Bad Facial Hair

Trip Start Feb 22, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Japan  ,
Sunday, November 6, 2005

A couple of weeks ago, my flatmate Bob and I ventured once more beyond the urban confines of the world's largest city. Not only did we leave Tokyo, we actually managed to get off Honshu, Japan's largest and most inhabited island. Thus I got to spend a whole week in Okinawa, the country's southernmost prefecture, and perhaps the one most challenging to stereotypes of Japan. No giant skyscrapers, neon lights and crowded trains here. Just endless expanses of deserted golden sand, turquoise waters and colourful fish so big they could swallow a village whole if they so desired. Or so the brochures said...

In truth, Okinawa was great, even if it didn't quite match those lofty expectations. We did find plenty of golden sand, even if it was not exactly "endless", and I suppose not being eaten alive by giant tropical sea life could be considered a virtue. And, inspiringly picturesque though Stockport is, I am not sure I have ever spent my birthday in so photogenic a location as this:

Okinawa is, in fact, a chain of islands some distance from the southern shores of the Japanese mainland. The islands have been fought over many times by larger powers, and even been something of an empire unto themselves, and are thus culturally quite different from other parts of Japan. The blend of Chinese and Japanese influences has, in more recent times, taken on a significantly American flavour thanks to post-WWII occupation and the continued presence of 27,000 American military personnel on the islands. As such, steakhouses and places serving tacos are as common a sight as more traditional Ryukyu establishments. I figure this must be one of the cushiest postings possible for a GI - the TV network dedicated to entertaining the troops down there contains as many ads for scuba diving opportunities as it does cheesy, morale-boosting calls to arms. Indeed, imagine the contrast of alarm and amusement one drunken evening as we had college football (ie American not real football) interrupted by an urgent Armed Forces news flash. Fully expecting imminent nuclear holocaust at the hands of Kim Jong Il, we were quite relieved to learn that traffic flow through Gate 3 of Kadena Air Force base would be reversed from the following Monday. And remember folks, this will be in effect until the end of February.

Despite this laid-back facade, relations between the local people and the military are strained, with the knock-on effect that islanders tend to be significantly cooler towards foreigners than other Japanese I have come across. I didn't think that I personally would feel the rough end of this, being neither American nor a member of the armed forces, but I ended up cultivating a special look just to make extra sure:

With a crap beard, messy hair and sunglasses no self-respecting aviator would be seen dead in, I reckoned I looked about as little like an Air Force guy as possible. And, to be fair, as soon I told people I was an English teacher who actually lived in Japan, they did warm up quite a bit. But at least to one demonic hotel owner "sorceress" in the northern town of Nago, I might as well have been a wing commander with medals for extra-loud flying and eating babies:

I therefore determined to avoid singing "You've Lost That Loving Feeling" in karaoke bars and, fully confident that this abstinence would finally establish what a great guy I really am, I did manage to see a lot of the groups' main island, Okinawa Hontou. This was in no small part thanks to Bob's heroic efforts at driving on the correct side of the road for the very first time in his life. He guided our rental car around some pretty impressive places, although much to his chagrin as a proud American, he found Okinawan information boards keen to remind him that most of the island's ancient sites had been destroyed by fighting in 1945. Still, those that had been reconstructed were certainly worth the painstaking effort. Chief among them was the mighty Shuri-jo castle in Naha, onetime seat of the Ryukyu Empire and now a World Heritage-listed site:

Maybe even more impressive than this human development were the natural scenes of the island's northern reaches, where evidence of the tropical paradise for which Okinawa is famed mixed with elements more wild. At Cape Hedo, the wind and sea lashed against sheer, jagged cliffs with unexpected force, although this may or may not have had something to do with a typhoon that was busy narrowly missing the island.

But probably the best thing of all was just chilling out. Tokyo is relentless, Okinawa pedestrian, and that was really all I was looking for. So, snorkelling in warm water with tropical fish, checking out a massive aquarium with giant wrays and tropical fish, and eating tropical fish were, of course, highlights. Aside from the fish, Okinawan cuisine was interesting, and generally tasty. Sadly, however, there was the honourable exception of goya, a famed local cucumber-like vegetable, whose bitter taste would probably ruin Christmas if it could. And then tell the kids that Santa Claus wasn't real. But the rest of the food was very good, including such curious hybrid creations such as tacos pizza, tacos rice and anything that didn't include goya.

For the trip's last couple of days, we decided to splash out a bit on a birthday treat by staying at a resort hotel on the beautiful west coast of the island. We just about managed to avoid extreme bank-breaking establishments, and landed at Moon Beach, a resort with its own patch of white sand, palm trees and an especially potent line in chronic sunburn. That's right. Possibly my most significant birthday present was an increased risk of skin cancer, a risk born of almost unfathomable stupidity on my part. You see, despite constantly reapplying sun block to my face, I didn't really consider the possibility that my exposed legs and torso might also appreciate a spot of protection. The entirely predictable consequence of this madness was, quite simply, the worst sunburn I have ever inflicted upon myself. The swimming shorts tidemark I created displayed the sort of red-white contrast normally only achieved on the Japanese flag. Since I came back to Kawasaki, my clothing and futon have been the proud custodians of several layers of annihilated skin which, thankfully, revealed something approaching a healthy brown underneath. Well, about as brown as a pale, skinny Stopfordian can manage. But it was all worth it. Beers on a balcony, overlooking a green-and-purple-lit beach, the soft sounds of the sea, and very large bats swooping over our heads: it would all have been so romantic but for the crap beards:

And more photos can be found by clicking right here
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