A Travellerspoint blog

Narita

Significant or not, these smoldering sites of past military glory are perfect prelude to a visit of Japan, easily organised en route since going back to North America in most cases involves change of planes in Narita, the international airport of Tokyo. Narita airport is named after the neighboring town Narita which happens to be a center of religious activity. Just a couple of stops away from Terminal2 (United’s home) by train, its temple compound has all the ingredients to lure the faithful flock and foreign visitor alike.

Narita San entrance

Narita San entrance

The town is served by two railway companies with Keisei line being the better option in terms of timing and regularity. After the railway station the pilgrims face a half an hour of leisurely walk to the gate of the complex. Along the way there is a string of food establishment taking advantage of the high volume human traffic coaxing the passersby with intricate “sculptures” of the meals as they would appear on a plate and elaborate rituals of invitation.

Narita San Road

Narita San Road

The temptation is huge - why not succumb to it instead of the bland airplane food, enjoy the original Japanese cuisine and compare it later to its clones in far-off foreign lands. The temple is vibrant, full of locals and people from other parts of Japan sometimes easily recognised by their travel bags. The whole set-up renders a wonderful glimpse into the Japanese everyday life, religious rituals, wonderful architecture, manicured landscapes and in spring, exuberant blossom; more than enough to mull over during the very long flight(s) home.

Posted by assenczo 05:21 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Yap

With the Pacific “riddle wrapped up in an enigma” covered one has no other choice but to continue on to the next mystery of the region – the island(s) of Yap. On the way, the plane stops in Chuuk, a compound of islands combining the features of an atoll (flat islands) and pointed islands. The lagoon of Chuuk has been appreciated for its huge size where a whole fleet of military ships could take cover and hence has been object of desire for nations on both side of the Pacific Ocean. Nowadays, as part of the Federated States of Micronesia, Chuuk is a major stop on the island-hopper route mere one-hour flight away from Guam, the largest island in Micronesia geographically and geopolitically.

Boarding on Chuuk

Boarding on Chuuk

Air transport hub

Air transport hub

Late-night flights leave Guam after collecting passengers from all the surrounding archipelagos all the way to Japan in order to transfer them to the island(s) of Yap or on some days of the week further on to Palau and the Philippines. Yap airport architecturally follows the canon of traditional architecture with the gabled roof lines of the men’s houses. As if to completely mimic the old structures, it is tiny and rather claustrophobic. There is not even space enough to contain a planeload of people. No more than four persons in a row in front of the immigration booth can be under the eaves. The rest are exposed to the elements and if it does not rain the passengers should consider themselves lucky. Rumour has it that if it rains umbrellas will be distributed to the passengers. The process is traditionally slow and the winds pick up. Finally when the barrier of red tape is crossed a girl in traditional clothes of plant material such as “grass” skirt hangs welcome necklaces to everybody who has passed the test. The upper part of the body is excessively covered in very non-traditional way with grass and flower necklaces to such an extent that the bust is practically invisible. Only when the girl is bypassed it becomes obvious that there is no bra. This state of affairs seems to be a compromise, presumably to meet the tourism industry requirements for delivering an authentic product with the general dress code of the island which has completely been Americanized in the last decades. Contrary to the expectations fed by advertisements floating on the Internet or in guide books Yap proper has jumped into the precipice of “modernization”.
Thoroughly immunized by the airport experience the following morning is filled with gloom and anxiety. But sure enough, on the very next day during a mundane shopping trip to the local supermarket a chance to glimpse into the olden days appeared. Between the shelves of potato chips and SPAM a pair of bare breasts nominally decorated with grass necklace showed up. This was a rather confusing situation where it was hard to decide whether to look or not for the sake of being impolite, culturally insensitive or simply a jerk. After the topless local diva left and the shock subsided it was time for recapitulation and further research. The first pronounced the Yap culture still alive and swinging and the second discovered that these were no Yapese breasts. The woman was clad in a cloth skirt (not a grass skirt) which is typical for the so-called outer islands or the provinces of Yap State. These are even tinier than Yap itself which happens to be actually an archipelago of four islands disguised as one. Out there, in the outer isles the boats go twice a month max and planes render mostly medical evacuations; so no TV, no Internet, not tourists but vibrant local culture. The problem apparently is that the populace expends rapidly beyond the farming capability of the minute islands and the overflow of humanity moves on to Yap where they are still on “outer-islander” time and unfazed by foreign influences.
Traditional dress code might have been marginalized (used on Yap day only, for dancing or for greeting foreigners at the airport) but consumption of betel nut is still a main manifestation and a stout pillar of local culture. This ubiquitous habit is not foreign to women either who apparently do not consider bloody smiles, bad teeth or inarticulate speech unattractive. “Yap’s gum” (consumed in other tropical countries as well) consists of three different ingredients. Major component is the betel nut itself but it is spurred into action by crushed lime stone packed in betel leaf. The process of packaging the combination is similar to making your own cigarette which requires some dexterity especially when driving!?

