This is Life

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Okinawa


So, recently I went to Okinawa for a nice little vacation. I spent 7 days in Okinawa and had a weekend on either end to enjoy Tokyo, so it was a good time. Every year in Japan at the beginning of May is a holiday period affectionately known as Golden Week. With a name like that you know it has to be amazing. I mean, if it was called Brass Week or Bronze Week it just wouldn`t feel the same. Even if they tried to improve it by calling it Platinum Week most people wouldn`t be able to tell the difference if you told them it was Platinum Week, but in reality it was really White Gold Week or even Brushed Aluminum Week. Yep, the Japanese holiday makers have definitely got this figured out. In case you were wondering, Golden Week is basically a bunch of consecutive national holidays within a 7-day period. These holidays are the Constitution Memorial Day, Children`s Day, Green Day, and another holiday called "National Holiday." I like the creativity on the last one`s name. Oh, about Green Day, everyone has to listen to each Green Day album twice within a 24-hour period because they are really popular these days. At least I think that is what happens, but what do I know. I did hear a rumour that next year there will be no Green Day, but instead it will be replaced by the name of an even more popular Japanese band called Bump of Chicken. You read that correctly ... Bump of Chicken. Personally, I think they should have gone with Chicken Blister, but then that would have been silly, don`t you think. Yeah, one of the things I have noticed about Japan is that the more random an English name you can think of for your band, the more success you will have. Some other examples of popular acts here are "Orange Range", "OOIOO", "Seagull Screaming Kiss Her, Kiss Her", and "Mr. Children." Mr. Children is actually not so bad, but I still hope he is being investigated for, shall we say, unseemly activites.

So, about my Okinawa trip, well, as I said, it was good. Okinawa is basically Japan`s version of Hawaii, although if you have ever been to Honolulu you may feel that Honolulu is Japan`s version of Hawaii. There are actually stores there that are solely for Japanese customers. Souvenirs are big, big business in this country so I am sure they are doing very well catering to the Japanese client in Honolulu. I digress. Okinawa is also famous as being the site of the last battle of WWII. This was a brutal battle and deeply affected the Okinawan people. The Okinawan people (as well as the Japanese people as a whole) had been brainwashed into thinking that the Allies, particularly the Americans, were monsters who killed babies and raped women. Running low on manpower, the Japanese military recruited the Okinawan people to help fight in the battle, women and children included. They were massacred and many committed suicide rather that falling into the hands of the supposedly barbaric Americans. Aside from this, Okinawa (aka Ryukyu Islands) is in a crossroads between Korea, Japan, and China and their ownership has long been disputed between these regional rivals. When Japan gained control over them in the late 1800s (I think) they quickly applied a policy of assimilation in an effort to erase the cultural ties of the native Ryukyu people. This policy was affective in many ways, although the Ryukyuans have managed to hold on to many of their traditions. Unfortunately, this is not as evident in the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, where the Ainu, the indigenous inhabitants, have nearly lost all of their culture and langauge. Their ties to their past are nearly completely severed and are only holding on by a few small threads. Another tragedy.

Anyway, Okinawa`s militaristic character is still strongly evident as 30,000 Americans soldiers occupy approximately 20% of the land. Fortunately, there are several very good museums that are must-sees on any trip to Okinawa. One is the Underground Naval Headquarters of the Japanese during the war. This is a series of tunnels where thousands of soldiers and commanders lived and carried out the war. It was a secret from the Americans until right near the end. Tragically, over 4000 Japanese soldiers killed themselves by seppuku (ritual disembowelment) or by hand granade rather than being caught alive by the Americans. It was a pretty sombre tour, but an important one. The other museum we visited was the Peace Memorial Park. This one does a very good job documenting the buildup of the war, the major Battles in Okinawa, and the hardships faced by the Okinawan people in the war years and the in the post-war years during the American occupation that lasted until the 1970s. Okinawa wasn`t officially handed back to Japanese control until 1972, I believe. While the museums were very good, they still fail to effectively acknowledge Japan`s atrocities and wrongdoings, which the Japanese public largely remain ignorant of.

Oh, I have to tell you about one of our taxi drivers. He actually makes an appearance in my photo blog if you want to have a look. Anyway, he picked us up in town and took us to the Underground Naval Headquarters about 10 minutes away. He told us he`d wait for us there and that we only needed 30-40 minutes to see the entire museum. We told him we couldn`t pay for him to wait for us, but he said he wouldn`t charge. At least that is what we thought he said because he could only speak Japanese and, well, our Japanese is limited, at best. Anyway, we spent our 40 minutes in the museum and when we came out, sure enough, he was right there waiting for us, no charge. Next, he drove us to Okinawa World, which is a giant complex that contains the second longest cave in Japan, a snake museum, and a bunch of traditional Okinawa handicraft exhibits and shops, including glass making. He said we needed 2.5 to 3 hours to see everything. He also said he would wait for us. Now, 30-40 minutes I can understand, but 3 hourswith no charge? The guy had to be nuts. I asked him what he was going to do to kill time and he said he would have cola and coffee (that`s two drinks, not one) with his taxi driving buddies. At this point I glanced to my left and saw a dozen or more cabs waiting next to us. Next, he took us right down to the entrance and got us special English-only maps from the main office and then offered to take pictures for us. The guy went so far out of his way for us I thought he would get lost. Anyway, 3 hours later we came out and there he was. He`d had a nice refreshment and chat with his buddies and was ready to take us back to town. He dropped us of at the giant treehouse restaurant that serves better food to people who can read Japanese than to people that can only read English (the Japanese menu had way more items and better ones at that). All told, the driver was with us for 5 hours and the total charge was maybe $60, but that is a high-end estimate. Tips aren`t expected in Japan (often they are refused), but we insisted he take something. It wasn`t a lot (maybe $5 total), but he definitely earned every bit. Seriously though, I have no idea how the taxi drivers get paid in Okinawa, but something seems a bit off.

