There was a fat thunderstorm during the night and tons of rain, but luckily it cleared up in the morning and ever more so during the day and I made best use of the fine weather with the longest bicycle tour that I had planned out. The eventual aim of the day was the northern shore of the island with a big rock formation. But the first stop was the magnificent Hiyajo Banta cliff with great views over the northern east side of the island.
From there I headed into the clouds to the Uegusuku castle ruins, which lie on the top of one of the highest hills of the island. While it was a shame that the view wasn’t so good, it was also kinda cool and mystic to be standing in the clouds.
Then I rode down to sea level again for the Mifugaa rock, which is indeed quite am impressive formation, also the grim rocks next to it, which I called the castle of the Witch King of Angmar were equally Impressive.
The long rides up the hill to the Hiyajo Banta cliff were quite hard, but luckily my bicycle had power assist. The Mifugaa rock was the furthest point away from home and I was pretty tired and hot and had a headache and feared for a while to have a sunstroke by the end of the trip. Without hat I surely would have gotten a sun stroke. As soon as the sun is out it’s quite brutal in Okinawa. After all, the island is on the same latitude as the Sahara desert… But after some rest and cooling down everything turned out to be fine. 🙂
For the first full day on Kume island they predicted rain starting from noon. Nevertheless I rented a power assist bicycle from the rental shop when it opened at 10:00. Goal was the southern tip of the island. It started raining twenty minutes into having rented the bicycle and I thought, oh man, this is not gonna be nice. But luckily that rain lasted only for half an hour and there was no rain again until 18:00. Yeah! Clouds hung fat and dark the whole time, but as long as it wasn’t raining, I was fine with that. Very beautiful rock formations and nature at the southern tip of the island awaited and also a bunch of wild flowers.
I rode back past my hotel to the north until a shrine and scouted out the route for the next day.
Then I went back to the tatami rocks and the sun even came out for a few moments. Next to the tatami rocks is a small sea turtle aquarium which I visited. So, all in all it was a much more successful day than expected thanks to the rain being delayed and I enjoyed the bicycle tour and the lookouts.
My search for the perfect Japanese island continued already five months after the last trip :-). Over New Year I was in Zamami, this time, over Golden Week, I decided to go to Kume island. Kume island is actually the fifth biggest Okinawa island, after Okinawa Hontou (main island), Iriomote, Ishigaki, and Miyako. (I’ve been on all of them). You can take a short flight from Naha or go four hours by ship. Since I love boats, I of course took the ship version (which is also much cheaper than flying). Because of the sailing times, and having learned from the Zamami trip, I booked two nights in Naha before and after the journey to Kume island. After a short afternoon in Naha wandering around the International Street, I had to get up at 6:30 to catch the boat to Kume island at 8:30. I was on board at around 8:00 and due to Golden Week the ship was full, which did not concern me too much though, since I stayed on deck the entire time anyway. The sea was a bit rough and the weather not so nice, but I thoroughly enjoyed the four hours on the boat, getting soaked from spray a few times, lol.
Arrived on Kume island I took a taxi (yes, they even have taxis) and a Stone Age old guy in a Stone Age old taxi brought me across the island to my hotel close to the so called Eef beach, which is apparently one of the one hundred best beaches of Japan. The hotel was very simple, but had everything and was twenty meters from the beach and right next to it was a Family Mart convenience store. Nothing else needed to survive!
I wandered around the beach, before they let me check in and then found a bicycle rental too, another twenty meters from the hotel. Perfect! For the afternoon I rented a normal bicycle and squeaked with it to the “tatami” rocks, a volcanic rock formation not unlike the hexagons of the Giants Causeway in Ireland. I kinda want to see this once in bright sunshine with blue skies, but… I walked up the entire beach beyond the tatami rocks and had the beach to myself.
The houses of Kume island are mostly all a bit old and there are no high rise hotels, which of course also has its charm. But my hotel was at the main road on the east side of the island and due to the Eef beach also a major “tourist” spot, there were restaurants and bars around. Some youngsters sang karaoke somewhere until three in the morning, unlucky me that I like to sleep with open window and no air conditioning on. There are also apartment houses nearby and hm… not a good spot to have an apartment with loud tourist night life every day.
