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Japan trip 14.03.15-05.04.15 "Part VII - Sendai & coming home"

Good morning Sendai! This was the day when Yanne started to receive new people into the dormitory and because our stay there was actually not allowed, then we decided to keep away, so we went out.
We had to go to Yanne's university because she had to sign another piece of paper that is so common in everyday life in Japan. On the way we stopped by Osaki Hachiman shrine which is one of the most colorful shrines in Japan. Shrine is dedicated to the kami Hachiman, tutelary god of warriors. Some business men were having a service, with high chance that it was connected to some kind of upcoming project or deal. It was really nice to see that old traditions are still hold.
We went on to Yanne's university where students were recruiting new members to clubs. There were so many students all around and for the first time I felt what means big university. I would like to remind you that Tohoku University is one of the biggest and prestigious universities in Japan and has ~17 800 students and ~1300 international students. So it was really interesting for me to be there. Both of my universities - in Estonia and in Portugal - are rather small. There were also some guys from one club who came to talk to us. They were really surprised to find out that Yanne is studying there.
Even though there are over 1 million people living in Sendai, it feels more like a country city. It is is weird especially because it is almost the whole population of my country, but it is true. You can feel it in everything - architecture, people, nature etc. Yanne can talk a lot about it.
We went to Sendai city center which is pretty cool, because in front of Sendai station there are pedestrian bridges. It was a nice day walking around.
We finished the day with going out with Yanne's friends. We went to nomihoudai and karaoke. "nomihoudai" is a place were you pay for time you spend there and not for the drinks. So advice - drink a lot and fast if you want to get drunk there for paying a little. It is really famous place for businessmen to go to celebrate things, so next table to us were businessmen. NOTICE: I do not promote alcohol drinking - alcohol is bad for your health and should be drank in right amount.
As I am not a big singer then at first it was weird in karaoke, but the easiest way is just to relax and know that a lot of people cannot sing but do it anyway. I was really looking forward to karaoke hoping that I could sing any Japanese song, for example some Tegomasu or NEWS songs, but as usually I am able to forget all the lyrics when I need to sing and I am unable to read kanji.. So only songs in English. I must say that it is rather easy to make a mistake with the right door in karaoke, especially when you have drank already. For me all the doors looked the same and I forgot to check before which was the right one. It was really great and funny day and I was really happy to see that Yanne has awesome friends there.

We woke up rather late because of the previous night. It was our last proper day in Japan, but we spent it mostly in Yanne's dormitory repacking our luggage,so I do not have any photos from that day. We did go to the city for a moment just to eat and buy last souvenirs from Sendai, but that was it.

In the morning around 10.00 we took a bus from Sendai to Tokyo. I thought that it wouldbe much easier to say byebye to Yanne, but I was wrong. Despite the fact that we talk every week and make at least 3 hour Skype-sessions, it was still really painful to leave. I would be a lie if I would say that I was not left in tears. Now all the bus ride to Tokyo seems like I was in another dimension. I sat alone and just watched the big snow-topped mountains going by as if saying "Your journey here has become to the end, remember every moment that you spent in the country you love". It was really weird feeling that I had in the bus.
In Tokyo we still had few hours to spend so we went to Shibuya park where people celebrated hanami. I was actually amazed! The whole park was filled with people, either groups of university friends, families, company colleagues. I know that I knew that it is something like that, but I did not think that there would be so big groups and so big party-ish thing. I have to say that in a way I also was embarrassed, because we did not put our luggage into coinlockers this time, so we were walking around the people with big bags and as Europeans we got a bit too much attention. There were guys inviting us for a drink and one drunk guy was asking email address to keep in contact. This was actually the moment when Chris discovered that she had lost her phone.. with high chance into Sendai bus. Thank Gyoza that in the airport I found it from my bag where Chris before put goods from the store. She had just accidentally dropped her phone there also.
Another thing that we managed to see in Shibuya park was traditional Japanese wedding. I think Japanese weddings are so beautiful and we saw exactly when they were taking wedding photos. Congratulations to newly weds!
Then the time came for us to take the bus to airport and fly back to Estonia. Just 12 hours on a plane to Paris and few hours to Estonia. This time the time difference was worse so I was able to sleep only little sleep and most of the time spent watching movies. From Asian movies I watched "White haired witch of Lunar kingdom". 

Finally, back in Estonia I almost did not unpack my things because after 10 days in Estonia, I already went to Turkey for a week. Travelling at its best!

