Exploring Batu Caves

We take the train to Batu Caves, the last stop on the line running from the center of Kuala Lumpur.

The streets near the caves are lined with vendors selling technicolor Indian sweets and plump flower garlands. Above, pigeons roost on electrical lines. The ground beneath is stained with a history of their droppings. Someone throws some birdseed on the ground and they rush to the spot. The air is ripe with the smell of dirt and pigeon mess. One man shoots large, iridescent bubbles from a machine gun.

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Entrance to Temple Cave.

Further ahead is the entrance to Temple or Cathedral Cave. A giant, gleaming statue of a Murugan, the Hindu god of war, guards the base of a flight of 272 stairs that rises sharply and disappears into the cave. At the base, a woman stops a group of girls dressed in shorts. “No short pants in the temple!” she shouts and shows them some gauzy sarongs to cover their naked legs. Macaque monkeys run up and down the ledges, jumping to and from nearby branches, nibbling food they’ve found or stolen from unsuspecting tourists.

At Temple cave entrance, little kiosks sell miniature brass gods, incense sticks, toys, smartphone covers, and flash drives. A girl stands against the wall. Her eyes are downcast. She holds her shawl open like a hammock for charitable donations. The scent of stale food and wet gravel lingers within. Water dribbles from the roof. In the cave’s many nooks and crannies, there are statues of gods and goddesses illuminated by lurid light.

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Inside Cave Villa.

Next, Cave Villa: an art and reptile gallery. Dusty peacocks roam freely. The air smells of damp earth and peacock droppings. Sculpted paintings with pithy sayings hang on the irregular cave walls:

“There are two looks in the dyed eyes of this (fair) one; one causes pain and the other is the cure thereof.”

“The pipe is sweet, the lute is sweet,” say those who have not heard the prattle of their own children.”

In the depths of the earth, creatures sleep in glass cases, drowsy from the cave’s humidity. Slow moving albino snakes, a bumpy-skinned alligator, turtles, fish, rabbits. “Would you like to take a picture with a snake?” someone asks. “No thank you,” I reply. It starts to feel creepy and claustrophobic so we exit for the sunshine.

Next, we head to another part of the temple complex where a stage has been carved out of the rock. A dancer sits backstage, waiting for her next performance. She looks tired. We sit on red plastic stools. Two glossy peacocks strut around, oblivious to the cameras and smartphones recording their every move.

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Peacock, Batu Caves.

Three dancers begin. The music sounds like a mashup of Indian and American Western music. Then the diva arrives: red mohawk, sculpted eyebrows, dramatic eye makeup. A fake-gold choker drips from his slim neck. A russet bodysuit clings to his lithe form, the armpits already stained with sweat. Around his waist, a fabulous tail of glossy peacock feathers. His eyes dance; his smile is electric; his movements are fluid. The tourists seem more interested in documenting the peacocks’ languid movements.

When we return to the train station, I ask the ticket seller which platform heads back to the city center. He points to a piece of paper desultorily. We descend the stairs to the correct platform and get into the train. As we wait for it to depart, two women quickly sweep the carriage’s already spotless floor. The air conditioning dries the sweat from our backs and faces. The sweepers leave and we glide back to the modern city.

Have you ever been to Batu Caves? Tell me about it below!

Photos: © Jesse Ramnanansingh

Hiroshima: the memory remains

In Hiroshima city, it’s spring. The sun is warm and the air is fresh. Smells somewhat green. Birds are singing. In the city center, a tram pulls off and the street vibrates. Men in pressed pinstriped suits and polished brogues walk briskly and women cycle to their offices in chunky heels (how do they do it?).

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Hiroshima Castle.

The Motoyasu river glitters past the A-bomb dome. The dome looks benign, protected by an exoskeleton of scaffolding. Further along the river, Hiroshima Castle soars into the sky like an iced wedding cake. The cherry trees on the castle grounds sprout pink buds. Some are already blossoming. A man gently sleeps under the trees. Fountains bloom. Flowers smile.

In the Peace Memorial Park, an old woman doubles over in prayer, clasping two withered hands in front of a cenotaph for the A-bomb victims. Colorful bouquets rest in front of it.

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A-bomb Memorial.

