Last week, I had an eye-opening experience about to just what extent I have been assimilated into the high-context society of Japan 😉 The situation: I was attending a global telecon with people from Malaysia, Germany, France and Hungary and one of the presenters was presenting something that did not agree with me at all. I found this person’s (German) approach completely naïve and insensitive of other non-European cultures. During the telecon I said nothing but emailed the organizer (another German) after the meeting with a hearty complaint about the stuff we had heard. The German organizer then wrote back to me angrily, why the hell I didn’t say so during the telecon and why I am bothering her now “offline” with my complaints. Oops… The thing is, I did things the Japanese way.
My intention: I did not want to destroy the harmony of the telecon, I did not want the presenter of nonsense to feel hurt. I did not want the presenter of nonsense to lose face in front of the other participants. So I chose the (in Japan totally legitimate and correct) way of contacting the organizer offline and expressing my concerns about what had been presented to us. This is how things work here! Lol. You deliberately talk offline to people behind the scenes – that’s called “nemawashi”. You keep the peace in front of everyone, you see to it that nobody gets hurt, loses face and that the harmony of the group is not destroyed. That’s the high-context approach. In the ideal case then, the meeting organizer gives a message to the presenter of nonsense, he/she corrects it and all’s well, everyone’s happy and nobody lost face.
Not so with the German presenters and organizers – they want the direct approach, they want the confrontation in the telecon, they want discussion in front of everyone. It does not even occur to them that there are other ways of communicating, because they don’t know about them. They are now pissed about my offline approach and think of me as an intrigue spinning, back-door using bitch who’s crossing people. LOL
OMG… this is how wars happen, ladies and gentlemen! This is how cultures clash! And I, after 20 years in a high-context country have been assimilated and act the Japanese way. The big thing is that only people like me get aware of this completely different way of handling things. The Germans who have never left Germany are not aware of the “nemawashi” style. In turn, the Japanese who have never left Japan are shocked to death by the direct way of low-context culture confrontation. It’s the job of people like me, who were raised in one culture and are now living in another, to explain to either side what’s going on! Not easy, but I’ll continue to do my best 😉
The best way to know what people are made of is to see how they behave in a crisis. The current Governor of Okinawa Prefecture, showed us what he was made of during a press conference the morning after the wonderful Shuri Castle of Naha, Okinawa burned down for yet unknown reasons. You could see the shock, anguish, sorrow and distress on his face, but he kept it together, chose the right words, gave the facts that were known and the conviction to do whatever possible to rebuild this icon of his prefecture. There was a lot of dignity, integrity and decency that could be felt even through the TV. I knew about him, but never really “bothered” before. But his speech left a very strong and positive impression on me. His name is Yasuhiro (Denny) Tamaki and there is a lot special about him. First of all, he is a “ha-fu” = a “half”, the Japanese expression for a mixed race person. He was born in 1959 on Okinawa Main Island. During that time Okinawa was under US rule. The US only gave back Okinawa to Japan in 1972. According to Wikipedia he never met his US marine dad who left Okinawa before Mr. Tamaki was born. His Japanese mom raised him as a single mom. As an adult, he apparently tried to locate his father, but was not successful.
I can guarantee you that he was bullied, especially as a child, being teased for having an American dad, who left his mom after an adventure, affair, or whatever they had. I guarantee you that also as an adult he has faced scorn and discrimination. But now he is the Governor of his home island. That is quite a remarkable career to make. In our mad times of clowns, madmen, narcissist and assholes as politicians, it is very refreshing to see that there seem to be some decent guys around still somewhere. Tamaki-san is, needless to say, the first and so far only “half” who is a prefectural governor in Japan. I hope he remains the great guy he seems to be and that he does good by his home island. And I hope that the Shuri Castle can be rebuild quickly and I’ll surely visit it again.
I have a Japanese heavy metal fan friend who has fallen in love with Finland. She took a break from her job and has just been there for two months living off her savings. She posted about her last day in her apartment in Helsinki and that she doesn’t want to come back to Japan but to stay in Finland. I understand her soooooo well. I fell in love with Japan quite a while ago. At first I traveled for two months around Japan during university summer break, then managed to get a stipend for a year. When it was time to return to Germany after that stipend, I cried and wailed at the airport not wanting to go back. I lived in Germany for another five years paying loads of money for flights back to Japan. Then in the year 2000 came the opportunity for a job in Tokyo. I moved here and never came back. Next year it’ll be twenty years that I’m living in Japan, twenty-one in total, counting in that one year with the stipend.
