A Taste of The States in Okinawa

Okinawa prefecture is a group of many small islands in the south of Japan. I flew into Naha, the capital city of Okinawa Island, the biggest and most populated island in the area. Even though there isn’t a long white sandy beach anywhere near the city, everything in Naha attempts to create an illusion of an idyllic island paradise. Walking down the main street, I was constantly reminded of the “island life” idea by the hundreds of souvenir shops selling beach inspired merch, the ice-cream stands with dozens of tropical flavours and the extravagant seafood restaurants on every corner. Of course the blue skies and palm trees don’t go too badly either.

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“Oh yuck it looks so touristy and horrible blah blah..” I can hear the travellers saying. YES, it IS extremely touristy. I know lots of people would absolutely hate Naha city as it really is a mecca for tourists and it has been built to be that way. If you really dislike this sort of atmosphere, then head further north to the more remote parts of the island, or to a different island altogether. Honestly I actually quite liked Naha. It reminded me a lot of Surfers Paradise, which made me feel like I wasn’t far from home at all.

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The island is home to a number of American military bases so as a result there is a noticeable American influence on things like food and entertainment. Somehow, a strange cultural mix of Japanese, Mexican and Hawaiian has emerged. The (somewhat) signature dish of Okinawa is “Taco-rice.” A bowl of Japanese style white rice topped with Tex-Mex inspired salad, salsa, cheese and the choice of beef or chicken. In addition to the unusual take on Mexican food there is an unmistakably Hawaiian theme to the place as well. Many of the locals can be spotted wearing Hawaiian shirts, even the bus drivers. Some souvenir shops even sell hula skirts and leis!

Chicken and avocado Taco-Rice and Chili Cheese Fries!
Chicken and avocado Taco-Rice and chili cheese fries! DAYUM SO GOOD

The most concentrated American presence in Okinawa can be found at the Mihama American Village, where I sourced the delicious feast above. It’s located about a 45 minute bus ride north of Naha, and is very close to the US military bases.

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This entire village has been created to resemble a large American outdoor shopping mall, abundant with restaurants specialising in taco-rice, hot dogs and hamburgers, as well as numerous fashion boutiques that attempt to mimic American style clothing and accessories. Many of them accept US dollars as payment, and most sales staff speak great English. There is even a movie theatre showing the latest films straight from Hollywood. Of course, the area is very popular with the residents of the US army bases, as well as offering a change of scenery for the locals. On the day I went, the village was packed with American teenagers shopping with their moms. It was a very bizarre feeling, I almost felt like I was walking around LA or somewhere. It definitely felt strange to be surrounded by way more foreigners than Japanese people.

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The village is situated behind Sunset Beach, a tiny but very nice looking beach with plenty of sun lounges and picnic tables on the grassed area behind the sand. It was still a little bit too cold for swimming when I went but I imagine it must get crazy busy during summer.

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On my last day in Okinawa I went for an unexpected super long walk up a hill to Shuri Castle. The Castle didn’t interest me very much, but I got to witness this view on a perfect day.

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dat view tho
dat view tho

Pretty sad to be saying goodbye to Okinawa and Japan as a whole. The last five months have been awesome, and I seriously can’t believe how fast that time has gone. Srsly.

There are still so many places in Japan that I didn’t make it to, which gives me all the more reasons to come back again another time. I’ll be climbing Mt Fuji one summer soon for sure.

And now, onwards to Taipei! Bring on the street food!

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Getting Friendly with Deer in Nara

Nara is a cute little city east of Kyoto that’s famous for one thing; deer. Located in the city center, Nara Park is a series of temples, sections of forest and large grass fields that are home to over 1200 wild deer. Yes, wild. This isn’t a giant petting zoo where the deer are fenced up and fed breakfast, lunch and dinner. These crazy animals decided a few hundred years ago that this park in the middle of a town is where they would like to hang out. Which is totally fine by me. Go ahead and get doe-eyed looking at the photos.

