Thursday, November 24, 2011

Missing in Action

Ha! I really should be careful of what I choose to title my blog posts once Turf deploys ;)
Greetings! I apologize for my BLOG being MIA. I have no excuse other than laziness.
We have been a little less active these last 2 months, and I am already starting to feel my travel itch creep back in. Our friends Kendall and Trevor are spending Thanksgiving in Kyoto and I am SO super jealous. I've always wanted to go! As most of you know, due to Turf's upcoming deployment we had to cancel our cruise plans :( This puts an even bigger dent in my traveling. I have such a long list and I just feel our time running out! Time to get a move on it :)
Turf is currently in California for pre-deployment training. His blood must be used to this warm Okinawa weather (currently still in the 70' November!) because he his freezing his hiney off! We celebrated Thanksgiving a couple of weeks early before he left, and I spent the real holiday with a few friends. Black Friday shopping is a bit anti-climatic this year, so I am rushing to finish all my shopping online!

Here's a brief run-down of what we've been up to since my last post!

In September we took a snorkeling tour to the Kerama Islands, which are off the coast of Okinawa, with some friends. The snorkeling was beautiful with tons of interesting sea life to see and explore. We saw fish of every color, sea cucumbers, sea snakes, etc. It was a warm relaxing day, and Turf's first trip snorkeling since arriving on island!
 We boared a charter boat along with a big group and the boat took us to about 3 different spots. This was an all day excursion, so by the end of it we were wiped out, but it was definitely something I think we'll do again next year :)

Next came our little adventure to visit a few more of the World Heritage sites here on Okinawa. On this little outing we made it to Katsuren Castle first. Katsuren Castle is a bit further North on the island and offers beautiful views of the ocean. Katsuren's most famous "golden years" date back to the 15th century, under the rule of Lord Amawari. It is said that Amawari pushed the 9th lord off one of the castle walls, thereby taking control of the castle. He was the last powerful Lord to rule over Katsuren Castle.
 It's so odd and interesting to think of the way of life these people led way back then. To imagine so many rulers and so many castles is just insane!
 A photo we took after climing to the top of Katsuren Castle.

Turf also took me to visit the ferris wheel this day! This is only something I've been wanting to do since we got here! There is nothing super spectacular or historic about this thing, but it does offer great views of the island from the top!

We also visited a fun little annual event- the Naha Tug of War! If you ever come to Okinawa, this is a must see! Each year there is a parade followed by a giant tug-of-war contest. The history of this event dates back to the 17th century and is a battle between the East and West teams. The tug of war correlates to the competition held between the old rulers of Naha.
 The whole Naha section of Highway 58 is closed off to make room for this massive rope. Both sides are laid out and eventually connected together with a giant crane. Each huge rope has hundreds of smaller ropes connected, where people pile in, grab ahold, and pull! The rope itself weighs 40 metric tons, and has gone down in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest tug of war!

The last stop we made was to Yara Castle. This is probably my least favorite of the castle ruins we have visited, because it was all overgrown....full of huge Banana spiders and other creepy crawlies!
 We didn't stay long this particular time, so here is some information! We did later go back as part of a Haunted Sites tour we took right before Halloween. Upon going back we walked back further to the "park" area, which was nicer, but still spooky (especially after learning of some of the legends and tales of the castle and it's surroundings).
 Finally, we got dolled up to go to the Marine Corps Ball (which, for those of you who don't know, is held in celebration of the Marine Corps Birthday!). This year the Marines celebrated their 236th birthday- oohrah!

Click on  to view the beautiful message that was played at this year's ball.

Finally, FINALLY, I also wanted to send an update on Boomer. He is still crazy but a sweet little cuddle bug. Here is a picture of him with his favorite toy :)

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Japanese Navy Underground Headquarters, Okinawa World, and a Brand New School Year!

