Saturday, August 22, 2009

Amami o Shima, part 2

So there was a little bit of a delay before part two has materialised, but hey, I've been romping around the Icelandic countryside with wonderful friends and exploring this spectacular country, so bad luck ;) I'm still a few weeks behind in my blogging - this one should rightly be about Iceland - but I'll get there.

The day of the eclipse was fast approaching. After the local Amami festival it became apparent that my Japanese friends were planning to watch the eclipse from Tomori beach and not the festival venue. A bit of a shame, since I really wanted to watch it with them, but it seemed alright - Alexander was keen to go wherever I went and I really wanted to see it with him also. So although it was a shame that we wouldn't be with the rest of the festival-goers and the energy that goes along with such a group viewing, I didn't mind being away from it all - the last two eclipses I saw were with the festival massive.

After yet another day bumbling around the beach I decided to head up to the tipi up on the hill to watch the sun go down. It afforded a great view over the festival site and turned out to be a great decision. Shortly after I arrived a group of drummers made their way up the hill to play as the sun was setting.

That evening as we came closer to eclipse time, Alexander decided he wanted to be at the festival with all the wonderful people we had met. I can't fault him for that - I understood. We said our farewells and I got a lift back to Tomori beach with my friends the night before and crashed in Achi's tent.

I awoke around 7am on the day of the eclipse to a less-than-favourable weather situation. Although it wasn't raining, the sky was overcast and some ominous storm clouds were hovering on the horizon just a short way from the beach. Thankfully they were passing to the side of us, but nevertheless they threatened our ability to see the eclipse.

I loitered around on the beach, reading a book, swimming and generally observing the weather. The clouds were slowly starting to clear up and things were looking a bit better. More and more people were gathering on the beach to prepare for the spectacle and my friends were slowly arising in dribs and drabs.

Soon enough we were able to see the moon start to edge in front of the sun. At this stage it was still overcast, but there were a few areas of clearer looking sky in various locations around us, though sadly not in the spot we were most hoping for. Cameras were setup, beers were opened, excitement was shared - but as the time of totality neared the clouds got darker and darker, obscuring our view of the sun when using eclipse glasses.

The moment of totality was beginning, the sky slowly starting to dim as the sun was hidden away by the shape of the moon. Regardless of the weather, nothing can prevent the amazing feeling that comes with an eclipse - a moment of the universe in motion, aligning in a perfect way that turns day to night and fills you with the elation of being alive and there to witness it.

The whole beach was dark, the clouds out to sea a palette of sunset colours in stark contrast to the grey and black surrounding us, the ecstatic smiles and yahoos of onlookers portraying the happiness and joy in this moment.

A few minutes of magic later and it was all over. The sun emerged from behind the moon (although we couldn't really see it) and it became lighter again. We could just barely see the totality through the cloud layers, but it wasn't very obvious or easy to see. Unfortunately weather is part of the risk you take when travelling to see an eclipse, and even from the beginning the predictions weren't good for Amami. Regardless of the weather it was still a cosmic event worth witnessing, and the feeling of magic and joy in life from being there can't be greyed by any cloud cover.

The barbecue was sparked up and we shared some okra, fish and corn before they went all out with the meat. I hung out with them for a few hours more, swam around in the water for a bit and eventually decided to make my way back to the festival. It didn't seem like any of them were keen to head back for a while, so I decided to hitchhike. After walking for 15 or 20 minutes I was finally picked up and got a ride back to the festival with an old Amami man and his son and daughter-in-law. They were fun to chat to, even though the Amami dialect made things very difficult.

The next few days were much the same as the ones preceding them - more fun in the sun, bludging on the beach, drinking beer and generally sharing the post-eclipse bliss with others around me. We only had a few more days before we had to leave and every second of them was enjoyed.

When the time came to pack up, catch the bus and head back to Naze for our ferry ride home, we were ready to escape the humidity, despite how wonderful it was being at the beach after so long in Tokyo. Alexander, Brian and I packed our gear and headed up to the bus stop. There were some amazing clouds that day - something to focus on while we sat in the ridiculous heat to await the bus' arrival.

