The second trip (and one which also led to an interest in travel writing) was to Okinawa, the southernmost group of islands in the Japanese archipelago – a place of subtropical Asian vibes mixed with hints of a US military occupation due to the vast number of bases there.
Ambling around Okinawa and having my own adventures developed my confidence in wandering around unknown places. It also led to a deep love of the area and the promise of a future down there.
The article found below is the full length piece that I wrote about my experiences there. An edited version was published in two different publications. My paid dumping ground for pretty much anything I wrote about Japan, Tokyo Notice Board, published it in September 2004.
On the small island I visited (Kudaka) that is described below, I also met the Editor of an English language series of travel guides named ‘Okinawa Index‘. It was one of the happy accidents described in the title. She asked me to write the piece, and it appeared in their 2004-2005 ‘Okinawa Island Guide‘, along with some of my photos.
After the grind and tribulations of my later years in England, being in Okinawa was perhaps the first time in my life that I felt exotic – both from the quality of my surroundings and how I was received as a guest.
The same editor later told me that she was considering me for the role of reporter on an English newspaper she was planning to set up. I would have required me to be able to speak Japanese and she needed to find a good Sales Manager before setting it up, but for a while I held out the prospect of leaving Tokyo behind me and heading off for a life of a reporter on a group of subtropical islands.
Never happened in the end and at the time of writing, four years on, I’m still in Tokyo. Nevertheless, it was a fabulous idea that would have taken me in an entirely different direction from the one I subsequently took. In the end, my visions of a Graham Greene/Ian Fleming/Ernest Hemingway kinda lifestyle dissipated in the shadows of Tokyo’s towers. But what could have been!
The pictures shown here are also taken from that first trip.
Life is but a series of accidents, some happy, some sad. History is the story of such accidents, a tapestry of unintentional design. One never quite knows what is around the corner and it is either our fear or our curiosity of the unknown that leads us in different directions.
I’d spent my Christmas and New Year holed up in Tokyo. As much as I might love the place in many ways, it’s still somewhere that the need to escape from every now and again becomes overpowering. The furthest I could go whilst remaining in Japan and somewhere very high on the wish list of destinations to visit was Okinawa. So I gathered up a few days off, boarded a plane and headed south.
Greeted by smiling faces on the people wandering around the airport and with none of the hunched shoulders that Tokyoites worn down by the pressures of life have, I was relieved to be away and keen to explore. With wider streets, palm trees and a temperature that certainly didn’t feel like January, the smile on my face at my good fortune began to spread. A bus took me into Naha, the capital of the main island, which was where my first Okinawan adventure was to begin.
At first glance, the city appeared to me less than striking. But first impressions can often not be lasting ones and I always find that a new city needs to be wandered around a little first. There were hints of how I imagine Havana to look – fading and starting to peel at the edges, with a sense of being somewhere yet to fully catch up with the vagaries of being a modern city. However, there were enough kanji (Chinese characters) symbols, ubiquitous vending machines, neon, street tech, and other assorted ephemera to remind me that I was still very much in Japan.
Shisa, creatures that resembled some crossbreed between lions and dragons, guarded the entrances to buildings and streets, and were everywhere. A range of many other Asian influences converged on every corner, topped off with American twists. Furthermore, there was enough of a hint of the subtropics – colours, vegetation, sounds – to remind me that I wasn’t in Honshu (Japan’s main island) any more. The simple, stringed sounds of the sanshin seeped out citywide. Despite Naha retaining the bustle of a capital city, it was clear that island life had a more laid back approach than that of the screaming metropolis that had formed my first impressions of Japan.
My accidents were happy ones.
Whilst wandering through the back streets as I waited for check-in time at my hotel, I chanced upon an African themed bar. It was designed to look like the interior and exterior of a baobab tree and I resolved to return later in the evening. Return I did and I wasn’t disappointed. The barman, a long haired Tokyo escapee, welcomed me instantly and recommended some fine Okinawan food to replenish a famished traveller. A little later, another customer came in and joined me at the bar. He worked for a Japanese NGO and had spent most of his time recently in Iran. I asked him what was his favourite country that he’d worked in, and he answered Tanzania. Having spent a week there myself last year and that being the reason I’d chosen the Baobab bar, we rapped about Africa for a while.
A little later, a couple of guys came in for cocktails and to jam on the bongos, didgeridoos and marimbas that littered the bar. I soon joined them and struck up conversation with the one who spoke good English, a certain Mr Lucky. We drank together, shared stories and jammed on the various instruments that lay around, joined too by the barman. To my surprise and giving me an early indication of the generosity of the Okinawan spirit, Mr Lucky asked me about my plans for my stay and when I told him that I was just following my nose, he offered to take me to another island the next day. It was to become a day that I’ll undoubtedly remember for many years.
