Second trip to Okinawa (sort of)



We visited a small island called Yoron essentially in Okinawa (but which is actually just over in the neighbouring Kagoshima prefecture) a couple of years ago when we lived in Japan (you can read about that trip here, here, and here) and loved the sun and amazing, pretty much tourist-free beaches there and thought that now that we are on holiday in Japan, we should visit the Okinawan islands again.

So here we are in Zumami Island, about 1 hour from the Okinawan main island by catamaran.  At least partly due to the ease of access, Zumami it is one of the most popular Okinawan islands for tourists – having said that, there is hardly anyone here! See the photo below of the busiest day on the beach that has been voted the best in Japan. In fact, I’m not sure who voted given that there are more people at any given beach in England in torrential rain than on the beaches of Zumami in warm April weather.



When we told our Japanese friends in Osaka (some of whom are from Okinawa) that we were going to Zumami for 5 days, they all were a bit surprised and said that 5 days was a long holiday for Zumami as there was practically nothing on the island to do – and they were right. The island is tiny, there is one ‘supermarket’ (a small shop really), a couple of local restaurants that are open between noon and 2pm for lunch and apparently 1 policeman (whom you can call by using one phone in the village centre). In fact, to illustrate how small it is, my husband set himself a challenge to run every bit of road whilst we were there – which he did!


A two-table strong eatery on the island, serving only Okinawan noodles, pot noodles, crisps, ice cream and beer in a rather rustic environment.


There is not that much to do on the island other than enjoy the amazing beaches (and, like my husband, run up and down the handful of roads if you are that way inclined). But the beaches and the sea at Zumami is pretty amazing! One of the beaches on the island homes turtles (Ama beach) and the other one has a tropical fish filled coral reef (Furuzamami beach), and we’ve spend much of the past days on one or the other, even though my husband struggles with the fact that the nearest beach to our hotel (Furuzamami beach) lacks some pretty essential services for British holiday makers, more specifically, the café on the beach does not serve any alcohol!



And so, we’ve just spent 5 days on the beach without a single glass of wine – which led to my husband contemplating running to the ‘supermarket’ (2km away) emptying its liquor shelf and bringing some sake and wine for us to sip while resting our eyes on the clear blue sea (but we refrained from doing that when we then noticed the safety warnings telling swimmers not to drink and dive). But after an alcohol-free day on the beach, in the evenings when back at the hotel, we had a little stroll on the beach next to our hotel and had some sake and plum wine there.


One-cup of plum wine on the not-snorkelling-beach.


So we’ve done a fair amount of sober snorkelling for the past days, which has been wonderful.


The reef starts literally 5 metres from the beach and snorkelling there feels like you are in a fish tank filled with Nemo and Dory from Finding Nemo, puffer fish, angel fish and lots of other types of colourful fish that I don’t recognise and I felt I was smiling every time I dove into the water (regardless of the fact that it was a rather ungraceful entry with flippers which felt like boots that were too big for me). But what wiped the smile off my face pretty quickly and demonstrated that the boots were in fact too big for me (for snorkeling in tropical waters) was a close encounter with a large venomous sea snake! It was about 1 metre from me, but luckily heading from the surface to the reef and was not paying much attention to me. Nevertheless, you’ve never seen me scurry back to the shore as quickly as then. Once on dry land, I went to the lifeguards to tell that I had seen a large specimen of the snake whose photo hung by the beach telling people that if bitten to immediately squeeze the venom out of the bite and to go directly to the hospital, but they seemed rather relaxed about it and said that it would be safe to return to the water. For some reason I felt like snorkelling was done for the day (and we had fun and games outside the water).







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But if you think that you want to visit Zumami island, a word of warning might be in order. The island really is very quiet and the accommodation very basic. You would be disappointed if you arrived there expecting a high-end, state of the art resort and found Kerama beach hotel with its interior and exterior having peaked maybe 30 years ago and instead of all inclusive buffet tables catering for all diets, you’ll get a tray of Japanese food for breakfast and dinner (which we found super delicious but which nevertheless gives little choice for those who are picky eaters).



French Riviera style luxurious hotel complexes simply do not exist on this island. But what compensates for the rustic lodgings is the staff’s customer service. In true Japanese style they bent over backwards for us, driving us around the island like a personal taxi service (as there are no taxis on the island and no public transport to speak of), offered us ice and sake glasses when they noticed that my husband had emptied the liquor shelf at the village shop (maybe so that we would return the plastic cups back to our bathroom) and spontaneously made us vegetarian tempura for dinner when they noticed that my husband (who is vegetarian) was eating mine and the children’s rice while we were having his grilled chicken.

But if you are after a relaxing beach holiday in a rustic environment, appreciate that sea snakes live in the reef for the same reason you want to swim there (i.e. for the fish) and can cope with the lack of access to alcohol on the beach, Zamami island should be on your bucket list!



