A thousand and one ways to cook a pig

Trip Start Mar 18, 2003
Trip End Apr 08, 2007

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Flag of Japan  ,
Sunday, October 8, 2006

It's probably best known internationally as the site of one of the Pacific theatre's most brutal battles, but Okinawa for the Japanese is an ideal, domestic paradise. The New Year's holidays, Golden Week and most of the summer see the main island (and others in the Miyako and Yaeyama groups) swamped with package tourists all convinced by the marketing of its tropical bounty. The reality - with its thousands of U.S. military troops and sprawl of bases - falls somewhat short of the mark, but there are some fine areas of great scenic beauty. Bali, Kau'ai or the Maldives it may not be, but it draws the crowds all the same.

Anyhow, my girlfriend, Mayu, has been wanting to go to Okinawa at least as long as I've known her. After numerous complaints about us never taking a "tropical resort-style holiday," I thought I'd fly her down this year for her birthday. JAL has a very nice program for birthday flights, giving significant discounts on standard fares. Suddenly that 40,000-60,000 return ticket drops to a more palatable 20,000. We were both able to line up a few days off with a holiday weekend and still stay within that 7-day window from the actual birthday that JAL requires, giving us a nice four day getaway. As it turns out, that was just about the perfect amount of time for the trip.

We arrived Thursday morning - as any other holidaymaker - at Naha's somewhat dated international airport. The rather lackluster airport is offset, however, by the slick new monorail that's linked it to the center of town and beyond since 2003. Given how "stuck in the bland 70s" a lot of the city's architectural stock tends to be, it's been obviously good for the place to have something sleek and futuristic dominating its transport system. Naha is not a pretty city though. Given that the vast majority of Japan's cities aren't either, this perhaps shouldn't be surprised. But Naha seemed particularly hard on the eye, and I wasn't very impressed by the whirlwind view as we got in and outwards. Had we chosen to stay in the city from the get-go, it probably would have tainted my impression of the place. Wisely though, we didn't.

Okinawa apparently once had railroads, but there's little evidence of that today (I imagine it had something to do with events around 1944-45....). Nowadays intercity transport mostly consists of incomplete and irregular bus connections. Since most Japanese tend to travel in herds, the majority of visitors forego the whole "how do I get around routine?" The others, well, apparently rent cars. We chose to do the same and it turned out to be a wise decision. Given that it only cost us about 9000 for two days including insurance, it wasn't all too pricey either. The first thing we did after wiping the in-flight sleep out of our eyes was line up a car, and then we were off.

There are basically two main options for traversing Okinawa's long north-south shape. One is the relatively quick, but somewhat costly expressway. The other is the more interesting, but infinitely more traffic-clogged artery of Route 58 (they even make t-shirts for it, taking after 66, I suppose). Since it was our first visit, we opted for the latter. I had read in the guidebooks and information online that the south was mostly built up, the center was military-ville, and the north was attractive and rural. This was no joke. Naha's ugly sprawl merged into Urasoe's ugly sprawl, which merged into Ginowan's, Chatan's and then Kadena's. The route is punctuated by American-style steakhouses and A&W Root Beer chains (which seems bizarre given that I've never met a Japanese person who didn't hate root beer). Once Kadena creeps closer, the would-be Communist-bloc concrete landscapes start to change into vast air bases and high electric fences. (Incredibly there are supposed to be beaches here and there all along the way, but in light of the one I saw in Naha, I don't imagine they'd fit any loose definition of "picturesque.")

Then suddenly, once the huge swathes of military land fade from view, you find yourself driving through sub-tropical forest on both sides and the coast pops out of nowhere. From then on it's one long stretch of resort hotels separated by beaches and the inevitable convenience stores, restaurants and souvenir shops. It was there, at the north end of it all, that Mayu and I had arranged to spend the first night. Any dreams of idyllic relaxation on the beach and soaking up the ocean waves had been shattered by the wiles of old Mother Nature though. See, just two days previous to our departure, a typhoon decided to make an appearance to the southeast of the Okinawa chain and - despite heading in the opposite direction - was wreaking havoc on the water-frolicking plans of people across the island. The high winds and rough waves encouraged the hotel staff to close the private beach for the day, putting paid to Mayu's original idea of spending a day on the strand. The constantly fluctuating clouds above weren't helping anyone wanting to catch even the slightest of tans either, so clearly we had to find something else to do.

