I LOVE JAPAN ❤ 日本の今を伝えたい!- Ishigakijima –

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I recently went to Ishigaki island which is part of the Yaeyama island group.
Ishigaki is the second largest island after Okinawa honto (the main island) and is situated south west of Okinawa honto.

I’d been to Okinawa honto – the main island – 3 times and, although I really liked it, I was looking forward to visiting a smaller island.
One of the problems I found with Okinawa honto was the traffic – especially around Naha but also north of the island where the motorway finishes which can lead to a bottleneck effect.
The other problem with the main island is it’s sheer size which can lead to too much time in the car.

Fortunately, in Ishigaki, traffic jams and size weren’t a problem.
After we’d landed we were able to pick up our hire car and take a relaxing drive to our hotel.
We chose a hotel on the south west side of the island called ‘Fusaki Resort Village’ for two reasons.
The first being that the sun sets on this side (west side of the island) the second was because this hotel had a really cool pier.

Fusaki Resort Village pier.

The hotel was great!
The only thing that bothered me was the pool wasn’t cool but felt more like a very warm bath.
I didn’t ask the hotel why so hopefully it was a temporary problem.

However, the beautiful pier more than made up for the warm pool.
And, at sunset, the pier really came into its own.
At the end, they had a bunch of chairs so a lot of guests would come with some wine or beer and enjoy the beautiful sunset.

Fusaki Resort Village pier.

What I loved about Ishigakijima is it’s size.
Unlike the main island (Okinawa), it’s fairly easy to see most of the island and relax at the beach / pool on a 3/4 day trip.
I think with the main island it’s better to select a part and just concentrate on that rather than trying to cover other areas.

Anyhow, back to Ishigaki.
On the second day we drove up to the beautiful Kabira Bay – a truly breathtaking bay if there ever was one!
It was only a 30 min drive with no traffic jams!

Kabira Bay.

After visiting Kabira Bay, we drove to Yonehara beach to do some snorkeling.
The snorkeling was great but it was a very natural beach with no hotels which meant no parasols to escape from the sun – and the sun was HOT!
For this reason, we just snorkelled and then found (maybe) the only cafe on the beach to shower and enjoy a shaved ice drink (Kakigōri / かき氷).

Yonehara beach.

On the third day, we took a trip to Taketomi island.
It was a short ferry ride (about 10 mins) from Ishigaki port to Taketomi.
Taketomi is a small island which has very few (if any) cars.. it’s all bicycles or the more traditional water buffalo taxis.
This makes for a very peaceful experience.
My wife and myself opted for bicycles and got an island map and set about seeing the sights.

The first place we headed was Taketomi town centre to see the Nagomi tower.
The tower provided a good view and had a steep set of stairs but wasn’t anything to write home about.
The thing I liked most about the town centre was all the different ‘Shiisaa’ figurines on the roofs.
Shiisaas are traditional Ryukyuan clay decorations – often seen in pairs and kind of resemble a cross between a dog and a frog.
They are believed to ward off evil spirits.
Usually the left of the pair has a closed mouth to keep good spirits in, whereas the right one has an open mouth to repel bad spirits.

Shiisaa on a traditional house in Taketomi.

After the town centre, we cycled to nishi pier as I’d seen some photos of this pier and wanted to stop there.
It was indeed a really beautiful white concrete pier which stretched out into the turquoise blue sea..
That and the rolling white clouds on the horizon made it a perfect rest point.

Nishi pier.

Next up was Kondoi beach for a swim as all the cycling had left us feeling a bit sweaty and in need of some refreshment.
Kondoi beach was truly stunning.
It had beautiful turquoise water and was relatively shallow.
It also had a picnic area with showers and toilets and you could rent a parasol to get some respite from the sun.

Kondoi beach.

We spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing at the beach before cycling back to the port to board the boat for Ishigaki.

Kondoi beach.

After arriving back at Ishigaki port it was getting close to sunset so we headed back to the hotel to get ready for the evening.
On the way, we passed this beautiful mangrove tree all alone where the tide had gone out.
I had to stop the car and get a few photos..

Against all odds.

One for the underdog.

In the evening, we caught a taxi to the port again to enjoy some Okinawan live music.
Before we did, we stopped off at a small izakaya.
We noticed the chef cooking some fish over hay – something I’d never seen before so we tried it and it tasted delicious.
We also ordered Goya Champuru which always seems to taste better in Okinawa.
After, we enjoyed a few awamori cocktails while watching some live Okinawan music.
If you ever get the chance, visit Ishigaki and enjoy this beautiful, charming island.