Stone Money village

Stone Money village

Colonia is not a super attractive destination but it is good base to acclimatise, gather information, rent a car or even explore on foot the closest money bank. This term might sound familiar considering that most people in the world go to banks to deal with money. On Yap though money bank is not a building – it is an alley or area. This difference is imposed by the fact that the money is not made of paper, plastic or metal– it is made of stone! Nowhere else on Earth there is stone money! The story behind is long and at the same time interesting so why not mention it. Some centuries ago a couple of guys decided to bring alongside their fishing booty two brightly coloured stones from Palau, the neighbouring archipelago occupied by people of kin close to the Yapese. The stone qualities of colour and texture were highly appreciated by the fellow Yapese on arrival so gradually other Yapese sailors went beyond their fishing exploits to mine stones of different sizes and bring them to Yap. The process of production and transportation was arduous and dangerous considering the tools and canoes the locals had at their disposal. This fact turned the stones into valuable commodity that can be exchanged for practically everything else. These are the characteristics of all the types of money used in the world and the stone money is an exception only in terms of size. Originally, the stones were not very big till an enterprising European fellow by the name of O’Keefe realised that the stone quarrying business has much better future in Yap than any other European trading endeavour. Equipped with better tools and large boat he and his business partners began to flood the island of Yap with larger and larger stones from Palau. As it often happens in the supply-and-demand practice, the stone money gradually devalued and with the advent of more serious colonization efforts on behalf of other powers their usefulness faded. Despite the decline the stone money apparently still have value in the eyes of the Yapese and are used to cement deals closed in conventional American dollars.

Stone money guards

Stone money guards

Money talk invariably brings to mind ways of protecting it. Yap is no less ingenious in this respect either. Instead of hordes of policemen, security systems and their support staff, the Yapese have opted for the oldest approach – using the services of “men’s best friend”. Dogs on Yap are of the mutt variety with an unmistakable air of stray street dogs. Or at least it seems at first glance. The second glance reveals them as faithful guardians of money banks and other property. In “remote areas” non-residents are strongly advised to carry appropriate equipment to fight them off in cases when the owners are not around. Dual purpose walking stick would do just fine. Biting into human flesh is expected from dogs especially form the stray ones that have assumed the duty of guardians. Another matter is hearing that they have a sweet tooth for bananas. Hard to believe local wisdom laissez-passer attitude turns into a lifelong lesson underlining the superiority of experience over knowledge. In order to stem the unstoppable flow of minute ants into the living quarters, bananas being kept outside, seems to be the sensible thing to do in the tropics and Yap in particular. Except, in a couple of days the birds become aware of them and start pecking. While the winged creatures might ruin one or two, the dogs would come up onto the table and help themselves generously with the entire available amount and leave the peels in a different location, short distance from the crime scene, believe it or not.

Morning fare

Morning fare

Yap’s other product on the tourist market is adventure of admiring the presence of manta rays. The best way to enjoy their company is to be a diver or to become one on the spot. This is a rather costly exercise and some people opt for the cheaper substitute - snorkelling. Both are dependent on weather conditions tough. If it rains tonnes of mud and other land gunk flows into the sea and turns into a murky onion soup. For snorkelers it is even more imperative to have sunshine at its brightest and clear water since usually they are not equipped with flood lights. There are a couple of locations on the island in the reef channels where the mantas come to get cleaned by other creatures and be watched by the divers. If luck is not on the paying guest’s side and mantas are invisible in the brown water of the channel, there is a plan “B”. On the other side of the reef wall there is a spot where reef sharks congregate or have been taught to gather by the promise of appetising snacks. This practise is of course not advertised but the way they rush after every new boat leaves no doubt that they have their interests taken care of. In any case, it is thrilling to swim with them and the other species generally are much bigger than the ones that swim in the confines of the reef.