He picked me up from the hotel early the following morning and we drove out to the southeastern coast. As Ryuichi Sakamoto played on the car stereo, the city’s outskirts came and went. We passed through sugar cane plantations to arrive at the glittering sea. What joy it was to gaze once again on unfettered ocean. Boarding a ferry for the tiny island of Kudaka, we waved goodbye to the mainland and set off in search of whatever came our way. I received a wide smile from a beautiful girl on the ferry that could have sent me back to Tokyo happy enough. However, there was much more to come.
Another happy accident. We arrived on Kudaka, an island of less than 2 km2 which hosts a mere 112 households and is known to Okinawans as ‘Island of the Gods’. Legend has it that Amamikiyo, the first Ryukyuan, descended from heaven and taught the people how to farm. Kudaka still runs on the Chinese lunar calendar, unlike the most of the rest of the Japanese mainland, and we had coincidentally landed on New Year’s Day!
The islanders were about to celebrate the event with a festival. It was a great surprise and an unexpected bonus for our visit. With the sun on our backs we followed the small crowd that had alighted with us from the boat and wandered through the low and winding streets of the island to arrive at what seemed like a village square. The islanders were gearing themselves up for the celebrations that were to follow. Children in brightly coloured kimonos milled around, sipping from cans of soft drink and welcoming us with smiles and waves. A camera crew from the main island prepared themselves to record the main event. Village officials scurried about, ensuring that everything was in place. The musicians, including two sanshin players and a drummer, tuned up and checked over their instruments.
Lucky and I looked on, awaiting what was to come, and were consequently invited to join in with the celebrations. Here, there was no option to simply be an onlooker, but more an obligation to participate. I was the only gaijin (foreigner) on the island yet I barely noticed that fact. At 11am, we opened our first of many Okinawan beers and began to bond with the people of Kudaka. The music started soon after and before long, much dancing followed. In trying to get a picture of what was happening and what lay behind this celebration, I learned that female shamans named yuta have played a longstanding part in Kudaka’s history and traditions, having once been consultants to the old Ryukyu kings and still play a strong role in Kudakan society. They were mostly kept housed away from the main gathering, yet occasionally came out to dance to the music, a bewitching subtropical sound that removed me even further from any thoughts of crazy old Tokyo.
After a little while, Lucky and I set off to explore. The vegetation we passed was wild, lush and unclipped, differing considerably from the regimented styles I’d come to know from the Japanese gardens I’d seen around Tokyo. We found a deserted beach that gave me more of a taste of what Okinawa has to offer when the climate’s a little warmer. Sitting on the sand and pebbles, any remaining woes fell off my shoulders. As we gazed out across the vast empty expanse of sea, we talked like old friends. Lucky was a sky watcher and he extolled in the joys of life in Okinawa. I told him that I felt like I’d come home. We rested awhile, relaxing and looking at pretty shells, then returned to the party a little while later.
When the locals noticed that we’d come back, we were invited to eat and drink some more, and we sat to enjoy the event. At various points throughout the afternoon, we were encouraged to join in with the dancing. This was no time or place to be shy, so Lucky and I got up and danced, a ritualistic style that involved shuffling on your feet with your arms raised upwards and waving your hands in the air. I felt almost as if I’d travelled back in time, and certainly stood out as the only non-Japanese person present. After the dance, I sat down with some of the locals and was engaged in conversation by an old man. He spoke next to no English and my Japanese is very limited, but he still managed to convey to me that I was most welcome on Kudaka, and that all people lived under the same sun and were thus of the same blood.
On their New Year’s Day, Kudakans open up their houses to all and so a little later I slipped away and followed someone I’d been drinking with to another islander’s home. We sat on tatami (grass mats for the home), drinking green tea and eating sashimi (raw fish). In all my travels and of all the people I’ve met, I have yet to experience such friendliness to a stranger and feelings of welcome than I did on that day in Kudaka. After she left to catch an early ferry back to the mainland, I rejoined Lucky where the party was carrying on at someone else’s house. The musicians from the main event were all there and the merriment continued unabated. I was even asked to try my hand at playing the sanshin.
As the afternoon wore on and started to turn into evening, we decided that it was time to take our leave. Drunk on welcomes, island living and much Okinawan beer, I promised the islanders to return next year.
On Okinawa, I felt like I’d come home. Tokyo was so tough to return to afterwards.