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I LOVE JAPAN ❤ 日本の今を伝えたい!- Tokyo from a Gaijin’s Eye –

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Japan has a significantly high and ever increasing number of expats with over 2.2 million long term and permanent foreign residents.
With a dwindling local population and increased demand of highly skilled talent, the expat traffic is set to rise even more drastically.
Being the heart of the nation and host to the 2020 Olympics, Tokyo is already positioning itself to be Asia’s most cosmopolitan city.
But the key question is, how do foreigners feel about living in Tokyo?
In this blog, I am trying to reflect the sentiments of the expat community in Tokyo.

What do expats love about Tokyo the most?

There are way too many things to be mentioned, so I picked up my favorite ones below.

Cleanliness: Most of the developed world is generally very clean, but Japan takes cleanliness to a completely new high.
The dedication and passion of Japanese people for clean and tidy surroundings is profoundly infectious.
Where else in the world will the staff come and pick up your garbage in the middle of a sumo game or while watching festivals at local streets?!

Safety: As a foreigner, one’s biggest concern abroad is one’s safety and in this area too, Japan scores very high over many countries.
Crime rate is almost nil and it is highly unlikely to hear from an expat that he/ she was robbed, discriminated or harassed.

Humility: Yes the Japanese have sometimes difficulty in English communication but that does not hinder them from being the super kind humans and good Samaritans.
Each expat will narrate to you hundreds of stories – from extremely friendly treatment at shops and restaurants to locals going out of the way in helping strangers.
“Gaijin sama” – that’s the polite word Japanese people use for a foreigner.
And to me the word “sama”, meaning ‘our dearest guest’, is quite literally a everyday humbling experience.

Customer service: Many expats swear by it and are always in awe of the magnificent customer service experience.
Whether it is a fancy cafe or a salon or even government offices, attention to detail and complete customer orientation in almost every business is totally unrivaled and is simply mind boggling.
Also, what makes the Japanese hospitality very unique is that nobody ever expects or gives a tip, even for extremely high quality of service.

What do expats do for socializing?

As a foreigner, a large share of socializing opportunities come from the after work team get-togethers Nomikai.
These help both the locals and foreigners get personal and understand each other better.
Also, there are plenty of ways for socializing with other expats.
Networking sites, forums and meet up groups in several areas of Tokyo allow Gaijins to share their Japanese experiences and learn from each other.
I am part of a few of these forums and have become friends with people of several nationalities.

Recreation and entertainment

Tokyo is always super busy and bustling with action.
There are all kinds of events happening all year round – seasonal public events, grand traditional festivals, global food festivals, carnivals, concerts, shopping sale and sports events that can keep expats busy all the time.
If you have locals in your group, there are the Izakaya (restaurants) dinners followed by crazy Karaoke sessions.
If you like gaming, there are the maddeningly loud pachinko gaming centers which will take you to a different world.

The Not so pleasant things

This list is not a long one.

One thing that foreigners struggle the most to deal with in Japan is cultural differences.
These differences lead to miscommunication and trust gap at the work place.
The polite and humble Japanese style is contrastingly different from the straight-to-the-point Western business style.

More English usage would be nice, especially in written form.
With complex kanjis to decipher, most Gaijins have to resort to translation of literally everything they put their eyes on!
On a different note, many translations end up being completely irrelevant to the subject and also extremely hilarious.

Final word

My friend asked me recently about my overall impression of living in Tokyo.
My answer to her was – ‘My love for it is growing deeper each day’.
This is probably what many foreigners feel too and almost certainly they never would have imagined this before arriving to Japan.
I think I am very blessed to experience it all.
My heart goes Arigato Gozaimasu to the great times I have had here and I hope to enjoy this for a long time to come.
Sigh!

I LOVE JAPAN ❤ 日本の今を伝えたい!- My quick getaway to Misaki/Jougashima! –

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I’ve only lived in Tokyo for 2 months, but even I know that we all sometimes need to get away from the hectic hustle of the Tokyo lifestyle.
One warm and sunny afternoon, we (my friends and I) spontaneously decided that we wanted to escape Tokyo for a day, and set out on a day trip to Misaki and Jougashima in Miura peninsula.

The reason we chose Misaki/Jougashima was because it is not overpopulated with tourists, and is also not too far or expensive to make this day trip.
There is actually a great value day trip package called the “Keikyu Misaki Maguro Ticket”.
It includes a round-trip from Shinagawa station to Misaki-guchi station (only on the Keikyu local line), unlimited use of local buses in the Misaki/Jougashima area, a free “Maguro lunch” from a selection of 30 restaurants, and 1 of 8 leisure activities (onsen admission, aquarium ticket, bicycle rental for the day, “maguro souvenir ”, glass-making souvenir, short ferry cruise ), all for just over 3000yen.