These were my 3 weeks in Japan and I hope you also enjoyed reading this. Hopefully I can make another trip to Japan in few years :)


Japan trip 14.03.15-05.04.15 Part VI - Okinawa

Okinawa: sun, leisure, USA
Because why not to go to Okinawa while you are already in Japan? We had to decide between 5 days on Okinawa or just a weekend in Seoul, but because in Seoul we would have ended up spending more money, we decided in favor of the sunny beaches.

Okinawan lion

27.03.2015 So after few hours of flying we arrived to Okinawa and instead of sunny weather, we were greeted by rain. We took taxi and went to our hostel. In Naha the taxi was not so expensive and we wanted to arrive there fast. We took hostel in Naha, because the day later we had Couchsurfing place in another city. The hostel was a cool place that was kept by local friends community. They were all really nice and it felt like a great place to stay even for a longer period of time. My bed was similar to sleeping in a closet, but it was super awesome. It made me feel like I was a small child again who makes castles out of pillows. But because we were starving already, we went to find something to eat with the rain, because our stomachs were making horrible sounds already. Sadly, this hunger made us make bad choices and we ended up in an overpriced local cuisine restaurant, where we just got a small taste of food into our mouths but not into stomach. In addition, we were completely ignored by the service, had to wait for a long time and overall this was one dinner we did not enjoy at all. We just went to Lawson after leaving the place and bought something that actually filled our stomachs. After this we just wanted to sleep.

I should say a few things about Okinawa. Okinawa prefecture is situated between Japan and Taiwan and it consists of many smaller and bigger islands. While Okinawa is the name of the Prefecture, it is also the name of a large group of island and also the official name of the main island with the capitol city of Naha. Historically Okinawa had a different culture from Japan. There lived Ryukyuan people who had different language and traditions due to being influenced by not only Japan, but also China, Philippines and many other countries. I hardly managed to see anything that reminded me of Japan. Adding to the historical influences during WWII Okinawa became an important army base for US and even at the moment there are 14 US army bases on Okinawa that occupy around 18% of the island. In comparison, Japan has only 2 army bases on Okinawa. With high percent of Americans living there, you can do almost everything in English. Most of the American solders do not speak Japanese at all. There have been ongoing protests against US bases for all these 70 years and most of the men in forces also say that they would prefer to leave as it is not even their country. On the other hand, from political point of view for America Okinawa is situated much closer to China, North-Korea and Russia than the US mainland itself, now make your own conclusions about how eager they are to leave.

Bus tickets
After waking up we already had smiles on our faces because the sun was shining and it was the first day we could wear shorts and sleeveless shirts - bye-bye to the warm jackets. Of course we wanted to see many things inside Naha and we had to leave to the other city only in the evening. So we took up to go to sightseeing. We bought one day bus-ticket that looks like you are asked to play Scratch-off, because you have to scratch off the day you want to use it. Be sure not to make a mistake with it.  Of course by the end of the day I managed to lose mine at one point and pretend I do not find my ticket in the bus - great Okinawans allowed me to ride without one. Unfortunately we had to carry our baggage with us for all of the day as we did not find any coin lockers the we had used all the time on the mainland.
Shikinaen garden
We drove with a bus up to the "mountains" to go see the Shikinaen garden. The Shikinaen garden was made for the Ryukyu kings residence in 18th century. All garden was destroyed in the Battle of Okinawa, but later restored again. Not only the place has astonishing beauty, but it is also full of history about Ryukyu's kings. I think it was one of the most magical places.
After the garden we took bud for few more stops to go and see Shuri's castle. Shuri Castle is the palace of Ryukyu Kingdom. It was almost all destroyed in 1945, but rebuilt in 1992. The site played the most important role in Ryukyuan political and religious life. This is definitely one place to visit once you are on Okinawa.
Shuri Castle
When we finally decided to start moving to another city, we thought of hitch-hiking  We had heard that it is really easy to hitchhike in Japan, because they do not know so well what it is and are ready to pick you up as they think you're in trouble. After trying for a few minutes on the closest road a guy came and told us to walk 200 meters so we would be on the main highway where it is much easier to get on a car. He was right. 2 minutes there and a car already stopped. It was an American marine who was living with his wife and child in the same city as to we were going. He was really nice and dropped us off in front of the apartment. Apparently the city is small enough to know your ways around there.
So there we were - looking to the ocean on our right and nice apartment on our left. I am going to change the names of the people again, so let's call our host "Andy". He was working as a pilot and he had a lot of interests. The house was big and the most comfortable place where we slept during our trip. Even though we were a bit exhausted we went out with him because the forces from the base were having a party. How many in Europe can say that they have partied with US forces? I know it sounds weird, but for me this sentence takes back to WW times were things like that happened. Of course everything was actually usual party with nothing so special, but I still like to think of it as a check in my to-do-list.  There we also met two nice guys who were willing to show us around the island next day. 

