Diving on the Lost Continent of Mu: SIN-NGO-ISG-OGN-ISG-OKA-HND-NRT-SIN in SQ/NH/NU C
And once again it's time for my once-yearly award travel extravaganza. (Other travel extravaganzas I sponsor myself, and the non-extravaganza sort of airborne commuting is paid by the company.) This time my destination is none other than supposed site of the Lost Continent of Mu, the Asian contemporary of the mythical kingdom of Atlantis.
The ruins of Mu, or rather the inexplicable massive stone structures some call as such, lie off the coast of the tiny little island of Yonaguni, itself at the extreme western tip of the Yaeyama Islands, closer to Taiwan than to even Okinawa Island and over 3 hours from Tokyo by plane. Not that you can even get there straight: Yonaguni Airport (that's OGN on the off chance that some newbie out there doesn't encounter this on a daily basis) is served by 1-2 flights per day from Ishigaki and 0-1 from Naha, the capital of Okinawa.
Alas, Star Alliance can't get me all the way there as the monopoly is held by Japan Airlines' evil minions Japan Transocean Air and Ryukyu Air Commuter; the best I could to do to bankrupt SAS with my extravagant award was to fly to Ishigaki, which passes for a travel hub in these remote parts, still half an hour by turboprop away. And to make the best use of my transfers, I scheduled in a 23:55 'transit' at Nagoya's squeaky-new Chubu Airport (NGO) on the way in -- just enough to pop over to Expo 2005 -- and my old hometown Tokyo on the way back.
And, of course, I'm doing it in business class, although the beancounters at ANA have nefariously decided that "Super Seats" are not the same as "business class" and I'll thus be stuck in the back for the domestic Japan legs. Oh, woe is me... but SQ Raffles Class on the way in and NH Club Asia on the way out should smooth the pain, and at 45000 EB points for the whole itinerary can I really complain?
That's was a rhetorical question, because I can't. Enough prologue, on with the story!
Sweeter words were never printed at the bottom of a boarding pass:
YOU ARE INVITED TO THE SILVER KRIS LOUNGE
I'm probably the only Flyertalker who has resided in SIN for two years without ever stepping into this hallowed space, so now at long last it was time to pop the cherry -- albeit only to the Raffles side, so maybe there's still something left to look forward to?
After working until nearly 10 PM, both tying up loose ends at work and sorting out last-minute travel arrangements, I headed to the airport with a smile on my face. Check-in was unremarkable, exit immigration was painless (as always), and soon enough I disturbed the busily chatting lounge ladies with my blue-fringed boarding pass enough for one of them to wish me welcome to the left side of the lounge...
My first impression was sheer size: the SilverKris is way bigger than the Premier Lounge I'm usually stuck in, and on this time it was nearly full when I came in. But I had nearly two hours to kill, and the lounge emptied out quite a bit between 11 PM and 1 AM. Quantitywise the food selection was quite OK, enough for me to get my long-delayed dinner, but quality wasn't particularly impressive. I couldn't even find the bubbly at first, and only spotted the bar counter and the rows of Piper-Heidsieck on my second trip to fill up... But (unlike the Premier) the lounge had lots of internet terminals and workspaces to use, so I settled down and surfed.
All in all, in my book the SQ lounge at ICN still takes the cake for me.
SQ 981 SIN-NGO B777-300 C seat 14K
Boarding was on time -- in fact, thanks to the departure gate way at the end of the F pier, I barely made it before the 15-minute cutoff -- and, after making the lovely turn to the left to the biz door, walked down past the economy door on my way to my seat. Quite frankly, this was a bit of a letdown after my previous Raffles experience: no SpaceBed, the plane showing signs of wear and tear, the crappier not-on-demand version of Wiseman (Krisworld), etc. The only positive was that load was light, under 50% in C (maybe a bit higher in Y), and I had two seats to myself although the bulky divider between the two limited the utility of this.
As I'd accumulated quite a bit of sleep deficit, my plan was to just get as many Z's as humanly possible, but the flourescent light installed right above my seat did its best to prevent me. While nowhere near as comfortable as a flat bed, the recline was ok and I was able to find a tolerable comfortable position and for the first time ever, I actually managed to fall asleep wearing shades.
