The In-Transit Report

Archive for August, 2013

Japan: Nagasaki and Fukuoka

Japan was the first foreign country I went to, and as of this trip it’s also the country I’ve gone back to the most. I spent a year studying abroad in Tokyo, so there’s always been a piece of me left behind in Japan, Tokyo especially. Every time I go back it’s familiar but challenging; I speak just enough Japanese to get around, but it’s still a struggle.
 
I didn’t intend to go back to Japan on this trip, but working in Micronesia led to some interesting re-routing thanks to frequent flier mile ticket availability. I wanted to fly straight from Guam to South Korea, but there weren’t any tickets available on miles. Instead, I flew to Fukuoka, which has a ferry to Busan in South Korea.
 
The first day in Fukuoka I managed to get out of the airport, catch a bus, and walk to the hostel. On the way, a little old Japanese lady lent me the shade of her umbrella and pointed out to me where the hostel was. We exchanged a few sentences, which I awkwardly dragged out of the recesses of my memory and into my mouth. I had forgotten the pure exhilaration of being able to communicate, even if it’s not clearly.  It’s like riding a bike – it never quite goes away, just goes dormant. I slowly remembered more and more words, and walking around helped a lot.
 
In Fukuoka I didn’t see very much, but it stirred my memory up a whole lot. Little things fascinated me, like the way people welcome you into a hostel, a store, a restaurant (Irasshaimase!), how to open Onigiri, all the delicious foods and snacks and drinks. The awesome convenience stores (Lawsons, 7-11s) with seating areas and a microwave and hot water to make your food with. The sounds on the subway, each stop with its song, the words I remember because of subway announcements. Ramen shops and the slurps of soup, the way everything just seems to be designed to work well. In Japan they hand out paper fans and packets of tissues with advertisements, so I spent the better part of the week fanning myself with an Armani Exchange fan with some “sexy” clothes models splayed about the front. A little annoying.
 
After Fukuoka I went down to Nagasaki, where I stayed with two Japanese guys who hosted a bunch of Couchsurfers. These two friendly, amazing dudes opened up their home to us, so while I was there I met six others and had a great time. The first day, I walked around with a guy from Brazil who works with local governments to push for nuclear disarmament. He was in Nagasaki for a conference, and stayed some more time to travel. It was really cool to hear his perspective and experiences, a rare and interesting companion.
 
Most of the others I met were English teachers who had completed their contract or were on holiday, and were traveling around Japan. Especially in Kyushu, I noticed that most of the people traveling were English teachers, had Japanese relatives or friends, or had other more specific reasons to be in Japan. The tourists are centered around Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka, understandably. More, it seems, venture to Hiroshima than Nagasaki if they get that far out.
 
Nagasaki had two areas of interest. The first is the Peace Park, which is full of beautiful statues dedicated to Nagasaki from a number of countries and sister cities, surrounding an elevated park with the Peace Statue and the Fountain of Peace. Lots of beautiful art expressing friendship. One was from St. Paul, Minnesota. Apparently, Nagasaki and St. Paul are Japan and the US’s oldest sister city pair. This sculpture was actually one of my favorites – humans intertwined in a globe. The plaque says “The seven human figures represent the continents. The interdependence of the figures symbolizes global peace and solidarity.” Good words, great sculpture.
 
Nagaski Peace Park and Museum 18
 
At the top, the Peace Sculpture can be seen. To borrow from the Wikipedia article, “At the park’s north end is the 10-meter-tall Peace Statue created by sculptor Seibo Kitamura of Nagasaki Prefecture. The statue’s right hand points to the threat of nuclear weapons while the extended left hand symbolizes eternal peace. The mild face symbolizes divine grace and the gently closed eyes offer a prayer for the repose of the bomb victims’ souls. The folded right leg and extended left leg signify both meditation and the initiative to stand up and rescue the people of the world. Installed in front of the statue is a black marble vault containing the names of the atomic bomb victims and survivors who died in subsequent years.”
 
