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! 🙂

 

 

 

Barcelona: La Sagrada Familia

Looks a bit gaudy (I mean Gaudi)

Exterior of the Church

One of the most memorable sites we saw in Barcelona was La Sagrada Familia (The Sacred Family). It is actually the most visited attraction in Barcelona – so make sure you make reservations ahead of time if you want to see the inside.

It’s hard to get a really good picture of it because it is so large.  Also, the exterior of the church is still undergoing construction and there are cranes around it. They actually began building the church 130 years ago and they don’t expect to finish it until at least 2026.  All entry fees are going toward it’s completion.

The design is very unique – a mix of Gothic and Modernism – almost like two different buildings in one.  It’s been called everything from “hideous” and “strange” to “spiritual”, “sensual” and “exuberant”.   It is definitely “over-the-top” and completely different than any building or church I have ever seen before.

There is a great explanation of Antoni Gaudi’s designs and inspirations inside the church.  I appreciated it because I like how Gaudi’s architectural inspiration came from nature.  He did not use straight lines…since there are no straight lines in nature.  All the designs in his buildings are based on nature itself (animals, plants, and minerals).  Robert appreciated it for all the mathematics involved (parabolas, hyperbolas, ellipses, polygons, etc).

The most recent construction work is very modern looking and (I think) deviates from the portion that was constructed during Gaudi’s lifetime.  However, Gaudi’s plans were such that he wanted it to evolve over time.  The main entrance to the church is through massive metal doors – completely covered with words and symbols.  The inside of the church is very light, open and spacious.  There are some simplistic drawings on the floors but the ceiling is incredibly detailed and beautiful…it was like looking into a kaleidoscope.  The main pillars are the size of giant sequoias soaring up and branching out into the ceiling.  The four center pillars have the names of the four evangelists on them.  The sides are full of stained glass windows and there are spiraling staircases going up each tower.  Above the alter is a crucified Christ suspended by a stained glass parachute.  Below the alter is a small chapel and a crypt where Gaudi is buried.

Inside La Sagrada Famila

The outside currently has 3 sides and 8 towers.  Only two sides are done.  When it’s finished there will be 18 towers (one for each apostle, each evangelist, Mary and Jesus), eventually making it the tallest church in the world.   The first side (the Nativity) was constructed when Gaudi was alive.  It is incredibly detailed.  It depicts events related to life.  There are religious scenes from Christ’s life (his birth, Mary, Joseph, angels, rosaries), but there also lots of other symbols of life in general (trees, flowers, leaves, vines, branches, coral, birds, turtles, chameleons, horses, etc).

Detail of the Nativity Side

The second side (the Passion) was started in the 1950’s and it depicts images related to death (the stations of the cross, skulls, bones, etc) and more symbolism (alpha and omega, magic squares).  This side is very modern looking (not anywhere near as detailed) and very different than the first side.

Detail of the Passion Side

The last side (Glory) is just a solid block right now.  It will eventually depict images of the resurrection and afterlife.  Under the church is also a large museum containing not only the designs and complete history of the church but also a workshop where people are actually creating pieces for the exterior.  It’s all really interesting and fascinating…a true work in progress.

La Sagrada Familia is one of those few places that you will think about long after you’ve left.  There is so much to look at and absorb…no matter how long you are there, you won’t see it all.  Even now I look at our pictures and I see things I didn’t see before.  It is an amazing place.

 

Thanksgiving in Barcelona: Gaudi and Goodies

View from our Apartment – Casa Mila in the center

Since we couldn’t easily go home for Thanksgiving break, we decided to go to Barcelona instead.  We heard the food there was fabulous plus we would have a 4-day weekend to explore the city.  We left Wednesday night and instead of driving (which would have taken us 6-7 hours), we took the high speed train (at 180 mph) and we were there in 2.5 hours.  The train station is also conveniently located in the center of the city, so we were even checked into our apartment by 10pm.

We booked a place on the main shopping street in Barcelona….Passeig de Gracia.  The hotel surprised us with an upgrade to a 2 bedroom, 2 bath apartment (it was really nice but way more room than we needed).  They also gave us a box of chocolates and free internet service – all for the same price as a little hotel room. 🙂  The location was perfect, the view was great and the weather was perfect.  The second night we were there the city turned on the Christmas lights so the streets were all beautifully lit up.