In Naze we met up with the three Portugese doctors we had befriended at the festival, along with an Italian guy who Brian had met. The group of us wanted to find a beer, but ended up finding a coffee shop instead and then hanging out in their hotel room, during which time we were to find ourselves in the middle of an earthquake. It wasn't too large, however.

My friend Kenju was also going to be on the same ferry as us that evening, so we met up with my Japanese friends at the departure terminal for a goodbye. We got a few photos, and it was suggested that we get a 'Habu' shot. The resulting image is below.

As the boat was taking off they put on a fireworks show for us. I was a little over taking photos at that stage, so I have no pictures of it, but it was the best sendoff I've had anywhere, and lots of fun.

We were all completely buggered and had an early night on the stuffed-to-the-brim ferry. The next morning we said farewell to Kenju and stayed once again at the accommodation we were at the previous week. Energy levels were low that weekend - all of it had been sapped by the relentless humidity - so we took it fairly easy. Alexander slept the afternoon away while I went off to a nearby net cafe to catch up on some email and chat to Alex.

Before we went to Amami we had planned to perhaps do some hiking in Kagoshima, but the heat and our tired bodies both spoke against that idea. The weather was also rainy, not terribly conducive to trudging around mountainous regions. We decided to at least take a ferry over to nearby Sakura-jima and check out an amazing looking onsen there.

The onsen here is beside the ocean, but unfortunately I have no pictures. It was mixed bathing, so we had to wear yukata to cover up. If the weather was nicer it would have afforded a wonderful view of the ocean, but it was still good in the overcast weather. The onsen itself stretched out beneath the roots of a large tree, and buried a little further in was a shrine to a dragon god. It was the best onsen I have been to in Japan, and a great way to end our holiday.

After that final night Alexander and I said our goodbyes. We would be seeing each other again in Iceland soon enough, but it was still sad to say farewell and head in our respective directions. He was leaving Tokyo for a journey through China, Russia and Europe, to end up in Iceland before further travelling, while I was heading back to Tokyo. I caught my flight and ended up at home that evening, tired but feeling very relaxed, rejuvenated and happy to have been able to experience such a wondrous place and event with such great friends, new and old.

You can see the complete set of photos here, here and here.

Amami o Shima, part 1

Since I went to Turkey for a total solar eclipse in 2006, I have known that there would be a festival somewhere in Japan for the eclipse of 2009. Surprised as we were to find out that planning had started three years ago, Japan was on the list of places to be in the next few years. This eclipse was part of the reason I chose this year to live in Japan, so there was a lot of excitement built up around it.

I was travelling with Alexander, who was saying farewell to friends and Tokyo not a day before we left for Kagoshima, our stopover on the way to Amami o Shima, an island in the south west of Japan. We had flights booked to Kagoshima, arriving in time to stay the night and catch a ferry to Amami the following evening.

Our night in Kagoshima was an interesting one. Venturing out in search of food, we found ourselves in a surprisingly expensive restaurant serving local cuisine. They're big on their sweet poatoes down that way and I must admit, the sweet potato tempura we had was amazing. The food in general was delicious, but we ordered a dish called 'kani miso' (crab miso) thinking it was a miso soup with crab in it. The lady said nothing as we ordered but soon returned with a small dish of a greyish puree - the kani miso. It turns out this is a delicacy, but rather than being a miso soup as we had hoped, it is actually the intestines and their contents from the crab, blended up into a paste and eaten while drinking sake. Shocked as we were, we decided we might as well give it a go and ordered some sake to go with it.

The taste was less than enthralling. The best description I can give it would be that it tastes like seawater with a vague overtone of crab that has been sitting out of the refrigerator for a little while. It wasn't vomit worthy, but it certainly wasn't delicious. Wanting to make sure we tried it properly we had a few more goes, drinking sake all the while, but eventually abandoned any further attempts at cross-cultural exploration via crab innards.

