"" Writer's Wanderings: 2019

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Our Little Tokyo House

The alley that led to our little house.
Arriving at the Ishigaki airport a bit early for our flight back to Tokyo, we settled into a few tables and spent some time with devices catching up on social media as well as playing games. Starbucks is a popular place in Japan as it is most anywhere and some of our group took advantage of its availability including one very interesting raspberry flavored Halloween drink.

Our flight to Tokyo was uneventful but after our landing the weather became cloudy threatening rain. We opted to take a couple of taxis to our Airbnb from the airport. It was quite a ride in my taxi. We seemed to go a long way in one direction and then it appeared we were making a left turn. The left turn became a u-turn which went across three lanes of traffic with our taxi beeping it's horn and waving to those who were forced to let him in. When I told our son later, he laughed and said, "Welcome to Tokyo."

Our taxi caught up with the other taxi on a very narrow road of apartment buildings and small houses that had little or no space between them. We unloaded our luggage and wandered down an alley barely wide enough for two people abreast. We stopped at the corner of another alley and our son tried the lock box that was attached to a pipe on the outside of the house. When it opened, we knew we were at the right place.

Stove top and fish grill/oven
We entered, removed our shoes and tried to fit our luggage inside the tiny kitchen which barely held the seven of us. Quickly we determined Bob and I would take the bedroom on the first floor off the kitchen and our youngest granddaughter would sleep on the futon in our room. The rest of our group made their way upstairs to where there was a little larger room with places to sleep. I never made it up the stairs so I can't say what it was like but since there was an outside balcony (we would discover the washing machine was out there) there couldn't have been much space for the four of them.

The kitchen table wasn't much bigger than 4X3 and had two chairs and two stools. In a little alcove there was a television which I don't believe we ever turned on. Perhaps some of the pictures tell how small this little house was. It's typical, especially in Tokyo since there is such a great population and little space for living unless you are wealthy enough to afford larger accommodations.

A little stove top sat above a small grill/oven that is usually used for cooking fish. Little if any baking is done at home. I've never seen ovens like we are used to in our kitchens. There was a small under-counter refrigerator. The bathroom was the usual Japanese style with a small room for the tub and shower. The shower is used primarily to get clean before using the tub. The toilet (toto seat included) was in a separate room but still connected to the shower room by a small area that could be closed off for privacy if you were showering. The sink was across the little foyer from the bath/toilet area and al of it just inside the entrance from the outside.

After we were settled we went to a restaurant we had been to once before. It's one of the kids favorite. The restaurant is near the area where they used to live in Tokyo before they moved to Sapporo. I believe what they feature is called Kushikatsu. Basically it's meat and vegetables on a stick dipped in flour, egg and panko and deep fried. They have fun with the kids. If the kids can win the paper, rock, scissors game they get their soft drink for free. There is also a self serve ice cream machine in the back corner of the very tiny restaurant that is on the second floor of the building it's in.

My oldest granddaughter does not like mushrooms (and she's half Japanese!) but she knows I do. She offered to order a stick of mushrooms for me. I eagerly agreed. When it came I noticed I was being watched but went ahead and took a bite anyway. It was extremely sweet but the texture almost seemed like a large mushroom. When she asked how I liked it, I commented that I never had a mushroom that tasted like chocolate.

Laughter erupted from all the kids. "She always does that to people," said our grandson. "It's a deep fried Oreo cookie!"

I laughed too and finished the Oreo. It was very good.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Ishigaki to Taketomi Island

After breakfast this day, we packed our gear which included bathing suits and a couple of towels into our backpack and we all got in the van to go to the ferry dock in Ishigaki to take the ferry across to Taketomi Island. 

The island is about a fifteen minute ferry trip from Ishigaki and is the site of a beautifully preserved traditional village of Okinawan houses surrounded by stone (or coral) walls and with sandy streets. There are no rental cars on the island and those visiting get around by walking, taking a shuttle bus or renting bikes. There are several beaches on the island and it is a part of the Iriomote National Park. 