The Peace Memorial Museum stands nearby, a gray rectangle with rows of long windows cut into its sides. Inside the museum tells another story of the city. On August 6, 1945, at 8:15am, the Allies dropped Little Boy on Hiroshima, then Japan’s military stronghold. At first, the residents saw a flash in the sky ten times brighter than the sun. Then, they heard a heavy boom and felt an intense heat. At ground level, the nuclear bomb created firestorms that swept through the city, melting everything. Thirty minutes after the blast, black rain fell on the survivors and the wreckage. Little Boy instantly killed 80,000 people and injured 100,000 more.

Inside the museum, the war becomes a story of remains. Things left behind. A khaki cloth satchel discolored by death and the passing of time. A stained Shirley Temple doll and a black and white photo of a little girl clutching the doll to her chest. A scene: wax figures running away from the blast, mouths open in horror, skin melting off their limbs. A lock of singed hair. Disembodied, shriveled fingernails. Close-ups of hibakusha, those exposed to the radiation: scorched faces, blistered backs, buttocks, legs, and arms. Stories of human deterioration: hair loss, internal bleeding, diarrhea, birth defects, cancer.

Soon, it becomes too much to bear. How could Japan hold on to such a dreadful past? As a Caribbean person, I couldn’t understand because I suffer from historical amnesia, evident in Derek Walcott’s poem, “The Sea is History.” He writes:

“Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?

Where is your tribal memory? Sirs,

in that gray vault. The sea. The sea

has locked them up. The sea is History.”

In the Caribbean, we love to forget. We raze old buildings and build new ones. We clear the landscapes and start afresh. Our relics are buried deep in the ocean bed. The sea becomes the sole repository of our history: our dirty past of conquest, colonialism, slavery, and indentureship. In Japan, it’s different. The good, the bad, and the ugly are preserved in well-curated museums and restored castles, shrines, and temples.

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Child’s school satchel in Peace Memorial Museum.

Perhaps the Japanese don’t want to forget. American poet Susan Stewart explains that humans look for objects that embody an “authentic experience:”

“…the memory of the body is replaced by the memory of the object, a memory standing outside the self and thus presenting both a surplus and lack of significance- it is saturated with meanings that can never be fully revealed to us.”

In the same way, the objects carefully curated by Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Museum have become imbued with a special significance. Without understanding their context, they look mundane. But when we understand the backstory, they become more poignant. They remind the Japanese people of a horror that happened in real life. They do not forget because over time, they can develop the perspective needed to deal with the dreadful past.

When I exit, the city of Hiroshima still seems lovely. The sun still shines. The cherry trees still blossom. The river still glitters. The center still bustles. However, under the surface, there is always the memory of pain and the city still cries for the bodies that remain, burned into the fabric of the streets.

Photos: © Jesse Ramnanansingh

 

3 fire festivals in Tottori and Shimane you should not miss

In Japan, Tottori and Shimane often get a bad rap. The shinkansen doesn’t go there so they must be pretty backwater places. Au contraire, my friend, au contraire!  There’s always something going on, if you know where to look. Like other prefectures in Japan, Tottori and Shimane have their own quirky light and fire festivals. Here are 3 festivals you should not miss!

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Participant wearing oni mask.

1. Daisen Natsuyama Festival

Mountain worship is serious business in Japan. Every June, Mount Daisen, Tottori’s most popular hiking destination, hosts the Natsuyama Festival to bless the summer hiking season. During the two-day festival, Shinto priests from Ogamiyama Shrine pray for the safety of the hikers. On the first day, there’s a torch procession from the shrine to the car park. Get there early to snag a good viewing spot. The path will be bumpy and slippery with moss in some places. The stairs leading up to the shrine are also a bit steep. At the shrine, grab a bamboo torch. Then join the procession. It will look like a river of fire coursing down the foot of the mountain. People will be taking selfies so look out for flames coming your way in any direction.

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Lantern festival, Matsue Castle

2. Lantern Festival, Matsue Castle

Looking for a more raucous affair? Every autumn, Matsue Castle in Shimane prefecture hosts a taiko festival called Do Gyoretsu and a lantern festival known as Suitouro. The festivals re-enact the celebrations when Princess Iwa-hime of the Japanese Imperial Family came to Matsue to marry Lord Nobuzumi Matsudaira in 1724.  Take a turn hitting the taiko drums on one of many miyazukuri or drum floats. For the lantern festival, participants place paper lanterns on the castle grounds and along the darkened streets and Ohashi river. Spend the evening wading through a sea of lanterns depicting scenes from ancient and contemporary Japan and other parts of the world.