Manta substitute

Manta substitute

If stone money, Yapese traditions and mantas are not considered good enough reasons to visit this remote speck of land n the western Pacific Ocean than what about some rusty military hardware from the savage days of the WWII. The island was fortified enough not to become a liability in the vicinity of Ulithy, an atoll of importance in the context of the sea warfare of the time. This fact needed to be addressed by the US Navy and reminders of this action are sprinkled around the island. One of the best examples must be the old Yap airport where there are wreckages of two Japanese planes and a machine gun.

Japanese casualties

Japanese casualties

The old airport is a ghost with only its potholed tarmac left but the site with the planes is well marked albeit difficult to reach by car after heavy rain – the dirt road turns into puddle-filled troughs and walking risks to spoil your wardrobe. What to do – the art of travel requires some sacrifices. Funny enough, despite all the fighting and the official results of the Pacific conflict, the war seems to have resulted in a draw. All (visited) islands in Micronesia have mostly Japanese style steering wheel location in their cars but drive according to American style traffic rules, some sort of vehicular Spam Musubi!? Consequently, the drivers end up not in the middle of the road but along its edges thus making driving very dangerous. Thank God the speed limits are low.

Posted by assenczo 05:10 Archived in Micronesia Comments (0)

Pohnpei

Next stop on the transpacific island-hopping journey (according to United) could be Kosrae or Pohnpei, both part of the Federated States of Micronesia. If picky, one has to add that even before these two the airplane touches down at Kwajalein atoll, Republic of Marshall Islands but for all the mortals who do not have any business at the US airbase there, disembarkation is forbidden. So, Pohnpei it is with a short stopover at Kosrae (pronounced Kushrey) for stretching legs and claiming possession for the King of Travel.

Kosrae airport

Kosrae airport


Pohnpei and his brother are physically very different from their neighbours to the east. These are volcanic islands with pronounced peaks dramatically dissimilar to the low coral-connected islands of the Marshallese atolls. Due to this geography of theirs Pohnpei and Kosrae are trapping many clouds that dispose of their precious watery cargo turning the islands into veritable jungle hot spots. Lush greenery, waterfalls, creeks, all the hallmarks of a tropical paradise (again) are present. These natural environments provide food for much larger populations which in turn attract foreign appetites with desire to conquer new markets. While the Spaniards were the first colonial power to crisscross the Pacific, their presence in the Marshalls was fleeting but here they established themselves to the point that there are remnants of their presence in the shape of a wall, aptly named: The Spanish Wall. Welcome to Kolonia!

Spanish Wall, Ponape

Spanish Wall, Ponape


Kolonia’s most photogenic signature greeting is the Sokeh’s Rock, huge cliff overlooking the harbour and airport of the town. Some people even climb it in order to benefit from the sweeping view and lose a pound or two of body weight in the process due to profuse perspiration. On the other hand, the culinary signature, called sakau is much more subtle but no less popular. Produced from some sort of a plant root and with the bland taste of undercooked eggplant, is has powerful influence on humans. When asked where to buy the famous liquid a local girl offered her own network’s production instead of a definitive answer. And she meant business – within half an hour the bottle of local ambrosia was delivered with full set of instructions. The effect is probably varying from individual to individual but in general it numbs a bit the tongue of the user and leads to a sound, healthy sleep. Consumption is on foreigner’s own risk since the ingredients are mixed in water of unknown origin.
Kolonia is the center of all things Pohnpeian; significant number of hotels, banks, post office, tourist office, you name it, are all located here. There is competition for this status in the face of Palikir, the artificial town created to serve as capital for the whole of FS Micronesia but apparently with no particular success. What the foreigner is here for though is not to be judge of who is greater, Pohnpei or Palikir. If not for fishing, snorkeling or diving the visitor is here to witness one of the not so many enigmas of the megalithic period on the planet Earth and while for the first three options there are many destinations claiming to provide the best experience ever, Nan Madol, the mysterious complex built of humongous basalt columns is standing alone in this world of ours. No competition whatsoever!