Thus we spent the remaining daylight hours of the first day exploring some of the north by car. Motobu peninsula, as the closest center of touristic activity, became the main focus. By the time we got around the shockingly strip-mined southern flank to the more interesting north coast and its old Nakajin castle ruins though, the sun was setting. We did manage to catch a glance of another beach, only to see it looking forlorn and seemingly closed for good. So much for an amazing first day. Dinner, however, was more satisfying. Our hotel happened to have its own quite rustic izakaya, which primarily served local specialities. And in Okinawa, specialities usually involve one thing in particular: pork. Okinawans love their pig. They eat just about everything the pig has to offer them. Ribs, breast, leg meat...yeah, that's nothing. The entrails, ears, feet and - as we were later to discover - even the head and face (!) were all local delicacies. We however were quite content to stick to the standard cuts of leg meat. Best to save pig face for another time, I think.

Another well-known Okinawan speciality in Japan is goya, which is usually translated as "bitter gourd" in English. Bitter it most certainly is, and it does take some getting used to. But having already eaten it several times before, I was quite prepared, even relishing the proposition. One of the more common ways to serve it is as champuru, which is basically bitter gourd, tofu and - you guessed it - pork cooked up together and garnished with bonito flakes. The proper accompaniment to this and other Okinawan food would of course be an Orion beer, brewed locally, or better yet, awamori, a Ryukyu firewater distilled from rice at a less-than-smooth 60 proof (but sometimes up to 120 proof!). Bottoms up!

The only city of any significance in the north is Nago, which was about as appealing on the surface as Naha's charmless suburbs. The next morning we flew through about as quickly as we could, taking Route 58 on up into Okinawa-honto's wild, rural northern reaches. Beyond Motobu peninsula the island really turns into a backwater, with only the odd village marking the map. The contrast was actually refreshingly pleasing, considering the ugliness of large segments of the south and central Okinawa. Although the peripheral typhoon winds had not quite died down, Mayu was dead set on finding a place to swim. After some driving (and a bit of prior discouragement), we happened upon a stunning stretch of white sand and emerald-blue water at Okuma Beach. A little bit of sloppy navigating somehow put us at the entrance to a private U.S. military resort (!), but we finally managed to get in and enjoy the ocean courtesy of a JAL hotel's private resort. The pleasure didn't come for free (at 750), but at least the facilities were clean and modern and the scenery gorgeous and serene. And people usually say Japan has no good beaches! (well, they're usually right)

After tossing about in the salt water for a while, we continued north to the tip of the island. Cape Hedo, a jagged, rocky promontory jutting into tumultuous waters, looks out over where the currents come together north of Okinawa islands. The effect is truly incredible, especially just after a typhoon has blown by. The waves would sweep down and crash against the rocks at such velocity that water would blast up the cliffs about 20 meters and leave sea spray spattering across the top of the cape. Since Hedo lies clear at the opposite end of the island from most attractions, we got to enjoy it in relative peace - perhaps only twenty other people visited in the time we were there. Twenty people at a site is next to nothing in Japan. By the time we finished taking in the fabulous views, grabbed lunch and got back in the car, it was time to start thinking about how to get the car back to distant Naha in time for the evening.

Before going for the long haul, we drove another 7km to the terminus of Route 58: a quiet, time-warped fishing village called Oku. The old Ryukyu houses and tiny streets interspersed with old women talking were a world away from the bustle and congestion of southern Okinawa. There was admittedly very little to see, but the contrast itself was reason enough to stop by before heading back. Once Mayu turned us back around (yes, the poor lass had to do all the driving since I don't have an international driver's license!), it was off down the long, coastline stretch of Route 58 towards the relative buzz of Nago. From there we picked up the expressway, meandering across the forested highlands of the island, then dropped right off into the tortoise-like gridlock of Naha. Ah, "civilization."

