Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Kakeromans and Countryfolks

Well, looks like it's going to rain all day, so I'll do a post. We rented a car over the weekend and took Masami's mom to Kakeroma (see 2009's post), where we go every year to visit her uncle and aunt (see also 2008's post). In this view from Amami Oshima, you can sort of see that the island is one long skinny chain of mountains (it's the first island). It seems small compared to Amami, like a footnote to the main island. So I'm always surprised at how long it takes to drive the winding mountain roads. At least we had a tiny K car this time and not the bus we had last year. A Kei car is one with a smaller than 660 cc engine and less than 63 horsepower (according to Wikipedia) so you can imagine what a powerhouse it is on the hills. We drove the back roads this time, saw more fabulous beaches and scenery, and Masami's beach, Tokuhama. It was a total shock coming back home to Naze, the big city (40,000 pop.), with the traffic jams and clutter after a couple of days in Kakeroma.

Before we took the ferry to Kakeroma, we stopped at Honohoshi, a beach with these big rocks that get pummeled by ferocious waves. We came here during a typhoon once, and it was pretty savage. The seas are mostly calm around Amami, I imagine due to the coral reefs that act as breakers, so this place is unusual for the island.

A nice arch at Honohoshi.

We did the usual stuff, a barbecue, fireworks, snorkeling, and driving. The island is pretty quiet, mostly really old folks. We drove across the island on the main road for an hour and passed 5 cars.

More fun with fireworks.

Masami's mom even enjoyed playing with the sparklers, although, when I showed her the pictures I had just taken of her, she didn't remember doing it.

There's a nice waterfall on the island, which I haven't seen before. Masami calls me Takiokun, Mr. Waterfall, because I like them so much. See last year's Waterfall Tour.

What a cute kid!

After being warned for years about the omnipresent habu, the much vilified local poisonous snake, I saw my first one. Unfortunately, it was dead in the road. Some attribute the lack of development in the islands to the fear of the habu (although it hasn't seemed to help Okinawa much). Thanks, habu-san.

I really wanted to go back to Kakeroma and snorkel at Surihama, which has the healthiest coral reef I've seen in the two islands. The water was a little cloudy, but here are some pictures.

Clammy lips

Masami's mom even got in on the snorkeling. It was a little too much of a challenge for her, but she tried.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Amami Dog Days

This is Amami Oshima, a little island in the south of Japan. It's actually not so little compared to the other small islands of Japan, coming in at second behind Okinawa, with 715 square kilometers of land. It's halfway between Okinawa and the mainland, but not a stopover by any means. It's a pleasant, antiquated backwater that for the most part hasn't been subjected to the rampant development seen on places like Okinawa.
This is Naze City, where we live in the summer. If you look carefully, you can see our house in the lower left hand corner.
Actually, this is a more accurate portrayal of the city and its harbor. A nice dusky picture from Ogamiyama. They've obliterated all the beaches, except for the one next to the sewage treatment plant, which is actually nice, although they don't want you to swim there.
I'm not saying things aren't exciting around here, but one of the highlights of my time here was going to the beauty salon and watching my wife get bound in electric pink leggings (some kind of massage thing, I guess). I'm not saying that feet get smelly around here in the heat and humidity, but the beautician is wearing a mask.
We talked Theo into a haircut, too after they promised to make him look like the guy from Green Day.
All gelled up.
We don't have a car or motorcycle, so we're extremely limited in our choices of things to do. We walked to the habu center, which is like a circus sideshow type of thing showcasing the famously venomous native snake.  They have live habus in cages, dead habus in jars with various things that they had in their stomachs (cats, rabbits) and pictures of what happens after people get bitten. Really nasty stuff, so I'll spare you the pictures. we passed on the mongoose vs. habu "fight" (the mongoose always wins). They also sell a variety of habu products, habu skin everything , and this habu liver liquor, good for whatever ails you.
Most of the time we sit around drinking giant cups of coffee and thinking about doing something, and then it starts raining.
One other exciting thing was these senior citizens came to prune the yard. Amami is a jungle, and it takes over everything if you turn your back for a moment. These guys hacked everything. If we had had these guys in Viet Nam, we wouldn't have needed Agent Orange.
After the massacre. They even cut ALL the leaves off the cycad. I guess they'll grow back, but now it just looks like a big mud pit.
We go shopping a lot. We have to buy things every day, since we can only buy what we can carry. And that way it doesn't seem as expensive, if you're only spending $50 a day instead of $350 a week. At least we can get good American food, like Blue Seal ice cream, which I'm sure you've all heard of. Just like the sign says, they have American flavors, like sweet potato, shiiquasa, green tea, and adzuki bean. Don't even get me started about beans in ice cream.
This is our 'hood, Yanowaki. These biker gangs race up and down the street, striking fear in the hearts of the inhabitants. I saw that one of these guys had totaled his bike the other day, so maybe we're safe for now.

