Friday, December 7, 2012


To my displeasure, winter has arrived. In my opinion there are only 4 good things about winter:
1. mikan- clementines, which are much more delicious here
2. kotatsu- the coffee table with a heating element under it
3. snowboarding
4. nabe

What's nabe? It's often translated as "hot pot." Basically, you cut up a bunch of vegetables (napa cabbage, green onions, carrots, daikon radish, etc), get some meat (pork, meatballs, rolled cabbage, etc), maybe some dumplings and noodles, and some nabe soup you bought at the store. Then throw all of these things in a pot and cook it. But it's not just any pot. It's a pot that is heated on a portable gas stove, which is sitting atop your kotatsu. Then you sit around the table with your friends cooking, eating and having a good time. It's the life.

There are all kinds of soups you can get:
よせ鍋 yosenabe - the general soup
キムチ kimuchee - kimchee
みそ miso - fermented soy (?)
ごま goma - sesame
豚骨らめん tonkotsu ramen
ちゃんぽん champon - champon is a seafood based ramen-like soup that is a Nagasaki specialty
and more...

nabe literally translates to "pot." My pot is special because it's split down the middle, so you can cook two different flavored soups at once. It's novel, really. When I tell people about it, they get really excited. Pots come in all different sizes from personal sized ones to ones that can serve up to 8 or 9 people.

I've already had 2 "nabe parties" and I can't wait to have more.


Last March I started taking karate lessons with two other female ALTs in my city. Our teacher is a really cool old man who is fluent in English and works on the US naval base. He's been all over the world and has many neat stories. He grew up in Okinawa where he started studying karate around junior high school. He's since achieved his 6th degree black belt in karate and his 4th degree in another Okinawan marital art called kobudo.

In the 1400s there were several forms of martial arts being practiced, but when King Sho Shin took control of the Ryukyu Kingdom, he banned weapons.  Kobudo uses household, farming and other tools as weapons. Think of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, those are the weapons used in kobudo. With weapons being banned, new forms of martial arts arouse, empty handed ones. (Karate or 空手(空: open 手: hand)).

Eventually three main forms of karate emerged: Naha-te, Shuri-te and Tomari-te. Each has it's own kata (choreographed pattern movements). From these modern karate was developed.

There are many styles of modern karate, each focuses on different kata and techniques. Further, mainland karate varies from Ryukyu karate. The dojo I practice under, 真券 shinken  ("true fist") is based in Okinawa and stems from Naha-te.

One main rule of karate, but especially Okinawan karate, is that in the real world, you only ever fight if it's in defense of youself or a loved one. Step one: Avoid fighting. Step 2: If you have to fight, end it quickly. Mainland karate usually calls for more hits, but in Ryukyu karate you want to finish your opponent in one hit, even if it's just a block or counter-attack. Pretty cool.

In October we passed our level 3 test, so we received our brown belts. Within the next year, we need to pass level 2 and level 1 so we can try for our 1st degree black belt. So far we haven't done much actual fighting, mostly kihon (basics- punching, kicking, etc) and kata.  We will have to fight for the black belt though, literally.

In our karate training we are also learning many easy but painfully effective self-defense moves. I personally think these moves are way cooler than regular karate. With just a small movement you can break a hold and have your opponent on the ground. It's cool.

Last August we started kobudo, the martial art that uses weapons. We are using only bo, but we've seen the other weapons in action and boy, do they look deadly!

Sorry, it's a picture of a picture. But don't I look mean?!
What I'm really trying to say is: you probably don't want to mess with me ;)


Every month seems to get busier and busier, sorry to have been out of the loop. Let's take it back a  couple months to my trip to Okinawa. I've made it a doozy.

Okinawa is pretty much Japan's Hawaii. It has the reputation of having beautiful beaches and a rich, unique culture. You probably know the name from the WWII Battle of Okinawa (sometimes referred to as "The Typhoon of Steel"). This fight, was not only the last major battle, but also resulted in the most casualties, nearing 200,000 in military and civilian deaths.

After the war, the US signed a treaty with Japan basically saying that Japan isn't allowed to have a military (only a self-defense force), but the US will protect them. This resulted in over 36,000 US military and civilian personnel being stationed all over Japan, known as the USFJ, United States Forces Japan (2009 figures). US bases really are scattered all over the country, we even have a US Naval base in nearby Sasebo City. However, about 70% of all USFJ bases are located in Okinawa.  While the post-war Okinawan community seems to tolerate the military, their presence is not necessarily desired, in fact many people want them out completely.