I have lots to update y'all on! First, we'll start with getting back from Tokyo to find that Turf was sponsoring two "old guys" who were here for an exercise. Great- I thought- I get to hang out with these dudes all week?! They turned out to be a lot of fun and really nice guys! We showed them around the island, and in the process saw some things we haven't seen yet. I took them to Nakagusuku and the Naritasan Temple that Turf and I visited when we first arrived, and we also made a creepy journey to the "haunted hotel" that lies just above the Nakagusuku ruines. This place was incredible (although off-limits to SOFA personnel...shhhh!) and was decorated with all kinds of intricate graffiti. Click on the link to the haunted hotel to read the story about it and see some of the creepy photos this guy snapped. We didn't experience anything strange, aside from the dozens of large, disgusting Banana Spiders we saw, but the hotel definitely did feel a bit ominous.
I also took the "old guys" farther north to the Zanpa Lighthouse and we saw some of the infamous suicide cliffs. My plan is to take Turf back here another weekend, so I didn't take photos of this yet! :)
The weekend rolled around and Turf and I decided to venture South to visit the Japanese Navy Underground Headquarters. This place is full of history, mostly sad. As we were walking around among donzens of Okinawan and Japanese people, I wondered if they thought it strange that we were there. Afterall, it the Japanese Navy's headquarters during the war. Its kind of like Japanese people visiting Pearl Harbor...which I'm sure happens....I just wonder if it ever strikes a chord.
Anyway, here are some photos!

 A tomb outside the headquarters

Once the war seemed hopeless, many Japanese soldiers committed suicide in the tunnels of the headquarters. This tunnel is covered in shrapnel from a handgrade that was used in a suicide.

 Okay, so its a bit strange taking a smiling picture in a place like this, but we weren't sure what else to do.
 The walls of the tunnels were chiseled by hand with pickaxe.

We then decided to move on to something happier: Okinawa World. Here you can see traditional dance shows, a snake show, underground caves with stalactites and stalagmites, the Habu Sake factory, and tons of food, artwork and crafts.
 I just love this caption on the bottle of a Habu Sake. I didn't realize the Habu's had such style!
 Yum? Actually, I did take a shot of Habu Sake once, and it wasn't all that bad!
 Apparently the "old guys" thought it was terrible!
 In the underground caves. Very cool. The last time we were here we saw bat eggs in the water!
 Inside the cave

And finally, I have started my first official year teaching on my own! I love my first graders, although I do have a few challenging little sweetie pies. These kids are SO well behaved in comparison to the kids I had met in Pensacola. I'm having lots of fun getting to know them, but the beginning of the year is starting really slowly. Teaching procedures. Modeling Procedures. Practicing procedures. Re-teaching procedures. Modeling again. Practicing more. We won't be able to start reading centers until about October because we are spending a lot of time learning how to work in each center (rather, I am training them...but that makes it sound a bit like they are animals!). I am modeling my reading program after Daily 5 and will be doing a guided reading group each day while the kiddos are in Read to Self, Read to Someone, Listen to Reading, Work on Writing, or Word Work.
Some new things I discovered that I absolutely am in LOVE with: Focus Walls. These are ah-mazing. My reading focus wall is basically my lesson plan for the week. It shows all the skills, strategies, and concepts we are working on, the spelling words and phonics, and even writing topics. Its a great tool for administrators to see when they walk into the room. I am also developing a Math focus wall with the standards listed, concepts, and skills.
 Here is my focus wall for the 2nd week of school. Pretty snazzy if I do say so myself!
 Our class rules. We brainstormed together and I had the kids sign. We reference the list daily...part of the whole practicing thing :)
 Star Manners. We did this the first week of school and the kids had a lot of fun. They also look super cute hanging around the room.
 Writing Center. LOVE this. Its new for me this year so it is still a work in progress. My goals for the year are to really develop my math and writing programs! This will house differentiated journal choices in the little black trays. Next week we will also be brainstorming things we can write about and that anchor chart will go here as well. I "borrowed" the Writer's Eye posters from one of the sweet 1st grade blogs I follow, and they basically remind the honeys to use punctuation, finger spacing, capital letters at the beginning, and lower case letters throughout.
 My bucket board. The kids LOVE this! We read the book Have You Filled A Bucket Today and talked about using kind words and actions to fill each other's buckets. I have little sheets they can fill out with nice things to say (although I can't really READ what they are trying to say yet...handwriting and sentences are still in development!). The thought is what counts, and they love filling each other's buckets at snack time. On Fridays we empty our buckets and read all the nice things our friends have to say to us!
 My Bravo window. I ran out of bulletin board space, so a windo will suffice. These are construction papers attached to the windows with clips on the top so I can easily change out student work. Right now they hold our Chika Chika Boom Boom activity we did the first week. Precious!
 And a little preview of the room. I changed a few things, but it does look pretty similar to last year. What can I say, Mrs. Casey had a great set up!
Alright, friends, I hope everyone has a great week, weekend! I will be back soon with more Okinawan adventures, with maybe a sprinkle of teaching fun!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Journey to the Homeland