Nagaski Peace Park and Museum 2
 
Another quote from Wikipedia on The Fountain of Peace: At the south end of the park is a “Fountain of Peace”. This was constructed in August, 1969, as a prayer for the repose of the souls of the many atomic bomb victims who died searching for water, and as a dedication to world peace. Lines from a poem by a girl named Sachiko Yamaguchi, who was nine at the time of the bombing, are carved on a black stone plaque in front of the fountain. It reads: “I was thirsty beyond endurance. There was something oily on the surface of the water, but I wanted water so badly that I drank it just as it was.”
 
Nagaski Peace Park and Museum 28
 
It may seen a bit morbid, but war memorials and monuments are some of my favorite things to see when I travel. They serve as an important reminder to do good, to work for peace, to appreciate and respect other cultures. Walking through the Atomic Bomb Museum and Peace Memorial Hall I wondered how members of the US Government, and the guys who actually pulled the trigger, felt knowing that they destroyed almost 74,000 living souls, and injured countless others in incalculable ways. How desperate does a country need to be to cause that kind of destruction? And this wasn’t even the only city bombed! How much did the US really need to show off how powerful it was? Badly enough to slaughter hundreds of thousands of people who weren’t even directly involved in the war? And the US still has massive quantities of nuclear weapons.
 
Nagaski Peace Park and Museum 79
 
The other half of the city’s heritage is one of foreign trade, and it has many historical areas and tourist attractions that highlight this. The Portuguese and later the Dutch traded with Japan through Nagasaki, and the city still has some of the old architecture, including mixed-style houses in Glover Garden. Very interesting history and architecture, showing that some amount of integration and cooperation could happen, including the Scottish merchant Glover’s marriage to a Japanese woman, and their children. Nagasaki is also the setting for Madame Butterfly, which I should probably look into.
 
The last day, two others and I went on a tour to Gunkanjima (Battleship Island), which apparently was inspiration for Skyfall. It’s an abandoned coal mining town, with really cool crumbling structures. You can’t go inside any of them, at least not on the tour, but they were really interesting to look at. I wish I could’ve rented a boat and went on alone, but I value my safety.
 
Gunkanjima 112
 
When I wasn’t sightseeing or trying to avoid going out in the crazy heat and humidity, I went with the other Couchsurfers to our one host’s work, which was a bar and restaurant called Monkey Wrench. That was awesome – great people, great food, awesome conversations to help me improve my Japanese (including a conversation in Japanese about how hard it is to learn Chinese!), and apparently a jam session that happened after I left one night. This is exactly why I love Couchsurfing; it’s more difficult to find these crazy wonderful places on your own, without knowing someone local. In any case, that made Nagasaki all the more fun for me. I was very sad to leave, but was really excited to go to Korea, a country I’ve been wanted to visit for years now. Still, I will always miss Japan, and I’ll definitely be going back someday.
 

The In-Transit Report: On Language

Sometimes I have to sit back and appreciate the fact that I’m a native English speaker. It’s easy to forget when you’re American, but when anyone travels outside their own country, English is the best second language to have. I’ve met a lot of French and other European travelers here in Korea, and have been reflecting on the difficulty of learning and using English, especially when talking to another person whose native language is not English. I’m constantly amazed by how good some people’s English is, and how the rest try.

I remember meeting a man in Laos who could only speak French, and joined my companions in part because a Belgian with us could speak French and translated a lot for him. I thought it was very brave of him to try traveling with only French; even though Laos was a former colony of France, only a small number of people (mostly the elderly) still speak any French. As brave as it can seem for me to be traveling in Korea and other places without speaking more than a few words of Korean, I’m in the incredibly privileged position of speaking the language that tourism speaks. That fact both intrigues me and irks me.

