Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Book Review: Ghosts of the Tsunami by Richard Llyod Parry

This is another NetGalley book, one that I wished for and was granted to me. I'm thankful that I got to read this because it's a heartbreaking account of the effect of the March 11th tsunami. Instead of trying to show all the destruction, Ghosts of the Tsunami focuses on Okawa Elementary School, where a series of heartbreakingly wrong decisions led to the deaths of 74 out 78 students and 10 out of 11 teachers.

Desperate for some answers and frustrated by the actions of the school and the principal, a group of parents took the brave step of bringing things to court. But this is not a legal drama. The book takes an intimate look at the lives of all those involved by talking to survivors and relatives of victims to build an account of what happened and what happened after, including the court case.

There are many heartbreaking moments in this book, such as a grandfather unable to recognise the body of his granddaughter, whom he lifted out of the mid, because of the state she was in.

Or the words of this mother:
"We used to think that we were bringing up our children," said Sayomi Shinto. "But then we discovered that it was we, the parents, who were brought up by them. We thought that the children were the weakest among us, and that we protected them. But they were the keystone. All the other pieces depended on them. When they were taken away, we realised this for the first time. We thought that we were looking after them. But it was the children who supported us."
And by making sure the book isn't too narrowly focused on the court case, instead following the lives of the parents and one of the surviving children, Richard Lloyd Parry managed to convey how the community of Tohoku reacted. For example, the way the community divided into two regarding what to do with the school - preserve it or not - reflected how they chose to deal with grief; whether they wanted to face it and talk about it or to hide it away.

There was only one moment in the book that made me double take. Someone was talking about the size of the tsunami and the words "twenty feet" was quoted. I suppose that this is to make things easier for Americans to understand, despite the fact that all but three countries in the world use the metric system, but I didn't like it. If you're quoting someone, I would prefer that the translation be as accurate as possible, and yes, meters to feet is a small change but if I doubt the small things, then I might end up doubting the important things too.

Overall, though, this was a fantastic book and one of the most powerful things that I've read this year. If you're going to read one book on the 3/11 Tsunami, this is it. By the way, if you want a sneak pic, the Guardian has a good excerpt that you should read.

Disclaimer: I got a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for a free and honest review.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Onna Part 1: Zakimi Castle Ruins and Manzamo Cape

After Naha, my sister and I traveled up to Onna. There, she spent two days diving while I explored the area. Since we rented a car, I drove around for the two days. Parking was free everywhere I went, and I didn't really see buses or train stops, so I would advise that you rent a car if you're heading to Onna.

Zakimi Castle Ruins (座喜味城)
My first stop was Zakimi Castle ruins. The castle is believed to have been built in the early 15th Century by a Ryukyuan lord named Gosamaru. It overlooks the nearby town and apparently it's a really good location for a fortress. It's also designated as a UNESCO world heritage site on December 2nd, 2000, along with other Gusuku ruins (including Shuri castle).

As you make your way to the castle, you'll pass through some trees

And then through the door.

The only things left are the walls, which are curved. It's a good place to wander around and is pretty peaceful (there was one tour group but the place is big enough that I could avoid them if I wanted).

I believe that at certain times in the year, Zakimi castle ruins are lighted up at night. For more information, you can look at this page, which also has information on how to get to the place (Japanese only).

You can also climb up and walk along part of the castle walls!

This is the view of the castle:

And this is the view on the other side:

If you like castles and nature, you should come and visit the ruins! Of course, if you're pressed for time and can only choose between this and Shuri castle, I would vote for Shuri castle because it has more things to see.

There is also a museum next to the place. Unfortunately, the museum was undergoing renovations when I was there, so I can't give any information on what it's like. The entrance does have some pamphlets about Zakimi castle ruins so you might want to stop by before visiting the ruins to grab some reading material.

They had a copy of the UNESCO world heritage certificate at the entrance!

Manzamo Cape (万座毛)
Manzamo cape is a scenic point in Onna, and one of the top tourist spots (according to Google). There are plenty of signs pointing to Manzamo, so it's pretty easy to find.

The car park has shops on both sides selling various omiyage, clothes, and juices.

There's basically a walking path along the cape.

The views are truly breathtaking, although my sister claims that the views while diving is even better.

You can even see a few resorts at one point.

I also saw a few signs warning about habu (poisonous snakes) so be careful when venturing off the path. I saw a lot of tourists who were taking photos next to the sign, but I'm not sure if they knew it was safe or if they just didn't see the warning signs.

If you're a fan of nature and scenic spots, this is definitely somewhere you'll want to go when you're in the Onna district.