As you might expect, I was able to spend some time on the beach, though not as much as I would have liked. The weather didn`t cooperate for a couple of days, which, oddly enough, happened to be the days that we camped on one of the nearby islands, Zamami. We had to postpone and then cancel a sea kayaking/snorkeling day because of the weather, so that was a bit of a bummer. Guess you can`t complain if you are only spending $3 a night on accomodations. Nevertheless, I was able to enjoy the azure beauty of the sea, which might be the most beautiful I have ever seen. We went snorkeling a couple of times, but the reefs were pretty brown and don`t hold a candle to the vibrant and brilliantly coloured reefs of Maui, my paradise. They were ok though.

In our final two days we rented a car and drove 80 kms up to coast to a town that is home to the world`s second largest aquarium. The Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium has a tank that that has a capacity of 10,000 gallons. That probably means as little to you as it does to me, but to give you an idea of how big that is, there is enough room for 3 whale sharks (the world`s largest fish), 4 manta rays, and about 30 different species of other fish and rays. There are over 5,000 individual fish in the tank. I am actually pulling most of those numbers out of nowhere, but the point is that it is big. I took lots of nice pictures there and was going to tell you that they were from scuba diving (I was careful not to get any walls, reflections, or other people in the pictures), but I suppose your reward for reading this far is knowing that I am not a daring underwater adventurer/photographer, because I am sure that is what you were thinking. We also stopped by Pineapple Park, which featured a short drive through a pineapple plantation by way of a driverless, pineapple-shaped golf cart, which was accompanied by an audio track explaining eveything we were seeing (fascinating stuff such as there being over 1000 varieties of pineapple). Most people get the commentary in Japanese, but since we don`t speak it, they switched the track on the on-board minidisc player to the English track. It was done by an American girl who couldn`t really pronounce a single Japanese word properly, but she did great with the English words. After the pineapple go-cart, we went in and sampled a variety of different pineapple wines, pineapples, and pineapple-flavoured sweets. I had such high expecations for the place because for some inexplicable reason they thought Pineapple Park should be a giant Bavaria-style castle, but I must say that I was a little disappointed. Maybe I will skip it next time I go back. Besides, I hear there is a great Cucumber Kingdom theme park nearby. Finally, we also visited Nagakusuku Castle ruins, Nakamura House (a traditional Ryukyu-style house), and Shuri Castle.

In my short time in Okinawa I was able to draw some important conclusions. First, that the Okinawan people are much more friendly and open than people on the Japanese mainland. This is not to say that the Japanese are not friendly, but Okinawans have a little more of a Pacific Islander`s mindset, which includes brilliant hospitality and very little emphasis on punctuality. I was constantly trying to decide if Okinawans should be classified as Japanese or Islanders, but I couldn`t settle it. The ubiquitous Hawaiian shirts just may tip the scale toward the islanders. Second, that I still prefer Maui. Okinawa is gorgeous, but it gets bloody hot in the summer and also is plagued with some of the same maladies as the mainland. Namely, powerlines and haze dominating the skyline. There were very few clouds in the sky for most of our stay, but the humidity causes a haze so that there is almost never a crystal blue sky. Have a look at my pictures from Shuri Castle as evidence of this. There wasn`t a cloud in the sky, but it still appears white in the photos because of the haze. Too bad, I say. Still, Hawaii in general is more epic and has a much higher frequency of breathtaking vistas. Finally, coconut beer is really good. I am not a beer fan, but coconut beer may be the best I have ever had. It is basically just beer laced with coconut flavour. Who would have thought? Anyway, Kampai (cheers) to a great Golden Week.

3 Comments:

At 1:11 PM, Anonymous Christina said...

holy history lesson batman. i can't read everything when it's midnight. my eyeballs stop working. but i want to try coconut beer, and i want to go to the okinawa aquarium and see giants of the deep and rock fish and i want to see buttnuts too (why didn't you post *that* pic, hmmm?). I was just in atlanta, and i'm an idiot and didn't book to stay another day to visit the Georgia aquarium. word has it it's pretty awesome. bigger than the one in Monterey. Which is pretty awesome. Maui was awesome too, but the one in the bahamas (at Atlantis) was even awesomer.
all your talk of hawaii makes me miss it. and i didn't even like honolulu.

 
At 11:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Still can't get over your English accent as I read your blog which was bloody long again, but I read it anyway as I chuckle at your English accent...

June Duk

 
At 12:30 AM, Anonymous mark said...

Anything new with you, it has been such a long time since anything new was published on your blog?

 

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