Konnichiwa Sayonara

Firas, one of the readers of this blog visited Japan and created this awesome video! I love the simplicity of it and how it brings smiles in the people he encounters.

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Nakijin Castle in Okinawa

The current Okinawa prefecture was formerly known as the Ryukyu Kingdom. The inhabitants of the Ryukyu islands were able to maintain their independence from the Chinese and Japanese empires during the Edo era. However, they were not very amiable between each other, during many years the Okinawa islands were divided in three kingdoms: Hokuzen (North Kingdom), Chuzan (Center Kingdom) and Nanzan (South Kingdom).

Each kingdom was controlled from one castle. Shuri castle in Naha (South Kingdom) and Nakijin castle (North Kingdom) were the most powerful castles. These are some photos of Nakijin castle I took in a sunny day. You can see the “gusuku” style stone walls, which are unique to Okinawa.

Nakijin castle

Nakijin castle in okinawa

Nakijin castle

Nakijin castle

Nakijin castle

Nakijin castle

Nakijin castle

Nakijin castle

Nakijin castle

Nakijin castle

Nakijin castle

More posts about Okinawa:

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Top 10 tricks for cheap traveling in Japan

This is a guest blog post written by Matt Baxer from Cheapo Japan, I follow his blog/site since a while ago. He is very good at finding ways to not only survive but also to move around Japan very cheaply. I asked him to compile his top 10 tricks for cheap travelling in Japan, here is the result!

By Matt Baxer / Cheapo Japan

Many say Japan is too expensive a country to travel in, but there are some great ways to keep costs down. Cheapo Japan is here to show you the best tricks for travelling in Japan cheaply. Here are my top 10 tips:

1 – Get a free guide

There are a huge number of volunteer networks all over Japan with people who want to practice their English by guiding tourists around famous sites, explaining the historical and cultural meanings behind the sites. Ask at any tourist information center in a big city for help on how to set up these free tours.

2 – Stay in capsule hotels

When in a big city such as Osaka or Tokyo, you are never too far away from a capsule hotel. These offer little pods in which you can sometimes sleep for as low as 2500 yen (about 25 dollars). It’s very cramped, but capsule hotels often have free spa facilities, so you will be too sleepy to care!

Cheap

3 – Get a bento, rather than going to a restaurant
There are so many cheap bento shops around Japan, selling bento boxes from as cheap as 399 yen (about 4 dollars). Look out for chains such as Origin Bento (オリジン弁当) and Hotto Motto (ほっともっと). There are also many independent bento shops, particularly in business areas.

Cheap

4 – Go for a Gyudon

Gyudons are to Japan what the hamburger is to America. It’s a basic rice bowl with meat on top. They are very cheap and come to your table in under 30 seconds. Matsuya (松屋), Yoshinoya and Sukiya have gyudons starting at 300 yen. Be sure to fill up your water bottle for free when you go to these places as well!

Cheap

5 – Use buses and budget airlines rather than Shinkansen trains
They may be super cool and fast, but Shinkansen (bullet) trains are also super expensive. Instead use a bus company such as Willer Bus for journeys within one of the islands. For journeys between islands, LCCs such as Jetstar and Vanilla Air will save you a bunch of money.

Cheap

6 – Get a take-out at lunch
Many rather expensive restaurants are battling for customers at lunchtime, and have therefore started to sell cheap ‘1 coin’ (500 yen) lunches. Walk around any shopping area and you will soon find one of these.

Cheap
500 yen (1 coin) pizza!

7 – Stay in a mountain hut
Buy any hiking map for Japan and you will surely see lots of mountain hut and camp site signs. These are certainly not 5-star accommodations, but they provide a great way to save money over often crazily expensive Ryokans. Many mountain huts are also free, so you just turn up with a sleeping bag and sleep up in the quiet mountains!

Cheap

8 – Don’t pay for a rental phone or internet
Free Wifi access is available at all 7-Eleven and Family Mart convenience stores, as well as subway stations, bus stops and JR stations. Rather than paying for a rental mobile phone, you can just use Skype or such from one of these numerous Wifi spots.

