I first considered visiting Okinawa waiting for the tube in London. Out of the gloom and on a billboard shone a psychedelic fish swimming in crystal clear water and I thought, ‘That’s Japan!?’ Well it turns out, it is and it isn’t.
A sweaty Japan in a Hawaiian shirt, a quick guide to Okinawa
Okinawa is a large island in an archipelago an hour’s flight south of Japan. Formerly the Ryukyu Kingdom, this was an independent island nation that became wealthy by trading with its neighbours, Taiwan and Japan. Then the 19th century happened, a time when everybody seemed to want a piece of everybody else’s pie, and so their former neighbour of Japan figuratively knocked down the fence, built the extension without planning permission and claimed the islands as their own. Years of ‘cultural assimilation’ followed, leaving in its wake a people that spoke a Japanese tongue, peppered with their own distinctive dialect. Ask a Japanese person about Okinawa today and more often than not they will say, “It’s not like Japan.” Okinawans would proudly agree.
We can’t ignore Okinawa’s involvement in the Second World War. In 1945 and with the Japanese Empire on its knees, the US was planning for a final assault on Japan. Okinawa, with its strategic proximity to the mainland, was to be the launch point. The Japanese recognised this and dug in using the limited resources at their disposal, including the local population. From April to June, what followed was America’s bloodiest battle in the Pacific and Japan’s literal kamikaze fight to the death, leaving approximately 200,000 dead, most of whom were civilian and mobilised Okinawans. The mainland invasion was made redundant by the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nonetheless, the battle served to establish America’s concentration of military power in Japan which exists today in the form of bases and tense relationships between GIs and locals.
We arrived in Naha airport and the circus started immediately. Accustomed to Japanese efficiency and making assumptions based on previous airport experiences, we somehow managed to walk past our bags. So of course, we couldn’t re-enter to pick them up. Even though I could see them. Even though they were 10 meters away.
We eventually got them and stepped into the tropical humidity to catch a bus to Tomari Port where our hostel was located. Discomforting locals with our backpacks’ invasion of personal space, it wasn’t long before I saw a US naval base, stars and stripes proudly waving high above some sort of armoured hydrofoil. Having lived in an alien culture for nearly a month, it was even more of a shock to see Americanised familiarity on foreign soil.
Checking in to find that our alarm clock for the next few days would be the Zamami Island ferry docked literally outside of our window (it blew a fog horn as I opened the curtains), we settled on visiting a beach so we could chill the hell out, having managed to suck Elise into a whirlwind tour of central and southern Japan for the past three weeks. Our evening was then to be spent at the American Village, essentially a shopping mall, so we could witness the hybrid culture of Okinawa-America.
The problem was, you really need a car to get around Okinawa. Buses exist, as does a monorail, but the stops are sporadic. Taxis are just too expensive, albeit cheaper than on mainland Japan. So I did what I do best, and in broken Japanese interrupted the rushed lives of passers-by.
Getting nowhere and understanding less than I pretended to, I informed Elise about our dilemma, only to hear a power-walking Okinawan who had previously shaken his head at me say, “I’ll take you there.”
In disbelief, we followed the kindly man to his cube on wheels and promptly zipped off. This man had cut his workout short, simply to take some strange gaijin to their destination, even though he didn’t know where it was either. I couldn’t give a better example of omotenashi, or Japanese hospitality.
Upon being asked his name, he replied with, and I kid you not, Mr. Miyagi. We had travelled to Okinawa, the birthplace of karate, and now I was sat in a Miyagi-san’s Nissan. Somehow, our clueless trio made it to the place, and with nothing more than a “You are welcome”, our Karate Kid sensei sped off into the night. The America Village itself was, as expected, a concession to the GIs who frequented it, buzz cuts and all. We read the menu of Red Lobster, asked a couple of ‘brats’ for directions, ate a Japanese-take on Mexican food and once again, played the taiko drumming arcade game. It was a successfully strange microcosm of American society.
The next days were spent visiting the nearby Kerama Islands (?) and the underground Japanese Naval Headquarters. It was the latter where the commander of the Okinawa defence in WW2 killed himself, among many others, when the battle was lost. It was also a place I’d accidentally committed to cycling through the sun-kissed city uphill. It only made sense when we’d practically evaporated there that to effectively defend a place from attack you’d need, you know, a good view. Based on its history and the puffing face of my girlfriend as she cycled on a 40 degree gradient in 30 degree heat, it was a sobering experience.
As for the surrounding islands, we got to check out Tokashiki and Zamami and they are stunning. Both boast white sands, crystal clear azure water and abundant marine life. Go knee deep and you’re already surrounded by shimmering fish. Grab a snorkel mask for 500 yen and you’ll find coral in a pretty good condition attracting countless clown, angel and all sorts of other fish that a marine biologist can identify better than me. They’re also very curious, and I know this because I found one in my ear.
Scuba diving in Okinawa is expensive, prohibitively so for some (about $120 for 2 dives) but I’ve heard this is well worthwhile given the probability of whale sharks and manta rays. You can also go whale watching in the right season (December onwards) where you’re as close to guaranteed as finding humpbacks as you’ll ever be because, this is Japan, and they use a sophisticated spotting system. The ferry ticket isn’t cheap, 4000-6000 yen for a return ticket depending on the island and the vessel, but it’s well worth it for a taste of tropical paradise.
I alluded to the fact that Okinawa is a sort-of Japan. Given the relatively recent transition of power, it’s natural for there to be differences. It is said that Okinawans are the longest lived people in the world and it’s not hard to see why with their laidback island lifestyle and healthy diet of fish or an entire pig (pork face is renowned here).
The vibe of the people was perfectly represented on our last night, when just outside of our hostel in the ferry port car park, we heard the familiar sound of a stringed instrument accompanied by some haunting vocals. The long-haired musician that created this mysterious sound stood by themselves, staring at the ocean, completely unaware of our presence. We were transfixed for a good few minutes. As the song came to an end, the musician turned and smiled in surprise as we gave them a friendly applause. It was at this point that I noticed the masculine face contrasting with lipstick and small breasts. I wasn’t expecting this, nor when they offered me their snakeskin sanshin instrument so I could play some terrible chords myself as you will see below:
It was a genuine cultural exchange between a curious foreigner and a transgender local. I knew I’d never meet this person again, but when I think of this moment I wish them happiness in their new future self and identity.
Okinawa. An island where silver fox pensioners look ever ready to catch their next wave and pull off chic floral shirts as if they were a Hawaiian James Dean. An island where the women can confidently say their tally for f&**s given is zero. An island where everyone is so radiantly tanned, the atmosphere may as well be sepia.
Okinawa was wondrous. It was time to go to Taiwan.