I was super lucky to get started on my Asia Bucket List this past week (right after the Typhoon, of course!). My friend Kristle and I flew Space A to Atsugi (a Navy base) on mainland Japan and began an adventure in Tokyo. Now, we are a bit cheap, so the trip included lots of walking while hauling around our bags in the heat and humidity. Not so fun.
To start, we had heard that the subway station was only about a mile away from Atsugi, so we figured it wouldn't be a big deal just to walk. Also, we had a plan of what we would do during this week, but no set agenda. We knew we'd explore several places in Tokyo, climb Mt. Fuji, and possibly take a couple of day trips to Kamakura and Nikko [Nikko didn't happen!]. As we were leaving the base we thought we'd ask the gate guard how to get to the subway station....which prompted more questioning about who we were, where we were going, if we knew how to get there, etc., etc., until it was clear that this gate guard was preparing to hear of our deaths on the local news within the first night. He had zero faith in us.
However, he did help us figure out what station we needed to get to to walk to our hotel and he also shared an iphone app with us that saved our lives: Hyperdia. You type in the names of the subway station you are leaving from and the one you are trying to get to and it lists all stops and transfers you will make along with the cost and approximate time. Pretty handy.
We traveled using Passmo cards, which we loaded with 1000Y and just swiped as we walked through the subway station. Very handy and took the confusion out of purchasing tickets.
Here is one of our first pictures at our first trip on the subway. We were VERY confused!

After a bit of walking around and some guess work at the result of a faulty "blue dot" on Google Maps, we found our first hotel: Hotel Horidome Villa. We found this little guy on a basic travel website and booked a room as soon as we landed in Atsugi. The total was $67 for the night....and like most Japanese hotels.....was itty bitty. The bed was hardly larger than a full (I think smaller) and the room was smaller than a cruise ship cabin. BUT, it was incredibly clean, and worked well for one night. We were lucky enough to find a room for two nights at the New Sanno, which is a military hotel in Tokyo, with a cheap rate by calling every. single. day.
The first night was pretty low key. We walked around Nihombashi, which is the prefecture where our hotel was located, and had a pretty good dinner. Nihombashi is a classy financial district, so it was dominated by important financial buildings and banks. We checked out of the Horidome Villa and into the New Sanno the next day and began our trip around Tokyo. The planned stops: Imperial Palace, Ginza, Ueno, and Asakusa.
 The Imperial Palace was beautiful and the East Gardens would have provided for a lovely walk, had we been prepared to tolerate the heat and not also planned on visiting other places that day. As this was the only place we visited in this part of the city, I can't say I'd go back and bring Turf. While the palace was iconic, it is also a replica of the original palace in Kyoto, which I'm much more interested in seeing. It was a good experience this time, but after visiting other places I think I will focus my energy elsewhere next time.
The palace itself is a bit like the White House: you can't actually go up to it or visit the inside without paying for a private tour. The best photos we could get were outside the gate on the historic bridge leading up to the palace.
 Imperial Palace, Tokyo

We then made our way to Ginza, which I purposely omitted pictures of. Our goal was to eat a sushi lunch around the giant fish market area. Our *Italian Map* of Japan told us to get off the subway at Ginza station. After walking in search of the market for a while, we realized this station was actually pretty far from where we were headed (Tsukiji) and we spent about 2 hours trying to find our way there only to find out that the fish market is only open from 6am-9am. No way, Jose, was I waking up that early to come back.
So, my take on Ginza: It wasn't as great as I was expecting. Again, probably wouldn't go back.

