Chris and John's Okinawa Adventure

Map of Japan Okinawa is the largest island in the Ryukyu series of islands to the south of Japan (see map). Japan annexed these islands from the old Ryukyu kingdom, and they remained under Japanese rule until the Pacific War, in the 1940's, when it was run by the Americans. Eventually the Americans gave it back to Japan, who then made it into a prefecture.

Okinawa's average annual temperature is a sub-tropical 23ºC, and it never gets below 10ºC, ever. The entire time we were there, I don't think it got below 30ºC.

Why did we decide to take this trip? Japan Air System (JAS) has a special birthday offer: within 15 days of your birthday, you and a friend can fly anywhere in Japan for 10000 yen ($120). Since John's birthday was June 11, and Okinawa is a sub-tropical island over 1600 km from Matsumoto, we'd be stupid not to do it.

June 21 - Hirooka, Tokyo, Naha

We left the dormitory at 6am. Instead of taking the train to Matsumoto to catch the bus to Tokyo, we decided to just catch the bus along the highway in Hirooka, a half-hour walk away.

The bus ride to Tokyo lasted 3 hours, and was dreadfully uneventful. It rained and looked miserable outside the whole time. We arrived at Shinjuku station around 10am. It was still raining, and was a warm 19ºC. We grabbed lunch at a stand-up soba noodle shop in the station. Tokyo soba doesn't hold a candle to Nagano soba, but we enjoyed the atmosphere of tiny shop anyway. It was chock full of business men all standing at various counters (there were no seats in the shop). We managed to squeeze in between two suits and quickly slurped our noodles.

We had some time to kill before our flight, so John suggested we go for an authentic Japanese Shiatsu massage. We found a place described in John's Japan guide book easily enough, but once we got inside we noticed something odd. The name of the place had changed from a Clinic to an Esthetique, and none of the signs mentioned Shiatsu anywhere. We asked at the front desk, and the woman assured us the Chinese-imported girls would give us authentic Shiatsu massages, so we agreed to a half-hour session each.

My masseuse was a giggly girl who enjoyed testing my knowledge of the Japanese language, then giggling some more. She started by washing my feet, then brought me to the massage table. I had received several massage therapy sessions in Canada, but this was the first massage I had ever received that involved the massager working my back muscles with her knees. That's right, she knelt on me and pushed her knees into my back, as well as the more traditional approach using her hands. And before I get any email about this, yes, the place was legitimate... I think.

After leaving, John expressed his disappointment with the session. He figured the woman lied to him, and that we didn't receive a Shiatsu massage at all. Real Shiatsu involves extensive finger work, with little to no kneecaps.

We then took the monorail to Haneda airport. That was my first trip on a monorail. Nothing exciting. After riding trains twice a day, everyday for 9 months, a magnet-train is hardly an adventure.

Upon arriving at the airport, we went to our gate. Stupidly, I had packed my Swiss Army knife which set off the metal detector. The customs officers tried to ask me to remove the knife from my bag, but couldn't speak English, and were somehow reluctant to ask me in Japanese, so instead just looked at me helplessly until John - a Chinese person - arrived and promptly asked him in Japanese. I didn't appreciate that. They didn't even try to ask me.

Since it was John's birthday they allowed us to wait for our flight in the Rainbow Lounge. What a great place. We enjoyed free beer and a beautiful view of the runway. We were almost disappointed to leave and board our plane.

The plane ride to Naha took 2 hours and we slept though it. As soon as we stepped off the plane, the humidity hit us. It was 5pm, 30ºC and sunny. I immediately started sweating. I don't think I stopped until I got back to Tokyo.

We checked into a youth hostel, then made out way to the market for some dinner. It was so hot. We ducked into stores just to have the A/C cool us down.

We dined on some Okinawan specialties:

After dinner we browsed the shops along Kokusaidori, the main street. Although there is a large anti-American sentiment in Okinawa, due to the large number of US military bases located there, almost half the stores we saw sold western clothes and US army gear.

We got back to the dorm around 10pm, loaded up the coin-operated A/C and went to sleep.

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June 22 - From Beaches to Caves

We got up early (7am) and took a bus from Naha to a small pier. We bought a small breakfast of Onigiri (rice ball) and got aboard a glass-bottomed boat bound for Komaka Island. Komaka is a tiny, uninhabited, all-beach island 3 km off south east coast of Okinawa. There was a film crew shooting a commercial there, so I guess we came to the right spot.

We snorkeled from 10am to 1pm, occasionally getting out to walk along the beach and slather sunscreen on. Despite going through an entire bottle of sunscreen between the two of us, both John and I got sunburnt.

The snorkeling was great. Surrounding the island is coral reef which houses dozens of different kinds of sea life (that we could see). We swam amongst schools of small zebra-striped fish that occasionally nipped at my fingers, colourful, yet aggressive clownfish, shiny blue parrotfish, and we even saw a grouper that changed colour. It was the most incredible experience I've had in Japan.

After returning to the main island, we took several buses to Gyokusen-do Habu Park, home of the Gyokusen-do Cave. The cave tour is nearly 1 km long and winds along an underground river, under stalactites and around some very interesting rock formations and stalagmites. John and I were just thankful to be out of the hot sun.

The rest of the park was fun. Many traditional Okinawan exhibits and large air conditioned rooms. We had Okinawa Soba, a delicious noodle soup for lunch, and ice cream for dessert. We tried some Okinawa specialties, like sweet potato and goya ice cream.

