Japan 2010: 5 - Where I Learn the Fate of the Habu Snake

Day three in Okinawa, and I had somehow lost track of what I was going to do. I don't quite know why; it was not because of a lack of places to go, perhaps just the opposite. John was in the communal area with a similar look on his face. We took a look at the map. One place sprang out of the page at us: Shurijo Castle, which the Okinawans had thoughtfully decided to build at the point where the monorail ended several centuries later. It was decided, we were off.

At the last stop, we took a guess at the direction to go and headed off to the unsignposted castle. We passed a modern looking temple and cut down the road it was on, and by fortunate coincidence it took us via the back route to the entrance of the castle. This was John's first time around a castle so I shared with him what knowledge I had from the many I had visited the first time round; the no photos rules, the removal of shoes and inevitable clumsy tourists putting them back on again in a big group at the other end, and the likely treasure hunt that was the children's stamp rally. Shurijo was no different in this regard, and throughout the large gardens they had numerous little desks with ink pads and stamps on them. At the entrance, we picked up a stamp rally sheet, to the bemusement of the staff, used to seeing little kids rather than big ones ink up the pages. Extra incentive to find all the stamps, fuelled by the promise of a super special sticker at the end was quashed when we realised it was for pre-high school kids only.

Before heading into the inner complex, we happened to pass into a busy open area flanked on one side by the inevitable souvenir shops. Before we could escape, we were eyed by a couple of girls behind the smoothie counter, who had worked out (with not much effort) that I at least was losing moisture fast and would benefit from a drink. They called us over and feeling unable to resist their siren call we obeyed.

We sat for a small time in the square with our expensive smoothies. John had a strange blue concoction, whereas I had asked for a mango one, which came with a suspiciously wide straw. It's use became clear when I stirred the clear plastic cup; lots of strange black berries appeared through the ice and mango mix. A quick slurp and one occasionally zipped up the straw; it was an unusual consistency; no seed in the middle, and a squidgy flesh that reminded me of a soft chewy cough sweet. It was deeply odd to get one of these every so often, but they were very nice once I was used to it.
We progressed around the hilly grounds, stamping our stamps and taking pictures wherever we could. My obsessive picture taking felt more natural when I was with someone doing a similar amount. As we emerged onto an old lookout tower it became clear how far up we were. The sun-bleached white houses of Naha stretched out in all directions, eventually running out and being replaced by ocean on the periphery of the horizon. The beautiful blue sky rose up and the hot sun beat down on our heads. It was time to head towards the castle.

For 800 yen, we got our own plastic bags. We could put our shoes in them and then enter the castle which was a nice bonus. The usual 'no cameras' signs were out in force, although there were a couple of places where you were allowed. We took a linear route through the two open floors available to the public; neatly kept living quarters with the familiar tatami mats and paper walls, cabinets full of weapons, tools and porcelain, and a number of pieces of period art. We shuffled along in among a bustling crowd of tourists, and I at least was glad of the shade (John was nowhere near as affected - this was normal Aussie temperatures for him).
Eventually we ended up at the end of the inside tour and were rewarded with - what else - a souvenir shop. Without caring much how I would lug it around the rest of the trip, I started gathering things in my arms, although after some discussion John managed to convince me not to leave with the whole shop. I settled for a brolly, (more for the sun than the rain), some chopsticks and a nice t-shirt. John got a t-shirt also, which worked out good cos there was an offer on if you bought two.

One scrabble to return shoes to feet while still stood up later and we were out the other side, three stamps better off. Just outside the exit a group of archaeologists were carefully digging away at some of the original foundations of the castle.
We rubbernecked over the fence for a while, then got bored of the inaction and followed the map around a long path from one end of the grounds to the other, taking in several stamp stations, and ended up heading down the long, steep road to the proper entrance. We looked at our watches and weighed up the benefits of returning and checking off our remaining stamps, compared to going somewhere else.

John had got an idea, which he explained as we headed back to the monorail past lakes of turtles and koi. He had heard talk of a place not so far away to the south called Okinawa World. It was a complicated place dedicated to several of the things Okinawa was famous for - a zoo that had an emphasis on Snakes, particularly the notorious Okinawa Habu type, a traditional native Okinawan village, and a set of tropical fruit groves. John was particularly big on the groves, having been a fruit picker as one of his many jobs back in Australia, although I suspect that the fermented product might have caught more of his eye.

We headed to the bus station that was the beginning of the previous days' excursion, and tried to decipher the complicated bus map (that was about 8 feet high). Changing between our map and the big one, maybe an #83 bus, or perhaps #53 or #55. We weren't sure. Our puzzled faces were picked up on by a pack of waiting taxi drivers, one of which came over and tapped us on the shoulders. 'Thousand yen each, buses unreliable!', he proclaimed at our destination, and then went confidently back to his cab, having sowed his seed of doubt. After a further quarter hour we decided maybe a taxi was best, but he had long gone by this point, so we flagged down another one.