At this point we were tired and still hadn't eaten, but were focused on finding a place at the next stop: Asakusa. Can I just say, I LOVED Asakusa! It had the feeling of "old Tokyo", which is felt and seen on these back shopping streets. SO cute!
 We visited the Sensoji Temple, Tokyo's oldest and one of it's most important ancient Buddhist temples. It is the focus of Japan's Matsuri (Shinto Festival) that takes place in late Spring. Leading into the temple is Kaminarimon "Thunder" Gate and adjacent to it is the Pagoda of Senso-ji. Beautiful!

 Senso-ji Temple

Once past the Kaminarimon Gate, visitors can draw fortunes by shaking a large, metal canister. When shaken, a rod comes out with a symbol that corresponds to drawers that hold fortunes. Kristle and I both got very good fortunes!
Kristle drawing her fortune

Before entering the temple one must cleanse themselves by washing their hands using water from the fountain as well as taking a sip of the water to rinse your mouth using bamboo stick swith small cups attached to the end. One must also make a quick stop by the large incense burner and wave the smoke over their heads. This purification ritual is a common part of entering temples/shrines. 
The inside of the temple was beautiful, with intricate art decorating the ceilings.

 Cleansing before entering the temple

Like I said before, I loved the feeling of old Tokyo in Asakusa. The shops were adorable, there were tons of little places to eat and a lot to see!
 Small street in Asakusa

Our next stop was in Ueno. This is another place that I loved. We didn't get to see much of it, as we were both crashing from a long day, but we did visit Ueno-Koen (park) and saw Toshogu Shrine. Ueno's Toshogu Shrine was built in 1627 by a warrior, Todo Takatora and has survived many natural disasters and battles. It is one of the few physical links that remains in Tokyo to it's Edo past. The park itself is huge and magnificent and definitely somewhere I would return to see more of during the day!
Ueno also had a seperate shopping street that we didn't have a chance to visit. Here, you could find anything from clothes and souveniers, to fresh produce and fish!
 Ueno Toshogu Shrine

We also saw the huge stone Lantern, one of the three great stone lanterns in Japan. It was given to the Toshogu Shrine as a gift from Sakuma Daizennosuke Katsuyuki in 1631. It towers at 6 meters high!
Giant Stone Lantern

We checked in early that night to rest, as Mt. Fuji was on the agenda for the next day. Since our bus to Mt. Fuji departed from Shinjuku we decided to go a bit early to visit the 45th floor observatory of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building, which offered a free view of the city. The view was incredible! At one point, we experienced some awkward moments: We asked a Japanese person to take our picture in front of the window, and suddenly were bombarded by about 15 other people all taking our photo on their own cameras. As if that weren't enough, they each decided that they would like their own photo with us, and rotated in one at a time. They didn't even leave once their picture was taken, they stayed to take pictures of the other people with us! Very strange.. :) 

45th floor view, Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building

It was then time to head to Mt. Fuji. We had scheduled it so that we would begin our climb at 10pm and get to the top in time to see the sunrise. Before we started, we thought we'd have plenty of time to take a nap before we had to get back down to meet our bus, which was scheduled to leave at 10am the next morning. Let me tell you, Mt. Fuji is probably the hardest thing I've ever done! Some people had told us that it was a "piece of cake" or that they did it in shorts and a big deal! We were not mentally prepared. Not only was it not a piece of cake, but we most definitely needed ALL of our warm clothes we had packed. I got altitude sickness about half way up and threw up some trail mix, but felt a bit better after that and made it to the top. The mountain was never ending, and we were literally climbing on all fours over the top of rocks to make it up. It took us about 6 hours to get to the top, by which time we were freezing and exhausted.
*Side note: You are expected to pay a "tip" to use the bathrooms on Mt. Fuji. The "tip" gets more expensive the higher you go. At the 5th station, where we started from, the charge was 50Y (about $1) and at the top it was 300Y (almost $5 with a terrible yen rate!). I spent almost $9 on using the outhouse bathrooms! And no, you can't just go outside, as was my original plan, because it is very crowded with climbers! Did I mention that there were little children (as young as 8!) and old people climbing?!