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Hono no Saiten, Misasa

3. Hono no Saiten, Misasa

Feeling particularly brave? In October, head to Sanbutsuji in Misasa. Don a hachimaki headband and walk on freshly-charred logs during the Festival of Flames in central Tottori. Before you get a go, Shugendo priests will stride over the embers in tabi (Japanese socks), rope sandals, or naked soles. Like climbing Mount Mitoku, firewalking is an ancient Shugendo tradition designed to train the spirit and to “ward off evil and invite good fortune.” After you cross the fire, you can chomp on some free, ooey-gooey mochi (rice cake).

Are you burning to go to these fire festivals? Have you been before? Share your experiences!

Photos: © Jesse Ramnanansingh

3 top hiking destinations in Tottori prefecture

Tottori prefecture is as inaka as its gets in Japan. Although considered one of the country’s least populated prefectures, nature here is simply stunning. If you’re an outdoors type,  you will surely fall in love with the prefecture’s mountainous landscapes. Here are 3 top hiking destinations in Tottori prefecture.

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Mount Daisen.

1. Mount Daisen

Mount Daisen is the highest peak in the Chugoku region of Japan, at 1709 meters high. The actual highest point of this dormant volcano is Kengamine (1729 meters) but it’s not accessible to the general public. There are many ways to ascend. My favorite is the Motodani trail which starts from the Ogamiyama shrine.

At the 1200 meter mark, the Motodani trail joins the main trail. At the 1600 meter mark, you will reach the rim of the volcano’s crater. From here, the climb gets less steep. At the summit, there’s a wooden boardwalk that hovers over wild alpine brush, protecting it from tramping hiking boots. From the top, there are dizzying views: urban Yonago, green rice fields, and the dusty blue Sea of Japan hugging the curve of the coastline.The descent can be hard on the knees. Many of the steps require full-bodied, giant steps.

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Nagereido, Mitokusan

2. Mount Mitoku

Mount Mitoku is a 900-meter high mountain sacred to Shugendo believers. The mountain climb is deemed spiritual training. There is no gentle ascent of Mitokusan. First, you have to clamber over tough, gnarled roots. Along the climb, you can cling to lianas, holding them like ladder rungs up the mountain. If you are afraid of heights, don’t look down. There are no harnesses or safety nets.

You will encounter many temples along the way: Monjudo, Kannondo, and Nagereido, which is nestled in the cliff face. Nagereido means “throw in temple” or “temple placed by throwing.” Legend states that Shugendo’s founder literally threw the temple into place.

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Senjousan.

3. Mount Senjou

If you’re looking for a hike that’s easier on the knees, there’s  Mount Senjou, a 615-meter high mountain in the Daisen-Oki National Park. Like Mount Daisen and Mitokusan, Senjousan is considered sacred to Buddhist mountain ascetics in Tottori prefecture.

Senjousan’s forested plateau rises like a high-top fade. The start of the trail climbs a gentle hill, then enters a forested area. Down a narrow path choked with tall grasses and tree roots is Mount Senjou’s secret.  At the end is a small clearing with a narrow, rocky outcrop. To get to the outcrop, you have to creep along a narrow ridge, with your back to the wall. From here, the views are tremendous: blue sky, a sea of furrows covered in dark green pines and brown scrub, a blue-green lake, and snaking roads below.

Want to read more? Explore the unexplored in Tottori Prefecture.

Have you ever hiked in Tottori? What places did I miss?

Photos: © Jesse Ramnanansingh

 

 

 

It’s not a typical Trini Indian Wedding unless these 9 things happen

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If you’re ever in Trinidad and Tobago, don’t miss the bacchanal of a typical Trini Indian (usually Hindu) wedding. Here are 9 things that may happen while you’re there.

 

1. The wedding lasts a long time.

Unlike traditional Western-style weddings that wrap up in one day, Hindu weddings in Trinidad and Tobago are marathon affairs. The wedding ceremony will be long and seem never ending so bring something to keep you busy, especially during the frequent wardrobe changes of the blushing bride or dulahin.

