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.
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.
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.
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...'.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.