It’s been two weeks of being away and what differences I notice in Kasukabe. The leaves have sprouted on the plum blossom in our garden like healthy locks, luscious and verdant reminding me of Okinawa.
I came back with my friend Genny yesterday on the morning flight. What a “shocker” is how Genny described it post-landing and feeling unwell after a heavy night of drinking and karaoke-singing in a smoke-filled bar in Naha. But the trip itself was everything we wanted and more. Okinawa exceeded our expectations and at every turn something lucky befell us. Let me tell you about some of them.
The first day was not too hot with the sun gleaming all day, it made the horizon a haze and the air was warm to breathe in. We went to Shurijo Castle at the end of the line of the monorail, which skirts across the skyline in the south of the island. Train tickets are like those in Tokyo but smarter because you don’t feed them in to the machine, they’re digital instead, no magnetic strips. On the way to the castle grounds from Shuri Station we found a stone stairway arched with leaves and the red flowers you find so many of in Okinawa. We climbed and I took a photo of Genny looking happy in the sun, she’d come off a flight the day before and this was the first day of our holiday, so hopes were high. The stairs led us to a road that wound around a fortress wall. A sign read Be Aware of Cobras and the hilltop view of Shuri and the sea in the distance opened up before us, it didn’t seem likely that we were in Japan, and as we learnt at Shurijo the islands of Okinawa were part of the Ryukyu Kingdom up until the 19th century, so we weren’t really in Japan after all. The Rykyu Dynasty was started by envoys who were sent across the East China Sea to meet with the Kings of the Ming Dynasty, hencewhy the Rykyu architecture looks so colourful and Chinese. A lot of red lacquer, gold adornments, and dragons topped off with swirls for their legendary whiskers and bright white fangs. The modern Okinawan houses and places all have Shi-Sha guarding the entranceways. Shi-Sha or Shi-Shi are ferocious lion-dogs with hind legs reared to pounce and jaws agape in a constant roar. We had traditional tea and cakes in the newly opened sasunoma of Shurijo, where we were sat at low tables that had a Japanese-style dug out floor with wooden slats to place our feet on, spreading a cooling sensation that felt nice against our warm soles. I asked the guide who served us tea what the red flowers were called I kept seeing in Okinawa? She replied in a benevolent amused tone that there are many red flowers in Okinawa. The ones I keep seeing are probably hibiscus she told me, but soon there will be bougainvillea and then many more. The colour red saturates the Okinawan scenes and flowers adorn the sides of buildings and the threads of shirts. Standing in a bar that only serves Hoergaarden in Asato, or as the locals call it Sakaemachi, which was an “absolute find” a la Genny, we learnt that the salary men of Okinawa wear floral pattern short-sleeve shirts instead of boring dark suits to work. What? The fabric and the style is resolutely Ryukyu and the men are tanned with darker features and wider eyes, they smile more and speak softly in clipped tongues. The shirts are called kariyushi and the fabrics are lightweight and すずしい some have geometric designs or wave patterns but often I see flowers and bright colours, Aloha.