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Little guy tried to eat my shirt a second later.
Little guy tried to eat my shirt a second later.

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The less deer-ridden end of Nara Park.
The less deer-ridden end of Nara Park.

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Kyoto: Cultural Overload

Kyoto is pretty damn amazing. It’s complete cultural overload, from the architecture to the people to the food. Famous for being the ancient capital of Japan, its obvious that the people who live here have done everything they can to preserve the historic beauty of this city. It has all the modern shops and facilities that anyone one would require, whilst maintaining an illusion of being an older, less developed town. There were three highlights of Kyoto that really stood out to me, the Arashiyama area, the Golden Pavilion, and the Fushimi Inari Shrine.

Before visiting all of that though, I met a lovely girl named Robyn on my first morning at the hostel. It just happened to be her birthday, so we treated ourselves to a big delicious Western breakfast, followed by a bike ride through the city in attempt to burn off the excessive calories consumed. In the afternoon we went to see a show called Miyako Odori. Robyn had pre-booked her ticket but I was hoping to get one at the door. We showed up only a few minutes before the show was due to start, to be told that all the door tickets had sold out. After explaining to the ticket lady “but she’s my new friend and its her birthday please let me go nice lady pls pls pls” she managed to work some magic and give me a cheeky ticket to the show. Once again the Japanese proving they are some of the kindest people on the planet! The performance was a traditional Japanese song and dance by geishas to welcome in the spring. The costumes were a beautiful collection of colourful kimonos and the instruments played were old school Japanese guitar-like things called koto. Unfortunately there was a strict no photography policy inside the theatre and the security guard was lurking around behind me for the entire show, so I don’t have any photos to prove how great it was. The whole show was mimed, with the lyrics in the songs being the only explanation of the storyline. These lyrics were in Japanese so most of the time we had absolutely no idea what was going on. I think it was about this guy not liking this girl during the winter but then spring came and then he was like “damn gurl you mine” or something. Out of my five months in Japan, this was definitely the most cultural experience I had, and I think it was a pretty good one.

Breakfast with Robyn the birthday girl (R).
Breakfast with Robyn the birthday girl (L).
Bike rides around the city
Riding bikes around the city.

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The next day, Robyn checked out and headed for Miyajima so I was all on my own again. I headed for the first highlight on my list, Arashiyama. Arashiyama is a village just outside Kyoto, situated near some very pretty mountains and a river. The area is home to a popular bamboo forest, quite a few temples and shrines, many restaurants, souvenir shops and a monkey park. YES PEOPLE, A MONKEY PARK. The area is a bit of a mission to get to, if you get on the wrong train like I did. I accidentally got on the middle of nowhere express, and was told in broken English that I had to wait for half an hour at this random station in the countryside before I could get a train back in the direction in which I came.

View from who knows where.
View from who knows where.

The Arashiyama area is completely gorgeous, even if it is swamped with selfie snapping tourists. The river is lovely and I was in perfect timing with the cherry blossoms. The area does have a very nice feel to it but I can’t help thinking how much more enjoyable it would be if it wasn’t so crowded.

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So to get away from the other tourists, I wandered off the beaten path and walked uphill for about half an hour. I ended up with an amazing view, looking down at the river below and over at the cherry blossoms on the mountainside opposite. Sometimes wandering off can be really worthwhile.

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Following that, I went to see the bamboo forest, officially termed “The Path of Bamboo.” The path isn’t very long; I think it’s less than a kilometer. It’s dark in there, and a nice relief from the heat. The sun shines between the bamboo trees, creating shadow patterns that I’m sure a much better photographer than myself could capture and make look awesome.

