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An alternative look at life in the Land of the Rising Sun, coming from its southernmost prefecture, the island of Okinawa.
Posted By Dave on July 8th, 2014

http://www.biginjapan.co/biginjapan/getting-healthy-in-leeds-with-v-physique-body-by-design/

Those who have known me a while will know that I just about kept my body shape in control (mainly in Okinawa through sweating generally due to the heat and humidity) or because of walking so much with my car dying.  It definitely wasn’t due to exercise though!  But after a couple of months of being back in England […]

 

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Heading Up To Mainland

Posted By Dave on September 13th, 2011

It’s been quite a while since I went up to mainland Japan on a toursity trip, but I’m going to be making the couple of hour flight up there next month as I head to Kyushu for the first time.  Decided to get away from the car which seems to be stumbling from issue to issue at the moment (the latest is an cause-unknown crack from the top of the windscreen), and this will be just what I need.

Technically I have been in Kyushu before but it was only for a couple of hours before I got a flight back to Okianwa.  This time though it’s going to be a long weekend there, taking in the sights of Northern Kyushu, including Kumamoto, Beppu and Fukuoka.  On a personal level I’m looking forward go going to Beppu.  It’s one of the onsen (hot springs) highlights of Japan and I love going to them.  One of my best memories in Japan was about 6 years ago when I was in Hokkaido.  The temperature was about -5 with the snow falling and I was sat outside in a hot spa at night.  Really relaxing stuff.  Hoping for similar relaxation this time too.

A bonus will be a festival of some sorts taking place that weekend.  No doubt because it is a Japanese public holiday on the Monday it’s going to be absolutely packed up there, but I’ll try and fight my way through the crowds and take some good pictures.

Should hopefully be catching up with a couple of friends too, and travelling is always better with someone.  A big group is difficult, as you usually have to compromise a lot to please everyone, but travelling on your own means you can’t share the things you see and do with anyone.

And that’s about it for now.  When I get back I’ll be posting up some photos and reports on the things to see and places to go in Northern Kyushu

Preparing students for speech & debate contests

Posted By Dave on March 12th, 2009

Am experiencing a tiny bit of writers block today.  Might be partially caused by the fact I thought I was going to die last night through illness.  Not really sure what happened there but I just got overcome by flu and was in bed by 6:30pm.  I must be getting old.

Looking through some of my old posts for inspiration and I saw this one which might help a few people out there.  Aside from teaching classes at my senior high school in Japan, one of my biggest roles is preparing students for English language speech contests and debate contests.  I’ve had 5 years experience of doing this now and like to think I know one or two things about it.  So I thought I’d share some ideas with you and hopefully it will help some of you teachers and your students a little further down the line.  This guide is catered more towards Japanese senior high schools, but I think a lot of the information is universal.

  • Stress the importance of these to students at the SHS level (tears and celebrations if they win, tears if they lose – tears will flow no matter how your students do!)
  • Also the importance of contests to the school cannot be underestimated (i.e. expectations placed by teachers & principal on you.  Being told that you are expected to make your students succeed).  I remember I was once told by an incoming principal that he expected me to give the students the knowledge and ability so they can win the forthcoming debate contest.

Writing a speech

  • Don’t write your students’ speeches for them.  It has been known to happen and is very transparent to native speakers.  Let your students compete on their own merit.  This can be harder to do at less academic schools when pressure is being placed on you, but the aim of these contests is to test the students’ English ability… not yours.
  • Speeches often submitted to ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers) after the deadline for making changes.  Bad move!  You must find out when the contests are and be involved from the first step.  Then you can have most influence.  Get yourself involved in the preparatio process early on, noting down important dates and deadlines.
  • At SHS level, a lot of speeches talk about family/friends etc.  Speeches on these topics can be good and interesting to hear, but rarely win prefectural speech contests.  In order to challenge for the winner’s trophy, they must have strong links to something outside the students’ own lives.  If your students show judges that they have a knowledge of life outside their own town, it makes them much more impressed.  Stories about their own experiences are good, but they should be used to support the main message of the speech.
  • Linked to this is that the speech has to be interesting to the audience.  While the student may be interested in their exploits at the school’s tennis club and how it helped them to realise that friends are important, the audience lost interest towards the end of the introduction.  The first paragraph has to grip the audience and make them want to listen to the rest of the speech.
  • Correct speeches, but positive reinforcement is the key with SHS students, as they lose confidence very easily.  Always give them positive reinforcement, even if their speech is awful.  Tell them what you really liked before going onto corrections.  This is a process I go through in all my classes.  I will always try to focus on the good points first, even if they are hard to find.  Doing so gives the student confidence and makes them a little more comfortable when listening to things they can improve upon.

Preparing to give a speech

  • Preparation is the key, and lots of it.  Be prepared to spend time after school with students, but as ALTs you shouldn’t feel forced into working hours you don’t have to, if you have other important plans.  Bear in mind though that the students will be cancelling their own plans so they can receive guidance and advice from you, so try to be there when they need you.
  • Someone once said a speech is 20% what you say, and 80% how you say it.  The J.F. Kennedy “Ich bin ein Berliner” is an urban legend, but it can be used to get the point across.  Tell your students that they should speak with complete confidence.  If they believe what they are saying, the audience will believe it too.  That’s not to say you should neglect the contents, but that the winner of the speech contests is usually the person who appears confident and gets their point across well; not the person with the best speech.
  • With this in mind, there is something you can do in classes to help students with their spoken English.  Try to create an atmosphere where the students aren’t afraid of making mistakes.  In a number of my classes, I’ll ask students a question and they’ll talk to their friend for a good minute about whether they should say “I ride bicycle to Naha” or “I ride my bicycle to Naha”.  The truth is that it doesn’t matter!  Make corrections, but don’t criticize everything the student does or they will just lose confidence and interest in English.  We’re trying to inspire them to use English whenever they can… not scare them into silence with a fear of not being perfect.  When we get to speech contests, their grammar has to be excellent, but it all starts in the classroom.
  • Pronunciation is an important aspect of speech contests.  At SHS, the speech contest students shouldn’t be using katakana English (“Mai neemu izzu Deibiddo Uebu”) to start with.  If they are, drum it out of them.  Accent is unimportant – it doesn’t matter if they speak with an English, American, Australian, Indian or Scottish accent – if what they say is comprehensible then that is fine.  Make sure students annunciate though – the words should not be slurred together.
  • Commas, full stops etc.  The students use these, but are rarely sure of when or how they should be used.  You must show students how to use them (comma = 1 beat pause, full stop = 2 beat pause)
  • Body language.  From the start, have students practise to you standing up.  Shoulders need to be back and head held high.  Sounds simple, but must be emphasized and done over and over again until they do it subconsciously.  This is especially the case in Japan, where students are often very shy about making speeches in English (the origins of this probably go back to my previous point about being scare to make mistakes).
  • Gestures are linked with the above point.  Japanese speakers don’t use gestures generally, but Westerers do, and they will be expected to use them in their speech.  Promote the use of hands and arms during the speech, but movements should be subtle.  Don’t wave your hands around like you’re trying to achieve flight.
  • The Q&A section of a speech contest (when included) is invariably the part where the contest is won and lost.  A lot of this comes down to luck: some students will get seemingly simple questions about their writing; others will be asked very challenging ones.  But regardless of the questions, it does mean that students need a full understanding of what they are saying.  If they simply write their speech using their electronic dictionary and learn how to read it from you then they will come undone when they are asked about it.  Get your student ready for this part of the test by asking them increasingly more difficult questions about their speech as the contest approaches.  Again, give positive feedback and tell them where they can improve.
  • If you have time before the contest, concentrate on one particular issue each you meet with the students.  Then you are not giving them too much to think about and task-loading them.  If they can focus on one problem then they’ll cut it out by the next session, so you can move onto the next.
  • Speed.  Whether your students are taking part in a speech contest or debate contest, the speed of your speech is very important as they are working to time limits.  Try to get their speech flowing, but don’t have them speak too fast that you can’t take everything in.  In this year’s debate contest, a couple of teams seemed to have the tactic of giving their speeches so quickly that the other team couldn’t take it all in and had to ask them to repeat things, which consequently makes them look bad.  This is a possible tactic if you have strong speakers of English, but not one I’m a fan of personally.  For your speech and debate contests, try to get their speeches finishing with 15-20 seconds spare – that will give them a little extra time if they hesitate during the event.
  • When the contest is only 7 days away, your student should be almost ready.  Keep praising their speech and start to emphasize taking a break from it a couple of nights before the contest.  The mentality here is to work as hard as they can before the contest, which leads to stress and lower confidence.  Try to get them to relax and not work late into the evenings just before the contest.  You can enlist the students’ classmates to help you do this too.
  • On contest day.  If you’ve helped you’re student prepare for the contest since the start, then do try to attend.  It’s very possible your school will let you go to coach your student, but if the contest is held on a weekend then you should try to make the effort to keep that day free.  The students appreciate our attendance a lot more than we think.  Your role during this day is just to try and keep your student(s) calm and concentrating on their speech.  And to wish them luck before they go out and perform.  After the speeches, it’s either consoling a tearful student, or coping with a super-genki one jumping up and down around you.  Hopefully you’ll get to experience the latter.

