Monday, December 28, 2009

Christmas in Japan

As you all know, this was our first Christmas in Japan, and our first Christmas away from our families EVER. I feel like Matt and I made the most of the situation, but I'm not going to deny that it has been hard for both of us. We did get to go on our first Christmas Eve Jet-Ski ride ever! We also did a few things that were a little more "Christmas-y" - we ate Christmas dinner, went to a new church in Koza (a town a little north of us), and got together with one of our friends, Scott, who is a family friend from back home in Chicago. We also watched a few Christmas movies. My favorite being National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. What's Christmas without that movie??!? I've seen it dozens of times, but I still can't help but laugh out loud when I see Clark Grizwald running around the house with that squirrel on his back!!

Anyway, our families did an amazing job at making us feel special by shipping bunches of wonderful gifts to us. We had such a fun time opening them all - it was pretty much the highlight of the holiday for us! We are so very appreciative - and we know those gifts were not cheap to ship out here! I've realized that even though we weren't in Chicago where we wanted to be, you can still celebrate Christmas wherever you are in the world, AND there are so many people that are less fortunate than us that didn't get any gifts at all. We are truely blessed.

I hope all of our family and friends had an amazing Christmas! We miss you all!


Monday, December 21, 2009

Our Island-Hopping Campaign

How many people can say that they are able to go island hopping less than an hour drive from their house? How many people get to explore tiny, remote and practically uninhabited islands when they are bored on a Saturday? Unless you live in Hawaii or another tropical area, I'm guessing that those scenarios are not the norm for you. One of the perks of living in Japan is that it is a chain of islands - one country made up of 6,852 tiny islands (to be exact)! Okinawa is just one of these islands, and there are hundreds of others within a ferry ride of us - some are inhabited, while others are not (completely in their natural state). While Matt and I plan to visit a bunch of these islands eventually, the only ones we've been to so far have been reachable by car.

Henza, Miyagi, and Ikei (pronounced "eek-ay") Islands are connected to the east side of Okinawa by a man-made "land-bridge" (longest bridge on Okinawa), and they are connected to each other by regular bridges. Set out in the Pacific Ocean, these islands are about a 45 minute ride from our house, and they offer a quiet "get-away" from the crowds and traffic of everyday Okinawa. The first of the 3 islands, Henza, is not too interesting, as it is primarily used for housing the large petroleum plant located there. Continuing on, however, Miyagi island is much prettier, with a lot of lush greenery and quiet little villages. You are able to cross the island through the center (which goes up to the top of the hills), or you are able to go around the island on its coast, which is a gorgeous drive! We drove around the coast on our way out there, and through the hills on our way back. Atop the hills of Miyagi Island, there are still some neat views, but many more villages, sugarcane fields and little gravel "roads" that whip and wind, but eventually come back down. Ikei island is the last connected island, and the smallest of the three. It is famous for the red bridge that connects it to Miyagi Island, and beside sugarcane fields, the only things you will find on Ikei are a couple dive spots, some gorgeous views and beaches, and one resort.

Here is a map that will give you a better idea of these locations (click on the image if you want to enlarge):

On our way out to this little chain of islands, Matt and I stopped off onto another area we found that was uninhabited and had some great views of the ocean. We went on a little hike around this area and ended up finding an honest-to-goodness, real-life cave! I'm talking stalagmites and stalactites and everything! It looked like the opening to the cave may have also been used as some sort of shrine or worship place by the locals. The cave was deep and very dark, and I was nervous to go any farther than about 20 feet in! Still, it was something you don't find everyday!