Yantai: Be honest, have you ever heard of Yantai? I had not before they told me to go there on a business trip. Yantai is one of those many million people cities in China that you never heard of. Googling Yantai revealed that it is a coastal town, even a resort town with a large beach and that it has a whopping seven million inhabitants. It’s about the same latitude as Sendai, at the Bohai strait and about 500 km East of Beijing and 700 km north of Shanghai. There is no direct flight from Tokyo to Yantai, but interestingly there is a direct flight from Osaka to Yantai. So I flew from Haneda to Kansai international airport and then checked in for Yantai. The plane was full with Chinese shopping travelers who stuffed their trophies into the overhead bins to the point of bursting 😉 The plane was not fully booked, but well booked, it also only made a break at Yantai and went on to a place called Taiyuan. Never heard of that before either and it’s a four million people city you’ve never heard of. The weather in Yantai was pretty bad in the day of our arrival, heavy rains and pretty cold with under ten degrees Celsius.
Yantai is an an old city and apparently has an old town, but unfortunately there was no time to go visit there due to the business nature of the trip. The place where we stayed and the place of our factory was all new and subject to city planning. There is a lot of conformity, streets at right angles, high rises for the millions of people, that look very uniform. The beach was nice, especially in the evening of the second day in Yantai when the weather cleared up and we enjoyed blue skies. It’s a north facing beach and I haven’t heard about many resorts yet with north-facing beaches. Funnily the large pier that reached into the ocean served no obvious function. They should make an amusement park out of it or something.
There was one interesting scene at the beach, some young Chinese were taking what looked like fashion photos, while old Chinese people were getting clams out of the sea trying to make a living off that. Old vs. new China, probably either way is hard to make ends meet.
Shanghai: Shanghai has two airports, Hongqia and Pudong, much like Haneda and Narita in Tokyo. Hongqia and Haneda are closer to town, Pudong and Narita are the airports at the end of the world. We took a domestic flight from Yantai to Shanghai Hongqia. The old Hongqia airport that I knew doesn’t exist anymore. It was a major construction site when I last visited, now it’s a glitzy modern airport, which is quite well organized. A company car picked us up and drove us through a copy of the planned high rises and right angle streets of Yantai into the industrial zone where our Shanghai factory is located. Greater Shanghai has become an incredible 26 million people strong… When I was in Shanghai for the first time in 2001 there were mostly bicycles, from 2010 onwards mostly cars and electric scooters. Now it’s only cars and electric scooters. I saw not a single bicycle around. Maybe we were lucky, but there was no traffic jam and also in Yantai as well as Shanghai there are cameras over the streets every few meters and you get flashed constantly by speed checkers, those I don’t remember from 2015 when I last visited. I think they are new and a part of enforcing stricter traffic rules to get on top of the chaos. I am living and working in and around Tokyo since the year 2000. Tokyo has officially thirteen million people and Yokohama six million. Nevertheless I felt that Tokyo is now small by comparison. What made Shanghai so overwhelming for me this time was the endless high rise wood and its uniformity.
There was no time to go to the Bund unfortunately, our factory and the 43 floors high hotel close to it where we stayed were forty kilometers away from the Bund. You could not see the Bund due to haze. I don’t know how much of the haze was smog how much was moisture. The air didn’t feel too bad, I have had worse air days during previous Shanghai visits. The parts of Shanghai I visited this time looked quite wealthy and very orderly to me but they were all in an “urban development” area and not “grown” over time. The long ride by car to Pudong airport for the return to Japan lead through one and a half hours of high rises. So many people, so many fates, so many trying to make ends meet. It’s quite overwhelming. It was interesting for sure to be visiting China again and I suppose I haven’t been there for the last time. The very bumpy ride back to Tokyo due to lots of turbulence took only two hours and twenty minutes. I’m sure they’ll send me there again 😉
On Friday evening of the 29th of March my boss came upon the idea that I should join him on a business trip to China starting 9th of April in order to hold my “how to work with the JOEMs” training for our Chinese colleagues in our factories of Yantai and Shanghai. (The JOEMs are the Japanese car manufacturers Toyota Honda Nissan and so on.) Um, sure, nice, overseas business trip is always interesting, but um, Germans need a visa for China. Dunno if I can get one so quickly, let’s try. So, on that same evening I asked the travel agent that we have to contractually use and they sent me necessary documents for Chinese visa application, which I started to fill out over the weekend. I’ve been to China several times before, first time was in 2001 as a tourist when I visited Beijing and Shanghai doing the classic stuffs of visiting the Forbidden City and so on. Ever since I have been on quite a number of business trips to China, once Beijing, all other times Shanghai, and I don’t even remember how often I’ve been to Shanghai. For my previous position I went to Shanghai regularly once or twice a year for a yearly conference and also some trainings. The one business trip I had to Beijing sticks out, since it was 2007, one year before the Olympics there and all the tourist street neighborhoods close to Tiananmen Square that I fondly remembered from 2001 were flattened and gone.
