Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Last Days in Amami

Well, it's been a while since I posted an entry. We were traveling for two weeks after the last entry, and I've been home for about two weeks. It's been a bit of an adjustment for all of us, from living out of a suitcase to suddenly having a house and jobs and things to deal with. It's been hot, with temperatures hovering around 100 degrees, and everything is incredibly dry and brown. We have been enjoying fruit from the farmer's market, strawberries and peaches that make you realize why taste buds evolved. 
I was kind of sorry to leave Amami this time. Although Big Chico Creek and Bidwell Park is amazing in its own right, I miss the warm ocean and the coral reefs. I didn't accomplish one of my goals, which was to bike around the entire coast of Amami. It's probably good that I didn't, with all the getting lost I did. I don't know exactly how far it is, but I estimate that it's about 200 miles. That's a lot of riding with the steep hills there. I don't have a good map of Amami with mileage, and google doesn't have any directions for the island (although I did manage to look at satellite images of the island and find more roads than were on my map). I think the ride would take 3 days. I didn't have a mountain bike until the last two weeks or so, so I didn't have much time. I did the short northern loop, an epic ride of about 62 miles, in the 90+ degree heat. I stopped to swim every couple of hours and cool off, sampling some of the north coast reefs. It was about 7 hours of riding and three hours of swimming. The last 10 miles or so were really painful. The tops of my knees were sunburned. That was the easiest loop, with the easiest hills. I'll have to plan it better next time, if I'm going to tackle the whole island. At least I should have a bike, since we moved all the bikes to the second floor of the house so that they wouldn't rust out. I don't think Masami's mother will be able to throw my bike away this time.
Masami dropped her friend Kodama off at the 5:30 AM ferry on July 24 and picked up a group of six Americans at the same time. There were two teachers and three students (one with her 7-year old son) who had come to Japan for an international art education conference and came to Amami to visit for a couple of days. There was one professor from North Carolina and the rest were from Chico. Masami found some host families to put up two people each. 
We took them to the small Amami museum with exhibits on the nature of Amami, sugarcane farming, and old Amami villages. Theo and Maxwell posed for a picture in a well. Theo was excited to have an American kid to play with.

We spent the day at the beach, snorkeling and playing in the sand. Masami and Alice, one of the professors, went to the Talasso Therapy building where they did exercises in a big pool and enjoyed the jacuzzis ("therapy"). 
We went to a restaurant/dive resort for a fancy multi course dinner (Japanese Italian food maybe?). At one point some raw rubbery octopus and pasty chalky rubbery squid showed up on my plate. I tried my obligatory piece of each, just to say that I'd done it. People always ask if I eat octopus, but no one asks about squid, which is the really weird one. Somehow I had managed to avoid eating raw squid up to then and it will definitely be a goal for me in the future. The closest I can come to describing it is that it's like white Elmer's glue that has been left out and is almost dry, but still not crunchy; you can chew it, but it sticks to your teeth and won't let go. It was like that except not as tasty as the glue. The restaurant had a traditional Amami folk music band who made all of us dance, of course. I asked a native Amami person what they were singing about, but she said she couldn't understand the dialect in which the songs were written. 

The next day we went to a junior high school for a classroom tour which consisted of sitting in a classroom for three hours. School was out for the year, so there were no students. Theo and Maxwell wrote Kanji on the board and we were stuffed with okonomiyaki and takoyaki, dough balls with bits of octopus inside, a Japanese kids' favorite. 

Blackboard full of Kanji.
The cooks.
Octopus balls.

There was a group of about 10 Japanese women that were cooking food the whole time, stacks of squid and octopus pancakes and takoyaki. We were wondering where it was all going. One woman showed us how to do the tea ceremony and whip up the tea powder. Just as we were leaving, a group of high school students showed up to talk to us. Oh well, maybe next year (a common refrain).
Next on the agenda was a pool party  where we got to watch the swim team practice for their next swim meet (my favorite!). This was a a little different, as we actually got to swim afterwards. We competed in team races where four of us pushed a taped together string of two liter bottles  across the pool. I really appreciated how hard these kids work on swimming. I couldn't keep up with them. The adults definitely had the height advantage for the water polo game, where we creamed the kids. I was the basket for the first half. We had to take showers before entering the pool, which for the boys consisted of running a gauntlet of about 6 shower heads as quickly as possible to avoid getting wet. 

After slurping up some cold noodles at the pool party, we went to a festival at a shrine near the school. I guess they must have this festival every year, but I didn't even know the shrine was there. There are advantages to having visitors, as it gets Masami out of the house to do things. Normally I wouldn't even know about this kind of thing. The streets were crammed with stalls selling toys and food, and carnival games, like the one where you try to catch fish with a tissue paper net before the net breaks. The shrine was decorated with paper lanterns designed by kids. The shrine was giving out free cups of watered down sake for good luck. Here's a picture of some cute girls trying to get Theo drunk. There was a stage where old ladies had their big moments of fame doing hula dances, fan dances, or singing sappy songs. (See video below.)

Everybody went kayaking in the mangroves the next day, but I met up with them later for a tour of the Oshima tsumugi (Amami silk fabric) factory. We watched people dying the fabric with tree bark and mud, weaving the cloth, dying it some more, taking it apart, and reweaving it. It's an incredibly involved process, reflected in the price of the items made of the cloth. They sell things made of the fabric at the gift shop, where you can buy a shirt for $650. Here's Masami's colleague Teresa modeling a ridiculously expensive jacket.

We had a nice treat there, seeing a Ruddy Kingfisher, which is a bird you hear all the time, but usually only catch a glimpse of if you're lucky.  Theo has been trying to see one for years. This one sat there and posed for pictures, and we got to see it fishing.

Everybody came to the ferry to wave goodbye to the Americans. It was a night ferry, luckily not a 5:30 AM one. Masami's friend Hisayo was really sorry to see her guests go and said she'd be lonely without them. They waved goodbye until their arms were sore. 

We had one more full day in Amami, and Theo and I spent it riding the motorcycle around the island, taking in the views, snorkeling, walking in the forest, and enjoying one last sunset. We found a nice place called Gomozaki where I hadn't been before, a kind of forest preserve with the requisite observation tower (with great 360 views), shrine, and wood walkways. We took a long walk down the beach past the expansive tidal flat at Ose beach to Tomori, which is the best place to snorkel. The distant typhoon was whipping up the sand and sandblasting us. There were some impressive thunderheads over the ocean. It felt like an appropriate setting for our last day. 
One of those monster spiders with a beetle.
Shrine guardians.

We had our own little farewell at the ferry to Okinawa the next night, although not the kind of big sendoff the Art ed folks got. The boat we took was too small for the walkway, so we had to walk up these ridiculous stairs to get in the boat, carrying Masami's massive suitcase. A guy on the boat had these paper streamers that we threw down to the people on the dock as the boat sailed out to sea. We each held on to our ends of the streamers until they broke, and yelled goodbyes across the water that carried surprisingly far as we headed south, leaving Amami for another year.