Locals at Nan Madol ruins

Locals at Nan Madol ruins


This site of such a peculiar distinction can be reached in different ways though the mangroves on land or by boat/canoe from the sea. When there are not very many days at somebody’s disposal on the island the options become rather scarce. The hotels are usually in possession of their own guides or they simply outsource the service somewhere. In both cases the price goes up unequivocally. The best option is to find a personal guide via the Internet. They come with their own car and as a result the tour ends up costing practically the same as the price of hiring a vehicle.
The approach of the sight from land includes some entrance fees. While they might seem frivolous at the beginning (parking fee of one dollar and pass permit by the chief for three plus local guy property fee another three), they become much appreciated when an attempt to venture into the realm of the mangroves is made. The historical site (or its most preserved part) is located on the edge of the water on an islet surrounded by channels. One of the premier tasks of the guide is to inform himself and consequently the crowd of the tidal fluctuations through a tidal chart available with certain organization in town. Without this knowledge the crossing of the waters of the channel surrounding the site becomes problematic.

Fording Nan Madol

Fording Nan Madol


Once inside, the visitors are puzzled by the nature of the stones, their number, origin and size. This bewilderment has been a fact quite some time now, thousands upon thousands of years which has led to the proliferation of many intriguing stories. They all compete for the listeners’ attention with their contradictory twists and turns. One thing is for sure – there is no signature of any description which in turn is a proof of a craft NOT made by humanity as we know it.

Posted by assenczo 15:47 Archived in Micronesia Comments (0)

Majuro


Micronesia? Where is that? This is what most people’s reaction is to the idea of going to the remote expanses of the Pacific Ocean between the Hawaiian Archipelago and the Philippines. And far it is especially from the eastern seaboard of the US and Canada. Fortunately, there is a company called United Airlines which has excellent network of flights in North America coupled with the exclusive island-hopper in Micronesia. After a grueling sequence of four flights and overnight Honolulu airport meditation one is finally seeing the end of the beginning of the journey when the plane starts gliding over the Majuro atoll. Meanwhile not one but two days have passed, one of them really quickly within the five-hour flight between Honolulu and Majuro thanks to the artificial International Date Line. Quite the time travel!
Once on the atoll there is the usual hubbub around the arrivals, baggage handling and taxi driver greetings. What follows next is the only road that leads into town, quite often just meters away from the waters of the ocean on one side and the lagoon on the other. The landscape is flat, reportedly never higher than two-three meters above the sea level. One minor blip in this rule is the pile of town garbage that has formed sizable hill of twenty to thirty meters relative height to the ground. So, if ever there would be a climatic disaster and the waves overcome the islands there is something that is going to outlive the catastrophe – the indelible traces of human consumption.
With this cheerful realization in mind one continues the journey through the first municipality than a second one, both administratively divided but physically united. In the process the visitors either stay in the first area, where the major hotel for the whole of the atoll is or hold on till the second hotel of this extended urban sprawl comes into sight. The second hotel might be second in turn but not in appeal. Contrary to the predictable monstrosity of the first structure this place has quite a bit of character and lovely backyard. What it misses out in the competition with the other establishment is the lack of a beach. As if to prove the critics wrong the property has an extension on another island, Eneko, alongside a beach and the docile waves of the lagoon. A bit more on the charismatic features of this location is following very soon.
Meanwhile, the proud town of Uliga, part of the D-U-D urban conglomerate contains not only the second hotel on the atoll but many other “attractions”. One of them is not particularly obvious but surely very intriguing - the Town Hall of the Bikini Atoll. One might wonder what Bikini has to do with Majuro except for the province-capital relationship. Well, things are a bit more complicated since Bikini has been rendered uninhabitable by the series of nuclear bomb explosions and all the populace has been shipped to safer areas, Majuro included, with its prowess of administration. In a way, for the visitor salivating a trip to a location of world-wide infamy and unable to accomplish it due to lack of easy transport options this set-up is a blessing. Very much in tune with the saying: “If Mohammed will not go to the mountain the mountain must come to Mohammed”.Bikini relocated

Bikini relocated


Another must-see property is the local museum. It is not the Louvre, maybe three rooms at the most, but it still has stuff that will compel the visitor to think – activity not necessarily compatible with vacationing in the tropics. The hallway is consecrated to more photos of nuclear explosions (already seen displayed on the Bikini Town Hall premises). The rooms contain insights on the great navigational achievements of the Marshallese through ingenious local craft called “stick charts”. Literally, small sticks connected in a particular way which somehow passes knowledge to the next captain daring to traverse the forbidding expanses of the Pacific. Next room is dedicated to the Marshallese people from the times when they were on their own in the middle of the largest ocean of the world and doing just fine. There are European drawings of men, women and canoes, all of them captivating the imagination of the visitors. Part of the local attire of the time has become “la mode” in the European (and European-based) societies nowadays; tattoos all over the body, holes in the earlobes and so on. The canoes are a thriller of ingenuity too, with their irregular shape, producing the lift needed to ply the waters fast just like the bird wing’s irregular shape lets this creature fly effortlessly in the sky.

