I did manage a couple of k-mail blog posts–it’s nice that they enable me to get a fair amount across like that. I was trying to keep a mental tally of things I wanted to note here as the weekend went on.

Some things that really struck me:

  • the massive amounts of plants, trees, flowers, and general greenery there, as compared to every other Japanese city I’ve visited
  • the very gregarious shopkeepers and the out-and-out aggressive taxi drivers (in their case, I believe the supply exceeds the demand in most cases; as I told Julie over k-mail, I really do enjoy being told I have the face of a movie star, but if I say I want to take the bus, then I want to take the bus! Arguing with me about it for 10 solid minutes won’t make me budge)
  • the subtle cultural differences present everywhere that made me realize this wasn’t “mainland” Japan, and how much Okinawan culture was influenced by China
  • mmmmm, tofu champloo and fried tacos…
  • gorgeous weather–there was only one day this weekend where it was sunny, but even otherwise, it was totally t-shirt weather the whole time, which was a very welcome change
  • I didn’t see nearly as many American/western tourists as I was expecting on Kokusai-dori and elsewhere–that is, until Tuesday morning, of all times
  • Kokusai-dori (the main drag in Naha) was touristy but in a charming way; I found myself spending time there every single day, wandering in and out of shops and through the covered streets, and I ate at least one meal there daily. I was tempted to turn on my mp3 player’s recorder just to grab a sample of the various sounds that jump out at you–the announcement from the huge TV screen on the western end of the street, the techno and rock and western music, people standing outside shops inviting people inside, random snippets of Okinawan sanshin music, different accents, sounds of cars, the Okinawa-style music played at the major pedestrian crosswalks…

Saturday: I just barely made my flight out of Takamatsu (lucky for me, you only have to be at the gate 10 minutes before departure for domestic flights in Japan). When I arrived in Naha, I caught the monorail from the airport to a stop near my hotel, which I discovered was in a very convenient location–20 minutes from the airport, 15 minutes walking from Kokusai-dori, 10 minutes walking from the bus depot. I checked in, changed into a t-shirt, and spent the afternoon and evening mainly in the Kokusai-dori area window-shopping.

Sunday: It was pouring in the morning, so I took my time leaving. I caught the ferry out to Shuri, a really famous castle complex and the home of the Ryukyu kingdom that had occupied the Okinawan islands a couple hundred years before. It was nice, but I think I would have enjoyed it more if it were sunny and if there weren’t hundreds of tourists and dozens of tour groups there as well. I took a wrong turn and inadvertently left the castle complex early and wasn’t able to reenter, so I wandered around the area for a while before heading back to my hotel, recharging, and then catching a bus to the neighboring town of Urasoe to check out the ruins of an ancient castle and tomb. For whatever reason, those captured my attention more than Shuri did–they just felt more real somehow. I caught a taxi back into Naha and had expensive but pretty good Indian food for dinner.

Monday: This was my History Day. I set out later than I meant to, but it was okay. This day was sunny, so I packed my flip-flops and towel with the intent of finding a beach to hang out on. I caught a bus south to the town of Itoman, and transferred to a second bus to visit the Himeyuri no To, a memorial and peace museum discussing a part of WWII that I’d never heard of before. I knew that Okinawa had been ravaged in WWII, but it’d been long enough that I was pretty vague on the details. The US landed in Okinawa with the intent of using it as a way to strike at “mainland Japan,” and Japan made the decision to wage a war of attrition on Okinawa to keep the US from reaching the mainland as long as possible–and in the process, countless tens of thousands of civilian lives were swept up in the war and consequently lost.

The story behind the Himeyuri no To involves over 200 high school girls (later known as Himeyuri) and their teachers who were summarily drafted to serve as assistant nurses in unbelievably horrendous conditions in makeshift hospitals in caves along the southern Okinawa coast. The caves were wet and unsanitary, and they had to deal with physical and emotional trauma from the injured Japanese soldiers, including such things as burying the dead and removing amputated limbs from the hospital area. They never had a chance to rest and could never leave the caves due to the constant bombardment outside. But suddenly, they were all released from this duty, and dozens were killed trying to find shelter, with more committing suicide to evade being captured by the Americans, who they were taught to believe were barbarians. Out of the over 200 girls, 14 survived the war.