When we arrived we were offered a ride into the town on the shuttle bus but we opted to walk since it was such a short distance and it was a beautiful day. Everyone was excited about renting bikes for the day to explore the tiny island. I think my heart skipped a beat. I hadn't been on anything more than an exercise bike in physical therapy after my knee replacement and let's face it, it had been years before even that when I'd last ridden a bike. I was a little worried.

Our daughter-in-law assured both Bob and I that we could get electric bikes but when we got there only one was left. Somehow she managed to make sure that I at least got that one. (She takes good care of me.) I have to say, the electric bike was quite an experience. The first time I took off on it, I thought it had a mind of its own and after one minor scrape with a wall, I began to enjoy myself.

Our first stop was a unique beach, Kaiji. It is famous for the stars in the sand that you can find there. Lots of people were sitting in the sand and sifting through it. The little stars are actually the skeletal remains of tiny sea creatures--I'm guessing starfish. The star sand is called hoshizuna and is said to bring happiness. The stars are so tiny that I had trouble finding them. The kids didn't though. They purchases a small vial that they could put their finds in and seal. (There were also a few tables set up for souvenirs and vials of stars that you could purchase.) We managed to garner a seat on a bench and watched the fun. Did I mention that it was a beautiful day?

Once we were done scavenging, we hopped back on our bikes and headed for the next beach. The Kondoi Beach is a long stretch of sand with beautiful blue waters. When the tide is low, there is a sand island that appears on one end and once the kids were into their suits, they were off to play on the sand island. This beach had tables and benches and was a great place to have lunch. Our son decided to venture out and find us some sandwiches. I think he just wanted to try out my electric bike.

Unfortunately since it was some sort of holiday, many of the places he found were closed. He did manage to come back with a bunch of snacks though and we  filled up on those before taking off again on our bikes. 

Bob had a great deal of trouble getting up a hill we encountered on our way back into town and discovered to our dismay that he had a flat tire. Our DIL volunteered to stay with the bike until the rental place brought another one. We made it back to the rental place and I let everyone have a try at the electric bike. I especially wanted Bob to try it. I thought that if he liked it we might consider a bike trip if an excursion in the future offered electric bikes. We'll keep that as a possibility.

Our DIL joined us shortly after everyone was done trying out the bike and we let her take her turn before we turned them in and walked back to the ferry dock. We had a short wait in line for our return trip as most everyone was ending their day as well on the island and I believe they were running a couple of extra ferries.

Our dinner later that evening was at another traditional restaurant that had a dinner table on a tatami mat. Once again I was offered a short chair to make it easier for me to sit and be able to get up again. 

Once back at the house, we started reorganizing our suitcases so we would be ready to fly back to Tokyo the next day. Of course our flight wouldn't be until the afternoon so we would have time, if we got up early, to finally get to have our fresh tofu breakfast that I told you about in an earlier post. 

Monday, November 18, 2019

Beach TIme in Ishigaki and Japanese BBQ

Much like other places we have visited that have resorts and hotels on the beach, Ishigaki's offered day passes--sort of. We went to Fusaki Beach Resort and were able to rent from the hotel a couple of lounge chairs on the beach and beach towels as well as the use of the changing/shower area. We drew the line when they wanted $50/each to swim in the pool.

After a quick change into our swim suits, we were on the beach and enjoying the sun and surf. The kids were thrilled with a place to be able to get in the water and dig in the sand. The beach in front of our Airbnb wasn't conducive to swimming.

It didn't take long before they were terrorizing every hermit crab they could find and there were lots to be found. I have never seen a place with so many hermit crabs.

Bob and I walked the beach to where there was a pier from which several families were fishing. We were shown with pride some of the catches of the day.

Around four o'clock the sky started clouding over a bit again. The water sports crew began pulling in all the equipment just about the time our kids talked their dad into a banana boat ride. He still owes them one.

Back at the house, we readied for dinner and spent some time watching the sunset.

Dinner was at Yamamoto Restaurant. Again it was a bit traditional with removing your shoes but the tatami platform was built up so that you could sit with your legs beneath the table almost like being in chair or on a stool even though you were sitting on a mat.

