Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Spring is HERE! Time to Hanami!

You know it's Spring when you see sakura (cherry blossoms). It is probably the single most anticipated event in Japan, and I can definitely see why. Spring couldn't have come any sooner for me as I was D-U-N with winter approximately 2.5 days after it began.

I give a lot of detail about 'sakura' and 'hanami' in my previous post (http://sarahmoersfelder.blogspot.com/2008/04/sakura-real-deal.html), so if you missed it and want to know more, check that out. Otherwise, just browse the pics below and enjoy.

Even though I was bummed to leave Okinawa (and be sunburnt), almost my entire train ride from Tokyo to Maebashi was lined with sakura trees. It was incredibly beautiful. I love how Japan can so graceful blend city and nature together.

This is the view of my 'backyard'.

The Momonoki River I get to bike along every day.

Cherry blossoms in bloom = time to hanami (cherry blossom viewing/picnicking). And hanami we did. This is Shikishima Park, one of the best in Gunma for sures.

Spotted 'em! So there we sat, on our little tarp with food and drinks to last a week, never ending conversations, my mini speakers providing some tunes, sporadic objects being thrown, and of course the view of cherry blossoms in full bloom gracefully falling from the trees surrounding us.

Not only must you enjoy the flowers, you must take pictures of them. You must take MANY pictures of them. Or else, you are not Japanese. Below, a cute old man demonstrates how to be Japanese, and cute!
Although most Japanese hanami only with their family and friends in a small and intimate group surrounded by many other small and intimate groups around them, we are foreigners so we like to wander and disrupt/join other hanamis. This is a group of Phillipinos living in Gunma.

And this... THIS is the magic. When the light hits just right and wind blows just subtly enough and the cute kids are playing amidst it all... that's when the magic happens.

That night I headed to Tatabayashi (another city in Gunma) to talk Malaysia with Julie and hanami again the next day. And hanami we did. Julie is rightfully displaying her awesome carrot cake. Mmmmm.

Making new friends in Tats, with Benny (a guy who loves American army lingo) and Travis (a guy who helped explain the army jokes Benny made to me).

Say "hanami!"

Julie doesn't think much of Tatabayashi, but I thought it was pretty gorgeous. AND they had like a million and one carp streamers up in anticipation of Kodomo-no-hi (Children's Day).

Thanks for the Easter Peeps, parentals! They were a big hit:)


Saturday, May 23, 2009

Spring Break in Okinawa: Zamami Island

Last stop on the Okinawa agenda for me was Zamami island. Since it was relatively close to Naha, again I thought it'd be packed. And again, I was pleasantly surprised. This time I had people to entertain me on the ferry and the camp site even bore a few others. Not nearly as lonely, but still just as safe.
Almost there!

The best part was that the weather finally cleared up, allowing sunshine and a lack of vomit inducing ferry rides. A definite plus!
I made it!

The first chance I had to put on that swimsuit I'd been lugging around and I couldn't have been happier! I was a little too happy, though. I blissfully delayed putting on sunscreen for all of 4 hours one morning, enjoying my book, the rays, and a swim. That was the last day of my trip. It didn't happen for 2 days after my return, but I ended up having THE WORST sunburn of my entire life. And I'm a whitey, I've been burnt many a time. We're talking blisters so big it looked like a million hands were grasping me around my torso. I literally could, not, move. I had to take off of work for the first time in my life. It sucked. A lot. And I hope it never ever ever happens again. SPF 50 at all times for me! I'm still peeling (it's been 2 months).
The camp site, which had that beach I'm on (above) immediately behind it. Perrrrrfect!

One of Okinawa's 'famous foods', goya (with clam shells) and the local brew, Orion. Both were pretty tasty!

So there I am, maxing and relaxing by myself on the beautiful beach and this guy goes out for the catch of the day. I end up 'talking' to him (all in Japanese, a total feat for me) for a pretty long time.

He proceeds to serve up the freshest sushi I have EVER had in my life.

Lunch is served!

He left for awhile, then came back with ice cream and his cute little dog. Cool guy.

Awesome tree.

Even more awesome sunset, as they always are!

Okinawa: maybe not the most amazing or impressing location I've been in my life (I'm super spoiled, though), but definitely exactly what I needed at exactly the right time. I got to do a lot of thinking and reflecting, which I don't do enough about my life. I'm a do-er and and a go-er, and it was really a lot different not to be traveling with anyone else or have something planned every minute of the day. Sometimes it was boring or lonely, but mostly it was helpful and necessary (other than that sunburn!).