Debate Contests

  • Same principles apply with giving the speech itself, but there are some differences in preparation techniques.
  • You will hopefully get information about debate topic before the summer vacation, so you can prepare well in advance.  As well as studying about the topic, many students will not be learning about the concepts of debate in their English classes, so these need to be introduced also.  You should also organise your debating teams as soon as you can, so the team can have time to work together and gel.  Some people try to put their strongest competitors all in one team, others try to even out their talent throughout their teams.  What your school does is up to you and your JTEs.
  • You will have to help your students do research, and often find articles for them.  On the whole, students find it difficult to conduct efficient searches on the internet for topics, especially in English.  In this situation though, you definitely cannot write the students’ speeches for them.  The students need an in-depth knowledge of what they are saying, otherwise they will have serious problems when it comes to the cross-examination.  Here, a good system of notes is vital.  The students need to be able to get information to answer questions quickly and without hesitation.
  • Play devil’s advocate with everything the students find.  Get them into the mindset of questioning every piece of evidence they find or hear.
  • Set up debates throughout the year and integrate them into your classes or clubs (International Club / English Club / Debate Club etc).  This is especially the case when the students don’t have specific Debate classes.  Don’t make debate a “once a year” event.  Constant practice will keep their skills honed.
  • Constructive speeches are the easiest part of debate – they can be prepared weeks or months in advance.  To win debates you need to be good at the cross examination and refutation.  Listening is key here – if you can’t understand what the other team is saying then you can’t refute it.  Listening and speaking practice is essential for this part of debate.  Give them exercises to do, or just go and have lunch in the students’ homerooms or the debate teams’ preparation rooms.  Talk to them about anything, but make sure you are giving them opportunity to listen and ask questions.
  • Have debates yourself with the students.  Initially, use bad supports and evidence and give them a good chance of defeating you.  But as you progress, use more advanced speeches and evidence.  Make sure you put pressure on your students in this debate – they have to be able to answer questions in this environment if they are going to succeed in debate.
  • Confidence and in some ways aggressiveness is very important here.  If students can ask questions in an aggressive but controlled manner and pressurize the other team, then they have an excellent chance of winning.  Again, it goes back to confidence and giving your students the belief that they can win every match.  If a student goes into a match thinking that they will lose, then that’s exactly what they’ll do.
  • Spoken English ability here is important (as we saw in this year’s debate contest), and the students who can speak the best English are invariably those who spent a year abroad.  This will put a number of schools at an immediate disadvantage if they haven’t got any students debating who have done this.  But if your student’s spoken English isn’t perfect, then don’t worry.  It’s more important to understand the facts and to be able to answer questions and make refutations effectively.  I’ve seen a number of students have excellent English skills, but whose debate skills leave a lot to be desired.

Well hopefully that has given you some pointers and you can use some of this information to help your students improve their English and prepare for these contests.  If you have any questions or other tips then leave a comment below or send them to me and I’ll post them up.

North Korea trip report online!

Posted By Dave on March 10th, 2009

http://www.biginjapan.co/biginjapan/north-korea-trip-report-online/

Those of you who frequented this site in its old incarnation may remember that about 18 months ago I posted up a detailed report of my 2005 trip to North Korea (aka DPRK or the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea).  Just as a side point, have you ever noticed that countries calling themselves the “Democratic…” are very rarely democracies?  Why is that?!  It’s these types of questions that demand answers and keep me up late at night.

Anyway, the review of my trip is back up so I wanted to direct you folks to it as it was one of the most enjoyable series of articles I have written for this site.  It was also received pretty well.  In addition to the report, my online gallery also has an album dedicated to this trip so be sure to check that out too.  And let me know if you have any questions about the country.  I’m no expert by any means but have done some reading about the country and will try to give you an answer if I can.

The trip report starts here.

My photo album from the trip is here.

North Korea: My holiday in a secret state (pt. 5)

Posted By Dave on August 17th, 2007

Well, after a 4 month hiatus, the fifth and final part of this rollercoaster journey through North Korea is here. With more excitement and adventures than a Harry Potter film, we return to the land of Kim Jong Il, The General!

If you recall, when I left you in part 4 of this travelogue, you’ll find me in traditional Korean accommodation with heated floor, lying on a futon and having a back massage from a North Korean masseuse (who was also possibly my waitress earlier in the evening), having previously eaten dog soup that night and lying 10km from the Demilitarized Zone. Even I’ve got to admit it’s going to have to be an eventful day to live up to that! But saying that, a series of events like nothing we could have imagined happened the following day, which made the trip become very interesting indeed. So without further ado, let’s get into it…

North Korea trip 2005The massage, while having more impact in it than I was expecting, was very relaxing. It wasn’t as painful as a Thai massage, but was certainly not like a Japanese one either. I gave the masseuse a tip in the form of some hand cream, which seemed to be appreciated. So I awoke the next morning with a bit of a stiff back, but that soon went away over breakfast. Our first port of call was the Kim Il Sung monument at the top of town, where we could take photos of the surrounding town and countryside. From here we headed off to the Koryo Museum, which showed pieces of history from up to 2,000 years ago, found in and around Kaesong. The museum was OK as far as things like that go, although I’m not so excited by seeing pieces of old pottery. Each to their own though. But as we left the museum shop, one of the museum staff said something to our guide, and she just flipped. She went white as a sheet and you could tell from her expression that something was seriously wrong. We were asked to get back onto the bus quickly and check our bags and belongings. Mine was present, but one of the other guys’ bag had gone. In his bag was money, travellers cheques and return airline tickets to the UK. Our guide was outside in tears, and if you think about it you can understand why. As I said before, the guides are completely responsible for us while we’re in the DPRK. If we do something wrong or something happens like this, it’s on the guide’s watch and they will ultimately take the cop for us. In this kind of situation, you could imagine that at the very least she would lose her job. Being in charge of a group who had been the victims of a theft in DPRK would most likely bring unthinkable consequences. The guy whose bag had been taken went out to comfort the guide, while the rest of us tried to work out what had happened.

North Korea trip 2005

We looked around and noticed that the bus driver had gone too. Suddenly it dawned on us that the driver may have done a runner with the bag. It all seemed to add up as our frustrations and conspiracy theories mounted, with us picturing him making a dash for the border with these UK-bound airline tickets and some travllers cheques. This continued for another 10 minutes before the police came and started looking for the culprit. But then the story took another turn: the bus driver appeared out of nowhere with the guy’s bag! The bag was intact but the money and some of the cigarettes had gone. We all got onto the bus and the real story unfolded. Apparently a 16-year old bit had climbed up onto the wheelarch, and snatched the bag from an open window. The bus driver had then taken chase and managed to catch him and get the bag back. Just to make the story even better, our German speaking guide then appeared round the corner, carrying the money… AND all the cigarettes!!! Everyone was stunned. The thief had been caught and taken away by police, and one suspects if he will reach his 17th birthday or not.

It turned out that 2 of the usual suspects had been taking photos of the police and everything that had been happening. Completely unnecessary; say what you like about freedoms, but we’re allowed into a country as guests and should be obeying their rules and wishes. So that delayed us for 15 minutes while it was confirmed that the guilty parties had deleted those particular photos. Once that had been done, we started off again, still a little shell-shocked at what had happened, and made our way to Panmunjon and the DMZ.

The DMZ, if you haven’t visited, is a strange place. It’s a 4km wide strip of land, dividing 2 countries which used to be one on the 38th parallel. It is the most heavily fortified border in the world, with North Korean forces on one side, and American-backed South Korean forces on the other, their guns constantly trained at each other. We were told that we should definitely ask if we wanted to take photos while in the DMZ, but all our requests were accepted. We travelled to the building where the armistice was signed in 1953 in Panmunjon (see photo below), and saw the obligatory photos of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung looking very leaderly! After looking around those buildings for a while, we headed to the border!

DCP_1081.JPG

When you’re in the DPRK, it is technically possible to go to South Korea, and vice versa. The reason for this are the 6 buildings which straddle the border. Three of them have blue rooms and are officially owned by the UN, the three buildings with white rooms are property of the DPRK. As you can see from the photo below, the border itself is only a small step of concrete. Take one step over the border from each side, and you’d better get ready for a shower of gunfire, as previous defectors may testify to. The soldiers on our side were surprisingly good humoured, smiling to us and acknowledging us if we did the same (this seemed to be a feature of our bus journeys too: we would frequently hang out of the window, school-trip-esque, wave and shout hello to people in Korean. Some of them looked horrified, some of them waved back and some tried to restrain smiles. One of the best cheers received was when one of the “road crossing women” tried but failed to restrain a smile as we all waved and smiled at her as the bus went by). We did notice that across the border on the South Korean side, there was a big pagoda where I believe people can stand so they can get a view into the Communist North. There was a tour group there at the time, which prompted us to wave at them all. Lots of pointing ensued from the people on the pagoda, as they probably thought “Why are white people there – have they been kidnapped? Are they spies?!”, and lots of laughing on our part.

North Korea trip 2005

We went into one of the blue buildings which has been used for UN talks in the past, and it’s an interesting feeling. There is a big table in the middle of the room; if you stand on one side of the table you’re in the DPRK, if you’re on the other you’re in South Korea. If you go from the North and start to go near the exit door to the South, you get a nasty look thrown your way! I was chatting with the lieutenant through the translator and it was all very good humoured – he was laughing and joking with us all the time. I was told by him that I look like David Beckham. Hey, I’m white and with blonde hair… similarity starts and ends there! Unless he was looking at a very grainy photo of the LA Galaxy star! He also asked jokingly if I wanted to join the Korean People’s Army! Yes, it was a joke – he wasn’t seriously trying to recruit me!!! It still felt a little eerie there though, knowing that a single gunshot or granade could easily start a full-on war in the Korean peninsula. And seeing the South Korean troops, looking across the border to the North, with their muscles clenched and arms like they were carrying a roll of carpet under each one, was certainly a sight.