Tatoo origins

Tatoo origins


Besides these two highlights the area includes church, mosque, souvenir boutique and several grocery stores providing all the essentials for independent travel. Moreover, the adventurous could slip into the Purified Water Store, another extension to the local hotel business which sells not only bottled water but juice from the local pandanus tree. The taste is definitely an acquired one and the liquid is on the expensive side compared to, let’s say, orange juice from Florida delivered by Taiwanese shipping company; all the more reason to try it at least once!
There is not much more to attract the discerned taste of continental urbanites in Majuro with the exception of one thing - the canoe ride. There is a “studio” conveniently located right beside the number one hotel (on the list) which specializes in building and maintaining canoes the traditional way. Of course, not everything is on a scale one-to-one. For example the sails are not woven with plant material fiber but have way more contemporary ingredients. The fellow who is in charge (collects the money) is rather talkative and if time permits he would explain the whole history of the studio, the canoes and their gradual disappearance in the outer islands. It is a shame though to stay inside when the sea beckons and the sails flutter in anticipation. The trip costs mere twenty dollars per person and this means that the passenger can be alone accompanied only by the two servicemen/captains. The design of the canoes is such that instead of the craft turning around it is the relocation of the sail that does the trick. If in one direction it is clipped to the “front” on the way back it is attached to the ”back”. All that is in harmony with the main hull shape and how it is meant to stay always on the windward side of the canoe. Different and it works!

Marshallese canoe replica

Marshallese canoe replica


A major outing outside the main urban area could be visiting a private beach with very remote feeling on the island of Eneko. As mentioned above, the property is an extension of the Majuro’s hotel number two (according to the distance from the airport) and thus set-up and clean-up is all arranged by hospitality professionals. There should be no mistake made by expecting too much though since the ”caretakers” are locals living on Eneko itself (meters away from the guest’s Robison Crusoe project) and are not graduates of a hospitality college. What separates them from the “customer” is leafy hedge of local trees which double up as a hen house at night. Most of the time the service is in the background and the only thing left to contemplate are the many shades of the horizon depending on the location of the Sun in relationship to the atoll. This rather perfect rendition of paradise (the ultimate environment that so many strive for) is blemished periodically by insects, mostly relatives of the mosquitoes who are very insistent on trying out the juices of yet another foreigner. The locals seemed not to be bothered at all while the gringos are practically hugging the anti-mosquito coils.
Hews on the horizon

Hews on the horizon


What made the dimension of paradise even more pronounced on this particular trip was unraveled on the second day of sojourn in this geographical nirvana. A cruise ship had arrived in the Majuro lagoon causing all sorts of anxiety amongst the local population – how to fleece these inquisitive tourists more efficiently for the short time they had been allotted to this destination. One option was of course, some snorkeling on the Eneko island shores. Not that the corals were exceptional there but at least there was some sort of a base, supplied with washrooms and tables for picnics. The cruise ship crowd, Japanese in origin, was transported to the paradise location by small boat which in turn had to dock at an artificial platform due to low levels of the water in relation to the coral. The first attempt was unsuccessful, the boat turned around and the Robinson Crusoe equilibrium was reinstated. Two hours later there was a second attempt to land on the island and this time the docking platform played its role brilliantly – all Japanese tourists set foot on the island and started to organise themselves to snorkel. And snorkel they did for very long time in the case of some individuals, so much so that the guides began to worry about the numbers of the flock on land and water. When they were all pulled on land it apparently became clear that somebody was missing. Frenetic search resulted in a discovery of a body hundred meters or so away. Some of the guides applied mouth-to-mouth and chest-pumping techniques in an effort to revive what looked as a lifeless body. After five minutes of unsuccessful attempts the crowd boarded the man on the boat and he was whisked to Majuro. Local papers announced on the following day that he was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital but no autopsy was performed which meant that there was no definitive decision on the cause of death; drowning or stroke.
Japanese Landing

Japanese Landing

Posted by assenczo 15:28 Archived in Marshall Islands Comments (0)

(Entries 1 - 4 of 4) Page [1]