Top 8 Experiences in Ishigaki, Okinawa

I’ve been on a social media hiatus the past week or so, and it’s been quite refreshing. Tied in with that was my three-night stay on Ishigaki, the westernmost island of Okinawa, Japan. It was exactly what I needed to get rid of the stress that has been building up lately. If you’re stressed and you can afford it, an island holiday is a great pick-up.

I never really thought of myself as a tropical island person. I like mountains, rivers, and cities. But I loved Ishigaki. The contrast between the rather cold Tokyo and the open friendliness of the island people was surprising and refreshing. Despite it being February, Ishigaki’s weather lingered between 20-25 degrees Celsius. And there was so much space. So few people.

I won’t bore you with every single detail, but here are the best things I did in Ishigaki and the surrounding islands.

1. The Limestone Cave

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What I was expecting to be a touristy and highly commercialized spot was surprisingly awesome. We followed a path to admire some stalactites and stalagmites that had formed over thousands of years, sometimes taking on amusing shapes such as Totoro, the famous Studio Ghibli character.
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It was only a ten-minute drive away from the port and there was also a souvenir shop. We also saw some funky cocoons and a creepy-looking crab. It’s worth visiting when you’re in Ishigaki.

2. Trying Wagyu Beef

When you talk about high-quality beef from Japan, most people think of Kobe beef. Ishigaki wagyu is made from the black cows of the local area (whereas Kobe beef is made from the cows in Kobe), and we were hoping to try this high-grade stuff while we were here. A taxi driver recommended a place called Kingyuu, which means gold beef.

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It was just delightful. I’ve never had meat so marbled and tender, and now I finally understand what people mean by “melt in your mouth.” It was a fantastic experience. Kingyuu is just one of the many recommended places to try Ishigaki beef. If you want to go, make reservations.

3. Visiting Hateruma Island

We went to Hateruma Island for the day, which is an hour away by ferry from Ishigaki port. The island is the southernmost part of Japan and was so peaceful. The others on the ferry seemed to melt away and during our time cycling around the island, we didn’t see many other people at all. Just goats and sugar cane fields. It was gorgeous.

I took a photo of some farm workers, who were among the few people we spotted here.

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You can see the southernmost point of Japan if you cycle down to the south coast of Hateruma.

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4. The Beach

I’m not really one for the beach; when I was a kid, “beach” meant big coats, throwing rocks into the sea, and hot flasks of coffee. You wouldn’t really see me relaxing with a bikini and a book. However, we came across this lovely white sand beach on Haterumaand just had to take off our shoes and socks to play.

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There were a few other people there, as well as a guy who seemed to be living there – he had his clothes hung up and was relaxing on a towel with a beer! I felt it would be rude to take a picture of him, but it was a pretty unusual sight.

I didn’t see anyone paddling or writing in the sand, but what’s the point in going to the beach if you’re not going to do those things?

5. Visiting Taketomi Island

Taketomi Island is so nice, but it had a lot more tourists on it than Hateruma had. That being said, there are a lot of experiences you can enjoy here, such as seeing fish from a glass bottom boat and riding a wagon pulled by a water buffalo.

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I had my reservations about the buffalo part (I hadn’t booked it; I’d left all that to Ken), but the animals are strong and get fed well and showered every few steps of the tour. I think they were happy… but I really don’t know. They’re fed and washed and taken care of, so I suppose they’re as happy as buffalos can be.

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Taketomi is full of charming houses, fields of cows, and pretty flowers even in winter. It’s also only a ten-minute ferry ride from Ishigaki, so it’s easily accessible for a half-day trip.

6. A Free Shamisen Show

As part of the water buffalo tour, the man who guided us, a local of Taketomi, played this cute song on the shamisen. It’s unusual and exotic and was an unexpected treat.

#shamisen #music #Japan #Taketomi #竹富島 #しゃみせん

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7. The Food

Wagyu beef isn’t the only food you can try in Ishigaki. On our last night, we had tempura, maguro (tuna meat) katsu, sashimi, tofu (which tastes a hundred times better here), and thick chunks of pork. The vegetables here are fresh and the mango, in particular, is much better than on the mainland.