North Korea trip 2005

Before we left I had a photo taken with the lieutenant, we gave our presents of cigarettes and chocolate and then drove away. As we drove back, we could see mined areas and anti-tank constructions. The road is very narrow and there are grids over huge pits. Large concrete blogs are positioned above the roadway to be dropped incase they need to block the road. Also, driving back you could spot tunnels going into mountains where, presumably, a lot of the military power of DPRK is located. You’d see a farm on a hillside, with a tunnel going into the hill next to it, and then about 400m away, a solitary guard watching over the area.

We had lunch back in Kaesong and then drove 40 minutes to the “concrete wall”, which was about 27km away. This was more impressive than it sounded, so please read on! It is an 8-10m high wall built, we were told, by South Korean and US forces just on their side of the military demarkation line (aka the border). It is rumoured to be hollow, and to contain US tanks and military vehicles (note no South Korean forces!), if a surprise attack on the DPRK was needed. There must have been hundreds of infantry and gun placements in the areas either side of this wall. We were able to see a number of them through some rather sizeable binoculars we were given at the observation post. I was talking to quite a few of the people there, and they all were saying that they wanted reunification with South Korea (a view shared by South Koreans I have talked to also), but if this happened one of the countries would be hit hard, both economically and socially. I personally think it would be the DPRK hit hardest, as East Germany was following the Berlin Wall’s demolition.

North Korea trip 2005We left the concrete wall with a new passenger: a lieutenant colonel who we agreed to give a ride to back to Kaesong. This guy was great – he had a beer with us and was singing Korean karaoke with us on the bus (we had learnt one or 2 songs just about by then). It was another one of those “Is this really happening” moments! After we dropped him off it was a 3-hour ride back to Pyongyang. It was another beautiful day, as they all had been since I arrived from Beijing. On the way we passed a number of villages which didn’t look in the best of shape to be too honest, as you can probably see from the photo above. We also passed mile after mile of rice and crop fields, all lacking sufficient fertilisers, drainage, pesticides and farming techniques. With a bit of technlogy and infroastructure, this country could possibly start to become more self-sufficient. But the recent floods (as shown in the news) have devestated crops once again. Reports of 220 deaths and over 10% of farmland having been destroyed is going to leave another large shortfall of food for DPRK’s civilians. Because of the lack of arable land, they extend their farmland up into the hills, cutting down trees and forests to make way for it. The problem is that the trees offer protection from landslides. The heavy rain (43 inches in 5 days I believe) has resulted in mudslides and much of the crops being completely ravaged. It could be another Arduous March for the people of DPRK.

North Korea trip 2005

We arrived back in Pyongyang through a set of rather majestic gates (see above) at around 1815 and had a brief period to freshen up before dinner. We dined in town at a duck restaurant and the cooking style was very similar to a Japanese yakiniku restaurant; you got a central grill and everyone had a plate of duck to cook on it in the way they choose. The food tasted excellent (but always with a few pangs of guilt), and everyone seemed to enjoy the meal. Our guide came up to me after the meal and told me to wait in the hotel room, as she might have got hold of something I would be interested in. I waited for her but she didn’t come up. Then I got a call from her saying that it would be in the morning, and that I should get up at around 6:30am to look a these items, before everyone else was up.

So my final day in the DPRK started a little earlier than everyone else’s, with a look at these goods my guide had got for me. It was real cloak & dagger stuff – the guide came with a big bag. Packed deep in them, wrapped in a tea towel and then under a plain cover were what I had been looking for: some hand-painted socialist realism/revolutionary posters. She told me a friend of her uncle’s used to paint them and had a few left that she had managed to get. They were both excellent quality and this was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity so I took them. Not too many people can claim to have socialist realism posters from DPRK in their apartment! Our guide had run a certain risk to get these to me, and I’d like to think it was because of the attitude I showed towards her throughout the entire tour. I tried to be the model tourist, asking interesting but not controversial questions, nodding and smiling at the right times, and being on time for everything. Goes to show that if you make a little effort, others will reciprocate.

North Korea trip 2005

Pyongyang railway station was bustling with life, compared to the rest of the city. People were coming and going, moving on the platform, although relatively few getting on the train – a lot of it was cargo, and there was even a little noise. It was here that we said goodbye to our guides and driver. Many photos were taken, and promises made to return at some point. That’s a promise I would love to keep, as I really want to see more of the country. After bidding farewell, we boarded and the long journey back to Beijing began. The journey was (for me, at least) relatively uineventful. I slept through most of it until we reached the border town, Sinuiju. At the border we had the 1st of our customs checks (another would be done at Dandong, on the other side of the Chinese border). This town was the first place we’d seen in DPRK that could be described as remotely dirty. There were some cigarette butts on the floor, and a few other pieces of litter drifting around on the breeze. And no women with home-made bruses making sure every part of the street was kept clean. Going back to the customs check (my mind never works in chronological order!), it was relatively painless. The main guy in chage of it added some amusement to the proceedings in English, intentionally I might add. After the warnings about what we could bring out of the country, I was expecting a pretty thorough search. In fact, I only had one bag checked and managed to slide the North Korean won (the currency, which isn’t allowed to be taken out of the country) down the side of the bed, mid-search!

The leaving procedure took just under 2 hours, and then we slowly crossed the border and left the DPRK. It was strange to think of China as being “freedom”, but it felt a little like that. As we crossed into CHina, my mind looked back at the past 6 days. DPRK is probably the most fascinating, surreal, beautiful and peaceful country I will ever have the privilidge of visiting. I just hope that these stories and photos I’ve provided you can help you see another side to this country, a side you never see in the media. For our main guide, it was probably back to the fields to help with the agricultural effort, for which her salary was about 4 Euros a month. Things like that make you realise how lucky we are. Everyone left her a very generous tip for her efforts in guiding and translating for us during our trip. And that’s about it for this travelogue. I hope you enjoyed reading it and it certainly brought back some fond memories as I was writing it. Let me know what you think. I will leave you with 3 photos of the socialist realism posters I now have proudly displayed in my apartment, as testament to an unforgettable trip.  You can also see a photo gallery of my trip by clicking here.

Part 1 of this report is here.

Part 2 of this report is here.

Part 3 of this report is here.

Part 4 of this report is here.

A is for apple, B is for ball, C is for… cosplay???

Posted By Dave on May 28th, 2007

I’m back in Okinawa now after a really good weekend in the big city of Tokyo. And I’m happy to report I didn’t get too lost (although my friend/guide had much to say about that!) and wasn’t too scared by the bright neon lights and flashing sounds. It was actually a really refreshing trip and a great way to recharge my batteries in the middle of this rather mammoth working stint. I got to see a few new things and take in a few new experiences, which is always good for the soul too. So without further adue, I will begin…

Flew out of school as soon as my classes finished and headed straight for the airport. I got into an immensely rainy Haneda Airport (complete cloud cover up until about 150m up) at 7:10pm and got straight onto the monorail into Hamamatsuchou (one of the many business districts in the capital). My friend was running a little late, so I arranged to meet her in Saitama, in the North West of Tokyo. While I was on the train, I realised how much the concept of distance has changed for me since I’ve been in Okinawa. The train ride was about 30-40 minutes, which is considered nothing around Tokyo. That, for me, can mean travelling almost half-way up the island if I go on the expressway, and it was strange to hear people saying that any journey of less than an hour is “short”. I suppose it’s like that in many big cities around the world though, and I’ve just got used to small land masses. Let’s face it, prior to Okinawa, a long route in Maldives would result in a 4 minute walk across my island rather than a 3 minute one!

I made it soon enough and met up with my friend. I was a little weary after travelling, so we went out for a quick dinner before heading back and relaxing for the rest of the evening. We were both pleased to wake up on Saturday morning to bright blue skies and literally no clouds visible. It was a beautiful day and would have been a waste to stay indoors, so we elected to head to one of my favourite haunts in Tokyo… Harajuku. Although P5260008 Saturdays attract eccentric fashions much less than Sundays, there were still a fair few impressive looking folks out. Quite a few were looking warm in the 29C sunshine, but other still managed to keep a very cool looking exterior. As we walked from Harajuku up to the designer boutique area of Omotesando and back again, it occurred to me how many foreigners I noticed around me. The foreigners in Tokyo are also much different from the average (i.e. military foreigner) here in Okinawa. That’s not to say they’re better or worse in any way – just different. You see a much bigger range of foreigner in Tokyo. You get the “gap-year” looking students, the rich, self-proclaimed beautiful people walking around with their Prada shopping bags, the English teacher (getting more easy to spot these days), the foreign tourist to Tokyo (looking quite bemused and struggling to take in everything around them), just to mention a few.

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North Korea: My holiday in a secret state (pt. 4)

Posted By Dave on April 30th, 2007

It’s been a long time in coming, and I must apologise for that, but here is part 4 of my June 2005 trip to DPRK (aka North Korea). But I have a little time on my hands today and my fingers are ready to tap on the keyboard in an attempt to type something interesting for you all.

