TelTell Tohoku Tour – Visiting Tsunami aftermath – Kesennuma

TELTELL東北ツアー

After a week in sub-tropical Okinawa, we headed back to Tokyo. It was as if winter has come back. Cherry blossoms were half way in bloom but the cold and rain have almost washed the flowers away. We were freezing in Tokyo; and we were supposed to visit an even colder climate.

Last half of our trip in Japan will be spent with R Systems, a startup from Kobe, and Tasukeai Japan, an nonprofit to support those who affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake from March 11, 2011. Just like Okinawa, I was with Cali and John. Journalist Taro Matsumura joined us too.

R Systems developed a translation app named TelTell Concierge.  It uses Apple’s Facetime to connect user with an operator, who is fluent in the language you need help with.

One of the services I offer in my line of work is Japanese – English translation.  I KNOW machine translation like Google Translate has its limit and I am a firm believer of human/contextual translation. So I am very picky when it comes to translation, and I was curious to check out this app.

TelTell Demo

After the product demo,  I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. Since the testers were John and Cali – from Dallas – we only used English/Japanese translation, but Chinese, Korean and Sign Language are also available. (Spanish and Portuguese are coming soon.) All the operators we saw spoke in nearly perfect Japanese and English. I was particularly impressed with the operators’ use of Keigo (polite form of Japanese.) They really are at our service. Like the name implies, TelTell Concierge has a lot of potential to serve not only as a translator, but also as a tour guide, information provider, and more.

Along with TelTell app, with help from Tasukeai Japan, we headed to Tohoku(Notrheast) area of Japan, also known as Hisaichi(Disaster affected area). We headed to Ichinoseki by Shinkansen (Bullet Train) and drove down south through Miyagi prefecture.

You can learn more about the app and how it worked on John and Cali’s Geekbeat. TV (they will be uploading bunch of videos), but let me write more about Tohoku.

It’s been two years since the disaster, yet as of March 15, 2013, still the number of evacuees (people who moved to a different area, or people who is living in temporary housing) is over 313,000. Total casualties amounts to 15,882.

I met Yuuki Noda of Tasukeai Japan few months after 311 on Twitter. I saw his tweet looking for an English speaking volunteer. Tasukeai means “Helping Each Other” in Japanese. Coincidentally, Yuuki and I are both from same town (Sasebo, Nagasaki). We’ve kept in touch ever since. When I was in Japan last year for ANA brand ambassador tour, he came to see me for breakfast. I got to introduce him to Cali and John, and although we didn’t have time to make a spontaneous trip up to Tohoku at that time, this year, it finally came true.

I woke up to snow in Ichinoseki. Just the couple nights before, I was sweating in Okianawa heat. What a difference.

Here’s a quick clip from the morning.

Our first stop was Kesennuma. You might have seen this giant fishing vessel, Dai 18 Kyotoku Maru that got swept up one kilometer ashore.

Kesennuma

 It’s one thing to see it on TV, another to see it yourself. The bus took us where the ship is, and all of us were just silent. I was speechless in front of the tremendous power of mother nature that pushed this ship ashore.

car under the shipIf you look closely, you can see this is a car crushed under the ship.

shrineThere were still a lot of flowers and paper cranes at this memorial by the ship. There is a movement to keep this ship as a memorial/museum of the tsunami, however for some people, this ship is a sad reminder of the disaster.

Yataimura

Kesennuma is a well known fishing port. The port was pretty much destroyed, but there are people recovering from damage. We visited Fukko Yatai Village Kesennuma Yokocho – temporary market.

Tairyomaru

Here, John and Cali interviewed Sachie-san, owner of restaurant Tairyomaru, using the TelTell app. She told us that she had just stepped outside an elevator at her work when the earthquake hit, and after the tsunami, she couldn’t find her family for 3 days. Despite all the hardship, she is now running a small restaurant in the temporary market – “Because people got to eat!” She was such a lovely person. One thing she said that made a big impression for me is that she was “Just grateful to be alive.” She encourages everyone to come visit her at her restaurant!!