We had a relatively slow start to the day and ended up leaving Shinagawa station around noon, and arrived at Misaki Port (a short bus ride from Misaki-guchi station) around 13:30, where we ate our “Maguro lunch”, which was delicious!
After lunch, we walked around the town and immersed ourselves in the atmosphere of a traditional fishing port (which is well-known for having a big tuna market, which we unfortunately didn’t have the chance to see).

We then headed for Jougashima (which can be accessed by a short bus trip or ferry ride), where we had planned to do a short hike along the coast (Yama-michi course).
However, this trail was closed off, so instead we walked along the rocky shoreline of the coast.
To our delight, this shoreline had very interesting rock formations all along it, which resembled “waves of rock”.

With the final destination of the walk being Jougashima Park, we stopped off at a rock formation called “Umanose Domon”, but there were also many small inlets and caves along this walk.
We then made our way to Jougashima Park, where we found some very interesting looking “slanted trees”.
As the sun was beginning to set, we made our way to the final destination, which was an onsen at Hotel Keikyu Aburatsubo-kan Shio-sou (bus fare there, and onsen admission was included in the Misaki Maguro Ticket).
All in all, it was a very beautiful and relaxing day , and very inexpensive!

I LOVE JAPAN ❤ 日本の今を伝えたい!- Summer Festivals in Japan –

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In Japan, summer is synonymous with festivals.

Of course there are festivals held in every part of the world, but there is something about Japanese festivals that makes them stand out from the rest.
Needless to mention, one of the most striking features of summer festivals in Japan is the traditional Yukata.
Watching hundreds of men and women in Japanese traditional attire is an unmatched visual treat.
Here are some of my favorite summer festivals that I attended this summer in Tokyo.

1. Mitama Matsuri

One of the biggest Obon festivals, Mitama Matsuri held at Yasukuni Shrine is a festival that honors the soul of the dead.

In the daytime, there were many traditional dance performances around the shrine area; however the best part of the festival came alive at night when nearly 30,000 lanterns lit the way to the shrine.
I was surprised to discover that another major attraction in this festival was the haunted house.
The Mikoshi parade, the paintings and the dances made this festival very different from the other festivals in Japan.
It was grand and festive, yet very calming and peaceful.

2. Tōrō Nagashi

Having loved being around lanterns in Mitama Matsuri, I could not miss a chance to see another lantern festival Tōrō Nagashi.
Tōrō means lantern and Nagashi means cruise or flow.
No points for guessing, the festival consisted of paper lanterns floating in water.

Around 2,500 lanterns were set afloat on the Sumida river in Asakusa to guide the souls of ancestors to the spirited world.
One could also write a wish on a lantern and release it in water.
The brightly lit river was a perfect spot for photography lovers.
I too tried my naïve photography skills and was fortunate to get a few good clicks.

3. Fireworks Festival

Summer in Japan would not be complete without attending fireworks festival, popularly known as Hanabi.
Fireworks are held at many places in Tokyo throughout summer, but Sumida Fireworks Festival undoubtedly tops the list.

In addition to being most famous, it is also the most crowded festival, hence in order to reserve our spots, we reached a nearby park much before the fireworks’ schedule.
We munched on snacks while patiently waiting for the fireworks to begin.
It started raining heavily in the evening so we stood with raincoats and umbrellas, keeping our fingers crossed, hoping the fireworks don’t get cancelled because of rain.
Luck was on our side, as we eventually witnessed the most incredible fireworks of the season.
The beautiful and colorful sky was definitely worth all the hassle.

4. Himawari Festival

I have always been amazed by flower festivals in Japan.
I love how bunches of flowers are planted and grown in such stunning patterns, be it the red Kochia in Hitachi Seaside Park or the purple Wisteria in Azalea Flower Park.

This summer I attended another flower festival – the Himawari Festival.
Zama city, the place where this festival was held, was painted yellow with over 400,000 tall sunflowers.
There were decks set up at various heights in the plains that offered breathtaking panoramic view of the yellow sunflowers contrasting with the blue sky.

Summer has not yet ended and I am looking forward to upcoming festivals like Koenji Awa Odori, Brazil Samba Carnival and so on.
Who would like to join me for them?

I LOVE JAPAN ❤ 日本の今を伝えたい!- Capturing the surreal –

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As I mentioned in my introduction for English Avenue, one of my hobbies is photography.
As I got more into photography different aspects began to appeal to me more than others.
One particular aspect that I’ve become obsessed with is geometry in photography – either in the form of lines or symmetrical patterns.

Life’s Treadmill.