But back to the visa. For the previous visits, I always had ample time for getting a visa and left going to the embassy to the travel agent. It’s also been four years since I last went to China and I forgot most of how the visa application works. This time, because time was so short, I eventually decided to go myself to the embassy, but before that I needed to get an invitation letter from our Chinese counterpart. Usually they want two weeks of lead time to issue such letters, I had two days. The travel agency sent me only a PDF sample of an invitation letter. Upon asking whether they have a word version of the thing, the answer was no. After begging the Chinese counterpart, they made their own invitation letter. I sent it to the travel agent for check and they said it’s unusable, why didn’t you use the WORD format? Which WORD format???? You guys sent me only a PDF and then said you have no WORD . Turns out they misunderstood… arghhh. They finally sent me a WORD format, which I sent to China and begged again to fill it out. I got the new invitation letter and went to the embassy in Tokyo on Wednesday the 3rd. The lady at the counter checks everything and says. Your passport number on the invitation letter is written wrongly, we cannot accept it. Ahhhhhhhhh! Two numbers were switched around and I didn’t notice, the travel agent who “checked” the document the night before didn’t notice. They told me I have to get a new invitation letter, but at least they allowed me to fax it to them instead of coming in once more. So I rushed back to the office and begged the Chinese counterpart to issue yet a new letter. After much begging I got the third version of the invitation letter, which needed to be stamped and signed by a director, and faxed it to the embassy. They accepted it and promised to have the visa ready on Monday morning, one day before I was supposed to fly.
I am of course majorly pissed with the Japanese travel agent and they shall get a fat complaint from me after the business trip is done. They made three major mistakes, not to send me an editable invitation letter, then to claim they don’t have one, then to miss the mistake on the finished letter. What the heck are we paying them for? When I was told we cannot accept the Invitation letter by the embassy, I thought I was in Kafka’s Der Prozess (The Trial), lol. Brought down by bureaucracy! 😉 I find it extremely fascinating why Japanese nationals don’t need a visa to China (if they stay under two weeks). Chinese nationals always need visas to Japan. Why are the Chinese not returning the “favor” and let the Japanese into their country without a visa? Why do Germans need a visa? Anyway, another page gone in my passport now 😉 and I wrote this while sitting on the plane to Yantai.
All the Russian fans told me I should look out for the band because they would surely be staying in the same hotel as I did. So in the morning I did keep a look out at breakfast but nobody was there. I later found out that the poor guys must have left much much earlier than when I sat at breakfast at 9:30. They were going to Novosibirsk next and when I got to the airport myself the next day I saw that the flight to Novosibirsk left at 8:50. Uh… that means being at the airport before 7:30 surely. I suppose they left the hotel at 6:30 or something like that! So much for tour live. Since the Amon Amarth fan lady, just let me call her AA, promised to pick me up at 14:00, I wandered around some more, found a nice spot for a Vladivostok skyline picture and also found two more shopping centers, slowly finding out what looks like a shopping center and what not.
I confirmed already the day before that the Chinese and Koreans are coming for shopping. The rubel is apparently quite low these days, prices in Vladivostok are lower than in Korea for sure and apparently it’s even becoming attractive for Chinese mass tourism. AA also told me that the Koreans and Chinese don’t need Russian visas for Vladivostok and she does not need one either if she wanted to go there. It’s some special agreement for the Russian Far East as well as some areas in China close to the border. If they want to go to Moscow they need visas, but not for the Far East. Interesting, I didn’t know that. I bought some souvenirs and then waited for AA at the hotel. She was very punctual and then we drove off towards Russky island over the impressive two bridges.
At some point the asphalt road ends on Russky island and the adventure begins. We were not the only ones on the dirt path, it felt like a caravan at times. AA said this is nothing yet, in the summer there is traffic jam at these dirt paths!
There are several “parking” areas and we stopped at one with a beach and where a hiking trail starts to a scenic spot.
