Friday, August 31, 2012


On the last night in Oki we caught a festival at Yonabaru town - kind of a summer bon festival, but Okinawan style.
There was wrestling, there was cotton candy.
There was music and dancing, and drumming, and drum-dancing.
My friend S who grew up in Oki said we couldn't miss Eisa - a kind of drum-dancing found at local festivals.

I love the guy who runs around in face paint, looking scary and whistling and messing with the crowd.
I love the chiming in of the singers who sing ahirihiri on top of the main body of the song (these shots/catcalls are called kakegoe 掛け声). I was told it means "I like it like it."

Tuesday, August 28, 2012


The Nakagusku castle ruins lie on the the east coast of the island, just south of Okinawa City.
The Ryukyuan castle, or gusuku, was built in the 15th century. Unlike Shuri-jo, with its gift shops and costumed staff and refreshment plaza,, Nakagusku is undeveloped, unpolished, and unbranded.
After paying admission at the small ticket booth near the grassy overgrown parking lot, we hiked up the hill to find the ruins, lonely for visitors, the enormous man made rock formations stark against the brilliant blue sky and expansive green.
Though I love the pageantry of Tsuruga-jo, the folk dance at Shuri-jo, the historical tour guide at Matsumoto-jo, and treading in sock feet on the time-polished wooden floorboards at Matsue-jo, there is something to be said for castle ruins left unadorned, unexplained, and largely unstaffed. The busy-ness of those castles is surely entertaining, but at Nakagusku it is only the crumbling foundation open to the sky.
There is a lot of space for the imagination there.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

under the surface

We were fortunate to know a local in Okinawa, and when she heard we were on the island, Kate wasted no time in inviting us out. I met Kate in Tohoku, a fierce animal advocate with a talent for bargaining with animal control for the lives of condemned animals. On Okinawa, too, she works with rescue groups like Doggies Inc. She also happens to be incredibly good in a crisis, has allll the outdoor skills, and is ready for the apocalypse.
So when she said she wanted to take me snorkeling and kayaking (my first time), it was a big fat YES.
7:30 AM found us at Maeda, just down the coast from where we had hiked the day before. Kate showed up with a car stuffed with gear, and proceeded to outfit us with snorkels, wetsuits, life jackets, and flippers, to go over my newly acquired reef shoes.
She gamely instructed me as I floundered, treading water, repeatedly retrieving items I dropped on the ocean floor, including the underwater camera she loaned me.
Eventually I found my flipper feet and managed to float and paddle and breathe all at the same time, only occasionally inhaling a lungful of sea water.
I'm not afraid of much, but the sea has always freaked me out a little. I grew up on it, and I like swimming in it, splashing in it, and sailing on it. When I was small we regularly made trips to the Gulf of Mexico. I vacationed on the North Carolina shore, went to Hawaii as a kid when my whole family got bumped off of our flight midvoyage, and spent my adolesence dipping my toes into the icy water on the severe gorgeous grey Oregon coast. I'm not scared of the water or the waves or the depths.
But when stuff that I can't see touches me underwater... heebie jeebies. The ocean is so strange, the critters in there are so foreign. They say the sea is our last frontier other than space. That makes so much sense to me. There are some crazy alien earthlings down there.
Snorkeling helped me face that fear. Maeda is on top of a coral reef, and after a few practice paddles Kate led us into the blue cave. I was face to face with schools of fish, a pupil among them. They flowed around me. In their world, joining them and seeing them in their element, it wasn't freaky at all. I got to see that most of them are not out to get me. Most of them do not want to hurt me or sting me or bite me (most of them). And most of them don't seem nearly so slimy or scary when viewed up close and personal.
The pictures do them no justice. Forgive me, I am a snorkel and underwater photo-noob.

P.S. Kate makes beautiful portraits. Hire her!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Onna-son and rocking at the Casbah

The viewpoint at Cape Manza in Onna-son is fetching, with green expanses leading to cliffs plunging into the blue. After gazing at the spray for awhile, I found that there was a geocache less than a kilometer away, and genius that I am, insisted that we strike out across the rocks to find it. Alas, though I am a Capricorn I am not a billy goat and we were soon thwarted by the sharp steep rocks and our ill-chosen footwear. We decided to try again from a less precipitous approach, stopping at the souvenir stand to buy some かりゆし.

This time we were able to hone in on the cache zone. Just a bit down the road, the beach was secluded and completely absent of the day trippers who were goggling at the sea just a few hundred meters away. Huge jutting rocks formed caves and we searched for the cache. Along the way we made the acquaintance of a cat who seemed to live in or near the caves, as she kept popping out of holes and perching on different boulders.

