Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Rainy in Okinawa

Well, don't let it be said you can't take something good out of a bad situation (that being said, I'm willing to honestly say that I'd prefer a less rainy situation). So, I've reached the Japanese island of Yonaguni. This is about as far as you can possibly go without leaving Japan, as I'm now much closer to Taiwan than I am to any place in Japan:

Taiwan's the big yellow island; Yonaguni is the little one marked in red; Tokyo and the Japanese mainland too far away to be in the picture frame

There's a number of upsides to being here:
- there's great diving
- it's entirely lacking in civilization... relatively speaking, of course. I thought the island looked somewhat similar to Fiji, but it is Japan, so it's much more developed than that, but it is very, very far from neon-lit techno-mecca that is Tokyo, Nagoya, etc. This entire island has 2 traffic lights...
- I've reached the last page of the Japan Lonely Planet guide book. This feels like an accomplishment, as if I've actually managed to go to the last outpost of this land... There's also very few foreign tourists - generally a plus.

And, presently, there is one big downside: the weather sucks! It was just gloomy and overcast when I arrived on Tuesday. Wednesday, diving day, it rained the vast majority of the day. We went diving anyway, and it was actually much, much warmer under water.

Diving, by the way, is the epitomoy of an inexact science - there's no point in having pre-conceived notions. I arrived here expecting hammerhead sharks at Irizaki point and underwater ruins at Oseki. Saw neither (waters too choppy at Oseki and waters not yet cold enough for the hammerheads to show up). Instead, we went diving through a maze-like cave labyrinth the first time, running into an eel that had to be at least 4 meters long sitting in its little crevasse, gaping its mouth. Second dive was at Irizaki - no sharks, but two big turtles swimming directly past us, reminding that these creatures, seemingly so slow and clumsy on land, are quire graceful under water. So, not quite overwhelming, but definitely worthwhile. If I get to see manta rays when I head back to Ishigaki tomorrow, the entire excursion will be worthwhile.

Other fun experiences here in Yonaguni:
- there's not a single restaurant on this island (as I mentioned, not particularly civilized by local standards). Plenty of tourists though (mostly local), so all the guesthouses include meals in their stay. At 5 o'clock, I went outside and saw the guys brining in a big fish they caught that afternoon and starting to clean it. 6 o'clock: dinner, with fresh sashimi!

Dinner-time with the Yonaguni Dive Service dive shop.

- I rented a scooter - this island does not require you to speak Japanese in order to give you a scooter, unlike Ishigaki... They were also every bit as fascinated by the International driver's license with its many, many pages as the cops in Russia. The island takes about an hour to drive around the entire perimeter. A good bit of sight-seeing along the way, and at least the rough seas made for some fun shots:

My scooter. Thailand, Indonesia, Japan... a scooter is still just a scooter. This one actually had the most rust on it.

Irizaki Point, where a rock, from nearby Taiwan, marks the Western-most point in Japan

Along the Southern coastline

Tachigamiiwa Butte, framed

And this is what you get from all those big waves crashing into the island (and keeping me from diving where I had wanted to to) - gigantic sprays of mist washing over the shore-line rocks.

And big azure waves crashing into the shore

And washing over rocks all along the coast

Making friends, trying to bridge the language barrier

- it is Japan after all, so there's internet access everywhere, including this remote island outpost, so I've had time for a couple of posts while passing the time here, watching the rain outside. I'm also having time to pretend to be vaguely intellectual by reading Oscar Wilde...

Also, a brief addendum to the last post - customs offices on both sides of the Pacific don't like dirty cars, so I had to wash the mini inside and out pretty thoroughly for ... for the first time ever, I suppose. Some interesting discoveries along the way: the dust from Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, etc. will probably be with the car forever. You run a rag over it and it changes color, but then it dries, and it turns out you just moved things around a little. Digging behind the rear seat turned up a couple of little souvernir trinkets I'd gotten for my uncle back in Berlin... which I had assumed were stolen in Krakow - who would've thought! I'm also not allowed to have anything in the car... so I had to empty and unpack all the crap in the car, and throw away most of it. Sorry, Cy, I'm afraid the Lada muffler and your recliner aren't going to make it back to Seattle after all. But if you want them badly enough, they're sitting on Joel's balcony - I'm sure he could find out how much it would cost you to ship them to Seattle. I'm willing to bit the answer is 'a whole hell of a lot' though.