I was totally amazed by the amount of people there. Well, it was Sunday, but nevertheless. Much of the area is wooded, but was extremely dry and also dusty, it has been a super dry winter with not much snow even. There was actually a small bush fire a hundred meters away at one point. AA said the best time is in summer of course, when people go swimming at these beaches but also September and October, when the leaves change color.
We had a great walk and the last cliff looked really beautiful. I thoroughly enjoyed this unexpected adventure, that I never would have been able to do without a local and AA drove me all the way back to the hotel again. Very cool addition to an already great trip. To say goodbye to the place, I went down to the shore once more and was in for another treat. There were several elderly men who were actually, one after the other, taking a swim in the ice cold ocean!!! Kyaaaaaaa. I was walking around in arctic gear, these guys, jump into the ocean! Air temperature was around zero Celsius and water temperature… well look at the floating ice! OMG!!!
It was my second time to Russia and both times I made nothing but good experiences. I thought also in St. Petersburg and Moscow that people were friendly, but I must give it to Vladivostok that people there were even more friendly than in the big cities. There was not one moment where I would have felt unsafe, despite the adventures in finding the concert venue. Okay, there was a shady “taxi driver” hanging around the hotel who kept on asking me if I need a ride every time I left the hotel. But even he never got rude or too close. There was less police and military around than in Moscow and St. Petersburg. There is of course also less to see than in those two big cities, since after all Vladivostok is a mere 160 years old. I wonder since when there are direct flights from Tokyo and how long they will keep those up. On the way to Vladivostok there were maybe 60 people on board, on the way back 40 people. I can totally see myself going to Vladivostok again though if some band of interest decides to come all the way there for a gig. And even if there is no direct flight anymore, there will surely be some from Seoul 😉
On the Amorphis website it read that the Vladivostok venue was called San Remo, apparently a hotel. On the ticket I somehow bought online the venue read Submarine Club. Hm. I asked at my hotel lobby, and the guy did not speak English too well. For standard questions he could somehow answer in English, but not such non-standard stuff like whether the Submarine Club is maybe inside San Remo. He pointed vaguely into the right direction and I thought oh, heck, I’m gonna find it somehow and went looking. It said 19:00 on the paper. I was not sure whether that meant concert start or start of letting you into the hall and the hotel guy couldn’t tell me either because of lack of English. So I went looking for the venue at 17:30 and good that I did so. At a sign which read San Remo, I actually ran into the two guitarists of the band and quickly addressed them and told them I’d see them later, they greeted nicely back, then walked down the road. Good, so it had to be around here somewhere if the band members are close! I ventured into a spooky alley and ended at a nightclub, all right, but it had another name, and the door was closed, nobody there. Some shifty looking dude wearing an indistinct hoody came out of a side door and I showed him my print out and asked where the venue is. No English really, he said, niet niet, and pointed up and right. Hm.
So I went up and right and landed on the roof of the San Remo building. It’s built kind of into a hill and you could easily walk onto the roof. some youngsters hung out there, but they didn’t look like heavy metal fans and were too young also. One kid walked into the roof access of whatever was beneath it and I thought, what the heck and followed him.
I ended in the seventh floor lobby of a super old style hotel way beyond its prime. Everything screamed seventies and that in Russian. At the reception I asked the lone lady present if she spoke English. A little. I showed her my paper and she was going, Hu? Never heard of it kind of “Hu”. She went into the office, asked someone, then came back. Go down and left. Hm. I went down with the elevator to the first floor, nothing but a shady restaurant. Outside of the building to the left, closed doors, no metal fans. Damnit, it must be here somewhere, even the band members were around.
Under normal circumstances I never ever would have gone near such night clubs, shady hotels and run down buildings! Lol. But there I was wandering, feeling like in a Russian spy movie. I decided to walk around the complex and went up the hill again outside of the building. And there! In a corner, next to a bar, “Submarine”! Yeah!