We strolled out of the castle grounds and down the hill and passed a lake filled with coy carp in the waters and coy nobori draped above for Boy’s / Children’s Day. Then we found a hipster coffee shop that served us designer coffees ground by a could be male model barista, and we watched two old folks straddle in with moped helmets slung around their arms, a retired tanned Japanese couple who had a sweet attitude to life. Yes. I want to retire here. Genny found a recommendation for an izakaya in a town nearby called Asato and we could walk there in forty minutes so why not? The day was still going strong filled with sunrays that began to slant slightly when the afternoon set in. We took a winding road and sharp steps down through a tropical urban landscape and curved round the foot of a giant Hilton hotel. We ended up in an unfilled dam, the lowest part of town where we found jungle cats hanging out; one had electrocuted hair and golden orbs for eyes. The bank surrounding the dam was spotted with ohaka or mausoleums for the dead, and the ancestor-cult here I’ve heard is more pronounced than in other parts of Japan. The luscious vegetation everywhere gave the air a stillness, like us humans had been and gone and all that was left was untamed peace. Cutting through the empty reservoir we came to a street and then a main road, police sirens turned round a corner and flew down the motorway. Genny the navigator led us to a rundown sho-tengai where the locals visibly hang out. I see a raggedy old white bearded fella with coffee coloured skin leaning on a red plastic chair, ash trays made of empty tin cans, weathered lanterns slowly turning in the dusk. The place she’s found is called Urizun （うりずん）, which I learn in local dialect is the time of year we’ve happened to bumble in on. Urizun is between late April and May, when the heat of the summer simmers before breaking out in to fiery storms in June. The dialect of Okinawa could be called another language, they say ma-san instead of oishii for delicious, they even have a ん˚ which I can’t imagine how it sounds. The girls in the taxi that we shared to the aquarium told me that the Japanese made the Okinawan language fit their alphabet, like when you force a jigsaw puzzle piece in to the wrong shape. It’s like that. And then Toru, who we’ve been drinking Hoergaarden with tells me that the Americans when they took over the islands expected everyone to learn and speak English, much like the Japanese had tried and expected them to speak Japanese. He smiles wryly in to his pint as if to make a quiet point about these colonisers. The Okinawan beer is called Orion and it suits the fatty pork food and the tropical climate, whilst their Awamori nihonshu is flavoursome and has a bit of a kick, but it’s nothing as pungent as it used to be, our taxi driver tells me.
The second day was spent not rushing. It was still the perfect heat with the sun shining and a cool breeze. The plan was to find a beautiful beach and see a whale shark and to achieve this end we needed to catch a special bus. Going via the backstreets of the capital city of Okinawa felt like we were walking through the cobbled streets of a Greek island. Brightly discoloured peeling paint, corridor-like pathways that gave us glimpses in to people’s living rooms, crumbling Shi-Sha born ready on rooftops. That early morning, two cats were heard howling causing an absolute racket outside our flat window but neither of us had done anything. I couldn’t be sure as to what to direct my anger at and Genny thought they were dying. The brightness of the sunlight bouncing off the walls and the shimmering heat stunned us in to a stupor, and I got distracted by a café specialising in chocolate drinks, which turned out to be more like ice-creams. We didn’t get very far finding the bus but that didn’t matter, as we station hopped from one ticket office to the other trying to find that special bus. So many different bus companies, and neither of us could ever keep on our tongues what the bus was called. We did eventually find the correct bus stop, but it turns out you have to book an advanced ticket and we were as advanced as about twenty minutes before the bus was scheduled to arrive. Oh well, we would wait and see – but then an old Okinawan taxi driver found us and offered to take us to Churaumi Aquarium for the same price as the bus. It was the best kind of deal because both sides wanted it to happen. To seal the deal, Genny and I shared the taxi ride with two pretty pleasant young professionals from Chiba Prefecture who were in Okinawa for a holiday. So the four lasses who couldn’t drive and the tanned reliable taxi driver pootled off towards the north of the island where the whale shark lives, a two and half hour journey, but driven in the most comfortable fashion. Japanese taxis are clean and swish, the back door opens for you and it feels like a luxury hotel on wheels. Our taxi driver made a few comments about landmarks we were passing but he didn’t ever chew your ear off. Maya and Chiyaki were our travel companions and they were great, chatting about how smart the Japanese crows were and giving us a top recommendation for a restaurant later that night. I didn’t know this and I am supposing you don’t but if you do then sorry to have to remind you, but the American military personnel who are stationed in Okinawa (there’s been an American air base here since Japan lost in WWII) don’t pay rent and don’t pay tax on goods. Okinawa also used the dollar up until 1972 when they reverted to being Japanese again. What a history. By now the wise taxi driver was my friend, and I asked him did he not feel a little put out by the fact that the American military personnel don’t pay rent? And he told me it’s the way it’s been for so long that no – not really anymore. We actually hadn’t seen any American army people and I asked him why was that? And he told us they’re all busy gearing up for North Korea, which could kick off any minute. Then he asked us if we four had already got out tickets to Churaumi? And none of had because we’re clearly all slackers who don’t book buses and stroll around drinking chocolate ice creams, so the taxi man let us in on how to get discount tickets from the Family Mart, and better still, he’d drive us there on the way. What a friend. When we stopped off at the convenience store I asked him if he ‘wanted anything getting?’ and this friendly dude of a driver said ‘yes please an ice coffee’ and Genny almost lost her shit at how un-Japanese his response was. I was also taken aback at how casual and warm-natured his reply had been to a question that would usually make Japanese strangers break out in to a cold sweat of awakwardness of holding back feelings of what they really wanted. I got him the ice coffee still flummoxed at that response and we bought our discount tickets and headed to the aquarium.