8. Swimming in the Pool

The Japanese like to keep by the rules. The pool is generally closed in winter, but if you don’t ask, you don’t get. Ken asked if we could take a dip anyway, and to my surprise, they said yes. No one else was hanging around the pool (25 degrees is hot for me, but I suppose not to everyone), so the pool was empty.

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This was a particularly special moment; my boyfriend asking the hotel staff if we could swim, and for us to be alone there, taking in the sea view and having a really refreshing dip before dinner.

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Almost the entire trip was fantastic, but these eight things were definitely the highlights. Getting away from the stress of the city was completely refreshing. I adore Tokyo, but I’d suffered from writer’s block and anxiety and didn’t realise how much I was feeling it until I had this very relaxing three-day trip to Okinawa. If you’re thinking of visiting this tropical prefecture, I highly recommend Ishigaki.

Peach Coca-Cola in Japan: Gross or Great?

I’d heard a bit about peach cola floating around in Japan. It’s just one of the many experimental flavours of drinks and the like that pop up now and then in the country. You’ll see crazy varieties of crisps, chocolate, alcohol, and soft drinks. I saw a bottle of peach cola in Daiso and grabbed a bottle.

Peach is quite a common flavour. You can get peace juice, peach soda, peach alcoholic drinks. What would peach cola be like?

I usually don’t drink cola unless it has whiskey in it, but I took a swig. At first it just tastes like regular cola, but the peach flavour comes afterward, at the top of your mouth. There is also a peachy aftertaste mixing with the usual slightly acidic sensation of coke.

I personally don’t think it’s that special. If you’re old enough to drink, you can get very similar peachy flavours with better drinks, such as peach horoyoi (3% alcohol). Though I suppose if you’re a huge fan of cola, it might be worth a try.

Basically, it tastes pretty much how you’d expect. Quite tasty, but nothing groundbreaking.

Yakiniku (Korean Barbecue) in Japan

It’s the weekend, and a national holiday on Monday! I’m getting geared up to spend the next three days killing dragons, hunting monsters, and reading books. Not necessarily in that order.

We had yakiniku for dinner, which is the local word for Korean barbecue. You get a grill at your table and order stuff to put on the fire. The meat is all cut thinly so that it cooks after just a minute or so.

Restaurants usually offer a tabehoudai (all-you-can-eat) course, but you generally don’t need it. The tabehoudai was around 3,400 yen but they had a set for two people for just 2,500 yen and it was more than enough.

They also had nomihoudai (all-you-can-drink) set, but you could only get it if you already ordered the tabehoudai. Therefore, we got just one bottle of sake and then ordered soft drinks to make our own mixed drinks. Forbidden? No. Cheeky? Maybe.

The set was ginormous, have a look. Please forgive the vertical shot though; I am not a clever man.

We also got a big bowl of rice, some sausages, and some kimchi, which is spicy Korean cabbage and one of my favourite foods ever. I remember going mental when I saw kimchi featured in an episode of QI.

It’s pretty much a meat lover’s dream. We had grilled kalbi beef and sausages and rice and kimchi and onion and carrot and pumpkin until we were full to burst. I also had juice with too much sake in and left the restaurant a little merry.

If you visit Japan, definitely be sure to try out “yakiniku.” It’s one of the best not-Japanese-but-kind-of-Japanese styles of eating you don’t want to miss 😀

Tokyo’s Blue Winter Sky

Day 38

I haven’t written anything in a few days because work has been really busy. Plus I spent most of last night playing Dragon Age Inquisition.

I was walking to work today when I noticed how beautifully blue the sky was. Winter here is dry and clear, with great views of Mt. Fuji. Even when the skyscrapers tower around you, you still see the perfect blue of the sky if you look up.

Look at that blue blue sky 💕 #Tokyo #Shibuya #winter #Japan #sky #渋谷 #冬

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A downside of a dry winter is that the country is prone to fires, although with modern heating systems and architecture and the like, it’s becoming less of a problem. It’s also easy to get dehydrated and chapped skin in this season.