And there were a few heavy metal looking dudes around! I approached them and felt safe, ladies and gentlemen. To “normal people” Russian dudes in leather, with long hair, beards, whatever chains dangling from their clothes look scary. But I felt right at home, lol. I said “hi” and they immediately noticed I’m not Russian and there were actually three, four guys and girls who spoke English and immediately questions started, where the hell are you from? You came to Vladivostok for metal? Oh man! So cool! One girl had been to Europe several times, going to Amon Amarth gigs, so much appreciating I bothered to fly to Vladivostok. They were all super nice and friendly and we are all one big heavy metal family where it does not matter where you come from. The girl who had been to Europe and I exchanged social media stuff and then she offered to drive me to Russky island the next day so that I see some more of her home town. What? Seriously? Yes, yes, no problem! Wow! With the promise to pick me up at 14:00 the next day, we were finally allowed into the venue and since I had been early, I managed to get first row together with the other early birds. While waiting we talked about metal of course, but also the weather for example. It’s been the warmest winter ever they said, usually in March the west side of the bay is still frozen solid and not only a little bit, zero degrees is so warm! Okay. It’s all a matter of perspective. One of the guys said, he hates winter. Uh! A Russian who hates winter! I asked another guy whether he can recommend a vodka brand to me. I wanted to buy one bottle at the airport duty free before I leave. Hm, he doesn’t drink vodka and has no clue about the stuff! There go your stereotypes! He doesn’t drink even a beer before a gig, he wants to be in full capacity of his senses to enjoy the music. Yep, same here! One guy works for Mazda, another for Carl Zeiss, the Russky island lady and her husband are both programmers. The gig was great, the band was in a good mood, the crowd was screaming and going nuts, not too many bands bother to fly all the way to Vladivostok, so the metal community is happy and grateful when they do come. It was a fantastic gig and I made a bunch of great friends 🙂
My driver from the Vladivostok airport into town drove like a berserker in a fat Mercedes. He spoke not a word of English but I said Germania and then he was raving about German cars, I believe 😉 First impression of the town was gray, cold, pre-fabricated high-rise buildings from the seventies.
My hotel was nice though, nothing special, but all the international standards available that a hotel is supposed to have. The room looked out over the western half of the bay and there was ice floating at the shore.
I ventured down to the shore and checked out the ice. Half the shore was a construction site, but people walked through the fences, taking a stroll, as if that was all very normal. The constructions sites were around two defunct buildings from the sixties maybe and made the impression on me as if they were permanent. I had chosen my hotel strategically close to the venue of the concert and already found the place on that first stroll, or so I thought at the time, and was quite relaxed about that, eating dinner at the hotel’s restaurant before going to bed.
The first day of exploring: I walked down to the shore again, this time venturing further towards an amusement park by the yacht harbor. All the facilities looked very much seventies or eighties to me. From there I walked through town for about five hours with a short break for a late lunch and checked out most of the sights of the city.
The big cathedral at the central square was unfortunately closed do to repair. I counted 12 military ships in the harbor and their radar etc. masts looked like a collection of alien space ships to me.
Much like in Moscow and St. Petersburg the Second World War is quite present still in every day Russia. War memorials and eternal flames and an old submarine exhibit take you back seventy years. The submarine was interesting though, a museum part and then a “live” part where you have to squeeze through bulk heads.
Then I got a bit lost on the search for the mini funicular promised in a Vladivostok walking map I got at the WW2 submarine. I walked too far as it turned out, but stumbled across more tanks and war stuff in a park. Finally I found the funicular. It’s a two minute ride only up the hill which costs 14 rubles, which is some 30 yen. On top was a closed viewpoint but the sight over the city was okay from the side of the funicular also.
Apart from long distance trains the funicular is the only railway inside of Vladivostok, all public transport happens via buses. Those buses look old and they blast a lot of unfiltered exhaust into the air. I did everything on foot, which is okay though, since the downtown area is not that big after all. Nowadays Vladivostok has about 600,000 inhabitants. Funny thing was that I had difficulties recognizing shopping centers for what they were. Due to the cold they don’t have open inviting big entrances but there is a glass door somewhere, which leads into a foyer and then another glass door, all in the attempt to keep out the weather. I luckily found one shopping center where I could buy some fast food lunch by pointing at pictures. Public rest rooms are also a rarity and shopping centers are your best bet for that. Then I walked back to the hotel past the Vladivostok railway station.
It is still a dream of mine to ride the trans Siberian railway from Moscow to Vladivostok or the other way round one day. Without getting off in between it takes seven days. Well, let’s see! At least I was now on either end of the tracks 🙂 After a rest in the hotel I readied myself for heavy metal!
Vladivostok is surely not the most common and easiest to get to holiday destination, which is a shame actually. I thoroughly enjoyed my short journey there.
