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Out of the cold
On December 23rd, the day after term ended, Michelle and I escaped the cold of Shiga (pretty much like British winter, only without the insulation and central heating) for the warmth of Okinawa (pretty much like British summer). Having failed to arrange any accommodation with local JETs through the AJET Tatami Timeshare organisation, we spent the first few nights in the cheaper and lesser-known of Naha's two youth hostels: the Harumi Youth Hostel, in the north-east of the city. ¥2950 a night, immaculately clean, with a warden who spoke pretty good English, and free bike hire. (Not the greatest bikes, but they were a step up from our shopping bikes in Shiga!) The staff were quite accommodating, and you could have a hot shower at any time, which is a luxury not permitted in some hostels. The soundproofing wasn't great - in fact just about everywhere I stayed made me appreciate how quiet my apartment is in Hikone - but earplugs remedied the situation.
Although Naha claims to be an international resort and the place to start exploring Okinawa, we found that the three ladies in the tourist information office didn't speak a word of English between them. Fortunately there were maps and a few leaflets available in English, and when our limited Japanese proved insufficient (on several occasions) they called up a nice man who spoke excellent English and the telephone was passed backwards and forwards until we had an answer to our question. But you would think that a city of 300,000 people that wants to attract foreign visitors could find someone who spoke at least a little English to work in the tourist information office!
We spent a lot of time around Kokusai-dori (the main shopping street) and the labyrinth of lively shopping arcades around Heiwa-dori and Ichiba Hon-dori. We found that while Naha doesn't really cater to English speakers, it is well geared up to handle Japanese tourists. Every other shop in the main shopping areas is an omiyage shop, with shelves piled high with presentation boxes of biscuits and cakes (omiyage) for people to take home for their colleagues. There are also a few examples of the kind of place where a coachload of tourists are dropped off for half an hour's souvenir shopping without actually seeing anything of the place they are visiting - the shopping centre in itself is the tourist attraction!
A small part of the market in Ichiba Hon-dori.
Besides the omiyage shops there are quite a few army surplus shops in Naha, presumably because of the huge US military presence on the main island. There are numerous US bases and I believe that the Americans living on the bases account for between 10 and 20 percent of the total population of Okinawa's main island. (On Honshu, if you're a gaijin then you're generally assumed to be an English teacher; on Okinawa every foreigner is automatically assumed to be an American from one of the military bases.) However, most of the bases are located around Okinawa-city, and it seems that the Americans don't venture into Naha very often. Some never even leave their bases; they just spend their entire lives in their little bit of America and have no interest in exploring the fascinating country on their doorstep!
Peace Memorial Park
On Christmas Day we went to the Peace Memorial Park, which turned out to be a surprisingly long journey requiring two buses. (Okinawa has no trains; the buses go everywhere but are slow and expensive, and not as punctual as the trains on the "mainland".) On the bus there we met an American called Jeff who was studying Chinese and teaching English in Taiwan and was on a one-day visa run, so we spent the rest of the day with him, until he had to leave for his flight back. The Peace Memorial Park is on one of the many sites of the 1945 Battle of Okinawa. (Japan doesn't seem to have any war memorials; they're all peace memorials.) It covers a large area on the coast with several sections including a hall housing a Great Buddha, the "Cornerstone of Peace" (hundreds of tablets engraved with the names of all those who are known to have died in the Battle of Okinawa - about 230,000 people in all, I think), and memorials for every prefecture in Japan.
The Great Buddha in the Peace Memorial Hall. The strands of colour in front of the statue are paper cranes.
Jeff and Michelle outside the Peace Memorial Hall.
The view along the coast at the Peace Memorial Park.
On returning to Naha we had our Christmas dinner in an Indian restaurant. A bit different from the baltis we get in Birmingham, but pretty good nevertheless!
We went scuba diving on Boxing Day, with Fathoms (now part of Narcosis), "the only dive shop on Okinawa catering to English-speaking divers". As we were both novices, it was good to be instructed by a native English speaker. We opted for just the introductory "Discover Scuba" session. Unfortunately the weather was a bit windy so we couldn't dive at the best places, but it was a good experience nevertheless, and I would recommend Fathoms to anyone who's considering a trip to Okinawa.
Before our scuba diving session: Michelle, Rich (instructor), Sarah and me.
The initial training session.
Underwater pictures (that's Michelle on the right).
After the dive: Brian (instructor) and Michelle.
The following day we left the youth hostel and moved into the Okinawa Guesthouse (for which I'd picked up a flyer at the ferry port). It's a converted apartment block run by a guy called Keigo. It had only been open for about four months when we were there; he was still in the process of converting parts of the building. You could describe it as a bit of a hippy hangout, with several long-term residents who'd moved down from Honshu for the Okinawan lifestyle & weather. Great decor, and a great place to meet some colourful characters who are about as far from the Japanese stereotype as you're likely to get! They made us feel very welcome, besides which it was about half the price of the YH. (Details: it's directly behind the Naha Shopping Center (one of the aforementioned coach-party-type shops, marked on the standard city map) in north-west Naha, and Keigo's phone number (he speaks a bit of English) is 090-9782-9696.)