The museum provided a very interesting look at the evolution of the girls’ schools leading up to the war–how their curriculum changed from encouraging analytical and independent thought to becoming more saturated with war propaganda and building up all Japan’s children to join in the cause wholeheartedly, how they were only allowed to speak true Japanese and not the Okinawan dialect or English (the enemy’s language) anymore, and how even their uniforms changed to become more military-like. There were even laws in place preventing this sort of draft of people this young, but they were completely ignored, and the students did their duty wholeheartedly, as loyal Japanese, despite how brutal and terrible it was. After they were released, the Americans had no way to tell the Japanese soldiers from the civilians, and many of them died in the crossfire.

What really struck me about the museum was how un-Japanese it felt. It didn’t provide a pat and happy ending. It presented the injustices done by both the Japanese and the Allied sides in the war, without favoring either–but in some ways, Okinawa seems to consider itself separate from Japan, with good reason. However, it did end with an optimistic exhibit of the partnerships it had established with other similar WWII-era museums and exhibits striving to educate and establish peace. This museum had a very strong impact on me, and its message was made loud and clear.

From there, I wanted to visit the Okinawa Peace Memorial Park, but the next bus didn’t come for almost 2 hours, so I walked the 3-4 kilometers in between. The museum was closed, but the grounds themselves were very striking, with exhibits of the names of all the people who died in the seige at Okinawa. There was also the Cornerstone of Peace, in a pavilion overlooking the Pacific Ocean. I had another hour to wait there for the next bus, but this time I did wait (and had to shake off several insistent taxi drivers).

Next, I went to visit Cape Kyan and some castle ruins there. The grounds out there made me think I was in the countryside of a very sleepy Caribbean town–it felt nothing like Japan as I knew it. It also all felt very weary, with good reason–Cape Kyan was an area with cliffs where thousands of people jumped to their deaths to avoid the onslaught of the war, and not too far away was a memorial for 35,000 unknown Okinawan civilians who had died on that beach.

It was late enough in the day, though, that I didn’t actually make it out to the cape or the memorial (Konpaku-no-to). I did, however, find a deserted and very mossy inlet beach that I thought was beautiful in its solitude, and I found the nearby castle ruins of Gushikawa-jo, a crumbling rock structure with a truly spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean. I spent a while out there and then made it to the bus stop in time to catch a bus back to Itoman, where I caught one ten minutes later back to Naha.

Tuesday: I checked out of my hotel (did I mention that I’d been giving free eikaiwas to this adorable guy working behind the counter who was really eager to practice his English with me? It was a shame to have to say goodbye to him), left my bags at the counter, and went omiyage-shopping at Kokusai-dori, where I found the perfect birthday gift for my dad, and where I saw more foreigners than I’d seen in the previous three days combined (average age: 50 years old).

I ate at the taco place recommended in Lonely Planet and ran into two young-ish guys there, who were really excited to meet another foreigner their age. It turns out they work for a small eikaiwa in the Kansai region (Osaka/Kobe), and obviously they were hoping to make some gaijin friends while in Naha because they looked disappointed when I said I was flying out that afternoon. They left, then I ate and left and finished shopping and got my suitcase from the hotel and got to the airport early enough to secure a seat all the way up front. The weather in Takamatsu was chillier and rainy, but I got home around 5:30 or 6 PM and spent my evening checking in with Julie about Korea, packing and doing laundry, and catching up on all the online stuff I’d missed (including the Battlestar Galactica season finale–holy crap, man).

And now, I’m back at work, in jeans, which is nice. I just requested an hour of vacation for this afternoon, because I haven’t finished packing yet and I need to get Julie as soon as possible. I’ll try to write from Korea so I don’t inundate you all with a post twice as long as this one!

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