Alexander had suggested earlier that we go back to visit this small shop / street bar we had seen while searching for a restaurant. I was keen, if a little intimidated, so we returned to the place and sat down. The patrons were of course all Japanese, all middle aged (except for a younger girl who came later on, the owners' daughter from memory) and all very curious about us. We spoke to them a fair bit, but after I had exhausted my basic conversational knowledge I was spoken to less. I struggled to follow the conversation but often it was a bit much for me.

It was fun, though. We drank shouchu, ate the delicious sashimi presented to us and had a generally jovial time. One lady was trying to get one of us to marry her daughter, all the while telling us how ugly she was. Eventually her daughter came to take her mother home (she wasn't ugly either) and we were free of her attempts at enforced matrimony.

The following day we stocked up on last minute supplies for the festival and went to our ferry in the late afternoon. We met a number of people on the ferry who were all heading to the festival, and before long the various groups eventually joined in one big pre-festival party on the ferry.

The first photo below is Sakura-jima, a volcanic island next to Kagoshima. The following two are from the ferry.

At 5am the next morning we arrived at Naze, a port town on Amami island. We had to wait a few hours before the first buses started, but eventually we found ourselves on one and heading for the festival location. After arriving it became apparent that we were not allowed in until the next day - only staff and volunteers were. As luck would have it, a lovely Japanese guy was telling us about his camping spot down the road, and after dropping his friends and gear off he drove all the way back (10-15 minute drive) to pick us up (there were four of us), stuff us into his tiny car and give us a lift down to the beautiful Tomori Beach.

The place was amazing. The locals told us it is the most beautiful beach on the whole island. We set up shop here for the day and tried our best to avoid getting too sunburnt. The other three all ended up terribly burnt, but I managed to escape with just my legs going a bit red. We snorkelled the day away and just took it all in - the snorkelling was amazing, so many beautiful fish and we heard there were even turtles around, though I never saw any (sadly). I did see a few sea snakes though.

In the late afternoon, I was lying on my towel in the shade and heard what I thought to be a familiar Japanese voice. Seconds later, I hear 'Dowaito!' and turned to see my friends Toshi and Kazumi strolling down the beach. I knew they were coming to Amami of course, but it was such a surprise to randomly run into them! We all went for a snorkel and hung out for the evening, drinking beer, chatting and generally having a jolly old time.

Toshi offered to give us a lift to the party the next day, so after eating breakfast, having a few morning swims and packing our gear we piled into his hire car and headed for the festival. They weren't able to get camping tickets for the festival and decided to camp there at Tomori, along with other friends from Tokyo and Nagoya who had not yet arrived.

Arriving at the festival location, the day was already amazingly hot and humid. Our packs and baggage felt like they weighed tonnes and the heat sapped every bit of energy we had. We were warned about the dangerous waters (turns out they weren't that dangerous) and the poisonous, deadly snakes that we were to be sharing our campground with. I never saw one, but many (including Alexander) did, so they were most certainly present. If untreated after a bite you die within thirty minutes. Certainly a worry, but not that much different from bushwalking in Australia. We were cautious nonetheless.

After setting up camp and running into one of Mimu's friends from Tokyo (who I had met before), we made our way down to the beach to have a dip and search for a shady place to relax. There were several camping areas in various places to either side of the gravel road winding it's way down the hill. Halfway down was the food and bar area, which was looking somewhat bare on the first day. Further down the hill was the main stage area, partly-constructed, along with the info tent, crew area and Habu-infested camping space. A short walk further lay another beautiful beach...

To the left, a beach bar and the beach stage, and to the right, a low shade structure running along the beach. This shady area quickly turned into the place where we would spend our days. I would arise at 6:30 or so when the sun hitting my tent turned it into an uncomfortable sauna and wander down to the beach to set up my mat. A morning swim to start the day, and then into the routine that would be repeated many times throughout the course of the festival - alternating between swimming, snorkelling, eating, napping, reading, chatting and drinking a cold beer. It was a hard life, and also in my opinion the best way to 'enjoy' the ridiculous humidity - there wasn't a lot of energy for doing much else.

