from head to toe!). Anyway, this was the closest I've ever seen the real thing in nature so that was quite exciting for me too.

In the end we spent almost all morning wandering around this park and had a very nice time, the combination of cultural, historical and natural elements really made it for me. However, it was now time to start heading back towards the airport and to turn in the rental car. On the way thought we still had a couple of small stops to make.

Firstly, we made a brief stop at a road side ceramics workshop that produces some of the distinctive day-glo Shisa (and other creatures) that we've seen on sale in many of Okinawa's shops. There are some fantastic large scale examples of their work all around the workshop, and they are currently breaking ground behind the workshop to make a ceramics park - I'd be very interested to go back again in a couple of years time and see how that looks when it's open.

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After that we just had one more destination, Haru wanted to go to a view spot she'd read about. So we hit the road for the last time, and pass more sugar cane fields, distant hills and plm tree lined roads until we arrive at the base of the hill.

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A short climb later and we're looking down on, the deep blue water of a bay on one side, and, the rolling hills and fields stretching down the coast on the other side. Okimawa certainly doesn't lack for scenic spots.

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We make good time on the final stretch of the road and get back to Ishigaki city with a bit of time to spare, so we decide to have a last walk on the beach before we return the car.

The beaches near Ishigaki city aren't the beautiful, slender strips of sand we've been enjoying over the last few days, they are jagged, rocky and quite desolate affairs. Yet somehow it seems quite an appropriate place to bring the trip to an end, standing on a bare beach looking out over the sea wondering what comes next.

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Posted by DKJM74 21:39 Comments (0)

Ishigakijima - Part 2

So, here you can see the local ferry port map. The main island where we are staying (Ishigaki-jima) is in the top right corner of the map. Taketomi-jima, which we visited yesterday, is the small island closest to Ishigaki-jima. Today we are going Iriomote-jima, the big island on the left.

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However, before we head there we're going to stop off for some open water snorkelling on a local reef. When the boat weighs anchor, what looks like a small island turns out to be part of an old dead reef, jutting out of the water and scattered with white sun bleached coral (a couple of chunks of which are now making lovely decorations / climbing structures for my hermit crabs back home).

Underwater it's far more lively, with a huge living reef extending off in three directions and drop off into deeper water on the fourth. Again there's an abundance of small coral fish, anemones, turtles and sea snakes to see. By the time we clamber back onto the boat though the wind is getting up a bit and the water is getting choppy, making the rest of the ride a bit rough.

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It isn't long before we get to Iriomote-jima though. Despite it's relative size most of the interior of the island is made up of unihabitable mountains and is actually only sparsely poulated along it's coast. It is, however, the only place on earth where the rare Japanese mountain cat
lives. This shy and secretive cat is almost never seen, but habitat surveys suggest that the entire population consists of just over 100 individuals. Despite the establishment of a national park, and measures such as frequent warning signs and animal safe crossings on the roads, several are killed every year in road accidents. The cat is now considered critically endangered.

It goes without saying we never saw one, though we did see plenty of the road signs and information boards about the cats - the only real cats we saw were the beach bums we saw the day before.

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It would have been amazing if we had seen a mountain cat, but that was never the real reason we came here. No, we are here for some light mangrove kayaking and jungle hiking.

Depite glowering skies and spotting rain, the weather holds as we make our way down to the launch. I love mangroves. Maybe it's because, like the volcanic landscapes in Kyushu, it's still quite a fresh environment type for me. This is only my third time in a mangrove, and it still excites me with it's sheer otherness.

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Once we are on the water and making our way upstream, there is something faintly 'Heart of Darkness' about the whole venture. Maybe it's the moody roiling clouds, or the sense of moving towards unknown and mysterious depths, but it's there... It is of course slightly spoilt by frequent sightings of other tourists paddling by, and the fact that we pretty much know where we are going.

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Where we are going is a small landing upstream that leads onto a hiking trail through the forest. Scrambling up rocks, over fallen trees and pushing past huge ferns we climb up following the path of a stream. At some point the bare rocks in the waters start to give way to green moss covered stones instead, signifying that we have passed the line between the salt water of the mangroves and the fresh water coming off the mountain.

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The source of that fresh water is actually the goal of our hike. A waterfall plunging down a sheer rock face, a thin thread of water that disintergrates into nothing but spray and mist when the wind blows too hard only to reform again moments later. This is as far as we're going today, we stop here for a rest, and a bite to eat before heading back down to our kayaks and wending our way back through the mangroves.

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Almost as soon as we get back to the landing stage and onto the bus, the weather breaks and it starts to pour down. It's almost as if it was just holding back until we'd finished our day out. All we have to do now is sit back and relax as the rain lashes against the glass blurring everything beyond. Actaully it looks quite pretty, maybe this would be a good time to experiment with my camera a bit more ...

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Posted by DKJM74 00:05 Comments (0)

Ishigakijima - Part 1

Back to Okinawa

Time sure flies, I actually had to dig around in my diary to remind myself when this second trip to Okinawa actually took place; apparently I was there last October, though it really doesn't seem that long ago. Having had a great time on our previous trip to Okinawa, it was a given that we'd be going back to explore more of the islands.

This time our main destination is Ishigaki-jima, which is smaller and even more Southern than the main island of Okinawa. It is also less built up and even more packed with beautiful nature - we've barely arrived and we're on a white sand beach looking out over deep blue ocean views already. I've brought my snorkeling gear this time so I can check out some of the local coral reefs, but first we're going to take the lazier option - a ride on a glass bottom boat; thanks to some free tickets from the rental car company.

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Given the rather restricted point of view you get from the boat (unless it's directly under the boat you can't see it), I was surprised how much we could actually see. As well as the numerous fish darting among the corals, we also saw couple of sea turtles passing calmly by and (much to my surprise) a few good sized sea snakes freely swimming about as well.

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It was certainly enough to whet my appetite for some proper snorkeling. So on our way to the hotel we stopped on another beach, away from the boats and pretty much deserted, where I got to get wet and go aqua-exploring. This was the first of three snorkeling sessions I managed to squeeze into the trip, and it was a real joy each time. However, you'll just have to take my word for how nice it was, with schools of small bright fish darting around everywhere, as (my non-waterproof camera) stayed firmly ashore - so here are a few beach shots Haru took while I was splashing about instead.

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After drying off it was time finish off the costal drive to our hotel; which was more a collection of beach side chalets rather than a classic hotel. By the time we get there the sun has already set and the geckos are out in force, taking up positions on almost every lamp that might attract flying insects. Time for a bit of a reptile night safari I think.

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The next morning we're down at the ferry docks bright and reasonably early, Ishigaki-jima isn't so big, so we're planning on doing a bit of island hopping while we're here to see some the the even more remote and smaller islets. Today were going to rent bikes and take a relaxing tour around the neighbouring Taketomi-jima.

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Of course the intended relaxing cyle ride turned competitive as soon as we got on the open road...

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Luckily, there were plenty of great beaches around to keep us distracted, including one famed for having star shaped grains of sand (apparently, we couldn't find any) and another with a huge expanse of crystal clear shallows - perfect for paddling in and cooling down.

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Unlike mainland Japan, several areas in Okinawa use Ox for farm work. Taketomi-jima is one such place and you can see Ox and Ox-drawn carts throughout the island; although it's now seems to be more of a tourist attraction than of any real practical use.

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Actually this idea of atificial-tradition is true of many several aspects of the island. While, on the surface, it seems as if traditions have been preserved here, like the Ox-carts, it's truer to say that have been restored to enhance the traditional feel of the island which attracts tourists.

The red tiled roofs that are prevalent throughout the village are another good example. Traditionally only the most wealthy families would have had such tiled roofs, most of these buildings would have been thatched. The image of traditional Okinawan houses having red tiled roofs is so strong though that they have now almost totally replaced the thatched roofs - whcih as late as 1964 still accounted for about 40% of the islands residences.

The red tiles and Shisa (Okinawa's protective spirits, represented as small red dog-like creatures), which now adorn almost every house, do look great though!

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Ultimately it's a moot question; how authentic or artificial the traditional atmosphere of the island is. However it came to be the way it is, Taketomi-jima is a qauint, peaceful and very beautiful place to while away some time.

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Posted by DKJM74 21:26 Comments (0)

Uriwari no Taki and Kumagawa-juku

Head north from where I live in Imazu you pass through Makino (which constitutes the final stretch of Takashima City) and quite soon you pass out of Shiga and over the border into Fukui. It's really close, and we have taken this route to drive up to Tsuruga several times.

Turn off the main road a little and you can find Uriwari no Taki. A nice peaceful, spot with traditional shrines built around the splashing streams coming down from the mountains. It's even closer than Tsuruga, so quite why I've never been there before is a bit of a mystery. Still it's always nice to find a (not so) hidden gem close to home.

The waterfalls are not the the dramatic, vertical plunge and smashing onto rocks type. They are more the gentle tumbling kind, cascading down the hillside and feeding the moss that grows all around.

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As for the shrines they are spread out and worked into the landscape in a rather non-intrusive and pleasent manner. As you walk around you'll find various familiar elements such as red bibbed icons, enshrinement halls and a koi pond all embedded in the surrounding greenery.

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Some of the icons have already been worn smooth, and have themselves become part of the green as the creeping moss reclaims them.

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As impressive as grand stone catherderals in urban centres can be, there is something about quietly crumbling wooden shrines towered over by massive ancient trees that speaks much more of the divine to me. I guess the former tells us that we are beneath something greater than us, the latter tells us that we are part of something that includes us. At least that's what it seems to say to me.

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Set back off the main road as it stands now, Uriwari no Taki would be quite easy to miss (as we evidently did several times). However, back in the day it would have been situated directly on a very important route - one of the so called Saba-kaido or Mackerel routes.

These were the ways along which fresh fish were carried from the port town of Wakasa to the (then) capital in Kyoto. The same routes would also have been used for carrying post, and some of the key places along these old routes still remain today set back from the modern road.

One such place, not far from Uriwari no Taki, is the old postal town of Kumagawa-Juku.

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Like many such places, the village is long and narrow. There are almost no buildings that don't front directly onto the road to better atttract those walking the Saba-kaido as they passed. Even now the way is lined with traditional Edo style merchant houses that offer up tantalising fragments of the past. Outside - carvings that would have served to denote certain families or businesses now lie propped again walls while kettles and vegetables cool in the fast flowing stream. Inside - glimpsed steep wooden stairs and tatami rooms with traditional hearths are visible as as you pass by.

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On the day that we visit there is even a festival taking place, bringing the normally sleepy village to life. Craftsmen were actually sitting in some of the shop fronts whittling away to make crafts and toys, such as bamboo waterguns for the kids to play with. Local ladies were out making hand-made oni-giri (rice balls) for visitors, other vendors were selling sweets and music was playing.

One quite rare sight was a Fuke-shu monk playing a wooden flute (or shakuhachi). Fuke Shu is a sect of buddhism which used the flute music as a substitution for the more traditional sutras and texts as a means to reach enlightenment. In Fuke Shu the idea of pilgrimage was very important and the image of the wandering flute playing monk, wearing his strange basket like headgear, is perhaps the most typical associated with the sect. The story goes that the Bakufu govenment in power at the time gave Fuke-shu monks the freedom of the country, able to travel wherever they pleased regardless of the normal checkpoints and regulations.

This may seem like a wonderful act of religious tollerance, but in reality with their hidden faces and ease of movement many Fuke-shu monks were actually govenment spies. When the Bakufu government fell, the fuke-shu sect fell with it and for a while it's practice was actaully banned though it has survived and is still practiced by a small number of people to this day.

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Now, todays entry may have been generally a celerbration of traditional Japan, its history and culture and how it has survived and still exists today. However, this wouldn't be modern Japan without a bit of quirkiness. So of course in addition to the traditional we also got a a slice of modern odd. So I'll leave you today with some local mascots on parade, and monkey pulling a rickshaw - of course.

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Posted by DKJM74 16:39 Comments (0)

Mo' Monkeys: Arashiyama Again!

(also with extra cormorant fishing)

Just a very short update today, as I'm basically re-covering old ground again. For long time readers of my blog there isn't anything really new to see here, just a return trip to a favorite place.

I actually decided to go back again simply so I could take the new Takashima JETs (who had arrived a few weeks earlier) and show them around what I think is one of the nicest parts of Kyoto. In the end we only had four people turn out for this, only one of whom was one of the newbies (Good show, Marci). How people can turn down a chance to go and see monkeys, I'll never understand :-) Still four people is just about enough to justify the trip; not that I need that much of an excuse to go back to Arashiyama again anyway!

So, without further ado, for the third time in the five year history of this blog, I proudly re-present the monkeys of Arashiyama monkey park!

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Monkeys do always make good photographic subjects, they have such expressive faces and real character. To be honest if I lived closer to the park I'd probably go even more frequently, the photo opportunities are so good. It's going to be wierd leaving Japan and going to live in a monkey free country again.

However, monkeys weren't the only reason for going back to Arashiyama we also planned to watch the display of cormorant fishing on the river that evening. Again this isn't my first time doing this, I saw cormorant fishing a two or three years back in Uji, but it was something I'd wanted to see again since then.

Unfortunately we weren't the only ones with this idea, and there was quite a queue for the boats. We'd actually come by the ticket stand earlier in the day, but had been told that they tickets wouldn't be on sale until nearer the launch time. However, when we came back it looked uncertain we'd even get any tickets there were so many people. In the end we got split up as there were two places in one boat going out which I jumped on with Marci, while Josh and Joey had to wait another hour for the next performance. Not the best solution, but at least we all managed to get aboard.

Over all I think I prefered the Uji experience more, it was a less crowded (meaning it was also more relaxed) and the chain of boats wasn't as long either; so we had a better view. Having said that I still enjoyed the Arashiyama version as well. Once we had boarded the observation boats, and waited a little for the sun to set, the fishermen came out too. They slip out of the dark, smoothly gliding over the back water in a halo of dancing light from the burning brazier they carry hanging over the sides of their boats. There is something quite myseterious about it and it must have looked quite eerie back in the days when river was full of these ghostly boats.

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Once on position they pause to bring the birds out of the wicker baskets they carry them in. The cormorants are tethered in such a way that the fisherman can track each bird and bring it back to the boat, but the bird can still freely swim and dive to catch the fish attracted to the glowing lights above.

After being placed in the water the cormorants bob and dive, resurfacing with fish that the handlers gather aboard the boat. After the display most of these fish will be fed to the birds anyway, but for now they aren't allowed to swallow them now due to a ring around their necks.

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The display lasts for about an hour with the fishing boats making several passes along the line of tourist boats so everybody has a chance to see and take pictures (very difficult). The cormorant fishing season only runs from the beginning of July to mid September, and can be seen in just a few places in Japan (Arashiyama, Uji and Gifu; that I know about.) If you are in one of those areas during that time, I would recommend trying to see this ancient traditional first hand.

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Godo on the Kisokaido, ukiyo-e prints by Keisai Eisen (1790 – 1848)

Posted by DKJM74 23:15 Comments (0)

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