Our Japanese Tour Experience on Iriomote Island

Urachi River Cruise on Iriomote Island

Urachi River Cruise

We’ve always been DIY travelers, but since it was the off-season in Okinawa and Iriomote Island is mostly uninhabited and operating on skeleton schedules, I really did not want to mess something up and get us stuck on this island.  There was also a lot we wanted to see and do.  We thought it might be nice to actually have someone else do all the planning – so we asked the Concierge to book us on a Japanese Tour.  We knew we wouldn’t be able to understand any of the narration – but that didn’t bother us, we live with that every day.  We were just looking forward to relaxing and being like little ducklings for a day.  They were even going to pick us up and return us to the hotel.

Our nearly full tour bus left the hotel at 8:00am.  I had a vague idea what the overall itinerary was, but I never received a detailed schedule.  The bus dropped all of us off at the ferry terminal and we were told to stand in line (along with dozens of other people) and wait for our turn at the counter.  When we got there, the guy said a bunch of stuff in Japanese and handed us some tickets.  The only two things we understood was Gate 6, Boat 1 and return to the counter at the end of tour.  We were hoping for a bit more information than that.  We boarded the completely full ferry, a little nervous.  I think we looked, acted, and sounded as confused as we were.  When we arrived at the island, we headed for another line (that everyone else was in) hoping to get some direction (we didn’t know what else to do).  Fortunately, a gentlemen in a hawaiian shirt approached us directly and said “B Course?  Bus, this way”.  He led us to a bus (we noticed the sign in the bus window had four letters, one of which was B).  Now we were starting to feel a bit more comfortable.   The crowd we were with had finally been narrowed down.  When the bus was ready to go, the hawaiian shirt guy came onboard asking everyone (in Japanese) if anyone knew English (other than us), but no one did OR at least no one admitted they did – in fear they would have to babysit us all day.  That made us start worrying all over again.

River tour in Iriomote

River tour in Iriomote

He said something to the bus driver, and we were off.  The coach ride was actually very nice.  With lots of big windows and seats much higher up than a car – we had a great view of everything.  Right away it became evident that the island is almost completely covered with a thick subtropical primeval forest.  If you are not on a river, a road or some well trod path you won’t be able to go anywhere.  The island’s only main road follows the coast to the other side of the island – and that is where we were headed.  In route, our bus driver did a lot of talking and the passengers did a lot of laughing.  We were able to pick out a few things he talked about (or pointed out): the Iriomote cat (no, we didn’t see one), the kanmuri-washi bird (a crested serpent eagle), the waterfalls, some islands, something about pineapples and mangos, and the hot springs.

The bus did stop once about 1/2 way to our destination and some people got off (happily we knew this was not our stop – unlike one of the other couples).  We arrived at the Urauchi River by 10:00am.  As we exited the bus, we noticed the bus driver had scribbled down on a sheet of paper (just for us):  Bus go 1:00.  Ahhh, I think we can do that!  Maybe this trip wasn’t going to be as difficult as we thought.  We soon boarded a little cruise boat.  Someone handed us a sheet of paper saying 12:40. We figured this must be the time the boat would return.  The boat only had 12-15 people on it, so we had lots of room to move around and get a good view of everything the captain was pointing out.  Aside from the sound of the boat engines when moving, it was ultra quiet going up river.  The further we went, the more tropical and lush the vegetation became.  We passed mangroves, saw some big white birds, a couple kayakers, more waterfalls, inlets, fish, and another kanmuri-washi bird (this one actually dove in and caught a fish).  I was really expecting to see a lot more birds. The other rain forests we’ve been to were full of birds and creature sounds, but here it was so quiet.

River tour in Iriomote

Water Fall seen on River Tour

We docked at the trail head around 11:00.  We confirmed with the captain that the boat would leave at 12:40.  I knew we were suppose to hike to some waterfall 30 minutes away, so we followed the others along the trail.  Off we went, but at a fairly slow pace – Robert’s knee was all of a sudden really bothering him (probably from his swim the night before).  He almost turned around twice, but he stuck with it.  Luckily we didn’t encounter any wild boar or snakes to run away from. 🙂  We made it to the observation tower of Mariyudo Falls and even a bit further, but the path down to the falls had been closed (looked like it was washed away), so we headed back.  We returned to the dock with a few minutes to spare (there was no way WE were going to be late).  The captain almost left a couple of young girls there who were a couple minutes late arriving.  He probably would have left, if it was us instead of them.  The boat trip back was much faster but so relaxing.  It was a beautiful sunny day and we were just soaking up the rays and the scenery.

