Enjoying Barcelona’s Beaches and Medieval City

Barcelona is much more than just Gaudi’s work.  We enjoyed it’s beautiful weather, it’s beaches, it’s markets, and it’s Ciutat Vella (Old City).  We spent most of Friday and Saturday in the old city and walking along the beach.  While November wasn’t quite sunbathing weather, it was still nice enough to walk along the boardwalk in short sleeves, eat tapas outside at one of the restaurants, and sit on the bench enjoying the view of the Mediterranean Sea.  Other than the beach, a Christopher Columbus statue that is pointing the wrong way and lots of boats, there isn’t too much to see or do along the waterfront, but it’s a great place to relax and enjoy the sublime weather.

The Boardwalk, Boats, and Food

The medieval part of the city is between the waterfront and where our hotel was.  We stayed in the new part of the city which is officially outside what use to be the ‘old city’s’ wall.  The new part of the city is incredibly clean, beautiful and modern.  It has every thing you could possibly need.  At times I almost forgot we were still in Spain.  It’s very westernized with lots of high end shops and restaurants and nearly everyone seems to know English (and French, and Catalan, and Spanish).  The ‘old city’ however is unique – you know you’re somewhere special.  It almost feels like you’ve been transported back in time.  Most of the old city dates back to the middle ages and there are even some Roman ruins dating back 2,000 years.  Like Toledo, there are lots of narrow, cobblestone streets which are for pedestrians only – making it fun to wander around.  Most of it is very well preserved, clean and safe.  Inside all these beautiful old buildings are museums and churches as well as lots of cute shops and restaurants hiding in there too.

Restaurants, Markets and Art in Barcelona’s Medieval City

Among this maze of streets and alleyways we found the amazing Cathedral first, and then we saw three other old churches: Santa Maria del Mar (which use to be on the ocean and over time has become landlocked), Santa Maria de Pi (which was surrounded by art booths), and the cute little country church, Sant Pau de Campo.  I really liked Sant Pau de Campo. It’s really tiny and it’s the oldest one in Barcelona at almost 1,000 years old.  It use to be out in the sticks, now it’s in the middle of the city.  When we were there, there were some musicians practicing inside and the acoustics were amazing.  Barcelona’s old section also has it share of quaint plazas, hidden courtyards, parks, musicians, art,  festivals and fresh food markets too.  Despite spending the better part of two days down in that area, we didn’t come close to seeing everything.  We’ll have to come back to Barcelona for sure.  Just like Madrid, there is so much to see and do around there, it would take a long time to complete that list.

Narrow Streets, Stained Glass Windows and Musicians

Visiting the Old Churches of Barcelona

To see more pictures of Barcelona, click on the picture below:

So much yummy cheese! 🙂

 

 

 

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. 🙂

Living Near the Mongol Wall

Iki-no-Matsubara Stone Fortifications

The Mongol Wall

I’ve known about this wall since we got here and there are several areas in and around the city you can see parts of it.  We finally had an opportunity to ride out to the most popular place to view it as part of a coastal bike ride we took last weekend.

This particular stretch of beach is only about 2-3 miles from where we live.  It contains part of the 12.4 mile long rock wall that was built along the coast almost 750 years ago to keep the Mongols out of Japan.  What is left of the wall is not really that interesting, but the story behind it certainly is.  Right now it reads more like a folk tale than actual history.  In fact, most of what is known about these attempted invasions comes from a scroll written by a samurai who fought in both battles (the scroll was heavily damaged and had to be put back together).  There have since been several archeological investigations to help decipher the myths from the facts.

The Scroll

The Scroll

The gist of the story is that twice the Mongols tried to take over Japan and twice they failed.  With the exception of the occupation of Japan at the end of World War II, these failed invasions are the closest Japan has come to being conquered by a foreign power in the last 1500 years.  The first attempt was in 1274, when an army of some 400+ ships and 40,000 soldiers descended upon 10,000 squabbling, unprepared samurai.  The Japanese were not only vastly outnumbered but their fighting techniques were primitive compared to the Mongols.  Had it not been for some very rough seas one night in November, the Mongols should have been victorious.  Instead they retreated to sea (fearing their ships would be forced onto shore), and headed into a violent storm which supposedly destroyed 1/3 of their ships and drowned 13,000 soldiers, causing the rest of the fleet to abandon the mission.