No fish left in the sea

I spent last weekend in Tokyo and I loved it! Its posh department stores and restaurants in Ginza, its trendy cafes and shops in Shibuya and Harajuku (this even though I am an old timer), and its traditional Japanese restaurants in Asakusa, to name a few of the key sources of my love for the capital of Japan.

However, by far the most striking experience I had in Tokyo was the Tsukiji fish market.

Some of you might view going to a fish market a bit like going to the butchers or an abattoir, and you are right – that’s what it is, kind of. But if you are prepared to eat octopus sushi, tuna sashimi, raw sea urchin, salmon soup, oyster tempura, grilled mackerel, deep fried white bait, eel on a skewer, pan fried perch, prawn cocktail, or to open a tin of Whiskas for your feline friend, I think one should be prepared to understand (and ideally see) where that food comes from and accept the responsibility that your (or your cat’s) diet will mean that marine creatures will be caught and killed for your benefit.

To try to get a better understanding of this, I had an early start and met my Japanese friend in the foyer of my hotel at 4.40am. He had kindly offered to come to the fish market with me before heading to work straight from the fish market. Since the tube wasn’t running that early in the morning, we walked for 20 minutes to the fish market and got there at 5am when the ticket office for the tuna and sea urchin auction was due to open. They only let 150 visitors observe the auction, which starts at 5.25am.

When we got to the ticket booth, we learned that the booth had opened already at 2.30am and that by 4am all the tickets were sold out, and that we were thus not going to witness the extremely expensive black tuna or sea urchin changing hands by way of some elaborate hand movements indicating bids and prices.

Disappointed, we walked around aimlessly trying to avoid being run over by very busy men on battery powered turret trucks which looked like a cross between a forklift and a petrol barrel (see short video below).


By coincidence we came across one not–so-busy man, sitting on a crate of fish and my friend asked him if there was anything interesting to see at 5am instead of the auction that we had missed. Apparently we were welcome to go and have a look inside a huge, intimidating looking warehouse full of men, boxes of fish and turret trucks.



So we walk into the warehouse, again trying not to get run over by the guys on their trucks or clog up the narrow walkways. I’m taking photos of fish, squid, octopus, turtles, and shell fish in boxes and fish tanks, and on tables and trolleys, and of sellers and buyers negotiating (see photos).














There were piles and boxes of fish everywhere in this gigantic warehouse whose extremities were unknown to us. I had never seen so many fish.  I started to have an unnerving thought. Tsukiji fish market is just one of several fish markets in Tokyo, and there are many more fish markets in Japan, and Japan is just one country in Asia, and Asia is just one continent. These types of fish markets take place in thousands of places in the world. And they take place every day! I could but think that there must be no fish left in the sea! It’s all on tables and boxes in fish markets like this! Or revolving around sushi restaurant counters or being covered in batter in fish and chip shops.


When the tuna auction had finished and the tuna was brought to the market







After having had a look around the market, we decided that we had seen enough and wanted to head back to the hotel, but the warehouse was so big that we couldn’t find our way out. Eventually, my friend asked directions from an elderly man loading his turret truck. We were gobsmacked when the guy glanced at us from underneath his eyebrows and then offered to give us a lift to the closest tube station in his truck. At 6am these workers are super busy. I don’t think they would generally be willing to operate a taxi service for lost visitors. So, we were extremely grateful (and very excited!) when we hopped on the back of the truck and off we went.


When we cruised out of the warehouse, I noticed many tourists (none of whom were using a similar taxi service as us!), and said to my friend that it is weird that none of the other tourists came into the actual fish warehouse to have a look. That, funnily enough, we seemed to be the only tourists there.

He then admits that the guy who had instructed us to go in had done so because my friend was wearing a suit (as he was going straight to work from the fish market) and the guy had said that even though strictly speaking we were not supposed to go in, the staff would think we were there on business! Never have I felt more like a gatecrasher! But at the same time I was grateful to my friend and his suit for having experienced something I’ll never forget – the content of the entire sea on tables of a fish market and the ride at the back of a barrel on four wheels.


I have mixed emotions after seeing the fish market.  Part of me is happy to have seen first hand where our food comes from. However, it does make me think seriously about how much I actually enjoy eating fish. Do I love it so much that I am prepared to support the fish industry in their capture and killing of fish? Aside from the suffering that the fish endure, I am also concerned about the hazards for humans of eating fish (e.g. due to levels of mercury) and the environmental impact of fishing. One to ponder I think.

Eternal meditation



I recently had an amazing, educational and spiritually enlightening experience. A friend and I stayed at Koyasan (Mount Koya), a UNESCO World Heritage site, about a 1 ½ h train journey south of Osaka.