Cheap

9 – Eat like a king
Lots of traditional Japanese restaurant chains, such as Yayoiken (やよい軒) or Ootoya (大戸屋ごはん処) offer reasonably priced set meals, with free rice bowl refills and drinks. Look out for these signs outside a restaurant: 食べ放題 (all you can eat) orご飯のおかわりが無料 (free rice).

Cheap

10 – Shop in 100 yen shops
You can buy almost anything in a 100 yen shop, from envelopes to hot drinks. There are also an increasing number of ‘300 shops’, which have a larger range and are great places to buy cheap souvenirs.

Cheap
Daiso es one of the most popular 100 yen shops in Japan

For more tips and advice for travelling in Japan on a budget, visit Cheapo Japan.

Do you have any other tips that you would like to share?

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Cowshed Reconverted Into An Artists Playground

The other day while wandering with our car around the east of Chiba we ended up in what looked like a cowshed or farm.

Artists Playground in Tokyo

Artists Playground in Tokyo

However when we got nearer to the place we saw that we could enter and we found people playing music, clowns doing performances to kids and even photo exhibitions. It turns out that the place is a popular venue in the area called Gyusha Number 8, 牛舎8号 (Cowshed number 8). It is a farm reconverted to attract artists from nearby locations to the community. I love it when I find this kind of places in Japan. Places where things that apparently don’t have any common relationship converge.

We were told that many artists from Tokyo come here to live in the small towns to the east of Chiba because the rents are much cheaper and they can afford the lifestyle they wish to have. We had the chance to see the performances of several groups of music and also a clown/magician.

Artists Playground in Tokyo

Artists Playground in Tokyo

Chiba artists

Chiba artists

Chiba artists

Chiba artists

Chiba artists

Chiba artists

There’s no cows anymore but there are hens and some crops. We walked for a while until the crops near a mountain and we found these jails right by the forest. They are traps to catch wild boars. It seems wild boars are a big problem for the farmers in this area.

Chiba artists

Chiba artists

Chiba artists

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Kyotoku-maru no.18 第18共徳丸 in Kesennuma

Kyotoku-maru number 18 (第18共徳丸) is a 330-ton fishing boat that was dragged 750 meters inland by the power of the 2011 tsunami.

The name of all Japanese boats ends with maru 丸, which means literally “circle”. It is said that maru 丸 symbolizes the departure from the port, the journey through the seas and the safe return to port, thus completing the circle. It is also said that the suffix maru is used because Hakudo Maru is the name of the god that taught the Japanese people how to build boats.

The Kyotoku-maru number 18 has been two years and a half trapped inland which hasn’t allowed it to complete its circle. Moreover the god Hakudo Maru was not able protect it. After several discussions (some people went as far as wanting to make it a World Heritage Site), the citizens of Kesennuma have decided that they don’t want to use the boat as a memorial. According to the tsunami victims the boat is becoming a nuisance to the city’s reconstruction and they don’t see the boat as a monument but as a scar. This month the dismantling of the boat has started which will eventually make room for new buildings.

Last month we drove along the new road that has been built next to the boat. The following pictures show how we saw it just before dusk:

Kesennuma

Kesennuma

Kesennuma

Kesennuma

Kesennuma

Kyotoku-maru

Kyotoku-maru

Kyotoku-maru

More photos in my Flickr.

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533 Days Around The World

When I was Thailand and Singapore in 2010 with my friend Ignacio I found him several times taking a picture of his face. “It’s for a project I’m thinking about; it’s going to be really cool!” – he told me. “The idea is to take always the same kind of picture, with the same angle and using the same lens, so when I go back home after my trip around the world I can make a video”.

It’s taken a while but the result is impressive; it’s very interesting to see how Ignacio’s beard changes!

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Gardens by the Bay

During my last visit to Singapore we visited the latest “place of interest” built in the city, Gardens by the Bay, which was opened to the public last June. It is a botanic garden with artificial trees called “supertrees” of up to 50 meters tall that are powered by solar energy.