Still, when I think about the dark, windy, rainy weather of winter back home, this blue blue blue sky isn’t so bad 😉

Pretty Yokohama

Day 29

Yesterday I met some people from university who I hadn’t seen for years. We went to Yokohama, the second biggest city in Japan and a short train ride away from Tokyo. Yokohama is relatively quiet, spacious for a Japanese city, and has an awesome Chinatown selling goods and food from (where else?) China. It also has a pretty big presence when Chinese New Year comes round in February.

The port is also really pretty and, like that day, we could see some ships getting ready to port. It’s much nicer on a sunny day but still made for a pretty impressive view.

We had lunch in Chinatown and then tucked into some coffee and pie at a cafe. It was a lot of sugar and calories but hey, it was a special day. We passed the small theme park, including the large Ferris wheel. It’s something which I always look at and think “that’s pretty,” while refusing to get on.

Pretty sunset

We did purikura, a photo booth where, as you can see, you can edit your photos after taking them. At just 100 yen each (400 yen per session), it wasn’t an expensive venture. LEP refers to the group we were in at university, and since it was 2012 since we all first met, we called that day the LEP Reunion.

Yokohama has a completely different vibe to Tokyo. In Yokohama, I always feel more relaxed with that “weekend feeling.” Still, I’ve never worked in Yokohama which is probably why. Still, everyone who has been to both cities would probably agree that Tokyo is the more hectic, if equally charming, of the two.

Oh, yeah. I also broke my shoe.

If you visit Tokyo, be sure to take a day trip to Yokohama, it’s a really cool place 🙂

Snow in Tokyo

Day 22 [New Year’s Resolution]: Snow in Tokyo

“INSTAGRAAAAAM!” a workmate of mine bellowed when our boss informed us that it was snowing.

Everyone gets excited at the first snowfall of the season. It was really only a matter of time before it hit Tokyo, but I don’t know if people were expecting it to come to suddenly or to stick for long.

Our boss sent us all home early and I’m really glad I did; the trains were packed and that wasn’t even during rush hour. But look how prettyyyy!

S N O W S N O W I N T O K Y O #tokyo #snow #Gakugeidaigaku #雪 #学芸大学

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Tokyo kind of shuts down if there’s even a bit of snow. Anticipating train delays was one of the reasons our boss sent us home. Luckily my train takes less than ten minutes, so if all went wrong we still could have walked. It was super packed and I ended up apologising profusely to some poor woman who probably had my laptop bag sticking into her stomach.

According to the news, the station near my workplace is incredibly crowded now – like, hundreds and hundreds of people are stuck waiting for the train. I hope they get home soon and safely.

のれぬ

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We got back to Gakugei-Daigaku and were cold and stressed, so naturally, we bought alcohol. I’m really grateful to have been sent home because waiting among other cold and tired workers at 8pm at night would not have been fun.

Have you got snow in your country yet?

Winter in Tokyo

Day 14 [New Year’s Resolution]: Winter in Tokyo

It’s really really really cold today. The snow has made things a bit mental in other prefectures; a train in Niigata was stopped for fifteen and a half hours, trapping over 400 people on board, and one or two elderly people have died because of collapsing houses under the snow.

Tokyo doesn’t have snow, thankfully, but it’s still pretty biting. Insulation here is awful, so if you don’t have the heater on, cold air penetrates your room whether you’re in a house, a block of flats, or the office.

It really makes me miss home. At least when it’s cold, you’ll feel the warmth as soon as you walk inside. Right now, we get inside our house and have to turn the heater on as soon as we walk in, waiting around fifteen minutes before it’ll heat up the room. Just that room. No central heating here.

エアコン・女性

Every time I feel like I hate winter, though, I remind myself of the cockroaches that found their way into our bathroom (not an infestation; there are just a lot of them around when it’s hot) last summer. Cockroaches are terrifying, so maybe cold fingers, and taking twenty minutes to get your bed warm at night is an acceptable alternative. Maybe.