This was classic yakiniku (Japanaese BBQ). Hot grills were brought to the tables and placed in the middle. Our kids ordered for us which is always an adventure. Sometimes I think they want to see just how far they can stretch Grandma and Grandpa's palate. The specialty was Ishigaki beef sliced very thin and lightly grilled before us by, who else, our grandkids.

At one point the girls got the flames going a bit too much and one of the servers came and helped calm it down before we set the restaurant on fire. It was all great fun and tasted good. I'm not sure of what all we ate and I think I don't want to know what some of it was. Sometimes that's best.

We spent the rest of the evening at the house playing Uno at Grandpa's request.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Kabira Bay, Ishigaki, Japan

Kabira Bay is located on the north coast of Ishigaki Island. The bay is protected by a small island that blocks the bay from the open ocean. It is a place where they culture pearls and therefore there is no swimming allowed in the water. They do however allow for glass bottom boats.

After our soba noodle breakfast, we drove a little ways up the road to where we could park to arrange our glass bottom boat trip. This end of the little town was a bit more touristy with souvenir shops and small food booths. The entrance to the parking lot was automated. We had to sit and wait a couple of minutes for a car to exit so that it would let us in to park. It must keep count of the number of cars so that there is a parking space available before you can enter.

After we purchased our boat tickets, we went down on the beach for a bit to explore. There were about a half dozen different sized boats pulled up to shore--several different operators. We didn't have to wait long and we were invited to board one of the smaller boats. Now I've been on several glass bottom boat trips and usually they are a little disappointing since we are divers and know what the marine life looks like when we dive. This was a whole different experience.

Blue Staghorn Coral
The bottom of the boat was very clear and you could distinctly see the fish and coral which were spectacular. Our very skilled boat operator took us over several different types of coral and seaweed. All of it was very colorful. I was amazed and delighted. We spent about a half hour covering what seemed like a large area of the bay but I'm sure there was a big section we never covered where the pearls are grown.

Giant clams
Besides the colorful seaweed and corals, I was amazed at the large field of giant clams we passed over. They weren't as large as the ones we've seen in Papua New Guinea while diving but they were fascinating. So many.

After our boat ride, we walked around the area a bit and of course the kids spied a Blue Seal ice cream stand. While everyone got dips of their favorites, I went into the cafe and got a coffee to go. The girl at the counter spoke very good English. She said she had worked in a resort for a time and so learned English very well.

We took our time driving back to our beach house. It was threatening rain again but we passed by some really pretty areas and interesting hotel/resort complexes, one of which we would return to for beach time.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Fresh Tofu Breakfast, Ishigaki, Japan

Our morning began with a beautiful rainbow promising a good day ahead. Once everyone was up and dressed, we headed out to a restaurant on our list of things to try. It was definitely off the beaten track. We had to go down a gravel/dirt road to get to it and it was in the middle of farmland.

The restaurant, Tofu Higa, specialized in fresh tofu. It is actually a tofu factory that specializes in Okinawan Yushi-tofu. It is processed fresh right there and is a fluffy version of tofu unlike the hard packed cubes you see in the grocery. Behind the building are fields of soy.

They make the tofu fresh each day and the restaurant serves meals until the tofu runs out. There are recipes online for making Yushi-tofu which is basically just the tofu being scooped out of the water after it has coagulated instead of being packed tightly into a container. Tofu is made from soy beans ground and cooked in water. An ingredient called nigari is added that makes it coagulate into curds. The nigari is a magnesium chloride extract from sea salt. The curds are scooped out and the remaining liquid is strained to produce soy milk.
Tofu kitchen

We arrived to find a long line of people waiting to get into the restaurant area which consisted of a covered patio (although one review said there is also an indoor area where you can dine). Our daughter-in-law checked and found out that they would probably run out of tofu before we could get in so we opted for plan B--find a restaurant near Kabira Bay which is where we wanted to spend the day.

Tofu breakfast
When we did return the next morning much earlier, we still waited a bit but we enjoyed a breakfast of tofu, rice, an egg omelet accompanied by a couple of slices of pickled radish and a glass of warm soy milk. There were several condiments including miso, a local pepper, hot sauce and a few other things I didn't recognize entirely. The tofu was soft but had little taste aside from the condiments you added. I liked the texture better than the pressed tofu that you usually see. It was a very filling breakfast.

