The nicest thing about when we went to Okinawa was the season. It has turned decidedly cool here in Osaka, but Okinawa was still 80-90’s. The Japanese have a “thing” about when you swim and when you do not. There is just a certain day you stop swimming (or using air conditioning) no matter the temperature. I have no idea why. It worked hugely to our favor though because the beaches I am about to talk about where EMPTY. On the most popular beach on Kume Island we saw maybe 20 people total. We also went during off season, which probably helped a lot too.
Naha is not a very interesting place by itself. But it is a great hub of activity to get out and about. It feels fairly like your average Japanese city, with a big strip of neon and signs. Living in Osaka though, I can see that kind of stuff anytime. We were eager to get out. We had previously checked out fairy times and got up bright and early ready to head for Kume-jima. “Jima” is Japanese for island. We picked Kume Island because it seemed populated enough that we could get around (taxi) but not a huge tourist place. We were not disappointed in the least. The ride via fairy took about four hours. During which we were treated to the most vividly incandescent blue water I have ever seen. We also went past many other minor islands of Okinawa. Their green provided beautiful contrasts to the deep purples and florescent blues of the sea.
While on the boat we were treated to seeing flying fish. The waters of Okinawa are great to spot dolphins and whales, but it was the wrong season. I am content with the flying fish though. They were varied in size from about 1.5 – 6 inches in length. At first I thought they were just my imagination because I only managed to see one or two out of the corner of my eye. Then I got serious and started looking for them. They jumped away from the bow wake and looked like dragonflies. Then we went through large schools of them and they were shooting every-which-way. Some would leave the water and glide for several feet before splashing back into a wave. They were very cool.
During the boat ride my calves took a sun beating. I was very diligent about covering my arms and face with suntan lotion, but, like an idiot, I neglected my legs. The back of my legs got torched. But, of the four of us, I faired the best by the time we boarded the plane for Osaka.
Once on Kume the first order of business was food. We took a taxi from the port to a restaurant of our driver’s choosing. It turned out to be a nice little place with tatami floors. I had a gyudon and soba set, but it was too large. I ended up just eating the gyudon. Gyudon is probably my favorite Japanese dish. It is fried meat and onions over rice. A raw egg is usually placed on top of the whole heap. It is typically served in stoneware. You stir the egg in and the raw egg is cooked. It is delicious. The gyudon I ate on Kume was arguably the best I have had.
Next we headed for the beach. Having been tempted by the blue water all the way from Okinawa proper, we were all eager to get wet. The beach did not disappoint. The water was crystal clear. There is a reef system that circles the Okinawa islands so there was lots of coral washed up on the beach. It was a little sharp, but it made the sand a much different texture than what I am use to from my trips to the Atlantic. It was also white sand which I had not really seen “in person in nature” before. We swam in the Pacific and played Frisbee. It was a relaxing afternoon that stretched on and on. Finally it was time to eat.
We walked around the island for a little while and found an Izakaiya (Japanese style restaurant/bar). We met a wonderful guy who shared some of his traditional dishes. Chris and I had tuna stakes. They grabbed this giant slab of deep red raw tuna on display, and my taste buds instantly stood up and said “Howdy.” The influence of sushi has caused me to appreciate the beauty and potential yummy-ness of raw fish. They cooked the tuna (Japanese = magaro) and served it sizzling in a pan with lots of lemon and butter. Add a bowl of fresh rice and call it a meal. It was a delicious experience.
Next it was back to the beach for nightfall. We set up Damien’s tent. Then Flora and I went searching for driftwood and large coral pieces to form a fire ring. We ended up finding a ton of wood, some of which was far too large for our little fire. We fed that wood in “pencil sharpening style” putting a little in the fire at a time. It worked. The real treat was the darkness. We were out on the beach so there were not that many lights. There was a hotel farther down and the glow from the interior of the city obscured the Northern sky, but the Eastern, Southern, and much of the Western sky was clear. There was minor cloud cover all night, but you could see stars.
I have always had a love of the night sky. I can vividly remember going out with mom and dad to see the Perciad and Lionid meteor showers when I was young. When my grandfather died and a lot of important people left me to twist in the wind my junior-senior year of college I would often walk up to North Field and sit in the bleachers and look at the sky. The night sky always takes my breath away and stirs deep emotions in me. It represents the closest thing to the eternal. There is comfort in the thought that, for all intensive purposes, every one of the people I hold dear and whom they hold dear, both now and through the long corridor of time, have sat and will sit beneath the same subtle glow. For as long as humanity has existed, and as long as it will exist, the night sky has stood silent vigil and acted as eternal unwavering companion. I do not always feel connected to the grand scheme of creation, but in the darkness under the sky I find that feeling washing over me in awesome waves. When I was very young I wanted to be a paleontologist, but after I saw the Milky Way for the first time I held no other dreams but physics and astronomy. Sitting on the beach with the surf filling my ears, and what seemed to be the whole of universe spread out before me in a dazzling luminous symphony of light I remembered and felt my true passion once more.