At least I’m not dealing with snow. I shudder to imagine the amount of yuki gakki (snow shovelling) is going on near my old place up in Nagano Prefecture. Still, there are many great things about winter, too: hot beverages and soup inside vending machines, winter sports, heat-tech wear, winter illuminations, etc etc etc.

#Daikanyama #tokyo #illumination #christmas

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Bottom line is that it’s cold.

10 Things Guidebooks Don’t Tell You About Living in Japan

Day 13 [New Year’s Resolution]: 10 Things They Don’t Tell You About Living in Japan

Howdy, gang.

Thousands of people from around the world flock to live in Japan, whether it’s to teach English, travel as many prefectures as they can, or settle down and start a family. Some stay for less than a year, and others stay for decades.

Since Japan is such a popular country, there are many websites and blogs where you can find out about Japanese culture, events, food, customs, and the language. However, these tend to paint Japan in a light that makes it look perfect. I work for one of those websites, and any articles that make Japan look even a little bit bad are dismissed immediately.

I’ve been living in Japan for nearly five years now; eighteen months in Okaya, Nagano Prefecture, and two and a half years in Tokyo, the capital city. Although I love it here, there are a lot of downsides as well that you can’t really find a lot of information about online. Here are 10 things that guidebooks and blogs don’t tell you about living in Japan.

1. You Are Always a Foreigner

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Coming from the UK where we treat everyone equally and don’t care if someone’s black, white, or purple with polka dots, it’s very weird to still be considered “a foreigner” even after being here since I was nineteen.

It’s the first thing people notice about me, and almost everyone’s first question is “Where are you from?” and the first remark is “Oh, you can speak Japanese!”

It’s not really that much of a problem, but even my boyfriend does it. “Look, a white guy!” I find myself irritably replying “So what?”

Learn the language, get a job in a well-respected company, learn all the complicated customs and rules and manners, it doesn’t matter – you’ll always be a gaikokujin.

2. It’s Very Difficult to Rent a House

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There are a hundred and one rules involved if you’re a non-Japanese person hoping to rent a house. There are all kinds of fees including bond, deposit, key money, etc etc, and you need some kind of written recommendation.

I’m really lucky because in Nagano, my company sorted out my house, and in Tokyo, my boyfriend sorted it out. I’ve never had to personally deal with renting a place on my own so I don’t know all the ins and outs, but there’s a good article on GaijinPot all about it.

3. No One Has a Proper Oven

As someone who loves her pies and lasagnas, this drives me crazy. The only ovens you can really find are a sort of mixture between an oven and a microwave, and the same size as that, too. Unless you’re willing to invest tens of thousands of yen, oven dishes aren’t an option if you like to cook. Boo.

4. It’s Hard to Find Good Cheese

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Of course you’ll want to try the delicious local food that’s on offer in Japan, but sometimes you want a little taste of home. Cheese is one of the things that the Japanese just can’t seem to get right. The much-boasted Hokkaido cheese is supposed to be fantastic, but compared to the rich and sharp cheddars from home, it’s pizza-topping tier.

You can find imported cheeses in certain shops, but then you’re expected to cough up for it. I managed to find some Brie the other day from Kaldi Coffee, and after wincing at the price tag, enjoyed it very much.

5. Everything is Scripted

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Back home, I can walk into a shop and easily have a chat with a shop assistant about anything. It’s friendly, it’s good customer service, and it makes the company look good. However, as soon as I walk into a shop I know I’m going to hear the welcoming phrase “irasshaimase“, the amount of money I owe the cashier, and the thank-yous when I leave.

It’s not for lack of trying, either. I’ve tried to chat with people many times in shops only to have a very startled, nervous, and short reply, or to have them ignore me completely or look at me like I’ve grown a tit on my forehead. It’s quite lonely.

6. You’ll Miss Things from Your Home Country

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Although you may not believe it when you first arrive, you will definitely end up missing stuff from your home country after a couple of months, especially food. That condiment that you can find in every cafe at home but doesn’t exist here. Your favourite brand of tea. Good chocolate. Decent deodorant.