So the morning came and we got ready to go to discover the beauty of the island. We managed to meet up with the guys who just happened to have sport scars. Let's call them Nate, Brad and Greg. As the sun was burning us, we decided to first take some fresh-made ice-creams that melted before being eaten. Well, you know that Japan has a lot of different tastes for ice-creams so the choice was difficult.
The part of waterfall where you could actually swim..
the real fall was 10 meters away on left.. 
We headed to the North of Okinawa where guys promised to show us beautiful nature. The first stop was waterfall hidden in the forest. Finding it turned out more difficult than we expected. Fortunately, not impossible. Most of the Okinawa's forest is similar to rain forest and for a Nordic person as I am, it was astonishing to see it all. To reach the waterfall we actually had to climb down the slope from a narrow road where passing people was rather impossible. Of course the view next to the waterfall was incredible, especially the fact that you could also swim there. We met there a lot more guys from the forces, but unfortunately we did not exchange names or contacts. We just found out that US soldiers really really love Taylor Swift... though it should have not been a surprise to me, the reality of how much they like her still shocked me. Back to Okinawa now - Guys as they are started to show off with their skills and braveness by jumping down into the waterfall. Even with army medics in the crew, if anyone would have jumped a bit wrong, there would have nothing left to do. Basically in this waterfall there is just one exact place where to jump and the waterfall itself is few meters high with rocky bottom. If you ask if any of us jumped, then the answer is that we allowed guys to make all the jumps. None of us four wanted to finish our trip there, especially because I doubt that our insurance would have covered it.
Cape Hedo
Next on we headed to Cape Hedo aka "Suicide cliffs". The nickname of the cliffs comes from WWII as the last clashes of Battle of Okinawa took place there. Many Japanese soldiers and Okinawan civilians committed suicide there by jumping off the cliffs. Landscape that now gives you beautiful view is actually driven by blood and sadness of the past. But to cheer you up again then Cape Hedo has some big weird looking bird-fish - Kariyushi - that is a monument for celebrating friendship between two places. In this area you can actually find more big weird monuments.
To continue with the trip, then I must say that we just started to head back to our sleeping place as it started to get dark already. We finished our day-trip with nice dinner at American-looking diner.
In the end, we said good-bye to guys and went back to Andy's place where we had some beer and ice-cream sided with interesting talks. 

New morning, new adventures. We had delicious breakfast at Andy's and after being patched with food we headed out to go to Aquarium. If you do not know, then Okinawa has a huge aquarium called Churaumi Aquarium. Once again we decided to try hitchhiking. Took us again only few minutes before we met a nice Taiwanese man who decided to give us a lift to Aquarium. In exchange we just had to take few photos with him. As he did not speak good English not Japanese, we did not find much out about him.
Before the real aquarium we decided to stop at the beautiful beaches of Ocean Expo Park (Churaumi Aquarium is a small part of it). The official swimming season actually should have started at 1st of April, so we were there just 2 days before the legal date. Do you already know what happened? We managed to swim in water for 5 minutes when we already saw people on the beach waving to us to come back to the shore as "it is not allowed to swim there yet". After few minutes acting that we do not see him, we decided to obey the rules and got out of the water as the waving got more and more reckless.
Finally we went to the Aquarium and it definitely was worth every cent and minute spent on it. I have been to few aquariums in other countries, but this was the most fascinating experiences that I have. If I had the opportunity I would definitely go back there.
Churaumi Aquarium
As Andy's place was rather far from the Aquarium, we needed a plan to get back there. First thought was abus, but as soon as we heard about the ticket price, we let bus driver close the doors and continue its ride without us. Second try was to see taxis. Compared to Naha, these taxi drivers close to Aquarium where tourist-oriented and asked almost the same amount of money as the bus. So we were left with no other option than to hitchhike again.
It was the most difficult moment from our hitchhiking experience in Okinawa as there were no good places for cars to stop and most cars were already full. Not easy to hitchhike with 4 people. Even though, I say that it was most difficult, then actually it took us just around 10 minutes to get on a car. One couple picked us up. The guy was from Japan and woman was a small Thai woman. The situation got a bit awkward as Yanne did not mention that she speaks Japanese and the couple was talking some stuff between themselves in Japanese. Let's say that later we managed to laugh a lot about it as this Thai woman thought that while holding your thumb up next to the road, means that you want a man...  Well no comments about that. But the couple was going to another city, so they just left us near Nago bus station where we still took bus (but much cheaper one) and went back home to eat pasta and cookies.