The lights went on and I was woken up at 6:30 Japan time (5:30 SIN time...) to ask for my breakfast order, which took 45 minutes to arrive -- why couldn't they ask the night before and let people sleep longer!? And after that wait, it turned out to be a fairly horrible attempt at a Japanese breakfast. The miso soup was edible, but the rice was mangled beyond recognition (cold, starchy, falling apart) and the snowfish with tasteless white sauce slapped on top was worse than any university cafeteria meal I ever ate in Japan (gakushoku being usually considered the baseline of bad food).
Soon enough the pre-arrival announcement were made, it turned out we were landing well ahead of schedule at just past 8 AM instead of the scheduled 8:35 AM. This meant that my 23:55 'transit' would in fact last for over 24 hours, in violation of usual ticketing rules -- muahaha! But evidently this messed up the finely tuned scheduling, as the plane parked in middle of field and we were bussed to the terminal.
Last edited by jpatokal; Apr 16, 05 at 6:57 pm..
Opened just one month ago, the airport is obviously squeaky clean and new, but some of the equipment (like the bus) is clearly not and much has been recycled from the old NGO. The airport is indeed very well designed, it feels as compact as a regional airport. I got to passport lines just before they filled up, the foreign queues stayed just a few rows deep but within minute the Japanese lines couldn't even fit inside the hall. Just one question at Immigration, regarding my lodgings for the night: "Where is Ishigaki? Okinawa?" "Yes." Stampa stampa! Customs, on the other hand, was as usual in a more interrogative mood. Why Japan? How many times? What job? Why so many stamps from strange places?. I answered in monosyllables in English and deflected the question about my Japanese ability with a "Chotto", but the guy became happy after he found that my suitcase was packed with diving gear and that I was going to Ishigaki, and let me go after that.
I dumped the suitcase at the left luggage counter (Y500 midnight to midnight, so Y1000 for my 23 hours) and, after asking a few questions in Japanese from the giggling girls at the Information counter, went for a dip in the fourth floor baths. They cost Y900 to get in plus an optional Y250 to buy a miniature towel to hold in front of your dangly bits, and yes, it was great after a long trip. The baths offer a "view bath" offering a thinnish slice of the sky (don't expect too much), a reclining bath with foot massage jets, a jacuzzi-type jet bath and a sauna where, as always in Japan, throwing water on the stove is forbidden (sigh). The only notable omission was any sort of place to cool off, except the perennially unfulfilling cold shower...
Then the negative surprise that promptly washed away the accumulated good karma: none of my three credit cards could get cash out of the Citibank ATM, the only (supposedly) foreign-card-happy machine in the airport. My VISA worked last time in Kansai's Citibank ATM, but it resolutely refused to accept what I knew to be the correct PIN. My Mastercard it rejected pretty much instantly without even bother to dial up and check, and AMEX wasn't even listed as supported. I burned up 30 minutes punching buttons, then fuming myself dug into my yen reserves (three cheers for thinking ahead) and took the train to the city; the fact that I'd just missed the zippy rapid transit and ended up on a sorely misnamed "express" that stopped at every rice paddy along the way didn't improve my mood. Fortunately the ATM in Kanayama's post office liked my VISA card better, so I withdraw a fat wad o' cash and promptly hedged my bets by depositing half in my dormant Japanese bank account.
And then it was off to the Expo, which was worth every expended cent and minute of sleep lost. I have never in my life felt clenched up inside because something was just so insanely cool so often before: a (very) good movie can trigger this once or twice, but at the Expo I got this no less than 4 times in separate places -- which, for the record, are Seto Japan Pavilion's impossible synchronized dance show; JR Central's "it floats and it's faaaaaaaaast" 3D maglev movie; the Nagakute Japan Pavilion's sphere-moving-around-you 360 degree movie theater; and when I first saw a Morizo plush toy (one of the Expo mascots) 'driving' one of the IMTS train-bus-things. The Mitsui-Toshiba pavilion's realtime use of your own face in the rendered movie, on the other hand, left me cold for most parts; maybe I've just been dealing with computers so long that I know this just requires oodles of computing power, whereas with eg. the 360-degree theater I still don't understand how it's possible to project a fluid moving image in a full sphere around you...
