Japan 2010: 4 - Where I Eat Very Fresh Caviar

I woke at about 6am, just beating my little travel alarm which I triumphantly silenced just as the first beep started. The day was getting going outside, and the bright sunlight had managed to peep through the narrow gap in the curtains and stare me right in the face. I got up and opened the window, naively expecting this to let in a bit of cool, fresh air. No, it was like opening an oven door; a blast of hot Okinawan air assaulted my senses. This was 6am.

After a not entirely successful shower, I headed out in the direction of the monorail, getting as many cold drinks from the nearby machine as my backpack would allow. It was another beautiful, clear day in Okinawa, and I was going to see some fishies.

Using the previous day's dry run I alighted at Asahibashi station and went straight to stand 14 where I waited patiently for the 7.42 bus. The route would require one bus to take me to Nago bus terminal, and then a second one to go from the terminal to the aquarium entrance, a total trip of about 3 hours and 3000 yen. A couple of teenage girls came by looking lost, and using hand gestures I reassured them it was this stand for the aquarium, although my doubts were creeping in that I'd got it right.

A little later, our group had swelled to a dozen or so, including James, a young man from Northern Ireland, and his partner Nokya. They were on holiday from Tokyo and had heard about the aquarium, and were as eager to see it as me, They told me that it's not just the aquarium that's there, but a whole park complex with beaches, botanical gardens and dolphins too. News of this got me even more excited, although now I wondered if a single day was going to be enough to cover it all. James knew Japanese very well, and so was able to previously swot up on what was on offer and how to get there, so I felt fortunate that I managed to get the same bus. When I asked about the service for the return leg I got another shock; they stop running criminally early - the last one leaving Nago terminal at 6pm, so the aquarium trip would have to finish at about 5pm at the latest. I lamented not getting going an hour or so previous.

When it arrived, the cool, air conditioned interior welcomed us in from the heat. The bus slowly made its way through to the outskirts of Naha, the need to reach Nago as soon as possible ever present in my mind and making my patience at the never-ending stop lights wear very thin. It followed the general route of the monorail until that ran out of track, and then shortly after joined the main Okinawa Expressway which connected the two main cities, Naha in the south and Nago in the north. Hopes of getting there in double quick time picked up as the bus gathered speed, but faded again when it slowed down to come off the interstate at just about every junction, stopping at cute little bus stops, usually with no-one getting off or on.

We got to Nago approaching 10am. James came to the rescue once more; he was able to parlez with the driver prior to stopping and work out which was the next bus.
Number 66 was at the end of the terminal and about to go so our little disconnected group all got off, individually realised the common purpose, and followed each other in a semi-confident clutter to the next bus. This journey was round twisty twiny roads through small villages and towns, and didn't look at all like a route to a major attraction. It struck me just how many people could visit this place given the transport options and the little, infrequent buses. Towards the end of the ride, the view opened out to include the western edge of the island, an attractive little port town, before we headed inland and up the hill to the aquarium.

The bus finally arrived right outside the aquarium entrance. We picked up a leaflet attached to the pole, which told us when the buses left for the terminal. Entering the aquarium together, we headed straight to the information booth to get maps and ask about the bus times back. Nokya had an excited look on her face and waved before rushing off with James at her side, both of them disappearing into the complex. I looked at my watch; it was about 11am.
The various attractions in the Ocean Expo Park all had their own tickets, and since time was a factor I decided to get to the aquarium first; partly due to priority but also it was quiet; the famous Youtube scene probably wouldn't look like that when it's absolutely heaving, and things seemed relatively quiet. After a quick scan of what would be the first of many souvenir shops, I walked past the giant whale shark statue and through the covered walkway to the entrance. 1400 yen later (cards accepted) and I was in.

The first sections were a gentle introduction to the sea life, a bit where you could tickle starfish a few inches under the surface was getting some understandable attention. I passed panoramic coral reefs, huge deep-sea fish, giant but rather shy lobsters, little tiny snake-like fish that popped out of the ground to feed and stayed there like whisps of grass, and turtles swimming about amongst massive schools seemingly content with their surroundings (which was the first time I'd seen contented turtles in captivity). As I went further in, the lighting dropped and the tanks themselves became the main source of light, becoming larger and grander as we went on. They had just about every marine animal going, and they looked generally well kept, although some were in very small aquariums with little more in them than the animals themselves.
Rounding a corner after about a half hour of gazing into the eyes of various organisms, the main tank appeared. A fluorescent blue light which lit up the dimness of the room, it was something else to see. Descending a shallow ramp, you arrive at a few rows of seats on a raised platform to the left, pointing at the window on the massive tank opposite. This is where the video was taken. Since it was all but abandoned, I spent a little time trying out various seats to see if I couldn't get to the spot where the author sat that day, hypnotised by the sight. To the other side of the walkway, a zigzag ramp descends to a lower floor, allowing you to go right up to the foot-thick glass and go as close as you can to the enormous animals gliding by. The sweet tones of Barcelona were replaced by the increasingly loud squeals of children and their chattering parents, but it was no less magical an experience.
After some time alternating my position between the seats and the tank, I took a break from the increasingly noticeable hordes and sat down at the café Ocean Blue. Bizarrely, I was served some spaghetti bolognaise, and I sat at my little table gazing timelessly into the blue void opposite. It was incredibly relaxing to see massive shoals of fish, giant Manta Rays, and of course the Whale Sharks, effortlessly doing their circuits, wisely ignoring the constant flashes of people who didn't understand the pointlessness of taking a flash photo at a wall of glass. Gazing for a while at a fully rubbered-up diver who had gone in to clean the glass from the inside (what a fantastic job to have), I realised there was a second viewing area across from the café. Rows of backless seats were positioned underneath a curved glass ceiling, looking into the same tank. From here, you could look up into the colourfully lit water above, through which the silhouettes of a thousand beautiful creatures silently swam.
What it must be like to work there; to come into that room when the aquarium is closed, and in perfect silence but for the natural rumble of thousands of tonnes of ocean water, some lucky soul can lie on their back and lose themselves in the hypnotic imagery going on above.