The world’s multitude of languages are slowly dying out because of the dominance of just a few, the main one being my native language. The number of English words in Japanese, for instance, disturbs me. On the other side, that’s just how languages work – they grow and change. Doesn’t make it any less strange to watch languages die.

This is also reminds me how much I want fluency in another language. I speak barely enough Japanese to get around, but I can’t say I’m at more than a basic conversational level. A big part of me wants to find a job in Japan and work on my Japanese. But another part of me wants to speak the next more important language in the world. Maybe move to China and tackle that again, though I barely remember any of it from the two semesters I took ten years ago! We’ll see where life takes me, and what languages I’ll speak in ten years…


Guam: My vacation from traveling

Since I had to fly in and out of Guam to get to Chuuk, I gave myself a few days to hang out in Guam before flying over to Japan. I lucked out and managed to Couchsurf the entire time I was there. For those not familiar with Couchsurfing, it’s a site where people offer to host people in their homes or just meet up. I’ve used it to find accommodation, meet up with people and sightsee together, and get rides. It’s an amazing community, and surprisingly doesn’t usually lead to awkward or weird experiences. Anyway, I couch surfed with two amazing guys, and their friend who was visiting from Korea. The first night, I wound up at a barbecue with a bunch of locals, expats, and Navy guys (the two guys I was staying with were engineers for the Navy), so that was a really good time, and it set the pace for the next few days.

Guam is a strange place. It’s almost impossible to get around without a car, and everything is set up to accommodate and entertain the tour groups that visit, which are predominately Japanese, with some Koreans as well. Japanese is actually a great second language to have in Guam, with Korean right behind it! There aren’t many backpackers in Guam, and if it weren’t for Couchsurfing I probably would’ve gotten really frustrated trying to do anything on a budget.

Over the next few days, I hung out a lot, watched movies at the guys’ place, went out to eat, checked out the malls and walked around with Hanul (the guys’ friend), checked out Inarajan Pools and some of the scenic area nearby, and went scuba diving with another Couchsurfer, who also knew my hosts (everyone CS’ing in Guam seems to know each other!). Diving was fun, very chill compared to Chuuk. I’ve never dived with current before, so that was a new experience.

Guam

Hanul and I walked around the ‘village’ while the guys were at work, window shopping and finding hilarious things that the tourists probably loved to buy (like decorative door stoppers and bizarre kitchen tools shaped like all kinds of things). Another day, we went on a Dolphin Cruise, which is basically an expedition to see some dolphins. This was on a much bigger boat than the one from Chuuk, but this time I had my camera, so I have pictures of the dolphins. The owner’s daughter was along on the boat, and knew Hanul, so the two of them goofed off the entire time. After watching the dolphins, everyone jumped off the boat and snorkeled around. Later, I got to sneak my life jacket off and do some free diving. I just can’t hold my breath for long enough.. need to practice!

Guam

My last night, we checked out Chamorro Village, a food stall and goods market. There was also local dances, music and stuff like that.. Then we went to Yogurtland, which we had also done the night before. Lots of fun with great people! Guam was basically my vacation from serious travel, as strange as that might seem. I didn’t really need to make a lot of effort to do anything, Guam uses USD and everyone speaks English, and I caught up on a lot of sleep on the guys’ comfortable couch. So much fun!


Chuuk Lagoon: Part Two

Overall, diving in Chuuk was an absolutely mind-blowing, amazing experience. It’s an underwater museum, relics of war preserved in the sea, but losing slowly to the battle of life being fought by the coral that grows on the wrecks. The wrecks, representative of death and war, are the building blocks for these massive colonies of life. Among the rusted metal are brilliantly colorful corals, many kinds running into each other, with all kinds of fish swarming around them. In addition to those, we saw a few sea turtles, an eagle ray, and myriads of other small but intriguing others (cleaner shrimp, anemones, nudibranchs, for example). Sadly, no sharks.