On day three, we saw the requisite tourist sites of Naha. It was then that I finally started to see a better side of the city. The previous evening we had gone out to its busy central artery, Kokusai-dori, for a bite to eat, but it wasn't until we jumped on the monorail early Saturday morning that the city started to open up. It's funny how a place can change when you see it from above. Not that it wasn't ugly anymore (it was), but the perspective changed a lot. And from our first destination, things improved even more. The old center of Ryukyu power used to rest in Shuri castle, in what are now Naha's posh, northeast suburbs. Like pretty much everything else in Naha and around, the castle was reduced to a pile of ash and rubble in the Battle of Okinawa. It took them until the late 1980s to start working on reconstruction, so the present structures mostly date from 1992. The painstaking restoration involved a lot of focus on original details though, so while many "historic castles" in Japan are made from rather un-historic ferro-concrete, this one's made entirely of wood and lacquer. The whole site and surrounds are really remarkable, and the couple hours we anticipated spending there quickly turned into most of the day.

By some fluke of planning, we actually managed to time our trip with the annual Naha festival. Upon returning to the center of town after a late lunch, we found ourselves arriving just before the start of the big parade. While not the famed highlight of the festival events, it was enough of a diversion to stall our other plans. We stuck around long enough to come to the conclusion that it really wasn't anything exceptionally different than the last couple festival parades we'd seen, then headed on. Unfortunately, by that time it was approaching dusk, so we decided to use the remaining light to see exactly what the so-called "Naminoue Beach" was. I didn't expect much, but Naha's very own beach was even worse than I expected. It's one thing to jam a stretch of sand in between a concrete barrier wall and a shrine at the end of several streets of bland apartments and tatty shops. It's another entirely to have a raised highway run across the water in front of the beach so there's effectively no clear view out to sea. The lone lifeguard watching over the two or three people even bothering to swim in the (admittedly fairly clean-looking) water looked bored out of her mind. Somehow I couldn't figure out whether the beach was an afterthought or the whole mess was just another result of typical Japanese construction run amuck.

For our final day on Okinawa-honto, Mayu and I decided to pay a visit to the Okinawa Peace Memorial and accompanying museum. While transportation to the park is unnecessarily time-consuming and inconvenient, the museum and grounds were well worth the effort to visit. While many have likely heard of the end days of World War II and the difficult fight for Okinawa, the museum drives home the reality of the terrible battle better than anything I've seen before. The photos, the war remnants and the films from the battles go so much further in demonstrating the suffering that normal Okinawans felt as pawns between a desperate, but still violent military regime and an angry, vengeful war machine. With civilian deaths almost exactly equalling those of the Japanese military, it really puts into perspective who the biggest victims of wars tend to be.

Our last couple hours in Naha were spent trying to take in the chaos of the main event of the Naha Matsuri: a gigantic, mass tug-of-war. After first swinging by the Chinese-styled garden of Fukushu-en (a gift from Naha's sister city of Fuzhou), we got to bear witness to a veritable sea of humanity along the main thoroughfare. It was about then that I started to realize just how many U.S. military personnel lived on the island. I can't think of when I've seen so many buzz cuts in one place before. Somewhat predictably, the vast majority were trying to elbow their way up alongside the rope so they'd have first dibs on participation (regardless of the fact that the event wasn't actually supposed to start for at least another hour). That said, for a bunch of testosterone-heavy men guzzling beer sans restrictions in public in the middle of the day, they were surprisingly tame.

Anyhow, apart from a lightning visit to the Tsuboya pottery district just south of the center, we had to quickly move on and catch our flight home. The verdict on Okinawa? Perhaps not the most exotic of Pacific getaways, but a highly enjoyable time all the same. Renting a car and seeing other facets of the island's personality certainly helped, because the south and Naha itself probably aren't worth the substantial ticket price. Next time though, it'll most likely be Ishigaki-jima and the other Yaeyama islands, where the remoteness and lack of infrastructure would probably make for a more unique experience. But that's the future.
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