We took a bus home and slept during the 1 hour ride. We arrived back in Naha around 6pm, then got dinner. I had tofu soup (Okinawan tofu is supposed to be the best in the world). We bought some sunburn spray, then headed back to the youth hostel at 9pm.

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June 23 - Okinawa: 56 Years after the War

Got up early this morning again (7am) and had a cold shower to soothe my burning skin. It didn't help much. By the time we had left the hostel, we had finished off the entire can of sunburn spray.

We headed to the Naha bus terminal (again) and hopped on a bus to the Peace Memorial Park. It is located on the southern tip of Okinawa Island, where the last battlefield of the Battle of Okinawa took place. The section overlooking the ocean is called the Cornerstone of Peace, which houses cenotaphs bearing the names of those who died in the war.

We sat through a long (and boring) Japanese speech given by Okinawan politicians and even the Prime Minister of Japan, who even took part in a dirge to mourn the dead.

We then headed to the Peace Memorial Museum where we learned all about the Battle of Okinawa. The Japanese Army considered the Okinawan People to be expendable and had them fight to the end to prolong the war and prevent the Americans from reaching Japan's main island of Honshu. Out of the 200000 people who died in the battle, 120000 were Okinawan civilians.

After the museum we headed to another museum, again describing the exploitation of the Okinawans during the war. This museum, Himeyuri, is dedicated to a women's school whose teachers and students were made to act as nurses and medics during the war.

We were both very tired at this point, so we headed back to Naha for some window shopping. Naha has many beautiful (and air conditioned) shops. After a few hours of not buying anything, we had dinner at a Chinese restaurant, then headed back to the hostel.

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June 24 - Castles and Underground Headquarters

We got lazy and slept in until 9am. What woke us up was more effective than any alarm: the A/C shut off. We had paid for 12 hours, and within minutes of it shutting off, both John and I were wide awake and already sweating.

We grabbed brunch at McDonald's (our cheapest meal of the whole trip) and headed out for Shuri Castle Park, home of the Ryukyu royal family's ancient palace (reconstructed). The castle was totally destroyed during the Pacific War, but was rebuilt in the 1950's, and work is still being done to rebuild the entire castle grounds.

After the castle, we went to Tama-Undun, the tombs of the Ryukyu royal families. It was a big stone structure located in a clearing in the middle of a sub-tropical forest. The noonday sun was beating down on us pretty hard, so we didn't stick around too long.

Getting sick of the hot hot sun, we took an air-conditioned bus to the Underground Navy Headquarters used by the Japanese army during the Battle of Okinawa. The entire base was carved out of the hillside using pickaxes and hoes by Japanese soldiers.

Rather than face the disgrace of being captured by the Americans, 175 Japanese soldiers committed suicide in this base. Some of the walls are pock-marked from grenade explosions. The senior officer had written a telegram commending the Okinawans for their dedication while fighting to the finish. He also scratched a poem into the wall of his quarters before killing himself.

We returned to Naha, and after cooling off in a coffee shop for an hour, we went to a local Izakaiya (bar-style restaurant) for dinner. The restaurant was called Jinjin which is native Okinawan for firefly, and is located in the basement of a shop along Kokusaidori. We found it though John's Lonely Planet guide to Japan. If it wasn't for the guide, we would have never found the place.

We were greeted warmly by the waitress and seated at the bar. She asked if we used the Lonely Planet guide to find this restaurant. I guess this place sees few foreigners. We were served by the owner, an old Japanese man who had the unique ability to speak Japanese slowly without sounding patronizing.

We are more rafute as well as a mashed-vegetable mix, some pickled onions, tofu soup and some complimentary aloe vera. Everything was delicious... except the aloe. It had the consistency of slabs of gelatin floating in snot. We ate it anyway, as to not offend our generous hosts.

We returned to the hostel, pumped the A/C full of 100 yen coins and went to sleep around 11pm.

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June 25 - John and Michio Come Home

Once again woken up by the lack of A/C, we packed up and headed out for one last tour of Naha. John bought some pottery that Okinawa is famous for, and we checked out the market again.

For lunch we ate Yagi Jiru - goat soup. Neither of us liked it too much. It wasn't the best last impression we could have had of Okinawan food.

We took the bus to the airport and looked out on the white sandy beach shore and clear blue waters one last time before getting on the plane back to Tokyo.

About an hour into the flight, the stewardess asked me if I was Mr. Lee. I said no, and nudged John awake. Because of his birthday status, the crew had signed a card for John and gave us some cookies and candies. What a nice thought we agreed, until we read the card. It was addressed to Mr. Lee, John and Mr. Lyom, Michio. I can only guess that Michio Lyom was supposed to be me. I think the passengers sitting next to me became annoyed by my laughter. I couldn't help think of the real Mr Michio, who got a card addressed to "Mr. Tanaka, Chris".

We touched down in Tokyo around 5, which gave us a few hours to get to Shinjuku and get some food. Once again we consulted the guide as to where to eat. It recommended an all-you-can-eat sukiyaki (boiled meat and veggies) restaurant. The guide was, unfortunately, slightly out-of-date, and the restaurant had relocated. We spent half an hour looking around down-town Shinjuku before finding it.

The restaurant was completely empty besides us, so we hoped there was nothing wrong with it. The food was good, and we really did eat all-we-could-eat. We got to the bus station and got comfortable for the 3 hour ride home. I read an entire mediocre paperback on the ride home. I have become so starved for English reading material, I'll read anything at any opportunity.

We arrived in Hirooka at 11pm, and got back to the dorm at 11:30, sunburnt, sweaty and tired.

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Michio Lyom
July 6, 2001