My visit was on a Friday in the early April off-season, and I couldn't help but get the impression that they're geared to handle a lot more visitors. Sure, there were quite a few other visitos, but the amount of staff on hand just seemed out of all proportion. Let's see how the visitor numbers grow during Golden Week... in the meantime, here is Wikitravel's updated guide to Expo 2005, with a few pics to whet your appetite (more coming up later).
I crashed for the night in Kanayama's Capsule Inn Nagoya, well located next to the transfer station between the airport and Expo lines. A capsule for the night (reservable in advance) costs Y2800 plus Y800 if you want to sample the baths downstairs, pretty much obligatory since there are no washing facilities in the capsule hotel itself. Capsule Inn originated the idea in the 1970s and by appearance this hotel was one of the first set up, but it's clean and functional, and after washing up (mm, hot bath and cold pool!) I slept like a log.
Up bright and early and to Kanayama station to board the 'mu-SKY' kaisokutokkyu (erm, "rapid speed special express"? Japanese train naming just gets sillier year by year...) to the airport. The extra Y350 I paid got me a comfy reserved seat on an almost full train with airplane-style tray (perfectly for my laptop!), a groovy TV display including camera showing the view from up front, and 15 minutes shaved off the travel time. Well worth the money in my opinion.
Next was what I belatedly realized was my first checkin on a Japanese airline as a Star Gold, and ANA certainly did its best. There were longish lines at the economy counters, but the *G desk was empty -- the lady at the counter guided me through baggage security (right next to the desk), got me a good window seat and instructed me to both boarding gate (again by bus) and lounge -- a chirpy start to my day. She also told me my mileage has been registered; let's see what happens...? At the ANA domestic lounge, the guardian actually took my card & ticket in other to whisk me in faster and returned them to be a minute later. Facilities were fairly minimal, just a selection of soft drinks plus the famed beer machine, but having already bought my breakfast I contented myself with a glass of OJ and half an hour with my laptop plugged into one of the Internet terminals.
Automation-happy Japan is the only place I know of where domestic boarding cards have their own shape, and passengers are expected to slot them in the entry gate by themselves; the crew's job is limited to giving the stub back and thanking you. After another short bus hop it was time to board...
Until last year this would still have been a EL-branded Air Nippon Koku (ANK) flight, but after the reincorporation of the ANK brand into mothership ANA, even the plane had been repainted in ANA colors with only a small black "AIR NIPPON" on the fuselage and a 1xxx flight number left to show the heritage.
The -500 is one of the smaller models in the 737 family with capacity for around 120, and today's flight was perhaps 60-70% full. I scored a window seat near the wing with nobody in the seats next to me, and seat pitch was, if not exactly generous, surprisingly acceptable. The plane departed on time and drink service started, with tea and juice on offer for free and beer and shochu for sale. No food available though, so like everybody else I dug into the food I brought along myself, and found out that Nagoya's famed tenmusubi (rice balls with shrimp tempura inside) really are quite good.
2.5 hours passed by quickly and soon enough we did a smooth if hard-braking landing at ISG, a pint-sized airport where they still take the trouble to bus you the 50 meters from the jet to the terminal. The island has been undergoing a bit of tourism boom lately and there are plans afoot for a new ISG that could handle larger jets like the 747s that shuttle between Japan's major cities. My priority-tagged bag was the first off the conveyor belt -- they even intentionally left a 5-meter space between it and the rest -- and in no time at all I hopped out the door and into a taxi to Rakutenya ("Paradise Shop"), my Y3000-a-night guesthouse lodgings offering eccentric owners, wacky background music and free broadband Internet in a big wooden house.