The taxi driver handed us a leaflet on the place as we sped south through the city streets. The scenery opened up as the houses dipped into the oncoming valley, criss-crossed by ugly but useful overpasses, one of which we were using. The leaflet had a large cartoon snake on the front with lots of exclamation marks next to it; apparently one of the major attractions was an area dedicated to reptiles, with the poisonous Habu snake taking centre stage.

I had heard about these snakes while in quiet, safe Blighty, where poisonous snakes do technically exist but they are far too British to make a song and dance about it. Not so the Habu, I had read, which is prominent enough whenever you get outside of heavily built up areas, not to mention getting into bed with you if it looks cosy enough. Plenty of times the idea of waking up with a Habu (or a poisonous spider) dangling from the end of my toe had crossed my mind and almost stopped me from including the island on the route.

We arrived half an hour later, the driver parked us right outside the entrance. It cost 2500yen between us but it saved a few hours of waiting. A semi-circular amphitheatre-style garden led us to the entrance. A single 1600 yen ticket got us access to a few of the sights inside with separate charges for some of the bigger things. John pointed out the first sign that greeted us; a large wooden snake and an arrow, which sounded as good a place as any to begin the Okinawa World experience.

At the entrance to the circular Habu museum, a small man peered out from behind a desk and drew our attention to a hyperactive little bat, clinging to the bars of a criminally small cage. I stuck my finger in without thought to give it a tickle - perhaps foolhardily - but in my experience caged animals always appreciate a good scratch behind the ears where they can't reach themselves. He (I could tell that much because he was hanging upside down and quite prostrate at us), trembled and tried to move round and lick/bite me, so I guess that was enough of that.

The exhibit consisted of a large, empty hall that looked like an assembly hall at school, with a smaller room behind, where a snake demonstration was about to take place. We popped through and took our seats in the middle of a set of low seats facing a raised platform containing a series of brightly coloured wooden structures, each one topped with clear plastic pipes, perspex pools of slightly murky water, and a number of hatches at either end. There were a dozen or so in the audience, including an American couple with their young daughter.

A minute or so later the show started. A plump woman in a t-shirt came on stage and spoke in Japanese to the crowd. The rest of the audience nodded solemnly to her words, which I am guessing were some sort of safety instructions about how not to react in the presence of the upcoming creatures lest they get a bit angry and take a lunge at you. I was not at all concerned that there was no English translation. The crowd of largely parents and children gave out a polite 'ooh' as a large round snake basket was dragged out, a dissatisfied hiss coming from inside. She deftly thrust in a stick with a hook on the end, and whipped out a snake, grabbing the tail end with her free hand and dumping the lot rather disrespectfully onto the floor. From it's extended hood I could tell it was a cobra of some sort. Understandably annoyed by his treatment, he gathered his thoughts and turned, bolt upright looking straight at her with what I suspect was an expression that said 'why I oughtta...'.

The show continued in a similar vein, with the plump woman demonstrating the blind spots of her subject by repeatedly and cruelly whapping it on the back of the head, sometimes with enough force to make the poor thing blat its nose on the floor. Finally it got a rest as he was returned to his basket and replaced by long tank of water split into two tracks. A Mongoose was dangled into one track and a sea snake into the other, in the attempt to demonstrate how quick a snake can swim, although this backfired when the stoat, clearly used to the idea of a reward at the other end swam his little heart out while the sea snake just had a bit of a bath, only proceeding to the exit when it felt good and ready.

Finally, it was photo opportunity time. A huge and rather subdued looking Python was heaved out on an assistant's shoulders and we were all invited to come onto the stage one by one and get a photo with it round our necks. Some less keen members of the audience took the opportunity to flee, preferring their airways uncrushed, but a few stayed, including me and John, and the Americans, who got first in line. After mum and dad confidently had their photo's taken in turn, they handed their young daughter (maybe 3 or 4 years old) over who understandably had a confused but admirably fearless look on her face. She was duly wrapped in snake, and they sat looking at each other quizzically as several photos were taken by the excited parents.

Next in line were a couple of Japanese guys. Probably in their early 20's, any manliness had been used up by daring to join the queue and now they stood hopping from foot to foot. Both were sat down together and they squealed and howled like little girls as the snake was draped over them. An obliging assistant took their cameras and to their increasingly agitated pleading, took a couple of photos and allowed them to run quickly from the room. It looked bad enough without coming after the bravery of the little girl.

We were next. Clearly more confident, John handed me his camera and bounded fearlessly over. Australia is full of snakes much more dangerous than this one and John had absolutely no fear, Holding it by the neck in one hand and happily letting it hang round his shoulders, he grinned as he posed for a few pictures.