Still, that’s what care packages are for. Be sure to send yourself some essentials before you go.

7. Everything is Tiny

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If you’re tall in Japan, you’re going to have a bad time. It takes a bit of getting used to, as doorways, food portions, furniture, and many other things will make you feel like you’ve grown several inches or everything else has shrunk.

Couple that with the fact that the average height in Japan for men is 5″7, and you’ll feel like a wandering giant. The wandering foreigner.

8. People are Fake

No, not everyone. But as someone who grew up with a father who was more forward than most people and didn’t care who knew it, it’s really hard for me to get used to a society where people say “yes” when they mean no, “maybe” when they mean “hell no,” and “sure, you can trust me with this information” when the next thing you know they’re blabbing to unfriendly ears.

A lesson I learned the hard way is to not share things that can be used against you unless you absolutely 100% trust that person. Learn to read between the lines and read body language (tilting their head to the side with a smile/frown often means “no”). It’s a pain.

It’s all part of the politeness thing, but there’s a massive difference between being polite and being fake.

9. Everything is Ridiculously Over-Packaged

This isn’t really a bad thing, I suppose, but the amount of nagging we get in Europe about reducing, reusing, and recycling! Then you buy a box of sweets as a souvenir and hey-ho, you have to battle through three boxes and a plastic bag before you can finally get your (unexpectedly tiny) sweet. Next time you buy anything in Japan, take a look at the packaging. It isn’t normal.

10. Drinking a Lot is Normal

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Japan has one of the world’s highest life expectancies and this is said to be down to a lot of factors: better diets, healthier lifestyles, and more exercise. Despite this, drinking in Japan is huge. It’s not only okay to drink several times a week, but in some jobs, it’s expected.

Many companies engage in nomikai, a party where the boss and his employees go out to a local izakaya pub or bar to drink themselves silly. Seeing passed out young men in suits at train stations in the wee hours is a pretty normal sight.

Safety meltdown via @jamesmagnum3

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This attitude towards drinking leaks into the lives of those who aren’t businessmen as well. I find myself surprised when I realise I haven’t had alcohol in a few days, and my boyfriend loves to go out and get wasted from time to time without even thinking of it as a potential problem.

It’s good news if you love to drink, though, as western men are often admired for being “osake tsuyoi,” or having a high resistance to alcohol. You might find that your alcohol intake, and in turn, your weight, increases while you live here unless you don’t drink at all.

The good things about Japan outweigh the bad by far, which is why I’m still here! No country is perfect, though, and it’s important to know the downsides before you arrive so you can prepare for them. Whether you count all of the above as downsides or not is up to you.

Coming of Age Day in Japan

Day 8 [New Year’s Resolution]: Coming of Age Day in Japan

Today is a national holiday, which means no work!

There are a lot of national holidays in Japan where office workers and the like get a day off. Today is Coming of Age day, where those who turned 20 years old in the past year dress in kimonos or suits and go to their local city hall for a ceremony.

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Then, because 20 is the legal age to drink in Japan, they go out and get bladdered with their friends.

I didn’t do much with my day off except write and go out with my friends. National holidays are for relaxing, after all. It’s back to the grind tomorrow, though.

Oyasumi for now.

A Day in Kita-Senju

Day 7 [New Year’s Resolution]: A Day in Kita-Senju 

I met my homestay family today! I first met them in November 2012 as part of the study program at Toyo University and we’re still close now.

Since Kita-Senju in east Tokyo is about halfway between their house and mine, we decided to meet there. I’d never been, but it turned out to be a nice little shopping spot.

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We has a nice meal (super cheap – beer for 300 yen and Jim Beam and soda highball for just 200) and I got NieR: Automata on PS4, yay!

Even though I’m still a bit sick with a cold I had a lovely time with them and my friend Leo. Then I took Krispy Kreme doughnuts home. Today was a great day!

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Tomorrow is Coming of Age Day in Japan which means a bonus day off as well. Hopefully it’ll be enough to get completely well before it’s back to work.

Have you ever been to Kita-Senju? What did you do today?