The woes of the locals regarding the military aren't completely unwarranted. Many of the air force bases are located very close to residential neighborhoods, but also the US military doesn't have that clean of a rap sheet either, when interacting with locals. (For example:

But anyway, back to my vacation. Well... not yet.
Okinawa, once called the Ryukyu Islands, wasn't actually even part of Japan until 1609 when it was invaded by a Japanese from the mainland. Being so far away however, they were pretty independent until they were officially made part of Japan after the Meiji Restoration, in 1879. Coming in so late in the game, Okinawa has it's own "dialect" which is actually more or less a completely different language and nearly incomprehensible to Japanese speakers. Mainland Japanese is taking over though, with Okinawan only spoken by the elderly and in traditional songs and performances. (I had no problem communicating).  Okinawan music and dance is also much different than that of the mainland, having more influence from China and other Asian cultures. These other cultures can also be seen in the unique architecture of traditional buildings.

Okay, now you know where I went, let's talk about what I did.

Last year I wanted to hold on to the last wisps of summer with all I had, so I yearned for an early autumn trip down to the still warm islands. However, I didn't want to go alone, so I ended up not going at all. After that I made the resolution that I was going to Okinawa with or without a friend the next year, so without even bother discussing it with my friends, I went ahead and bought my tickets. I was eventually joined by my good friend Steve.

The most sacred spot
The most southern spot
Day 1: We arrived around 11 and immediately hopped on some rental scooters and scooted our way around the southern region of the main island, Okinawa. We saw some cool things, such as the most sacred spot in Okinawa and the most southern spot. Those were cool and all, but the best part was scooting around the beautiful coastline with the warm sun on my back. Although it was my first time on a scooter, I didn't have much problem getting used it, but then we went over two very long, very elevated, very crowed bridges with kind of strong wind and it was quite scary. It wasn't dangerous, just scary, especially because I wasn't expecting it.

Pig's foot

That night we ate some Okinawan specialties like pig foot, pig ear (in peanut sauce) and some seaweed stuff. The pig foot was not good, the peanut sauce on the pig ear made it very edible, only the texture was a little strange.

Day 2: The next day we took a ferry off the main island to an island called Zamami. It's a small island with about 3,000 people and consists mostly of hotel and restaurant owners, but every thing was almost run down. Our room was a single standing "building" that reminded me of those "Pods," portable storage containers- barely enough room for our fold out beds and the bathrooms a port-o-potty and a port-o-shower. It was still fun though.

After arriving we rented some bicycles and cycled our way to some beaches, then up some mountains (oops). The scenery was impeccable. The water was a little cold, but little fish would come and swim up right next to us! Later we ended up renting some snorkels and masks and swam amongst some corral. Let me tell you, I don't know if I've done anything so cool, and it got better. We not only saw a sea turtle, but we got to swim right next to him! It was SO COOL. But again, it gets better, just wait.
That night, we had arranged to do a "mystery tour" with our hotel owner. The Mama-san came along too and brought their daughter who was visiting for the weekend from San Fransisco. The first stop was a spot to view fireflies, we didn't see many though. Mystery number two was at the port. Armed with flashlights and nets we were instructed to shine the light into the shallow water to attract plankton. The plankton would attract these little fish, which were supposed to catch. I followed the directions and found that I was surprisingly good at catching this fast little suckers. So I caught one and I was just excited for catching it. I thought that was that. Then they brought out the container of soy sauce and ginger. What?! Somehow I'd missed the part where we told we were going to eat the fish. I put the still live fish in the soy sauce and it kept flopping around until, crunch! I chewed him to death!  In Japanese it's called 踊り食い odorigui (踊り means dancing and 食い is eat). So I ate the still dancing fish. Pretty wild right?  It tasted bad, very very fishy.  The next mystery was just a couple feet away in another shallow part of the port. Here we used the nets to stir up some bioluminescent plankton, but I didn't eat these guys.  Next up was another dock were we caught two fish (again, everyone was so impressed by my net skills), one rare one that looked like a leaf and another that had a long nose.  Second to last was the hermit crab lair. There were about a hundred hermit crabs walking around a giant pile of shells. We played with them a bit and then saw one change shells, which apparently isn't seen too often. (Steve later found this article The last mystery was the most spectacular. We drove up to the top of a a big hill and laid down on a helipad and gazed at the stars. I saw the milky way!