On our last day on Okinawa we decided to just have a walk in the neighborhood. We ended up walking for a few hours. Also along the road on the shore there was an amazing project where primary school children could decorate the sideways of the road. Though again there you can see the influence of USA as many children have drawn some USA cartoons. Still it is really nice thing to see and kind of makes you happy. My favorite one was "Ki wo tsukete - Okaasan no kotoba boku no omamori" / "Be careful" Mom's words are my protection/ . Not sure what there is about these words, but it really goes deep into my heart.
Local family restaurant
We also found a lot of caves on the shore and me as totally frightened by darkness, had difficult time to go into or through them. Despite that I was satisfied with the amazing views.
In addition, we managed to find one local family restaurant where people did not speak English. I guess it was the first and only time on Okinawa when Yanne had to speak Japanese. In addition, by the actions of the family I guess they did not have many foreigners eating at their place. This sweet family was really interested to get to know things about us, made us traditional Okinawan sweets in addition to the lunch we had there. It was the first time on Okinawa when we actually managed to eat real traditional Okinawan food. Sometimes small streets hide the biggest gems in them.

Before going back to the house, we went for one last swim in the ocean. The water was so warm, but for some reason most locals watched us as crazy people as the swimming season still had not started.
In reality, there was one bad thing that happened to me in the forest two days before. Somehow I had been bitten by some kind of spider or bug in the forest and my right leg started to get swollen. With each day more and more, so by this day my leg was already looking a bit nasty with increasing temperature close to the bitten place. These kind of situations it is best to keep calm and think. Not sure if it was the smartest thing to do, but we decided to wait until we finish the trip to go see the doctor, unless I will have huge fever or collapse before arriving to my home country. (Luckily the swollen reduced with one week without needing any kind of medical treatment)
This night there were also some Dutch guys staying at Andy's place. Unfortunately I could not remember their names, but I must say that one of them had really nice mustache and smooth talk. We decided to go out for drinks and we ended up drinking Habusake (aka habushu) that is traditional Okinawan Snake Wine. If you want to know, if it had a snake in it, then yes, it had a snake in it. It is made of habu snake that is related to rattlesnake and copperhead. For a venomous snake, it was really delicious drink (though I do not support killing any kinds of snakes for liqueur nor alcohol consumption) .
As we were feeling really great already from habushu we decided to turn the night into really long one, so we took some sleeping bags and went to the beach to watch the stars.

Other Okinawa island
As the night decided to pass by much faster than we thought, suddenly the clock was already 6 am and we had to get our stuff, go to the airport and leave Okinawa behind.
Of course we first had to get to the airport and once again we found hitchhiking the most suitable way as we calculated that we had enough time to still get on the plane (as Okinawa airport is really small). Fortunately again we were picked up really fast by one woman who actually had no idea what we were doing and just wanted to help out in case we need help. Okinawa was definitely the best place for hitchhike.
For next we just spent time in different airports and train-stations as we had to reach Sendai by the evening. I guess I do not have to mention that compared to Okinawa, we were back to colder and rainy place and as soon as we reached Yanne's dormitory we were so exhausted that we just fell asleep fast to have enough energy for the next day. But more about discovering Sendai in next and final post about this trip.

Remark: Yanne actaully went back to Okinawa few months later with her friends as she was staying in Japan until October 2015.


Japan trip 14.03.15-05.04.15 "Part V - Osaka"

Notes about first days in Osaka still missing, so it is a bit difficult to write about everything :/
After we arrived to Osaka we were really tired and just wanted to go to our hostel. What we understood much much later is that when you take the cheapest hostel, then you should not expect much from it. Or not expect anything at all. I am still pretty sure that those linen were not washed before and I do not even want to know what things were thrown out from these windows. It was really weird place to stay and Yanne later said that actually we were just one block away from the most criminal area in whole Japan. Gyoza how I like Osaka. I was really surprised because despite being the second biggest metropolitan area in Japan you can see way too big differences between different areas of the city. In Tokyo and Kyoto the difference was not so big and obvious, but in Osaka it seemed like two different cities. At the moment I am talking about the differences of Shinsekai and other areas. Well, Shinsekai was the place were we stayed. A lot of alcoholics, a lot of garbage everywhere, the whole place looked almost abandoned. It is definitely a place where you do not walk around during the night alone. Maybe I am exaggerating a bit, but it is a place were you should not be alone.
So the evening of 25th we tried to overcome the shock about the hostel and the area and made last repacking for going to Okinawa, because we were going with low-fare airline so we wanted to go just with hand luggage.