For all the posts about my Okinawa trip, please look at the masterpost.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Shopping in Southern Okinawa

My sister and I didn't plan to do much shopping in Okinawa, but we did visit two pretty nice shopping places so I thought I'd share them! Also, I'm heading to Malaysia soon so this is just a quick post(:

Ashibinaa Outlet Mall (English Site)
This is pretty famous and was a stop of several day tours of South Okinawa that we looked at. It's basically an outlet mall like Marinoa in Fukuoka. Parking is free, if you're thinking of driving here. It's quite far from the nearest station, but there are buses.

Quite a few brands are high-end brands but there are a few mid-range shops. My sister managed to pick up a pair of shoes at the ABC mart there.

There's also a tax-exemption for tourists. I'm not sure if every shop is like this, but for ABC, we had to pay tax at the register and then get a refund at a specific location in the outlet mall. So you should factor that in, especially if you're pressed for time.

And if you see this sweet potato cart, you should definitely buy a sweet potato! It's sold by weight and the potatoes were extremely sweet and very, very soft.

Haebaru Aeon Mall
The word "Aeon" may sound really pedestrian, especially if you live in Singapore/Malaysia, but this was a surprisingly good shopping place. As with Ashibinaa, parking is free and there are tons of shops.

We found a big Uniqlo shop (which oddly, we didn't see near Kokusaidori), and the shop list included Best Denki, Daiso, Village Vanguard, GAP and many more. There are also a lot of restaurants and even a foodcourt, if everyone has different ideas on what they want to eat. Not to mention the Aeon supermarket and drug store, which is perfect if you want to buy snacks like kitkats, pocky, senbei, or facial products, makeup, and the like. It's great if you want to get omiyage at a lower cost or just buy some snacks for the hotel room.

And that covers everything my sister did in Naha and Southern Okinawa. The posts from now on will be about Onna and the northern part of mainland Okinawa (click here for the masterpost)

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Okinawa Prefectural Museum

I decided that I wanted to visit one museum during my trip to Okinawa. After a bit of googling, I decided to visit the Okinawa Prefectural Museum because it seemed like the most interesting and comprehensive.

The museum is a roughly 10 minute walk from Omoromachi station. It's basically a straight line from the station, so it was pretty easy to find.

By the way, there's a discount if you have the one day or two-day monorail tickets so if you have it, show it to the staff. There was a temporary exhibition at the museum, but I decided to just go for the permanent exhibition.

Entrance to the gallery! 
The museum covers ancient Okinawa (before it was even the Ryuku kingdom) to modern day Okinawa. There are also 5 galleries attached to the general exhibition:

- Natural History Gallery (pictured below)
- Archaeology Gallery
- Arts and Crafts Gallery
- History Gallery
- Folklore Gallery

And here are some interesting things that I learnt. Disclaimer: I did not try to summarise all the information here. These are just a few facts that caught my eye.

- The Ryukyu Kingdom was formed in the 14th Century, after the period where the islands were divided among the three powers, or Sanzan. That reminded me a bit of the three kingdoms period in China!

- The Ryukyu Kingdom lasted for 500 years and only became a part of Japan in the spring of 1879, during the Meiji era.

- While it was still the Ryukyu Kingdom, it engaged in a lot of trade and had close ties with both China and Japan. One bell in the museum described it as being as "closely related to China as spokes to a wheel" and "as closely related to Japan as lips to teeth".

- During the Yayoi period, people in the Ryukyu islands traded conch shells and seashells with the Kyushu lords. And when the demand for shells decreased, the demand for green snails increased.

- Since the Jomon era, there have been two types of tombs. And somewhere along the way, the practice of 洗骨 (senkotsu) arose, where bodies were disinterred when there were only bones left and the bones were washed, placed in urns and the urns placed in tombs.

- Okinawa has its own 'Rosetta stone' with pictographs that have not been deciphered. The stone was found in 1933, near the grave of Noguni Sokan. Noguni Sokan is also the man who brought sweet potato to Okinawa and there's a festival which bears his name.

- In Okinawan dialect, 'agi' means land.

- There are sacred places called 'utaki' in Okinawa, and religious rituals are held in it. If you're interested Wikipedia has an interesting article on the Ryukyuan religion.

- There is a belief that gods come from across the seas and bring blessings.

- The sanshin is a traditional Okinawan instrument. Originally brought in from China in the 14th or 15th century, it underwent changes to become what it is now.

The museum has a free audio guide, and since the amount of English explanations vary from gallery to gallery, it would probably be worth borrowing the audio guide.

As for photography, my impression is that the 5 galleries generally allow photos while the main one doesn't. So please remember to check before taking photos.

I really want to read more about Okinawa history and culture after visiting the museum, but sadly, the museum gift shop doesn't have anything in English and I don't think I can concentrate that long in Japanese!

Bottom line: If you're interested in history and finding out more about Okinawa, you should definitely visit the museum.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Okinawa World

Back to the Okinawa recaps (Masterpost here, if you want to see the other posts)! Okinawa World is an attraction located in Nanjo, in the south of mainland Okinawa. You could take bus 54 and 83 from Asahibashi station to Gyokusendo-mae bus stop, or you could drive there. My sister and I drove there (parking was free) and we found that to be really convenient.