It’s not possible to describe what it means to fall in love with a country. There are a hundred reasons and none, just like with love for a person, it just happens. It’s of course not always been easy and no place on earth is perfect. But reading about my friend’s wish to stay in Finland, reminded me very strongly of how privileged I am to be able to live in my country of choice. It also doesn’t matter if there are earthquakes and typhoons, or in Finland’s case if it’s bloody cold and dark in winter ;-). When you love the place, you are in for the whole deal and accept it. It’s easy to forget what you have when it’s around you every day and it’s good to be reminded once in a while of that and to cherish it. Here’s to the next twenty years, Japan! And I hope my friend can realize her dream of living in Finland. 🙂 They surely have excellent heavy metal music there 😉
We have lived to see another day after the worst typhoon in 60 years to hit the greater Tokyo area and after that the north of Japan. Typhoon 19 was quite the monster. The worst about it was the rain. We had “ridiculous” amounts of rain with a meter of water coming down in Hakone within 48 hours. Japan is 70 percent mountains and a quite wet country. We have thousands of rivers coming down those mountains. Most of them are small and short, after all no place in Japan is further than 150km from the ocean. The bigger of those rivers have extensive “flood areas”, sports fields and parks, because we already know they flood in spring when the snow melts in the mountains and in autumn when the typhoons come. They talked plenty about the previous worst typhoon record holder for Tokyo from 1958, where over a thousand people died. We have come a long way since that. Warning systems are much better, many rivers are better fortified and so on and so forth. The death toll is currently at 74 I think and might still rise, but it will not go into the thousands. There are plenty of warning levels for rivers, the worst one is level 5 – overflow = it’s too late. I have lost overview over how many rivers flowed over, getting into inhabited areas. In Tokyo the notorious Tama river did that as well as the Ara river to the north. The Tama river is the boundary between Tokyo and Kawasaki, which is wedged between Tokyo and Yokohama. The Tama river has a huge flood zone, and swaps into it all the time, but that it really overflowed and entered residential areas is a while ago I think. I live next door to the Tsurumi river, but on a hill and am save from flooding. Actually the Tsurumi river also overflowed, but that’s not even counted, because it did not do damage to residential areas. It flooded the sports park next to the Nissan Stadium, where the rugby match Japan vs. Scotland happened as scheduled less than 24 hours after the storm was over.
The sports park is about one and a half kilometers from where I live. In this picture the main point is not the stadium in the back but note the (deliberate) different height of the dam. Beyond the higher part of the dam the river swapped over into the pond and sports park behind it.
I wonder how long it will take for the sports park to drain and become usable again. A week later it was not flooded anymore, but still closed.
In this picture – do you see the brown line at the wall? That’s how high the water rose for this little river that feeds into the Tsurumi river.
I’m actually amazed that the water level had gone down already that much some 16 hours after the storm. It was a blessing that the Tsurumi could escape into the sports park, that took a lot of pressure off the river and prevented it from doing worse things the remaining 14 km until it reaches the ocean. As for myself, neither my apartment nor me suffered any damage, knock on wood. The typhoon season is not over yet, it usually stops end of October for Japan, but next year the whole show will start again. This one got so fierce and big because of lingering heat over the Pacific with greetings from global warming. As mentioned before it will happen again and more often in the future and I would like to put climate change deniers right into the path of the next typhoon, without shelter of course…
I have another typhoon aftermath story. It ran also in the Japanese news, but I’m not sure if it was translated somewhere or otherwise broadcast. After the typhoon 15, which happened on a Sunday night / Monday morning, there was huge train chaos in the greater Tokyo area due to tracks having to be checked for damage, cleared of debris and so on and so forth. More or less all trains of the greater Tokyo area were delayed a bit or a lot. Trains are the main form of commuting to work here, luckily! Other countries can only dream of the incredible train network that we have.
So Monday morning, millions of people were trying to get to work somehow in the post-typhoon chaos and someone tweeted the following, which was then retweeted more than 20,000 times it seems. “White company: You can take off”. “Black company: Get to work!”. “Gray company: No instructions.” “Shit company: Decide by yourself”. It should be noted here that the “white” company that says you can take off, of course means “you can take one of your precious few annual leave days today.” It does of course NOT mean, that you get a day off “for free”.
What struck me about this message though, and I have discussed and confirmed this with several Japanese colleagues, is that let’s say 15 years ago, there have been only two kinds of companies. Black = get your ass to work! Or gray = no instructions (which also means, get your ass to work).