Eventually, and after taking a lot of photographs, I decided that it would be good to leave the aquarium and head to the other parts of the park. However, somewhat as an afterthought, the designers of the building had put a shark exhibit just past the main tank. A number of people were stood around it, peering into the murky water at the sharks with a decidedly unimpressed expression on their faces as the few sharks lumbered by, it was an anticlimax compared to what had just gone. Even with the spectacle of a (model) great white shark jaw, and the skin of a shark caught some 20 years previous, I was similarly disappointed, so to avoid that being my last emotion before leaving I went back to take a final look at the main tank. I finally said farewell to the fishies, perhaps forever, and then left for the gift shop.

The shop was heaving, but after almost permanent apologies for bumping into other people and sending them flying into piles of T-shirts, trinkets and a hundred kinds of fluffy toy sea creature, I settled on the last of the English language Churaumi Aquarium books, and a little stuffed whale shark.

Exiting round the back of the aquarium, I had forgotten just how hot it was. The pathway ushered us around a section that was being redeveloped, until we appeared back at the entrance again.
Initially wanting to head to the tropical plants on the west side I decided a quick look at the mysterious 'Emerald beach' on the east side wouldn't take long. A large building housed a pair of Manatees in a large tank which you could look at from above, or head down the steps to the level of it's bottom and see them staring out at you. A male and female, they had been donated 20 years apart, the male in the 70's and the female in the 90's from Mexico.

Just past the Manatee building was a small walkway down to 'Sea Turtle Beach'. Although there were no turtles around, the beach was beautiful and the sea air was a little bit of freshness from the wilting heat of the midday sun. Spying an overarching rock formation, I sat underneath it and rested for a while. Beautiful course cream-coloured sand, tropical plants hanging down from the outcrop above, and little hermit crabs scuttling about near me at the shore. A beautiful sight, but not the emerald beach, so after some more relaxation while I pondered the movements of a hermit crab I moved on.
The emerald beach was in contrast a very touristy affair. I headed along a road lined with strange, tropical trees and down a long, sloping road. I walked through a gap in the bushes, and I was there.
A series of sandy arcs punctuated with seating areas, volleyball nets and lifeguards on top of high chairs made it look more like a baywatch beach, but it was still very pleasant. Various western songs were playing over the loudspeakers, and it was largely devoid of people, most of which were still staring at fish. I sat down on one of the circular shaded seats and watched a couple in the bay across steer their pedalo through the water. It was a beautiful, relaxing place that I could have stayed at for a long time, but that was something I didn't have. My watch was always reminding me of the increasingly small amount of time I had remaining. I got up and headed inland, looking around a couple of beach hut-style souvinir shops. I started up the road and back to the aquarium.

Thoughts of getting to the tropical plant house were again put on hold. Just past an exhibit where giant turtles were swimming about in cramped, cylindrical tanks that you could look down into, was a large dolphin pool. According to the man outside who was pointing large crowds of people fresh from the aquarium in the direction of a stadium full of waterproof seats, the show was about to start. My camera battery was complaining by now, mainly due to the obscene amount of photos I had taken in the aquarium, and there was only a little juice left. I took my seat and watched the excited dolphins jumping about in the rear pool, waiting for the main gate to be opened so they could do their stuff. There were five trainers, and about 8 dolphins. Most were the usual bottle-nosed type (the dolphins, not the trainers), but two were False Killer Whales, with a domed head and a scary set of teeth - although they looked to be just as playful as the rest. They happily greeted the audience by rising up on their tails out of the water, batted balls with their tails high in the air, squawked and bleated in unison, and even jumped up onto the dry bit and posed for the cameras, allowing us a full look into toothy's gaping jaw.

It was only a 20 minute show which worked out good for me, but my camera had died, lasting just up until the end of the show, so there is a bit of a photo gap here. Disappointedly, I looked for a mains socket on an external wall I could sneakily plug a charger into but there were none, so I followed the signs in the hot sun to the tropical gardens. (Note there are a few official pictures here).