Back to Ishigaki: early this morning, I started the slow and steady march towards modernization, starting at the remote outpost of Yonaguni, and eventually culminating back in Tokyo. This morning, it was merely a ferry ride back to Ishigaki - had to be the roughest sea faring trip I've ever been on as the ship's not particularly big, and the seas were plenty rough.

The ferry getting ready to depart the relative peach and quiet of the Yonaguni harbor

The waves build up strength as we're rounding past Irizaki Point

No real problems for any of the dozen or so passengers on board, but I doubt anybody but the crew found the ride particulalry comfortable. The unfortunate part came when we arrived back in Ishigaki, and the seas had failed to get any calmer. In fact, as it turns out, most of the dive operators on Ishigaki didn't go out at all today, and while they might be sending some ships out tomorrow, Manta Scramble, my manta ray destination of choice, remains completely inaccessible - 5 meter swells... So, this seems like the appropriate time to cut my losses here in Okinawa - tomorrow, continue heading back towards Tokyo. Naha first, then on to Hiroshima and Kyoto for some more standard Japan sight-seeing.

And a quick note on the astounding Japanese puncuality. The Yonaguni-Ishigaki ferry is scheduled to depart at 10:00 and arrive at 14:00. With the rough seas, the passage was going to take longer than normal, arrival time is clearly considered more important, so they bumped up the departure time and we left the dock just after 9 in the morning. After five hours of battling the elements, lo and behold, they were throwing lines to the docks of Ishigaki at exactly 13:59. 2PM arrial time accomplished! Maybe it is all coincidence, but it's uber-punctual Japan, I think they actually planned it.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Weather update: I don't like weather!

There are three dive spots that I really wanted to go to here in Okinawa (in order of preference):

1. Manta Scramble or Manta Way near Ishigaki
2. Irizaki point featuring hammerhead sharks near Yonaguni
3. Underwater ruins off of Yonaguni

Today, I talked to a few dive shops on the various islands and here's the diving forecast given the currently rainy state of the weather:

1. Manta Way/Manta Scramble: 99% that the water will be too choppy to go there tomororw.
2. Irizaki: 80% chance of No
3. Underwater ruins: probably OK...

So, I'm not feeling encouraged. The plan du jour is to catch a morning flight to Yanaguni tomorrow, go diving there Wednesday (can't dive within 24 hours of flying). See the ruins, hope for the best with hammerheads. Thursday, take the ferry back to Ishigaki and hope that the weather will have improved by Friday enough that I can dive the Manta sights here. Saturday evening start heading back up towards the Japanese mainland... How this all works out? TBD...

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Cargo ships, sumo, and scuba diving

I'm sure all of you out there are simply dying to know what has finally happened to the mini. Did Japanese customs impound her? Did she get sent home to the US to battle with American customs? Did I send it back to Russia where people kept offering to buy her from me?

The mini, anxiously awaiting her fate at the port of Nagoya

Well, none of the above actually - after spending nearly two weeks in Nagoya trying to work out a plan to get the car to America, I had finally settled on shipping it to Vancouver, Canada, then driving down to the US. Upside: Canada will be country #28 (unless I've lost count...) since departing London. Downside: I get to not just deal with American customs, but as a super extra bonus, I get the Canadians as well... Most of the time in Nagoya was actually spent talking with various people in Japan, Canada, and the US trying to work out the best way to get the car across the Pacific (time difference does not help) and going via Vancouver ended up being the most cost(and time)-effective option.

So, after saying my thank you's and good bye's to everyone in Nagoya, I was free once more to go play tourist!

Joel, Marina, and Taka working to turn the Rumblefish bar (by night) into Cornelius Cafe by day.

It's just a funny picture of Sodai, one of their friends... that is all

Stop 1. South to Fukuoka, on the Kyushu island. Side note (rant?) about getting around in Japan: it's really easy to do. Trains go everywhere, and the famous shinkansen super express gets you there incredibly fast... And it's very expensive! Japan is considered an expensive country to travel in - it's all because of the transportation. Food and lodging are accepably reasonable, but your transportation options are limited to expensive trains, expensive airlines (there's only three operating inside Japan), very slow buses, or if you have a car, driving, but that's just as expensive because all the roads have tolls... Finish rant...

