Most recent John Allan Travel Blog

The sub-tropical island – Okinawa
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Thu 18 Jul – day 68 Having reached the bottom of the gangway just as dusk was falling, I walked across the quayside and through the terminal where a man was trying to sell stays in a hostel.  There was just one taxi left on the rank, so having put all my luggage into the boot I climbed into the back and we set off into the maelstrom that was the Naha traffic; lots of vehicles on very narrow roads.  The taxi driver was not as smartly dressed as his counterparts on the mainland, but then this was a sub-tropical island.

I knew that we were heading in the correct direction when I saw the monorail tracks overhead.  The driver turned off the main road and we travelled along the side of a small river before coming out under the monorail tracks again.  “Hotel” the driver exclaimed pointing to a building to the front left, but we had to still go around the houses before we entered the attached car park and then went up a few levels.  We stopped so that the driver could check that we were at the correct level, no, so up one more floor.  Having paid him, I expected him to drive off, but he wheeled my suitcase to reception as he needed to get his ticket validated before he could leave.  He then shook my hand and wished me a good stay.

Check in was very easy and once again I did not need the voucher that I had been given by Inside Japan; basically it was a case that if your name was in the computer then everything was OK.  I was given my breakfast tickets and keycard and then it was up in the lift to the 6th floor; there was air-con in the lobby, lift and corridor – great, but it was off in my room, so the place was rather warm.

I had passed a self-service laundry in the corridor, so that was my work for tonight.  Not enough change, so back down to reception where I was shown where the change machine and the computers were; internet access was free, but limited to 20 minutes before it cut you off.  I sent my sister a quick message updating her on my progress.

Back in my room I sorted out the dirty clothes plus those which need ironing.  The dirty clothes went into the machine and then I had a shower before carrying out some admin tasks.  When the washing was done it went into the dryer and although I was feeling very sleepy I managed to stay awake until the cycle was complete.  However the clothes were still damp, so I put another ¥200 in the slot and then let it run.  Back to the room and bed – off to sleep almost immediately.

 

Fri 19 Jul – day 69 I awoke feeling rather warm as the air-con was off; it switched off automatically when the room key was removed and I had not reset it.  It was 00:30hrs, so I put my clothes on and walked down the corridor and collected my clothes from the dryer; back in my room I dumped them on a chair, switched the air-con back on and went to bed again.  Eyes closed – sleep.

The next thing I knew was that it was 07:00hrs, so up, shower, dress and down for breakfast as I wanted to see what was on offer.  At the entrance to the restaurant I handed over my ticket and was shown to a table; it was self-service so I got a large bowl of pineapple, bread and jam (no butter) and two glasses of orange juice.  The locals are getting stuck into what in some cases looked like a three course meal, but it still was not my idea of a proper breakfast.

When I finished eating I went to reception and asked for the use of an iron – no problem; it was a dinky little ironing board and the iron came in a plastic container that also contained the flex, very neat.

I ironed all my shirts and noted that the collar on my ‘loud’ shirt was quite frayed and tatty, so something for the bin before I return home.  I packed my day sac and headed out, returning the iron and board to reception on the way.

As it was only just after 09:00hrs, very few shops were open as I walked down the main street towards the Tourist Information office.  I was already starting to perspire in the tropical heat.

There were three very helpful ladies in the office and all spoke reasonable English.  When they asked me whether I was Italian I had to grin and said no, from England.  Then it was all the usual questions and they impressed that I had come across Europe and Asia by rail, but totally amazed that I had travelled by the ferry from Kagoshima, but all tourists fly they said; well not this traveller!!  They gave me lots of good information about the buses and how to get to the Peace Memorial Park, so it was off to the bus terminal for a trip to the south of the island.

Naha was a bit of a concrete jungle with very few old buildings as almost the entire place had been obliterated during the Allied invasion during WW2.

At the bus terminal I didn’t have to wait very long for the first bus, No 89, but we went all around the houses picking up people before returning to the bus station.  When we finally set off to the Itoman bus terminal the journey was through built-up areas and took about an hour.  At one point we passed some giant concrete crabs.  There was a 1/2 hour wait for the next bus as the No 82 only left once an hour.  The bus map I was given at the Tourist Information office only gave the routes, not the timetable.

Opposite the bus terminal was a driver training area where you had to go in order to learn to drive a car or motorbike, before you were allowed out on to the road with your ‘L’ plates.  It was quite busy and watching the people making their way around the road circuits made the time pass quickly.