However, geometric photos alone can be a little boring – they need a human element to bring the photos to life and to give the photos a sense of scale.
Often just a lone figure is great but, occasionally, more than one depending on the scene.
Also, the combination of geometry and the human element give the photo a kind of surreal look – hence the title of this blog – Capturing the surreal.

The lunatics have taken over the asylum.

Around this time, one of my English students introduced me to the work of Giorgio De Chirico – an Italian artist whose art influenced the ‘Surrealists’ – a cultural movement that began in the 1920s.
I found his artwork to be both inspirational and beautiful and I wanted to try and create real life photos that were similar to some of his artwork.

The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street by Giorgio de Chirico.

I began searching Tokyo and the surrounding area for forms of geometry I could incorporate into my photography.
I’d often spend 30 mins to an hour before sleeping doing google searches or searching Pinterest for locations I could use.
I found some amazing locations – not only in Japan but around the world and started making lists of places to visit.
As I got more into geometric photography I also started to notice patterns and lines in my everyday environment that I hadn’t noticed before.

Stepping out of the shadows.

The one downside to this type of photography was the time I would sometimes have to wait for the right person to step into the frame.
Sometimes I’d go to a location and no one would be there to step into the frame, which was pretty frustrating.
Another aspect that I was keen to combine was shadows.
This provided another problem as it meant I was dependent on the right weather as well as the right time of day for the location to be in the light and not the shade.
However I did learn that a few locations would work just as well in the rain or just after the rain.
A further problem was being able to get the right vantage point (height) so that I could show the sense of scale – a problem I’m still dealing with regarding some locations.

Rain check

‘Capturing the surreal’ is an ongoing project for me and I’m really looking forward to being able to add some locations I’ve found further a field in Japan and abroad.

And, as a final note, if you have any geometric location recommendations please let me know.
I can be found on these links:

https://www.instagram.com/laurence__bouchard/
https://www.flickr.com/photos/drzzz/
https://www.facebook.com/laurencebouchard2015

*Below are a few more images:

Some lines have to be crossed.

Out on the tiles.

From a jack to a king.

Detour.

Life through bars.

Untitled.

I LOVE JAPAN ❤ 日本の今を伝えたい!- Japan Should Change Its Traveling Ways –

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If you’re coming from another country, particularly the U.S., Japan is a relatively easy country to navigate.
Best of all, with the JR Rail Pass, it can be very affordable, which includes use of the bullet trains (shinkansen).
You can go wherever you want in Japan for just a few hundred dollars.

If you live in Japan, however, it’s another story.
Travel within Japan can be prohibitively expensive, even among foreign residents.
Of course, a big reason so many foreigners move to Japan is to explore it, so the irony of the situation should not be lost on anyone.

Such is the case with me.
I came to Japan for a number of reasons, one of which is to explore the country and to travel within it.
Despite being a resident of upwards of six years, I haven’t traveled anywhere beyond Osaka.
It’s just too expensive, and with not enough return on the investment, it’s difficult to justify the expense.

Visiting the likes of Hiroshima and Kyushu will likely have to wait until I return to Japan as a visitor from the U.S.
I can buy the JR Rail Pass then and go wherever I please.
It will sure be convenient, and I can finally explore Japan in the way I couldn’t when I actually lived here.

That doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it?
That’s why Japan should offer the same pass for its foreign residents who contribute their labor and tax money to the country.
We invest more of our time and money than any tourist.
We should enjoy the same benefits.

I LOVE JAPAN ❤ 日本の今を伝えたい!- Bigotry in Japan? –

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News reports about possible racist jeering at sumo wrestler Terunofuji, who hails from Mongolia, has spread quickly among many outlets in Japan.
The sumo wrestler performed in a way that some feel isn’t quite in line with the methods of a true grand champion, even if his tactics are technically allowable.
Still, the incident left a bad taste in the audience’s mouths, and some alleged racist heckling ensued.
The crowd reportedly jeered at him, “Go back to Mongolia!” after he secured a victory.
I’m not particularly interested in sumo wrestling as a sport, but the incident raises questions about the levels of bigotry in Japan.
How much does it exist, and against whom is it directed?
A lot has been written over the years about prejudice in Japan against Japanese-born Koreans.
This is a recurring problem with which Japan has not successfully dealt.
Other possible issues remain, such as bigotry against other minority groups and ethnicities.
I remember seeing a strange video on the Internet several years ago.
It was filmed in Japan, and it showed people protesting Americans.
One man had a megaphone and shouted, “White pig go home!” at some white people.
It was a shocking video, to say the least.
I don’t know to what extent this might represent people’s feelings in Japan.
Like many places, Japan must deal with this issue.
Unfortunately, there are no easy answers, but this kind of prejudice does seem to exist, as it does everywhere.
I hope a day will come when these problems never have to be addressed again.