Casa Botilo

Thanksgiving morning we out to have our coffee & pastry and decided to spend the day seeing Antoni Gaudi’s work.   Gaudi’s architectural work is so different and wild….seven of his properties are recognized by UNESCO as outstanding examples of early 20th century architecture.  Each of his works is more like a piece of art than it is a practical building.  He designed everything from lamposts, to buildings, to churches, to parks.  We actually spent all day looking at his creations.  It was like walking in fantasy land.  We first saw Casa Mila and Casa Botilo, then we went to see his masterpiece, La Sagrada Familia.  The church was amazing and we spent three hours there.  You can see and read all about it in our next post.

After our church visit, we headed to Park Guell….which is a park designed by Gaudi.  It’s not easy to get to, but it is on top of hill so it has a great view of the city.  It was an incredibly beautiful day and it was great to be spending it outside.  Visiting the park was so much fun and also very relaxing.  We sat on the park benches soaking up the sun, looking out to the sea and listened to several musicians and bands playing.

The design of the park is so whimsical and colorful!  I felt like I was in the Hansel & Gretel fairy tale.  The entrance even has what looks like two gingerbread houses.  The walls surrounding it undulate, the park benches are either circular or wrap around like serpents, there are cute little mosaic creatures and beautiful tiles throughout.  Curvy trails are all over the hill, going thru little tunnels and leading to all sorts of different places – including the house Gaudi lived in (which is now a museum).  I could have easily spent the rest of the day here but it was getting late and we still hadn’t had lunch.  We headed out and immediately found a great little cafe near the park and ended up having a majorly delicious little Mediterranean pizza and a mouth watering Iberian ham sandwich.

Park Guell in Barcelona

It was already early evening when we took the subway all the way down to the waterfront and walked up the infamous mile long street (La Rambla).  We stopped there to buy some evilly good chocolates at Le Boqueria (a huge farmer’s market) and then picked up some wine, cheese & bread to snack on before going to our Spanish dinner at 9:30pm.

Our restaurant was only a few blocks away from our apartment so we walked there.  It was a small restaurant with only 10 tables but it is very popular.  I had to make reservations several weeks in advance.  The dinner (which consisted of multiple courses) was fantastic.  Every dish they served was simply amazing and so different…so many colors and flavors.  Some of the things we had included bread, stuffed olives, spicy nuts, a tricolored caramel shot, foie gras on pastry crust with caramelized leeks, scallops, roasted suckling pig, a celery-lime sorbet, a cheese plate, banana mouse with ice cream and caramel sauce and finally several chocolate samples. Robert ordered the local wine pairings.  It was great to be able to taste so many different local Spanish wines with each dish.  This was by far the best place we ate in Barcelona and so far the best in Spain.  Just thinking about it makes me want to go back.  We sure hope everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving – there is so much to be thankful for!

Thanksgiving dinner

 

 

A Tremendous Time in Toledo

Alcantara Bridge – An Entrance into Toledo

There seems to be a heated cyber debate as to which city is better, Toledo or Segovia.  While I have not been to Segovia yet, I can say that Toledo should not be missed.  It is an easy 30 minute non-stop train ride from Madrid to the base of the city’s historical center, and there is so much to see and do. It warrants at least two full days.  We only went for a day trip this time but we will definitely be going back at some point to spend a night.

Actually, what I consider to be one of the most beautiful things Toledo is it’s surroundings.  The Tagus river (which is the longest river in Spain) nearly surrounds this hilltop city, creating a little canyon around it.  In the past it played a strategic role in the city’s defense, today it just adds to it’s charm.  The views from anywhere along the river are amazing and if you just want to take a stroll or do some fishing, there is a lovely walking/biking path around the base of the hill.

Robert in Toledo

While most people take the bus to the main plaza from the train station (which is beautiful btw), it’s just as easy to walk.  In 10 short minutes, the walk brings you to one of the two beautiful old bridges that cross the Tagus: the Alcantara bridge.  From here, there are wonderful views of the Alcazar, parts of the old wall, the medieval castle of San Servando, and of course the river.  We went thru the keyhole shaped entrance at the other side of the bridge which lead up LOTS of steep steps until we reached the old part of the city very near the main plaza.  After walking around the city all day, one thing becomes very apparent: it’s a steep, hilly city built with lots of rocks and bricks.  I’m really glad I wore my walking shoes!