2. Guests, please dress to kill.

Ladies, now is your time to shine. Literally. Go bold with blinding, sequined shalwars, gharasas, and saris that you can pick up at any Indian expo that dot the big island. Guys, wear whatever you want.

3. Maticoor night is when ladies “get away.”

If you’re invited to Maticoor night on the Friday before the wedding ceremony, prepare for some raunchy action. On Ladies Night, mommies, aunties, and grannies can get very creative with baigan (eggplant) to show the bride what she can expect on her wedding night.

4. The groom arrives in style.

On the day of the official wedding ceremony (usually a Sunday), the groom or dulaha will arrive at the bride’s house in style, in a souped-up Benz, Audi, or traditional bull cart garlanded in marigold flowers, accompanied by a banging entourage that includes a music truck and full tassa band.

5. The plates are biodegradable.

At the wedding meal, take a freshly washed banana leaf, find a seat at the table, and wait to be served handfuls of silky paratha roti,  huge dollops of rice, dhal, vegetable curries, even dessert (sweet rice) on any free space on your leaf-plate. Go easy on the mother-in-law. This homemade pepper/chili sauce can be lethal. When you’re done, fold your leaf and throw away in the bin/bag provided. Now isn’t that easy and environmentally friendly?

6. There’s always tassa.

Learn how to throw waist to the beat of tassa. Don’t worry, you’ll hear the boom and crashing cymbals from a mile away. If you’re young, single, and female, you will be pulled on the dance floor and you will be expected to rotate your hips and wine down to the ground to the throbbing drum beat.

7. The rest of the playlist is nothing short of eclectic.

The hired music truck will blast Bollywood songs, chutney, dancehall, soca, and 80s rock until the wee hours of the morning. It will be more bass than song so that everything vibrates, even your teeth. Car alarms will go off nonstop. The rest of the evening will be punctuated by the DJ shouting, “Wheel!” P.S. if you weren’t invited to the wedding and you call the police to shut off the music on a Sunday night at 10pm, the DJ will say, “I is a registered DJ and I playing until 1am!”

8. Drinks are stored in car trunks.

If it’s a strict Hindu wedding, that means no alcohol on the premises. However, leave it to Trinis to find a loophole. If you see a group of men standing around the back of someone’s car parked right in front of the bride or groom’s house, you know they’re knocking back Forres Park or Johnny Walker from styrofoam cups. Drunkies may end up dancing in the middle of the road or fighting in a drain.

9. It ends in (happy?) tears.

When it’s time for the bride to leave her family, expect to see her mother clutching her dramatically and bawling her eyes out while the dulahin fights back tears and tries not to smudge her fahbulous eye makeup.

Photo: © Jesse Ramnanansingh

Liebster Award Love

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Guess what? I got nominated for an award! I know it ain’t no Nobel Prize but the great thing about the Liebster Award is that it’s given to bloggers by bloggers. Liebster in German means “sweetest, kindest, nicest, dearest, beloved, lovely, kind, pleasant, valued, cute, endearing, and welcome.” It’s basically a pay-it-forward movement that gives new bloggers the exposure they crave and asks them to pass on the love. Thank you These Traveling Feet for nominating me! Here are my answers to those questions you asked.

1.What made you start your own travel blog?

I decided to start my own travel blog after a trip to the UK for a uni reunion/ friend’s wedding. It was the first long-haul trip I had taken in years since I had returned home after living in the UK for four years. The trip made me remember how much I loved traveling and sharing my stories with anyone who cared to hear them. I thought a blog was the perfect platform so I started Hot Foot Trini with Blogger in 2011. I then decided to shut down the Blogger website and migrate the blog to my own domain and website in 2016.

2. Were you raised to travel? Or did you decide to be different and explore the world?

Travel was never a big thing with my family but my parents encouraged me to read. A lot. Reading inspired me to travel across borders and time and paved the way for me to actually travel when I had the means and money to do so.

3. What/Who inspires you to travel the world?

I like the challenge of travel. It forces me to wake up and really live. It taps into my survival skills and most of all, my common sense.

4. If you can be anywhere in the world, where would you go and why?

I would go to Iceland because it’s one of the most literate countries in the world and Reykjavik is a UNESCO city of literature. I also love the wild, open landscapes of that country. I could definitely be inspired to write more there.