But I digress. Once we realized we weren't going to eat at Tofu Higa, we got back in the van and drove toward Kabira Bay. There was a restaurant nearby that featured the Ishigaki soba noodles that I had read about. On mainland Japan soba noodles are usually made from buckwheat. On Ishigaki, they make their noodles with flour. They are a little more chewy.
Soba noodle breakfast

So, our breakfast turned out to be soba noodles in broth with several chunks of tender tasty pork belly on top of it. I wouldn't have thought to have it for breakfast but it tasted really good. The restaurant was also on the shoreline near the bay and it was a very pretty setting. I couldn't imagine how Kabira Bay could be any nicer.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Things to Make You Smile in Japan

When you travel, you have to learn to adapt. Things in other countries that are different than yours can sometimes make you smile. In Japan, some of the English names of their drinks are one of those. There are vending machines everywhere mostly featuring drinks. In the summer you can get cold coffee in a can, in the winter it's hot coffee. Two of the drinks that are featured though make us smile.

One is called Calpis which is described as having a light, somewhat milky and slightly acidic taste. I've never tried it but if you say the name and think about the description--well, you'll get it. 

The other drink is Pocari Sweat. It is a sports drink with electrolytes. It is said to have a slight flavor of grapefruit. Now that sounds good despite the name of it. 

There are often signs in the restrooms to let the foreign traveler know the proper way to use the toilet. While we might smile at that, it is a problem. There are some foreign visitors that are used to squatting to relieve themselves where there are the squat toilets as in some areas of the world (basically a square hole in the floor of the restroom). Trying to do that on a Western-style toilet would be dangerous. 

Many European countries have areas where you are asked not to flush toilet paper because their systems can't take the backup of paper. So the explanation of what to do with it is understandable. We have been in places where a bus load of European visitors have left used toilet paper in the waste can because that's what they are used to doing.

Now, most toilets, private or public in Japan have all sorts of buttons you can push for cleansing, music (so no one can hear what you're doing), and several other functions that I haven't figured out yet. I don't like to do a lot of experimenting.

Now one of the more clever things that brought a smile to our faces wasn't because it was funny. This was serious as any coffee drinker would agree. Our son bought a product called Blendy coffee that came in little packets that you draped over the top of your cup and let hot water drip through. It made a great cup of coffee. Move over K-cups, Blendy packets are pretty great! You can order them online. I'm thinking it might be a good thing to travel with the next time we're not sure we'll get good coffee along the way.

And finally, translations are so much fun. Here's a picture of one we found while waiting for the ferry trip. Just remember that works both ways. I'm sure the Japanese get quite a chuckle when English is translated to Japanese.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Ishigaki, Japan - Dinner and Music

Our first dinner in Ishigaki was at a restaurant, Funakura no Sato, just around the corner from our Airbnb. We could have walked but we still had a misty rain to contend with. The restaurant was spread out with several venues in which to eat. We were led to one that had a long table for all of us to gather around. When you get into the real Japan, you will find that there are restaurants that have the low traditional Zashiki seating.

When you arrive, you take off your shoes and step onto the tatami floor. The table is surrounded with mats to sit on. Most Japanese either kneel around the table or sit with their legs bent or crossed beneath them. Now we Westerners have some trouble with this especially if we have knee replacements. My sweet daughter-in-law made sure each time we were faced with this type of seating that there was a very short chair that I could sit in. It helped tremendously.

After being in several of these situations, I noticed that the attendants would make sure that our shoes were pointing away from the tatami floor so that when we left all we had to do was slip into them. I might mention that if you are planning to visit Japan, you might want to get a pair of shoes that are easy to get off and on as you will undoubtedly encounter many occasions where you will need to remove your shoes. All of the places we stayed asked for shoes to be removed as well,

Our meal was was a variety of Okinawan dishes including the sea grape seaweed that I had read about. It was a little like putting pop candy in your mouth.

As we were finishing our meal, a man stepped up to a raised platform and began to sing and play some traditional Okinawan songs. Here's a bit of what it sounded like.