Churaumi Aquarium also known as Ocean Expo Park is exactly that. There’s a manatee enclosure, a sea turtle pool and a ‘dolphin show four times a day for free!’ as Minako our Airbnb host told us excitedly. Ah Minako. She was this bouncy petite-framed woman with equally bouncy hair and a gorgeous smile who described the supermarket near our apartment as ‘Ryubo: Safe and Fun – open til 1AM!’ We parted from the girls and entered the underwater world where it was chockablock full of fish and sea creatures. Those guys that look like those white mushroom guys from the Moomins, poking their heads out of the sand in unison and looking like rods on the moon. There “weren’t enough jellyfish” said Genny but it was all forgotten when we went in to the final how to describe it? IMAX fish tank? A whale shark swoops past and above all our silly tiny human heads and swims on gracefully. It looks like a flying building or a spaceship. It looks like a friendly flying whale shark. We both shout W-H-O-A really loudly and watch all the sting rays that look like Star Wars characters with funny faces, and the other big fish that don’t compare in size to the massive whale sharks, there’s two of them. As we leave mesmerised we’re just in time for the 1 O’clock dolphin show, but we’re a bit late so when we arrive at the pool the show’s already started and the auditorium’s crowded with people so we have to watch from the back. And as we play the audience and the dolphins do their singing, dancing and synchronized swimming I am overcome by such an immense feeling of humility - because these dolphins are so good at everything – one can hula hoop and I can’t even hula hoop – that I start crying. I tell Genny that the dolphin show made me cry out of sheer appreciation and she tells me it made her cry too but she felt dumb about telling me. How many others have cried at how amazing dolphins are? After this we see some manatees being fed carrots and cabbages, some ancient suave sea turtles floating their own way, and go on the hunt for our beach. Genny by now is starving but we only find one food shop that serves curry and noodles. We choose curry, which surprisingly doesn’t go too badly with a beach, and I buy a hat that’s been made in Okinawa. And we happen to be right next to a beach. It’s called Emerald Beach and it’s divided in to three very Japanese sections:
Calm Beach (which the signboard spelt Clam Beach, so that’s misrepresentative)
Out of these three we picked Playful Beach as our go-to and it was a great part of the beach. Turquoise waters and white sand, hot but not sweltering and a clear blue sky. It was low tide and so as hard as we tried, we couldn’t ever fully submerge ourselves but that’s fine by me because look at the view. Paradise. We smacked on our sun lotion and I went in for a dip and got afraid of the seaweed tangling around my feet as Genny coolly splashed around me. The life guard kept a watchful eye over the children who would be hard pushed to drown in such shallow waters, and we saw one granddad walk in and out of the sea fully clothed and then wring out his money when he got back to shore. All in all a perfect day and it wasn’t even over. We found that elusive special bus to get us home, which took possibly three hours but I slept most of the way. That evening we found that recommended place to eat called A’pparishan （あっぱりしゃん） and had us some Orion beers, the great sweet pork, dishes made with delicious meats, rice and veg. They played Okinawan music over the speakers, in fact I’d heard the traditional music being played everywhere, and I love it because it always sounds like an omatsuri. Apparently Okinawan people break out in to song and dance more, but sadly I have no proof of this stereotype. Somehow we stumbled across some absolute gems of a bar, one that was styled in a Pan-Western theme with cowboys and Vogue fashion shoots, and another in the middle of a park next to some old ruins called Ichi Color. The owner with his smart haircut and strong jaw was originally from Tokyo and really liked Glasgow, though he’s never been, and the other bar staff with her feminine looks and shy smile was training to be a cabin attendant, she said working for ANA would be her dream. There was a jukebox and I made some bad choices but I can’t remember what the songs were because we were so intensely impressed by the blocks of ice they used to make the drinks, like chunks of crystal the size of a fist that twirled and melted into ice water in your glass.