Up to 15 feet high and 12.4 miles long

The Mongols continued their conquests elsewhere and increased their armies only to return to Japan seven years later.  The first fleet to arrive in Japan had 900 ships and 40,000 soldiers.  The Japanese were more prepared this time with 40,000 samurai, better fighting tactics and their newly built wall.  The evenly matched forces were in a stalemate for 50 days, until the rest of the Mongol forces arrived (3,500 more ships and 100,000 more men).  Now the Japanese were faced with a force three times their size and were in serious danger of being taken over.   Then a massive typhoon rolled into Hakata Bay destroying nearly every enemy ship and drowning all but a few thousand Mongols.  These coincidental storms that protected the Japanese both times gave rise to their belief that they were protected by ‘divine winds’ (kamikaze) and that no foreign power could take them over.  Interesting enough, this was also the first time the samurai fought for the sake of Japan and not amongst themselves.

It really doesn’t matter what the details of these battles end up being, the point is that the mongols never conquered Japan.  It’s odd to think how different Japan would be had these battles gone the other way.  And it’s just plain cool to be living where these events took place.

 

Feeling like Home

Hanging out at the Beach

We’ve both been commenting on how different our second year of living in Japan is versus the first.  The whole ‘newness’ factor is gone, but so is the ‘stress and anxiety’ factor.  We don’t feel like complete outsiders anymore.  In one sense it has made it more enjoyable to live here, but at the same time it’s not quite as interesting. There is a sense of calm and familiarity about everything now; however, there is still a lot we don’t know or understand and I’m pretty sure no matter how long we stayed here, that wouldn’t change.   I can only imagine how much richer and deeper our whole experience would be if we knew how to speak and read Japanese – as I feel we are just barely scratching the surface.

Ichi_13

Yakatori Restaurant – yes, fish on a stick!

Despite that big gap, we do know enough Japanese to ‘get by’ and we are very comfortable using the subways and trains, going to the post office, booking hotels, shopping, and trying new restaurants.  We know the city well enough, that it would be hard for us to get lost.  All the clerks at our little local grocery store know us and we’ve even gotten ‘point cards’ at the places we shop the most.

We’ve been sort of limited on the things we could do recently, (given all the extra work Robert’s had to do with his new position at school and the fact we had to wait for our new passports), but that forced us to do a lot more exploring around our neighborhood.  We’ve met some new people, and found some interesting shops, quaint little parks and pretty little beaches.  And since eating out is one of our favorite things to do, this ‘down time’ has also allowed us to find a great Spanish restaurant, a fun yakatori restaurant, a yummy French restaurant, a Taiwanese restaurant, and a darn tasty Hawaiian restaurant.  We are really excited we’ve finally commenced our culinary tour of Fukuoka and I’m sure this will continue for quite awhile.  All in all, I think we both agree it now feels a lot more like home.

 

Thailand – Spring Break

Happy Hour

World’s Best Happy Hour

Robert & I are back from Thailand.  We had a completely lazy vacation (well, almost) with LOTS of food and drink.  We flew Thai airways to Bangkok and had a quick connection to Krabi where we were met by the hotel driver who whisked us to our resort about 45 minutes away.  It had just finished raining and the sun was setting so were were lucky to catch a few glimpses of the tropical area before nightfall.  Once we got out of the ‘city’, we saw lots of cliff-like mountains rising straight up out of the jungle.  We saw lots of palm trees (for palm oil) and rubber trees (yes, for rubber).  We even passed some elephants.  At one point Robert was beginning to wonder if our hotel actually existed…since we just kept getting farther from civilization.  We arrived at the hotel around 7pm and had our welcome drinks and a tour of the grounds.  We took a quick dip in the pool and were eating dinner by 8:30.

The resort was great.  The view was spectacular – it was like being in a postcard, especially during sunset.  Combine the view with live music and half-priced drinks and there was no way were going anywhere else in the evenings.  We could (and did) take tons of sunset pictures.  The service was amazing and the food was very good.  The Thai set meal we had was fantastic and the khao niaow ma muang (mango with sticky rice) dessert was awesome!  Robert loved the “drunken-style” noodles, and I couldn’t get enough of the curry dishes.

Dinner

Delicious Thai Dinners

Breakfast was included and we could have anything we wanted.  There was a soup table, a pastry table, a fruit table, a cereal table, a manned station for eggs, waffles and roti (thai-style pancakes), and a huge buffet station with potatoes, sausages, bacon, cooked veggies and a few Thai rice and noodle dishes to choose from.  We ate so much for breakfast that we were never hungry for lunch.  Almost every day we’d walk on the beach then hang out at the pool (or on the beach), read our books, maybe get a message (or two).  There were bikes and kayaks to use. We took a walk down to the end of the road where the National Park was and found a trail (which we never took, because Robert found out there are King Cobras in the jungle.  I’m not sure I really wanted to encounter any of their large (meter sized) lizards either).