Society is changing! Yeah! There is now more than black and gray, there is also white and shit! lol. The white needs to be given a hug though and a pat on the back, despite the worker having to take a day of his/her annual leave, because it does mean a slight shift towards taking off becoming more acceptable. Some companies (like the one I work for) are even so white that they have a home office system. My boss actually emailed everyone of his team on Sunday night, that we can take off or work from home. Trouble with that is you need a computer, and me idiot left it in the company on Friday night (I did this before, I’m not learning from lessons learned! Well, it’s because the computer is still quite heavy and I’m not dragging it around with me if I can avoid it).
The “shit company”, means that they are shifting responsibility from management to staff and many don’t like that. I suppose the person who tweeted that little story works for what he/she perceives as a “shit” company, which leaves the decision to him/herself and loads of people are quite allergic against responsibility as I have experienced in my working life on countless occasions. Nevertheless, I want to see this positively. First of all I am lucky enough to work in a white company and second, hallelujah, there are now white and “shit” companies in Japan! We can to be proud of that emerging bit of work-life balance and the existence of white companies! 🙂
There are usually between 20 and 30 typhoons in the Pacific each year and the Japanese don’t bother with naming them, but just give them numbers. Many typhoons don’t hit the greater Tokyo area but of course some do. During the night of the 8th to 9th of September typhoon 15 made a direct hit and shook the 20 to 30 million people in its path. The dude hit during the night and the 30 million didn’t get too much sleep, myself included. Wind and rain were magnificent and something kept banging outside my bedroom, but you don’t have much choice but to ignore it, since those were winds you don’t want to go into in your pajamas. We had winds in Yokohama of up to 150 km/h and in Chiba prefecture of up to 200 km/h. After dozing on and off and finally getting up, it turned out that the banging close to me was an old (and empty) plastic drawer box that I use as a bag stand when locking my front door.
It had been literally shredded by the wind, all three drawers were torn out, one was gone completely and the other two were in shreds. I found the missing third drawer at the front of the house later. It had flown from west to east around the north side of the building. Wow. During the night my apartment’s front door got sucked in and out due to wind force and I feared it would be torn out of its hinges. Exactly that is what happened to one half of the massive wooden entrance door of the apartment building. It lay toppled on the ground the next morning.
They always make a fuss about typhoons but sometimes it is justified. It surely was in case of typhoon 15 of 2019. I can only imagine what hurricane Dorian must have been like in the Bahamas. That was loads more powerful than our typhoon 15. You are utterly helpless while the storm is going on and can do nothing but hope your roof stays over your head, which it didn’t do in the Bahamas… Only two people died due to typhoon 15 and there were some 50 injuries. How much worse is the yet unknown death toll and damage in the Bahamas. While Yokohama was fine, two overland electricity masts and countless smaller ones were torn to the ground in Chiba causing power outages which are still not repaired for some 130,000 people a week later.
Then the trains on Monday morning – one big mess. The JR lines had estimated to be running again starting from around 8:00 (they usually start around 5:00), but my homeline finally resumed service at around 11:15. I did go a bit later to the train station and only waited for about half an hour in the brooding after-typhoon heat until a cafe opened, which usually opens at 7:00 but managed to open at 10:00 on that day. So I had a good time at the cafe with breakfast and tea, but plenty of people were stuck outside in the heat, lining up for trains and being squeezed half to death in completely over-crowded running ones. Apart from Chiba, the train situation calmed down during the day, but millions of people had a quite shitty Monday morning. I have no doubt that the typhoon situation in the Pacific and the hurricane situation in the Atlantic will worsen in the coming years thanks to global warming. Also in Japanese TV they said in the evening, our typhoon 15 was so severe, because of “higher than normal” ocean temperatures which fuel the winds. While Japan is a rich place and can take it (for the moment), the Bahamas or other countries are not so well off or prepared. There will be “fun” ahead, no doubt.
