Friend, talking about her moronic American boss and his cheesy-hobby-turned-floundering-business, that only survives off the subsidies of his well-off Japanese wife:

He’s living the American Dream… The American Dream in Japan.

Zamami Ferry

A few weeks ago1, thanks to the munificence of our respective employers (two full days off!) and some incredibly cheap last-minute plane ticket, Irina and I managed to escape Tokyo’s Winter for a four-day stay in Okinawa.

February is unambiguously the worst time of the year to visit Okinawa, with low temperatures and frequent rain making it difficult to enjoy the full extent of its sandy beaches and pristine oceans. On the other hand, that yearly low is still a good 15C over Tokyo’s own temperatures: hard to beat with a 3h flight.

In the end, despite delivering on its promise of middling weather, our stay was so enjoyable that we are already contemplating a repeat later in the year. Despite being (nominally) a fully-integrated part of Japan, Okinawa is nothing like even the most remote regions of the mainland: different culture, different attitudes and (obviously) very different landscapes.

Landing in the evening, we spent one night in a cozy Naha guesthouse before setting our sights for much smaller (and less city-like) locales: a one-hour boat ride took us to Zamami islands: a handful of tiny coral islands making up half of the small Kerama archipelago with Tokashiki.

The southernmost island of Gero, connected to Awa-jima by a bridge.

With a combined population of about 1000 (600 on the bigger of the three inhabited islands), the place is as close as one gets to a desert island without having to survive the wreckage of a 17th century ship. OK, perhaps not quite so remote: plenty of Wifi in the (two) villages and cellphone reception on at least half the island. More importantly, it is impossible to overstate how incredibly crystal blue the water is. Even on the rainiest cloudy days, merely looking out to the lagoon made us feel like putting on a swimsuit and running to the beach.

We spent our first night on the smaller island of Aka, in a diving shop doubling as minshuku (the case with practically all local lodging options), taking walks around the island, enjoying the sights and eating some of the most delicious, freshest sashimi and grilled fish we have ever had (caught by our hostess herself).

On the next day, we took the small shuttle boat to the (slightly) larger island of Zamami, where we stayed the following two nights at the nicely laid back Nakayamagwa hostel. A whole day of overall rainy weather actually made for a welcome occasion to catch up on our reading list, relax and generally not do anything.

On our other day, we did however manage a whale-watching excursion: the main sightseeing attraction during the “cold” February-March Winter months. Zamami’s Whale Watching Association organises two daily tours, backed by the standard efficiency one has come to expect of anything Japanese and sightseeing-related: each day starts with half-a-dozen members dispatched to all three corners of the archipelago, surveying nearby waters for the telltale whale-tails, before reporting to HQ with exact coordinates to which the sightseeing boats shall be sent.

Whale Tail

The boats themselves (about 2-3 for each tour, plus a couple even tinier private boats generally tagging along) are small repurposed fishing boats with just enough room to fit 20-some whale-watchers each. After a mini-lecture on the habits, history and even Japanese etymology of the particular whales we were about to observe2, we set sail (so to speak) on fairly agitated waters toward the last spotted location of the cetaceans. After about 30 minutes (and with Irina a few shades whiter), we spotted the first blowhole geysers at a small distance, then for the next hour or so, we were basically riding along with the whales (apparently 3 in total). Every couple minutes, a creature would make it to the surface, splash around some, and dive back in. By then, the guide had spread all the punters between the front of the boat (basically a flat area washed by the waves, circled by a tiny metal rail 30cm above it) and the more comfortable (but even more shaky) driving cabin at the top. On more than a few occasions, the magnificent beasties would pop up nearly close enough to touch the hull, and definitely close enough to send it swaying dangerously. After an hour of oohs and aahs (well-deserved: these things are truly impressive from up close), we made our way back to shore, to the relief of Irina’s stomach.

Zamami on a sunny morning

Our last day was of course also the sunniest, giving us a glimpse of what true Summer might be like on the island.

Having a couple short hours to kill in the afternoon between our ferry back to Naha and our flight back, we opted to check out some of the more touristy fares on offer on the main island, and went for a tour of Okinawa World: suitably cheesy (and packed with tourists from the whole Asian continent), but a chance to see firsthand how they make habushu (doesn’t seem very pleasant for the snake).