In the Okinawa Guesthouse.
Keigo with his didgeridoo (that's Doraemon on his head).
We took the ferry across to Zamami Island on December 28th, returning on the 30th. Zamami is one of the Kerama Islands, an hour or two west of Okinawa main island, and has a population of about 400. It's well-known for its diving and whale-watching. Just about every building on the island is geared up to accommodate divers, but since virtually nobody speaks any English it might not have been wise for us beginners to dive there! We stayed in a rather ramshackle minshuku called Takatsuki. In the toilets, the U-bend on one of the washbasins was completely rusted away so that when you took the plug out the basin emptied directly onto the floor! Fortunately there was adequate drainage built in, but this was certainly one place where toilet slippers were worth wearing!
We hired bikes for an afternoon, and the old man who rented them out to us told us that the normal rate was ¥500/hour but he'd give us them for four hours for ¥1000 because we were "cute". It still didn't strike me as particularly cheap - especially when you spent most of the time pushing because the hills were too steep to cycle up - but we went ahead anyway. The next day we encountered several other foreign visitors who'd also hired bikes, and it just so happened that all of them had been given the same discount for the same reason. This was in low season, and you can buy a bike for about ¥15,000, so he must be doing OK!
The view from the Takatsuki observation point on Zamami.
The whale-watching season - when humpback whales come close to the island - isn't really until February/March, but we heard that a couple had already been seen before and during our visit. They were too far away to be spotted without binoculars though.
Zamami has some spectacular sunsets. This one was a bit disappointing at the time, but the photo's come out surpisingly well.
There are also beaches on Zamami where sea turtles lay their eggs; again it was the wrong time of year, but I went down to one of these beaches and found some strange tracks there, about two inches wide, that might possibly have been left by baby turtles returning to the water after hatching.
Me at the turtle beach. (Photo taken by Kazunori Seki, whom I met there)
On our second evening on Zamami we were invited to join a party in the dive shop adjacent to our minshuku, together with the owners of our minshuku, a couple of other guests and a few other divers and locals. To me it looked more like a portacabin than a shop, but then a lot of dive shops don't look like conventional shops, particularly on Zamami. This was our opportunity to sample awamori, the local alcoholic speciality. Can't say it did a lot for me though!
The party on Zamami Island.
Sunabe and Okinawa-city
When we got back to the main island Michelle and I parted company for a few days, meeting up back at the Naha Guesthouse for a couple of nights before returning to Shiga. I spent one night at a Western-style hotel in Sunabe, a few miles up the west coast of the island, then on New Year's Eve I went across to Okinawa-city.
Okinawa-city is very different from Naha. As I mentioned before, it's more or less surrounded by US military bases, and as a result the city is full of American military personnel and their families, most of the shops accept dollars, and most of the locals speak at least a little English (the Americans I encountered weren't interested in learning Japanese, except possibly for chatting-up purposes). I noticed that for some reason there seemed to be a large number of shops selling Chinese clothes.
A helpful lady called Hideko in the Central Travel Office (the tourist information office was closed) booked me into a very centrally-located minshuku called Midori-so where I had a private room for only ¥2000 a night. (¥3000 for ensuite; just off Route 330 between Goya intersection and Chuo Park Avenue, tel. (098)-937-3779, no curfew but no English spoken either.) The floor sloped a bit and the window didn't close properly, but it was fine for what I needed.
New Year's Eve
During the day I met an American called Bennie who invited me to a party on one of the bases and arranged to pick me up in a taxi. However, he failed to appear, so after waiting for 45 minutes I gave up and tagged along with a group of passing Marines: Channen (aka Tonka), Jose and Leroy.
With the Marines I met in Okinawa-city (left to right: Channen, me, Jose, Leroy).
We had a meal then wandered around for a while, ending up in a bar with about 300 other US servicemen (about 20 men for every woman - not a bad ratio!) and very loud live heavy rock music. They did a cash draw using the numbers of our entry tickets, with $100 prizes, and Jose's number came up just when he'd gone outside for some air, so he missed out. For some reason the countdown was delayed until seven or eight minutes past twelve, not that it made any difference.
Sometime between midnight and 1am we parted company, since I didn't want to fork out ¥2000/$20 to get into a nightclub that wasn't even playing music I liked. I wandered back to the minshuku, stopping on the way to chat to numerous Americans, most of whom assumed that I was American too. (Incidentally, have you ever noticed how Americans say "Happy New Yr!" whereas we Brits say "Happy New Year!"?) I also got stopped by a middle-aged Japanese guy who kept saying "You... hotel... how much?" When he started saying "Ten thousand? Twenty thousand? How much?" I drew the conclusion that he wanted to pay me to go to a love hotel with him, and decided that it was time to walk away very quickly!