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After the bamboo forest, I walked along the river, crossed the bridge to the other side and began my ascent up to the monkey park. It takes about ten minutes (feels like an hour) of non-stop uphill leg power to make it to the area where all the monkeys are. These monkeys are actually wild, which means they’re free to roam all over the mountain but of course they stay near the top because that’s where they get fed. In this case, visitors enter a large caged room where they can buy some really cheap fruit or peanuts, and then feed the monkeys from behind bars. The fat lazy monkeys just sit in the one spot and wait for people to hand them food, whereas some of the little ones go totally ape-shit (see what I did there) chasing kids around trying to snatch the food out of their hands.

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The monkey park also serves as a lookout point to an amazing view of Kyoto.

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Here she was, the big one, the Golden Pavilion, Kinkaku-ji. It’s only one train ride (and a long walk) from Arashiyama, making it easy to visit both places in one day. Again, manic with tourists, which was, again, expected. In my head, this particular temple is the icon of Kyoto. It’s both stunning and massive, but I’ll let the photo speak for itself.

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At every temple I visited in Tokyo I had been tempted to buy a candle or some incense to burn at the shrine but I had been saving that privilege for Kinkaku-ji.

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I also bought a fortune, and for obvious superstitious reasons I’m not telling you what it said.

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My final stand out attraction was the Fushimi Inari Shrine. The thousands of red tori gates are a famous icon of Kyoto, and of Japanese culture in general. I didn’t realize, but the gates form a trail up a mountain. Stupidly, I thought it was just an 800m or so long path through these gates leading to a temple or something. Nope. A 4 kilometre hiking trail up and down Mt Inari is what these lovely gates form. Thinking the top of the mountain would boast an amazing view, I was sorely disappointed when I got to the summit after an hour and a half of walking, only to be heading straight back down again. No lookout, no big amazing temple, nothing. Oh well, the gates were still cool.

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Fushimi Inari Shrine was actually my last stop in Kyoto, before I jumped on the train to Nara to be licked and head butted by deer.

Miyajima Island

There isn’t much I’d really like to say about Miyajima other than it is absolutely beautiful, so this is going to be a short one. I was surprised that a tiny island paradise could exist under an hour away from Hiroshima, and more surprised that I’d never even heard of it.

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The focal point of the island is Itskushima Shrine. Built and re-built a number of times throughout history, the present shrine dates back to the mid-sixteenth century. It’s often referred to as the “floating” shrine because it was designed to look as though it is floating. Whilst it didn’t really have that effect on me, its still probably the most impressive shrine I’ve come across in Japan, and it really got me thinking about how they managed to build it all those years ago. Way back before there were cranes and all sorts of other machinery that could lower construction materials into place, how did they manage to build this massive shrine… underwater?? Pretty amazing really.

Itskushima Shrine
Itskushima Shrine

We (myself and two girls I met at the hostel, Candina and Eva) decided to climb Mt. Missen, the main mountain on the island. There is a ropeway (cable car) available, but at almost $20 a pop for a round trip, we thought it a steep price to pay when there is a perfectly good hiking trail just waiting to be trod on. It took us a bit over an hour, and whilst the climb was super tough (for me at least), that didn’t stop it from being fun, and it was definitely worth it when we got to the top.

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Encouraging
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Our reward at the top.

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After a picnic at the peak of rice-cakes and Pringles, we headed back down, choosing a different path to the one which we had ascended. The view got better and better with every step! As we got closer to the bottom, the trees slowly thinned out until we could see the beach and the shrine in the distance. We were so lucky to have chosen such a gorgeous day for it. Everything looked spectacular.

The view on the way down.
The view on the way down.

At the bottom of the hiking trail is a temple, with some interesting statues. I wish I knew what each of them symbolised, and what the hats are about.

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This is only a fraction of the 500 or so statues that line the footpath.

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Wishing we could have stayed longer on Miyajima, we headed back to Hiroshima in the mid-afternoon during low-tide. It was straight to the train station for me, off to Kyoto on the bullet train.

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Stay tuned for the cultural overload that is Kyoto!

