Sunday, May 9, 2010

Tacos, rootbeer and pineapple in paradise: Okinawa

Okinawa in early March. Beautiful beach — too cold for swimming.

Time to catch up. So let's go!

Remember how we went to Yokohama for a work conference in early March? The conference was to help JETs who are leaving the program and returning to their home countries this summer prepare for that transition and get ready to find a new job. The months are winding down now on our contract, and we had to tell the powers that be at the Board of Education when we would leave Japan so they could purchase our plane ticket home. So the date's now set — we'll be flying home for good Wednesday, August 18. (And yes, we will graciously accept all baked goods you might think of giving us to welcome us back *cough cough* chocolate chip cookies!)

With August creeping closer and closer, we've been more motivated to make plans to go see places and do things that we really want to do before we leave Japan. And one of those places was Okinawa, the string of islands that extends from Japan's southern tip all the way to Taiwan. It's subtropical, it's sunny, it's beautiful. It'd have been a shame to miss it. So rather than head directly back to Hiroshima at the end of the conference, which ended on a Wednesday, we flew to Okinawa instead and finished out the week there.

You're probably familiar with Okinawa, right? Famous for the Battle of Okinawa at the end of World War II, during which one-quarter of the civilian population of Okinawa died. The U.S. was trying to seize Okinawa to use as a base for invading mainland Japan. The Japanese waged numerous kamikazi attacks — more than 1,500 planes — and there were mass casualties on both sides. When it became apparent that the Allies were winning, many Okinawan civilians committed mass suicide, with families gathering around grenades (given to them by Japanese soldiers) or leaping off cliffs. Wikipedia informs me that some historians believe that Okinawa led directly to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as a way to avoid a ground invasion of the Japanese mainland. Since the Japanese were so fierce in their defense of Okinawa, with so many casualties and mass suicides, military strategists looked for an alternative way to subdue the mainland.

Okinawa has been in the news often recently because there's been a big push by the Japanese to move the U.S. Futenma military base out of Okinawa. The current prime minister of Japan pledged during his campaign to oust the base, but he recently went back on that promise and now says it's not realistic. I'm not sure if this is a big story in the U.S. but it's gotten a lot of attention in Japan. In late April around 90,000 protesters in Okinawa held a rally against the base. Luckily that stuff wasn't going on when we visited.

It was a little early in the year for the trip, actually. Going in March meant there wouldn't be a ton of tourists yet and the weather would be very pleasant, not too hot. The downside was that the sea was still too cold for swimming. I wasn't terribly bothered by this though since I planned to go SCUBA diving, and Joe isn't so interested in swimming in the ocean with all its creepy crawly stingy bitey creatures.

Joe booked us a budget hotel in the red light district. He didn't know it was in the red light district. But it most definitely was. Every night there would be a line of dodgy looking pimpy guys dressed in black, wearing sunglasses, gathered around the front doors of clubs lining the street leading up to our hotel. Really no idea what they were doing, but they made me a little uneasy. Come to think of it, that might have been the only time I've ever felt remotely unsafe in Japan. Not really unsafe. Just uncomfortable. It was shady. But with a guy as big as Joe with me I really don't have to worry.

The first thing we did Thursday morning was head to the only public beach we could find on our map of Naha. This is what we found:


I was a bit perplexed why the Japanese ran this highway right in front of this beautiful beach, but there must have been a good reason. Right? Looking at the map again, we realized the picture of the beach had been taken from the highway so that it wasn't shown. Of course we could see the highway clearly drawn on the map in front of the beach, but I guess it just hadn't registered. The water was a beautiful turquoise nonetheless, and we got to watch some Russian dudes in Speedos go for a swim — the only ones hearty enough to attempt such a thing in those still very chilly waters. Later we caught a bus out of town to a resort where we spent time on the beach pictured at the top of this post.

It really would have been better if we could drive in Okinawa, as there's not much in the way of public transportation. But with our international driver's licenses having long since expired (they were only good for one year after we left the U.S.), we weren't able to rent a car. So we had to make do sticking close to Naha.

Aside from the beach, Okinawa itself had an overall more relaxing vibe than the rest of Japan. I've often heard Japanese people say that Okinawa feels like a foreign country. There are plenty of taco joints there, the clothing is a bit more relaxed, the public transportation's not so great and the local dialect is significantly different. All true, though I wouldn't go as far as saying that it didn't feel like Japan. There was still an awful lot of concrete and characterless buildings crowded one on top of the other, just like the rest of Japan. It basically felt like Japan with a little more kitschy tourist vibe in spots. Case in point:

Obama says "Irasshaimase" (Welcome, At your service.) And his chest says "Oppai" (Boobs). I wonder what the Japanese would think if we posted signs like this of Japan PM Yukio Hatoyama in Hawaii? Hmmmm...

On the walk down the shopping arcade we came across these traditional Japanese shamisen featuring snakeskin, camouflage or goya, the bumpy bitter melon so popular in Okinawan cuisine. Wanna jam on one of these?

We ate a lot of goya chanpuru (bitter melon pictured at left cooked with tofu and Spam — swiped this pic from the Net) and tacos, and also paid a visit to the A&W restaurant for root beer floats, something you don't find elsewhere in Japan (most Japanese people hate root beer). Nago's Pineapple Park was a bit too far away for us to easily reach, so we hit a local pineapple joint instead to taste tested pineapple wine. It was truly awful. I really wanted to like it, really did, but... it was bad.

Other points of interest: Shuri Castle (meh). A traditional Chinese garden (gorgeous). SCUBA diving (incredible). I'll talk more about the latter two in the next posts.

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