A few things about Vladivostok before the details of my trip. Vladivostok was a Chinese fishing village called Haishenwai, before the Russians seized it in 1860. China was weakened from the opium wars and didn’t oppose Russia seizing that frigid port to the north. The Russians renamed it Vladivostok and quickly developed the place to make it theirs for everyone around to see and brought people there. Nowadays more or less zero Asians are residents of Vladivostok, if in a way they partially claimed it back, but more about that later.
Even though Vladivostok is on the same latitude as Sapporo or the island of Corsica in the Mediterranean (!), winters are brutal and the ocean around it freezes. Vladivostok lies on a peninsula that sticks out into a large bay. There is ocean on three sides of the town, and, as mentioned much of the quiet bay freezes over in winter.
During Cold War times, Vladivostok was closed to foreigners, since it was and is the one and only big harbor for whatever Russian naval military forces. I wonder what life was like in Vladivostok during these dark times.
The town saw a major development boost when the APEC summit was held there in 2012. They got the two big bridges connecting parts of the city and the city to the island of Russky in the south of Vladivostok. Before the bridges you had to drive around a big part of the inner bay and go by boat to Russky island or rather don’t go there at all. They also built a giant convention center and university on Russky island and a big aquarium.
So, why go to Vladivostok? People who know me know that it’s one of my passions to travel and to combine that if ever possible with going to gigs of heavy metal bands. It came to pass that one of my favorite bands, Amorphis from Finland, was going to Vladivostok. Ha! That sounds like an adventure worth undertaking 😉 Since after all, Vladivostok is just a two hour twenty minute plane ride from Tokyo. To get a Russian visa is the biggest hustle about going to Russia, but also that is manageable, if super inconvenient.
I must admit I was quite excited about the trip, not knowing at all how much remoteness to expect. I was not majorly encouraged by the tiny propeller plane of Aurora airlines, the Far East subsidiary of Aeroflot, at Narita airport either.
Though, thanks to okay weather, the flight was smoother than expected. I think about 80 people fit onto such a plane and there were maybe fifty or sixty heading for Vladivostok. Some Japanese adventurers, but mostly Russians. Arrived in Vladivostok though I was in for a surprise. The airport immigration was swamped with plane loads full of Chinese and Koreans. Uh? What to they want in Vladivostok? My first hunch was shopping and my hunch got verified later. I shall come back to that.
They let me into the country thanks to my visa no questions asked. I waited forever at the baggage claim until I came upon the idea to walk around because some suitcases fell of the band once in a while and yes, mine must have fallen too and I found it at the farthest, darkest corner of the baggage retrieval.
I had ordered a taxi via my hotel and they were supposed to pick me up with a sign stating the hotel name, but there were only tons of Korean signs and none in western writing. I happened to arrive though, luckily, on the international women’s day, which is even a national holiday in Russia, and people were giving all women who arrived tulips at the arrivals area. I went to the side and stood there waiting and got out my phone to call the hotel, as one of the young women who gave out flowers asked me if she could help in very good English. I explained and she whipped out her phone, called the hotel and ran through half the airport for me searching for my driver, apologizing that he must be stupid and that I have to wait. Wow, so friendly! She did ask though, what are you doing in Vladivostok, with the undertone of ‘why the hell have you come here’? Lol. I explained to her about the gig and she said she’ll check out the band! Lol. Then she found my driver and off I went towards Vladivostok which is about an hour drive away from the airport.
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.
I’ve been to Switzerland a couple of times in the late 90ties due to business trips, but I’ve never been there privately. Because of a certain concert, I found myself flying to Switzerland over a prolonged weekend. The target being the city of Luzern. I flew to Zurich and Luzern is just an hour away by train. Some trains go even directly from Luzern to Zurich airport and I arranged things so that I’d be able to go directly.
Wherever I looked, Switzerland was super clean and seemed super rich, people are well dressed, everything is well maintained and orderly. While in Japan you have one or the other “shack” in between the proper houses and while in Germany things often look old (depending on where you go) Switzerland seemed like the land of milk and honey, or rather the land of milk and chocolate 😉
I do freely admit that Swiss chocolate is my favorite in the world 😉
Luzern is a rather small city and you can easily visit its major sites within one day, which I did. The city is one of the plenty at the Vierwaldstaettersee, whose English translation is oddly simply Lake Lucerne (while the real meaning of Vierwaldstaettersee is lake at the four wooded cities). Since the lake is rather big, it influences the weather and it was cloudy to foggy the whole time I was there. The wooden bridges over one of the rivers that feed the lake are one of the main attractions and were busy with tourists, notably the noisy Chinese tourist group type that can really get on your nerves. I guess for them Switzerland is like one giant fairy tale Disney Land. Apart from the two bridges, I liked the city wall towers a lot, which allowed you to get a nice overview over the city, but the highlight is clearly the dying lion statue, which is truly moving and sad.