Before I bought an apartment in Japan, I did not know of all the very important tasks that would descend upon me as one of the apartment owners in our building. After I had to serve as a house-committee-member right in my first year of residence due to regular rotation of the task among the 62 parties in the building, I had thought I’d be spared any bureaucratic nightmares for a few years, but far from it 😉 Since 1st of April, I am the master of the clipboard for my floor for a year until end of March 2020. What does a clipboard master have to do? The lady, who is the clipboard master of the whole building, is putting information from our ward office and other xyz community announcements into my post box when she gets something new. Next, I have to put it into a (provided) clipboard together with a piece of paper, where all parties on my floor have to put their stamps on as proof that they have “read/acknowledged” the contents. (In Japan, people use stamps/seals of their names instead of signatures). So what happens is that you put the clipboard in front of the door of the next person and the last one is supposed to return the clipboard to me. I have to keep it and repeat the procedure when the next information comes. So far so good. But, when I got the latest stack of paper there was something else in my post box too. The request to go around and collect 100 yen per apartment for the Red Cross. Hya! I experienced the thing the other way round of course, a neighbor coming and asking me for the donation. It happens about three or four times a year, for the Red Cross, and two or three other welfare oriented NPOs. Nobody told me it would also be my job as the clipboard master to go around and collect that money.
For a moment I was less than enthused, thinking I have no time for this, but then I persuaded myself that it was actually interesting. I know some of my neighbors, but by far not all and it would be kind of interesting to see who lives where and how they react to a foreigner collecting that stuff. So I ventured out on a Sunday evening before dinnertime and knocked on every of the ten doors assigned to me. Eight answered and handed over that 100 yen, all being very polite about it and saying the standard greeting for hard work done. Since I presumed the lady who is the clipboard master of the whole building at the moment was collecting the money, I went by her place last and she was quite enthusiastic that I had done my job. I asked her what about the two parties that did not answer and she shrugged and said forget it. She then sent me though to another lady who is the collector of the money. There the same show of politeness and bowing all around. The thing is – had I gone complaining to the clipboard master of the house, she probably would have insisted that I collect from everyone, but since I was pro-active, shut up and did my job, I am released of the duty to try to catch the last two parties. Another observation is, such tasks are solely performed by women. In the two and a half years that I live at the place, not a single man has come around to collect the Red Cross or other donations. Who answered the door were solely the housewives or adult daughters. Still so much Japanese tradition: house /community = women’s job. Well then, I shall go collecting that 100 yen another two or three times and send the clipboard around every month until my term of duty ends.
I don’t even remember the occasion anymore, but recently I was at some other office of ours and then went home to do home office for the rest of the day at around noon. I didn’t have the bicycle with me either due to rain in the morning, but when I arrived at the bus stop the sun had come out and it was relatively hot. Who rides the buses of Yokohama around noon? Mostly elderly people and mothers with pre-school children. A bunch of us waited at the bus stop and waited and waited and no bus was in sight. Some of the elderly people started grumbling and mumbling, unhappy about the bus’s delay. It finally showed up, about fifteen precious minutes late. One old gentleman was bawling at the bus driver “you are late!”. A super young guy sat in the bus driver seat, maybe 22 or something like that and an elderly bus driver approaching 60 stood next to him. The situation was thus clear, that this was the first or one of the first rides of the young guy and he had a teacher with him. The young guy looked very tense and stressed. When the bus sat in motion the teacher bus driver turned around, took his hat off and bowed deeply to the bus customers apologizing for the delay (without giving a reason) and stating that we were 16 minutes late. There was more disgruntled mumbling from some of the elderly passengers. The teacher bus driver then turned around and continued his explaining to the young apprentice. At the next bus stop the show repeated itself in the exact same fashion, ranting elderly people boarded the bus and the apology followed with hat removal, bowing and the announcement that we were now 17 minutes late. The whole scene highly bemused me, though I think I was the only one having fun. The young driver and his teacher stood there in shame and the elderly folk in thundering anger. It sometimes ain’t no fun to work in the service industry in Japan! Why the heck are those elderly folk so angry about the bus delay? You’ve got all the time in the world! I don’t think you have any telecons to do when you get home 😉 But that’s Japan for you, the promise of service was broken and the poor drivers experienced a wave of disapproval. I hope the young kid didn’t quit, but then again it’s not common or easy to quit your job in Japan 😉
In May 2019, one year and two months before the start of the Tokyo Olympics 2020 there was the first chance to get tickets. A ticket lottery was held for residents of Japan. If you have an address here, you could enter the lottery. I thought, why not, since it’s a once in a lifetime thing. You could apply for anything that there is and my selection criteria were as follows: Not on a working day – I’m not such a big fan that I would sacrifice one of my precious paid leave days for this ;-). Only during the first weekend end of July 2020, since I might be flying to Europe again as almost every summer to go to Wacken Open Air for example 😉 Heavy Metal is of course much more important to me than whatever kind of sports! 