Gardens by the Bay

In total there are 18 supertrees with photovoltaic panels and that are also able to accumulate rain water thanks to their conical shape. They are not arcologies yet because they can’t host human life, but when you go up the trees and walk from one to another you can’t avoid thinking that they look like structures generated by rendering software used in science fiction movies.

Gardens by the Bay

Gardens by the Bay

Gardens by the Bay

Gardens by the Bay

Gardens by the Bay

Gardens by the Bay

Gardens by the Bay

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Meeting People in Singapore

I started the month of October landing in Singapore. It was the third time I visited the city-state: the first time on holiday and the second time for work. The city is so compact, “perfect” and “easy to use” that even if you stay for a short period of time you will start feeling like at home. Every time I land in Changi, the international airport of Singapore, I can’t avoid thinking about A Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. The government of Singapore has done a magnificent job creating an utopic city: Asian financial center, one of the busiest ports in the world, spotless streets, luxury all around, impressive public transportation, full employment (the unemployment rate is around 2%~3%), etc.

One of the things I like the most about Singapore is how well the different cultures from all around the world mix together. The Indian neighborhood (Little India) is next to the Arab neighborhood (Arab Street) and if you cross to the other side of the river you will go into the Chinese neighborhood… which is characterized by its colonial style architecture! There’s people from all around the world coexisting in the same city. For example, I was visiting our new offices in Singapore, and none of the employees was Singaporean: there are four Americans, three Chinese, two Malays, one Indonesian, one German and one Russian. Almost all of them have been living in Singapore between 3 and 5 years, and they say they are quite happy with their life in the city.

On my second day there, sailing in a catamaran near Sentosa island I met a guy that was born in Singapore. He finished his university studies and after finishing his two years of mandatory military service he decided to continue with his career in the military. He’s been working for five years in a team working with drones (unmanned aerial vehicles). He told me that, even being a small city, it has 200,000 personnel serving in the military. I asked him if he thought it was necessary to spend so much money in something that could potentially kill millions of people and he responded: “It is important to have an army even if we don’t use it, because to foreign eyes it gives the impression that we are a powerful country. We can’t allow ourselves to look weak, specially having China around the corner”. I kept asking him questions about the drones that they were using, the kind of training they do, the simulations and if it looked like Ender’s Game. He told me that in Singapore they use Heron-1 UAVs made in Israel that can’t fly very high and don’t have the autonomy of the American MQ-1 Predators, but they are a first step to be able to compete with the Americans. One of the dilemmas that Daniel Suarez presents in his last novel Kill Decision (recommended if you are interested in drones) is the problems that United States could face if somebody could be able to hijack MQ-1 Predators and would use the them to create confusion in the Middle East by pretending that it was an attack carried by United States. One of the main characters in the novel suggests that it could be better to open the market and let all kind of drones to proliferate. The conversation ended when he was curious to know how come I knew so much about drones, I suggested him Kill Decision 😉 but he didn’t seem to show much interest.

In the same boat, a beautiful girl started to ask me questions about Japan and Spain. Sitting next to me, both of us facing the horizon, with a thoughtful face she told me that she was born in Indonesia but when she was 2 years old all her family moved to Singapore. She is 25 years old now but she has almost not travelled farther than Malaysia and Indonesia. “Life is good here! I like a lot Singapore, but more and more I feel like getting out of here, life is short and I want to discover the world!”, she told me in a nostalgic tone and she confessed to me that she really wanted to leave but she couldn’t because “something” (she didn’t tell me what) had her tied to Singapore.

“What are you missing in Singapore?” – I asked her.

“Culture, there are few genuine things from Singapore” – she answered and went on – “there’s barely any theaters, museums, or anything. The city is full of malls. The people work, buy, work, buy and go home early to watch television because there’s not much else to do. Or they keep working to earn more money”.

“The truth is that Singapore is designed like that by our government to have more efficient workers, so that they can focus on studying, working and buying so that money flows” – said the drone guy meddling in the conversation.

We turned around and nodded with approval.

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Here you have a video that shows pretty well the sensation that Singapore is a city designed by an expert Sim City player:

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