The gardens were about 10 minutes away, enclosed by a canopy of ivy and vines on a large wooden frame. The surrounding woodland was filled with invisible but noisy Cicadas that refused to show themselves [I was going out of my way to photograph the wildlife as I went and Cicadas were quite high on the want list]. It was now 3.30, so I would have to be quick. Scanning the literature earlier I had noticed a discount if you presented your aquarium ticket, so it only cost 500 yen. The gardens were made up of several greenhouses connected by pathways, each of them about as hot as it was outside, but with artificial humidity pumped in. The first couple of houses were the most impressive; filled with every different kind and colour Orchid I could think of and more besides, some of them in pots, but many growing on the trunks and branches of the trees that snaked their way around the enclosed spaces. In among the Orchids flew tiny birds and butterflies of all different colours, and growing in quiet corners were tropical fruit trees, like Mangoes and Starfruit.

There are two routes around the gardens, and reluctantly I took the shorter one. Emerging at the point where the longer route rejoined the shorter, I was dwarfed by a strange tower rising up into the sky. Panting from the sun and humidity exposure, I forced my tired legs back into action and headed over to it. The spiral steps to the top flowed around the outside, hidden behind a high wall. Fortunately they were very shallow meaning that you didn't notice the exertion so much going up, but that evened out as it meant twice as many to get to the top. The view at the top was a beautiful scene, looking past the greenhouses and out to sea, and you could see the way that the gardens had evolved; newer sections surrounded those that were overgrown and hidden away, one curious section was sealed off, the walls on both sides hidden by years worth of vines and bushes. It made me want to go inside and explore, but there was little time and I would probably have been detained.

Reluctantly and under constraint of time, I headed out at 4pm, the thought occurring to me that the buses that went back to Nago might well be full to the brim and I might have to wait in line as maybe two or three filled up in front of me. To my surprise the stop was deserted, but I had trailed back too far to return to anything interesting, so I settled down on the shaded seat and watched the cars go by. Sometime later, and still without a bus appearing, the two Japanese girls from Naha came to the stop. We shared a recognising smile and continued waiting. Eventually, the empty bus came by about a quarter hour late and we hopped on. The return journey back was a lesson in where not to sit in a Japanese bus when the driver is trying to make up time (i.e. not over the back wheels), and we eventually returned to the bus terminal in early dusk. Asking the driver about Naha, he pointed at stand 5, where the bus was about to depart, so another hurried scramble later we were all heading on the final leg, rather than having to wait an extra half hour for the last bus. My trip to the aquarium was over; it was criminally short but I had enjoyed it immensely. It's just a shame it's in such a remote corner of the world that so few people will get to see it.

By the time the bus pulled into the terminal in central Naha, it was 7pm and pitch black save for the neon signs and the headlights of cars. I ambled back to the Sora house and set my camera back on to charge. In the communal room, we had a new visitor: John had arrived this morning from Australia, intending to spend a month in Okinawa with his girlfriend. Problem was, she had dumped him on the day he went. To his credit, instead of drowning his sorrows and staying at home, he went for it and was determined to have a good time on his first visit to Japan. We talked and got to know each other along with Machiko and friends, and decided en masse to go down to the cosy-looking Teriyaki restaurant on the corner. I had eyed this place - only a stones throw from the Sora house - a couple of times as I had passed it and resolved to go in and get some proper Japanese tuck, but hadn't quite managed to pluck up courage. Now I was going in a group.

2000 yen each, and it was all you could eat. John's eyes widened at the sight of the huge casks and bottles of saki near our table as the six of us sat down. It was John's mission to try everything they would throw at him, immerse himself completely in the culture. I was also open to new things, but my mind was working overtime at just what that could involve and thus didn't quite match up to John's gung-ho spirit. The group talked and shared stories in between joking about how far us foreigners should go with the plates of food that were coming over. The early offerings were quite tame, the classic Teriyaki chicken, marinated in local sauce on skewers. A bit of bacon and leek, some calamari, and shiitake mushrooms bunched together and wrapped in a bacon belt, made to look like little octopus. This all went down fine. And then came the fish.

A little tiny fish on a skewer. Probably a sprat of some kind. Not so much of a problem, except that it was looking at me with it's cold, dead eyes. This wasn't just a section of fish - the fleshy bit minus the bits you normally throw away - it was the whole fish. I looked at John and he looked at me with a smile. To the expectant eyes of the rest of the group he picked up one of the fish, and ripped it off the stick with his teeth. 'Say yes to everything' he said, chewing it audibly with a little trouble and gulping it down. I looked at the pile of fish, and the group across the table. All of them stared back expectantly. I grabbed one and gingerly bit into the belly. It wasn't so bad to taste, except my tongue was telling me that the usual feeling it receives when dealing with a fillet were not being felt. I looked at what remained. Held back by a comb of tiny rib bones were a couple of hundred yellow fish eggs. Little fishy was pregnant, and I had ripped her guts out. A little heave of the lower digestive tract was enough to seal the disappointment of my new peers.

But it was all forgotten in the next moment, aside from the slightly fishy after-taste, (and John being told that you're meant to throw away the head and tail of the fish instead of gulping it right down). We talked and laughed until the small hours and then went back to the hostel and then collapsed into our respective beds. It had been a good day.

No comments: