A Travellerspoint blog

Yokohama

The beginning of the end for my time in Japan really started back at the beginning of 2014. Knowing it was my last year on the program I'd signed up to attend the leavers conference in Yokohama. An annual 2-day conference designed to help those finish with JET to decide what to next, an (although I didn't actually hold out much hope that it's help with such choices) it seemed like a good excuse to visit Yokohama.

Despite being a work trip on the surface Haru also came with me and we explored Yokohama by night after the conference finished. As Yokohama is full of impressive towering building that light up the night, that's not a bad thing. In particular the waterfront are makes for some really pleasant night-time strolls, where you can also see the 'Nippon Maru', a grand old ship build in 1930, moored there.

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Yokohama also boasts quite a large China town area complete with blinking neon adverts and hanging lanterns criss-crossing the streets. Another areas that actually benefits from night time exploration.

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There were a few places that we really wanted to see that would require more than a spare evening to really enjoy though, so we extended our stay in Yokohama for a couple of days after the conference as well. The first of these free days we spent at Yokohama Hakkeijima Sea Paradise.

Hakkejimi is an artificial island built just off the coast which is houses a entertainments complex including theme park rides, a mall and a large indoor and outdoor aquarium and sea life centre.

Like many things, it's only since I've been out of Japan that I've really begun to appreciate how amazing their aquariums are. There are so many of them that they kind of became 'normal' for me, but they really are impressive places. I saw whale sharks at 3 or 4 places in Japan and I doubt anywhere in the UK has one of these gentle giants.

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The dolphin show here was also very enjoyable and included not just the eponymous dolphins, but also sea-lions, two belugas and a walrus as well.

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Inside the collection ranged from the the smaller colourful tropical fish, through sharks and all manner of outlandish critters right back up to the massive walrus, which truly is a majestic beast.

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The languid beauty of the jellyfish is something that I always enjoy as well.

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Some of our favourite exhibits included the huge school of sardines in a special tank including strong currents to encourage natural schooling behaviour. Watching them separate, merge, turn and swarm together as one mass was quite hypnotic.

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The highlight of the day though was the in the Fureai Lagoon area, which is the hands on zone where you can get to meet some of the aquariums inhabitants. As well as the typical touch pool fare (with hermit crabs and star fish etc) there was an area where you could meet the dolphins and belugas - and, if the choose to swim near enough, you can stroke them as the pass by. That was a real treat.

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However, the highlight of our time in Yokohama was visiting Taya caves beneath Josenji temple. Located roughly half way between Yokohama and Kamarara, this temple is the dictionary definition of a hidden gem. Even Japanese people who I told about this place had never heard of it, Haru included, and yet it is one of the most impressive things I saw in all my time in Japan.

The temple itself is small and unassuming, and the entrance to the cave is little more than a low doorway leading into the rock face.

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Pay the modest entrance fee and you're given a small candle and a holder to illuminate your way around a subterranean marvel. Inside there is a series of passages carved by Shingon Buddhist monks training at the temple around 1200 to 1700. This in itself would be impressive enough, as just hewing the basic tunnels would have been hard enough.

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Yet it's the amazing carvings that the monk decorated the corridors and chambers with that really impress. There are domed meditation chambers, a natural spring adorned with a fresh water turtle and birds, whole epic tales retold in long carved sequences and massive monstrous figures. Truly an awe inspiring spite by any standard, and a place I'm genuinely glad to have visited. I really can't recommend this spot enough if you ever get the chance to visit.

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Never have I ever felt as close to fulfilling my old childhood dream of actually being Indiana Jones as I did walking around those ancient passageways guided only by the light of my spluttering candle, and coming face to face with these dreams and visions carved by long dead hands.

Posted by DKJM74 11:13 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Hikone Hanami and Hiking Hieizan

I suspect the word 'last' is going to creep into these next few entries quite a bit, and it begins here with my last hanami (Spring cherry blossom viewing). Which I'll cover briefly as I have A LOT of catching up to do on this blog.

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Every year my favourite local spot was on the north tip of the lake, so that's where we started off this year as well. However, it was only a brief stop before we drove around the lake to Hikone on the far side. Hikone is famous for it's well preserved castle and gardens, and as I'd only been there once (just after arriving in Japan) and Haru had never been there it seemed like a perfect place for our final hanami.

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The castle and it's grounds are on a virtual island separated from the rest of the town by a wide moat overhung with blossom laden branches, and it was here that we headed directly. Starting off with a quick tour around the inside of the main keep which boasts some impressive woodwork, including some rare twisting support beams that have been used in their raw state rather than been trimmed down to a more regular shapes.