5. What is your favorite travel essential?

My travel journal.

6. Is there a city you’ve been to but hate?

Hate is a very strong word. Initially, I was intimidated by Kolkata because my husband and I arrived in the city in the early morning. It seemed empty and desolate. However, when we started venturing outside over the next few days, we realized that it wasn’t scary, just different, and we soon adapted to the Indian way of doing things.

7. What is the best accommodation you’ve ever stayed in?

The best place we ever stayed was Kuniga-so on Nishinoshima in Japan’s Oki Islands. Our room was so clean and overlooked a beautiful port. The food was also really fresh and we got to see fireworks from the hotel during our stay!

8. And the worst?

The worst was in Kolkata. The staff clearly did not know we were coming. When we arrived at three in the morning, the gates were locked and we were shuffled into a sunless room that had not been cleaned. It definitely did not look like the picture on the website. There was also a tiny window with a huge, noisy generator in front of it.

9. What is the most amazing thing you’ve seen while traveling?

I’ve seen too many amazing things that it’s hard to narrow it down. Honest.

10. What is your least favorite thing about traveling?

Travel delays and wait times.

11. Do you have any tips for new bloggers?

Don’t write all your blog posts like personal diary entries. Dig deeper and write about topics and issues you face during traveling. It makes for better reading.

Right! That’s done so now I’m going to reciprocate. It’s all about the journey so here are my 11 questions to my nominated bloggers: Travelgal Nicole, Thrifty Family Travels, Jayraini, Sindi’s Suitcase, Little Discoveries, and The Bohemian Style. To read more about the initiative, here are the official rules regarding the Liebster Award 2017.

  1. What was your longest travel journey abroad?
  2. What was your shortest travel journey abroad?
  3. Describe your worst stopover.
  4. Describe your best stopover.
  5. How much was your cheapest flight ever?
  6. Describe your worst flight ever.
  7. Describe your best flight ever.
  8. Who is your best layover buddy?
  9. Describe your best experience with immigration/border control in a foreign country.
  10. Describe your worst experience with immigration/border control in a foreign country.
  11. How many flights have you missed?

Looking forward to reading those answers!

 

A wedding at Izumo Taisha

The couple exits one of the halls at Izumo Taisha, surrounded by a tiny cluster of relatives. The bride steps on the path in a swath of white and holds her head carefully, under the weight of her domed headdress. She looks demure, apart from her crimson lips.

The wedding coordinator places her hand on the small of the bride’s back, guiding her along. The groom trails behind. As he turns the corner, I sputter, “Omedetou.” He quietly acknowledges the nosy gaijin. Soon afterward, the couple and family members stand neatly and smile delicately, waiting for commands from the photographer.

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Japanese Wedding, Izumo Taisha

Izumo is known as the Land of the Gods.  Izumo Taisha in modern day Izumo, Shimane, is a popular wedding shrine because it’s dedicated to Okuninushi, the god of all things unseen, marriage, and relationships.

Close to Izumo Taisha is Inasanohama Beach. Here, Bentenjima, a tiny shrine, perches on a single rock. Instantly, it reminds me of Temple in the Sea in Trinidad. The coastline here is windswept, reminiscent of the choppy, muddied waters of Columbus Channel along the southwestern coast of Trinidad. Legend states that all the gods in Japan meet at Inasanohama during kamimukaesai, the 10th month of the lunar calendar.

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Inasanohama Beach.

Further along the Shimane peninsula lies Hinomisaki lighthouse. This white, stone structure looms over the promontory, keeping a watchful eye on the boats out at sea. Shops selling souvenirs, dried fish, and grilled squid line the deserted lanes that lead to the lighthouse. A wrinkled old woman peers out of her shop. “Dozodozo,” she tells us, waving her arms over a blue tray of colorful shells of dried sea creatures.

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Souvenir shop near Hinomisaki Lighthouse.

Families flock to the lighthouse on the chilly winter evening. Young boys frolic close to the cliff’s edge. The ocean is a clear sapphire close to the rock walls. Seagulls rest on stretches of harsh, brown rock. Too soon, night falls and drenches everywhere in darkness. The shops and restaurants draw their shutters down and we must leave.

Did you ever visit Izumo? What did you think about it?

