Japan 2010: 3 - Where I Turn to Liquid

I woke after a sleepless night, ironically worrying that I wouldn't get enough sleep and wake up too late for my plane. I bode my grey little hotel room farewell, and checked out at 6.30am. The plane would leave for Okinawa in a couple of hours time, and I needed to make two train journeys before then. The convenient little café was still closed and would not open until 7, so I made my way with stomach growling through the remnants of the rain back once more towards Ueno station.

Strangely, when I got to Shinagawa station, I must have got disoriented and took a different route, because the ticket booth was different to the one I had been to the day before, but it appeared to still go in the right direction. I paid my 400yen and went through the barriers. At the upstairs platform I stood and waited with the bags at my feet, and nervously checked with a fellow loiterer that it was the correct platform for Haneda Airport. To my surprise he responded in confident English. Jin was a 3rd generation Japanese guy who lived in the US, but occasionally comes back over for either business or pleasure. This time he was working and heading to Haneda to catch a flight to Osaka. We got on and chatted, and swapped stories, making the journey pass quickly. At the exit we went our separate ways as we were going to different terminals. ANA flights, of which mine was one, departed from Terminal 2.

I suddenly had a pang of doubt that there might not be ATM's that accept international cards in Okinawa, so on seeing a 7-Eleven with an international ATM next to it, I took the opportunity to get out a chunk more to ensure I made it through until Kyushu.

Getting Cash with Cards in Japan

Surprisingly for such an advanced nation, Japan lags behind when it comes to paying for things - people over there still use cold hard cash as their primary method. This can catch out an unprepared traveller, and there are two main places you can use your card to get cash; most branches of the Japan Post Office, where even the small ones will have an English language ATM available, and the 7-Eleven stores, which have recently been upgraded to service international cards. For both of them you need to tell your bank when you will be abroad so they can enable the card for you. (It's best to make doubly sure they do as well because sometimes they mess it up).

Note that 7-Eleven stores are not present in Okinawa. Also note that whenever you make a transaction, your bank will probably add an extra international charge on top of the withdrawl amount (in the region of $2).

If caught short for cash, there are a few more options when you need to pay directly:
  • If looking for accommodation, go to a JTB. They will sort you out a room and you can usually pay by card. The branches in larger cities are more likely to have English speakers and you can make bookings for anywhere from any branch.
  • Most tourist spots have souvenir shops that allow foreign travellers to pay by card.
  • If you have travellers cheques, larger Post Offices, Banks and some Hotels will cash them for you, but be prepared for a 10 minute wait.
The typically clinical tiled walls of the station fell away as we ascended the escalators to the upper floors where the airport began proper. The building resembled a fancy shopping mall with shiny metal cladding and a high, cathedral-style ceiling. The whole space was roomy as if you were outside. A long line of blue check-in desks began, each with a buzz of excited travellers queueing for their tickets. Not knowing where to go, I asked and was directed under the large signs into a queue to check myself in. I had not managed to do it online, and so this was my punishment. The queue slowly depleted and thankfully the rep took my details without me having to say or do anything. I received a little card with some writing on it and some flowers, and she asked me to go wait in line at the main desks.

Haneda airport check-in was mostly like anywhere else, but with no English, although with a little guidance, most people regardless of knowledge of the language could make it through so long as they left an hour to spare to do it. After checking in my baggage (which was a wrench because I had only just got it back!) I got my boarding pass and went through the detectors and into the waiting area. The whole effort took about 45 minutes, and wasn't as bad as I was expecting, but then I was used to the post-terror checking done in the UK.

The waiting area was abuzz with excitement. I would be joined on my journey by several dozen excited teenagers. Quite why they were jumping up and down and making constantly altering little chatty groups I have no idea, but I guess this was the first time a lot of them had flown. I looked outside to see our plane. It was a small airbus, the sort of one reserved for domestic flights, but it looked a little different, a little jollier. It was covered from nose to tail with happy little Pokemon characters.

Things carried on a similar theme inside, where all the curtains shielding the staff areas were Pikachu'd up, and even the headrests had their own clique of excitable creatures bursting out at you. As the rest of the passengers filed in, a mix of tired businessmen slumping into their seats and the aforementioned superhappy schoolkids bouncing up and down on them, I looked out onto the wing and saw a pokeball and gave a little chuckle. Only in Japan would they launch something so twee into the sky where people would see it. If you were watching the Japanese Grand Prix on the telly, and heard a plane overhead, there's a good chance it was mine. I'm just glad the cameras were fixed on the track.

The damp streets of Tokyo faded into the distance and were replaced by fluffy clouds, and when we descended an hour later (to the excited screams of the kids) the weather looked decidedly nicer. When we got off the plane, we all sidled down the corridor and into the airport. The first thing that told me I was in a sub-tropical climate was the large number of beautiful Orchid displays all over the airport. Large circular raised platforms in the middle of the aisle contained a dozen or so plant pots, out of which flowers of every colour bloomed, clearly in their element. Lining the windows at each side were similar sights. It all looked very welcoming.