This was another bus that went around the houses picking up passengers before heading down the coast and then turning east.  Al last we reached some countryside and I saw lots of sugar cane and other crops being grown.  There were a lot of plastic tunnels covering the crops and these look the same the world over.

It was a steady climb up to the Peace Memorial Park and it was at this end of the island that the Japanese made their final stand during the last days of battle for occupation.  This was why the site was chosen and the area was part of the Okinawa Senseki Quasi National Park.

When the bus reached the stop there was an announcement in both Japanese and English and although it has taken nearly 2 1/2 hours to get here from Naha and has not been the most scenic of journeys, I consider that it had been worth it.

I crossed the road and checked the timetable for the return trip; there will be a bus at 14:15hrs and then nothing for two hours, but that should give me enough time to see everything.

There was very little traffic with almost no one about and as I crossed the car park I saw a free charger for electric cars, not that I had seen one.

The sun was beating down and as there was no breeze, it was extremely hot as I walked through the grounds; as there also no shade, I was glad when I reached the Memorial Hall as the air-con was going full blast.

I bought some postcards in the museum shop and having paid my entrance fee went up in the lift to the permanent exhibition on the 2nd floor.

It was very descriptive as one would expect with some great exhibits which were well labelled in English.  However only a few on the films / videos had subtitles in English, but it was quite easy to work out what was happening.  The films did not pull any punches about Japanese aggression or the atrocities they carried out on their own people when the battle turned against them.  Anyone caught speaking the local dialect rather than Japanese was considered to be a spy and summarily executed.  One of the still pictures was reminiscent of WW1 with the landscape covered in crater holes, all filled with water.

Given the massive amount of munitions expended the battle has been referred to as the “Typhoon of Steel” in English, and “Tetsu no ame” (rain of steel) or “Tetsu no bōfū” (violent wind of steel) in Japanese.  The nicknames refer to the ferocity of the fighting, the intensity of kamikaze attacks from the Japanese defenders and to the sheer numbers of Allied ships and armoured vehicles that assaulted the island.  The battle resulted in the highest number of casualties in the Pacific Theatre of operations and it had been estimated that more than 230000 people died.

The exhibition also showed the arrogance of the USA who occupied the island after the war until 1972 when it was returned to Japanese control.  American laws were in force, any Okinawan who wanted to travel from the island had to seek permission for the military authorities and they did not have to give a reason if permission was refused.  All traffic drove on the left and the currency was the US dollar.  Anyone who complained about the US military activities was labelled a communist and could be detained without trial.  There are still a great deal of bad feelings towards the US military even today as they control large tracts of land including two airfields, one of which was the biggest in Asia and they are not subject to Japanese law.

I went up in the lift to the observation gallery and capitals of the world were listed, with the direction and distance given.  London was not on the list even though La Paz in Bolivia was; in fact there were very few European capitals named; I wondered why.  However the South Pole was.

 

There was a good view down on to the beach and the Cornerstone of Peace Memorial.

 

 

 

 

I went down in the lift and out into the sunshine, it was very hot, then walked down to the Cornerstone of Peace where shiny black granite slabs were engraved with the names of everyone who died during the Battle of Okinawa – civilian and military, Japanese and foreign.  I was amazed to find that they were memorials to the 82 British dead and discovered that these had been members of the British Pacific fleet which been part of the US task force.  Most of the dead had been the result of kamikaze attacks, but the British suffered much less than the Americans because the RN carriers had armoured flight decks with resisted the Japanese suicide pilots.

For the only time in its history the US Navy’s dead exceeded its wounded with 4,907 killed and 4,874 wounded.

I had a slow stroll through the park back towards the bus stop and this was probably the least crowded place that I have been to so far during my time in the country.

 

 

 

 

There was a little while to wait until the bus was due to arrive, so I sat in the shade and worked on my blog.  There was a Japanese gent who had arrived on the same bus waiting as well, but he took up the offer of a taxi driver who was touting for custom, so left for Naha.

When the bus arrived it was a few minutes late, most unusual but I didn’t mind.  When I got on all the school girls in the back row burst into fits of giggles at the sight of a Gaijin; the literal translation is “outside person”, but taken to mean a foreigner, non-Japanese, alien or outsider.  I smiled and said “Konnichiwa” and there were more giggles.