Day 3: The next morning we headed out for another fantastic day. With a blue sky, a wet suit and snorkel gear we first swam with some sea turtles, no big deal. Just kidding, it was a big deal! We followed around this big daddy turtle for awhile and then a little guy came over too. It was AWESOME! Our guide (for this sea kayaking/ snorkel tour we were doing) took a lot of pictures of us.
Me and a sea turtle

Next we kayaked to one of the uninhabited islands between two bigger islands and snorkeled in the corral reef.  Our guide pointed out many cool creatures like a very fragile sea star and a very poisonous sea snake. The guide grabbed the sea snake by the head and tail and we got to touch it! It felt like a normal snake. Then when it was released, it swam right towards me! I guess it wasn't in the mood for any oodoriigui though. (Get it? My name is Japanese is pronounced oodorii, which sounds like the previous odori, but the vowels are longer. So I said he wasn't in the mood to eat any Audreys. Ha!) Other than the snake, I didn't get to touch any of the fish because they were too fast, but I did try.

We kayaked to another island, did some more snorkeling, wandered around while the guide cooked us some Okinawan spaghetti on the beach and went out again. The sun was warm, the water was refreshing and I spent the day chasing animals. Doesn't get much better!

That night we were turned down at a couple restaurants because they were too full. We eventually found ourselves at this place that was definitely not one of the hip joints (out of the 5 other restaurants on the island). It was run by an old man, who couldn't provide half the things on the menu, but the menu was a little odd itself:

Notice the top line: "spit" and the second from the bottom "an oil painting"
 Day 4: The next day we headed off back to mainland Okinawa. The ferry first stopped at a neighboring island, Aka-jima. There's a cute story about two dogs, Marilyn and Shiro. Marilyn lived on Zamami, where we were, but Shiro lived on Aki-jima. The two dogs were in love, after meeting when Shiro was brought to Zamami on a routine visit. But it was love at first sight and legend has it that Shiro swam back and forth between the islands to see his beloved Marilyn. Cute right? There is a statue of each on their respective islands.

Back in Naha, we headed out Kokusaidori (International Street) to see a parade and the execution of the world's biggest tug-of-war. We saw some of the parade, ate some Mexican food, saw the GIANT rope, but got too bored of the waiting through hours of ceremony and preparation to watch the actual tugging, we wouldn't be able to see much anyway.

This event is a battle between two ends of town that dates back to the 17th century. I assume the rope wasn't as big back then, because they didn't the fleet of cranes needed to carry all 40 tons of it. Apparently, about 20,000 people participate and everyone gets to hold a smaller branch rope and pulls on that as men call directions from atop the rope itself.  It was cool, but not as cool as I was hoping.

Day 5: This was a big day too. We rented a car and drove up to the northern end of the island to the world famous aquarium. It was pretty awesome and I got to hold more sea cucumbers (which if I didn't mention above, I really like sea cucumbers (not eating them though, even though it's one of Omura's specialties).  There was a humungous tank with huge fish and a shark. Really neat.

(On the way up to the aquarium we stopped at an A&W Burger for the most disappointing meal of the trip. But I think we hyped it up more in our heads than it warranted.)

Next we went to the Nago Pineapple Park, which is indeed a tourist trap. It pretty funny though. We rode a magnetically controlled golf cart through a "botanical garden" as a tape told us facts like "pineapple comes from the words 'pine' and 'apple'." It was enlightening. I think we ate our admission fee in free pineapple samples though. We ate until our tongue burned and our stomachs ached.  With full bellies, we were immune to the next tour of the gift shop where they offered everything from pineapple cake to pineapple wine to pineapple soap. The best (or worst...?) part of the park was the song that you heard constantly from the second you stepped out of your car until hours after you left, since you can't get it out of your head.  I tried to find a good video so you could hear the song, but no luck. I'll sing it to you next time I see you.

One goal of ours for our trip was to find a mongoose v. habu (very poisonous snake) fight, that apparently used to be a thing. We playfully thought maybe there was an underground fighting ring we could somehow gain access too. While that didn't happen we did find a place that advertised fights, but since it has long been banned, was just a video. We didn't actually see it, so it's hard to say what it actually was.

One very amusing moment for us was passing a sign board for the entrance of a college, but behind it was only a playground. This is funny because in Japan students work really hard to get in to college, but once they are there, they can relax and take it easy.

Day 6: Our last day on the islands. We took the car up to the Shuri Castle. This palace was burned down, rebuilt and renovated countless times, but it was still pretty cool. We watched a video of a renovation and it seemed pretty hard work; I can't imagine having to build, paint and decorate that place without modern technology.

Finally, we stocked up on souvenirs and hit the road back to Omura. It was a fun filled trip.