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.
- Slept in. Oh man, that was nice.
- Lunched at a beautiful hidden-away little sushi restaurant called Kizushi (been around for 300 years) with exceptional chefs and tiny dining ware — my water glass resembled a large shot glass — where we were presented with 15 different types of sushi, handed over one by one, with just the right amount of homemade wasabi
- Went to a toothpick shop (also approximately 300 years old). Yes, a whole shop just for toothpicks. Royce had already made numerous purchases there, and ended up making another one today. I don’t question his judgment often, but seriously.
- Visited a tea shop that has been around since 1690, plus a shop specialises in products from Mount Fuji, such as candied fruits and cherry blossom wine. Beautiful.
- (The too-much-information post) Made an attempt at buying some, uh, feminine hygiene products because I, uh, needed some. And infuriatingly couldn’t find any tampons in the shop. So I had to purchase the equivalent, which I haven’t used since the age of 12, because, uh, uncomfortable. But I wasn’t about to play charades with the Japanese shop keepers to explain what I needed and why, though goodness that would have made for a hilarious comedy sketch.
- Went to Kiddyland, which isn’t as creepy as it sounds. But as my host said upon entry, if you feel like you’re missing gallons of ‘cute’ in your life, then this is the place you want to go. Let’s just say there’s an entire floor dedicated to Snoopy paraphernalia. For serious.
- Wandered around the fashion district Hara Juku, where I fell in love with numerous outfits. I made a sorry attempt at trying on an adorable banana and strawberry shorts & shirt set and realised that my hips are too wide to fit into any clothing in this sizeist fucking industry.
- Visited Condomania. No explanation needed.
- Visited this expansive indoor food market Saibu with hundreds of different stands, including one that sold rather expensive fruit.
- Enjoyed a fantastic picnic of pork tonkatsu, dumplings and octopus salad.
- Tried 10 different kinds of ice cream: avocado, shark fin, salt of Okhotsk, wasabi, rose, cherry blossom, green tea, green tea with red bean, butternut, and eel. You know you’re jealous.
- Attended a surreal theme park combo of zombies and happy kiddie stuff. Originally, the owners of the venue wanted to open a zombie theme park, but ran out of money while building, so other people bought them out and wanted to open a kiddie theme park, but ended up leaving in a lot of the zombie stuff. So as you wander around, you may see some scary-freaking-zombies, and then in the next room meet some adorable Hello Kitty type characters. For the messed up child in all of us.
Tomorrow we’re catching an early flight to Okinawa, so I may not be able to update until we’re back from the remote island. Sayonara!
My associations with Japan prior to visiting Japan:
- I’ve read all of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels, some of which are set in Japan, though he lives in London. They are all wonderful, except perhaps The Unconsoled, which was a bit of a trial to read.
- I once purchased a Japanese wood block print painting from a shop on Sussex Street in Ottawa. The woman who worked there also offered classes in Ikebana, which I had intended to try and never did.
- I love sushi. My favourite type is eel, which I thought was called ‘unagi’ but the guide book I’m reading refers to it as ‘anago’. One friend of mine bought me sushi-making materials for my birthday, and I once made lots of different types of sushi for a Valentine’s Day date.
- I watched a lot of Sailor Moon when I was younger. In fact, when we first discovered ‘the internet’, the first thing I wanted to do was look up pictures of the characters online and print them out on our colour printer. My favourite Sailor Scout was Sailor Mercury, because she had blue hair and she was super smart.
- I’ve seen Princess Mononoke and My Neighbour Totoro. Recently I started watching, on recommendation from R, a series about a girl named Kino who travels the world on her talking bicycle.
- My first lover had an African mother and Japanese father. He also had a modest collection of Japanese swords and a small scar across his right eyebrow from playing with them. I found him incredibly beautiful.
- One of my favourite monologues in The Vagina Monologues is called ‘Say It (For the Japanese Comfort Women)’ about women sold into sexual slavery during the Second World War. These women, now in their 80s and 90s, demand an apology from the Japanese government for the horrors they endured.
- I love haiku, and write many of my own, though they don’t always follow the thematic requirements of the classical Japanese haiku. Sometimes they even rhyme. I have made fridge magnets out of them; several of my friends have them on their fridges. I found out not too long ago that the plural of haiku is, in fact, ‘haiku’.
I spent a little over an hour in the Beijing airport, where I had just enough time to visit the washroom (one sign inside the stall said ‘Please lock for your convenience’, which made me laugh) and the duty free shop, where I bought some Chinese pineapple biscuits for Royce, my friend, host, and gracious tour guide, who would be meeting me at the next airport. I bought them specifically because once in conversation I mentioned to him that I had had this obsession with pineapples (don’t ask) when I was in high school, and he told me that there existed (I kid you not) a pineapple theme park in Japan. I told him it was cruel to tease me with such fantastic tales, but then he showed me photographs he had taken on a previous visit (oh, the pineapple greeting gate…!), and even offered to take me there himself, and, at that moment, I think I might have swooned.
I’m visiting Japan for 9 days to visit a friend of mine who is studying Noh Theatre there for a month. We’ll be staying in Tokyo and also visiting an island in Okinawa. Here are some of my stories…
I boarded the first plane and walked straight to the back toward my selected window seat. There was a middle-aged Chinese man sitting in the spot next to mine, and when he saw me he smiled and said “I’ve been waiting for you!”
Once I settled myself in, we talked about our respective flights, and he told me he was traveling from New York, where he has lived for the past 30 years, to China for business. Why was he traveling through London, rather than crossing over the Pacific?
He had originally booked a flight to London for a holiday with his wife and two boys, but then he suddenly had to go to China for a business trip, which cut into the holiday. When he tried to alter the flight, the airline told him it would cost over $2000 US, so he found it cheaper to simply book a round-trip flight from London to China and back again. But this meant, for him, being in air transit for over 24 hours. What fun!
Despite his intense schedule, he seemed well-rested and cheery and we embarked, as strangers sometimes do, into polite topics of conversation such as the history slavery, the legal limits of abortion, same-sex marriage, matriarchal societies, the decline of the family unit, and human rights versus cultural traditions. It was comforting to realise that we shared a number of fundamental values, though we had come to them from very different perspectives and experiences.
I also asked him if he was a spy – since he seemed to do an awful lot of traveling for work – and he told me, no, he was an IT consultant. Growing up in communist China, a liberal arts degree wasn’t exactly encouraged, so he pursued the sciences instead. Though, he said, he’d be interested in seeing my show about Sappho when it plays in New York in a couple of months (…shameless plug).
I made the mistake of going out drinking the night before this flight, so I’ll admit I’m not exactly in the best shape to be enjoying a cramped 9 hour journey with a stopover in Beijing, and then another flight to my final destination. But I’m keeping my mind focused on my arrival in Tokyo, on devouring epic quantities of sushi, on exploring markets and temples and fashion districts, on cherry blossom season, on lush islands surrounded by ocean waves and whales, on on on, and and and…