Sachie san

After the interview I bought some stickers for my son. This is the character of Kesennuma, Hoya Boya. (You know Japanese people LOVE cute characters and nearly every city and products have a character made for them.) Hoya is a sea creature and Boya is a Japanese word for “little boy”. He wears a scallop on his belt and his sword is a saury. Isn’t he adorable?!

Hoya boya

We left the temporary market with a little lighter mood that people are positive here. Our next stop is Minami Sanriku.

…To be continued.

Hoshinoya Taketomi – Stay as if you are living there (Okinawa Part 6)

(This is my last post for #ANAOkinawa tour. You can see all the previous posts here.)

In Taketomi island, we stayed at this amazing resort called Hoshinoya Taketomi-jima.

Hoshinoya Entrance

Upon check-in, we were welcomed with lovely tea and sweets.

Hoshinoya tea

As soon as you arrive, you’ll notice the pace here is a lot slower, and relaxed.

Cali and Neal upon check-in

Hoshinoya is one of the 6 types of resorts Hoshino Resort, well known high end resort chain produces.

Hoshinoya villas

As I mentioned in the last post, there are strict rules on building anything new in Taketomi island. All 48 villas and other buildings in Hoshinoya Taketomi is built in traditional Taketomi style, with limestone fences, Hinpun, and red tiled roof. The resort blends in with the rest of the island.

Each one of us got our own villa to stay. See my excited reaction when I entered my villa.

I loved the fact that I was given an actual key, unlike a card you get at most hotels these days. The villa is equipped with a pair of flip flops, an umbrella for sudden rain showers, and a flashlight for your evening stroll. There are small towels in a basket by sliding door entrances so you can clean your feet. They even provide cute little carry bags for your keys, cell phone etc when you go for a walk. The attention to details is everywhere. 

The decor of the room and entire resort is simple, yet breathtakingly beautiful. It was pretty hot and humid when we were there (27c/80F), but the way each villa is built allows plenty of breeze to come through the room.

Hoshinoya tub

Resort staff move gracefully and although their customer service is top notch, they never seem to be rushed. Time seems to pass slower in this village.

Hoshinoya PoolThere is a beautiful pool in the center of the property. The bottom of the pool is painted in dark color because this is modeled after a well in a village.

Hoshinoya Pool 2View of the pool from the lounge at sunrise.

Hoshinoya PathStreets in Taketomi islands are covered with white coral sands. This is so that it reflects moonlight in the evening, when poisonous Habu snakes come out. It makes it easy for us to spot them. I was told that most people in Taketomi go outside after late afternoon in summertime in order to avoid blazing sun.

Hoshinoya Juice bar

We enjoyed wonderful local Okinawan cuisine while at Hoshinoya. Every morning they served different fresh juices. My favourite was Watermelon and Hot pepper juice.

Hoshinoya Lounge

I loved this lounge/bar/library/gift shop with the view of the pool. Here’s me having Okinawa’s own Orion beer.

Yukari at Hoshinoya Lounge

You can rent a bike and explore the island, or take a short bus tour to see the sunset. Taketomi island is such a gem – as Hoshinoya brochure states, the island itself is a museum.

I saw several families at Hoshinoya. Although it is a very sophisticated resort, I like that staff were very friendly with everyone including children. I would love to go back there with my family next time. I cannot recommend Hoshinoya Taketomi highly enough. I urge you to stay there.

Thank you, All Nippon Airways, Okinawa Tourism and Convention Bureau, and of course, Hoshinoya Taketomi for the amazing trip. I will be back for sure.

Land of mythology (Okinawa Part 5)

gajumaru

(This is part of my #ANAOkinawa travel log; you can read all the previous posts here.)

I fell in love with Okinawan culture. I’m not a religious person, but Okinawa’s ancestor and nature worship struck a chord with me. As a Japanese, I was taught to always respect my elders and ancestors. And who can disrespect nature? Gajumaru(Banyan), Deigo, Mangroves. Gorgeous blue ocean. It seems like such a simple idea, but when you are in Okinawa and surrounded by magnificent nature, you cannot help but feel awestruck.

Shisa statue

There are lots of mythology in Okinawan daily life. You’ll see Shisa dogs everywhere. They are to ward off evil spirits. Sounds like there are opposing stories (just like in any other mythology), but I was told the one with open mouth is male and it’s warding off evil spirits, and closed mouth one is female, who is catching good luck and not letting go.  In fact I bought a pair of mini Shisas for myself.