We never did find the cache, but in the way of the best cache spots, it didn't matter that much. We got to hang out on a beautiful lonely beach and had it all to ourselves. Unfortunately, N waded into the water with his phone in his pocket and lost all the pictures of that place.
On the way back to Naha, we stopped in Okinawa City for some grub.
Tucked in a decaying city center in a deserted shopping arcade, the unlikeliest cafe and shop waits like a soft pearly pebble gleaming in the gravel.
Vegan junk deli (Rock the) Casbah!
Buffet style weigh and pay, complete with skull and crossbones.

I'll have a little of everything, thanks.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

sata-an-dagi and other delights

Thursday morning we gorged on the free breakfast and then picked up the rental car, a boxy little "eco" car (I think it was a Daihatsu Tanto) that had a feature called eco-drive that would cut the engine off and turn it back over seemingly at random. Northward! Onna-son (恩納村 - the "mura" character is pronounced "son" in Okinawa) looks far away on the map but in reality is only a few dozen kilometers and an hour's drive up the coast. There, we went to a "secret" beach recommended to us by a friend who grew up on Oki - beautiful, clean, and deserted.
Who's that asshole on the phone?
On the way back it was still early, so we stopped at Ryukyu Mura, a recreation of a traditional village. The ratty shisa dolls were cool and the pottery factory was rather interesting, but the best part was the live music offered, both in the main atrium adjacent to the food court, and by a guy casually plucking a san-shin and lounging in the doorway to one of the huts. He later came onstage and did a wonderful set, including an Okinawan language version of 上を向いて歩こう, aka The Sukiyaki Song.

He has a youtube channel!
Just north of Naha we stopped in Chatan, at the "American Village", which has a lot of restaurants. We poked our head into a Thai place and I was pleased to find a big fat vegetarian advertisement on the front window. Jai Thai's menu has two pages catering to vegetarians, and they can also make vegan dishes.
Returning to Naha, we hit up Makishi Market, the warren of shops and alleys in central city, starting just off Kokusai-dori. There are stray cats there, as everywhere else on the island. In addition to the trinkets and vegetable sellers and butchers, there are a few vendors hawking freshly-made sata-an-dangi, the local doughnut-style fried goodness in an array of native flavors. My Oki-raised friend has requested the purple-hued beni-imo (taro) ones, and we tried those out - yum. My favorite was the coconut, but the brown sugar, mango, and sesame ones were delicious too. Sata-an-dangi is Okinawan language, but the word sata means sugar, or sato in Japanese. Even though I couldn't understand the native language, I did notice that some words are similar like this.
In Makishi market
Back to the strays for a minute. There are SO MANY STRAYS all over Okinawa. They are a much more common here than on the mainland. Breeding seems to go almost unchecked. There are a lot more stray dogs, too, though they aren't around quite as much as the cats. There is a great organization called Doggies Inc. that works there trying to alleviate animal suffering. Mainly, they pull animals out of Ozato animal control, which is a high-kill shelter where many many strays end up. They then vet and re-home the animals. They do mostly deal with dogs, but they help cats too.  They are a registered non-profit in the US, and they do really good work. I will be transporting a dog to a new forever home in the States for them next month. Check them out!

Friday, August 17, 2012


Shisa, the Okinawan lion-dog creature, decorates many houses.
Mensore means welcome in uchinaaguchi, a native Okinawan tongue. It's one of the most common native words a tourist will see around the island, which mostly, at least in the large commerce areas, runs on mainland Japanese.
This was my third time in the Ryukyu Kingdom, the first when I was a kid and the second two years ago. Again, Skymark was the cheapest deal I could find on a flight. Thankfully, no needy seatmates were in residence this time around.
Body-shaming freebie at the hotel
I looked into staying at the place I stayed last time, but the hostel has changed hands and a double now costs about the same as a cheap business hotel - except the hotel has the benefit of a private bathroom. We ended up getting a Toyoko Inn club card (¥1000-¥1500) because at a few hundred yen discount per night for five nights, it paid for itself. In addition to the discount, you get a free night's stay for every ten. Since the card is for life, it also saves me the hassle, at this hotel at least, of being asked for my passport. I always refuse to provide it (I don't travel with my passport domestically, and guests who are assumed to be Japanese are not usually asked for ID), but it saves me the whole refusal song and dance agitation. Getting worked up less often is good.