Ishigaki is amazing and my first day was just consumed in cognitive dissonance. It looks and feels like the tropics, but it's indisputably Japanese and it's not as hot and humid as South-East Asia. (Note well: April is the best time of year to go and visitors in the (cold-ish) winter or (pressure cooker) summer may well disagree.) Ishigaki City itself is a bit grubby, although obviously getting better with posh new restaurants and hotels popping up here there, but the blue sky-yellow beach-azure ocean triple whammy scenery of places like Kabira Bay remains jaw-dropping. The tides here at 160 cm between high and low are among the largest in the world, which means that at low tide the craggy islets in the Bay just pop up out of the water and the mangrove trees around the coastline seem to stand up stilts... I did a couple of dives on my second day and spotted no less than 5 manta rays, the stealth bombers of the fish world, zooming past on the second one. Okinawan food is also great, I detest the South-East Asian version of the bitter gourd (usually slimy and tasteless) but the Okinawan variety is dark green, crispy and great in a stir-fry. Orion beer and the Okinawan fusion masterpiece of taco rice also went down a treat!
There was only one downside: the day of my arrival I received an e-mail from Yonaguni, telling me that the strong winds had been blowing from the east for over a week now and that the ruins were thus inaccessible. Disheartened, I let my initial reservation of tickets lapse and had already started making other plans, when around 6 PM on the second day I heard that the winds were changing to the north and there was thus a chance that the ruins would be diveable -- but no guarantees. I vacillated for a while but eventually figured that while I've occasionally regretted not doing something, I've rarely regretted going ahead, so I plunked down Y16,500 for return tickets on JAL's website and headed to the airport early the next morning.
Check-in was OK, although in typical Japanese style I had to reconfirm my credit card payment at another desk, and the lady at the counter warned me that due to bad weather there was a chance that the flight would be delayed or cancelled -- evidently the dead gods of Mu were not going to let me off that easily. Announcements about the fate of flight JTA961 were indeed made at 5-minute intervals, which kept me on the edge of my seat trying to decipher the near-incomprehensible politeness (o-kyaku-sama ni go-annai wo mooshiagemasu...), but in the end boarding started on schedule and we walked across the tarmac to the waiting plane.
NU 961 ISG-OGN B737-400 seat 5K
I now had the pleasure of adding Japan Transocean Air (JTA) to my collection of airlines flown, although it was kind of anticlimactic to fly to the Lost Continent of Mu on a bog-standard 737, and one slightly peeling at the edges at that. Unlike ANK, Okinawa-based JTA still retains some of its own identity with its own IATA code NU, planes in non-JAL livery (although the typeface matches JAL's) and crew in funky tropical fish outfits too. The inflight catalog offered "Drunken Shiisa" T-shirts showing inebriated Okinawan guardian lions, and the passengers on board -- again perhaps 60-70% full -- seemed to consist of equal parts grizzled locals and visiting divers. (Families with kids and lovey-dovey couples, both much in evidence on the NGO-ISG flight, were notably absent.)
The hop was only 30 minutes and, while the seatbelt sign was duly switched off after ascent, an announcement was made to the effect of telling everybody to stay in their seat because we'd be down soon enough anyway. (Incidentally, pre-takeoff a stewardess dropped by to check if I understood Japanese, and was relieved to hear that I did and she didn't have to stammer her way through the safety demo in English. No such niceties on ANK earlier...) The weather didn't seem particularly bad, no turbulence or anything, but cloud cover was fairly dense and I suppose descents to OGN are always VFR...?
Once again, touchdown was smooth, braking was sharp and this time my bags took their own sweet time to arrive -- but I managed to catch up with the Yonaguni Diving Service van and was ferried over to the minute port of Kubura, on the west coast a stone's throw from the Westernmost Point of Japan (duly marked with a rock saying so).
I was in luck: partly to accommodate my wishes, the afternoon's dive would be to the ruins, and after a fairly scary explanation of how diving in Yonaguni works (watch out for currents, watch out for heavy waves, watch out for the drifting ship and its propellers, watch out out for...) and simple but tasty lunch it was time to clamber on board the YDS III and head out. There were still no guarantees, we were told, but we would try our luck and turn around if the currents or waves were too heavy to deal with; this would, more likely than not, also be our last chance as the forecast was predicting southernly winds starting the next day. There were around 10 divers and 3 divemasters to shepherd them, and after a fairly choppy 20-minute haul out to sea (including a manta sighting along the way) the boat stopped, the captain gave a thumbs-up sign and we giant-stepped off the boat and descended to 15 meters in good order.
