As we considered where to go and what to see in Okinawa we talked about the devastation of the country in 1945 during WWII. While I didn't precipitate, participate in, or instigate WWII, I do feel I should be conscious of what my country has done to other nations. If we spent more time in Okinawa, I would explore the memorials to that terrible event. However we decided to skip the Suicide Cliff where many Okinawans plunged to their death rather than be captured by the Allies, choosing instead Shurijo Castle which traces its heritage back into the 1500's. History tells us this castle burnt down at least 5 times in its history, the most recent occurring during bombing at the height of WWII fighting. Shurijo Castle has been meticulously restored achieving UNESCO World Heritage Site status.
*Aside* I can't help but wonder: if the place burned down once or twice, wouldn't you start to think about a more permanent building material? By the time it's happened 5 times, even if historically accurate, how can you decide it's a good idea to build it from wood again?
The craftsmanship and attention to recreating details is amazing throughout the edifice. However it is sad to see so many items reproduced because the originals were destroyed by war. There were traditional dancers performing in addition to a small traditional tea room that served a delicious jasmine tea accompanied by an assortment of carefully researched and recreated authentic tea cookies.
*Aside* We didn't have to bother to take off our shoes for tea because we removed them when we walked into the castle putting them into the state issued plastic bag to carry with us. As I padded though the exhibits in my bare feet I felt really grateful to Becky Taft who told me to pack athlete's foot powder. I can now guarantee we're going to need it sooner or later.
But I'm getting ahead of my story.
Friday May 27, 2016
We were still recovering from the long day in the sun on Thursday so opted for a walk out the front gate near our hotel room into the neighborhood for some lunch. We walked into one shop containing all kinds of things wrapped in cellophane on one table, across the aisle from another table with all kinds of fried and stir-fried things in open pans. No sneeze guards, refrigeration or sterno chafing dishes in sight here. You took a pair of tongs grabbed what you wanted, put it in a plastic bag paying the cashier on the way out, sort of cash and carry. There were many unidentifiable fried things, although I did recognize tempura shrimp and probably vegetables.
*Aside* I was tempted by the tempura shrimp that were about 67¢ each, but there was nowhere to sit down to eat. That's the only reason I didn't try them. I swear.
We walked along a little further finding a mall that wound around and around, but it was mostly retail with no lunch. Finally we settled into a small restaurant, kicking off our shoes and awkwardly folding our American legs under the tiny table for another round of Okinawan noodles, one with a rich curry broth, the other a lighter clear broth. On return to our room we made plans for the next day for Shurijo Castle.
Saturday May 28, 2016
With our map of Okinawa in one hand and some sketchy directions for buses in the other, we headed out the Main Gate to blunder our way to Shurijo Castle. We found the first bus fairly easily, getting off at the correct stop. The directions to catch the next bus "across the street" was a little confusing in that it would make us go back in exactly the direction we had just come from. After asking several people who were no smarter than we were, we took a taxi the rest of the way. The bus and taxi ride cost us almost $30.
*Aside* We found traveling by taxis and buses rather remarkably pricy in Okinawa but renting a car would have been worse. We would have needed GPS because we never knew where we were going, the thought of driving on the wrong side of the road was daunting, and parking would have been a constant problem.
After we visited Shurijo Castle, Rebecca wanted to find and ride the monorail. With another map in our hand (route well marked) we headed in the pointed direction toward the monorail. We started to feel unsure of ourselves again so we asked some school kids if we were going the right direction and they said yes, and they would walk with us there.
*Aside* Tom said they were band geeks because they had t-shirts that said something about a wind ensemble. Whatever they were, they walked really slowly. We actually slowed down our pace to walk with them.
We found the monorail, bought a ticket - the online directions made that part easy - and got onboard.The monorail travels from just north of Shurijo Castle to the airport. We rode it all the way to the end at the airport. Then Rebecca made Tom ride it round trip again. Hey - we paid for an all day pass.
*Aside* When we first got on we didn't know anything, sitting in the first available seat in the middle, but there were seats at the front that looked out where you were going. At the end of the line we jumped up to grab the front seats. Since the monorail sits up above the rest of the traffic we had a bird's eye view of everything around us. We also had a bird's eye view of the driver. He repeated a series of hand motions throughout the round-trip ride. We couldn't figure out if it was simply his system for remembering the steps of the process or if he was a little OCD. We'll never know either because he was the only driver we got to see work so there was no way to make a comparison.
At the airport we wondered around a bit finding the bus stop and the bus to take us back to the base. We decided we would repeat a part of the long hot walk we had on Thursday going back to Yoshihachi for some more of the delicious salmon sashimi.
*Aside* At one point I was so sure we were on the wrong bus that I almost made us get off to find a different bus. But it turned out it was exactly the bus we wanted, eventually turning onto the road we were looking for and we even exited at the correct stop.
Sunday May 29, 2016
As soon as we arrived in Kadena we checked out the tours offered by ITT (Information, Tickets and Travel) part of MWR (Morale, Welfare, Recreation) on base. We booked a bus trip on Sunday to the Ocean Expo Park Aquarium for only $33 a person. It was awesome! The Ocean Expo Park Aquarium contains the second largest fish tank in the world (according to our guide. According to the internet it's the third largest aquarium with over 2 million gallons of water in the whale shark tank) The tank is home to three Whale Sharks swimming among other kinds of fish and rays: Stingrays, huge Manta Rays, Eagle Rays, what looked like Yellow Spotted Rays, Nurse Sharks, Tuna, Golden Trevallys, Giant Trevallys and many more I couldn't identify. Reigning over the whole tank was the biggest Goliath Grouper I've ever seen. He must have been 6 feet long, just hanging in the middle at the top of the tank, master of all he surveyed. The most interesting creature I saw was the Bow Mouth Guitar Fish. Look it up. I could not get a good picture of it, but it looks like a cross between a shark and a ray (they are related, you know). We were able to snag a seat in the lower level snack bar watching the fish swim, float and frolic around the tank for over an hour.
*Aside* The Ocean Expo Aquarium has many conservation breeding programs. They have bred many "first in captivity" creatures including Bull Sharks. I'm not sure why one would want to bred a Bull Shark because when you succeed you have a Bull Shark. I mean it would just as soon eat you as look at you. But in the interest of preserving species it's an admirable program. As I watched the majestic Whale Sharks swimming around and around in the tank, I could not help thinking what a sad day it must have been for the Whale Shark when he was caught and put in that tank. These creatures swim thousands of miles of ocean during their lifetimes, migrating half-way around the world. In 2012 I was lucky enough to snorkel with them in open water as they migrated off the coast of Cancun, Mexico in Holbox near Isla de Mujeres. I was so close that I could have put my hand in his gills. It was an experience of a lifetime. I realize that most people will never have the opportunity swim with one of these gentle giants. A Whale Shark bred in captivity at least would not know what it was like to be free. But it still makes me sad for the Whale Shark.
We finished our last day packing, preparing for the next leg of our journey: 8:40 Roll Call for Clark AFB, Philippines.
The bad (which really isn't bad) and the good:
America has an uneasy peace with Okinawa. Americans a tolerated because the culture of Japan is polite, but they wish we would go home. Should that bother me? Maybe, but it didn't. We met people who lived through war time, but they seem "over it". Certainly I never felt any animosity.
That meal for two at $35, is $35. There is virtually no tipping in Japan. But that taxi will take $10 to get you home.