I sat down and watched the world go by as we headed back to the Itoman Bus terminal and without going around the houses this time.  In the short time before the next bus left I had a chat with an Australian who was heading towards the Peace Memorial Park.

The No 89 arrived and I climbed onboard collecting my ticket so that I’ll know how much to pay.  It was a steady journey back to Naha, but at one point a young boy and his Mum got on and he charged right to the back, so just behind me.  As we passed an old American base which was now used by the Japanese Air Force I turned to watch and saw that the lad was staring at me, but he quickly turned away; his Mum smiled and I smiled back.  When they alighted he waved and when I waved back he gave a huge grin.

When the bus arrived back at the Naha terminal I got off before it headed off around the houses and then started to walk back towards my hotel.  This meant that I was walking along Kokusai-dōri the city’s main street where there were many tacky gift shops catering mainly for the tourists alongside all the big brand name stores, as well as lots of restaurants.  I looked in lots of the stores to see if they had a ‘loud’ shirt in my size, but most only went up to large and that was Japanese large.  Then I came across a proper shirt shop and bought 4L shirt for the equivalent of about £30, so not bad considering the price of clothes on the mainland.

I carried on strolling and then headed into the covered streets area recommended in the Lonely Planet guide.  There were a fascinating variety of shops which sold pretty much anything.  I entered the food market by the fish counters and there some very strange looking creatures for sale – all the weird and wonderful denizens of the deep was the expression that came to mind.

I took the escalator upstairs and found myself being ‘invited’ by people to eat in their café.  It was all very basic looking, plastic table and chairs, but lots of locals so obviously good food was served.  I found a seat and ordered pork, noodles and a beer; the drink arrived in a very cold glass and while I was waiting for my meal (cooked to order) I updated my blog.

I was the only western face to be seen and so an object of some curiosity especially as I had put my guidebooks and maps on the table.  My meal arrived and I asked for another beer as the first one went down very well.  The food was excellent and I asked the waitress if I was allowed to take a photo of the kitchen, certainly and she then took my picture.  I have more pictures taken of me on this trip than in my last ten holidays combined.

The lady owner asked what I had been writing, the diary of journey I told her and so I had to explain my trip and there were gasps of surprise when I listed all the countries that I had been to.  Yet again people were astonished when I mentioned that I had come to the island on the ferry.  I think that very few Europeans visited Okinawa and this was disappointing as it was a beautiful place and the locals were extremely friendly.

It was amazing how quickly the attitude of the locals towards me changed as soon as they discovered that I was not an American, but this was really a very sad indictment of the latent hostility between the two factions.

After I had paid the bill there was much bowing as I departed.

I continued walking around the covered streets as they were cool compared with the sun baked main drag and then saw an old-fashioned striped barber’s pole.  I decided that I had about another week to go before I needed a trim as the No 1 that I had in Ulan-Ude was lasting well.

And so back to the hotel as it was now dark, stopping only to buy an ice-cream at one of the many convenience stores; it was delicious.

It had been a long and tiring day in the heat and I was certainly ready for my bed.

 

Sat 20 Jul – day 70  I was up early and did some work on my blog while watching the monorail trains wizz past from my hotel window.  Then a shower and down to breakfast; a bowl of fresh fruit, bread and jam (why was it that there was never any butter at breakfast?), then a couple of glasses of orange juice – a good way to start the day.

Having packed my day sac and gone down in the lift I left the hotel and went out into the heat (again) to be greeted by the sight of a man fishing in the small river that ran in front of the hotel.  On the short walk to the monorail station I passed a huge stone carving of a lion; having bought a day pass and then gone up the escalator to the platform, I awaited the arrival of the train.  These ran every 5 minutes and were more frequent during the week and it was interesting to be stood behind the drivers and watch their actions as we went along.  Before we left each station the driver would point his white gloved hand towards the timetable in front of him, then the green light and then the clear track ahead before applying the (electric) power.

I was going to the end of the line from where I would walk to the Shurijo Castle Park, the home of the royal family when Okinawa was the centre of the Ryukyu kingdom.  It was a great way to travel as you glided along and looked down on the roof tops of the sprawling concrete city.  The directions to the castle were well signposted from the station and if these had not been in place it would have been very easy to take a wrong turning because the castle was hidden behind the houses until you were virtually upon it.