In front of us was one edge of a rectangular platform, 100 by 50 meters wide and up to 25 meters tall, and after settling down we ceremonially entered the site via a short dip through a tunnel/gateway. Our tour took us through the Two-Layer Rock (two perfectly rectangular rocks seeming poking out of the structure), the stepped Main Terrace, the Turtle Statue (a star-shaped platform)... but the current was swift and there was little chance to sit around and explore, quite a bit of effort and attention had to be expended on just keeping one's balance and I had the additional hassle of dealing with my camera. Nearer to the top of the structure (~5m) there was also a fair bit of wave action and the DMs were kept busy keeping everybody in a compact three-dimensional pile.
My entirely amateur verdict: it scarcely seems believable that the entire site could be just a geological formation, there are just too many perfect right angles and seeming purposeful structures, and it all stands in rather sharp contrast to the ordinary rounded rocks around the site. Indeed, some Japanese archaeologists have found what they believe to be signs of the use of tools, including regular series of holes carved into the rock. The question of what the site is or was used for however, may well remain a mystery: there is little if any sign of ornamentation, writing or much anything that could help track down the site's provenance, although some markings that resemble Yonaguni's indigenous ''kaidaa'' writing system have been discovered.
The evening was spent in the company of a bottle of the local Yonagunian 60% firewater, known as hanazake, and it turned out that with a mere 30 dives to my name I was still an amateur here; most everybody else was over 100 and one grizzled veteran, Jacques Cousteau's identical Japanese twin minus the red hat, had clocked up over 800. I limited myself to the polite minimum of hanazake intake and, unlike a few of the previous night's champions, was up the next day in time for breakfast at 8.
The next morning's first dive was deemed too challenging for little old me and I ended up going on a private dive to the Swiss cheese-like caverns of Daiyati on the southern coast, not too far from the ruins. Sure, I've gone through an arch before, but this was something else -- there seemed to be nothing but hole after hole after hole! My buoyancy control was fine enough when moving through, but stopping to examine something with a flashlight was harder, esp. when down below 25m. But my DM Nishimoto-san had obviously been here before and finished the dive off with a triple loop through what I later learned was known as the Light Palace; a shame it wasn't sunny that day.
I declared my diving done for the day, leaving the hammerheads for next time (it's getting late in the season for them anyway), and set off on foot to nearby Irizaki Cape, the westernmost point of Japan. You know you've reached the end of Japan when not only was there nobody else there, but there wasn't even a vending machine! The extent to which weather affects your perceptions of a place is interesting: after two warm and sunny days on Ishigaki and two rather chilly and rainy ones here, I think I'll now have a lasting impression of Yonaguni as a perennially cloudy and somewhat gloomy rocky outcrop, located seemingly somewhere off the coast of Scotland instead of just 77 miles away from shiny happy Ishigaki. Let's see how my next destination Iriomote turns out...
For dinner we were treated to sashimi courtesy of a lucky fisherman, and for the evening the diving crew again congregated around the lounge and a 1.5L bottle of awamori, the normal Okinawan tipple which is a mere 30 volts. The evening's highlight was an excruciatingly detailed (and funny) description of the One Right Way to prepare Sanuki udon, courtesy of an older gentleman from Shikoku who obviously knew his noodles, not to mention precisely the right hand motions and sound effects for every step of the process:
- And then you take the dough and stretch it like this. Zugu-zugu.
- That's right. Zugu-zugu. And when you've stretched it, you slap it on a cutting board. Botan!
- No! Bo-TAN! It has to be slapped down. Then you take a knife and starting chopping the dough into noodles, no more than 5 mm thick. Choko-choko-choko...
And no, I'm not being sarcastic, it really was side-splittingly hilarious and the guy should be performing rakugo comedy somewhere. Then again, I suppose the awamori helped...