Views from a viewing area we found (we rode our jet-ski's through this channel before and thought it was gorgeous!):

The hiking area we found:

Check out this video Matt took of this hiking/cave area that we stumbled upon:

The cave:

I wouldn't go any further than where Matt is in this pic:

Here are a few photos we took while exploring our main destinations for the day- Henza, Miyagi, and Ikei Islands:

Matt with a Shi-Shi Dog:

The "famous" red bridge that connects Miyagi & Ikei Islands:

Beside feeling adventurous, another reason we took a trip out to these islands last weekend was to find a secluded spot to go camping. Matt had looked on the map and found (what looked to be) a private little beach on Miyagi Island that would be perfect, so we decided to find it and see for ourselves. He was absolutely right! It was very secluded, had beautiful water with a reef for snorkeling, a boat ramp, neat areas to go hiking, and sand for us to set up tents - all in one little area! I'm glad we have a 4-wheel drive truck, because it was a little rocky getting down to this beach, but I feel like that just adds to the fun:)

Check out this video clip of us finding our way down to this "camp site":

I think we are going to try to go camping here next weekend - I'll be sure to share the experience with you if we do!


Castles & Garlic

The castle that Okinawa is most famous for would have to be Shuri Castle. Unlike many of the other ancient castles, Shuri-jo (as the Japanese call it) is the only one that has been restored to its original form while all of the others on the island (as far as I know) are only ruins today. The Shuri Castle site is located a little south of us in Naha, and we decided to take an impromptu trip down there last Sunday night, because we just weren't ready for our weekend to end! It was around sunset, so we got some really neat evening and night shots of the site.

Front Gate

We ended up parking in a pay lot for a few hundred yen and walked up to the castle, which was only about a 5 minute walk. The Shuri Castle site isn't just a castle. Its grounds also include some very pretty gardens, ponds, gates and stone walls. To get into the main castle and courtyard, we each had to pay 400 yen (about $8.00 for the both of us). We were able to take as many photographs as we wanted out in the courtyard, but inside the castle it was more strict. There were designated areas that allowed photography - about half of the interior was off limits. We also were asked to take off our shoes when we entered. They provided us with bags to carry our shoes in as we walked around, and I'm glad they let us go barefoot (as I'm not a big fan of the slippers some places provide).

The front of the main castle - some construction was being done on it while we were there

The inside of Shuri Castle (as well as the outside) was historic and beautiful! I especially loved the interior tatami areas with mats on the floors - this was one of the areas we were not able to photograph. The outdoor "porch" area was also cool with gorgeous views of Okinawa. They handed us an information pamphlet on Shuri Castle when we entered, so I'm going to share a bit of the history with you: Shuri Castle was apparently the palace of the whole Ryukyu Kingdom - probably why it is the only restored castle on the island? The Ryukyu Kingdom (for anyone wondering!) is another name for the Ryukyu Islands, which Okinawa is a part of. Shuri Castle was almost all destroyed in 1945 during the Battle of Okinawa, with only a few walls still partially standing. It was reconstructed in 1992 on the original castle site. All restorations were done according to historical records and photographs to look almost exactly as it did before the war.

The king's hat/crown

Matt and I in front of the king's thrown

Walking along the garden paths around the castle while we were leaving

One of my favorite photos of the night - a cute Japanese building on a perfectly still pond

A farther view of Shuri Castle up on the hillside, all lit up at night, over a river walk

After the castle, we made a stop for dinner at a unique little restaurant called Arin Krin, also called "The Garlic Restaurant" by many of the Americans here. I'm a firm believer that you can never have enough garlic in your life, so when I found out that there was a restaurant on Okinawa that was dedicated solely to garlic, I just had to try it out. And it was AMAZING! Depending on what you order, the portions can be a little small, making it perfect for ordering a bunch of different things and sharing. One of my favorite places to eat on the island for sure, and I can't wait to go back!


Garlic Fried Rice

Garlic, Chicken, Mushroom Pizza (THE BEST) & Fried Garlic (actual cloves of garlic battered, fried, and served with a Garlic Aioli Sauce - you really need to like garlic to like this one!)

Deep Fried Garlic Mashed Potatoes with melted cheese in the center ( I can't make this stuff up!)

I hope you enjoyed! Thanks for following!