So after shelling out almost $200 for the 4 hour train ride, I arrived at the Hakata station in Fukuoka. The reason to go there was the sumo tournament that was going on there at the time - I figured that after seeing Muai Thai in Thailand, rugby in Fiji, and Aussie football in Australia, I couldn't leave Japan without seeing some sumo... especially with a big tournament going on while I was in the country. So, without further ado:

A bunch of us staying at the hostel in Fukuoka decided to take in the festivities

The wrestlers coming into the arena... looking like fairly normal, albeit rather large, people

The dohyo-iri (entering the ring) ceremony preceeds the matches

Perhaps the most exciting match of the day featured a quick little European guy vs. an enormous Japanese wrestler, easily twice his weight. Quickness won...

I'm dead sexy...

The final match of the day, featuring the Yokozuna (champion). Match ends whenever any part of either wrestler's body leaves the ring or touches the ground. Most matches, including this one, go very quickly.

And the elaborately dressed ref presides over the proceedings.

After enjoying this bit of Japanese culture, I figured I need a break before heading to Kyoto for more culture. Plus it was getting awfully cold and rainy, so escaping South to tropical Okinawa seemed like a good plan. So, one more expensive train ride, and a 24 hour ferry placed me in Naha, the capital of Okinawa in the midst of tropical heat and sunshine! Spending a full day wearing sandals again was exciting.

The ferry getting ready to depart from Kagoshima.

And by the following evening, we were arriving in Naha.

Right now, I'm actually even further south, in Ishigaki (and soon, I'll be heading to Yonaguni, West of here, about 100km off the coast of Taiwan) because this is where the best scuba diving in Japan is. Lott's video of the manta ray in Hawaii was quite spectacular, so I'm hoping I'll get to see some tomorrow as well - Ishigaki is famous for them, even though November is supposedly not quite the best season to see them... Yonaguni promises to be equally spectacular as it is supposedly frequented by huge hammerhead sharks! If the under water case for my camera hadn't been stolen in Krakow, I'd promise pictures of anything I'm going to [hopefully] see, but as it is, you'll just have to trust my descriptions... The only problem down here, unfortunately, is that the beautiful tropical sunshine didn't last as a rainy weather system has rolled in from China... Can't really complain as it's still warm and tropical down here, and the rain has been more of a drizzle so far, but it's a little disappointing...

PS. My mother complained that my last post from Nagoya didn't actually have a single picture of me... Here you go, mom :)

Marina and I in front of the pretty foliage near Nagoya

At a Chinese-style garden in Naha, Okinawa

PPS. Well, and since Lott, found some more exciting things crossing the road signs, I realised that I never posted these:

Racoon crossing?

Are there apes in Japan? Well, I'm not sure, but Japanese drivers are made aware of them nonetheless...

Both appropriately Japanese in their oddness...

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Where's Lott?

Whoops, been a while since I last posted. Things have been a bit busy so here's a quick recap:

After some super early season skiing at Mt. Baker I hopped on a plane for the East Coast.  My brother just moved to Brooklyn so I started there and squeezed in my monthly dose of culture with Evelyn at the Brooklyn Museum.  Then I started to head north.

Fall is my favorite season.  The crisp sunny mornings where you can see your breath.  The brilliant colors hanging from every tree.  Seattle's got some nice yellows, but my favorites are the reds of the eastern hardwoods. 

First stop was Franconia Notch in New Hampshire.  It was a bit chilly, especially with 50+ mph winds, but the amazing colors definitely were not done justice by my camera.


Also got to add yet another exciting warning sign to my collection:


Next up was Bar Harbor, Maine for some cycling through Acadia National Park.  The colors here were also spectacular!



And even better, they had lobster!  Lots of lobster.  This guy weighted in at 4.5 pounds (and $80, I ate his 2.5 lb cousin instead).


After a quick stop in Boston to heckle Northeast Regionals, I headed back down to Brooklyn.  Mom had just retired so Joe reasoned that she and Dad would be overjoyed to drive up from Maryland and take us out to dinner in the middle of the week.


And they did which I'm quite grateful for because five days after I returned to Seattle, Dad passed away suddenly.  Friends and family came from all over to celebrate his life and share stories.  Mom, Joe and I are really lucky to have such a loving and supportive community and I hope that some day I'll have touched half as many people's lives.

After the whirlwind of the funeral and spending some time starting to get Dad's estate in order I headed back to Seattle for a whole 68 hours before embarking on my previously scheduled trip to Hopu, a tournament in Hawaii.

A bunch of us rented a sweet house, wined and dined, played in the surf, and went snorkeling at Hanauma Bay.


