Our arrival on the island of Okinawa commenced with our now routine chat with a taxi driver. The taxi drivers we have used on our trip have either maintained a complete distant silence or been kindly, warmly chatty.
“You are from USA,” said our Okinawa cabbie. “Where?”
“No, we’re from the UK. Scotland.”
“Ah, Scotland!” said the driver, enthusiastically. Then, confused, “Scotland speaks English?”
What we have learned from these encounters is that Scotland has a lot of work to do to achieve any sort of global presence…
Having said that, daughter’s immediate judgement of Okinawa as the aeroplane landed was that it was very much like a certain part of Scotland. “It’s just like Unst!” she exclaimed. This is because it was grey and rainy. The Unst comparison was compounded by the baggage reclaim, which didn’t involve a conveyor belt but several raincoat-clad women hauling suitcases into the hall and neatly lining them up in front of passengers. It was all very rustic.
It wasn’t Scotland, of course. It was raining but the temperature was pretty much t-shirt weather. Also, the road signs were all in hiragana, which is about as legible to us as Gaelic but which was a whole lot more recognisable that the kanji we had been faced with throughout Hong Kong and Taiwan. “I can read the signs!” I said with delight, though that was pushing it, of course. I could read まれ – ma re – but I didn’t for the life of me know what it meant.
Our taxi driver was keen to show us the sights of the island on the way to our accommodation. It was very sweet of him but I was concerned that what should have been a one-hour journey was going to turn into one substantially longer. Every now and again he braked disturbingly hard to point out something of interest.
The three most noticeable characteristics of Okinawa, as revealed by the taxi driver:
1) There are a lot of US army bases. Thirty two to be precise. They litter – and I mean that in the rubbish sense – the island with their barbed wire fences. Of Okinawa’s 1.2million population, 50,000 are American. “Do the Okinawans like the Americans being here?” we asked our taxi driver. “Half half,” he said. “We don’t need them.” Japan’s relationship with the USA, it seems, is an embarrassed one. Japan is the polite, gentle sidekick in a friendship it has accidentally and unfortunately fallen into with a louder, brasher, more pushy character.
The bases’ presence on the island perhaps necessitates the existence of such businesses as an army surplus store, the American village entertainment park, a Volvo dealership dedicated to US army sales, McDonalds, Starbucks, KFC, an army housing centre… Though I’m not sure if the existence of US army personnel is to blame for the store named Wagging Tail – Bringing Joy To Your Dog.
2) Tombs. A lot of them. In a style we had not encountered anywhere else in Japan. Our volunteer guide (the taxi driver, in case that wasn’t clear), said that these tombs were unique to Okinawa. They seemed more European Catholic in style, and housed whole families. They were not confined to just graveyards, but could be built anywhere their owner chose.
3) Sugar cane. When you think of Japanese agriculture (which you might do, on occasion, no?), you think of paddy fields; you don’t think of sugar cane. Well, I don’t. Yet here were fields of the stuff, canes as tall as a 10-year-old, their sharp, rapier leaves waving in the drizzly breeze. Many fields had lights standing sentinel among them, forcing a false growth even at night.
Michael Jackson serenaded us on this impromptu tour of the island. I’m not a particular fan but anyone who doesn’t know his tunes note for note is clearly pop-culturally destitute. I whistled along, occasionally releasing what I thought was some quiet singing. The taxi driver insisted I must be a professional singer. Several times. This was especially funny because my last karaoke outing was humiliatingly bad. “You whistle is good,” he said, a lot. “You sing is good, too,” he insisted. “I think you are professional.” As it turned out, his flattery might just have been a ploy, because he then fumbled with the CD controls and announced, “This is is me, singing. I made a CD.” He was obviously very proud. And it really wasn’t bad. Better than my last karaoke outing…
Another thing I was delighted to return to Japan for, besides recognising the alphabet, after our little foray into Hong Kong and Taipei – electric toilets. Oh but electric toilets are the true sign of a civilised society. I shall never pee in a British public toilet again. (Of course I shall. I’ve had children and my bladder control is questionable.) The built-in bidets (for cleaning front and back…) are a no-brainer but the icing on the cake, the cherry on top, the dog’s very bollocks, are the heated seats. There is not one Scottish toilet that wouldn’t benefit from a heated seat. (I’ve just thought of another benefit of heated seats – they might encourage men to sit down, thereby reducing the necessity to clean bathroom floors.)
Since we had caught an inhumanely early plane that morning (see previous post), we arrived at our resort two hours before we were allowed to check in. We dumped our luggage in the lobby, then settled down in the café, propped up by (proper) tea and cake. A woman wandered over and stood staring at us.