Saturday, November 09, 2019

Letters From Santa!

Oh the weather outside is frightful but the fire is so delightful. It's time to curl up under a warm blanket with a cup of hot chocolate and a good Christmas story. Imagine a born and raised in Florida girl spending her first Christmas in the snowy cold North.

Letters From Santa is now available at Amazon in paperback and Kindle editions. Here's a little about the story:

Chrissie has received a personal letter from Santa every year since she was five years old and lost her first responder father. Though they stopped coming when she turned eighteen, the encouraging letters touch her heart each year as she takes them from her memory box and rereads them. Now as a reporter for a Florida news magazine, she has decided to search out her letter writing Santa but unknown to Chrissie, a romance and a second family await her in Santaland, Minnesota.

Jack Hart meets Chrissie as they board a plane for Minnesota. He hates the idea of going home each year for Christmas because it usually means tension between himself and his father. This trip home though surprises him as he finds Chrissie is a guest at his parents’ farm, a B & B and camp for kids. Christmas becomes a more pleasant time as he grows fond of Chrissie and she helps him to reevaluate his parents’ mission of helping children of first responders.

If you get the opportunity to read it, please leave a review at Amazon. It truly helps others in their reading choices.

Thursday, November 07, 2019

Ishigaki, Japan--The Limestone Cave

The rainy remnants of a typhoon that had passed by us and delayed our flight to Ishigaki from Tokyo made us look for something to do out of the weather. Our kids had read about a limestone cave nearby so after our nice lunch at the Puff Puff Cafe, we drove to the cave. It was still drizzling a bit as we moved down the path from the ticket booth to the entrance of the cave. I wondered if we were dressed warm enough for the cave considering the weather outside.

I needn't have worried. The cave was surprisingly nice and warm. And it was spectacular! I've been to a lot of caves (one in Morroco that was supposed to be natural but you could see the drilling marks on the walls of the cave). This one is my favorite. It was huge, easy to navigate and the formations were all unusual and unique.

The stalactites and stalagmites formed curves and sheets that curled and looked like giant chocolate shavings (was I craving chocolate?). It resembled in some ways, a cathedral.

We spent about forty-five minutes or so exploring. I think I could have gone through it a second time. It was that beautiful but I'm sure the grandkids while they found it fascinating, wouldn't have appreciated a second look.

Once above ground again, the kids spotted the Blue Seal ice cream spot by the souvenir shop and we stopped for an ice cream break. Blue Seal is a popular ice cream in Japan and we would make several more stops during our stay.

God has made a wonderful world for us to explore, above ground, below ground and underwater. We have been privileged to be able to explore so many parts of it.

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

To Ishigaki, Okinawa

Our Air BNB
The Haneda airport was quiet at five in the morning but by 5:15, people were beginning to stand in line to check bags. Nothing opened in the airport until 5:15. Absolutely nothing. We walked until we found a vending machine and got an orange juice. My granddaughter tried to talk me into iced coffee in a can but I wasn't interested. She said if it were winter, there would be hot coffee in the machines--in a can. We laughed when we saw the trash cans covered. We thought maybe they wouldn't open until 5:15 either.

Because of our son's frequent flyer status, we joined a short line at the priority check in. Once the counter opened, they assigned us seats and we were on our way through security. Worried about my knee replacement setting off the metal detector, I asked my son if I should say something. He said he doubted I would set it off and he was right. We were through security and right to the gate and soon we were on our way. It was an uneventful  direct flight to Ishigaki but other than a soft drink we had nothing to eat on the plane. By the time we landed we were all looking forward to something to eat.
View from the patio

We picked up our rental van and managed to squeeze luggage and bodies into it for the drive to the Air BNB that we had reserved for our stay. Between the van nav system and Apple Play with Google maps, we found our way to the house. We were delighted to find that it had a pretty view of the shoreline. The house was small but more than adequate for all of us to stay in.