I breathed a sigh of relief as my backpack glided towards me on the carousel and I went through the exit door, only then realising that the checks we would have to go through if in the UK (even on a domestic flight) were absent; I was a lobby away from the outside. Come to think of it, no-one had even asked to see my passport.

I made a point of heading straight to the information desk and picking up as much free English literature as possible, of which there were plenty; several maps of central Naha, the capital city in Okinawa, plus a map of the whole island. There was also a sightseeing bus, a list of good scuba-diving sites, an advert for the Shurijo Castle Park, and most importantly, a flyer for the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium. This was the primary reason for including Okinawa on the trip; a beautiful aquarium with a massive tank full of huge fish swimming so close to you as you watch, mouth agape. I have mixed feelings regarding the keeping of animals in zoos, but as soon as I had seen the now semi-famous video, I had fallen in love with the place. If the flyers and posters weren't enough to get me there, they had put a mini tank of fish in the airport lobby to whet our appetites.

But that would have to be tomorrow. The aquarium was placed on the northern edge of the island, past the town of Nago in the north. Since Okinawa has yet to get a train network (it has a monorail serving a good chunk of central Naha, and everything else relies on buses of taxi), the trip would take up a full day, and it would need to be an early start.

After heading up to the second floor of the airport building to access the monorail, I stopped briefly in the extensive souvenir shop, and sat in the café beyond, and watched the aircraft coming and going for a little while. Thoughts of whale sharks and large spiders, bus rides and wetsuits occasionally drifted through my mind; I had four days here and I would do as much as I could fit in.

The second indication that this place was semi-tropical greeted me as I left via the monorail exit. The deceptive air-conditioning no longer protected me and instead was replaced with hot, humid air. I reeled from the temperature change and within seconds was a ball of sweat. This was October for gods sake, but it was clear no-one had told this place. Removing all unnecessary items of clothing and putting them around the waist, I took the walkway to the terminus and after considering the options, bought a 3-day pass for the monorail. 1400 yen bought unlimited travel, which when you consider that an individual trip cost between 200-300yen a time, it would quickly pay for itself. The monorail glided into view, and thankfully had lovely cool air conditioning inside. I sat down and pointed the camera outside, having only recently got into a picture-taking mood given the previous couple of days. I could finally relax and enjoy myself.

At Miebashi station I got off and studied the directions to the hostel. It was pretty close, but reviews of it had pointed to a few flights of stairs. True to the directions, the blue Sora House sign with its crazy earth logo on the front stuck out prominently in front of me advertising its.. less than inviting entrance; a concrete flight of steps below a ceiling that looked semi-demolished and was frankly falling apart. My heart sank.

Fortunately as I ascended, things looked much better, and the character of the place came through. The second floor was just a locked door, and the third just housed a trio of 'Sora House' rental bikes. As I scaled to 4F, I was greeted by the first of many pictures created by its owners.

Nori-san, the owner, was there on the fifth floor to greet me. It was half past one and check-in was not until 3. Fortunately I could store my baggage, so I removed the pair of shoe-sandal hybrids I had bought just for the island, put them on and headed out to until I was allowed in proper.

Just down the road is Kokusai-dori, the main street in Naha for shopping and tourism. Highlighted on the maps as this massive straight road, it boasts souvenir shops and restaurants, pachinko parlours and undercover markets as far as you can see. Unfortunately I hadn't even made it this far before my feet were in tatters; the new sandals were digging into the soft, sweaty skin on the top of my feet and every step resulted in pricking, scratching pains which soon broke the skin. Searching my smaller backpack which I had thankfully brought with me, I pulled out a few tissues and stuffed them into the rubbed areas, and kept going.

And this was my first sight of The Americans. They were easily distinguishable from the tourists in more ways than the obvious one. Gathering in packs, the teenage sons and daughters of many of the serving military officers strutted round with their tails in the air; it was clear that they thought they were the owners or custodians of the place thanks to the American army having a base there since the second world war. The occasional sideways glance towards them from the native Okinawans gave me the impression that, although they were not particularly disliked, it was a case that they were being tolerated with painted smiles. I could understand why; they were confident, arrogant and brash and there were a lot of them.

After a while heading down one side, Shuri Station (currently the other end of the Monorail) was visible in the distance. I turned around and headed into a park for a short rest; a flighty bird hopped between the branches of a fruit tree just too quickly for me to get on film, and then a middle-aged man sat down and started singing a sad-sounding song to anyone who would listen. After a while I hobbled back to the Sora House, taking a brief detour down the main aisle of the covered market, a wealth of smaller, more personal restaurants and shops often selling locally grown fruit or handmade clothes.
When I returned, Nori-san showed me my room - down on the fourth alongside some female guests, a double room but with just me in it - and then after a run down of the various amenities, informed me that if I got my skates on, I could catch the great Naha tug of war.