“Where are you from?” she asked. Scotland, we replied. She nodded and stared silently again. “Why are you here?” We’re on holiday, we said. “When did you arrive?” Just 15 minutes ago. We caught a flight this morning from Taipei and are waiting to be able to check in. “You are tired,” she stated. Throughout this conversation we nodded and smiled, and she regarded us owlishly through round glasses.
“Are you on holiday?” we asked.
“Yes. I am here for two reasons. It is my wedding anniversary – 21 years. And it is my birthday – I am 44.” Oh, congratulations! We exclaimed. She nodded, and left, returning to her table to wait, we assumed, for her husband.
Fifteen minutes later she was back. “Do you mind?” she asked. Mind what? “Mind me talking to you.” Oh no, not at all, we said. She asked more questions about how long we would be staying, where we had come from. Husband valiantly laboured through his Japanese to explain our schedule, where we had been and where we would be going. She nodded, standing looking at us all. It began to get disconcerting.
Eventually she left again, returning to her table. I surreptitiously watched her, sitting upright in her chair, sipping at tea and nibbling at cake. No husband appeared. We began speculating about her story. Perhaps her husband’s dead, we concluded. Perhaps she’s dead. Can anyone else in the room apart from us see her? I passed her in the corridor later and as she gave me a very small smile, I swear she was gliding without steps on the parquet floor.
When we made it to our room, I fell on the bed and wiped out for three hours. I am a wuss. Husband and children, meanwhile, went snorkelling. Snorkelling! They’d been up since 3.30am! They returned high as kites, glowing with endorphins and the sheer wonders they had seen. I had never been snorkelling, never had the urge, and have a deep, underlying fear of the ocean… but seeing their faces I made them promise to take me the next day.
Wow. There’ll be people among you who have been there, seen it, done it, and will be totally unimpressed by the shallow depths we hovered over in our wetsuits and life jackets… But if you haven’t been snorkelling, in an area where the waters are still, of a trifling depth, and clear as a baby’s conscience, populated by fish that blind you with their luminescent blues and yellows… Please do it. The wetsuit gave me a dead arm and rubbed my neck, the goggles leaked stinging salt water into my eyes, I inhaled sea through the snorkel, rolling in a minor panic onto my back to clear my lungs and the pipe… But it was all worth it. All utterly unimportant. I could have exploded with excitement when the plucky little fish darted up to snatch a mouthful of food from my hand and raced away again. I felt grateful, privileged, awe-inspired, astounded and so, so lucky.
Of course, husband had to ruin my elation later by buying the most god awful pair of shoes in existence. He went off shopping unaccompanied. That was the crucial mistake. He returned, delighted with his purchase. He says he thought I would like them. He says he thought they were cool. I say whoever designed them needs help.
We left the resort that night to eat at a restaurant recommended by our snorkelling teachers. That day we had fed the fishes – now the fishes would feed us. We were dropped off by a taxi outside a block of shops and restaurants, with signs all in hiragana and kanji. We deliberated over which was the right one, when I heard a couple of American women chatting. I assumed they were from the local army base and suggested to husband that he ask them for guidance.
“Excuse me,” he said, “are you local?” One of the women, an African American, looked at him with an expression on which were etched a thousand questions, all of which you could see threading through her mind in less than a second.
Am I local? Do I look local? You think that all ethnic minorities look the same? How do I respond to this guy? Is he being funny? Overtly racist?
“No,” she said.
“Do you know the area?” asked husband. “We’re trying to find this restaurant.” The woman’s face relaxed a little, and her companion said, “Oh, that’s the one we’ve just come from. It’s there, on the left.” We thanked them, and as I walked past them I turned again to gather the children, who had disappeared. By this time, the two women had been joined by a man.
“Guys!” I shouted. “Come on!” The three Americans stared at me. The man broke first. “Oh,” he said to his pals, “she’s talking to her children.”
“Oh!” I snorted. “Did you think I was asking you to come for dinner?! Well, yes! Join us!”
They smiled nervously. I genuinely never thought I could feel so eccentric.
Our stay in Okinawa was too short. I should have liked to explore more of the beaches and bays, more of the local towns and villages. A resort is all very well, but it becomes an unrealistic bubble that doesn’t truly represent the community it sits in. We caught a flight back to Tokyo on day three and, weirdly, I looked forward to returning to our railway-side apartment. “I feel like we’re home,” son echoed my thoughts.
And amidst all our peripatetics, Tokyo really is home. We have been astonished by the depth and variety of scenery and communities in Japan. We’ve travelled from one extreme to another – from the icy, snowbound streets of Sapporo and the sulphurous mountains of Noboribetsu in the north, to metropolitan Tokyo and historically cultured Nara on Honshu, to the frankly fairytale tropical Okinawa in the south… Japan is rich in character.