Our last day in Okinawa. It had been my plan all along to visit Himeyuri noTou since I’d been served by a bartender-fashion-designer in Hikifune the week before who was actually Okinawan, who told me I must go there. I wasn’t 100% sure why but he said it had to be done because of Okinawa’s marred past and even though I sort of knew about the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, I was not at all aware about the Himeyuri students. There were two girls schools in Okinawa that were militarised by the Japanese government in the war effort, and as the war went from bad to worse for Japan, and the American ships invaded the islands in 1945, the Himeyuri Corps was dismissed. This meant that these school girls had to survive during full blown battle giving aid to wounded soldiers, doing surgery and running away from bombs and gunfire. Most of them died, and to make matters worse when Japan surrendered and the Himeyuri girls found out about it, the few remaining committed suicide in loyalty to their country. I know war is bad but I had never seen the extent to which brainwashing and loyalty and duty can play into the madness of warfare. Poor brave girls and their tragic story. There were a few survivors of the Himeyuri Corps who are my Obaachan’s age today, speaking to camera in the exhibition and I couldn’t stomach what a lot of them were telling me through the screens. Their ordinary memories are unbelievable horrors. It’s a moving museum and monument and well presented. And Japan does not come off well in the narrative, in fact, no adults do.
To get to Himeyuri no Tou we had to catch a local bus, there was one every hour, it probably didn’t help it was Sunday. If you’re ever thinking of doing Okinawa then Yes Totally Do It but maybe think about renting a car as getting around the island requires it. There was a glass factory and museum down the road from the peace memorial so Genny and I walked down there, we got to see some pretty neat glass-blowing performed for us by some skilled ogiisans. This one guy kept blowing these molten red globules in to pink glasses shaped like pineapples. And he lit some paper on fire for us, I think, to impress our tiny tourist minds. Earlier that day we had walked through Kokusai Dori, which translates to International Street but hey it isn’t as tacky as it sounds, and here we bought some rad Okinawan-esque shirts. When we returned to our apartment we decided to don these loud numbers and go to Naminoue Beach, which is the only beach in Naha to see what we were missing. When we got there it was night and we had some tinnies with us from the convenience store and two onigiri and both our reactions to Naminoue Beach was pretty much the same as the top Trip Advisor review: ‘Wow. Two bridges!!’ You should go to Naminoue just to see it because it’s really funny, there’s a causeway running over the sea right above the beach so the vibe is very unrelaxing, but well worth it. The moon was waxing in to a slice of white and after the beach we climbed up to the shrine and then back down again to find somewhere to eat. We found some crazy cheap deal at one of those very brightly lit izakaya, where we got two dishes and three drinks each for 1000 Yen. What? So we took full advantage of that and I drank more Orions and Awamoris and we had a brainwave to go and find that cool bar again. I had up to this point been saying that I wanted to sing karaoke but Genny had wisely pointed out it would be a mood-kill for the two of us to sit in a lonely booth crooning. I agreed and had shelved the idea until - out of nowhere in the street someone said ‘You can sing karaoke in here. 300 Yen for beer.’ We went in. It was a dark cigarette cloud dive with a bar-top that ran around the central bar and a big screen that hung on the wall, screening lyrics and tacky footage shot in the nineties, every stool was filled by some drunk tourist or local singing their hearts out to bad karaoke. Jackpot. Our flight was at 08:50 the next morning and we hit our futon at 04:30. But most importantly, we made it.