The next day I settled the bill (I'm trying very hard not to think about it in non-yen terms) and headed to the airport. Yonaguni Airport was obviously experiencing its most exciting moment in a long time when a putative terrorist attempted to smuggle an aerosol can through security, and the granny manning the checkpoint had to pitter-patter out to the office to dust off the (not very) Big Book of Confiscated Items. A few bottles of hanazake secreted inside my suitcase tipped the scale to 20.2 kg, earning it a "Heavy" tag but not a word out of the staff. This time the boarding card was not one of the standardized automated printouts, but instead a big red hand-stamped and hand-stickered card telling me to, among other things, "feel the southern breeze" like the Hawaiian T-shirt flapping on a clothesline in its illustration. Based on the waves in Kubura harbor earlier I was wondering if "feel the southern gale-force wind" might be a more apt name, but fortunately the weather wasn't quite bad enough to affect the flight schedule.
Thanks for the report! You brought back memories of the Ishigaki/Iriomote/Taketomi trip I did in September 2001. It was great fun staying in cheap pensions/ minshuku and hanging out with fellow travelers and local residents. Ishigaki is rather grim near the port and airport, but it's beautiful once you get around to the other side, isn't it? There were very few tourists on Iriomote when I was there and I ended up booking a private day-long snorkel trip for some ridiculously cheap amount.... (Okinawan tourism was hurting pretty badly at the time as many Japanese nationals wanted to avoid being anywhere near a US base immediately post-9/11.)
Unfortunately, last I heard someone was putting up a big resort hotel on Iriomote right behind the pension where I stayed. Guess you can't stop "progress".
Thanks for your fascinating report. I found it useful as I will be heading to Expo.05 myself in two weeks' time. I'll take the Nozomi from Tokyo to Nagoya and would be happy to get instructions on how to proceed from there to the Expo site?
Just got back yesterday so I have a ton of information. While in the end we decided not to go to Expo (we were staying in Gifu rather than Nagoya) I did pick up a leaflet that outlined 3 travel options from the Nagoya station. If you're interested, I can bring fax them to you, or can just tease out the information and post here.
Also unhappy...since our flight originated in Chicago seems like we are ineliglbe for United's SF - NGO double points (because the ticket doesn't list SF as a stopover)~ There are times I really hate United and its silly policies.
There's a reason I keeping linking to Wikitravel's Expo 2005 page, and that's because it (hopefully) answers all your practical questions. In your case, the easiest way of getting to the site is the Expo Shuttle train and transfer to bus/LINIMO at the other end. There are insane amounts of volunteers, guides and baton-wavers-at-large in Nagoya and at the site so just ask if you ever feel even remotely confused...
Soon enough the daily 737 landed at OGN and the same plane I two days ago called "bog-standard" now appeared downright majestic, being somewhat larger in size than the airport itself. I was more than mildly surprised to see a phalanx of besuited salarymen emerge from the plane, following in short order by a flag-waving tour group; did they get on the wrong plane by accident?! But boarding was on schedule and the flight was utterly uneventful, my window seat was on the wrong side too so there was no scenery to speak of.
I had originally planned (and even booked) the afternoon flight on Ryukyu Air Commuter's Dash-7 instead, but as I'd let my earlier reservation lapse it had filled up and was showing all full at the airport ticket counter. I didn't really mind though: with 24 hours since my last dive I was in the clear, and quite frankly there is nothing at all to do on Yonaguni, other than dive...!
We landed at ISG on schedule, my bag was out quickly this time and I hopped on the bus to the port. Dump bag in storage, quick mail check (and post to FT!), wolf down a bitter gourd omelette (better than it sounds), buy tickets for the next ferry to Iriomote, call to diving shop to confirm, and then 35 minutes of zippy hovercraftiness aboard Anei Kanko's boat to Ohara, on the east (wrong) side of the island. The north wind was back and all direct services to the north coast were halted, so instead pax were bussed from Ohara to their final destinations, in my case Diving Team Unarizaki's shop on the northwestern peninsula.
Iriomote is the largest of the Yaeyamas in size and its second biggest by population (all of 2000), but the island has no airport nor any plans for one. 90% of the island is jungle, with the occasional miniature version of the Amazon River slithering into the mangroves, and I couldn't help but agree with the overhead conversation from behind me:
- It's so big.