We boarded the bus at 1:00 and were quickly dropped off for lunch.  The drivers notepad now said: Bus go 1:50.  A yummy Bento box lunch was waiting for us at a lovely little restaurant (which we would have never found ourselves).  One waitress knew enough English to explain to us everything we were eating.  There was a lot of food, but we ate everything – I guess we were hungrier than we thought.

Yubu Island

Yubu Island Warning Sign

Our first stop after lunch was the other star sand beach.  This time, I decided to look for it.  I figured it would be easier to spot them if I put the sand on the black coral – and sure enough there it was!  I showed it to Robert, and he we was able to find some – pretty cool.

The bus slowly made it’s way back to ferry terminal along the same road.  The bus driver didn’t talk much this time, he just played some Okinawan music playing.  Robert took a nap.  Our last stop was Yubu Island.  I really wasn’t interested in visiting this very small island, but it was included in the price, so we went.  It actually ended up being quite fun and funny.  We even got to see the water buffalo family tree.  Our water buffalo cart driver played us some music on his sanshin and we watched all the carts being pulled back and forth across the shallow sand bar.  The water buffalo are really strong, though not very cute.  The island was full of sandy paths going every which direction.  We walked all of them, entertained by all the silly creatures and features along the way.

Before we knew it, we were headed back across the sandbar and boarding our bus for the last time.  We eventually boarded the ferry back and then returned to our hotel.  That was it.  We did it!   We managed to make it through the day without any problems or mistakes.  It made for a very memorable experience and we would consider doing it again.  I wonder if this now makes us professional Japanese Tourists? 🙂

Taketomi Island and the Traditional Ryukyu Village

A shiza in front of every building...

A shiza in front of every building…

Our first island trip from Ishigaki was Taketomi island.  It is a small, circular, flat island that most people either walk or bike around when they visit.  It also happens to be the most popular day trip from Ishigaki.  The ferry only takes 10-15 minutes to get there, and they come and go every 30-40 minutes, so odds are we weren’t gonna miss the last one and be stuck on the island overnight (unless, of course, it was cancelled due to weather).

It was a good day to test my tolerance for ferry travel. Iriomote would be 35-40 minutes on a ferry, so if I couldn’t handle this one, I knew I’d be in trouble.  It was a fairly windy day, and the captain warned us it would be a bumpy ride (we could tell by the use of his hands, not by what he said), and he was right.  However, the ferry went pretty fast so even though it was bumpy,  it wasn’t a tossy-turvy make-you-sick motion.

We arrived safely at the ferry terminal (which has a great view of Ishigaki Island and the city), and we started walking toward the village.  It only takes about 10 minutes to get to the center of town.  Taketomi is well known as as a well preserved, traditional Ryukyu style village.  There are less than 400 people that live here.  The weathered-wood houses are all one story, with red tile roofs, rock walls, sandy streets and lion-like statues (shiza) at either their entrance or on their rooftop (which they believe will ward off evil spirits).  Preservation efforts are in place to keep this village exactly like this, which is great, because it is so unique and interesting.  By going here first, it helped me notice the traditional houses on the other islands (which were very few and far between).  I really loved this island – especially all of the different shizas, the flowers, and butterflies.

Single Story, Red Tile Roof, Sandy Streets

Taketomi Tradition Ryukyu House

Some of the houses in the village are actually minshuku in which you can stay overnight at (if you know Japanese well enough to make a reservation).  I would have loved to do that.  Other houses in the village contain shops or restaurants, but it’s hard to tell the difference between them, since all the houses look alike.  We wondered around leisurely, admiring the quaintness of the place.  It wasn’t very crowded, and at times, it almost felt like we had the whole place to ourselves.  We saw the school and post office, the Nagaminoto  tower (which we didn’t climb), and the water buffalo cart man who was trying to strum up some business (and he did!).  We also saw lots of cats, including one that got caught drinking out of someone’s noodle bowl – the waiter was not very happy with him.  We had lunch at a pretty big place with a beautiful wood interior (it had lots of customers which is always a good sign). I ordered the Ishigaki Beef burger which was delicious and Robert got the pork cutlet which was also very tasty.  It came with salad, macaroni, and some yummy pickled vegetables.