The beach stage would kick off in the late afternoons, run through the evening and finish around 9 or 10 in the morning. The music varied, but overall the music at the festival was a bit clubby and often strange. Lucky we were in this tropical island paradise, surrounded by friendly people and eagerly awaiting the oncoming eclipse ;)

I had forgotten that my friend Brian was coming too, and received a pleasant surprise when I saw him strolling up to the shade structure one afternoon. We had a great chat and spent a bit of time hanging out over the course of the festival.

The next day my friend Hide arrived, and we met up with them around lunchtime to say hello. They gave us a lift to the local supermarket, Big 2, where all manner of supplies could be purchased. Sitting in the airconditioning and enjoying some Japanese food and an ice cream (hoo hoo yeah) were a blessed release from the weather outside. We met up with them again that evening at the local Amami festival, where we saw the last of some stage performances, enjoyed some typical Japanese festival food (yakisoba, barbecued corn, fried squid and takoyaki - octopus dumplings), drank some cold nama (draft) beer and soaked up the vibe.

We were in a good position to see the fireworks, and let me just say, the Japanese really know how to put on a fireworks show. This was only a small island festival and the fireworks went for about 15-20 minutes, with several buildups and crescendos eventually culminating in an amazing end. We were far closer to them than you would ever be allowed in Australia (the lack of any sort of OH&S in Japan is in stark contrast to Australia's strictness), with debris occasionally scattering on us from above. These were certainly some of the best - if not the best - fireworks I've ever seen. From what I hear the summer festival in Tokyo has a fireworks display that goes for an entire hour!

Stay tuned for part two... :)

Monday, August 17, 2009

Way behind, as usual... but, Dolphins!

So a friend has kindly pointed out to me that I did promise more frequent updates on this blog, which is true. In fact, I have been promising them for some months now and still I do not deliver. For shame.

But I can explain, I promise! I've been busy.

Okay, so that won't quite satisfy you. I've been *really* busy.

Now I'm just pushing it, so I'll just get on with the blog post and admit that I've been lazy and neglectful of my 3.5 readers.

During June and a little of July, I was lucky enough to get a five week visit from Alex :) She had just finished uni and came over to see me so we could spend some time together in Japan. It was wonderful to see her and we had a great time catching up with our Japanese friends, exploring Tokyo and experimenting with various crazy foods from the convenience store.

We had planned to take a trip to Kyoto originally, for it is highly placed on Alex's list of wonderful places in Japan (to say the least) and also somewhere I had yet to visit but wanted to.

A couple of weeks, a few health warnings and an outbreak of swine flu later, we decided perhaps Kyoto wasn't the best place to be taking a trip. Disheartened, we began to look for alternatives. One of the ones we found was an island south of Tokyo called Mikura-jima. Through the magic of google we discovered it, and discovered also that it was a popular place at which to swim with wild dolphins. My interest was well and truly piqued at this point and we booked some accommodation and made plans to go there.

Mikura-jima is home to a small population of around three hundred people. It is only accessible by ferry, which we took overnight from Tokyo. Boarding the ferry at 10pm at night, we were excited to discover what we thought would be our lodging for the evening - a bed in a massive room full of small bunks. It turned out we were mistaken, and our hearts sunk at about the same rate we descended the levels of the ship, eventually arriving at our designated 'beds' - a rectangle on a carpeted floor, the borders clearly outlined in electrical tape, on what had to have been the lowest level of the ship. Of course there were blankets and 'pillows' (seriously, they were pathetic), but despite these luxuries it still turned out to be a terrible nights' sleep. The seas were fairly rough too, so sleeping on your side meant that you would roll back and forth as the ship crested waves and wobbled about on the water.

The second stop was Mikura-jima, where we would arrive around 5am. That is, if the sea had cooperated. Unfortunately due to rough seas we were unable to stop at Mikura-jima, and so ended up on the ship for another seven hours or so, reaching the final island and then eventually coming back the way we came. Fortune would have it that the seas were a bit calmer this time, so we were able to dock.