For a moment, read the scenario I found myself in at the end of the day, and try to put yourself in my position. It was 1am and I was in a hotel in Kaesong, a city 10km from the demilitarized zone (DMZ), probably the most tense place on earth. 3 hours previously I was eating dog for dinner and was now getting a massage from a North Korean waitress, with both the guides in the room watching on! I’ve found myself in a few slightly bizarre situations before, but that one probably takes the biscuit. But to find out how I got in that position, you’ll have to read on…

The day was mainly one of travelling, as we made our way from the capital, Pyongyang, to Kaesong in the south of the country. The tour bus headed out of Pyongyang and to one of the many checkpoints in the country. In DPRK there is restriction of movement for citizens. Unless you have a very good reason and permission, you cannot travel outside your home town or area. This is lessened a little during public festivals, but the checks are always there. The checking of papers was efficient, but thorough, and we were soon on our way.

We travelled initially on a 10-lane motorway, which was quite a sight. We must have driven on it for about 15-20 minutes, and nobody saw another vehicle on the entire road for the duration. There were a few bicycles and some people walking along the road, but no other cars, lorries or buses. The roads were not maintained too well, and there were obvious signs of neglect, with huge potholes in some lanes. In others there were sometimes mounds of dirt, just less than a metre high. They weren’t high enough to be barricades of any sort, but nobody could really work out what they were. I would have taken photos, but we were politely asked not to while the bus was in motion. I’m sure it was because we might photograph certain parts of DPRK that were not meant to be seen outside the country.

North Korea trip 2005

After about an hour of travelling, we reached the West Sea Barrage. This is an 8km tidal-controlling wall, which can alter the level of the Taedong River which flows through Pyongyang. It was built in 5 years (and, surprise, surprise, received “on-the-spot guidance” from both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il). It wa an impressive feat – a real battle of manpower against the elements. I don’t know what the level of technology of the DPRK was at the time this barrage was built, but you can be pretty sure they didn’t do this the easy way.

The bus parked and we had to ascend a hill to get to the temple complex itself. One thing which interested me greatly was a pair of statues on the path up to the temple. I had to closely inspect the old weathered bodies of North Korea trip 2005them, but they both had classical kanji (Chinese characters used in Japan) written on them. The kanji is very old, and I have only found one Japanese person who has been able to read the characters yet. Have a look at the picture below and if you can translate that into English then I’d love to know what it says. When we got up to the temple, I also noticed kanji written above the entrance to one of the buildings. I wondered why there was kanji written here, when hangul is the character set the Koreans use. The temple was 130 years old and was reportedly the only temple to survive the Korean War. There was a monk there who had met Kim Jong Il during his visit to the temple a few years ago. These people really wanted everyone to live in peace (yes, even Americans), regardless of their religion, nationality or race. I kept wondering whether these people I encountered on my trip would ever see peace and a unified Korea, or whether they will eventually be engulfed in the horrors of war in the Korean Peninsula. For these monks above all others, it would be a tragedy. The longer I spent in the country, the more I felt for its people, both with the famine problem, and the constant fear of a future war with US forces stationed in South Korea. That’s not to say I agree with some of the government’s policies (don’t want to get arrested here as a sympathiser!), but you can’t blame the people for the actions of a government.

North Korea trip 2005We had lunch next to a small stream near the temple. Then we had another hour-long drive to the town of Sinchon and the Sinchon War Crimes Museum. This museum is dedicated to showcasing and remembering the atrocities committed by Americans during the Korean War. Not there that I intentionally only said Americans, and did not include South Koreans in there. In DPRK the people say that they and the South Koreans are the same people with the same blood running through their veins, and will not openly criticise them. While it is obvious that atrocities were carried out by the DPRK, American, and South Korean forces, only the Americans are highlighted as the bad guys here. Again this was a place where you listened to the stories, looked at the photos and paintings and nodded, taking it all in. Unfortunately, some of the group elected to ask very difficult questions while we were here which really upset the guide and almost had her in tears. If I return to DPRK (which I’d like to do), I would like to get my own group of people together, so I would have people I can trust to not say anything stupid and play the game well. The paintings were very vivid, and while I can’t guarantee that all of them are true, they are certainly thought-provoking. The stories and alleged orders given from American military officers in charged are also interesting to read. For example, by Lt Col. William A. Harrison is alleged to have given the following order on December 3rd, 1950:

“Out unit is now forced to roll back from Sinchon… dispose the detained right away. Capture and kill all capped heads and shaved heads, all bitches and their bastards so commies won’t breed again. Spread rumors that the deadly A-bombs will be dropped after our retreat to exterminate the communist army, and drive the civilians southward”

Following the museum, we had a long drive to Kaesong. Once again we went through many remote villages and saw people in the fields. As we got closer to Kaesong, the landscape changed, and hills rose above us, the land appearing to be arid and unfit for farming. The road to Kaesong, and from there to Seoul is arrow straight for some unknown reason (easier for tanks, or a reunification parade?). We randomly stopped at what could only be described as a makeshift services at the side of the road, around 30 minutes from Kaesong. The services comprised of a structure over the traffic-less road, and a tea hut. I bought a can of Pokka coffee (a Japanese company, made in Singapore and exported specially to the DPRK). It is a truly international product! Another half hour of driving got us to Kaesong. This is only 10km from the DMZ, and we had to stop at a checkpoint to enter the city. The security is obviously very high in this part of the DPRK. We drove through the city, passing the obligatory Kim Il Sung mosaics, and a large concrete Kalashnikov (sp?) gun. As we drove through the city, we noticed that the buildings next to the street were immaculate in appearance. White, freshly painted walls and looked in top condition. In contrast, when we passed a junction and were able to see a street back from the main road, the other houses were in a much worse condition, and looked very run down. But the houses next to the street are what people see most, and so they have to make a good impression. On the way to our hotel, we were asked if anyone wanted to eat dog soup for dinner! It was asked in advance because they needed to “prepare” it (i.e. find a dog, catch it and beat it to death before we sat down for the meal). I looked at the guy sitting next to me and we both raised our hand. About half of the group said they’d eat it, everyone realising they would have few other chances to do this in their lives.

North Korea trip 2005Our hotel for tonight was in Kaesong, and was a mini-village. It had about 20 small groups of rooms, all placed around small courtyards and in a traditional Korean style. The rooms had a tatami (rice straw matting) floor, and underfloor heating was offered as we were sleeping on futons on the floor. But it was pretty warm and I think everyone declined. We had about 20 minutes to settle into our rooms before we headed off to dinner. Our evening meal was delicious actually. We were served an array of bowls with meats, vegetables and fish in. Again, it felt a little strange to know that most people in this country are struggling to feed themselves, and yet we were dining like the proverbial kings. In the middle of the main course, the dog soup came to us. I have to admit it is an acquired taste! It was pretty spicy but it mustn’t have been a very muscular dog as there wasn’t too much meat in there! But now I can say I have eaten dog, which invariably gets gasps from everyone else. Dinner was followed by the obligatory Korean karaoke, which was enjoyed by all. In the middle of karaoke, we were asked if anyone would like a massage by a waitress for 20 Euros! This was completely out of the blue and we had to make sure that was what our guide had meant to say! But I was on a roll after the dog soup and said I’d do it.

And so about an hour and half later we get back full circle to the start of the story. It was a very nice massage, although pretty hard and painful at times compared to what I’d been used to. Ah well, it was a day and night of firsts and I went to sleep wondering if I’d wake up to the sound of bombs dropping or gunfire from the DMZ. If you want to find out if I did or not, you’ll have to tune in next time!

You can also see a photo gallery of my trip by clicking here.

Part 1 of this report is here.

Part 2 of this report is here.

Part 3 of this report is here.

Part 5 of this report is here.

North Korea: My holiday in a secret state (pt. 3)

Posted By Dave on March 28th, 2007

http://www.biginjapan.co/biginjapan/north-korea-my-holiday-in-a-secret-state-pt-3/

I’m sorry part 3 of this report has taken so long in coming. I’ve been pretty busy with teaching and arranging dive courses for prospective students, and haven’t had time to sit down and tap away at the keyboard for any length of time. But I’ve got some time now and am ready to give you the next instalment of my trip into Kim Jong Il’s wonderland! For those of you that need to catch up, part 1 is here, and part 2 here.

When I left you last, we’d just finished visiting the Mangyongdae Shrine and the birthplace of Kim Il Sung. And a new day was starting with lots of tourist attractions in prospect. Looking back at my journal, I should probably re-emphasize the importance of getting along with the guides and going along with what they say, even if it seems relatively far-fetched. A few people seemed to be asking questions with the sole purpose of making the tour guides feel uncomfortable, and even some going right up to people and taking photos of them without asking permission. This just mean the guide got into trouble (who is ultimately responsible for our actions), which in turn means we may have missed out on other opportunities during the remainder of the tour. A couple of us kept trying to build bridges that other tour members seemed intent on burning down, but it was pretty embarrassing.

North Korea trip 2005

OK – ranting over and onto business. An 8:45am start got us to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum in central Pyongyang. This war is known in the West as the Korean War, and more interestingly in China as The War of Resisting the US & Aiding Korea. This war started on June 25th, 1950 and there was an armistice on July 27th, 1953. There was no actual peace treaty signed between the Koreas, and so they are still officially at war. This museum is huge,DCP_0834.JPG covering around 80,000 square metres. It shows how the “Koreans battled and defeated the US Imperialist army of aggressors”. You heard that a lot: “US Imperialists” in DPRK. It was a very interesting museum, especially seeing some of the documents and letters (allegedly) sent by US military staff. The presentation was biased, but so would a similar museum be in the US. I now have the opportunity to see both biased sides of the story, and try to make my own mind up by finding a middle ground. Not sure believing any government will give you the full facts now, so it’s just a case of using some intuition and common sense. The highlight of this museum was a huge panoramic painting, depicting the Battle of Taedong. This 360-degree painting was 132m in circumference and we sat on a platform which rotated us around the picture. It was a memorable view and beautifully created.