With a happy tummy, we went off in search of the beaches.  We arrived at the West Pier in about 10 minutes – which had a great view of the other islands.  We walked along the dried black coral shoreline until we got to Kondoi Beach.  The beaches here are white, but they have lots of little dead coral pieces mixed in, so I’m not sure I’d want to walk barefoot on them.  The water is crystal clear and the colors range from light blue to turquoise.  If we had more time, I could have easily spent a couple hours here.  Our next stop was Kaiji Beach which is one of only two beaches that have star-shaped sand.  Several small tour buses were stopped here.  Robert tried to find some star sand but he gave up pretty quickly.  At the little make-shift stall on the beach, we looked through a magnify glass and sure enough it’s true – there is such a thing as star-shaped sand.  They were selling some in a bottle there, so I just had to get me one.

Star Shaped Sand as soon through Magnify Glass

Star Shaped Sand

We had successfully done everything we wanted to do on this island, but looking at our map, I realized we were now on the opposite side of the island and at the furthest point away from the ferry.  We still had plenty of time, so we took the back roads to the ferry terminal.  Fortunately, the weather continued to cooperate and we made our way safely back to Ishigaki.

That night we had dinner in town at a local place called Hitoshi.  They actually have two locations in town.  I had read about it on the internet and it was # 1 on Tripadvisor.  The menu was entirely in Japanese, but fortunately a wonderful woman working there, spoke some English and helped us order their best dishes.  They specialize in tuna and it was by far the best tuna I’ve had since being in Japan.  They also make this homemade tofu with a sticky peanut sauce that is out of this world.  I think Robert would fly all the way back there just for that.  It ended up being a perfect ending to a perfect day.

Ishigaki: Visiting Some Okinawa Islands

View of Kabira Bay

Kabira Bay

We decided to go to the southern most part of Japan (Okinawa) for our Thanksgiving Break.  We heard it was very different from the rest of Japan and indeed it is.  The islands definitely have their own distinct culture and a very different history than the main islands of Japan.

There are actually more than 100 islands stretching some 600 miles from the southern part of Kyushu down to Taiwan and all of these islands use to be part of the independent Ryukyu Kingdom.  Some island groups have their own language – 6 different languages in total (which are slowly being phased out due to the national education system).  Japan started invading and occupying the islands in the early 1600’s, – they weren’t officially annexed by Japan until 1879.  Until then, the Ryuku kings paid tribute to both the Japanese Shogun and the Chinese Emperor.  The islands were deeply effected by WWII and were also influenced by the Americans (due to US military control of the area until 1972).

The subtropical location of the islands make them look like a cross between Florida and Hawaii.  They are completely surrounded by beautiful coral reefs which make them a very popular diving and snorkeling destination.  Driving around the towns and looking at the buildings, it is obvious that this is the poorest prefecture in Japan (I’m sure the weather doesn’t help the appearance of things either).  The locals look different than the Northern Japanese and they have a much more casual and relaxed demeanor.   The local folk music sounds more Hawaiian and their instrument, the sanshin looks a lot like a ukelele.  They also eat more beef and like their food spicier.

Dinner

Sashimi & Peanut Tofu

We stayed at the ANA Intercontinental Hotel (highly recommended) which is about 6 km outside the city of Ishigaki.  We loved their pool and spa, and especially liked the little contraption that would dry our swimsuits out for us.  Their concierge desk was extremely helpful with making dinner reservations and planning our big excursion to Iriomote.  The city of Ishigaki isn’t beautiful, but it has lots of character and wonderful restaurants.   There are even enough shops to easily occupy a full day.  All the meals we ate in Ishigaki were fantastic including their famous soba noodles (which we had downtown at the little Okinawan hut which was full of business men and a big group of local woman planning some event).  The taco rice, seafood salad, ishigaki beef, and sushi/sashimi (especially the tuna) were fantastic too.  Two of our favorite dishes, which we never had before, were peanut tofu and sea grapes.  We also had some of the best Chinese food we ever had one night at our hotel (we had to book it two days in advance to even eat there).  The town really comes alive at night and you MUST make reservations at the restaurants (even in the off-season) or you’ll be turned away.  We really enjoyed their local beer (Orion) and even tried a couple different Amawori (the local distilled liquor made from rice).  We also liked all their speciality desserts we tried (too many to list).