Our host, Tama, met us at the port and took us up to the accommodation. She spoke English very well (she's only been studying for two years, too) and after settling us in to our room took us on a driving tour around the island. The weather was poor for swimming with dolphins, so we settled for waterfalls, beautiful scenery, old-style Japanese homes and an ancient tree.

Our food was included with the accommodation and we had some delicious meals there. The first night was tempura, featuring, among other things, a plant known as "Ashitaba", or "Tommorrow's Leaf". This stuff grows prolifically around the island and is named for the fact that if you take the leaves one day, they have grown back again the next. The locals are obsessed with putting this in every meal they possibly can, to varying degrees of culinary success (in our opinion). I enjoyed it in some meals though.

We also had a taste of some delicious mulberries, growing wild on the island (this is for you, Ally and Rich).

The following day we set out to swim with dolphins. We made a quick stop just out of the harbour for Alex to have a snorkeling lesson and then we were off. The island is really beautiful to see from the water. So green and with stark cliffs and small meandering waterfalls littered about.

I was suitably impressed with the scenery.

Soon enough we encountered dolphins, and in we hopped. We were earlier informed that we were not to touch or chase the dolphins, but rather just sit in the water and wait for them to come to us. They will choose if they want to engage with us or not. With a mixture of excitement and trepidation we entered the water, wondering how the dolphins would respond to us and what the experience was going to be like.

We sat in the water, able to hear the calls of the dolphins but as yet not able to see them. As we watched, dolphins started to appear out of the green blur in front of us. They would swim past, eyeing you off as they did, taking in what they saw. I had a few close encounters where one was coming straight for me, it's mouth open and making a sound, only to veer away at the last minute and continue on it's path.

It's an amazing feeling being so close to these beautiful creatures. Hearing their song beneath the waves is equally as amazing, and I can certainly see why Tama left her office job in Saitama (sort of part of Tokyo) to come here and start a dolphin tour business.

Unfortunately I don't have an underwater camera or case so there are no photos of the dolphins from beneath the surface. But, to redeem myself for that horrid failure, I have uploaded a YouTube video of some of our time with the dolphins, courtesy of Tama and her massive undersea camera. You can check it out here.

As it turned out, this was the best swimming experience we had the entire time. The dolphins were very playful and would swim around us a little before moving on. We went out again that afternoon, with two additional guests (it was just Alex and I in the morning) and the dolphins were slightly less playful, but still definitely curious.

That night, as I was enjoying a beer and watching the sun go down, I was rewarded with one of the best sunsets I have ever seen in my life. Amazing colours, a flouro moon ducking beneath the clouds and some downright fantastic cloud action. Some favourite photos follow, though there are nearly a hundred in total.

The following day we decided to shell out and go for one final swim. It was about $120 per person for one outing, but seeing as though this is not something you do every day we decided to pay the money and go for it. The tour was full on this last day, and the dolphins were less than keen for swimming with humans. A few times they would either swim straight past us, or we would jump in the water (they place you in their trajectory) and they would disappear. It was starting to get a little much in my opinion - it was obvious this pod of dolphins did not want to swim with us but we tried several times. Just as I was thinking that this is pushing it to the point of dolphin discomfort, Tama said that we were just going to watch.

The boat slowly moved along and the pod of dolphins flanked us, a large number of them swimming along at a rapid pace. They are so beautiful to see swimming like this, and I'm glad we got to have the experience of just moving alongside them above the water.

We had some lunch and said our goodbyes, leaving for the ferry back to Tokyo. Another seven hour journey later - part of it shared chatting and hanging out with the two girls who were staying with Tama as well - and we were back in Tokyo. It seemed like an entirely different world to the beautiful island we had just come from.

You can view a larger set of photos on Facebook, here and here.

Coming soon: Amami o Shima, and the climbing of Mount Fuji.