Okinawa

I’ve always wanted to go to Okinawa as it’s where my great grandfather was from. As a child it always seemed like a magical far away place that I would never know. So since I’m living in this hemisphere, I had to come visit. And as a bonus, it was a wonderfully needed reprieve from the Russian winter. It was only a five day trip but I made the most out of it.

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iPhone photo flying in

Day One – Churaumi Aquarium

As soon as I arrived, my hosts drove me up to the north part of the island to where the famous aquarium is. The aquarium and surrounding area were built for the 1975 World Expo. The aquarium has been on my bucket list for a few years for one thing: the whale sharks. They did not disappoint at all! There are a few different angles to view them from: a gallery from above, a huge walking/standing space on ground level, or a sitting area where you can look up at them. They are incredibly impressive and magnificent in person.

Of course the rest of the aquarium is great as well. There are many different kinds of animals from the area around Okinawa and other places. Some of the displays had signs only or mostly in Japanese, so I couldn’t understand everything, but it was still very interesting.

In the area near the aquarium, there is also a botanical garden with many orchids and plants from all over the world. It was also beautiful and interesting. I especially liked seeing the area with different tropical fruit trees. Some of which I had never heard of before (such as cannonball fruit).

Also by the aquarium is a cool recreation of traditional Ryukyuan homes which I’ll detail more in my next post.

Day Two – The Water

On the second day, I had a great opportunity to go out on the water with one of my friend’s dad on his boat. She told me about the boat that he would go fishing on, so I was expecting some kind of sailboat or motorboat, but I was surprised to find when we arrived that it was an outrigger canoe that he had built himself. I was definitely not prepared for such an adventure. I had to leave my camera behind and didn’t use my phone on the sea so I didn’t get very many pictures, but it was such a neat experience and very cool! We did get plenty wet but surprisingly I thought the water felt really good (and this is coming from a guy who was cold in Hawaii in June!). The Russian winter really must have steeled me to the cold.

We made good time on the way out and found ourselves a nice beach to stop and have lunch of convenience store onigiri and then found a vending machine to get some hot coffee. The journey back was much more relaxed. The wind was more like a breeze. But it was so relaxing to be gently rocked on the sea. I could’ve taken a nap. After we managed to bring the boat back in to the shore, I went back with my friend’s dad to their house. My friend was in the States at the time, but her parents had me for a meal with some of their friends who gave me a ride back to where I was staying.

Day Three – War History

We began the third day with a trip to the Underground Navy Headquarters where the Japanese navy hid themselves in tunnels during the Battle of Okinawa. After it became apparent that they would lose, the troops all committed suicide instead of being captured or killed at the hands of the Allies. It’s a really heavy atmosphere in the place, especially in the areas where you can see holes in the walls from the grenades and other methods of suicide.

After the Navy Headquarters, we headed to the Peace Park. It’s a huge memorial area on the coast. The coastline of the area is absolutely beautiful which somehow makes the somber memorial even more tragic. There’s a museum area but we didn’t go in. There is a large area with four sections recording the names of those who died in the battle. One section is for the Japanese who died, one section is for the Americans and other Allies who died, and the two middle sections are for all of the Okinawans who died in the battle. It’s a heartbreaking sight to take in: the overwhelming loss of life that occurred in less than three months.

Also in the Peace Park there are different areas to memorialize the people of various prefectures and other organizations who lost people in the battle. I was surprised when we stumbled upon one for the Karafuto Prefecture, which today is the area I’m living in: Sakhalin. There’s also a really great view of the area and nature there. We also saw many American soldiers with free time walking around. It was really weird noticing how young they all looked to me and really underscored the tragedy of lives lost in the war.

Next, we headed to Kakazu Ridge which saw some of the fiercest fighting. From Kakazu you can look over and view the more famous Hacksaw Ridge, which just had a movie released about it. I was feeling pretty down by this point in the day, but as we walked over the ridge we found a lane of cherry blossom trees starting to gain its blooms already. As we all know, I love cherry blossoms so it was really beautiful and encouraging to me.

Day Four – Yomitan Adventures

On the fourth day, I wanted to go up to Yomitan, so we decided to take a bus up there. We got to the bus stop at the right time and waited for the the bus but it didn’t show up at the stated time. We realised that it was technically a holiday so all the buses were on holiday schedule. We got a coffee at the McDonalds while waiting for the next bus and the super helpful cashier came outside with us and showed us where the bus stop was (because she thought we couldn’t find it but it was still a nice gesture!).

We rode the bus for about 40 minutes up to Yomitan and as soon as we reached our destination, it started pouring rain. Since the next part of the plan was to “hike” up to Zakimi Castle, we weren’t sure exactly what to do without umbrellas or rain coats. We went in to use the restroom and then we’d figure out what to do next. Once we came back out, the rain had cleared up into a slight mist so we set off. The “hike” was really just a 30 minute walk up a hill but it was interesting, through some little neighbourhoods and then through fields of sugar cane. Once we got to the castle grounds another torrential downpour started. We tried to walk under some trees, but we still got soaked. Finally we sought shelter under a picnic pavilion where we waited until the worst of the rain stopped.

After the rain let up enough we continued on our way. We had entered through the back of the castle grounds so we had to go around the front and enter. The castle walls are all preserved fairly well although the castle itself basically doesn’t exist. It’s smaller than you might think because it wasn’t like a royal castle. But you can climb on top of the walls and get a good view of the sea to one side and green rolling hills on the other side.

My friend had told me that you can go to the Yomitan Pottery Village right near the castle ruins, so I wanted to go there but didn’t even bother looking up directions to it, assuming it would be obvious. It was not obvious so we wandered around the neighbourhood for a little while. Finally I saw an old woman working in a garden so I approached her and asked in my crappy Japanese where the pottery village was. She said it was very far but gave us some complicated directions that we didn’t really understand. So we set off and debated whether it was even worth going to and maybe we should just go back to the bus depot. Just as we were about to turn and head to the bus depot, a younger woman drove up in a car and said “Yomitan Pottery Village?” and so we said yes and she told us she would drive us there. So we hopped in the car with her and she took us all the way there (which turned out to be much farther than I had thought!). She didn’t speak any English but I tried to make some conversation in Japanese.

She dropped us off and we thanked her profusely and she drove off. The pottery village was interesting with many adorable little shops making various pottery things in the traditional style. I would’ve liked to have seen people actually making the pottery but we might have been there at the wrong time. I did pick up some shisa which are guardians of Okinawa. Most houses have two shisa, one with a closed mouth to ward off evil spirits and one with an open mouth to invite in good spirits.

Some examples of shisa

When we decided to leave we realized we had no idea how to get back from this new location so we walked 20 minutes down the road to one of the highways but couldn’t figure out where to go so we stopped inside a convenience store and asked the cashier and she spent five minutes trying to figure out the best directions for us on her phone and finally wrote down a little map for us. It turned out we were headed the wrong way so we turned around and walked 20 minutes back and then another 15 to the spot to get our bus.

We got off the bus at the American Village, a touristy but interesting spot in Ginowan. Because of the holiday schedule the bus back to the house wouldn’t come for another 45 minutes though, so we decided to walk back along the sea wall. I’ll never get tired of looking at the ocean so it was a nice walk. We did hit some more rain along the way though. All in all, an adventurous and slightly damp but very good day.

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