Having turned off the main road I was almost immediately struck how peaceful it had become once the traffic noise disappeared.  I then walked passed a Shinto Shrine and through the gardens before going up a rather long steep slope to reach the entrance.

 

 

 

 

At the ticket office I was asked whether I was an American, no British and having presented my passport to prove it, I was given a very friendly smile.  So on this trip people have thought me to have been Russian, German, Italian and now American, not bad going but I wondered how many other nationalities would I have been before I fly home.

The Royal Place was the headquarters of the Japanese military forces during WW2 and so was obliterated during the Allied invasion.  However and at huge expense it was restored / rebuilt over many years and then reopened in 1992 to commerate the 20th anniversary of the islands return to Japanese control.

All the restoration, rebuilding and the ongoing maintenance had been carried out using traditional methods and tools, so not a power drill in sight.  They had also sourced all the materials from the same areas as they originally came from, with bricks and tiles being made as they were when the palace was initially constructed.

It was a fascinating place as it had been faithfully recreated to the original plans which had survived the war, except for the Seiden (royal chambers) which were now 75cm higher so as not to disturb the ruins below.

There were lots of Japanese tourists from the mainland plus a large group of USAF families from Kadena AFB; except for their clothing they kept a very low profile, so no loud voices or brash comments because of the local sensitivities.

I had been given a map of the suggested route around the castle and grounds although this was primarily for children so that they could stamp the map at every location.  It made finding your way around very easy and I got all the stamps.

The first stop was at the Torii and on the way to the entrance gate I passed one of the castles well’s where water came forth from a dragon’s mouth.  Although the Ryukyu kingdom had been a peaceful non-warring entity (which was why they were easily conquered by the Japanese) the castle was well protected with many gates.

 

 

 

 

In the outer courtyard I watched a Kabuki show – the art form where men dress and act as women; movement to music and song, but in almost slow motion.  Rather good I thought.

Then through a wooden gate and in to the inner courtyard where the Seiden was situated; this was going maintenance to make in earthquake proof, if that was possible, and so part of it was draped in clear plastic.  It cost extra to enter the Seiden and you had to remove your shoes before you entered.  One of the first things I saw was a model showing the King giving an audience and this looked very similar to those given by the Emperor in the Forbidden City.

Visitors were taken through the Seiden by a guide, but as I was the only non-Japanese in my group, all I got was a very short description after she had finished explaining to the other members of the party; it was enough to understand what I was looking at.

I had my photo taken by the guide in front of the Royal Throne.

Despite the number of people around there were still plenty of quiet spots where you could sit in the shade and have a few moments to yourself before the next group of tourists would arrive.

At the end of the route through the Castle Park you leave through the imposing gate and you arrive back at the Visitors Centre where the souvenir shop was located.  There was also a decent looking restaurant, so I had lunch with a couple of beers and followed this with a local dessert, crushed ice over which you pour a sweet sauce of your choice, but there was too much for me.

After paying the bill I walked back to the monorail station and wondered what Tony Blair thought of the place when he came here for the G8 Summit; probably not a lot as he was too busy wheeling and dealing with Clinton, Putin and Chirac etc.

On the monorail I decided to go right to the far end, so off to the airport and it took nearly 1/2 hour to get there.  I did consider going to have a look around once we arrived, but as there were crowds of people coming and going, a Saturday in the holiday season, I just caught the next train back.  There were JDSF Orion maritime patrol aircraft at the airport and a number of old types on display at the military base attached to the airport.

When we passed the baseball stadium there was a game in progress and if I had known that it was going to be on I would have gone to watch.  Pro baseball is the number one sport in the country and the very best players go off to the USA to play there.

I got off the train at the start of the main street as I wanted to see if I could find another decent ‘loud’ shirt; the department stores only went up to an XL, M for a westerner, but I eventually found a 5L in a small shop so bought it.

It was fairly easy to work out who were the indigenous population as the facial features were more like so someone from the south sea islands, rather than mainland Japan.

Then back to the hotel as I was all hot and sticky and needed a shower.  I got an iron board as I passed reception, then up to my room, shower and then took dirty clothes to the laundry.  I sat in my room updating the blog and drinking lots of fluids while the washing and then the drying cycles are in operation.  Having done all the ironing I took the iron and board back to reception and requested that they book a taxi to take me to the port; it took some time before the man finally understood that that I wanted to go to Naha Port and not the airport.

Back to my room and I set the alarm for 05:45hrs, then bed.