After waking up we decided to rented bikes to go see as much as we can see in Osaka. Yanne was at first a bit against it, but it ended up being one of the greatest decisions, despite the fact that my bike was broken and it was difficult to ride with it, not mentioning taking photos. We went around the Osaka and while being without map we did not know really where we are or where are we going. I have to say that Kanjani8 are definitely the stars of Osaka. All places where filled with notes or photos about them and saying "Kanjani8 ate here!!". It is great to see that boys are so famous there. At the same time it more felt cozy and home-like. Everything gave the feeling that it is the home of Kanjani8 members and everybody act like family. I do not know exactly why I felt like it. Another thing that I noticed was that I saw so much more host clubs in Osaka compared to Tokyo. But maybe in Osaka they just stood out more in the street view.
We went to eat okonomiyaki, because Osaka is the city of Okonomiyaki. It became one of the favorite foods for Chris, so we even ended up buying all the ingredients back with us when we left Japan.
We visited Osaka Castle and we actually met our aunt there who was in Osaka for one conference. Weird to go to the other side of the world to meet with your relative who lives almost in the same city as you. Unfortunately, I must say that Osaka Castle was a big let-down for me. Outside of it is amazing and one of a kind, definitely worth seeing, but inside is just museum with really modern restoration. While I am still studying interior architecture, I believe they could have done the inside in a better way. Basically after this we turned around again and started going back - of course from a different route. We went back through Minami district and that was only place where I thought 1) Oh, Osaka is BIG city 2) It is too crowded to ride a bike here. It was really crowded and it was the only part that reminded me something similar to streets in Tokyo.
For our surprise, we were not too tired so we decided to go out for a party. I had missed some moments so I do not know how we were invited to nomihoudai in one pub. It was pub where a lot foreigners went. We met a lot of people there and it was really interesting to hear how they are living in Osaka. In a weird way, we ended the night playing video games in one gamer's bar with one really cool English teacher. I still feel bad that I really sucked in the game and I do not remember his name. He was definitely one person worth remembering.

This was our last day in Osaka. Actually half of day because then we had to go to the Airport.
We spent this day walking around Shinsekai, because Yanne knew that there should be one of the oldest temples in Japan. Unfortunately, we saw many other temples and shrines there, until Yanne discovered that the oldest temple is actually really far from us and we do not have time anymore to go there. Luckily, she visited it later when she made another trip to Osaka. We also went to one temple which contains buddha statues made of human ashes. It was rather creepy place, especially when we saw people bringing more ashes to build another buddha in few years. Also the big statues at the gates of the temple were modern statues made by the priest who has a big interest in architecture - See the photo up..
As street-food is really popular in Shinsekai, we decided to finally eat takoyaki there. Another food that is really popular in Osaka. I did not think it is so chummy and it definitely was way too hot to eat all at once. Aaa, and there was more Kanjani8 there!
If you want to hear if Shinsekai was as dangerous as it is told to be, then beside homeless people we managed to see one crazy woman escaping from the police and screaming. I do not know if she was under some kind of drug influence or she was just lost her mental state, but it was rather scary thing to see.
So the time came to take our things and go to Kansai airport and fly to Okinawa! We got there earlier, because we had to send most of our baggage straight to Sendai, because it would have been too expensive and useless to bring it all to Okinawa. I do not remember how much it cost, but for all our things it was rather cheap. If you happen to be in position like this, then it is a great option to send your things - just be sure that there is someone in the destination to collect it and store it until you get there. In addition, Kansai Airport is one of the coolest airports, because it is built on artificial island and metro road will take you long over the water to get there. Rather spooky experience for people who are afraid of heights over deep water.
In Kansai Airport we also had time to take part of samurai performance where we were made to wear all the outfits and act as we are samurai's having a fight. Though I was in a really bad mood and I do not like these kind of things, it was funny experience for other members of my travel group.
And then we were off to Okinawa! Few hours of flying and the sunny weather waited for us.. or that is what we believed and hoped, but more about it in next travel post! ;)