On my second day in Luzern, I did a bigger tour starting with a boat ride on the lake. Since it hung in clouds and fog it almost felt like going to sea.
The boat brings you to a town called Alpnachstad and from there you can take a quite dramatic funicular railway up the mountain of Pilatus. The lake lies at a height of about 400 meters above sea level. At about 1000 meters the train broke through the clouds and the steel blue sky above you and white clouds below you were quite a sight to behold.
Pilatus itself is 2100 something meters high. At the top is a big hotel and massive viewing platforms with restaurants, souvenir shops and anything you might need. From the highest spot you have an excellent view over the Swiss Alps and it all looked pretty much like out of a picture book, especially with the ground hidden in thick clouds.
Usually I’m the ocean and not the mountain type, but that was a great sight to behold, especially also because you didn’t need physical effort to get up the mountain, just money (the Pilatus roundtrip costs over 100 Swiss francs). There were plenty of hikers around though, who did the effort to walk 😉 You then go down the mountain on its other side with two different gondolas and it was kind of sad and also spooky to be leaving the sunshine and to go back to gray and cold weather beneath the clouds.
The trip to Switzerland was short but intense and maybe I’ll be going there again for another gig some time in the future 😉
I’m flying all over Japan for island hopping but so far I’ve never been right next door. Just 140 km away from Yokohama, at the tip of the Izu peninsula, lies the town of Shimoda and it’s supposed to have an “island feel” to it, but so far I never checked it out. So, finally, over the October weekend where even my company takes off and observes a national holiday (usually we are collecting national holidays to take them in a row in January, May and August), I went by train to Shimoda. (With the Shinkansen to Atami and from there with the Izu-kyu line down the coast to Shimoda). The ride takes only 2.5 hours from Yokohama. Arrived at Shimoda, I jumped into a taxi to take me to my hotel, which was four kilometers from Shimoda itself at the district Shiramaha that was supposed to have a nice beach. The hotel came along with a privately bookable outside hot spring and so my tattooed self could even book the onsen for later. But first to the beach. The sand was a bit crazily distributed over the beach, presumably due to the typhoon that passed through Japan the week earlier. But all in all this was a lovely beach with surfers enjoying some moderate waves.
I didn’t stay too long at the onsen due to two creatures sharing it with me, two monstrous spiders hanging at the walls. Uhhh… I was sitting in the (anyway too hot for me) water and praying the monsters would not move 😉 When I checked out the next morning, I expected to have to go by taxi back to the station to lock up my luggage to be free for exploration, but the super kind landlady of the hotel offered to drive me to the station for free. Not only that, she even worked out a plan for me what to see during the day and ended up waiting for me at the station, while I locked away the luggage and then took me to the aquarium at the very tip of the town. What a nice service. The aquarium turned out to be quite interesting and a bit symbolic for the entire rest of the town. Shimoda is what I call very “Showa”. This refers to the Showa era of Japan under the Showa emperor, who passed away 1989. The whole town and the aquarium as well were blooming in the bubble economy times of Japan in the early 80ties. Ever since not much development etc. has happened. The aquarium encircles a natural bay and the captured dolphins have the “privilege” to be swimming in actual ocean rather than a basin, but apart from that the entire facilities of them aquarium are at least 40 years old if not more. To compensate for that, they let you get pretty close to the animals.
After the aquarium I walked back to town by the sea side, discovered an abandoned hotel that you could just walk into and then boarded a tourist boat for a twenty minute ride around the harbor. Last but not least I rode with a gondola to the top of the nearest mountain from where you have a magnificent view over the Izu islands and Shimoda itself. I’ve been to several of these islands already, notably Izu Oshima and Niijima.
It was a great weekend trip, but Shimoda won’t be my place of choice for retirement plans. It’s too “Showa” and does not have the “Pacific island” feel after all that I love so much ;-). I’ll get “Pacific island” feel again over new year, when I will explore the next island(s). This time the target will be Zamami, just right next to Okinawa main island. Cheers!