We awoke slightly after sunrise. The air was still slightly cold and crisp. The tide was just changing. We swam in the ocean first thing. It was slightly cold, but not shockingly so. It was the perfect way to wake up. We broke camp and carefully killed what was left of the embers. We then buried the fire pit. It was clear that we were “there,” but not horribly so.
The Kume sandbar
The owners of a beach front business came and picked us up so we could catch a ride to the sandbar. Kume is volcanic island with an extensive reef system surrounding it. I believe this is true of all of the Okinawa islands. Kume’s reef has built up a six mile sandbar just beyond the island. We paid about 3,000円 ($30) roundtrip to take the 5-10 minute ride out to the sandbar. This was really the sea highlight of the trip. The sandbar’s water was crystal clear. The constant surf made the sand very soft, and there was the coral reef at the outer edge of the swimming area. The coral was not very vivid in color, it might have been dead –I don’t know much about coral--, but it still hosted a lot of life. As soon as we went underwater we saw shimmering silver tropical fish. I came up immediately and yelled “FISHES!” which became the catchphrase for all cool things. The fish looked like elongated angel fish. If you swam fast you could almost touch them before they darted away. Deeper in the coral there was an eel and bright blue fish. Even in the shallow water there were very little fish dashing about. It was such a shocking contrast between the Atlantic Ocean, that I am use to, and the Tropical Pacific.
Unfortunately we misunderstood the directions and left our bags on the shore, because we thought they would give them to us prior to boarding the transport to the sandbar. They didn’t. None of us brought any sun block. I had a very small coating on me thanks to the morning swim and my general paranoia. But it was a very light coating (arms, legs, face, shoulders). By the end of the stint on the sandbar we were all swimming with our clothes more or less on to help shield us from the sun. Because my shoulders were shielded but my back was not, I have a unique burn that starts on my back at the exact spot that my arm cannot reach over my shoulder. Ohh well, it isn’t as bad as when I used the spray on lotion and had two giant unburned circles on my back. Or the time I turned blue… I also can’t complain because I walked away the least burned of all.
On the boat ride back a kid spotted a sea turtle. I didn’t really get a chance to see it but Damien did before it swam off (it couldn’t disappear into the deep because the water was just too gorgeously clear!). We all ended up back on Kume and headed for lunch.
At lunch we had some delicious tacos at a local taco joint. They were very tasty. There was a festival in Naha the next day that Chris and Damien wanted to go to. Flora and I discussed staying on the island. She decided not to. I was tempted because they had a lightning bug museum (could be lame or it could be awesome) and a stereoscopic observatory (twin observatories that can be used to produce three dimensional images of the night sky). I really wanted to go to both. The observatory could be a bust because they might not want to talk to me, and if they did: I don’t speak Japanese. So with all my friends leaving I decided that I should go too. I also wanted to go because one of the things I absolutely wanted to do prior to coming was seeing some of the indigenous people’s architecture. So we grabbed a few more tacos for the boat ride home and we left tranquil Kume.
We arrived back at Naha port about sunset. Chris barrowed my camera (because I was the only person to bring one!) and took some pictures of sunset. We grabbed a taxi and headed for another steak dinner. We went to another fancy place where they did all kinds of cool tricks with the food. It was another amazing floor show and a delightful meal. For me I had had steak three nights in a row (beef, tuna, beef) now THAT is living.
Because of the festival the next day I was nervous about how easy it would be to get out of Naha for the indigenous architecture. I decided to grab a cab and head on out that night. I also wanted to sleep in a real bed and take a shower that lasted for approximately seven months. By this time I had swam in the sea at least three times, slept on the beech, and hiked around an island all without a shower. When I made the mistake of touching my hair I thought I was touching straw. I needed a shower, pronto.
Damien helped immensely with his Japanese skill. He found me a hotel, made a reservation, and off I went. When I got to the hotel I immediately went to my room and took a shower. Then I filled the tub and took a bath. It was heaven. I then got out, organized my bags, and went back in for another shower. Water logged, clean, shaven, and sated; I collapsed into a real bed and fell asleep.