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Connected to the museum was the Monument to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War. This is actually a set of 10 monuments depicting moments in the Korean War. The monuments are set in a white stone floored area and was very impressive. The centrepiece of the monuments is a huge statue of a Korean People’s Army (KPA) soldier shouting to his comrades. As we viewed the monuments, a large group of primary school children passed us and we smiled and waved, and got some response from them. Again, not sure whether we saw them by chance or whether they were meant to come to this place while we were there. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt though. Near to the monument and museum was a band playing revolutionary music, apparently to keep the morale of the workers up. Hopefully this will succeed, as the people of DPRK need all the help and morale boosts they can get.

DCP_0855.JPGIf you recall from part 2 of this travelogue, I promised to tell you a little about the triangular-shaped building which was present in one of the photos, and which you can see to the right here. This is one of the biggest white elephants in Pyongyang, and was meant to be the Ryugyong Hotel. Construction was started on this 105-floor, 330m high building in 1987. It was scheduled to have 3,000 rooms and 8 (yes, eight!) revolving floors at the top!!! After 5 years of attempted construction, the hotel was left as an empty shell due to lack of funding, electricity blackouts and food shortages. There are photos of the hotel being lit up at night, but this is due to one of 2 possible reasons. One is that the DPRK computer people have been playing with Photoshop. The other possible reason put forward is that people were sent into the hotel one day to actually put lights in all the rooms before a photo was taken one night! I personally prefer the latter version of the story. It is also rumoured that after the 82nd floor (or thereabouts), the elevator shaft is no longer straight, so you have to take the stairs from thereon up!

North Korea trip 2005

From the war monuments, we headed over to the captured US spy ship, the USS Pueblo. This ship was captured in 1968 in DPRK waters and had 83 crew members on board. Apparently the ship was in an awful state (no working guns, engine only partially working etc) and was taken by a DPRK force of only 7 troops. Just imagine for a second that mission briefing to the DPRK troops: “OK comrades, this is the big one. There’s a US Imperialist ship with around 80 American devils trespassing in our territorial waters. Kim Il Sung has given our generals on-the-spot guidance and advised us to capture this vessel with the biggest force we can muster… which is why you 7 have been called in! Now get rowing and good luck!”. The US crew were returned to their homeland, but only after the US government had issued a formal apology for their spying actions. They initially declared that it was a fishing boat and was in international waters, but then they were forced to reveal the truth. I’m reminded of this when I read the current news story about the British sailors and marines who have been detained in Iran. After being captured, the ship was tugged around the coastline of DPRK and is now taking pride of place in the main river flowing through the capital. We were shown around the ship and watched a video about the capture with some hilarious English pronunciation (I can’t even start to describe it!), before being led to the main deck to take photos and ask any questions we had. This filled our morning, so we headed for lunch on “floating restaurant number 1”. Not too sure if there is a number 2 or 3, but lunch was certainly nice drifting up and down the Taedong river.

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The first stop of the afternoon was the Foreign Language Bookstore. Here you could buy an array of literature in allsorts of languages (English, Japanese, Chinese, German, French, Russian are just a few that spring to mind). We all bought books and some pin badges. A couple of people bought some posters but I was looking for ones of a more socialist realism (aka propaganda) nature. I quietly mentioned it to my guide and she told me that she might be able to find me something better, and to hold off buying. Took her word for it and refrained from making a purchase for now.

DCP_0894.JPGOn the way to the Grand People’s Study House, we walked past Kim Il Sung Square which was full of students practising for the forthcoming Mass Games. It was pretty impressive to see all these gymnasts working out, and we took photos from a distance. Unfortunately, a couple of the other tourists proceeded to get far to close to the people while snapping phot8os, and our guarded was shouted at by the person in charge of the practice. Onto the Grand People’s Study House though, and it really is a vast library, storing over 30 million books, although I can only recall seeing about 10 during my entire visit to the building! Many professors work in the library, and can offer advice to people studying from their books, with each professor having a small number of speciality fields. 250 professors are employed here, out of a total staff of 1,000. This place wasn’t the most riveting that I’d been to, but it was still good to see all the same.

We moved onto Primary School No 4 next.  When I booked the trip I asked if it would be possible to visit a school in DPRK.  I’d taught in Maldives and now in Japan, and was interested to just look inside North Korea trip 2005a school and try and get a general overview of the atmosphere there.  Surprisingly, this was arranged and we went to one of the best primary schools in the coiuntry, and the one which Kim Jong Il himself attended.  Although they told us that every school was very similar to this one, it was obvious we were being shown an excellent school.  The day was Childrens’ Union Day, which meant that it was a school holiday, and there were no kids about initially.  We were shown around some empty classrooms and it was interesting to see their layout.  Each classroom has got a picture of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung at the front of the class, much like Japanese classrooms had pictures of the emperor in classrooms pre-WWII.  We got around to the gym and found around 14-16 students playing table tennis.  Although they were only 8/9 years old, they were still damn good and could probably beat the British ranked No 1!  I wonder why Asian countries produce so many good table tennis players… but I digress.  These students, we were told, practised 2 hours a day after school, and it certainly showed.

We were then taken to a small room upstairs with a stage.  We were all greeted with ludicrously sweet looking students who took us to our seats.  They were all smiling, which was cute but rather disconcerting.  It was obvious they had been told that they should smile for the foreigners to show a happy face.  But their smiles looked too much and very fake.  Once we were all sat down, around 16 students gave a song and dance performance, including 3-piece band, singers and some excellent dancers.  These students were in “song & dance club” and also practised 2-3 hours after school each day.  I expected that some of these would move onto Mass Games club when they move up to junior high school.  That is where they really have to work, putting in around 5-6 hours of training each day after school.  Their performance was flawless and afterwards we were pulled up on stage by the students for some dancing.  I gave the teachers some pens, pencils, and a small poster a couple of my 1st year students had made for them.  They smiled and quickly took them away.  I sometimes wonder what happened to the poster: whether it was kept, thrown away, or maybe displayed to the students as a sign of the foreign Imperialists trying to feign friendship!

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We said our goodbyes to the students (who continued their Joker-like grins) and got on the bus for our final stop of the day – the Pyongyang subway system.  The metro system has 17 stations and we travelled between Puhung (meaning Renaissance) and Yonggwang (meaning Glory).  There are rumours that these are the only 2 stations in operation, and even these might only be used to showcase the system to visitors.  The only station on the Metro system which is closed is Kwangmyong (meaning Brightness).  This is allegedly because it connects to the Kumusan Memorial Palace, where it is believed there are a number of military facilities.  The guide gave us our tickets and we got on the escalator to go down… and down… and down… and down!  The subway stations are around 100m underground and are also designed to be used as air raid shelters (which would make this the deepest subway system in the world.  Yay – another record for the DPRK!).  The stations have triple heavy blast doors and very little is going to get through those things unwanted.  The platforms of the stations we departed and arrived at were like museum pieces.  Marble floors, huge chandeliers and mosaics covering the entire wall.  When we got on the train we were joined by a few Pyongyang residents who had been waiting on the platform.  Once again, their authenticity came in to question, with numerous claims that are actually actors just there to give the impression that the subway system is being used.

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It is claimed on one website that the subway system in Pyongyang has a huge underground square, to be used in the event of war in the DPRK.  The size is rumoured to be around the same as Kim Il Sung Square, meaning that it could hold up to 100,000 people.  The command post in this square has new communication facilities and a number of 10-ton trucks that could be used to transport troops.  Whether this is true or not is up for debate, but it is certainly plausible.

North Korea trip 2005

That’s it for another day of my trip to DPRK.  In the next instalment, we’ll be travelling to Kaesong, and getting ready to visit the DMZ, the border with South Korea, and the Sinchon War Crimes Museum, highlighting the atrocities committed by the US Imperialists!  Stay tuned and let me know what you think.

You can also see a photo gallery of my trip by clicking here.

Part 1 of this report is here.

Part 2 of this report is here.

Part 4 of this report is here.

Part 5 of this report is here.

North Korea: My holiday in a secret state (pt. 2)

Posted By Dave on March 13th, 2007

First of all, thank you to everyone who read part 1 of my travelogue.  Hope you found it interesting and at times marginally entertaining at least.  And with that out of the way, it is time to move onto part 2 of my trip.  Thank you to everyone who sent me messages about part 1 – I really do appreciate every person who takes the time to read my writings online.  Onto business.  The hotel we stayed at was the Yanggakdo Hotel in central Pyongyang.  If you go to DPRK, you will most likely either stay here or in the Koryo Hotel.  This hotel is excellent and is on its own island!  It has a 9-hole golf course, cinema, football stadium, casino, rotating restaurant at the top of the hotel (this is a recurring theme), and pretty much everything else you could want in the hotel grounds (so tourists wouldn’t be tempted to cross the bridge into the capital itself?).  North Korea trip 2005The hotel also has 47 floors and around 1,000 rooms.  But the thing is, there were only around 25 people staying at the hotel, and in our tour group people were sharing rooms so at the most, 20 rooms would have been occupied.  All our group were located on the 25th floor, and people were making frequent comments about what could possibly be on the other floors.  As far as I know, nobody was brave/foolish enough to try and find out.  Although the hotel was much akin to a ghost town, the rooms were nice and clean, and offered a great view of the city, including the Juche Tower.  The photo to the right shows the view looking out from our hotel window with Pyongyang either side of the river.