Okinawa World basically has three sections: Gyokusendo caves, Habu park, and a cultural village. You can buy tickets for the sections that you want to go to, although if you go to the caves, you will have to buy the tickets for the cultural village because you'll have to pass through the village to get back to the entrance.

My sister and I got the tickets for the caves and the cultural village. We decided to pass on the Habu park because we decided we weren't that interested in snakes.

First stop: the cave!

Gyukusendo cave is a 5km long cave, although right now, only about 890m are open to the public. The longest cave in Japan is actually Akiyoshi cave in Yamaguchi, and I found that to be more interesting (then again I went with a bunch of talkative people), but this is pretty impressive in its own right.

At the entrance to the cave!

I will say that it was a lot easier to take photos in this cave, though. I remember it being extremely difficult in Akiyoshi.

The temperature in the cave is supposed to be around 21 degrees all year round, but it felt warmer than that. According to my sister, it felt more like 26 degrees, which was still cooler than the temperature above ground.

There were several points of interest, complete with signs. For things like the fossiled bones, the signs were really useful because I would not have noticed them otherwise. In fact, I still find it hard to see with the arrows!

I'm not too sure about the name of the stagmalite below, but I think it translates to something like "golden cup" and it's basically notable for being really big.

This vase has been covered with stalactites after being submerged for 5 years in the waters of the cave. We actually saw another vase undergoing the same process as we continued walking towards the exit.

There was a photo spot too!

There was a blue fountain too! The fountain didn't look like it was lighted to me, but my sister says it has to be, so if anyone knows why the water appears so blue and bright, please let me know! Any geography students reading this?

We actually took our picture at the entrance of the cave, and we got a small copy at the exit. Larger photos are available for sale as well.

After the cave, we decided to head through the village towards the entrance. The cultural village has different experiences and performances so you might want to plan your visit around them. The first area is basically a plant area and it felt like a lot of the plants came from Malaysia and other South East Asian countries.

And I had my Blue Seal ice-cream here! Blue Seal is ubiquitous in Okinawa, but for some reason I was always too full when we passed by a shop. So I took my chance and had the salted chinsuko flavour ice-cream and it was really good!

And the village:

Experiences available (all for an additional fee) include: Bingata studio (Okinawa traditional dyeing), Indigo dyeing studio, Weaving studio, Papermaking studio, Glass studio, Tea house, Kimono experience.

We actually planned to do the tea house, because I wanted my sister to experience Bukubuku tea, but there was an awful smell at the area. We asked around later, and it seems like there's a waterbuffalo living next to the village and its smell carried across. I would not recommend you have the tea here (assuming the smell is still here) and would recommend the shop near Shuri Castle instead.

Since we didn't do the tea, I managed to persuade my sister to try on the kimono and take a photo with me. According to my sister, it's the first and last time I'll ever get her in a kimono, which explains why I went overboard with the photos.

It costs 500 yen per person and each person can take photos with their phone. So for us, we took photos with a DSLR and a camera phone and could switch the poses for each.

They also sell the larger photos and since my sister claimed that she wouldn't wear a kimono again, I bought them. It's 1600 yen for both photos or 1100 yen for one photo, so I got both photos. I think the photos turned out really nicely too!

You can choose your own kimono, which I thought was fun. The staff were extremely nice as well, so if you're looking for a picture of yourself in an Okinawan kimono, this would be a good option too.

Please note that both this kimono experience and the one at the Ryukyu village only consists of the outer layer (although the Ryukyu village can let you have the full experience too) worn over your daily clothes. If you want the full experience, you might want to go somewhere else - Bene from Bene Fukuoka had a great experience on Miyakojima and her photos are absolutely beautiful! Unfortunately, I can't seem to find her English post, but here's a link to the French post if you want to check it out.

I took this photo because I thought the explanation was cute:

There's also a brewery at Okinawa World called Nanto Brewery. They make both beer and habu liquor. Habu liquor is basically awamori (Okinawa's sake) with a habu snake inside and my sister and I did not have the guts to try it. Perhaps next time?

According to the sign on this photo, they leave the poison in the snake when they put it in! But the alcohol dissolves the poison so the end-product isn't poisonous.

Overall, Okinawa World was a really fun place. A few things in the cultural area overlap with the Ryukyu village, but the caves provide a unique experience that you can't get elsewhere in Okinawa. If you're interested in finding out more about the place, here's a link to the official English site.

On a completely unrelated note, I'm well aware that these posts are extremely delayed. I'm back in Singapore, as my previous post indicated, but I'm planning to continue with the Okinawa recap before moving on to the last few days in Japan. If you'd like the order to be changed, just let me know via comments or email!