Photos: © Jesse Ramnanansingh

 

Spending New Year’s, Japanese style

In Japan, New Year’s is way bigger than Christmas. In fact, no shōgatsu (New Year festival) is complete without a ritual visit to the local jinja (shrine).

Kunito sensei, the school nurse, invites Jesse and I to visit her family jinja. Hiyoshi Shrine in Yodoe claims to be the only shrine in Japan located directly opposite a railroad crossing.

As we cross the wooden train tracks and ascend the stone steps into a forest clearing, it feels as though we have left the wardrobe. Time stands still. Single black lamps dot the snow-blanketed landscape, giving the shrine a distinctly Narnia feel.

The compound is hushed and deeply shadowed by tall evergreens, heavy with recent snowfall. Occasionally, the branches above shudder and giant heaps of snow thud to the ground. The air is clean and cold. Tiny snowflakes hang in the air for seconds, then drift softly to earth. It’s as though we’re trapped in a giant snow globe that someone’s just shaken.

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Hiyoshi Shrine.

Usually, when you enter a Japanese shrine, you will notice shishi (lion dogs) or kitsune (foxes). This one is guarded by shishi as well as saru (monkeys), their mossy faces partially hidden by clumps of snow.

The main hall of the shrine is a beautiful wooden structure with crossed beams that stretch up to the heavens. Its architecture strongly resembles that of Izumo Taisha. The interior is dark and spare, save for shinobigoma (straw horse) and a fluttery, paper-covered object. Omikuji fortunes for the new year line taut strings outside the main hall.

There are also miniature shrines scattered everywhere. Each pays homage to a different god or kami. The snow muffles our claps and clinking coins as we bow, shuffle around the shrines, and go up and down the muddied pathways.

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Amenomanai, Yodoe.

Afterward, we head to Amenomanai (which means “heavenly pure water”), a natural spring source in Yodoe. Its water comes straight from Mount Daisen and even though it’s winter, the water is not too cold. Amenomanai is the only place in Tottori prefecture classified under Japan’s 100 remarkable waters. In a small pond near the spring, a  single rainbow trout swims under the snowflakes, nibbling the fish food we offer.

A water wheel stands nearby, covered in moss and snow. For a moment, it looks like the abandoned Arnos Vale water wheel in Tobago. Icicles hang like clear daggers from the thatched roof of a nearby hut. The snow continues to fall softly, bringing a sense of magic to the time and place.

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Gold-flecked sake.

We return to the family home for a traditional New Year’s lunch: sake studded with gold flecks, ozōni, and osechi ryori. Kunito sensei serves two types of ozōni: a sweet one (typical in Yonago) and a savory one (typical in Nanbu). Both include generous helpings of mochi, round rice cakes that are like sticky dumplings. The osechi ryori is served in lacquered boxes and includes neat servings of grilled tai (sea bream), pink and white kamaboko (fish cakes), delicate yellow kazunoko (fish roe), glossy kuromame (black beans), tazukuri (small sardines), and datemaki (egg custard rolls).

The new year already feels different. It’s as though we’ve distilled some intangible essence at Hiyoshi shrine and Amenomanai, something that helps us understand this strange and idiosyncratic place called Japan.

Did you ever experience New Year’s away from home? How did you feel?

Photos: Jesse Ramnanansingh

Spending Christmas abroad

For many Trinis, spending Christmas away from home is nothing short of sacrilegious. No one disagrees with Susan Maicoo when she sings, “Oh yes! Trini Christmas is de best!”

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Trini Christmas at home.

Firstly, why would anyone want to skip the food: rum-soaked black cake, meaty pastelles, pineapple-studded ham, roast turkey, sorrel, wild meat, ponche de creme? Then, there’s parang music and carols on the radio, Soca Santa on trucks and fire engines, Christmas Day services that finish at sunrise. And oh! The preparations for the Big Day: dressing the Christmas tree, putting up new curtains, whitewashing the palm tree trunks and rocks that circle the Julie mango tree in the front yard, licking the bowl clean of raw sponge cake batter, trawling the Christmas flea markets and city streets for bargains, buying Red Delicious apples by the box. Children looking forward to Christmas treat in primary school, Sunday school, and in the villages, comparing and trading snacks, balloons, and toys. The annual pilgrimage to the big malls to see which one had the best Christmas decorations. Was it the elves and cottony snow at Long Circular, the sparkly Christmas trees at Trincity, the blood-red poinsettias in Gulf City, or the giant baubles hanging from the roof of West Mall? 