Hiroshima: Unexpectedly Wonderful

I’m just going to come right out and say it. I never particularly wanted to go to Hiroshima. In school, I didn’t enjoy learning about history, and still now, I’m not a fan of museums. Even though I’d been told that the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum would probably be one of the most emotionally moving and confronting experiences I would ever face, this still didn’t exactly spark my interest. So when I had a free day between Osaka and Kyoto, I grudgingly paid more money that I would have liked to get the bullet train to Hiroshima, simply to cross it off the list of places that are deemed “must-sees” by some nobody who works for the Lonely Planet.

Since I hadn’t really done any research, I expected to step off the train and find a boring little city, with nothing to look at except a big old museum. To put it bluntly, this is almost exactly what I did find. Hiroshima isn’t buzzing with energy like Tokyo, nor is it abundant with natural beauty and nor does it possess an exhausting array of things to do. But somehow, it has succeeded in creating the calm and peaceful vibes that this historic city so rightfully deserves.

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Slowly walking along the river, it’s as though the very idea of peace is rooted in the soil itself.  The whole environment is remarkably calming. The screeching sounds of car horns and shouting shop keepers were replaced by the soft chirping of birds. No suited businessmen ran past me, briefcases flailing along behind them. Little girls played in the park, collecting fallen cherry blossom flowers and stowing them away into their picnic baskets. I felt so unbelievably welcome here. People walking by would smile at me, and some would even stop to say “hello” and “welcome”. In what other city in Japan do locals have the opportunity to detach themselves from their busy lives just to greet a passing tourist?

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In case you spent history classes reading “Twilight” under the desk (like me), and have no idea what events I am referring to, here’s a quick refresher. On the 6th of August 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, resulting in the instant deaths of tens of thousands and the ongoing injuries and suffering of countless others. At the exact moment that the bomb exploded, the temperature exceeded 1 million degrees celsius, creating a humungous ball of fire, which destroyed anything and everything within a 280m radius and emitting devastating heat rays across the entire city. To this day, it is the first and only atomic bomb ever to be used as an act of war.

Hiroshima before.
Hiroshima before.
Hiroshima after.
Hiroshima after.

The museum itself is extremely interesting, and at only 50 cents entry fee, why wouldn’t you go? The exhibit includes the models shown above, as well as videos and photos about the bombing. Also available to view are clothes worn by victims of the disaster as well as other artefacts like the tools they were carrying at the time.

A watch, frozen at 8:15. The exact time of the blast.
A watch, frozen at 8:15. The exact time of the blast.

The museum is situated at one end of a long park, appropriately named The Peace Memorial Park. It is abundant with luscious green grass and cherry blossom trees, with a river running through the middle. It is also home to number of statues and monuments pertaining to the lives lost in the atomic bombing disaster, and Hiroshima’s desperate call for peace and the world-wide ban on nuclear weapons.

Memorial Cenotaph and the Peace Flame.
Memorial Cenotaph and the Peace Flame.
The Children's Peace Monument pays tribute to Sadako, the girl who believed folding 1000 paper cranes would cure her of the disease she sustained after the bombing.
The Children’s Peace Monument pays tribute to Sadako, the girl who believed folding 1000 paper cranes would cure her of the disease she sustained after the bombing.

At the opposite end of the park, stands the A-Bomb Dome. This is the only structure close the the hypocentre of the explosion, that remained anywhere near intact after the blast.

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You can see what the dome looked like before the devastation, in the sign in the foreground.
You can see what the dome looked like before the devastation, in the sign in the foreground.

In my one day in Hiroshima I managed to learn more about World War II than year ten social science ever could have taught me. I wish I could have stayed an extra night to further explore this remarkably welcoming and relaxed city. I highly recommend a visit to Hiroshima if you have any plans to come to Japan. Even if you have no interest in history or war, and the fantastic museum fails to change that, it is a lovely city for a friendly and peaceful escape from the organised chaos of other cities in Japan.

Stay tuned for my post on the paradise that is Miyajima Island!