So after arriving late at night, cabbing to the hotel, and crashing out, we spent the first day in Naha city riding the monorail and checking out the city. At Shuri station, we found the cleverly named 35 coffee, and when I saw they were offering iced coffee for only 100 yen, we got one. 35 in Japanese is san-go, which in a homonym for sango/coral (珊瑚). This coffee company spends a portion of its proceeds preserving coral reefs in Okinawa.
We hit up Vegi Cafe Shanti for lunch, a beautiful little vegetarian cafe offering Nepalese-style food. Some of their sales go to building a school in Nepal. Yum!
These ladies are doing a tea-gathering dance.
We had both been to Shuri Castle before, but walked around the grounds anyway and got there just in time for a Ryukyuan dance performance! We got to see four traditional dances from various aspects of Ryukyu culture, from the courts to the farms. I love the whistling and chanting that goes along with Okinawan traditional music!
View from Shuri castle
On the way back to the monorail station, I spotted this storefront and we stopped, intrigued. NPO Agora is a non-profit dedicated to helping those with developmental disabilities, especially those with mental disabilities. Here they have a cafe and social space, and also sell arts and crafts made by their members. We bought some jewelry. This day left me with the impression that Oki has a higher than average level of do-gooders/socially conscious people.
We also hit the prefectural museum, which has both art and history wings. We chose the history museum, and learned about both the natural and folk history of the island and the archipelago(s). Worth it!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Adventures in the women's restroom

Others have written about the cutthroat business of using the ladies' loo in Japan (her blog's title is even an homage to restroom etiquette), but I got to experience some of the prime high quality drama myself this morning. I think women's kaisha toilets must be near the pinnacle for volume of unwritten rules in toileting.

I got to work about 20 minutes early, and not wanting to go up and settle into the grim-faced, blinds-drawn office quite yet, I ducked into the first floor lav, usually deserted as there are no offices at the lobby level. One of the stalls was occupied - not a problem for me.

The toilets in my office building are kept scrupulously clean, and are the most so first thing in the morning after the cleaning crew has hit them but before the worker drones descend on the building and the daily christening begins. I'm telling you so you can put your mind at ease, but I don't actually care that much if you think I'm gross. In fact, as the doors and walls go all the way down to the floor, they are often used by energy-sapped salarynerds for naps disguised as post-lunch bowel movements.

I went into one of the vacant stalls to take a few minutes to collect myself, wipe my sweaty brow, apply eyeliner that I'm too frazzled to apply at home, and finish up a few rounds of Words with Friends on my phone.

But. My next stall neighbor wasn't happy. She clearly wanted the place to herself - nay, felt entitled to it. First she tried to wait me out, hoping that I would be on my way quickly. But I was in no hurry. F-A-X-E-R. Triple word score! As it became clear I wasn't leaving, the passive-aggressive drama began. Oh! the throat clearing! The sighing! The audible pouting! The put-out petulance! After awhile of this, she exited her stall and stamped around in front of the sinks for a bit. A-G-R-E-E. Hm. Only a double letter on that one. I could hear a lot of hair flipping and turning on and off of the taps. I still had ten minutes to kill. Z-I-L-C-H. Ha! Z on a triple letter! Take that, mom! Finally, with a big huffy sigh, she flounced out. I feel certain that were it not a swinging door, she would have slammed it. Crap. Only Is and Os left. I checked my watch, tacked an I onto the X, fished my key card out of my bag, and went to catch the elevator.

Monday, August 13, 2012

today on the train

This morning on the train, a couple was standing next to me. He was in business clothes with a briefcase, she dressed nicely but more casually. Both around 40, he had a bald pate with a good shock of hair in the back. Both were wearing glasses. She had a ponytail. She stood with her hands on his shoulders, and murmured "isshokenmei" (一所懸命: do your very best).  He nodded and got off the car, briefcase in hand.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

secret discounts

Looking to splash out a bit on my lunchbreak and lacking my usual pbj, I found what seems to be the only Indian restaurant in Shinyoko, Maharaja on the 9F of Cubic Plaza, connected to Shinyokohama station.
They have an 850yen lunch special that gets you your choice of curry, a huge naan bread, and a small salad. There are three vegetarian options, the dal tarka, the navratan, and the palak paneer. The server guy came around and spotted my keycard badge, which I had tucked under my shirt - but he saw the telltale strap around my neck that marks the salarynerds populating the area. "Choose a drink," he told me. Sa-bisu (complimentary) for company workers. I hadn't seen this written anywhere on the menu or at the door, but at his prompting I also picked out a lassi. Pretty nice to get an unexpected secret discount when you weren't expecting one. I guess most kaisha-in are easy to spot. We know you when we see you.

P.S. It turns out you don't have to be a salarynerd - I found this coupon which gets you a free drink whoever you are (with food purchase).