Shopping

An Ishigaki City Shop

One day of our trip was devoted to just exploring Ishigaki island rather than visiting one of the other islands.  As it turns out, there were lots of little hidden gems here too.  We traveled along the west coast of the island to visit both Sukuji beach and Kabira Bay.  Kabira Bay is known for cultivating black pearls.  It was by far the prettiest beach we saw on the island, but unfortunately you can’t swim there. The associated town is not very big.  In fact, the whole area once you leave the city is very sparsely populated, full of lush vegetation, mountains and streams.  It would be very easy to get away from it all if you stayed at one of the hotels out this way.  It really has a lot to do if you are an outdoors/beach person.  In route that day around the island, we also saw Tourinji Temple, Gongendo Shrine, the Toujin Grave, and the Wetland Wild Life Refuge.  If we had more time, we would have liked to see more of the island and it’s beaches, do some snorkeling, and hike up Mt Omoto.

The Okinawan islands are actually very easy to get to from Fukuoka and makes for a nice getaway.  Each island we visited (Ishigaki, Taketomi, and Iriomote) was rewarding and different in it’s own way.  It makes me want to visit all the islands….but that would take quite a long time. 🙂

Okawachiyama: Pottery Village in the Mountains

Okawachiyama

Okawachiyama

We live fairly close to some of the most famous pottery cities of Japan…Arita and Imari.  The history of Imari and Nabeshima ceramics is incredibly interesting and after visiting both Karatsu and Arita, my interest in the subject has only increased.  One town in particular stood out to me, Okawachiyama.

Most tourists don’t bother to go to Okawachiyama (unless they are really interested in pottery and still have time after visiting Arita and Imari).  I read about this village in a few other blogs and it sounded like a place that would be not only be interesting, but also beautiful.  It also sounded like it would be fun just getting there.  As it turns out, it’s not particularly easy to get to, but it is certainly worth the effort.   After digging up enough information (train and bus schedules as well as maps), we decided to venture out and try to find it.

Getting to Karatsu was easy, as was transferring to the Yellow Single Man Diesel Car bound for Imari.  As I predicted the scenery alone was worth the trip.  The first train had great views of the Sea of Japan, the second one, the countryside.  This particular part of Kyushu is very appealing.  It is very quaint, quiet, and hilly with rivers and small valleys.  The locals dress in traditional work clothes, there are lots of small vegetable farms, rice fields, old men driving their tractors, and, yes, even cows.

Ceramic Tiled Bridge

After we arrived in Imari and sorted out our train payment, we took a taxi up to Okawachiyama.  The driver kept handing us different pamphlets and maps and eventually dropped us off at a cobalt blue and white tiled bridge.  He was pointing to some building and babbling something about information, but we ignored him and just started exploring (after all he already gave us a ton of information).  We noticed immediately that the village had two streams running through it and that it was literally surrounded by steep, jagged mountains all the way around (except in the direction from which we just came).  We spotted the two large wooden beams which long ago were part of the gate in which they would stop and question everyone coming in and out of the village.

This was, without a doubt, an artisans’ village.  There are pieces of pottery, tile or porcelain everywhere – on the streets, on the walls, on the bridges, in the graveyard, etc.   Everywhere we walked there were artistic compositions involving ceramics of some form.  Even the streams were specially shaped and decorated.  The main street is lined with shops selling pottery, working kilns, and cute little coffee shops.  Side streets lead off to more shops and attractions.  At the end of town is the entrance to a park which is on the other side of the stream.  We followed the trails which traversed the hillside and led to little homes/museums, excavation sites, little shrines, small gravesites, benches and various modern works of art involving ceramics.  At the very top of the park is a fantastic view of the village and surrounding mountains.  On the way back down we saw greenware and some old kilns.

Korean Potter’s Grave

Eventually, we ventured into the large graveyard on the other side of town.  Here lies the Tokumuen Grave (Tomb of the Potters).  It is a pyramid shaped structure built from the accumulated tombstones of the 880 potters who were brought here from Korea to help build the ceramic industry for Japan.  The view of the town from here is most appealing.  Not too far downstream is also a water operated clay crushing mill that duals as a waterfall into a pod filled with coy.  Some pottery wind chimes are housed at the foot of the bridge, which play a tune when you cross the bridge.  I really didn’t want to leave this town since we were enjoying it so much, but unfortunately, all good things must come to an end.