At one of the early stations, still enjoying the hike!

The view was breathtaking, but I hate to admit that we were so exhausted and cold, it was hard to enjoy. After eating a bowl of ramen, I forced myself outside the little food hut briefly to take some sunrise pictures. Looking back at the photos and remembering the views, it was incredible
 and like nothing I've ever seen. I was pretty impressed that we made it all the way to the top of Japan's highest mountain!
Some fun facts about Mt. Fuji:
It stands at 12,389 Ft. high
It is one of Japan's three Holy Mountains
It is an active stratovolcano that last erupted in 1707-1708
There are several well-known sayings about Mt. Fuji---"One who never climbs Mt. Fuji is a fool, and one who climbs twice is twice the fool"---"Mt. Fuji is for looking, not for climbing"

 Sunrise from the top of Mt. Fuji
Standing in the early morning on top of Mt. Fuji

And lets talk about getting down, which, dare I say, was more troublesome than getting up! The path down was an endless trail snaking back and forth all the way back to the 5th station. You could literally see how far you had to go the whole way, which looked like it would never end and never seemed to get any closer. It was the most frustrating thing ever! The trail was steep and a horrid mixture of dirt and rock, which caused many rolled ankles and trips. With every step we took we had to catch ourselves from falling, which didn't do well on our ankles, knees, and backs. It tooks us 3/4 hours to get down. We were cursing the whole way and nearly in tears that it felt like we'd never get down. I don't know what our friends experienced when they told us climbing Mt. Fuji was easy, but I was happy to hear that we were not alone in hating every second of it! I scoured the internet and found many quotes from climbers that sounded very similar to ours here .

Somehow, after a long shower and nap back in Tokyo, we mustered up energy to go to dinner and visit Shibuya. This is home to the iconic big crossing often seen in movies, etc. This place was awesome, lively, and had tons of shopping! I will definitely be back!
 Shibuya Crossing

We then packed up and headed back to Atsugi to try to get a flight home. However, since we had a day to kill, we decided to take a day trip to Kamakura, one of the other places on my Asia Bucket list. We visited the Kannon Temple, which was gorgeous, and it was nice to see a smaller Japanese town. It was by the ocean and sort of reminded me of the towns on the Oregon coast, only larger. 
 Jizo-Guardian Diety of Children

 I love Japanese ponds and gardens. They are just so pretty!

 Standing outside the Kannon Temple, which Houses Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy

We even went a little native and prayed to the Goddess. When you pray to a god or goddess you must bow deeply twice, clap twice, say your prayer and bow again. I think Kristle did pretty good!

And, of course, my main reason for wanting to see Kamakura, the big Buddah (Diabutsu). The Diabutstu is a bronze statue of Amida Buddha and is the second tallest bronze Buddha statue in Japan. It was cast in 1252 and was originally constructed inside a temple. However, after years, the temple itself was destroyed and the Buddha now stands in open air. 
 Great Buddha Diabutstu

And finally, what is a trip without making some friends? On the subway back to Atsugi we met these [very drunk] Japanese friends, who basically tried to talk to us by throwing out every English word they knew, including Haagen-Daaz (I didn't have the heard to tell them it wasn't actually English!). The friend we are with here for some reason kept winking, pulling his sunglasses up and down, and crossing his eyes. We had a great little conversation of Janglish before the end of our trip!

My synopsis of Tokyo: Definitely visit Shinjuku, Shibuya, Ueno, and Asakusa. Make a day trip to Kamakura and if you are really brave, climb Fuji! Make some friends on the subway, get lost on the metro line (not too often), go without a set plan, and have fun!