We never did get to go whale watching.
That’s the big thing in Okinawa. Someone takes you out in their boat for 2, or 4, or 6 hours (the full 6 hours recommended, of course) and you find yourself surrounded by whales. One time, one of our hosts said, she went out and followed a mother and her baby whale through the ocean waves, and that even the anticipation of the experience is addictive. There are posters of whales in the B&B-style hotel, and souvenir whale t-shirts and magnets and stuffed animals; at the wharf where the boats dock, there are flowers arranged in a whale design.
From the airport we took a sky train, and from the sky train we took a 2-hour ferry to arrive at the island Zamami where our two hosts – one Japanese lady who owned the house where we were staying, and one Polish woman who was there helping her – waited for us with a welcome sign. Royce had stayed here before, and so was greeted warmly when the Japanese owner remembered who he was. ‘Your mother gave me a bear’ she recollected happily. A little jeweled bear in a small velvet bag, she showed us later, having kept it safe since the last visit.
Our room, like the one in Tokyo, is lined with Tatami mats and contains only a small table and a mini fridge. In one of the closets is all our bedding: mattresses and sheets and blankets and pillows. Because of the mats on the floor, you don’t need anything more than that. And when you’re not using the beds, you are welcome to put them away and have the entire floor space to yourself. Such a clever idea that really should be implemented for London flats where there is never enough space.
Our hosts offer us breakfast for the three mornings that we will be staying here: ‘Come down for 8:30!’ they add cheerily, following our hasty acceptance. We look at each other: we had not intended to be morning people on this particular trip, but we’re also the type of people afraid of causing offence, so we keep our humourous panic to ourselves and rationalise that, hey, we can always return to our room right afterward.
This is a small, intimate neigbourhood. No one locks their doors, and no one worries. There is one school, one proper restaurant, and one grocery shop. There is also a karaoke bar, but we don’t venture there. Throughout the day, muffled happy (though also strangely sinister) songs play from a loudspeaker; one sounds like a school bell, but it plays at all hours of the day, and even on Saturdays. There are two climbing trees in the school yard and I climb both of them with enthusiasm, thinking to myself ‘I promise I will never be too old to climb trees or sit on the floor at train stations.’
Our first real adventure takes place the following evening when we attempt to journey to one of the two beaches on the island. Up the road, I notice an opening through the trees and said aloud ‘I wonder where this path goes.’ One of the many wonderful things about my companion (and a quality that I would very much like to adopt) is that he doesn’t mind straying from the planned route when a potentially exciting new opportunity arises. ‘Let’s go find out,’ he says, and we wander through the bushes, up an earthy set of stairs made a more feasible climb with the help of a railing, up to a clearing in the woods – the perfect camping site – and farther along, a beautiful view of the entire neighbourhood, with the ocean stretching out before us, as far as we can see, showcasing islands bordered with starlight. Behind the clearing a shadowed shrine with a marbled wall listing numerous names; perhaps the names of soldiers and families lost in the war.
We continue uphill for some time, until we reach a turning that we think might lead to the beach. Instead we find ourselves walking down a winding steep road into another residential area with which we are not familiar. Even though it is still early evening, no one is wandering outside of their houses. This appears a well-lit ghost town, the only movement from cats protecting their temples and birds protecting their nests. It is soothing to feel completely alone in the quiet, like the island belongs to us.
On the way back, we witness the most extraordinary sight: a collective of women behind floor-length glass windows rehearsing a Noh Theatre performance. They perform several dances in costume with multiple props, including these spectacular gold fans. Royce tells me that the last time he visited this island he actively searched for this type of performance to attend, and here we were, serendipitously viewing from mere yards away one of Japan’s oldest theatrical traditions. Breathtaking.
The next day, we do actually go to the beach. ‘Don’t try swimming in the water, though,’ he told me. ‘Last time I was here, the owner took me on a two hour boat ride and forced me to look underwater with goggles at all the poisonous snakes and eels and sharks and other things that could potentially kill me.’ ‘But they wouldn’t be in the shallow part of the water, would they?’ I pressed, keen to make use of my new bathing suit. He returned with this look that said, don’t make me say I told you so! But with the mid-afternoon sun beating down on my slowly reddening skin and the feeling of warm sand under my feet and between my toes, I couldn’t resist dashing calf-deep into the water, lifting my skirt when a wave came crashing by. And much to my relief, I survive this audacious act with all my limbs in tact.
There’s a slowness here. One that permits me to spend an uninterrupted amount of time watching to see if a community of hermit crabs will emerge from their shells for my own amusement. That encourages me to climb over steep, dark rocks beautifully misshapen by the tide rolling in, collect and admire and treasure brightly-coloured coral and shells from the sand, and twist a not-yet-ripe yellow-and-green pineapple from its own squealing maternal branch. Hours pass unnoticed and one fishing boat passes by; a handful of locals can be seen browsing the beach.
When I was younger and camping with my family, I used to wander off and find myself a large rock by the water on which to seat myself and write in my journal. Goodness knows what I wrote about, and whether or not my surroundings served as an environmental muse, but simply being there inspired this sense of calm and remove that I rarely find now living in the city and worrying about how much or how little I’ve accomplished day-to-day. There, my only purpose was to find my rock and sit on it and write. Here, it was to stare out into ocean and think about nothing beyond my surroundings. For once, that wasn’t difficult.
We never did get to go whale watching. The weather simply wasn’t clear enough, and our guide hadn’t been able to return by boat in time to take us out. But no matter; there’s always next time.