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The castle grounds also house a nice walled cherry orchard which was in full bloom, and several people had already settled down on the grass for picnics under the pink.

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As we continued around the grounds we ran we also ran into Hikonyan, the official cat-samurai hybrid mascot of Hikone. The character was created in 2007 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the castle's founding. He's since proved to be one of the more popular mascots and has become quite well known. This Hikonyan show basically consisted of Hikonyan striking a series of cute poses for people to take photos of, not very thrilling but when you consider how many of those photos went on Facebook (or travel blogs) it is a master-stroke of cheap advertising.

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Eventually we made our way back across the moat and toward the formal gardens at the bottom of the hill. On the way down I was both surprised and delighted to see just how many wild turtles there were basking on the grassy bank of the moat or lazily paddling across the still water.

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The gardens below the castle are both elegant and a great example of a classic Japanese style layout. It was also one of the first places I visited upon arriving in Shiga Ken, as every year some local volunteers take new JETs on a guided tour around the caste and grounds. So it was nice to come here again for a second visit at the end of my time in Shiga Ken.

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Actually revisiting favourite old places was something I did quite a bit of in my last few months, and in May we set out to hike Mt. Hiezan and visit the garden museum at the top while it was still in full bloom. Although we could have cheated, and driven most of the way, we set out to walk the full distance which covers a mix of well paved areas and woodland footpath along the way - Oh, and a lot of steps!

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Near the top we took a short stop to take a look around Enrijaku-Ji, the famous temple that dominates the mountain ridge. Here we even found one or two late blooming cherry trees in full blossom.

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But our main goal though was the garden museum located right at the peak with it's colourful spring flowers, a recreation of Monet's water lily ponds and some spectacular views over the slopes all the way down to Lake Biwa and Otsu city spread along it's shore. So let's finish with that!

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Posted by DKJM74 11:13 Archived in Japan Comments (1)

Re-opened and (soon to be) Re-branded

A situational update

Well, it's been over a year and a half since I last posted on this blog, but I'm back now!

To briefly explain, I actually left Japan last July 2014 (not long after I put up the last post). My 5 years on the JET program had come to an end and it was time for myself and Haru to make some tough choices. In the end, having been out of the the UK for almost 2 decades, I felt I wanted to go back and see what it'd be like trying to make a go of it in England- so that's what we decided to do.

We flew to London late last July, and stayed in the UK together throughout August and September traveling and visiting my family. After that Haru had to return to Japan to finish up her work there, and to await the results of her visa application. Meanwhile, I stayed here in the UK trying to get decent job, and to get ready for Haru's arrival. It wasn't easy to say the least. At first all I could get was a warehouse job, which was far from ideal and really didn't pay too well. This also mean being stuck living with family in order to save as much as possible.

Separation from Haru, complications with the visa application and an unexpected death in the family all colluded to make this a trying time.

However, eventually we started the application process, Haru's visa was approved and she came to join me in the UK about 8 months ago. I also finally got a slightly better job. This means that we'll finally be able to start on whatever this next stage of our lives together is going to be, although we're still staying with my folks until Haru also gets a job.

I miss Japan terribly, and I've been loathed to post entries about the last few trips we made while living there there; as doing so seemed to have a kind of finality about it that I wasn't ready to face - in short I simply couldn't close the door on that part of my life yet. However, as I now finally see a crack of light through a new door opening ahead of me, maybe it is time to close the old door now.

So, what does all this mean for the blog?

Well, I'm finally going to post entries for those last few months in Japan, and originally I was then going to close the whole blog down too. However, I've had a change of heart about that. Since leaving Japan we've already had some great trips around the UK, including a London street art tour, some pony trekking in Wales and a steam punk festival in Lincoln. We also took a long weekend in Venice, and a weekend in Carcassonne to celebrate Haru finally getting her visa. I realize that, with Haru here, England can also be an adventure and there could still be a lot worth sharing here. I also realize that I simply like having this record of all our travels and adventures.

So, although my 'Japan with JET' blog has it's days numbered, once I've finished the Japan time-line I'll be re-branding and continuing under the new name ' Japan and Beyond with Damon and Haru'. The journey never truly ends, or as J R R Tolkien put it 'The road goes ever on'. I hope you'll join us for a while longer.

Lastly, as it seems odd to do whole blog entry without any nice pictures, here are some photos from an impromptu trip to the Fukui Ken coast line that Haru and I took way back at the in December 2013 (if I recall correctly). It's a quite stark, rocky piece of coastline and the pictures are quite dramatic and glowering. Enjoy, and here's to the next five years!

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Posted by DKJM74 08:42 Comments (2)

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 (1)

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)

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