Koya is an old Buddhist town founded by a monk called Kobo Daichi some 1,200 years ago and even though there used to be many more temples, due to some monks’ happy-go-lucky attitude with candles, today there are 117 temples in Koyasan’s 4 km x 2 km area.

When we got to Koyasan we were hungry to see as many temples as possible. But instead of visiting all 117 temples, we managed maybe about 15 after which we, surprisingly perhaps, felt desensitised to all the picturesque buildings, smell of incense, aesthetic temple rock gardens, lovely little ponds and their carps and ever so friendly monks smiling at everybody.






So, we decided to go back to our lodgings and meditate with the monks.

We stayed in a pilgrim’s lodgings (Shukubo), which is a temple that has rooms for people making a holy trip to this extremely important spiritual place in Japan.


Our room


My friend and I are not Buddhists, in fact, neither one of us are religious, but after having spent a weekend in Koyasan, we agreed that if we were religious, Buddhism, its positive attitude and concrete real life application would be the one we’d be most likely to go for. Apparently, one way to be a good Buddhist is to start by cleaning your home! Due to your ‘soul’ being connected to the ambient world, a clean and tidy home equals a clean and tidy soul. I love this kind of practical stuff, which doesn’t really strike me as religion but more like common sense. Related to this, our temple lodgings were spotless!

The food at the temple was vegetarian and sooo good – even fried tofu that usually tastes like a wet woolly mitten was to die for! After dinner, two young monks came to clear away the food trays and replaced them with our beds. I asked them whether or not they cook the food themselves. They said that they have a chef who does all the cooking (the monks just make beds and do other household chores, and presumably meditate, pray and engage in other Buddhist routines). I’m guessing the chef used to work in a Michelin star restaurant. I’m not kidding. I’m still drooling over that tofu.




After dinner we went on a night tour led a monk to one of the most sacred places in Japan, Okunoin.


Okunoin is a Buddhist cemetery consisting of 200,000 tombs, the most important of which is that of Kobo Daichi’s (the monk who is the father of Koyasan). Well actually it is not his ‘tomb’. You see, in the 9th century, at the age of 63 years, Kobo Daichi entered a room underneath one of the temples for eternal meditation. Supposedly, for the past 1200 years he’s been there but only the reigning head monks of the temple, when bringing him his daily meals, have seen him in his deep state of meditation. One British tourist asked the question that might be on some of your lips: Is he still alive? By the monk’s ever so diplomatic answer, I assume that was not the first time someone asked that question. He said: Some people believe that he is still alive, but most people assume that he lives in this temple in spirit.

The cemetery surrounding Kobo Daichi meditation temple was breath-taking. In the dark it looked magical but also a little spooky. It didn’t help that the monk told us that a well half-way through the cemetery was believed to indicate whether you were to die soon. Apparently, if you couldn’t see your own reflection in the water of the well it meant that you would die within three years. We decided to wait until the morning to have a look – we really didn’t want to risk it at night with hardly any light. The monk added that a flight of steps next to the well were also an indicator of your longevity. He said that if you slipped or fell over on the steps then you would die within three years. Maybe this was just a way for the monk to get a group of Westerners (who hardly resembled graceful gazelles) to pay attention and not break their necks on the slippery steps (and maybe sue the temple!). After all, before we got to the cemetery and its slippery steps one lady in our group had already ended up on her all fours. Luckily nobody fell over on the fall-over-and-your-a-goner-in-three-years-steps, and as far I am aware, the lady didn’t sue the temple for the earlier tumble either.


The steps at night



The steps at day


We slept on the tatami floor on a relatively thin futon. I didn’t sleep very well. Not because of the thin futon or nightmares about Okunoin and life-ending wells but, due to the walls in old Japanese buildings being essentially paper, I could hear a guy three rooms down the corridor snore and the couple in the room next to us breath. But I didn’t mind too much really – a bad night’s sleep is a small price to pay for experiencing Koyasan!



At 6am our alarms woke us up to go and take part in our temple’s morning service and fire ritual (gomakito), which they hold routinely every day, rather than as a gimmick for the tourists. The purpose of them is to pray for our ancestors and to cleanse negative energies and thoughts. These ceremonies were very interesting and to me a little bit moving, partly because of what I wrote on my soegomagi – a piece of wood that the monks burn in the morning fire ritual for a contribution of 300JPY (€2.50). What I wrote was a wish that there would be a cure for Type 1 diabetes. Maybe it was the incense, the powerful beating of the taiko drums, the chanting of a mantra by the monks and the thought of my Type 1 diabetic daughter that made me feel so emotional. In any case it was lovely (and I am looking forward to the cure for Type 1 soon).

The only things that distracted me in the morning service and the fire ceremony was an approx. 10-year of daughter of the British lady who had asked about 1,200 year old Kobo Daichi’s vital signs at Okunoin temple. The daughter loudly farted during the morning ceremony and the family giggled for 5 minutes after which the daughter and their 8-year old son lay down on the floor, I presume expressing boredom and/or tiredness.