- Much bigger than I thought.
- And I'm not sure if we came to the sea or to the mountains.
I dived twice on Iriomote as well, but the underwater scenery of corals and tropical fish seemed downright tame after Yonaguni. I can't say the same for the aboveground parts though: 90% of the island is pristine subtropical jungle, and the roadless southern coast houses only a few tiny isolated fishing villages amidst rich green mountains, soaring cliffs and tiny white sand beaches. The next day's sightseeing cruise down the Urauchi River was equally if not more impressive, in the stillness of morning the mountains faded into the mist like a ink painting and the mangroves were mirrored on the smooth surface of the water. After a 8-km cruise down is a well-trod jungle trail to the waterfalls of Mariyudu and Kanpiree, the weather had improved to sunshine with scattered clouds and I even got sunburned a little for my trouble.
In the afternoon I took the ferry back to Ishigaki, this time direct from Funaura (bouncy-bouncy-bouncy!) and crashed at good old Rakutenya again. While out on town I ran into two ladies from Yonaguni's dive shop -- or, rather, they ran into me -- but I failed to capitalize on the opportunity and invite them out for dinner, so instead I ended up eating a lonely taco rice and going to bed early. Sigh.
On next morning's schedule was a very brief visit to one final Yaeyaman island, the pint-sized paradise of Taketomi (pop. 300, area 5 sq.km.), only 10 minutes from Ishigaki by speedboat. No airports here either, although there is a heliport reserved for medical emergencies (such as acute thickness of the wallet) instead. The island is known for two things: the carefully preserved Ryukyu village in the center, and the vast pure white expanse of Kondoi Beach on the west coast. The village really is quite remarkable especially by Japanese standards, where most all villages and town have turned into identical warrens of concrete and power cables: in Taketomi, almost every house has the Okinawan red clay roof and is surrounded by a rock wall (ishigaki) and rows of flowers, the lanes between them are mostly unpaved white sand and most tourists tour the island on carts pulled by water buffaloes. Only a few easily ignored concrete monstrosities crept in before the code was imposed, and on a sunny spring day like today it was almost impossibly picturesque -- I burned up megapixels like mad.
After two hours or so it was time to head back for one last splurge, namely a meal of Ishigaki beef. Like their neighbors the Taiwanese, the Okinawans are a pork-loving lot and I'd been quite surprised to see so many cows on all the islands I'd been to, so now I succumbed to my carnivorous urges and sank my teeth into a chunk of one. As you might expect the stuff is insanely expensive, a decent steak usually costing upwards of Y5000, but I located an almost-reasonable Y2500 lunch set where you can grill your own. And hot damn, was it good, mouth-meltingly juicy but not obscenely fatty and oily like some wagyu I've eaten. Two thumbs up -- and Ishigakijima Kuro Beer is also a distinct cut above the fairly tasteless standard Orion beer.
And that was it, now there was nothing left to do but to head to the airport. ISG's ANA wing was positively packed with two flights departing in close succession, and alas, being a Star Gold at ISG gets you precisely nothing. I sat on the plastic seats in the gate lounge and moped.
Glad to hear you made it to (and enjoyed) Iriomote and Taketomi. I had the same experience you did trying to get to Iriomote; ended up detouring to Ohara, but being able to go back from Funaura. So I guess the wind issues are quite common.
There are also places on Iriomote offering kayak tours that take you through mangroves upriver to various waterfalls. I did one of these, and on the way back, since the tide had gone out, we were able to walk around on the mud flats and check out the mangroves and various little critters up close. Pretty cool. The guide was originally from Hokkaido, while the owner of the pension I stayed at (and his friend who ran the dive/snorkeling shop) were originally from Yokohama... I wonder how many people who are born there actually stay.
I actually spent two nights on Taketomi, which is recommended only if you have a high tolerance for doing absolutely nothing (after a few days of kayaking, snorkeling and bike riding on Iriomote, I was happy to kick back!). The scenery is gorgeous on a sunny day, as you mentioned. At the minshuku where I stayed, I met a guy from Tokyo who visits Taketomi some ridiculous number of times a year.... it's nice, but there are other places in Japan I'd like to check out as well.