While we were going to dinner on the first night, we were told that there wouldn’t be few, if any shows or festivals on at the moment, due to everyone working in the fields.  At that time, the university had closed and a number of government offices had been closed as people were mobilised to plant rice due to fears over food shortages.  Having seen similar stories about China, this seems to be the communist way of dealing with problems like that; throw everyone you can at it.  It might not be so productive and is certainly not efficient or economical, but it is what they do.  It also shows the Juche, or self-reliance, ideology coming to the fore.   Our venue for dinner was the National Restaurant, and we were the only guests there.  This was also a common theme – we were the only people dining out.  Although this isn’t hugely surprising, and I doubt if we were not visiting the restaurant would even be open.  The food was pretty good actually, and it was obvious they were trying to showcase DPRK’s fine dining.  It made me think and reflect a little though.  They were serving up some of the best food they could offer in the country to us, and yet so many people in other parts of the city are coping on tiny rations of rice and vegetables each month.  Again, it’s one of the things you just have to accept while you’re here.  Accompanying dinner was live music, by a group of women in traditional Korean dress.  The songs were revolutionary songs, and the music had a definite Russian feel to it.  I looked around for copies of “The Best Songs Dedicated To The Great Leader and The General Album… Ever!!!”, but alas it was nowhere to be found.  We did conclude that the drummer constantly looked like she wanted to just start thrashing the drums, rather than stick to the regular tapping of the cymbal.  Not sure what the state of heavy metal music is in DPRK, but she’d fit right in.

Going back to the hotel, I had a couple of beers before heading back to my room.  Once there though, I was able to turn the lights out, open the window and gaze out into the night skyline.  If you do that in most cities, and especially capital cities, you can hear road works, traffic going past, loud music etc.  In Pyongyang it was almost silent.  You could hear a couple of voices drifting over the water to the hotel, but other than that it was quiet.  There were relatively few lights coming from the large number of buildings that were a kilometre or two away.  For some reason I woke up at about 4am in the night, and once again went to the window which we’d left open.  Looking out, you could see nothing – there wasn’t a single light visible and the only sound was a dog barking somewhere in the city.  Very eerie, but a fascinating experience.

Woke up early and switched on the TV in our room to get a fuzzy BBC World transmission (DPRK don’t pay for any TV rights, so they have to unscramble the signals as best they can themselves I believe).  There was an announcement that it was International Environment Day, which was appropriate as I was probably in the cleanest capital city in the world.  Pyongyang makes Tokyo look like a trashy dump, and I didn’t see a single piece of litter on the street throughout my entire trip.  Another thing Pyongyang has is vast open spaces.  It is reported that according to UN environmental statistics, Pyongyang has the largest amount of green and parkland per person of any capital city in the world. The skies were blue, but it was pretty hazy and you could only just see over the Taedong River and into Pyongyang.  But after breakfast, that was our destination and first up was the Juche Tower.

The Juche Tower is a 170m tall stone tower (I believe the tallest in the world) which is dedicated North Korea trip 2005to the Juche ideal.  An offspring of communism, Juche is summed up quite well by Wikipedia: “The core principle of the Juche ideology since the 1970s has been that “man is the master of everything and decides everything””.  The most fascinating features of this structure are all to do with numbers.  The tower was created in celebration of Kim Il Sung’s 70th birthday, and the building has 25,550 blocks (one for each day of KIS’s life).  The tower is actually made up of tiers: on the north and south side there are 18 tiers and on the east and west side, 17 tiers.  Add those up and you get the magical 70.  Also, at the base of the tower there are flowers carved (the Kimilsungia) into the stone.  35 flowers on the east and west sides gives you… you guessed it, 70.

North Korea trip 2005The views from the bottom were pretty good, but the panoramic views from the platform at the top of the tower were breathtaking.  You could see the entire city, although there you could see virtually no cars on the roads.  There were a couple of bicycles, but almost no motorised transport.  Following the Juche Tower, our next stop was the closeby Korean Workers Party Monument.  This was erected to celebrate 50 years of the Korean Workers Party, and again the numbers play an important role.  The top of the hammer, sickle and brush (denoting the 3 classes of people in society) are 50m high, and the diameter of the monument is also 50m.  The history of the Party is written in bronze letters on the wall of the monument, and the size of the things has to be seen first-hand to be appreciated.  The people built this in one year, which goes to show how productive they can be when given the resources to play with.

After seeing a little our of the city, we headed out of town, past Kim Il Sung University, and went North Korea trip 2005to Mt Taesong and the Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery.  Here, around 200 martyrs of revolutionary fighting against Japanese Imperialists are buried and remembered.  Each martyr has a statue made from copper and all the busts face Pyongyang, positioned so that each one has a clear view of the capital.  Pride of place at the top of the cemetery goes to Kim Il Sung’s wife.  In the cemetery, sombre revolutionary music player (I’m sure, solely because we were there), which gave a strange feeling to the whole event.

Lunch was taken in the (rotating) restaurant at the 230m tall Television Tower.  A rickety old lift got us up to the top but it must have been the slowest lift I’ve ever been in!  It took about 3 agonising minutes to get to the top, with the constant fear that the string that was pulling us up could snap and sent us plummeting to our certain doom at any time!  But we made it to the top and the views were spectacular.  The food was, once again, the best that DPRK had to offer, and our after lunch entertainment was karaoke courtesy of the 2 waitresses who’d been serving us.  A smile towards one of them ended up in her holding my hand while she sang her song (I’m sure talking about the greatness and wonderfullness of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il)!  I was slightly distressed that I might have unknowingly just joined the Workers Party of Korea, and wouldn’t be allowed to leave!

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First stop after lunch was the Arch of Triumph in the middle of Pyongyang.  Sound familiar?  Well, you might think of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, and when you look at this arch you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for the Parisian landmark.  This arch was modelled on the one in France, but built bigger so that the claim can be made that this is the largest stone arch in the world.  DCP_0798.JPG[thumb:701:l]You’ll notice that DPRK likes its world records.  The arch was pretty impressive, as was standing in the middle of a 3-lane road for minutes while taking pictures of it, without the slightest fear of a car coming.  Try doing that in London!  On the photo to the right you can see the Arch of Triumph in the foreground, but I expect many of you are wondering what the triangular-shaped building is in the background.  Well that is a secret for now, and all will be revealed in part 3 of this travelogue.  Rest assured, it is definitely worth waiting for!  Near the Arch of Triumph is another stadium in Pyongyang, and outside the stadium were some people preparing their gymnastic routine for the Mass Games.  It was fascinating to see this group activity, and I managed to get quite a nice shot of them walking to practice in front of a huge mural of Kim Il Sung (see below).

North Korea trip 2005

We headed back out into the sticks after seeing the arch, and towards a buddhist temple.  On the way, we saw loads of people working in the fields, even on a Sunday (their supposed day off during the week).  This was real subsistence agriculture though; you saw oxen pulling makeshift ploughs through the soil and in some places it just looked so dry and barren that anything would struggle to grow there.  The temple itself was quite interesting, although not as much as the sights I’d seen previously in the day.  Apparently, Buddhism was the main religion in DPRK before the Juche idea was put forward.  I have read conflicting evidence about this though, & there are many reports that religion is banned in DPRK, despite what we were told by the guides.  I can’t report either way though – I’m just stating what I saw and keeping unbiased about everything.  After the temple trip we headed back into Pyongyang and it got a little surreal.  We were taken to a clothing export exhibition, which showed examples of the garments that they had exported to other countries (mainly sportswear).  They gave us examples of the countries they exported to (e.g. UK, Hong Kong, China), and we were then taken to a shop where we could buy some DPRK authentic clothing!  Other were skeptical but I just jumped right in and got myself a T-shirt!  The whole trip here was as if they were saying, “Look at us!  We produce things that other countries want and need!”.

A 30 minute bus journey led us back into the country and over to King Tongmyong’s tomb.  The guide at this site wasn’t an English-speaker, but our resident guide translated everything for us.  We were shown around the tomb on King Tongmyong, who lived around 5,000 years ago.  It was apparently he who set up the nation of Korea, and who founded the first capital city in the country.  In the grounds of the temple, there were 3 artists painting the landscape (by chance, or told to be there?).  I wanted to think it was the former, and the pictures were pretty good so I bought one.  Hopefully not all of that money would go straight to the government.  I got the artist’s name on the picture and had it dated, and I gave a present to the guide for showing us around.  The result: I had another DPRK girl holding and strokign my arm as we walked back to the bus!  So much for being told we would have very little contact with the locals.

In the south of Pyongyang is the Mangyongdae Shrine, which is where Kim Il Sung was born and where he spent his early years.  The house he was born in was fairly humble and it sounded like his family was quite poor.  The house’s setting was now in a park and was really nice to walk around in; the walk to the viewing area was interrupted only by a couple of squirrels and chipmunks crossing our path.  We were told that Koreans didn’t visit the house after KIS’s death because they wanted to keep it in a pristine state.  Not sure if that is strictly true, but I just nodded and smiled and took it all in.