Then it was my turn. Snakes were generally not a problem for me, but this would be my first time with one 'on me'. My only other real encounter with a snake that was not behind a cage was when I was about twelve, on holiday in Blackpool. A man was stood on the promenade with a large python sat quietly but uncomfortably on a wall topped with course pebbles. Occasionally someone would come along and ask (for a nominal fee) to be pictured with it much like now. More likely however the poor thing would get poked and prodded by the cruel hand of a passer by. I gave him a little tickle.

The present day docile creature was heaved around my shoulders. I looked at his face. He stuck his tongue out to taste my fear but I had none, only a little bit of empathy for the poor thing who must have to go through this ritual several times a day, and then plonked back in a basket at the end. His skin was cold, and seemed to be loose on his body, perhaps he was old, or maybe close to shedding a layer but it didn't feel right (not that I'd know). I smiled for the camera and then handed him over to the next one. We headed out with the same slightly uncomfortable look on our faces. Enjoyable though it was, it seemed that these people didn't have the best interests of these creatures at heart.

Things didn't get a lot better in the adjoining 'Snake Room' - a dimly-lit circular room containing information and posters of snakes and reptiles, including snake skins and live snakes in tanks - or at least they were alive at some point. Now they looked quite dead.
The Snake Room opened out to the exterior cages of a small reptile zoo of sorts. In the cloying heat of the outside, snakes, reptiles and a few birds sat waiting for the night to come, some granted the mercy of cages, but others such as the poisonous snakes were within sealed glass boxes. Virtually all of them were hunched against the glass, clearly hating their environment, which often was furnished with little or nothing to hide under, eat or nest in. Only a giant tortoise plodding around his pen in the middle of the site had a degree of freedom and contentedness on his face, though he was sick of the heat and lack of shade too.

Feeling the need to be away from the animals' plight and the oppressive sunshine for a while, we headed to another of the featured attractions; the caves. Okinawa World is built on top of a large cave system, and I was looking forward to the Akiyoshi caves in Shin Yamaguchi, so this was a nice preview of what I could expect. Before we were allowed in, we were taken aside by two small women in fancy garb, who stood either side of us and smiled. I turned to where they were pointing their faces to see a digital camera on a tripod, complete with man about to take a picture. John posed his now well-honed pose and I arranged myself as best I could at short notice, and then we were allowed to go inside.

Down a long and eerie tunnel the air cooled from a sizzling 35C or so outside to something nearer 20C, and the ambient noises were replaced by the trapped sounds of dripping and.. opera? After several sets of steps and downward-sloping passageways, it opened out; the roof of the cave covered with hundreds of stalactites, moodily lit in reds and blues, the operatic music bouncing around the place giving it a spooky feel. The steel steps brought us down to ground level, and after going in one direction and finding a dead end a minute or so later, we expected the other direction to be similarly short.
Not so, the route through the cave took nearly an hour to work through (which in places had become completely enveloped by the formation of the limestone in places, giving it a claustrophobic Alien/Metroid flavour). Massive deposits of limestone on both ceiling and floor were occasionally broken up by pools of green tinted water, some of which contained small white, skeletal fish, and every now and then some freak formation of deposits had encouraged people to throw 1-yen coins at it in the hope of scoring an almost impossible landing on a tiny platform, something no-one, including us had yet managed.
After some time in the semi-dark, one group of stalagmites began to look a lot like all the others, and we quickened our pace towards the exit at the far end which fortunately for us involved an escalator to bring us back to ground level. We emerged to the welcoming arms of another assistant, who had been waiting for us to appear so he could present us with our photographs from the start, framed nicely in a colourful cardboard sleeve, for a nominal fee of course. We stumped up 1000 yen each on the logic that we weren't going into that cave again, ever so might as well take a memento. I suspect a lot of revenue is gathered that way.

We had apparently exhausted a lot of what Okinawa World had to offer by now. The remaining areas to explore were made up of a tropical fruits garden (which John took a keen interest in, having been a fruit picker back in Australia), and the resulting trades that came of the harvesting. A cafe/souvenir shop was bursting with a mix of fresh fruit, dried offerings, and products of the more fermented variety, John took hold of a strange yellow box containing fruited wine, while I resisted as much as possible, aware that my backpack was already bulging from the previous days' reckless souvenir splurge, although I did go for a tiny bottle of chilli pouring soy (cheap and it got rid of my accumulated 1 yen coins) and one of their enormous apples, which was as nice as the one I remembered from Aomori last time.