My flight out was on a B737 very much like the one that brought me in, except that this Super Dolphin was still in ANK livery. The plane load was decent but not quite full, around 80%, and the window seat I'd requested turned out to offer only great views of the wall next to me. Oh well, for 50 minutes I didn't really mind, I snarfed down an apple juice and contemplated the award possibilities of ANA's route network. It's awfully thin down south, only covering the Big 3 of Ishigaki, Miyako and Naha, and not a single destination in the archipelago between Kagoshima and Naha. Up north, however, the story changes thanks to Hokkaido Air Commuter's services to places like Rishiri and Nemuro-Memanbetsu. And the Goto Islands off the north coast of Kyushu also sound suitably obscure for an award... but where's the fun in a single transfer at Fukuoka?
Okinawa Naha (OKA)
Landing was smooth and we yet again taxied out to the middle of nowhere for a bus transfer out. The bus stopped on its way to drop 2 passengers directly at their gate, then deposited the rest in the terminal. Okinawa's airport, or at least the little I saw of it, looks pretty good: big, airy, somewhat nondescript but clearly signposted with the ANA and JAL camps sequestered in their own wings as usual. I bounded up the stairs and quickly found the ANA Signet lounge, and when I enquired about Internet possibilities I was handed a cable and led to the Business Corner. But closer examination showed that the cable was a 4-pin RJ-11 (telephone), not 8-pin RJ-45 (Ethernet), and closer cross-examination of the poor lounge attendant confirmed my fears that indeed, this was only for dialup to your own ISP and the lounge had no wireless either! And the signal from the duty free shop next door was encrypted to boot. Oh, woe is me... the lounge looked so identical to the ones in Chubu and Narita that I had to triple-check to make sure the connection really was for telephones only. I drowned my sorrows in a glass of ginger ale and a packet of mixed nuts (cold), then with time up headed to the gate.
ANA 130 OKA-HND B747-400 seat 83K
Now there's a seat number you don't see every day! Fortunately, in Japan "row 83" does not mean in the cargo hold, but the 2nd floor of a Jumbo -- only my second time in recent memory to enter this hallowed space. The last time was also on ANA economy class, in the Pokemon Jet from HND to Sapporo (CTS), complete with stewardesses holding big yellow Pikachu toys as they welcomed you on board, and this time too the Pokemon Jet was waiting for me at Naha... but, alas, it was the next departure after mine, and my Jumbo was the non-Pokemon kind, now a "real" ANA plane instead of ANK in disguise.
Finding my gate was easy enough, as it was the one with 500+ Japanese milling around it. The two questions that instantly came to mind were a) how on earth can they fit that many people into a steel tube, and b) do it in less than 15 minutes? But it turned out that load was once again hovering around 80% (so perhaps a mere 400 were squished on board) and the plane pushed off from the gate on schedule. Thanks to the magic gold card I was among the first upstairs, the stewardess came up to welcome me in English with an exciting selection of Japan Today and Time, but I meanly squashed her hopes by asking for a Nikkei instead. (Actually, I prefer Yomiuri, but I'd already flipped through that on the earlier flight.) Her eyes widened beneath the makeup but, this being Japan, she quickly obliged with a burst of keigo politesse.
Soon enough with a hop, skip and jump the Jumbo shuddered to the skies, and a baleful announcement was made to the effect that turbulence was expected and the seatbelt sign would stay turned on. There is, as I type this, an unearthly silence here in the upper cabin, but only jitters of anxiety so far... but the turbulence failed to materialize, the seatbelt sign bonged off and the by now routine drink service started.
After an uneventful flight the plane started its descent and we were treated to a scenic view of the Tokyo Bay Aqualine, a mindboggling multitrillion-yen boondoggle that involves 5 km of bridge and 10 km of tunnel, connecting Chiba to the Kanagawa coast past Yokohama. One-way tolls start at Y3000 and unsurprisingly pretty much nobody uses the thing, but it looks pretty impressive from high up!