And that’s about it for day 2 of my blog.  Hope you enjoyed reading it.  Once again, post comments and questions, and I’ll get back to you with part 3 in the near future. You can also see a photo gallery of my trip by clicking here.

Part 1 of this report is here.

Part 3 of this report is here.

Part 4 of this report is here.

Part 5 of this report is here.

North Korea: My holiday in a secret state (pt. 1)

Posted By Dave on March 9th, 2007

http://www.biginjapan.co/biginjapan/north-korea-my-holiday-in-a-secret-state-pt-1/

Last night I was posting a couple of reviews of places I’d visited in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (aka North Korea) online when I got a message asking me if I would be able to write a description of my trip, the places I visited and the experiences I had. I’m always up for fulfilling requests, and so I replied that I’d be happy to recall my DPRK trip. Please take into account that this trip was taken back in June 2005, and so a few of the minor details may be incorrect or information a little incomplete. I do have my travel journal at the side of my computer to help me, and will try to be as descriptive as possible.

First of all, and the question that many people ask me: Why the hell do you go to North Korea?! The answer is simple: I like to do things a little differently. Most people think a great holiday is sitting on a beach in Thailand for a week, burning themselves and getting hammered every night, waking up around midday etc. I would much prefer to see places and do things so that when I come back from my holiday I’ve got a feeling of accomplishment. I wasn’t really looking at holiday destinations when I was browsing the BBC news website and a story about DPRK’s nuclear ambitions when I saw a link entitled, Holidays in North Korea. In that article I read about a company called Koryo Tours and from then my interest rose hugely. This company, run out of a Beijing office by 2 British guys, arranged visas and did regular tours to DPRK throughout the year, during which you had the chance of visiting and seeing things most of the world will never see. This was right up my street, and I exchanged a bunch of emails with one of the guys, getting more information on the trips and what was possible (unfortunately no diving was allowed, by I did ask and they did enquire!). In the end, I settled for a 6-dayMay Day Stadium tour of the country, flying into Pyongyang and coming back by train to Beijing. Not only would this tour include seeing some spectacular and rare sights, but there was also the prospect of going to see the World Cup Qualifying match between DPRK and Japan, to be played at the country’s May Day Stadium. This is the biggest stadium in the world, seating over 150,000 people. To put it into perspective a little, it is over twice the size of the Olympic Stadium in Seoul, South Korea.

did a little research about the country, and although information is fairly limited, I managed to pick up an excellent travel guide and DVD documentary about the country. First of all, the Bradt Travel Guide to North Korea was an excellent resource, both before my trip and during my travels in DPRK. It includes a lot practical travel information and covers almost every area of DPRK that you might want to visit. If you ever manage to go there, this book would be highly recommended. Through Koryo Tours, I also managed to get my hands on a copy of a BBC documentary called A State Of Mind. This is a fascinating documentary, and is one of the best DVDs I have ever bought. It revolves around 2 girls who are preparing for the Mass Games in DPRK. More about these later, but in summary the Mass Games is a huge choreographed gymnastics spectacle involving thousands of gymnasts. In simple terms, it makes the Olympic opening ceremony look like a primary school festival. I will talk a little about this later, but will leave you with a photo of the event itself (unfortunately not mine, I didn’t have chance to see it on my visit as it is usually held in April/May and August/September).

Mass Games in DPRK

As for currency, we were asked to bring anything, although Euros would be preferred. US$ were accepted, but if you paid for things in Euros you would get a much better price for things. In DPRK they have their own currency, although foreigners are strictly not supposed to have it for some reason. The money situation is a little strange at the best of times, and sometimes downright bizarre. Firstly, very few places will have change, so you should take small denomination notes of your money. Indeed, a number of places will have no money at all! For example, one night we were sat at the bar in our hotel having a beer or two after a hard day of sightseeing. I was about to pay the tab and head off to bed as I was feeling a little weary so I went to the bar with my bill (around 7 Euros) and I gave her a 10 Euro note. I sat around for 5 minutes or so waiting for my change, and then the waitress came back to me, said “No change” and handed me another beer! What an ingenious way of doing things: we won’t give you change, but we’ll just give you more of what you’ve been drinking. I’d have been paralytic if I’d have only had a 50 Euro note to hand! We were also asked to bring small gifts for the guides we would meet, as they would be more appreciated than money. So, as advised, I bought some hand cream for any female guides I would meet (Nivea is favoured by them, if my memory serves me correctly), and some cigarettes and chocolate for the men (the more nicotine, the better).

We had a brief meeting in Beijing 2 days before we travelled, to sort out our passport visas and be given a few guidelines for DPRK. It was all fairly routine stuff (be respectful, ask before taking photos etc) but it had to be said because if not then someone would always go too far. The thing is, in DPRK the foreigner wouldn’t get into much trouble about that, but their tour guide would be severely reprimanded and the company may not get as much chance to tour the country. We were especially told to be respectful and nice to the main guides, because if they like the group then you might see things that not every tour group gets to see. We were also told that, disappointingly, the World Cup Qualifying game between DPRK & Japan had been moved to a neutral location (Thailand) because of crowd trouble in a previous game. Some people were unhappy with this, but there really was nothing we could do. We could complain and be grumpy through the entire trip, or we could make the most of what we would see. Even though the Kumsusan Memorial Palace of Kim Il Sung could not be visited due to renovations, I still knew this would be an unforgettable journey. With that in mind, 2 days later we boarded the twice-weekly Beijing-Pyongyang flight, courtesy of Air Koryo.

Now, when you travel somewhere, there are certain signs that your trip is going to be an eventful one. Being on an flight to one of the most secretive countries in the world, sat inbetween a guy from the World Food Programme an an Ethiopian arms dealer is one such sign! But this was the situation in which I found myself, sat in this plane straight out of the 70s. But to their credit, both guys were very friendly, although the Ethiopian did bend the truth slightly, saying he was visiting DPRK on holiday. It was only later I found out he travels there almost every month, and always says to people he’s going on holiday. I wonder how big the North Korean tourism business is in Ethiopia. The mind boggles. There was also a Spanish guy on the flight in a communist-style suit with a big medal, who told us he was connected to the DPRK government. We were told by one of the tour company guys to steer clear though, so I kept my distance.

The first thing you see when you get off the plane in Pyongyang is a huge picture of Kim Il Sung on the roof of the airport. As I looked back at the plane, I noticed the air crews pouring water on the smoking plane tyres! Think someone might have landed a little too quickly! Other than that, the flight was great. Everyone was slightly confused as to why the landing gear was lowered at about 20,000ft, but who are we to tell the pilot what to do! In the airport, bags were collected and items such as MP3 players and mobile phones were handed in to customs officials as they are not allowed in the country. Contrary to popular opinion though, camera and video cameras were fine to bring in. North Korea trip 2005The guides introduced themselves to us, and our main guide was a woman with perfect English, called Mrs Lee. She was an awesome guide… very friendly and knowledgeable about everything. She was one of the government-appointed guides, but talked about everything with the minimum of bias and the highest amount of information. She’d obviously met quite a few tour groups, and was full of questions about our families and what we did in our home countries. A few people brought photos of our photos and lives from home, and it was a nice feeling to introduce them to her. There were actually 2 guides appointed to our tour group of 20 people. There were 2 reasons for this I think, neither of which was that they could spy on us better! Firstly, the group was quite big and they wanted to manage everyone in the best way. The second reason could be (and I hasten to add that I don’t know this for sure) that the 2 guides could censor each other. If there was only one, then it is possible that they could say something negative about the country or its politics; with 2 people there is always someone else listening. We also had a cameraman walking around with our group, who would make a VCD of our trip that we could purchase at the end of our trip. That was a nifty little idea, and I said I would definitely like a copy of that.

One of the first things that hit me as we entered Pyongyang on our tour bus was how clean it was. There were lots of people, both adults & children, who were pulling up weeds along the streets and paths by hand. Technologically-advanced, this city is not, but it looked friendly enough so far. None of the military parades of huge missiles evident so far, that you usually see in the western media. Our first stop on the tour was Fountain Park. This was a wide open space (Pyongyang has a lot of these) with many very large water fountains, along with some beautiful statues of women dancing. In the photo below, you can see some of the Fountain Park, along with the Grand People’s Study House in the background. There were a few kids walking around and we managed to get some friendly acknowledgments from them by smiling and waving. The power of a smile, even in the so-called Axis of Evil, is guitarimmense. A small group of girls were walking across the park and they came over. One of the girls proceeded to give us a 2-minute jamming session on her guitar-like thing (can you tell I don’t play music?!) while her friends looked on. As advised, we asked for permission to take some photos of the girls and the surroundings, and then started snapping away. To be honest, there were not the restrictions on taking photos that you might expect. Of course, nobody tried to take photos of military installations or personnel, but whenever we asked to take shots, the answer was always “Yes”.

