As a result of a couple of trips down to the Japanese subtropical archipelago of Okinawa back in 2004, I had it in mind that my future led me to become a reporter down there, zipping about in the heat in a jeep and interviewing people about fishing yields and the incursions of US military bases. It was a dream prompted by an offer from the publisher of ‘Okinawa Index‘, a guide book I once wrote for.
Ultimately, it was not to be and in time I bedded down in Tokyo and got used to life in the big city, finding plenty of ways to keep myself amused and busy. I ended up producing what I believe to have been the first collection of modern Japanese protest music, which was not an easy task!
I lost touch with the publisher and assumed that I’d never hear from her again. To my surprise, I got a call out of the blue at around the time that the CD was due to be released. She was in town for a party and did I want to hook up again? ‘Why not?’ I thought, ‘you never know where these things can end up.’
At the party and later over dinner, she told me that she was planning another guide book and would I like to contribute again? Although I hadn’t been back down there since the last trip, I agreed pretty much straight away.
Grabbing moments in lunch breaks (often how I write in Tokyo), I pieced together an overview of my previous two visits, spiced it up with some of the trips I’d managed after the taste for travel I’d developed since Okinawa, and wrapped it up with my desire to return there.
Once again, even after submitting the piece, I didn’t hear from the publisher again. To my knowledge, the guide book was never made, and so the article was never published.
Instead, it makes its debut here and is titled ‘Oceans & Islands’.
All photos by Dom Pates.
The ocean has had me under its spell ever since I first laid eyes on it. I was born within five minutes walk from the sea, in the coastal resort of Brighton. It’s a little like an English San Francisco – a hilly and cosmopolitan seaside city, full of creative types and tech companies. There is always some sort of a buzz going on but perhaps most impressive is the ocean location. Gazing out to sea always makes your troubles feel much smaller.
A few years ago, tired of England and in need of a little more adventure in my life, I decided to pack up and go to the other side of the world. In a rather bold move and used to a more relaxed way of life, I threw myself into one of the biggest and busiest cities on Earth – Tokyo – to see if I sank or swam. Once I found the water was warm enough, I began to explore the group of islands that I’d landed in.
I’d never lived in such a big city before, so often found need to seek out a little peace, away from the bubbling torrents of the metropolis. A trip to Okinawa needed no passport and was only a couple of hours flight from Tokyo. A little slice of the subtropics to get the skyscrapers out of my hair for a while.
To my grandparents’ generation, it might as well have been the moon. They first heard about the place as some exotic location on the other side of the planet where the last land battle of WWII occurred. I, however, spotted it in my guidebook and thought it would be a nice place to visit.
Immediate first impressions were mixed. It was warmer than where I’d come from but seemed old and fading. Then I began to explore and got a little more under Naha’s skin; the vibrancy of Kokusai-dori, the traditional treats and gems in the maze of the old market, and the unexpected surprises you can only come across when wandering round a city and following your nose.
One such surprise was the Baobab Bar. Designed inside and out to look like the sacred African tree, I was drawn in. I made a new friend there with whom I set off on an adventure the next day. Our voyage of discovery took us to the tiny island of Kudaka that, unbeknownst to us, was celebrating their New Year that very day.
I experienced things to tell the grandchildren about – drinking, eating and dancing with the villagers, scenes of island life unchanged for many generations, playing sanshin at the house of a stranger who invited me in. I had become an adventurer, with tales to tell of it.
The visit came with a packed itinerary too. I tried my hand at glass blowing at the Onna Glass Factory. At Ryukyu Mura, I watched a water buffalo pressing sugar cane and sat at a weaving loom. There was a scenic photo shoot to take in, along a rugged and beautiful coastline that took my breath away. I even squeezed in a visit to the Peace Park that commemorates the battle that caused my grandparents to hear of Okinawa over on the other side of the world.
Since my first forays into the former Ryukyu kingdom, I’ve become a travelling man. I’ve seen the Great Wall of China and the Olympic transformation of Beijing; been to the DMZ that straddles the Korean peninsula, one of the most heavily landmined places in the world; glimpsed at the Himalayas from the Kathmandu Valley, during the Festival of Light; taken in an Arabian sunset in a desert just outside Dubai; and lived a month in East Africa, with its safari wildernesses and the splendours of the Swahili Coast. Despite all this, Okinawa sticks in my mind like a limpet to a rock.
After my second visit, I picked up a new project. Following a request for help from a UK-based organisation, I set up Peace Not War Japan. The UK group raises consciousness and funding for the international peace movement by releasing CDs of contemporary pro-peace music, and I started a similar venture in Japan. We released our first CD of Japanese pro-peace music in the summer of 2006. The music comes from across the country and covers a range of genres. Okinawa’s influence is felt strongly too. Ryukyu Underground donated a track, a version of the island standard ‘Hana’. We also have songs from Soul Flower Union and Kotobuki, two groups very influenced by Okinawan songs and stories.
For the sake of balance, when you take something, it is very important to also give in return. These beautiful islands have given me so, so much already – perhaps it’s my turn to give now.