View for lunch from Puff Puff
After leaving our bags, stomachs growling a bit, we headed out to find a place to eat. We ended up at a place called Natural Garden Cafe Puff Puff. The menu had several choices of entrees and with the entree you got a small buffet which included tossed salad, pasta salad and several other items including very small pieces of a variety of breads. Drinks were also at the buffet and included. I went for the coffee. I needed caffeine. We were still getting used to the time change. When you go to Japan from the Eastern Time Zone, you are flipping night and day.

We ate leisurely and enjoyed the beautiful view as well as the wonderful temperature that was in the 80s without much humidity. Perfect.

Tummies full we decided to have a look at the Ishigaki Island Limestone Cave. It would prove to be awesome.

Monday, November 04, 2019

Only In Japan

While we were exploring the mall in Odaiba in Tokyo, we were fascinated with a very lifelike robot who manned the information booth. There was a monitor that allowed you to choose one of three languages including English and ask your question.

 She would respond in the language you chose and direct you to the area you were interested in.

 It was amazing.

Friday, November 01, 2019

Japan Visit -- Reunited And It Feels So Good

View of Tokyo Bay from Red Lobster
The plan was simple. The three of us, our son, Bob and I, would get to the Haneda airport about the time that our daughter-in-law would arrive with the kids from Sapporo. We would all meet up in the airport lounge and spend a couple hours together before our flight to Ishigaki where we were spending a few days of their fall break from school. But plans are always subject to the weather and in that part of the world a nasty storm is called a typhoon.

As we tried to check in for our flights (we had a connection in Okinawa) we were told that the flight was delayed. We would miss our connection but could try to fly stand by for the next one. That wouldn't have been bad except there were seven of us and the chances of all of us flying together were next to none. At one point the girl behind the counter looked at me and smiled an apology. I said all I really cared about was seeing my grandchildren.

"That can be arranged," she said with a sweet smile and went to the other side of the security line where they were waiting for us. A few minutes later, she had pulled the kids and their mom through the line and we were together at last. From then on, while we loved on our grands, the counter ladies had to deal with our son and now our daughter-n-law. They couldn't get away with saying that their English wasn't that good. Our daughter-in-in-law dealt with them in Japanese. By the time we were done, the decision was made to spend another night in Tokyo, at the airline's expense, and take a direct flight to Ishigaki in the morning. I'm not sure if it was my son's status (he's a diamond member with ANA) or my DIL"s persistence but the result was good. They make a good pair.

The hotel at the Haneda airport was very nice and once we were checked in, we were off again on a bus into town where we ended up at Odaiba which is a shopping and entertainment center on a man made island in Tokyo Bay. The mall was bustling with people. It was time for lunch so we asked the kids what they wanted--it was after all, their fall break holiday. Red Lobster won out.

Now a Japanese Red Lobster is nothing like back home. Not a lot of fried and greasy dishes swimming in butter. Lots of fresh seafood choices and portion sizes are a bit smaller. Two of the kids had shrimp cocktail followed by sharing a small plate of crab legs. By the way, you know how you walk into a RL at home and see maybe four or five live lobster in the tank? Their tank was overflowing with lobster--and there were two tanks!

We meandered through the mall trying to find the place that sells bubble tea. Our oldest granddaughter wanted us to try it. The line was too long and we passed. We spent some time outside wandering the boardwalk and enjoying the view of Tokyo Bay. There is a smaller version of Lady Liberty along the way that was put there to commemorate the "French Year in Japan." Along the outdoor mall area there were several street entertainers. We took some time to watch a magician who also tried to be a contortionist. It turned out to be an illusion in the way he turned his boot and pants' leg.

Inside again, we wandered through what was an arcade full of old time video games (think Pac Man, Asteroids, etc.) and lots of candy and trinket booths that light up a young child's face. In the back was a food court and our kids encouraged us to try some fried octopus that were like fritters.

We made our way back to the Haneda airport hotel on the train and refreshed for dinner. There were a lot of nice restaurants in the airport and we found one that offered soba (noodles in hot broth or cold noodles with dipping sauce). Bob and I were still reeling from jet lag so we called it an early night.

Considering we were going to have to be up at 5:00 to check in for our flight the kids were encouraged to call it a night as well. It would be another interesting start in the morning.

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