There was some frisbee played too.  It was my first tournament in seven months so I was a bit out shape.  But had a lot of fun with various sideline antics.


After the tournament several of us flew to the big island for some diving.  Thanks Rob and Henry for ponying up for waterproof camera housings so I can steal your pictures!


White tipped reef shark.  Probably 10-12 feet.


A huge moray eel swimming - usually they hide in the coral and all you see is their head.

And the highlight of the trip, manta rays!

Driving around the Big Island is interesting.  In about an hour you can go from the beach to 9,000 ft on Mauna Kea where they warn you about falling ice!


Hawaii is one of the Polynesian Islands, so like New Zealand they are quite protective of their flightless fowl.


As well as donkeys?


And the most important sign we saw all trip:


Some guy was barreling towards the 5th tee and had to slam on his brakes to avoid being run over by our mini van.   I'm sure he got an earful from his wife as she was riding shotgun and almost flew over the hood!

After a week and a half of fun in the sun, I've returned to rainy Seattle for a bit.  Next trip, back to Maryland for Thanksgiving.

Saturday, November 15, 2008


I've now been in Japan for almost two and a half weeks. I started off playing tourist, seeing Tokyo, Mt. Fuji, the Japanese Alps... This past week, however, has been back to work, trying to figure out to get the car from Japan to the US.

Fortunately enough, Lott and Cyrus met Joel and Elmer in Ukraine during the rally, who were also driving their vehicle from London all the way to Japan and worked for a company that exported Japanese vehicles to North America. Not so fortunately, the company (Japan Car Exports) has been forced to largely shut down its operations a few weeks ago, which means they aren't able to offer very much help with the shipping at this point.

Joel and the car here in Nagoya.

So, I've been in Nagoya for a week now, the mini is still here as well - right outside of Joel and Marina's apartment (where I'm crashing on a couch at the moment). Trying to figure out shipping involves making contact with customs services in the US and Canada (it's easiest to ship a vehicle to Vancouver from here) and waiting for enough responses to show up to make some sort of a decision (time difference doesn't help, since these people do work strictly 9-5). I think we're getting closer, so hopefully I won't be in charge of a car much longer and will be able to actually go out and see the rest of Japan shortly.

As for Nagoya, it's sort of like a smaller version of Tokyo. It's still a big Japanese city, with all of its neon-lit, technologically-enhanced technology on every corner. But, the subway system, while quite extensive, is actually somewhat comprehensible and can fit on a single, two-dimensional sheet of paper (much unlike Tokyo's). The streets are still brightly lit up by neon at night, but it's just a bit quieter than the Tokyo metropolis. And the crowds here are mostly Japanese business people, not tourists - people keep telling me there's not really all that much to see in Nagoya as a tourist. Unfortunately, this also means there's a bit less English spoken here, but that stopped being an issue for me back in India somewhere.

So, what have I been doing here? Well, a couple of days after I arrived, it was Joel's birthday, so I got to meet a bunch of their friends. Ironically enough, the day I arrived in Tokyo was Dave's birthday (Dave Fries and his wife Megumi being the only people I knew in Tokyo...)

Random shot from the birthday festivities

Joel and his girlfriend Marina are working on opening their own cafe (since losing their jobs at JCE), so I've gotten a chance to watch the preparations of a small business getting ready to open. They seem to be well on the way - Cafe Cornelius is scheduled to open on the 24th and will serve food and drinks, as well as offer English lessons - seems like a nice fusion of concepts to me. When not busy getting the cafe up and running, we've ventured out to the nearby mountains to hang out with all the local tourists watching the leaves turn colors:

Joel, Marina, and the leaves turning red in the background

Sun starting to get low behind the trees

No idea what that says, but it seems like a purely Japanese site

There's also been a trip to an onsen (Japanese mineral bath), a coneyor-belt sushi restaurant (better than the American version), and an extended process of clearing out my car - customs regulatsion explicitly state that I'm not to transport personal things in the car when shipping it...

And then, there's Nagoya itself - it's not a tourist mecca like nearby Kyoto, which I'm anxious to finally get to, but it's got a few sights worth seeing:

The Nagoya castle

The Osu Kannon temple

A very arte nouveau fountain

And a building that very clearly appears to be trying to spiral itself way into outer space

Well, that's about it for the sights, really... There's also famous shrine, but all the inresting bits of it are currently closed for renovation!