😉 The last criterion was – indoors please!!! It will be end of July – I don’t think anyone who hasn’t been to Tokyo yet in July and August has an idea about just how hot and humid it is here. I already feel very very sorry for the athletes and also the fans because of the heat they will have to deal with for outdoor sports. So, under these conditions I checked what would be on during the first weekend: Swimming, gymnastics, table tennis, judo, volleyball, fencing, weightlifting. After discussing with a Japanese friend of mine who wanted to do the same thing as myself, we decided to skip on volleyball and fencing, due to the venues being pretty far away (Chiba etc. – it’s called the Tokyo Olympics, but not all venues are in Tokyo ;-)) So we both applied for the stuff and my friend applied for much more, independent of that first weekend and her husband did as well. Then we all waited for a month and on 20th of June was the announcements of who won in the ticket lottery. A whopping over 7 million (!) something Japan residents from all over the country entered the ticket lottery as stated in the national news. I don’t know how large the ticket contingent for the Japan residents for this lottery was, I suppose not that large, since one big part of the Olympics is to get people from all over the world to visit the country. Thus I thought the chances to win anything in the ticket lottery were close to zero considering 7 million applicants. On the 20th, excitement was quivering in the office, some people got mails from the system saying that they didn’t win anything. One guy got a mail that he won tickets for baseball and was pretty happy. Many people who entered the lottery, me included, didn’t get mails and were jittery as to what was going on. Arrived at home I tried to get into the website and there was a queue of over a 100,000 people wanting to do the same thing… I got in astonishingly quickly though and looked at “my tickets”. Everything was nope, nope, nope, then! The last entry – weightlifting! Ticket win! hahahahaha. Yeah! My friend and I will be going to the Olympics! 😉 I tried to pay the tickets the same evening, but 70,000 people were before me in the queue trying to pay for theirs. So I stopped and left the queue, but managed to buy the tickets the next day. My friend and her husband won nothing at all by the way. Just because there is such a hype, I am now hyped too. You could choose between official print ticket, mobile ticket and print at home. I chose the official print version, just for the sake of it 😉 Those will apparently only be delivered in May 2020. My friend and I shall thoroughly support the weightlifters and cheer them on. One sweet spot of the weightlifting ticket is that there will be medals given out. Of course many events are “pre-rounds” without medals. But for the weightlifters there will be a winner and a medal ceremony and that’s kinda cool as well. I don’t know yet whether I will try to get more tickets during the official ticket sales. I think they will be insane. I tried to get rugby world cup tickets in the 3rd ticket sales and it was madness with hour long queues and the tickets gone in minutes. I will take a look at the official ticket sales for the Olympics, but probably give up soon, since at least I’ve got one ticket and will see one event live on July 26th 2020. Cheers!
There is a famous quote from JFK: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country. Recently I have been confronted with this idea in a more mundane fashion: ask not what your company can do for you – ask what you can do for your company. We always have expats in the Japanese branch of the company I work for. The original idea of these expats is that they bring the expert knowledge of the headquarters into the regions and go home again after about three years. Such expat contracts are very sweet = the company pays a lot of money to these expats. They also bring other privileges with them, most notably their 30 days of paid annual leave in contrast to the 20 days of paid annual leave we get here as locally hired staff. It happens that at the moment we have two extremes among our expats in my department, one of them is 100% doing everything for the company and nothing for himself, and one of them is doing 100% for herself and nothing for the company. As usual, extremes are unhealthy. The 100%-for-the-company guy works like mad, he has a hundred overtime hours per month, doesn’t take all his vacation days and he is bursting with a sense of duty, a sense for helping others, a sense for “I have to save the company”. I’m always telling him to slow down and to not work so much and enjoy life a bit more, that there is more to life than work. He doesn’t really listen because it’s in his nature to want to save the world 😉 But there is also the other extreme, a woman who is 100% about herself and 0% about the company. She always looks for her advantage, her rights, her “career”, her vacation days, her workload, it’s always about her her her. Sorry to say so, but she comes across as an arrogant, egoistic bitch. It doubly vexes me, because she is a woman in lower management and does not shed a good light on women in management in general. She kind of undermines everything I fought for in my company here in Japan during the past ten years or so, since I decided to aim for a moderate career. This is the kind of expat that we really don’t need in Japan. I encountered one more person like her, another egoistic bastard some ten year ago whose arrogant guts I despised and now he got competition. In Japan the general tendency is to do more for your company than yourself. I personally think my balance is 60:40. 60% for the company, 40% for myself. I take all my 20 paid annual leave days and I have fought a nearly 20 yearlong battle against overtime. I have always managed to stay under 10 hours of overtime a month and get a moderate career despite that. I’d say I’m taking care of my interests, but I am also well aware that it is my company that provides me with a relatively luxurious lifestyle. The Japanese colleagues around me are mostly 70:30 I would say = 70% for the company, 30% for themselves, sense of duty and also group pressure are generally very high. There are also plenty with 80:20 or 90:10 and some with 100% for the company like that one expat colleague. The lower end: more for myself and less for the company is very rare in Japan. That’s also why that expat woman sticks out so negatively. While I have encountered one or the other 50:50 Japanese colleague, I have never encountered a Japanese colleague who is all about him or herself and zero about the company. With the worldwide economy declining now, I think it becomes even more important to ask yourself what you can do for the company, because without it there is no bread on the table and no Norwegian Fjord cruises (I’ll do one in August). And if people like me cannot go on Norwegian Fjord cruises anymore, those people who work in that industry will get no bread on their tables and so forth, it’s all connected and egoists who think only about themselves are not what we need.