The trip back ended up being just as eventful as the trip coming.  As we boarded the bus back to Imari, we ran into a couple visiting Japan from, believe it or not, Mexico.  The husband not only spoke perfect English (and Spanish), but also Japanese – who would have guessed?  We had an interesting conversation with them about Japan as well as Mexico.  Oddly enough, the Japanese guy we met previously on the Yellow One Man Diesel Car was also on the bus.  Robert learned how to say mathematics in Japanese (sugaku) from him.  Then, to top it off, our incredibly late lunch was with the Sushi Nazi in Karatsu.  It was hilarious watching him correct (and show) Robert how to eat his lunch.  Robert was incredibly uncomfortable having someone so closely scrutinize his eating habits.  The chef had a good laugh when Robert ate the ball of minced dikon (thinking it was a piece of vegetable tempura) that was actually meant to go into my tempura sauce.  He certainly won’t do that again.

Our Beloved Trains and The Yellow One Man Diesel Car

bullet train

Bullet train

As I was writing another post, I realized this particular topic needed it’s own post.  As I’ve probably mentioned in previous posts, we love trains.  We first started liking trains/trams when we lived in Australia.  We then used them extensively when we lived in Ireland.  But I think Japan may have more trains than any other country, so we are trying to take complete advantage of that.  Everyone has heard about their Shinkansen (bullet trains), but Japan also has loads of other trains…electric trains, steam trains, diesel trains…and they come in all different colors, sizes, shapes, and ages.

When we went to  Hiroshima, we used the bullet train….cruising at 200 MPH, it’s smooth, clean, slick looking…modern day train travel at it’s best.  They get you there quick and they are between every major city.  They look and feel like airplanes.

Most of the regional trains (at least where we live) are electric trains which don’t travel more than 35 miles an hour.  They are nice and practical but not very exciting (basically commuter trains much like the L in Chicago).  The trains start getting much more interesting when you venture to resort towns or to small rural destinations.

On our recent trip to Yufuin (a popular onsen resort town), we got to ride on two different diesel trains.  These trains traveled on the same single track (a track shared by trains going in opposite  directions) passing only at train stations.  They cruise through steep, curvy, narrow and thickly forested canyons…often going through tunnels.  Both trains are known for their wood trim interiors.  The first train we were on only had 3 cars and a definite 1950’s feel.  It had blond wood floorboards, matching window sills with cup holder indentations, and very dated curtains.  Our return train had 6 cars with two tone wood flooring and a very 1970’s art deco feel to it.  One of the cars was specifically set up as just a dining car.  I’ve never seen so many people taking pictures (and movies) of a train before.  The train attendants even offered to take our picture while we were onboard the train, so we did!

Our latest trip to Okawachiyama involved riding a single car train….the Yellow One Man Diesel Car (i love that name).  A sure sign you are on the back roads (or should I say back tracks) of Japan is when there is only a single car train.  The fact that it was bright yellow only added to the charm.  I couldn’t put an era on this train, but it was quite different.  It had an old electronic board in front with stop numbers and prices (similar to the local buses), and it had a contraption that spat out tickets.  We started wondering after a few stops what the exact payment procedure was.  People getting on pulled a ticket and then dropped it off on the way out.  We didn’t pull a ticket…all we had was our electronic subway pass.   The “stations” we were stopping at along the way didn’t have buildings associated with them and there were several “station” signs that weren’t even readable due to weathering and old age.  There were no attendants collecting tickets (much less an electronic card scanner).  We were a little concerned, but we figured we would be alright.

Trains in rural Japan have the most interesting passengers.  One gentleman on the train kept consulting his small binder with handwritten times of each stop in it.  Another older gentlemen was smiling, talking to himself and writing stuff on a sheet of paper.  He later approached us several different times with his questions written in English….where are you from?  are you from the American base?  what is the purpose of our visit?  It ends up he was going to Okawachiyama and we would see him several times during our trip – including on the bus back to Imari.