The what?, I said, still a little taken aback with actually making it to my destination, mixed with the relatively proficient English being spoken at me. Nori-san pointed at one of the stations and said it started in about a half hour at 4pm. A full-scale event between two teams from the city with a festival later on in the evening. I thanked her and headed to the room; first on the list was to get a wash and a change of clothes. I set my rather wet clothes on to wash in the laundry (a very reasonable 100yen) and then took them up to the washing line on the roof of the house, a pleasant place to go to get a little wind in your hair. After hitting the bed in my lovely cool room, I fell briefly asleep.

By the time I woke an hour later, the tug of war must already have begun, but I decided to head out to Kumoji-dori anyway where it was all happening. Initially intending to get on the monorail, I was passed by several people all carrying sections of rope of varying lengths. Some had just a foot or so, while others had coiled it round their shoulders several times. It was about an inch in diameter, nothing much to write home about, I thought, and not something you can make a large-scale event out of. Still, back in my non-rubbing shoes, I decided to head towards wherever they were coming from.

The tug of war had ended, but only just. I arrived in time to survey the fallout. The little sections of rope people were taking back as souvenirs were in fact strands of a much bigger one, the largest hand-made rope in the world, in fact. You could still see it as part of the surreal scene that greeted me. A block away, several bright blue cranes were being slowly moved to the side of the road while people cleared the area. Slung between them was the rope - a huge thing a meter in diameter, cut apart in the middle to appease both sides and hanging quite dead either side of the road. In the middle, suspended by a rope attached to the towering buildings above, was a giant golden ball, open with it's streamer contents long since fluttered to the ground. Somewhere in the distance, the beeping horn of the truck carrying the winning team made it's presence felt. It was clear that a massive event had taken place here, and I had just missed it. Bah.

Rather than spitting my dummy out and insisting they should all get back here and have another go, I looked around for pieces of rope as a souvenir of at least being there on the day, but found nothing. The hoards of volunteer pullers on both sides had cleared the roads of any potential trophy they could get their hands on, it is considered good luck indeed to take some home with you. As I thought of giving up and moving on, my eyes settled on an American guy in traditional Okinawan garb on the street corner who had large lengths of rope around his neck; he was using a pocket knife to cut his prize up and give to anyone who wanted a bit. I took my place in the gathering around him and got hold of a little piece, with which I was happy.

I got myself a few sticks of chicken Yakitori from a nearby stall and plonked myself in the grounds of a nearby building with a load of other people. A dog tied to a bush took an interest in the sticky meaty chunks in my styrofoam cup and woofed at me constantly until I threw a bit in his direction. Then I heard the beeping and drumming of the winning team again, who were clearly doing a lap of honour. They had got stuck in the traffic under the monorail, so I got into place and waved to them as they went by, and were all too happy to give me a mini performance as they passed.

As darkness quickly descended my mind turned to tomorrow; I needed to know where the bus station was and the times for Nago. Asahibashi station was the nearest to the terminus and a stop down from Kokusai, so I took the trip.
After checking the times and the bus stand (Stand #14, buses between about 6am and 6pm), I headed over the bridge that crosses the Kumoji river. Part two of the day's festivities was just getting going. The Onoyama Park had been hijacked by a hundred or so stalls, selling large amounts of Yakitori, Noodles, or for the American contingent, large piles of chips. Sprinkled between these were souvenir shops, seaside-style challenge games, (amongst others balloon popping, where instead of a goldfish you won a baby chicken) and raffle stalls. Okinawa's local beer, Orion, was out in full force as a major sponsor, with lanterns and posters bearing their name everywhere, and all over the entrance to the sports ground, which had been given over to live music. The sizeable 'Orion Beer Paradise' performance stage at the front had a couple of thousand people of all ages sat on the ground waiting for things to start, munching away on various warm foodstuffs. The air had cooled and the mood of the people was relaxed and happy, even though it was getting seriously busy.

After a further look through the various repeating stalls, I returned to the music, which had by 7pm started. I managed to find myself a lazy spot on a little hill at the back where I could lean onto one of the gnarled old trees quite comfortably. The bands played a mix of more traditional Japanese fare, a bit of J-Pop, and unexpectedly, quite a bit of world music, particularly with a Spanish theme. It was all very pleasant and relaxing, and a nice start to my short time in Okinawa.

Sometime later I got the monorail back. I checked my washing but it was not yet dry (amazingly) so I left it overnight. I spent a little time chatting with people and comparing rope lengths, and then went to bed.

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