But I did. I skipped Christmas at home a couple of times.

First snow

Christmas was the first time this tropical girl saw snow. On a road trip from Toronto to Montreal, my uncle stopped the car and woke us up to see piles and piles of white stuff gleaming along the highway. Tiny flowers frosted with ice. Sunlight sparkling on the white. It was so still. Then, on Christmas Day, there wasn’t any real snow, only flurries that melted as soon as they hit the window panes.  That didn’t stop me and my cousin from making a snowman or rather, snow creatures: solitary heads with twig hands and stone eyes, that lay flat on a picnic table in the backyard. We were so proud.

A very British Christmas

There were times as a uni student in the UK when I couldn’t afford to go back home for Christmas so I spent the season with my friends and their families.

In the flat, before everyone went North or South for Christmas, we strung fairy lights and paper chains from the ceiling, made Christmas cookies, mulled wine, mince pies, and roast dinners, and sang along (sometimes, terribly) to the entire Lion King and Les Miserables soundtracks. There were Christmas markets too, stalls selling mini Dutch pancakes flecked with powdered sugar, chocolate and banana crepes, pork sandwiches smothered in warm applesauce, and real glühwein.

Ellie was adamant that I should spend Christmas as I did at home so together with her Uncle Bill, we went to Coventry Cathedral on Christmas Eve. I know they meant well but we left before the service ended because I couldn’t understand the complicated traditions. Plus, the church was rather cold and I was rather sleepy.

On Christmas Day, we popped Christmas crackers to don silly hats and read silly jokes. Afterward, we stuffed ourselves with roasted meat, roasted vegetables, and Yorkshire puddings smothered in gravy. But Christmas dinner was all about Ellie’s masterpiece, the trifle. Thick layers of custard, jelly, whipped cream, and cake, sprinkled with chocolate shavings. Surprisingly, no one (except Uncle Bill and I) touched the traditional Christmas pudding: doused in brandy, set alight, then served with warm custard. I loved it because it reminded me of a Trini black cake. After the meal, we didn’t go to bed like in Trinidad. We went walking! To Kenilworth Castle, sliding down the green hills and skipping between the ruined stone walls on a cold, gray Boxing Day.

Then, in London, when everyone left during the Christmas break, I headed North to celebrate the season with Dan and his family. Just like at Ellie’s, after Christmas dinner, we galumphed around Manchester’s suburban fields and muddy roads, chatting about philistines and Sigmund Freud. The cold air whipped my nose into a runny mess but I was happy moving about the landscape. Although Dan’s family also asked whether I wanted to go to church for Christmas, I chose to spend this holiday watching a play about an imaginary rabbit called Harvey.

Another Christmas I spent at Becky’s house in Kent. We watched Christmas shows on the telly and played party games with her grandparents and younger nieces and nephews. However, later on in the day, I started to feel ill and felt so bad that I took the train the next day back to Leamington. Becky later told me that her grandmother wanted to know whether the “island girl” was okay (bless her heart!)

Spending the holidays in rural Japan

Spending Christmas in Japan was different. People still went to work on Christmas and Boxing Day even though the department stores were stuffed with Christmas decorations, lights, and fake snow.

Kunito sensei invited Jesse and I over for a holiday dinner where we drank lots of sake, shared our first Japanese Christmas cake, and chatted to an old guy who had climbed snowy Mount Daisen that morning (he had pictures on his phone to prove it). Ayaka, Kunito sensei’s daughter, was the perfect diplomat, switching seamlessly from Japanese to English and back again so that everyone at the table knew what was going on. I also practiced my Spanish, chatting with a neighbor who had lived in Mexico for many years.

On Christmas Day, I took the day off work and Jesse and I went to Mount Daisen. We left the mud and sludge of Yonago for the crisp, white blanket on the foot of the mountain.  It was eerie, the quietest we had ever known Daisen to be. For Christmas Day dinner, even though we couldn’t bake Christmas treats because we didn’t have an oven, we invited our friend, Fernanda, over for Trini fried chicken and fried rice, fresh strawberries and the most Christmasy-looking pastries we could find for dessert. She brought fresh bread rolls, wine, cheese, and presents and we passed Christmas in a very quiet yet sublime way.