On day three I did the lookout route and burned through two bicycle batteries on the up and down course through the island (I got a second one as a spare from the hotel staff as a service ;-)). One of the open sea side lookouts comes with a mini tower for the whale watching season. A local sits in the tower and looks out for whales and radios their position to the whale watching boats. Some humpback whales usually come to breed around Zamami. They are around from January to April. Since it was only the first of January, it didn’t look like they had arrived yet.
On the bay side lookout I met a lady from the U.K. who is a teacher in Yamagata prefecture in the north and who escaped the snow there for some days of sunshine, only that there was no sunshine. But at least it was warmer than in Yamagata, which is drowning in snow this time of year. The lady was a muslim and wore a black veil. I wonder how the people in Yamagata react to her. I’m sure it’s not exactly easy for her to live in Japan.
After the lookout tour I had been to everywhere on the island and it is very beautiful indeed.
Is it a candidate for retirement? I haven’t ruled it out yet, despite only 600 people in the island. I “interviewed” some of the hotel personnel. Two are from Yokohama originally, one lady is from Iwate. One of the Yokohama guys is on the island for six years now and his family is still in Yokohama. Interesting. The lady from Iwate left her husband there. I don’t know for how many years. They were working over New Year, which is kind of holy for the Japanese as a family get together event, but… interesting. The guy from Yokohama who is there for six years said there is a doctor on the island on weekdays and if there is something serious, they fly you over to Naha with the “doctor heli” helicopter service. If the ferries don’t go but you must get off the island, you can charter a helicopter as well, it costs usually 90,000 yen, but depending on the circumstances they let you charter it for 30,000 yen. If five people board that’s only 6000 yen per person. The ferries don’t run on average once a month due to bad weather. Of course no helicopter flies during a typhoon either, but no planes from Naha also, so what. Hm! The island is still a candidate for retirement 😉
On my last full day I went to the pirate beach once more and to town for lunch, but then escaped back to the hotel due to rain becoming more constant. Despite the far from ideal weather and the difficulties in getting to the island, I thoroughly enjoyed my stay in Naha and Zamami. The latter is a great getaway from the hustle and bustle of city life.
I admit that the ferry ride to Zamami was a bit scary, the boat was swaying nicely and bumping hard against the currents and the swell. But nothing happened and I got to Zamami all right. Hotel staff picked up not only me but another ten guests or so and brought us the two kilometers to the hotel by car.
Zamami belongs to the Kerama island group, a collection of three inhabited islands and countless smaller and bigger rocks in between. Around 600 people live on Zamami, fewer on the other islands around it. I quickly borrowed a bicycle with battery assist and started exploring the island. There is one traffic light on the island at the port and also that one is not really needed 😉 The things to do on Zamami are diving, snorkeling, swimming, fishing, whale watching and riding around with a bicycle.
There is one general store in the main settlement with food and shampoo and the like, plus t-shirts and beach sandals and that’s basically it.
I read about Pope Francis’s Christmas address, in which he said people should live simpler lives without accumulating mundane things. Come to a small island, there you can enjoy simpler life.
I bicycled around the island for four days and did just that 😉
On my first full day on the island I headed north of the last settlement where I was staying, and there is “nothing” anymore but “wilderness”. The wilderness is still very civilized with a well maintained road that leads first to another lookout over a cliff to the north. Then a long and windy road leads to the north-eastern end of the island and on the map it promised a beach. I’ve seen quite a couple of beaches in my life already, but this one is one of the best for sure. It has just the right size, a fantastic view to uninhabited islands and rocks in the distance, great sand and a very rare feature, a small fresh water booklet that comes down from the mountain behind it. Now where do you have a fresh water booklet coming onto a perfect beach?