There are a lot of details I remember, but can’t put to one ship versus another. Stuff that seems trivial and unexciting when you see it above ground in modern times, but is infinitely fascinating on a wreck. Oxygen bottles, electrical consoles, small bottles and gadgets, perfectly preserved and unbroken teacups and teapots, guns, gas masks, pipes and cables, the way air gets trapped in the ceiling of the wreck, a moving mirror you swim under. Pieces of bathrooms, dish ware, the folded uniform of a soldier, sea clams living on tanks, the masses of coral clustered on the mast of a sunken ship. Just amazing.

29/07 Shinkoku Maru – my max depth 27m/89ft
This was my first shipwreck, so of course it was really awesome. It felt really, really, big, and we didn’t even get to see all of it. Lots of little artifacts strewn about, like china, bottles, and pieces of machinery, in addition to a whole lot of coral and sea life growing on the metal. Swimming through a wreck the first time was a surreal experience, but not nearly as creepy as I expected.

29/07 Betty Bomber – max 20m/66ft
An airplane that was shot down, it sits fairly close to the surface and is easily accessible and well-lit. It’s broken apart, with engines in a different location, and has a small swim-through going the length of one of the plane’s parts. There is some equipment laying outside the plane, including a seat and a radio.

* 30/07 Kansho Maru – max 30m/99ft
The swim through was incredible, helped along by a bit of nitrogen narcosis. We passed a bathroom with intact tile, and to the other side I could see outside through the small windows, and then we ascended a staircase (floating up a staircase has to be one of the coolest things about wreck dives!). We then entered what’s known as the catwalk, a walkway across a huge room. Diving in this environment is like floating through a ghost story, a little slice of tragic history in front of you in the form of rusted metal that takes a few looks to identify. Something about that swim through, and the way it felt to go through the catwalk, really struck me.

30/07 Kiyosumi Maru – max 29m/95ft
Another very accessible wreck, with lots of swim throughs and stuff strewn about to see, including intact sink basins, a lantern, bottles, even some bones.

31/07 Rio de Janeiro – max 29m/95ft
This one has guns on deck, and bottles upon bottles of unopened beer and sake. The electrical control panel is pretty cool, too. There was a small statue of Mary tucked away that our guide showed us.

31/07 Sankisan – 23m/75ft
This one was really cool. Lots of drug bottles, ammunitions, guns, a few trucks, and plane engines. The floor in one part we dove through is completely covered in bullets. Really cool coral on this one, too.

31/07 Shinkoku (2nd time) – 31m/102ft
Saw some more of this ship, which we’d done the first day. Made it into the engine room, enjoying the soft corals on the way out.

* 01/08 Nippo Maru – max 38m/125ft
This is one of my top three dives! There’s a little tank on the deck that I spent a good 5 minutes enjoying before venturing on. There are artillery guns on deck and around, lots of little artifacts as well. The steering wheel is accessible and really cool to see.

* 01/08 Yamagiri Maru – max 30m/99ft
Another favorite. Huge shells, propellers, and other large equipment pieces. A skull embedded into the engine room ceiling. Almost all of the bodies were removed from the ships after the war, but the skull is actually fused in place. Very creepy.

01/08 Hoyo Maru – 32m/105ft
This is the quintessential creepy shipwreck. Huge, in murky water, and upside down. Lots of huge spaces to swim through, and some big equipment, but it’s really all ambience. Apparently there’s a local legend that the guy who torpedoed it during the attack in WWII went back to dive the wreck, and died in it. I doubt it’s true, but it makes a good ghost story.

* 02/08 Hoki Maru – max 41m/135ft –
Described as “the underwater truck parking lot”, and oh my God, it’s in the top 3. The trucks are in surprisingly good condition, too, an underwater museum. And there was a BULLDOZER. Lots of other parts like propellor blades and huge bombs. Apparently there was a skull, but I didn’t see it, and it may have been removed. If I remember correctly, it also had a display of propped up guns donned with white gas masks. I highly doubt they were set up like that when the ship sank, but it looks pretty cool anyway. Loved this one!