Have you ever spent Christmas abroad? What was it like?

Photo: © Lincoln Bhagan

 

The Oki Islands, Japan

 

In Japan, the Oki islands of Shimane Prefecture are not as famous as Okinawa but they still pack a punch.

Located only a two or three-hour ferry ride from Matsue or Sakaiminato, Oki’s four inhabited and 180 uninhabited islands are so geologically unique that they became a UNESCO supported Geopark in 2013. These islands are awash with a rugged natural beauty, created over years of volcanic activity, erosion, and weathering. Of the four large islands, there’s Dogo and three Dozen islands: Nishinoshima, Nakanoshima, and Chiburijima.

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Kannon Iwa or Candle Rock, Nishinoshima.

The Oki Kisen ferry  from Shichirui Port is an experience in itself. There are no seats, only large, carpeted sections. In true Japanese fashion, you must take off your shoes and sit on the floor.

For some of the best Oki beef on the islands, head to Oki Gyu Ten on Nakanoshima. Oki cattle are raised on the islands. The beef is tender and delicious. Bet you didn’t know that Oki calves are sent to Kobe where they eventually become the famous Kobe beef.

You can rent bikes from the tourism office in Ama to explore the island. Cycle to Rainbow beach which is very close to the town’s port. Further inland is Oki Shrine, which was built to honor Emperor Gotoba, who was exiled to the Oki islands during the Middle Ages.

Back at the port, climb aboard the Amanbow underwater viewing boat. Here, you can see under the sea from square portholes cut in the boat’s sides. It’s like looking into a giant aquarium.

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Amanbow Underwater Viewing Boat.

Nishinoshima is the most popular of the Oki islands. Its mountainous landscape is dotted with hundreds of Oki cattle and horses. Head to Kuniga lookout for sunset to see Kannon Iwa or Candle Rock. The dying sun drops directly above the rock so that it looks like a flame atop a candle.

The coastline here, one of the top 100 walking tracks in Japan, is perfect for gentle ambling and dipping your toes into the ocean. One of the highlights of the coastal walk is Tsutenkyo Arch. Here, the wind and waves have stripped the land into a dramatic, multi-colored arch through which the ocean flows.

Stay at the retro-feel, family-run hotel, Kuniga-so on Nishinoshima. Dinner includes everything imaginable: Iwagaki oysters, white squid, scallops, pickled abalone, sashimi, fish stew, soba salad, and Oki beef slices. Some of the rooms overlook Urago Port. If you go in the summer, you can watch the fireworks over the bay from your room!

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Summer fireworks over Urago Port.

Near Urago, visit Yurahime Shrine which honors Suserihime or Yurahime no mikoto, the goddess of fishing and maritime safety. Every autumn and winter, thousands of squid flood the inlet in front of this shrine. According to local legend, when the goddess was returning to Oki by boat, some squid in the inlet nibbled her fingers. She was quite offended so every year, several squid return to the same spot to apologize for their terrible behavior. P.S. Lots of restaurants in the area, like Asuka, serve squid dishes like ika don (bowl of rice topped with cooked squid) and ika kare (squid curry).

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Oki horses, Nishinoshima.

Also, check out Matengai Cliff. To get there, you should rent a car or bikes (if you’re feeling fit enough) to climb the winding road uphill. There are wild horses and cows here, nibbling the grass all day. If any of the animals seem menacing, grab on of the free bamboo walking sticks provided to defend yourself. Also, if you go in summer, wear sunscreen! The coastline here is surreally beautiful: large masses of grassy headland jutting out into the cobalt sea.

There are also great beaches on Nishinoshima, particularly Sotohama and Mimiura. Sotohama has a wide sandy beach and clear water for swimming. Mimiura is a bit more tricky to find because it’s hidden behind a dense pine forest. The cove is small but perfect for camping, kayaking, and snorkeling.

Still want more? Here are the top 10 things to see and do on the Oki Islands.

For more information, contact:

Nishinoshima Tourism Association

Ama Town Tourism Association

Did you ever visit the Oki Islands? Was it worth the trip? Share below!

Photos: © Jesse Ramnanansingh