We plodded on after a rest; the trail took us through several more souvenir shops, some of which were your more common variety containing kooky ornaments and t-shirts, while others were mingled into an adjoining native Okinawan village (complete with people living there), selling what looked like locally made (or at least finished) t-shirts, textiles, foods and other bespoke things for the home.
Still others catered for a more exclusive and high-class clientèle, selling hugely expensive glasses and plates which we walked gingerly around with our backpacks swinging everywhere. The route funnelled us down some steps into the basement of a large building, and we suddenly found ourselves in a pretty large department store, the floor space divided up into many stalls selling all sorts of tat. My resolve was wearing thin, and although I managed to resist the charms of a young woman trying to get us to purchase bags of expensive green tea, I was less successful at a T-shirt stall, where their very attractive wares were currently on special offer 'for a limited time'. I didn't care whether that was hogwash or not, for by now I was sold on the idea of taking them home.

John was similarly sold on another purchase shortly after. The last shop before the exit was a large and comprehensive shrine to beer and sake. Of particular prominence was the special Okinawa Sake that took centre stage on several of the shop displays. Bottles came in varying sizes, but all had the same features; a top held on by a cloth tied down with rope, a large price tag (some of them going for £1600 or more), oh, and your very own Habu snake, quite dead, drowned and coiled up inside the jar with the sake, with its mouth propped open in a 'look at my fangs' pose. What a way to go.

The larger the jar, the larger the snake. Even for a creature that could quite easily kill me to death if it wanted to, I found the sight of so many of them a bit much, and it was clear that they were rounded up and killed in their hundreds to satisfy the trade.
Of course, you could argue the toss and say that they would have been killed as dangerous pests anyway, and animals are killed all the time for the consumption by others. Either way, there was nought that I could do more than tap on the glasses to see if any of them would hiccup. John had no such qualms, and during my internal moralising had already found an assistant who was willing to furnish him with a sample. 'Try everything' he said, and he really was on course for doing exactly that. Not the drinking type, and not wanting to start now of all times, I politely declined the share that I was offered, which John was all too happy to take on my behalf.

Unsurprisingly we left with John clutching a bottle. Not one of the massive jars, and to my knowledge not including a snake with his purchase, but a sizeable drink nonetheless. Tired and weighed down with purchases, we headed back to the entrance, aware of the tendency of the buses to stop running by nightfall. Fortunately someone was on hand to direct us to the stop just round the corner, and we waited there, me eating my enormous apple, and John sipping his fruity beer.

The bus (560yen) brought us back to the terminal at Asahibashi just as the evening was drawing in. We crashed into our respective dorms and then rejoined in the communal area, freed of our new baggage. My thoughts turned to food, and specifically Donburi, which I had tried at the Apothecary House, and was impatient to try while here. After a chit-chat with the others, I moved the conversation towards donburi restaurants in the area, and after a couple of X's were placed on my map, I headed out alone to Kokusai-dori, and the Okinawa Market just beyond.

Situated under a picture of several over-pampered J-Pop boys staring wilfully out of the screen at passers by, the main entrance to the market gives little clue as to the size of the thing. Inside is a mixture of touristy stalls - mostly near the entrances - selling all sorts of by now familiar T-Shirts, novelty sandals, ornaments and other such stuff, and the more functional market stalls selling day-to-day items for the average Okinawan to buy; a massive fish and butchers market, fruit and veg stalls, clothes shops, and a good deal of miniature local pubs bustling with the regulars having a drink or two after work. Mixed in between this were the places that served both camps - the sake, wine and beer shops that shipped in produce from the rest of the island. Naturally, they were receiving some attention as the night began.

The X marking the spot was as with many Japanese maps, open to interpretation, but after some searching and a little bit of asking, the cleverly-hidden Hanagas donburi restaurant revealed itself. A small cabinet full of the usual plastic meal representations was bolted to a wall on the market road, with the actual restaurant tucked away down an easily-miss-able alleyway behind. Inside was a barely furnished room with basic tables and chairs from a number of second hand sets brought together and made to fit. The table was a bit dirty and the condiments consisted of a slightly sticky soy sauce bottle. However, the place was encouragingly pretty full with other customers, enthusiastically chatting about the day's events in between stuffing large bowls full of noodles into their faces.

Not knowing how to deal with the non-English speaking woman who came to take my order, I accepted her offer to point out what I wanted from the plastic dishes outside. A large bowl of rice, vegetables and noodles in miso soup with what looked like strips of pork on top, so I pointed at that. The woman smiled and walked gingerly back over the cobbles in her slippers. A few minutes later my Miso Katsudon arrived, piping hot and with a side helping of sticky rice and a cup of green tea. A nice evening of chopstick practice later and I was full.

Pleasantly gorged on cheap noodles, I got a big lemonade can from the nearby dispenser and strolled up and down Kokusai-dori, looking into yet more shops, many of which were still open at this late hour. I took a picture of a sake shop halfway up the road for John, mainly because of the massive wine bottles at the back, and then headed back to the hostel, ending the night with friends.

*side note: though the pictures on this page are mine, the videos are not.

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