Our goal this trip was to get to know the city and avoid other tourists as much as possible.  I think we did a pretty good job considering it was a Saturday.  We managed to visit two museums (El Greco and Santa Cruz), one mosque (Cristo de La Luz circa 999AD), the oldest synagogue in Europe (Santa Maria Blanca), one church (San Ramon), both historic bridges, the Puerta Bisagra and the Puerta del Sol.  We literally walked all over the city. In the process we ate pastries, did some window shopping, had a deliciously long Spanish-style lunch (with a bottle of wine), bought some mazapan (Toledo’s traditional sweet), and took LOTS of pictures.

Inside San Ramon Church

We also saw lots of places we will try to visit next time we are there including the famous cathedral, the monastery, and the Alcazar (military museum).  By the end of the day, I noticed something interesting about this town.  Though it’s very compact, every section of the old city has it’s own personality.  The west side was more open and park like, while the center was compact and dark (the narrow, curvy cobblestone streets and alleys challenged my navigational skills several times).  The Jewish Quarter was very quiet and reserved, whereas the main plaza was loud with lots of activity.  This will all be highly useful information when I go to book our hotel.

The Narrow Streets of Toledo

Just think about it: There is more than two thousand years of history within the walls of Toledo, and the whole city is a UNESCO World Heritage site.  All the civilizations that lived here (the Romans, Visigoths, Moors, Jews, and Christians) left a wealth of treasures for us to enjoy in the forms of architecture, art and culture.  I can’t imagine someone not liking this city – as there is something for everyone.  The only area that didn’t really appeal to me was around the main Plaza which was way too ‘touristy’ –  too many shops, advertisements and even a McDonald’s.  I know others like that sort of thing though.

Right before our train left for Madrid, we had a taxi take us to the other side of town across the river, so we could get a view of the whole city.  It is an incredible sight to see…no wonder El Greco painted it. 🙂

Click on the photos to see more pictures of Toledo.

The Cathedral

The Alcazar

Cycling the Hills of Chiang Dao

Banana Pancakes with Mango Gelato

Most people start their vacations by sleeping in…not us.  It was Saturday morning, and we were up at 6am.  Of course it felt more like 8am given the time difference from Japan, so it really wasn’t a big deal.  The sunrise was soooo beautiful, and we had a delicious full buffet breakfast waiting for us.

There was more food in that buffet than was humanly possible to consume: a large selection of fresh fruit & juices, pastries, yogurts, muesli, smoked salmon, cheeses, salads, noodles, soups, breads & jams.  We could also order anything off the hot menu.  We not only tried a bit of everything on the buffet, but we ordered hot meals as well.  Heck, why not, we had an active 9 hours ahead of us.  And I’ve got to say….my banana pancakes with mango gelato were particularly scrumptious.

Biking in the Hills of Chiang Dao

As promised, our bike guide and driver picked us up at 8:15am.  We found out we were the only ones scheduled for today’s trip – which was an added bonus.  We got into the truck and started our 1 1/2 hour drive north.  It took a good 45 minutes to get out of the city, but it was worth the wait to see the beautiful countryside.  The roads became curvy and less crowded and the mountains and hills became more visible.   Eventually we entered a wide river valley and began traveling on small rural roads.  I’m pretty sure I couldn’t find this place on my own.  The last stretch was on a dirt track (with no signs).  We eventually drove thru two large open wooden gates.  Within the walled compound was a beautiful little complex.  I felt like I was in some scene from Romancing the Stone.  There was another group of people (from REI) that had spent several days biking in the area and they were getting ready to leave.  After our quick 15 minute rest stop, we were fitted for our mountain bikes and helmets, grabbed some bottled water, and headed on our way up the dirt road.

Hill Tribe Crafts

Kiki (our guide) lead the way.  She was great.  She’d stop along the way and point out the different types of trees, fruits, nuts, rice, coffee, and plants they grew (which is just about anything you can think of).  We stopped and watched the locals picking, packaging and hunting.  Sometimes we’d stop just to take pictures of the countryside.  In the course of about 2 hours (and 12 km) we also got to ride through and visit 5 different hill tribe villages (Karen, Akkha, Lahu, Lisu and Palong).  These villagers migrated from either Myanmar (Burma), China or Tibet  over 100 years ago and each have their own distinct culture and language.  The women stayed home and watched the kids, while the men went to work in the fields or to hunt.  They shared one vehicle in the village.  The women worked on crafts made of cotton (hats, coin holders, purses, wall hangings), stones/gems (for jewelry) or bamboo (for baskets).  They were always excited to see foreigners and would lay out blankets and display their creations in hopes of making a sale.  Chickens, dogs and pigs roamed freely.  Their houses and possessions were minimal, yet they all seemed content, and it was very clean.  Some of the old women had a very bad habit of chewing on betel nut (a stimulant), and their teeth had become chipped and black.  Actually learning about these people while you meet them was very interesting.