* 02/08 Fujikawa Maru – 32m/105ft
Everyone’s favorite shipwreck, and it is indeed pretty awesome. The best part was the hold full of Zero fighters, most of them in such good shape you could almost slip into the cockpit. I wish I could’ve taken a picture from above, just looking down at those planes. Seriously amazing. The rest of the ship had lots of artifacts – more huge shells, propellers I think, and other cool stuff everywhere.

We were coming back from our afternoon dive one day, and spotted dolphins. We slowed down, and they played with us, jumping in front of the boat, not a couple meters (6-7 feet) away from my eyes. We were on a tiny boat, so we could lay down at the front, and I swear I could almost touch them. They would jump, and then turn to watch our reactions. Dolphins have to be the most intelligent animals on earth, just catch that look in their eyes! I threw on my mask and snorkel and jumped in, watching them swim below me about 6m/20ft below me, just watching me. One of the most amazing and unexpected experiences of the trip.

Diving through Truk Stop was awesome, and really provided a personalized experience. While I was there, it was me and one other diver, together with our instructor (we were both doing the Enriched Air course) and dive guide, who was a really cool local dude. The owners know my cousin, so on the last night we both came to the bar for a drink and celebrated the fact that they hadn’t lost me. Very comforting. Out there in Chuuk, not exactly a luxury destination, you know people are there because they love what they’re doing. And having spent 5 days diving the most amazing wreck dive sites in the world, I don’t blame them.


Chuuk Lagoon: Part One

Since I picked up the scuba diving habit in Australia, I decided to look for other places to dive. Since I’m really interested in both ruins and World War II history, I decided to try for Chuuk Lagoon, in Chuuk, Micronesia. This lagoon was held by the Japanese in WWII and was attacked by the Americans, leading to over 60 ships, aircraft carriers, and other vessels being sunk.

First, I should probably give you some helpful geography:
– Chuuk – a collection of 40+ islands that constitutes a state in the FSM. The main island, where the diving companies and hotels are based, is Weno, which is close to the wrecks in Chuuk Lagoon. The population is Chuukese and speak that language.
– Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) – this encompasses four states: Pohnpei, Yap, Kosrae, and Chuuk, each with their own different Polynesian cultures.
– Micronesia – Micronesia is both a region of the pacific ocean, encompassing many islands, and another shortened name of the country I visited. Guam and Palau are considered to be Micronesian islands, even though they are not part of the FSM.

 

I had gotten both Open Water Diver (the first and most basic dive certification, down to a suggested depth of 18 meters / 60 feet) and Adventure Diver, which trains a bit more on deep dives, allowing you to go to a suggested depth of 30 meters / 100 feet. Most of the wrecks in Chuuk are within these depths, so this makes them accessible to beginners.

Chuuk is not easy or cheap to get to and stay in, but I lucked out in two ways: First, I have a cousin who lives in Micronesia – incidentally in Chuuk, and incidentally on Weno, close to the lagoon. I was able to stay with him during my time in Chuuk, which was considerably helpful, both because of the money it saved me, and how cool it was to get to know a distant relative I’d never met (or maybe met when I was one or two!). He works for the FSM court and has lived on Chuuk for at least a couple decades, maybe even more, and knows all the ins and outs, restaurants, and a lot of other people on the island, including the staff of the hotel whose dive center I went through for all the dives. Secondly, I still had some frequent flier miles, and used them to cover what would have been expensive flights from New Zealand to Guam, and Guam to Fukuoka (the most direct way to Chuuk and out is via Guam).

Truk Stop Hotel and Dive Center is one of two land-based dive centers on Chuuk, and there are another two or three liveaboard dive boats as well. The liveaboards range from cringe-inducing to laughably expensive, so I opted out. I was able to hire gear and dive 2-3 times a day out of Truk Stop for much, much cheaper, and loved my experience there. I also took another certification (Enriched Air) that allowed me to stay in deeper water for longer.