Monday, May 18, 2009

Spring Break in Okinawa: Iheya Island

Getting from Naha down in the south west area of Okinawa island waaaaay up to Iheya island (the one that's conveniently shaded in blue, which doesn't represent flooding or anything) was a trip in itself. I knew it'd take a while and was hoping to spend a whole day on the island, so I woke up exxxxtra early, even after going out 'on the town' (remember, there's really only one road with any activity) in Naha.

Ahhhh, the beautiful Okinawan weather I was hoping for.

After an am walk, cab ride, and 2 bus rides, I was back to walking, this time to Unten Port to take a ferry to Iheya island. The sky was starting to clear up and I got to see some of those famous Okinawan rice fields.

And flowers.

And not so famous, but still cool, snails.

All that rushing and extra early rise got me to the ferry terminal just in time to wait for 4 hours.
I'm usually all about ferry rides. Love to sit out on the top deck, taking in the rays and scenery. This time around, I was more preoccupied with keeping down lunch... which I was unsuccessful at doing, thanks to this:

I didn't really know what to expect when I got to island. I just knew there was camping and it was far enough away from what I expected would be an overcrowded and touristy main island Okinawa. Get away from the crowds I did. Iheya population = me. One main road, no buses, no taxis, very few cars, one bike rental place.

This was my home for 2 nights. It was an incredible feeling to have such a vast and beautiful surrounding all to myself. I'm not gonna lie though, I was Blair Witch-ed out on several accounts. I kept getting paranoid that I was being followed or that somebody was gonna pop into my tent. I honestly only saw less than 20 other people on the island (and I went around the WHOLE thing) the whole time. On the bright side, I could go to the bathroom wherever and whenever I wanted!

My PIMP ride!

One of the 3 "attractions" of the island: Kumaya cave.

It was cold and windy, but the views were still stunning.

This is what I mean by cold and windy. My tent capsized on several accounts.

Had me a lot of time to munch and read, munch and read. I was so proud of myself - got through two (count it!), TWO books this trip!

And of course still fit in some hikes. Up on one of the peaks looking down at the rice paddies.

Attraction #2 of the island: the big umbrella tree.

Iheya was a pretty island where more seclusion (than I could've ever asked for) was accomplished. I really liked having absolutely no schedule or agenda and just taking everything in at my own speed... but, not being able to share it with anyone was kind of sad. There are definitely pros and cons to traveling solo, but I think the worst part is just not being able to share the joy of the experience with anyone. I enjoyed it, but I don't think I'd opt for solo trips given the choice.

Okinawa's Ocean Expo Park

The one 'attraction' I did do on my Spring Break was Churaumi Aquarium in Okinawa's Ocean Expo Park. It's WAY up on the north of Okinawa-honto, but I was heading to Iheya island anyway, so I figured I might as well. I knew I wouldn't have time or money to scuba dive in Okinawa, which is the main draw of the islands, so I figured this was a nice consolation. Plus, my Dad told me I should go like 384 times, so I figured I'd trust him. It was a pricey little day trip with transportation and admission (about 60 bucks for bus there and back and 20 to see the aquarium), but it was pretty amazing.

The touch tank. And touch I did.

Being the papparazzi I am, I took over a hundred pictures at the aquarium so what you're seeing is a seriously reduced version. Honestly. I hope it's not too overwhelming, but the marine life they had there was absolutely incredible. I was completely awed. Scuba diving is a blast and being submerged in an underworld is an experience unlike any other. But man, when you have marine biologists going through and handpicking the best of the best to display for the public... well, they did good, they did good.

Enjoy the beauty of the under water world!

Crazy huge eel popping in and out.

Two more crazy eels.

Hands down my favorite sight of the day. This tank of garden eels was the most entertaining thing ever. Probably because I'm easily amused. But they were hilarious. Just buried themselves in the sand, then popped out, then wriggled back under, then popped out again. Rinse and repeat.

I don't even know.

Bio luminescence under water? Awesome!

Churaumi Aquarium's most famous attraction: Kuroshio Tank. It's HUGE, as you can see. Currently holds the world record for:
- longest time giant whale sharks and mantas have been kept in captivity
- first successful birth ofa manta pup in captivity
- first large-scale maintenance of living corals in an open system


Outdoor Dolphin Theater.