Morning service


Fire ritual


After breakfast (and some more tofu, Yay!) we went back to the Okunoin cemetery. Some of the oldest tombs have stood there in the middle of the forest, in the morning mist for 900 years. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything quite like that.





One of the oldest tombs in Okunoin




In addition to the beautiful old tombs and a tranquil atmosphere, there were also some more modern tombs and even some slightly quirky ones, like a rocket, a teacup and a termite tomb.



Apparently, anyone can have a tomb in Okunoin; you don’t even have to be a Buddhist. You just need to have a thick wallet to pay for the spot and to have a tomb made. But even though Okunoin was amazingly beautiful, I think I want to go into my eternal meditation back home, in England or Finland.




Jizo (if you would like to know more about jizo, click here)


Tall, taller, tallest


The view from Harukas, Osaka

Many people (excluding the ones with a fear of heights) like visiting tall buildings, so much so that different cities/countries/companies seem to be having an everlasting race for the sky to see which city/country/company has the tallest building on the planet. Due to this, the reign of a given ‘tallest’ building only lasts for a short number of years, until the time when it is no longer possible to build taller buildings. Or maybe that day will never come?

You see, I recall a recent dinner table conversation with some male acquaintances (none of whom were structural engineers, architects or bricklayers – and neither am I). Somehow the conversation got onto the topic of tall buildings in the world: Burj Khalifa in Dubai, Tokyo Skytree, Shanghai Tower, Taipei 101 and Harukas in Osaka.

Going off on one, there is also of course Trump Tower. My 8-year old son asked the other day why there is a building called ‘fart tower’. It took all my willpower to resist telling him that it was because there was an asshole at the top of it.

The men agreed that there was no limit as to how high big objects could be erected until it is no longer feasible to reach higher altitudes. I joined their conversation and said that it is likely that there is a limit, not only from a financial point of view (I mean, how expensive would it be to add an extra floor to a 10 km tall building rather than an extra floor of a shorter building) but also that due to the earth being round, which in my non-structural engineer’s mind says that there must be a point when the earth’s surface would no longer provide a structurally sound foundation for a ridiculously tall building (I based my assertion on my knowledge of building towers of wooden blocks with my children – the taller the tower the bigger the base). Maybe this was a stupid thing to say, but in my opinion not any more stupid than talking about the possibility of having infinitely high buildings. They nevertheless laughed and said that only a woman could point that kind of an argument out. I, in turn, wanted to point out that only men with certain issues would spend time comparing the size of erect things.

I have since talked to my husband because I was so furious about the mansplaining that took place around that dinner table. He isn’t a structural engineer, architect or bricklayer either but he agreed that finance was one of the biggest limits to building an indefinitely tall building. He also added (1) problems with elevators/transportation from the bottom to the top of the building (2) wind and (3) materials. In addition he pointed out that of course there is a limit because at some point you would theoretically hit the moon/sun/other object.

Tall buildings are obviously a popular tourist attraction and a great place for a marriage proposal, wedding venue or a party. What a spectacular place to propose to your partner – not only for the view, but also for the convenience. If the answer is not what you were hoping for you can always threaten to jump off the building because you think your life no longer has any meaning (or alternatively you can threaten to throw them off the building) – only kidding! Please don’t go jumping or throwing people off of buildings even if they don’t want to marry you (or respect your passion for spectacular erections).

In any case, Japan has many tall buildings, the tallest of which is Tokyo Skytree, a tower that stands a whopping 634m tall. See photo below.


Tokyo Skytree


Here in Osaka, we have the tallest (300m) inhabited building in Japan, Harukas.


It’s one of our favourite places to visit in Osaka, partly because

  • the view is stunning, even though Osaka is not exactly the prettiest of cities, see photos above and below

Harukas, Osaka


The view from Harukas, Osaka

  • on a weekday it is not particularly busy and so you can just sit there for hours and relax



  • the café at the top of the building sells delicious pineapple ice cream (and wine) – perfect for relaxation
  • the toilets at the top with glass walls that will allow you to take an interesting mirror selfie for your Facebook page (unless your reflection in the mirror resembles a chipmunk, like mine does below, in which case you might want to refrain from posting the photo on Facebook).



  • the light display in the lift is beautiful – it makes you feel like you are on a journey to somewhere lovely (maybe somewhere far away from the depressing post-Brexit reality) (see the video below)



I suppose the only negative is that when you get to the bottom, you realise that you are not in a beautiful world where everyone is intelligent and loving, but that you are in a huge department store and you need to try to find you way back to the tube.

If you are ever in Osaka (and if you don’t suffer from a fear of heights) you should visit Harukas, that is of course unless by that time there is already a taller building, maybe one that reaches the sun.