Imari is a decent sized town, so we really thought there would be a card reader there.  It had a pretty big station and it was the end of the line, but unfortunately – no card reader.  The attendant took us aside and allowed us to pay the fare in cash.  He also fixed us up with a receipt which would allow us to get our card reset when we arrived back in Karatsu.  It’s not much fun to make a mistake, but it does make for a more memorable experience. 🙂   Of all the train trips we’ve been on, this particular trip is so far my favorite.  The combination of the train, the passengers and the scenery made it both priceless and unforgettable.

Karatsu Kunchi Festival

Karatsu Kunchi Festival - 12

Karatsu Kunchi Festival

Karatsu is normally a quiet, laid-back fishing town.  You don’t go there for entertainment or excitement.  The exception to that rule is their annual Kunchi Festival.  Having missed the Nagasaki Kunchi Festival in October, I didn’t want to miss this one…especially since this one has been happening for about 400 years (about 50 years longer).  The 3 day festival features 14 large floats (called hikiyama) which are pulled through the streets of the city and eventually through the sand before being put back in their resting place near the shrine.   The largest float is over 22 feet tall and weighs almost 3 tons.  The floats range in age from 120 to almost 200 years old.  All of them are made of clay and wood, layered with hundreds of sheets of washi paper and linen, then covered with lacquer and finished with gold and silver leaf.  I was particularly impressed by whatever it was they used for the ‘hair’.

Robert unfortunately had to work, so I went to the festival with a friend.  We took the morning express train (which takes about an hour to get there), and by the time we got on the train, all the seats were already taken, so we had to stand.  At least we weren’t squished in there like sardines….except for the last 3 or 4 stops.  As we approached the city we could see the floats on the other side of town, so we arrived at the perfect time.

Karatsu Kunchi Festival - 28

As we made our way through the crowded train station, we could hear the flutes, drums and chanting (Enya! Enya!)….which continued non-stop the whole time we were there (and which continued in my head for the next couple days).  I almost didn’t recognize the town.  It was crowded, but not overwhelming so.   There were street vendors everywhere….and it smelled heavenly.   We walked a few blocks into town and managed to land a front row spot on the street.  After only a few minutes, the first festival participants and float made their way around the corner.  Every team’s traditional outfits were different as were each of their floats (fish, samurai helmet, dragons, lions, etc).  The pace they moved these massive things was impressive.  Sometimes the float would come around the corner so quickly it looked like it was about to flip over.  The whole event actually reminded me a lot of the festival I saw in San Miguel (Mexico). The participants were of all ages and everyone was having a great time.  It’s wonderful to see local communities participating with such energy and passion…it’s better than watching a Vegas show (plus it’s free).  We also noticed the whole event was being televised live (aired across Japan and other parts of Asia).  The shops in town were also playing it for those who had to work.

Karatsu Kunchi Festival - 38

After we watched all the floats go through the center of town, we tried to make our way toward the beach.  There is a spot near the beach in which they pull the floats through the sand and then line them all up (which is the highlight of the festival).  It ends up this block of sand was not very large.  There was no way all the spectators were going to fit into this area.  It was enough of a challenge making our way through the crowds of people to get down there, but I must admit, the hardest part of getting there, was resisting the temptation of the food booths we passed on the way (especially since it was now lunch time).   We eventually found a “back entrance” to the sand event.   We watched about 1/2 of it all from the far end of the “arena”, and even though there wasn’t arena seating, we still had a fairly good view of the action, since we were taller than most Japanese.

Basically, as the float approached the arena, they would come speeding into the sand as fast as they could (one of the guys on top of the float actually fell off due to the resistance he meet upon entering the sand).  Then the team would pull the float into it’s position.  It was like watching a long tug-of-war match…the float against it’s team…each float took about 10 minutes to line up.  I was getting tired just watching them.

Karatsu Kunchi Festival - 40

A combination of hunger and heat (it was an extremely warm day for this time of year) eventually made us give up our spot in exchange for shade and nourishment.  We made our way back through the massive crowds to the food stalls and ended up having some BBQ chicken balls for lunch – they were divine. 🙂   After failing to find ice cream  🙁 , we eventually made our way back to the train station and found the shortest line to stand in (so as to assure we had seats on the way back – that was a smart move).  If we’re here next year, I’ll come again – maybe to watch the night parade when the floats are adorned with glowing lanterns – and hopefully Robert will be able to join me.