Chuuk itself was one of the most interesting places I’ve ever been. It’s definitely not on the tourist train, unless you’re a dedicated scuba diver with a lot of money, or there with Peace Corps, World Teach, or working for the government. That being said, I found Chuukese people incredibly friendly and open. No one ever tried to rip me off or anything like that, and one of my favorite parts of being in Chuuk (aside from the dives) was simply walking back to my cousin’s place and stopping to buy random fruits and baked goods, and the conversations that ensued from there. The road is under construction, leaving parts of the main road just an unpaved mess of muddy potholes that became a game to dodge between. That’s part of the fun of travel – accepting that you can’t always be comfortable, and that sometimes there will be spiders in your dive locker, sunscreen can be hard to find, and that the fish you order at the restaurant comes with its head still attached.

I’ll update with more details on the diving in a bit.

IMG 0635


The In Transit Report: Christchurch to Chuuk, Micronesia

I think this was the longest time I’ve spent flying, ever. About 32 hours of travel time total, from Christchurch to Guam, and that’s not even counting the flight to Chuuk! I had a 11 hour flight from Christchurch to Singapore, where I had a 7-hour layover. Singapore Airlines might be the nicest airline I’ve ever flown with. The planes are so beautifully decorated… one of them had gold toned seats and carpet, and the pillow was actually frilly. I also had the whole row to myself so I did get some sleep. The food was good (and all free), and they served it with real silverware. Loved it! In Singapore, I left the airport and went into the city. First off, it was crazy hot and humid outside. And it was dark out. That’s what I get for going straight from winter to summer.

Singapore reminds me a lot of Tokyo, in all the right ways. It’s big, clean, has really neat new buildings, and even the public transit is clean and very organized. Definitely cheaper than Tokyo, though. A ride from the airport to the city cost $2 on the train, and my dinner (friend rice with veggies) was only $5. In USD, that works out to a total of $5.50. As was recommended to me, I checked out the marina, which had some live shows going on, and all the buildings were lit up and gorgeous. There were light shows all around the marina, and it was really great to just sit and watch everything going on around me. I’m glad I got out of the airport, though I didn’t do that much. I think I would enjoy Singapore for a few days.

Singapore 50

Next I got on a 7-hour flight to Nagoya, Japan, also with the whole row to myself. In Nagoya I had a two-hour layover, so I just hung out in the airport. It was nice to be back in Japan, though I wish I’d had some Japanese money for the vending machines. I remembered enough Japanese to order my coffee and answer some questions, and the baristas were nice enough to not switch to English. Good practice! I’m excited to go back to Japan, which is where I’ll be around the second week of August. On the last flight, a 3.5 hour to Guam on a small plane, I also had the row to myself. Three for three!

I had about 24 hours in Guam, so I just got the cheapest hotel to crash at. There aren’t any hostels here, so that was cringe-inducing. But I had a whole room to myself, something I’m not used to, and took the longest shower known to man. There was TV, too, which was soul-sucking. Guam feels very much like America, and considering it’s technically a part of America (as a protectorate, territory, or something like that), I’m not surprised. I’m interested to see what’s it’s like outside of my 24-hour stint.

The next day, I wasted some time in the Micronesia Mall before my flight to Chuuk. It’s a mall, obviously. Got some lunch, wandered around, debating buying an underwater camera for my dives in Chuuk. In the end I decided not to, for a few reasons. First, I don’t want to buy more stuff, have to cart it around, and worry about it. Secondly, I’m not a skilled enough diver to manage diving and a camera at the same time without issues. Third, as much as I love photography, it can take away from the actual experience. Shipwrecks are definitely an experience. Having finished the dives in Chuuk, I have to say that not having a camera was absolutely the right decision. As for my time in Chuuk, that’s for the next entry.