Feral cats are everywhere, a huge  problem here as elsewhere. Theo likes to take pictures of the multitudes that hang out in the street, napping in the middle of streets or on cars, or in front of restaurants (see Theo's cats). This is a picture of one eating the celebrated endemic Amami rabbit.
The other exciting thing we do is visit Masami's mom at her retirement home. The first time I went, I thought we were going to have dinner with her, but it seemed that she wasn't really interested in us, so we ate alone while she ate with her friends. She enjoys life, singing with her friends, and thinks she's at work. When she comes to our (her) house to visit, she always wants to go home (back to work), and we have to chase her down the street.
She's like  a totally different person now. She used to be grumpy and nag all the time, but now that she's got dementia, she's happy all the time, singing for hours on end, dancing, laughing. This is a barbecue/dance they held at the home ("Happiness"). She didn't sit with us, but at least she danced with us. We're just not fun enough for her anymore.
We do go out to eat, too. I'm not a big fan of Japanese food, but I try everything, at least once. I had octopus for lunch the other day, and I'm still chewing on it. It's not as bad as it sounds, just really really chewy. Masami made us eat natto, rotten soybeans, the other day, and that is at least as bad as it sounds. Here I'm eating a whole fried fish. It's harder to eat when your food is looking at you. Theo has a good picture of our face off on his blog.

Even though school is out now, most of the kids are busy all day with clubs or something, so mostly he sits around all day and plays computer games. We did have a barbecue party the other night and invited 6 kids. Japanese charcoal is serious, as you can see by the log above. None of those wimpy briquettes. 

After the barbecue, we shot off fireworks at the park.

I had the bright idea to bike around the island, and thought I was the only one who had thought of it, since I have never seen any other long distance bikers on the island. Then I went to this bar and saw this poster on the wall, and I see that people do it (every year?). It's 240 kilometers, and I was going to do it in three days, but after seeing this poster, and that these people do it in one day, I may modify that. It's not the distance that's the killer, it's all the steep hills, as you may be able to see from the profile on the poster. Of course, these people probably  have good road bikes and actually train for this sort of thing. And they do it in December, not in July, when it's 90 degrees with 90 per cent humidity. I was going to do it on my (t)rusty old mountain bike, but I hit a rock or something in the jungle and smashed the back rim, turning the bike from marginal to downright dangerous, since the brakes (which never were good) don't really work any more. Going 40 mph down a steep narrow road without brakes is probably not a good idea.
But I just bought a new (used) mountain type bike, so I may be able to do it in the next week or so that we're here. I'll keep you posted.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Undersea World of Amami Oshima 2010

Happy Ocean Day! Ocean Day is a gratuitous Monday holiday that supposedly observes an emperor's return home from a boat trip to Hokkaido. I don't know why they even bothered to come up with such a lame excuse for a holiday. Why not just say we need a holiday in July, and this is it? I think the ocean deserves its own holiday, anyway. It's officially the beginning of summer in Japan, since school finishes up the Friday before.
I've been snorkeling a lot, since it's too hot to do much else. I have a compact Nikon point and shoot camera and an underwater case, which is basically a thick plastic Ziploc bag with a barrel and plastic lens. The underwater world is pretty amazing, so I'm always disappointed to upload my pictures and see them all blued out and fuzzy, except for close-ups. I finally figured out that "correcting" the images by sharpening and enhancing the color saturation made them look more like what I see through my mask. A lot of them have been cropped, also. Hopefully I'll be able to get some better pictures of the many different kinds of fish here in Amami, but here a few I took this year.

Most of the coral is dead, but floating  over the edge of the reef is like flying over a maze of coral canyons.

Although there's not much healthy coral, there are plenty of fish. Unfortunately I left my fish id book at home, so I don't know the names of any of them.