North Korea trip 2005

From the park, we headed to our next stop (and the most important stop on the tour): the bronze statue of Kim Il Sung at Mansudae. For those of you unfamiliar with DPRK’s history & politics, Kim Il Sung was the leader of the country from 1948 (when the country was founded) until his death in 1994. Following his death, there were 3 years of official mourning. This period of Kim Il Sung statue at Mansudaetime with Kim Il Sung’s mourning, coupled with bad harvests and declining living conditions, became known as the Arduous March. The statue was said by our guide to weigh as much as all the hearts of the Korean people. Note that the word “Korean” was used to signify both Koreas. In DPRK they still say that Korea is one country, and that they will reunify in time. Around the statue are 2 other monuments, both depicting people fighting in the Korean War (called in DPRK The Victorious Fatherland Liberation War) from 1950 to 1953. As the statue, a few of us bought flowers and laid them at the front of the statue, before walking back and paying our respects by bowing. This was the first occasion I realised that some people might not be suited to a trip to DPRK. You have to go through the bowing to Kim Il Sung, and just accept it, even if you don’t approve of the leadership of the country. It is all about showing respect and politeness for a foreign country in which you are a rare guest. It’s a similar deal with the stories that you are told. Sometimes they seem far fetched, the guides know they sound far fetched, you know they do, and the guides know that you know. But the key is just to play along with it, take it in with interest and use your head a little. A couple on our tour tried to ask questions that were pushy or embarrassing, and all that did was make the guide flustered and upset at us. Nobody benefited and, most likely, everyone lost out. So if you do consider a trip to this fascinating country, bear that in mind.

It looks like this travelogue could get pretty sizeable, so I’ll call it a day for here. In the next entry though, I’ll be describing much more of the tour, as it gets into full swing. If you have any comments or any questions about the country, please let me know. I’m by no means an expert but will try to answer anything I can. You can also see a photo gallery of my trip by clicking here.

Part 2 of this report is here.

Part 3 of this report is here.

Part 4 of this report is here.

Part 5 of this report is here.

North Korea trip 2005

Diving the underwater ruins in Yonaguni

Posted By Dave on January 9th, 2007

Well here we are in 2007, and a Happy New Year to everyone. I hope the forthcoming 12 months are successful and happy ones for you all, and for you divers, I hope you manage to get in the water even more this year. 2007 started off for me with 2 dives looking for hammerheads and then on some underwater ruins that are thought to be up to 8,000 years old. That’s definitely the way to stay off a year, and if the diving carries on in that way I’ll be pretty pleased! Well, this entry is going to have quite a few photos, so pull up a chair and get ready to see some of the underwater sights of the westernmost island of Japan.

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A tiny background about Yonaguni – it’s a very small island (around 26km in circumference) with one taxi, one bus, and 2 traffic lights. Not the bustling metropolis of Okinawa or mainland Japan. It’s about 1 and a half hour flight from the Okinawan mainland, and the plane that took me there was a puddle-skipper! It only had 39 seats and was a propeller plane rather than a jet engine one. Just about the only reason to go to this island for tourists is to see these underwater ruins. That is, unless you’re a big fan of the Japanese TV drama, Dr Koto, in which case, Yonaguni will be a must-see place! The show was about a doctor from Tokyo who moved to Yonaguni and had various “adventures” there.  In fact, each time the dive boat passed the house where the TV show was filmed, you heard lots of Japanese chatter pick up about “Docutaaaa Kotooo” and photos being taken. But enough about Japanese dramas that 99% of you are never likely to see, onto the diving!

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The above photo is a model layout of the ruins, courtesy of the dive shop I dived with, called Sawes. The extra special thing about this diving company in Yonaguni is that the owner is a man called Kihachirou Aratake (pictured below, with me). He was a fisherman who, in 1987, discovered these structures underwater which he believed to have been man-made. Scientists have since visited these underwater ruins and opinion is still heavily divided. Many people believe these structures to be underwater remnants of a civilization lost in time and history, and one which at 8,000 years old, could almost outdate the Pyramids. The people who claim that these underwater rock formations are simply that, and which have no man-made origin, are numerous. However, even if these are manmade, for all of these natural phenomena to have occurred within the same 150m square area is absolutely amazing, and certainly something special to behold. Having dived the ruins now, I have to say that the lines, straight edges, right-angled corners and similar are just too well defined to have been naturally occurring. Plus there is the turtle monument and and face in the rock (2 things which I will come onto in due time).

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I managed 3 dives on the ruins, so here is a general overview of what you would see when diving them. First of all, to get to the ruins is about 40-45 minutes by boat as it is off the eastern coast of Yonaguni and the main port is on the west. There can be a strongish current, so usually you perform a negatively buoyant exit from the boat. And from there you enter some beautiful water. Visibility of 25-30m at least, and a water temperature of 25C in the winter time means you’ll always exit a dive very happy with the conditions. And because of the lack of industry around, the coral health there is superb and there are some huge fish about.

[thumb:447:l]To get access to the main ruins, you have to go through a gateway at around 13-14m. This is the first sign that there could something more to this than just nature at work. The rocks that form the gateway are distinctly different, but yet on both sides they are sized identically, so the gateway is symmetrical. I will be the first to admit that this one could have been formed by rocks falling from the island and landing in this position many years ago. However, it is another thing which could be evidence of a civilization before our time. As this is a bit of a special blog entry, I’ve also decided to add some video clips that I took on my trip. For a video clip of the gateway to Yonaguni’s underwater ruins, click here.

[thumb:446:r]OK – so you swim through this gateway and the next thing which you are confronted with is something called the “Twin Towers” (see right). These are 2 rectangular-shaped, parallel rocks standing 8-10m tall and next to each other. To see the straight edges around these rocks and the sharp corners and edges certainly got my mind working as to whether these could be the creations of people rather than mother nature. The question of what the rocks were still remains though. Maybe some part of a building which has since collapsed, or possibly a timing device which used the sun and the space between the rocks to dictate the time of day or year? I really have no idea and am purely speculating – I’ll leave it to the historians to decide what I’ve actually seen here. For a video clip of the Twin Towers, click here.

[thumb:445:l]So after looking around the Twin Towers for a short while, the dive moves onto the main underwater ruin complex, and a swim along the main terrace. This usually has quite a hefty current flowing down it, so you’ve either got to be pretty quick with the photos, or make sure you get a strong grip on something, otherwise you’re going to be swept past it all. What makes it harder is that the edges are so smooth that there is very little to actually grip onto and you really have to dig in with your fingers as hard as you can to find a handhold. As you swim along here, you notice that all of the edges are at right angles again, and what look very much like large steps are cut into the rock leading from one level to another. These steps are also pretty much all sized the same, suggesting that they were cut into the rock by people to function as stairs. Of course, all of this is my opinion, but you’re reading this blog so I’m assuming you want to hear it! For video clips of the stairs leading up to the terrace, click here or here.

As you reach the top of the large stairs on the left of the photos, you’re at about 8m and on a flat area of rock. For a movie clip showing the main terrace on these ruins, click here. On one side you can swim down a trench in the rock to around 13m and there is an area which has been named “The Cemetery”. Here there is a very flat rock, which is very reminiscent of a Taiwanese or Korean (can’t quite remember what the guide said) tombstone, laid flat on the bottom. And at the end of the trench is a cross cut into the rock. Now this is a very well defined top-to-bottom, left-to-right cross, which would fit in very well with the theory that this trench was some sort of burial area. From the photos below you can see the trench and the cross in question. For a movie clip of the cemetery trench and cross, click here.

[thumb:453:r]Coming out of the trench you then come up to the monument of the turtle. Now this is something that I must apologize for, as my photos are not too good here. The tide was such that is was very difficult to get over the monument with enough distance to show the whole area. However, I did manage to get a short movie clip of it, which came out pretty well. All I can say is that the raised rock area does look remarkably like the shape of a turtle swimming in full flow, with its head and all 4 legs/arms/whatever their swimming things are called visible. The only photos I’ve got here is of it’s head, which is to the left. For a movie showing the turtle monument, click here.

And that’s pretty much the main dive site area for the ruins. Now there is another part to the ruins, and I was lucky enough to have Mr Aratake himself as my guide for this dive. He knows his way around this dive site probably better than anyone, and it was a privilege to have him show me around. The first of the 2 main highlights of this second area is seeing the Jacques Mayol memorial plaque. For those of you who don’t know the name, Jacques Mayol is a legend among divers and freedivers. He was the first person to descend to 100m on a single breath, and set numerous freediving records. The 1988 film, The Big Blue, was made about his life. Anyway, Mayol and Aratake were good friends, and this site was Mayol’s favourite site to dive in Japan. And so after his death in 2001, a memorial plaque was placed at this site. It was quite a nice thing to see, and have my photo taken with.

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The second highlight of this other part of the ruins is seeing what could be the carving of a face cut into the rock. Now at first when Aratake pointed this out to me, I merely saw a couple of holes in the rock and nothing else. But then I backed away and suddenly the face came eerily into focus. On the photo on the right, I’ve tried to highlight the eyes, nose and mouth (forgive my complete lack or artistic ability). Hopefully then you should be able to see them clearly on the photo on the left.

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So there are the underwater ruins (iseki in Japanese) of Yonaguni. I did plenty of other dives looking for hammerhead sharks, which migrate through the area during the winter months. We had limited success finding those, and no really close encounters, but it was nice to see them when we did. We also did a few dives on the reefs of Yonaguni which are beautiful in themselves. A wonderful array of soft corals, big fish and a couple of turtles greeted us on our dives, and made the dives memorable. A special mention must go to the staff at Sawes too, especially Rui, Nacchi and Nao chan, who were great during my whole stay, and who I have the utmost respect for. They provide a very comprehensive diving service to people who go down there, and they really do work hard and long hours.

So, this blog entry is coming to a close I feel. If anyone has any questions or comments about Yonaguni, the ruins, or how to plan a trip there, then post a comment or get in touch. I’d be happy to help you guys and girls out. I’ll leave you with a few photos of Yonaguni, above and below the waves. Until next time, take care and dive safely.

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