The whole atmosphere just shouted pirate beach to me. If I was a pirate I’d made that place my lair 😉
On top of that there is the much quieter inner bay of the island just a fifty meter walk above a ledge. If enemies come looking for you, off you go over the ridge and into a second boat in the inner bay and they’ll never catch you. What a perfect place 🙂
On the way back I rode down another path to the inner bay and came out at a cottage place, which probably only operates in summer, very nice getaway as well. Then off to another pirate cove over the wider ridge behind my hotel, a north-west facing small beach. Zamami is a truly beautiful island with lonely beaches that I suppose are not full even in high season.
On I rode to town and had lunch at a cozy little eatery, then rode again to the lookout point from the day before. There is another look out point further out, but my assist battery was running low, so kept this one for the next day. Hiding from the afternoon rain at the harbor, I finally rode home to the hotel but spotted an elderly couple nearby the hotel at a pier attempting to fish and chatted with them for a while. They were staying in the same hotel as I did and share the same hobby, they also have been to plenty of small islands already and live in Tokyo ;-). Like me they like places which are remote and lonely, I guess that’s because we live in a megalopolis of 20 million people 😉
I got up at seven in the morning to be ready for the ferry, but… at eight came the announcement that also that day all ferries to Zamami were cancelled due to the bad weather and rough seas. Hmmmmm… since I liked my room and it’s price, I prolonged my stay for another night, despite the fire alarm disaster.
So, what to do? Well, when it comes to sightseeing in Naha, the castle is a must. Of course I had been there also in the 1990ties, but it was so long ago it was worth going again. When I was in Naha in 1994 there had been only buses and lots of traffic jams. There are still traffic jams, but meanwhile Naha got a tiny monorail line that starts at the airport, goes through the middle of the city and stops at the rear of the castle.
I rode the cute monorail and wandered through the castle garden to its front in a stop and go of showers. The castle is very Chinese, since the Ryukyu kingdom was, if independent, always intertwined with China as well as Japan. Ryukyu only became Okinawa around 1870.
If you are in Naha, the castle is a must and it was bigger and prettier than I remembered 😉
After the castle visit I wandered back towards the Kokusai Douri, but the march was too long and I caught a bus back to shopping paradise.
Parallel to Kokusai Douri is also a pottery street with dozens of rather up-end pottery shops where you can get beautiful stuff, but for a price. I managed to not succumb to pottery, but I did get a bit carried away and bought more hotaru jewelry. That’s Okinawa glass art with metal inlays that looks very shiny and pretty 😉 It’s more or less the only jewelry I like, apart from silver with heavy metal motives 😉 I went hunting for the best and affordable items and indeed found some at a shop with an astonishingly friendly grandma selling the stuff. I say astonishingly because I think these sales people have to put up with a lot of shit from not so super friendly foreigners every day, but she warmed up to me when I talked to her in Japanese 😉
Next I wandered on to the Fukushuen garden, a Chinese garden close to the sea and it’s very much worth the visit as well.
Finally, I went on to the main shrine of Naha by the ocean. It was already under preparation for the big queue and festival mode of the New Year shrine visit ritual, and it was interesting to see the little booths with food being installed everywhere. Finally, another march home and I guess I walked about 15 km that day and was pretty tired back in the hotel.
Luckily no more fire alarms and at eight the next morning the good news, the ferry is going!
It’s small island time at least once per year for me. So this time I wanted to go to the island of Zamami, about 50 km west of Okinawa’s biggest city of Naha, which is on Okinawa main island.
There are three possibilities per day to get to the island, twice with a speed ferry, once with a slow ferry. The only same day possibility was to take an early flight to Naha, then move to the port and take the afternoon speed ferry to Zamami.
I arrived in clouds and rain and went by taxi to the port, but the taxi driver was already saying, probably the ferries don’t go, it’s too choppy out there.
He was right, there was a sign at the ticket booth at the port saying, none of the ships had been going that day. Ugh… I quickly checked booking dot com and found a good priced hotel close to the port and the taxi driver brought me there.
The hotel turned out to be quite new or renovated and the room was astonishingly nice for the last minute deal price.
I had been in Naha once during my student times in Fukuoka a staggering 24 years ago. The other times I’ve been to Okinawa I only passed through Naha. Of course I hardly remembered the place. But the one place to go to is the Kokusai Douri, the International Street. It’s a pretty long shopping street and off it branch several shopping arcades as well.