As content as we were, curiosity got the best of us halfway through our stay, so we took a speed boat to the island of Koh Phi Phi.  It was another absolutely beautiful, sunny, and calm day – perfect for cruising around the Andaman sea and admiring all the little islands.  We loved that part.  We first went to Phi Phi Ley arriving at Maya bay (where “The Beach” was filmed) very early before the crowds arrived.  We walked around taking pictures and walked to the other side of the island as well.  By the time we were leaving, it was getting obnoxiously crowded so our captain took us to see Pi Ley (a shallow fjord like area, well protected from the sea).

Maya Bay

Phi Phi Ley

The colors in the limestone cliffs, mixed with the turquoise water was really amazing.  We then went to view the Viking Cave which houses a family armed with guns to protect the swallow bird nests inside (since they are a delicatessen worthy of stealing we were told).  From our distance, we couldn’t see any nests or swallows, but there sure were tons of little tropical fish everywhere.  We soon moved on to Phi Phi Don where we stopped to do some snorkeling and then anchored ashore for some lunch and shopping.  We both could imagine that Phi Phi was once incredibly beautiful – before it was exploited with all the tourism.  The amount of people and trash that has accumulated on these islands was heartbreaking to see.  It really made us appreciate even more where we were staying.  After lunch we were off to a quiet snorkeling spot near Mosquito Island and then to Bamboo Island just to relax (Robert napped on the beach).  From our vantage point on the beach we could watch sailboats in the distance and the afternoon thunderstorms building in the east.  We raced back to the mainland fortunately making it back before the rain.

Massage at the Beach

Massages at the Beach

One afternoon it was overcast so we decided to spend the afternoon in the nearest town, Ao Nang, which was 20 minutes away by taxi. We walked up and down the streets which were lined with street vendors, shops, restaurants, bars, tailors, and other tourist attractions.  Fortunately, it wasn’t anywhere near as crowded or dirty at Phi Phi.  We then followed the beach to the end past several dozen massage tents to a shrine area, a mountain creek, and LOTS of monkeys.  We eventually made our way back to the street vendors and ordered a banana roti (yum!) then moved on to get some drinks and an appetizer since it was getting late and a thunderstorm was fixin’ to let loose. We always looked forward to those afternoon/evening storms since it really cooled the temperature down.

Overall, we had an awesome time and would stay at our resort again if we ever found ourselves in this area.  We will especially remember all the beautiful plants and flowers, all the jungle sounds (bugs, birds, frogs and monkeys), the tasty food and fruit (especially the bananas and pineapple), and of course, the wonderful Thai people.

NZ: The Final Chapter

West Coast Beach

The Wild West Coast finally has sunshine!

It was only fair that the next three days would be brilliantly beautiful.  We awoke to clear blue skies.  We waited for the latest report on road conditions (which was suppose to be posted by 8am but wasn’t).  Gay called the Transportation Department and they told her the road would be open by 9am but to expect delays.  We had breakfast and decided to take a nice long walk along the beach.  To finally see these beaches and mountains in full sun was such a treat.

Afterward, we packed up and headed back to Westport and grabbed another cup of coffee for the road.  The Buller river was still running pretty high, but the road was open.  Hwy 6 followed the Buller river and the way the road was carved into the canyon made us wonder how this road ever stayed open.  There were multiple areas where it was obvious they had to clean up mudslides, tree slides or rock slides (called ‘slips’ here).  The closer we got to Nelson, the less damage there was.  However, there was one road still closed (the one from Nelson to Blenheim which we needed to take in 2 days), so hopefully that would not be an issue for us either.

Robert having lunch in Nelson

Robert having lunch in Nelson

We arrived in Nelson, parked, and checked out the city.  It was larger than we expected (a whopping 45,000 residents).  Built around hills, it reminded me of San Diego – but instead of Mexican influence it was very British.  A huge Gothic looking Cathedral towered over the town.  Lots of flower baskets and European style cafes lined the sidewalks.  We had a wonderful lunch eating outside, people watching and just enjoying the weather.  We then checked into our apartment for the next two nights.  It wasn’t really an apartment, but rather 1/2 a house.  It was half way up the hill with an incredible view of the Tasman Bay from our veranda.  Originally built in 1908, it had all the charms of grandma’s house.  Wooden floors, big rooms, stained-glassed windows, unusual light switches, lots of antique furniture, lovely artwork, a cast iron claw foot tub, fireplaces, and a wonderfully stocked kitchen.  Oh yeah, we could live here.  We wondered what kind of discount they’d give for a 3 month stay.  🙂 The only problem was…we didn’t want to leave this place.

our veranda

View from our Porch

After getting settled, we left to pick up some groceries and then came right back.  We popped open a bottle of wine and hung out on the deck the rest of the day eating cheese, smoked salmon, and crackers.  For dinner we sauteed some seafood and made herbed smashed potatoes with fresh green beans.  It was totally awesome.