On the plane back to our Tokyo Winter wonderland and its remaining months of Winter, plans were already being drafted for a triumphant return and possible Summer camping trip on Zamami (this time with considerably more swimming). With a bit of luck, you can expect to see more tropical pictures up here before long.

  1. Yes: this is another badly outdated entry that has been sitting in my draft folder for over a month. []
  2. Did you know that the ‘zatou’ in 座頭鯨 was because of this particular whale subspecies’ resemblance with biwa-playing masseurs, like Zatoichi? Yea, neither did I. []

Old Japanese Photographs When we moved into our awesome (very) old Tokyo house, I was half-expecting to find interesting leftovers in some of the thousands nooks and crannies of the place. It turned out to be spotlessly clean and empty.

However, in the process of turning our room into a giant LED-lit wonderland yesterday, I happened upon a small worn-out paper bag, tucked in the small interstice between the wall and the hook-supporting wood panel near the ceiling, filled with a bunch of black&white photographs…

The first photographs, in smaller format, seemed to have been shot at some formal event (a wedding?), featuring close-ups of a younger lady in kimono. Hard to pinpoint a date, but easily more than 40 years ago. By that point, I was already pondering whether I should turn over these heartwarming mementos to the landlady (whose family presumably were the last tenants, some time before we moved in), or could claim prescription and keep them in good conscience…

Then I flipped past the first few and understood why these had been carefully hidden behind a wood panel in a corner of the bedroom…

Porn Photo Stash

Yes: I had found one of the previous owners’ secret porn stash from the 70s.

I guess I might hold off on contacting the charming little old lady I pay rent to every month.

Update: I originally abstained from posting the non-nudie pics on the off-chance that they would incriminate some long-retired (/long-dead) philanderer somewhere. Upon further reflection, the odds that anybody in a position to personally recognise them would ever land on this page being astronomically low, here they are:

Japanese Dinner (there are about 5 or 6 more, all near-identical re-shoot, with slightly different angles)

When I first glanced at them, I surmised a wedding dinner or some such. In light of accompanying material and upon further review, I would say it is clearly a much less family-oriented event. My guess is “business” dinner at some onsen retreat. Whether extra “services” were provided by the female personnel, or the pictures merely fueled the secret fantasies of our pin-up collector, we probably will never know…
It is also hard to tell from my crappy keitai copy, but these shots are quite crisp and detailed for amateur photographs, leading me to think they might be a little more recent than the pin-ups (early 80s?).

These days, our household entertainment program has added the TV dorama version of Great Teacher Onizuka to the rotation. This 2012 remake of a much older series, itself adapted from a popular manga/anime running in the late 90s, follows the adventure of a barely-reformed yanki/bosozoku type (the titular Onizuka) who, through great feats of suspension of disbelief, gets hired by a private high-school principal to teach a particularly difficult class. Difficult, in that the usual troubled, broken home, violent kids are the good ones: the bad ones are an assortment of sociopath damien-like monsters constantly plotting to get rid of the teaching staff through increasingly deadly means.

Like most Japanese TV fare, this one offers a mildly entertaining serialised story with mediocre acting, pathetically cheap production values and implausible plot reveals that would shame a Mexican telenovela. The point being: it is fairly simple Japanese and good language training when you are too tired to exercise the rest of your brain.

Of course, this would not be a Japanese drama, without its share of gratuitous sexual innuendoes, heavy on female objectification and wildly inappropriate1 behaviours by male characters. With the latter presented as light comic relief and therefore never worthy of onscreen reprimand, unlike whatever other amoral behaviours (stealing, loitering, failing to properly sort their rubbish…) the bad guys engage in. Lack of (Western) political correctness on Japanese TV is par for the course and somewhat refreshing (if you don’t think too much about what it says of Japanese society).

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  1. from a tame Western standpoint []

As Pierre and I were pondering the next stop on our week-long tour of Japan, I remembered a stunning picture I had seen in a special Brutus magazine issue on countryside minshukus a few years ago. I looked up what turned out to be the village of Ainokura (part of Gokayama town), in Toyama-ken.

Driving past the still-quite-urban town of Jōhana, the last few km of mountain roads and never-ending tunnels magically opened into some Lost Valley-like landscape, with a dozen thatched-roofed houses lying at the bottom. We spent the night there (half the village is minshuku, the other regular farmers) before resuming our trip south through the much more touristy but still very picturesque region of Shirakawa.

Definitely on par with Iya for surprisingly preserved piece of old-times Nipponia.