Shisa on the roof

Most houses have a Shisa on the roof.

Hinpun

Also I was fascinated with Hinpun entrance wall. Traditional Okinawan houses will have limestone fences around the house. And they always have another small wall in the center entrance. This wall is called Hinpun, and I saw this architectural detail in modern looking houses (e.g. concrete fence) too. Hinpun’s roles are twofold. 1) For privacy. 2) Again, to ward off evil spirits.  It’s believed that evil spirits travel in straight lines and cannot turn corners, so there are many of these “T-junctions” to stop them from entering into your house.

When you enter a residence with Hinpun, you should always take the left side path. Right side path is reserved for Good luck, or “God”. Fascinating.

We’ve also seen several sacred sites. There are many “Utaki”-sacred sites- in Okinawa. We went to see one of the biggest Utaki in Okinawa, Sefa Utaki, which is a UNESCO World Heritage SIte.  Although I cannot show you the photos as I don’t have the permission, it was magnificent.. There are picturesque and mysterious rock formations in a sub tropical forrest. (You can see a photo in this Wikipedia entry)

Obviously, hundreds of years ago someone felt a strong inspiration and deemed the place as a sacred site. I cannot help but wonder what sort of sacred rituals were performed at the very place, some 500 years ago.

Read the next post: Hoshinoya Taketomi – Stay as if you are living there (Okinawa Part 6)

Or jump to the list of all the Okinawa posts: #ANAOkinawa Travel Log

Taketomi Island – A gem that takes you back in time (Okinawa Part 4)

Postbox

(This is part of my #ANAOkinawa travel log; you can read all the previous posts here.)

After few days in Okinawa main island, we flew to Ishigaki island(with a brand new airport!), and then took a 10 minute ferry ride to Taketomi Island.

Cali Rides a Boat (Photo Credit: John. P.)

Taketomi is a small island of 6 kmwith population around 350. Taketomi was designated as a National Important Preservation District for Groups of Historic Buildings in 1987. Residents of Taketomi are committed to preserving the lifestyles and culture that is unique to the island. There are strict regulations on building new buildings, so you cannot just move or buy a property there.

House on Taketomi Island

Once we arrived, we were taken to the resort by bus. I saw some water buffalos grazing! Our guide said they were the water buffalos that pull tourists carts in the village during the day. After work, they are free to loam around.

Water Buffalo

The next day we got to go on a village tour on the water buffalo cart.

Water Buffalo Cart Station in Taketomi Island

Our buffalo’s name was “Nacchan” – she is around 36 in human age. We had an amazing guide leading the tour for us. He said water buffalos are smart animals and after once or twice, they learn how to get around the village with appropriate stops. These cart tours are one of the main tourists attractions on Taketomi island, and with narrow streets, water buffalos have right of way! If you come across one of these carts, you will have to turn around or wait for it to pass.

Water Buffalo cart

Here’s a quick clip of this guide singing traditional Taketomi song with his own Sanshin lute! (Everybody’s looking up because the song lyrics are on the ceiling)

Here’s me with Nacchan. See a hibiscus on one of her horns? Adorable!

Nacchan and me

After the tour we got to walk around the village. All the houses were surrounded by amazing limestone walls. The walls are hand stacked. There are tropical flowers everywhere. You do not see convenience stores or shopping malls. There are no building taller than two stories. You feel like as if you have traveled back in time some 30 years or so. It’s beautiful.

Taketomi street

Fellow ambassador, Neal and I climbed up to the village’s lookout. It wasn’t very high, but you could see the whole village from there. It was windy and shaky as it was shot on my iPhone, bur have a look;

Neal and I also enjoyed some snorkelling the next day too. It was my first time snorkelling, and the underwater world was a-mazing! We saw some beautiful coral reefs, and a sea snake too.

taketomi ocean

BellSpecial Thanks to Okinawa Convention and Visitors Bureau for their amazing hospitality. The Okinawa travel log continues.

Read the next post: Land of mythology (Okinawa Part 5)

Or jump to the list of all the Okinawa posts: #ANAOkinawa Travel Log