The next morning, after breakfast, we decided to head to the beach and maybe do a boat ride….everyone kept telling us to go to Kaiteriteri, so we did.  OMG, the whole city of Nelson was there as well as 500 campers that looked like they had no intentions of ever leaving.  There were people and boats everywhere.  This was not the secluded, romantic beach we envisioned, so we headed back to what now seemed like the quiet calm city of Nelson.  We went for a nice long walk around the port, downtown, parks and our neighborhood.  We then picked up some more seafood for dinner and headed back to our little haven for another wonderful evening on our porch.

I was sad when we had to check out the next morning.  I didn’t want it to end.  We met the owners of the place, an older couple who have lived there for 41 years.  He use to be a mountain climber, now he’s a cyclist and a Zen Buddhist.  She was/is an artist….she actually painted all the pillow cases, sheets, curtains and tablecloths in the apartment.  He had lots of stories to tell…I wish we could have stayed and listened to them all, but we had to get going.  We were informed the road to Blenheim was now open (but with delays), so we wanted to give ourselves enough time to make our flight.  While we saw some spots which experienced slips, we eventually drove through a valley in which the road was all but washed away and it looked like the whole village of Canvastown had been under several feet of water.  This area of the island was undoubtedly hit the worst by the rains.  We thought about driving to Picton (to see where the ferry arrives), but Robert was anxious to get rid of our rental car which he felt was about to fall apart.  It had developed rattles almost everywhere and the hubcap was very loose.  No worries.  We made it to Blenheim with plenty of time to spare.

Plane at Blenheim

Time for Departure

We decided to walk around the town, which now looked like a whole different city than it did 2 weeks ago…there were people everywhere.  We settled on a Thai place for lunch and then returned to one of the wineries we visited two weeks ago to pick up a bottle of wine for the evening.   There are NO security checks at the airport here, so we could actually still bring a bottle of wine on the plane. 🙂

The winery was also packed with people.  There was music playing outside, people were hanging out and eating in the courtyard.  After tasting all their wines again and making a purchase, we filled up the car and drove to the airport.  We eventually boarded our small plane (which had no cockpit door) and enjoyed the beautiful views of Marlbourgh Sound, the mountain peaks, beaches, lakes, and volcanoes as we past over them on our flight to Auckland.

We arrived safely in Auckland around 6pm, checked into our hotel and had some dinner.  Since New Year’s Eve is not a big deal to us, we didn’t stay up (we also had to be back at the airport by 7am and I wasn’t in the mood to party).  Robert hates it when I get melancholy.  While I really was looking forward to getting back to Japan (because I do love it there), I loved it here too.  The people were so friendly, the food and wine delicious, and the island is so pristine, beautiful and wild.  I really do hope we get the opportunity to return someday and spend a lot more time.

Spirit Week and Sports Day

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9th graders on Hippie Day

It is a Japanese tradition to have one day in the school year devoted to sports.  At FIS, the whole week leading up to Sports Day is called Spirit Week. It is similar to homecoming back home.  Each day has a theme (Hippie Day, Wild Hair Day…) and the kids and teachers dress up and score points for their team.  We had four teams that included students from pre-K to 12th grade. Having the teams have kids at different levels really made it fun.

The culmination of Spirit Week is Sports Day at Momochi Beach.  The teachers got there around 8am to get things setup and then the students and parents started showing up around 8:30.  The events began promptly at 9am.  The first few events were with the combined teams (pre-K thru 12th).  It was really great to see how much the older students helped out and supported the younger students on their team. Although there was a real competitiveness between the teams it never turned into anything negative – very nice.

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Sports Day – Tug of War

My job was to help run the secondary events – including the sprint for the batons and the 3-legged race. We quickly fell behind schedule and had to drop one of the events to make up time. The day ended with a tug-of-war between the teachers and the parents. I honestly thought the teachers had this one in the bag. But…we lost!  I have never worked so hard – or been so sore the next day. The weather was awesome – mid-80s and sunny.

After Sports Day ended all of the teachers were invited to Dr. Gush’s (the Head of School) apartment for drinks and food. It was great…I am not sure she expected us to stay there until 5:30 pm but it sure was fun.  I am already looking forward to Spirit Week and Sports Day next year!