New Year's Day
On New Year's Day I took the bus back to Sunabe to meet up with Rich (of Fathoms) and his customers for a trip up to the Ocean Expo Park on the Motobu peninsula in the north of the island. It's a big park but unfortunately we got there a bit late in the day so we only saw quite a small section of it before closing time. We saw the underwater and "above-water" dolphin shows (the underwater one was the better of the two, and it has to be said that I wasn't the only one who was stunned to be shown a dolphin's erection!), various turtles and manatees, and went round the aquarium.
At the entrance to Ocean Expo Park.
Turtle (don't ask me what kind).
The underwater dolphin show.
That evening I met up with Ryoko and Yoshino from Shiga IFS; both are students in Kyoto but hail from Okinawa, so they were home for New Year. Together with their friend Kazusa(?) we went to the Naminoue shrine in Naha (just a few minutes' walk from the guesthouse there). We went through the ritual of throwing money into the box and offering a prayer, then getting our fortunes for the year out of the lucky dip. It was even in English on one side of the paper. Once we'd read the fortunes we'd to fold the papers and tie them to nearby trees or specially-erected frames if we wanted the fortunes to come true. (Michelle was told the opposite - that you tie your fortune up if you don't want it to come true - can anyone tell me which is right?) Mine was "Very Good" overall, but I can't remember much of the detail. Against Love it said I should look at his heart, not his features, and against Expected Visitor it said "Will probably come". That's about all I can remember.
Ryoko, Kazusa and Yoshino poring over their fortunes at the shrine.
This little girl was so cute that I just had to take a picture!
Nakamura House and Nakagusuku Castle
The following day I went to Nakamura House and Nakagusuku castle ruins, both a short distance south of Okinawa-city. Nakamura House is one of the best-preserved traditional houses on the island (most of the others having been destroyed in the war) and was formerly the home of a wealthy farming family. The name "Nakagusuku" means "inside castle". Nowadays only the surrounding walls remain, but they're impressive, and it's a good viewpoint from which you can see the ocean on both sides of the island. There are even large expanses of grass, which may not sound very exciting to many Westerners, but it's pretty rare in Japan!
The "shiisa" guardian lion on the roof of Nakamura House. You see Shiisa lions all over Okinawa; they're guardians to watch over the entrance to your home. They usually come in pairs: one (male) with the mouth open to scare away evil, the other (female) with the mouth closed to keep all the good stuff inside the house.
Later on I met up with Ryoko, Yoshino and a former colleague of Ryoko's called Yoshimasa, and we went for a meal at a sort-of-American-style restaurant called Hammer. I was lost by the conversation, but the music (and giant-screen video) was good: greatest hits of Sting and the Police, followed by the Queen Freddie Mercury tribute concert!
I headed back to Naha the next day, stopping off in Shuri, the former capital, for a few hours. "Shuri" means "head village", and it's the site of Shuri-jo (castle). It's a reconstruction, having been destroyed in the war, but quite impressive nevertheless. I found that free performances of traditional Okinawan dance were being staged in the castle entrance courtyard for the duration of the New Year holiday (1st-3rd January). They were giving away free awamori and green tea as well.
Traditional Okinawan dances at Shuri-jo.
Other things to see in Shuri included the Prefectural Museum (which unfortunately was closed for the holidays), Benzaiten-ji (a small temple built in the middle of a pond), Enkaku-ji (the remains of another temple - just the entrance, but there appeared to be some excavation going on beyond, that so maybe another rebuild is on the cards), and the Kinjo-cho Stone Road (the old road that once ran all the way from Shuri-jo to the port at Naha).
Return to Naha
That evening I returned to the Okinawa Guesthouse. Michelle was already there; she'd spent most of the time there and at a big party at Hedo-misaki, the northern tip of the island. The guesthouse was packed so I had to be accommodated in a closet! I did have a futon, though, and the space was almost long enough for me to lie full-length, so it wasn't as bad as it sounds. Later in the evening, when the neighbours started requesting that the noise level be reduced, some of us went down to the beach, where we lit a fire, paddled in the sea and generally messed around for a while.
Nocturnal beach party with some people from the guesthouse.
January 4th was our last full day in Okinawa - time to stock up on the omiyage! First, though, I went to the former Japanese naval underground headquarters, which was quite moving. I'd kept reading about buildings having been destroyed in the war and subsequently rebuilt, but it was only when I went to the underground HQ that I got some idea of the impact on the population. It's not difficult to see why some Okinawans still don't like Americans, particularly bearing in mind the continued US military presence. (Yes, I know that the British were on the same side, but the Japanese mostly see it as a Japanese-American war, much as we Brits see it as a British-German war. Probably more so, because they don't even seem to refer to it as a World War.)
The entrance to the former Japanese naval headquarters. Again, the colourful things on either side of the entrance are paper cranes.
I also tried to visit the Ceramics Museum in Tsuboya, but it was still closed for the holidays. That evening some people went out clubbing, but I opted for the quiet night in.
Our flight home - back to the cold of Kansai - was on the morning of January 5th. Ayumi and Yuki, our roommates, came out to see us off with hugs, and Keigo gave us a lift to the airport.
If you ever find yourself shivering in Japan at New Year, Okinawa is a pretty good place to go!