The one thing I remembered about Kokusai Douri was that there were dozens of what was then called “army surplus” stores. These shops sold old military uniforms and whatever other kind of military stuff. There is a large US army base in Okinawa, which the locals hate. The US gave back Okinawa to Japan only in 1972 by the way.
These army surplus stores have all but disappeared. I found only one single lonely shop selling military clothes and gas masks and stuff like that. All the military shops were replaced with harmless souvenir shops selling tinker and food specialties. Well, I surely prefer that to the military crap.
At 2:30 in the morning that night I was woken up by a nasty alarm on endless repeat: attention, a fire has broken out in the fifth floor, please evacuate the building immediately. The recording was in Japanese and English with teeth grinding alarm sounds in between that were blasting your ears off. Since I saw nothing and smelled nothing, I was not very freaked out and took the time to put on socks, pants and two jackets before leaving the building with my purse and computer. Some hotel guests had been more freaked out than me and stood there in their pajamas freezing. It was raining again and windy at around fifteen Celsius. Three fire trucks and the police came in one mighty commotion.
At 3:30 they called the alarm off. The very nervous night manager stood in the breakfast room and thanked the guests for their cooperation and that thanks to us the fire brigade could check everything so quickly and efficiently and sent everyone except for floor five back to bed. I was on floor four of the ten story building, luckily. No clue when the fifth floor was allowed to return.
In the morning the front desk showed signs around that a guest had tampered with a fire extinguisher and the case was now investigated by the police. Oops 😉 seems like a drunken dude will not enjoy the rest of his stay in Naha.
There is a festival (matsuri) every day of the year somewhere in Japan, when local shrines or temples celebrate whatever they deem worth celebrating. Yesterday, I went with a Japanese friend to a festival at the Hanazono shrine in the middle of Shinjuku, called Tori no Ichi (literal translation of that is “bird market”). There are no birds around though, but small or big “Kumade” = “rakes”. These rakes are heavily decorated and come along in tiny version for 2000 yen (~ 15 Euro) to giant arrangements that probably sell for half a million yen (~ 4500 Euro). Since all pieces are handmade, there might be similar ones, but not one is completely like the other and the big ones are truly unique pieces.
Now why would you want to buy a huge, decorated rake worth 4500 Euro? These rakes are supposed to bring you luck for your business. You first go to the shrine, which is hidden behind thousands of lanterns and ask the resident god that your business shall thrive, then you go to the stalls and look for a rake of your desire and adequate to the size of your purse. You put the rake into your office or home and hope that it calls luck to your business, until you go again in November of the following year, throw your old one away and get a new one.
Not all of the rakes but many are designed around the animal whose Chinese zodiac turn it will be the next year. Since next year is the year of the wild boar, many had figures of those inside the rake.
The Hanazono shrine is not the only one with such a rake market of course, but it seems to be the biggest or one of the biggest in Japan. It’s quite impressive to walk through the rows of color explosions.
I bought a little rake off of a guy who looked like he was a hundred years old 😉 and shall hope that it will help me to sell a few more books next year 😉 It’s a bit of a funny wild boar, because it sits upright and calls luck (and money) with its paw like a “Maneki Neko” (a cat) whose job that usually is and on top of that it holds a dragon ball in the other paw (there are tons of interpretations about the dragon balls, they can represent power, water (good harvest) or simply the dragon’s treasure). Now if that maneki neko, dragon ball wielding wild boar won’t bring me luck then I don’t know what will 😉
Apart from the rake booths there are of course tons of stalls with food and sweets around to create a proper festival atmosphere. The Hanazono Tori no Ichi comes along with one other specialty, the old style Japanese version of a “tunnel of horror”. It was not allowed to film or take photos inside. This is definitely a dying art and I wonder how many performing troops are still out there. A narrator announces the weird people and monsters, then actors jump on stage performing a short act. They had a “crazy office lady” who was stapling herself with an office stapler. A group of wild guys was eating dry ice, a girl was drinking burning wax and spewing fire, a guy with a long needle through his cheek was dragging a cart around with it and the highlight was a “wild woman” who was eating live worms on stage, yuk yuk yuk! 😉 It was interesting to see this and it gave a bit of an insight into what happened at such festivals two hundred years ago.
I guess I have to go there now every year. Because I have to throw away the boar end of 2019 to get a rake with a rat, since 2020 will be the year of the rat 😉