Cutting Bamboo for Baskets

Before we knew it, we were back at the lodge.  It was good timing, because riding on dirt roads without biking shorts and cycling up some good sized hills had started to take it’s toll.  The lodge offered us some soft drinks and a huge spread of food.  While it was all very good and healthy, we were a little disappointed it wasn’t that spicy.  Looking back, however, it was probably not only a good thing, but also intentional – especially since we still had 30 kilometers to go.

We rested for 20 minutes and then restocked our water.  Off we went, this time down the hills and across the valley.  The single dirt track we took was fun.  It had a good bit of sand on it (probably from the recent floods), and we would occasionally get stuck.  We rode through forest, and then past fields and orchards.  Finally we ended up on the rural road from which we could see Doi Chiang Dao mountain in the distance (the third highest mountain in Thailand).  The cave at the base of this mountain was our final destination.

Herbal & Root Medicines

It was pretty warm that afternoon and the sun was pretty intense.  We stopped at a rice “factory” and at a newly planted teak tree plantation for water breaks.  The driver followed us in case we needed a break from riding.  Fortunately, the closer we got to our mountain, the more shade there was.  We made it, but we were both glad to get off the bikes.  Walking around felt good.  There was a large market here which specialized in natural and herbal medicine.  If you had an ailment, they had a fix.  I forgot to ask if they had something for my numb bum.   We ended up not purchasing anything though, since it probably wouldn’t have gotten through customs in Japan.

Buddha in the Cave

We walked around the place to stretch our legs, take pictures of all the cool stuff, and cool off before we went inside the cave.  It was similar to other caves – except for the religious statues, articles and decorations scattered throughout.  There are supposedly 5 interconnected caves (at various levels) believed to stretch some 12 km under the mountain, but tourists usually only see the first 1km – which, quite frankly, is enough.  It’s humid and damp and some areas are pitch black.  We went as far as we could without lanterns and a cave guide.  At the end of the lighted area, there is an imprint on the wall of the royal emblem – the King and Queen paid a visit here in the ’60’s and someone left their mark.

It was now time to head back to Chiang Mai.  We were back at our hotel by 5:30.  A nice long shower and a short walk to dinner was the only thing on our mind.  What a great first day.  We packed a ton of stuff in and we knew we’d sleep great.  We were also looking forward to a leisurely day exploring the Old City tomorrow – if we could still move in the morning. 🙂

We took over 150 pictures that day.  Check them out on our picassa website:

Day 1 – Biking in Chiang Dao

Shichi-go-san (The 7-5-3 Festival)

and

5 Year Old Boy in Hakama

3 Year Old with her Candy

I happened to be at a flea market last weekend which took place near Hakozaki Shrine.  Besides all the wonderful trinkets, antiques and crafts to look at, all these adorable children were dressed up in beautiful traditional outfits.  I then remembered that this was the time of year when most families take their young children to the shrine for blessings.  I started taking pictures as the families made their way to the shrine.

The festival is called Shichi-go-san (7-5-3).  It is celebrated by parents when their children turn 3, 5 and 7 years old.  Odd numbers in Japan are considered lucky, and these early years are considered critical for a child.  It’s basically a day to pray for the healthy growth of your child and to wish them a long and happy life.  The original date of the festival was November 15th, but now it happens anytime during the month of November (I’ve even seen it occur during other times of the year).  It all started some 1300 years ago, but back then only the families of nobles and samurai participated.  Commoners didn’t start taking their children until the Edo Period (1600-1860).

7 Year Old Girl in Her First Obi

Girls aged 3 and 7 get to dress in kimono.  At age 7, the girl is allowed to wear an obi for the first time.  Boys get to go at the age of 5 and get to wear haori jackets and hakama (pleated, but divided) trousers for the first time in public.  I asked the parents of one of the boys if I could take his picture, and he was so excited and proud.  He immediately started showing off his outfit front and back.

The family takes the child to a shrine where they pay a priest to say some prayers.  After the ceremony is over it is customary for the parents to buy long sticks of hard candy (chitose-ame) for the child which is placed in a bag decorated with cranes and turtles (cranes and turtles symbolize longevity).  My last stop before heading home that day was the shrine and I was able to get a few more pictures of some children – including a 3 year old girl whose parents were teaching her to make a peace sign.  She eventually got it and she was so happy!

