Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Okinawa: Day one (the sunny day) and first impressions

When I signed on to go to Okinawa, it was simply because I was in the mood to sign up for any and all group adventures anyone amongst the ALT group was planning. Kyoto? Hell yes. Tokyo? Sure! Okinawa? Why not?! I had the time (which is what really became the limiting factor amongst some of my fellows-- vacation days have become scarce here at the end of the winter), and the resources, and I like to travel and go on adventures.

So it started out as nothing more than that. But after Tokyo, I realized I would enjoy Okinawa a lot more if I knew something about it, what there might be to do there, and what I might care about down there in Japan's Hawaii. Fortunately, I had spring breeeaaaaak, which here just means you go to work and there is no work for you to do (even overachievers can't do much because we have no schedule.. having no schedule prevents you from planning, yes, a semester ahead). So I got to dedicate some time to wiki-fying my life and reading all about Okinawa.

To be brief, Okinawa is a set of islands, Japan's southernmost prefecture (and, I hear, the poorest?). It's located down there close to Taiwan, so historically it has strong ties to China, Korea, as well as Japan. It was called the Ryukyu Kingdom before it got annexed, and once payed tribute to China, then to both China and Japan, and finally was claimed by Japan. The restored castle on the main island, though, is distinctly totally different from any other Japanese castles you will see (I say, having seen only Himeji-jo and Osaka-jo firsthand, heh..), being bright red and covered with dragon motifs.

Anyway, it's an island and it's in the south, which is reason enough to spend spring break there, especially if your home city is experiencing freak snowshowers on March 29th. It was mostly CatJET's field trip, because she had been there before, and she wanted to spend some time on islands other than just the main biggest island of Okinawa.

Our itinerary was to arrive Thursday (the 1st of April), Adina and myself around noon, and CatJET, Big BrotherJET, and Chi around 9:30 (Adina and I took one more day of vacation than the others and took off early). We flew from Kobe airport, a tiny, new, and totally reasonable place which all went very smoothly. There's a direct bus from Yamasaki station to Sannomiya, and from Sannomiya it's super easy to hop on the Port Liner and ride it to the end of the line on the manmade Port Island off Kobe. I have to give it to domestic travel in Japan.. they didn't even seize my water bottle, just opened it up and smelled it to make sure it was just water. Adina and I had a lovely cup of ginger tea in the pretty and modern-looking place before getting on a plane headed south. (Even the plane was pretty awesome... we were flying ANA, and they had cameras down under the plane to show what was going on outside to all of us unfortunate enough not to have window seats)

We boarded a plane in drizzly, chill-swept Kobe and disembarked into sunny humid paradise. Seriously, we were almost giddy as we traipsed off that plane into a corridor filled with orchids of various types and colors. Look at the orchids, I exclaimed, those aren't easy to grow..! Well, maybe if you live somewhere not subtropical...

Ohmigod you guys, it's the airport!

And there are shisa guarding our baggage..!

We took the monorail to its midway station (Miebashi) and picked our way to the Guest House Kerama from there. I was immediately pleased that we were staying there when I saw the open common room and met the staff; we were renting a tatami room for the five of us, and staying there on Thursday and Sunday nights at about 1200 yen per person per night. That is meccha cheap, in other words. When they asked for 12,000 I thought it was just for the first night. The people were really friendly and laid back and welcoming, and the other guests seemed decent too. The place has two tatami rooms (of which E01 is nicer because it has more windows, unless you don't want that stupid sun waking you in the morning) downstairs, and a bunch of 'capsules' which were more like a cross between a tent and a bunk bed. Upstairs there is a female-only dorm room.

I had forgotten to bring a towel (curses! NEVER forget to bring a towel..!) but they lent me one with a smile and no charge; there was soap in the shower area, although I'm not sure if I was supposed to bring my own (I did but never used it). They also had hairdryers. All in all, it was a little like forgetful or too-light packer's heaven. I totally recommend it to the Okinawa-bound traveler and I intend to stay there again when I return to Okinawa.

Adina and I immediately changed into bathing suits, sundresses, and flip-flops, and spent Thursday afternoon wandering around with a dude we met at the monorail station and with whom we found the hostel. We found our way to Overpass Beach, visited Naminoue Shrine where I pleaded for good weather to defy the forecast of rain for the rest of our stay. I tried some shiquasa soda from a vending machine, and we had okisoba for lunch at a red-painted 'soba shack' that we spotted just down the road from the shrine.


Overpass beach is not, I think, it's real name. But it is how I remember it.

Still, an overpass beach is a beach. And freedom? Is freedom.

Naminoue Shrine, just above Overpass Beach.

That's a sweet shrine, you might say.

On the way out of Naminoue Shrine, I spotted these red flowers against the blue sky and was like, where are we?!

Okisoba is one of the must-try Okinawa foods. Okinawans eat pigs. Like, every part of the pig. So there is pork in basically everything you order. Okisoba is just soba [buckwheat noodles] (only, the noodles are not as brown or thin as the soba I know elsewhere) with a different soup and with squares of delicious fatty pork on it. Shiquasa (or shikuwasa) is some kind of citrus that is green and gives the impression of a like.. lime-grapefruit or something.

Tuck in!

We walked down along the river later, in a park which was labeled on the map as "Manko Mangrove Park," which still confuses me because manko is not a nice word, in Japanese so please try to be clear when you say mango, or that you love to eat mango and find them delicious if messy.

The park was really nice. We spent a lot of time taking photos of tropical flowers while we watched kids play soccer with adults, and old people walking on painful rock paths as a mental exercise.

This, like walking on fire, is all in your head.

There were flowers everywhere. It was awesome.

Slow children at play.


There were also lots of stray cats. In all out wanderings though, both here and when searching for overpass beach, all the people we passed were exceedingly friendly and even helpful. Which is not particularly new to me in Japan, except for the super-friendly/open part. Normally when I walk by a group of old people sitting in a parklike place playing games or just shooting the shit, they ignore me. This is perfectly acceptable. That day, they would smile, wave, and shout greetings in barely comprehensible Japanese (Okinawa, of course, has its own dialect!). When people are so direct with me it often makes me uncomfortable because I become sure they want to sell me something. But actually, they were just nice. Also, we saw a bunch of what must have been bum-shacks, which were elaborately constructed and even decorated and looked pretty homey and inviting. One was made of umbrellas. I formed my opinion of Okinawa quickly: warm, laid-back, friendly, and awesome.

Well, okay...

We returned to the hostel to shower and plan the next step; our friends were delayed, so we decided to have dinner without them.

Adina and I stumbled upon Kokusai Dori which is the major souvenir shop road, and got caught up in browsing until we forced ourselves to go back for Taco Rice, another Okinawa specialty which exists because of the cultural exchange and probably sheer numbers of Americans hanging around the area. We also tried the Okinawa nama-biiru, Orion, which tastes superior to our local draft beer (but who am I kidding, maybe everything tastes better on a smaller island?), at least to me.

The others then joined us. We discussed going back out to one of the cute bars Adina and I had discovered and hoped to patronize at some point during the trip (one of them right next to the Richmond Hotel, the other along the water right under the monorail, called Moon Bow).. but then we all unfolded our futons and just sort of passed out.

We would wake.. to cloudy skies.

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