Shichi-go-san Festival

Their outfits are incredibly beautiful, and I’ve seen the astronomical prices of some in the kimono shops.  It use to be a very expensive occasion for families, but now most families just rent the outfits for a much more reasonable cost.

 

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. 🙂

Karatsu Kunchi Festival

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

The Beautiful Village of Kurokawa

Kurokawa is an onsen town in the middle of our island (Kyushu).  It is about 40 kilometers north of Mt Aso (Japan’s largest volcano – which would explain why there is an abundance of hot springs).   According to the Kurokawa Spa Association website, the history of the town as a hot springs/spa/onsen destination goes back at least 300 years.  Feudal lords use to come from nearby areas to “cure their wounds” or as a rest stop on long journey.  However, it has only been about 50 years since the town started marketing the area as a resort, and only within the last 10 years that it has become really popular.  Some claim it is one of the best onsen towns in all of Japan. I have no idea if it is or not, but it certainly is a beautiful place.  There is no touristy glitz, no big ugly buildings or signs, no convince stores or fast-food chains, and even a very limited number of shops and restaurants.  It seems to have stayed true to it’s roots.

There are only about 30 ryokan in the area, each with less than 20 rooms, so they tend to book up months in advance.  Getting a room on a Saturday night is nearly impossible, so Robert actually had to take a Friday off so we could go.  Most of the places only have Japanese websites, so I had to get assistance from a co-worker to actually book the place.  The ryokan we picked, Hozantei, was recommended by several people, and each room has it’s own private rotemburo (outdoor bath).  The village is only accessible by car or bus…we took the bus.  The scenery getting there was spectacular.  The bus ride was like a roller coaster ride (but without the tracks).  The roads were incredibly narrow, curvy and built on cliffs.   Our bus driver earned every penny he made by managing to get us there safely.

We arrived in Kurokawa around noon.  After glancing at the map near the station, we proceeded down stairs to a small back street that headed into the heart of town.  I found the restaurant I had read about previously which serves curry, so we decided to have lunch since neither of us had any breakfast.  We then walked around the town and figured out where everything was.  We could have easily walked our ryokan, since it was only about 3 km from town, but we had already set up the pick-up time and didn’t want to confuse them.  Upon arrival, they immediately escorted us to our own little cottage, pointing things out and telling us something (I have no idea what).  We did manage to figure out when dinner and breakfast were and where we needed to go, the rest (I hope) was not important.  We settled in, had our tea and biscuit, and took full advantage of our private hot tubs until dinner.

Dinner was served in a special dining room.  Tonight’s menu was laid out in front of us (in Japanese) and course after course was presented to us.  They did their best to explain what each thing was, but there’s no way I could remember it all.  It was all delicious.  I ate everything, except for the whole fried fish (the bugged out eye, spine and intact stomach just didn’t appeal to me).  Robert, however, ate even that – head, tail and all…which really impressed the Japanese women.  We both had horse sashimi (the speciality of the area) – which is actually very tender and tasty.  I’m not sure what the best part was…so many flavors and textures, all so fresh and each presented as a piece of art.  I’m really sorry I didn’t have my camera with me.

When dinner is over, you can’t move.  You’re so full, you only want to sleep.  We each slept on a single futons with a buckwheat pillow.  This experience is literally one step above camping.  After sleeping like that for one night, it’s no wonder they love their onsens…you get so sore sleeping on the hard ground, you need them to recover.  These cottages (like the Japanese houses) are made very simple, so you hear every outdoor noise.  The river and the rain was wonderfully hypnotic.  But right before daybreak, Robert was sure there was some creature in our room eating the treats I brought.  He had to get up and check it out.  In fact there was plenty of animal activity going on outside that morning…it had me giggling.

Our own private hot spring bath

Amazingly we didn’t wake up still full, thus enabling us to enjoy our wonderful multi-course Japanese breakfast (mainly a variety of fish, tofu, vegetables, rice, egg) which was also fantastic.

We didn’t have to check out until 11am so we spent a leisurely morning watching the ducks and heron from our spa.  We were both so completely relaxed at this point we didn’t want to go.  We finally checked out and decided to walk to town.  We did some shopping, had some coffee and ice cream and eventually caught our bus back to the city.  The drive back was equally as beautiful on the way back, but fortunately it wasn’t nearly as frightening since we now had the inside lane. 🙂

I’m already looking for another place to stay there….maybe in the spring.