Japan 2010: 6 - Where I Swim Under a Motorway

A high priority during my planned stay on the island was to have a go at scuba diving. I have never had anything close to the experience, further than diving underwater in my local swimming pool. Okinawa has a good deal of diving sites for both novices and experts, and on my entry to the island I picked up a couple of English leaflets, including a 'best 100 dive sites'. I had decided that day 3 would be the one to have a go.

Thing was, I had slept quite soundly, and was not in a thoughtful enough mind the night before to set any alarm. The I had however learned how to use the air conditioner over the door, and had basked in lovely cool air, something that my tired body felt reluctant to leave. As soon as I opened a window or door, the oven-warm air of the outside assaulted my senses.

I made it to the communal area about 10.30am. Aside from Nori-san, who was doing some paperwork behind the desk, the place was empty - everyone else had gone off doing their things at a non-lazy hour. She asked what I was doing today. 'I want to do some Scuba diving', I said. 'I've never done any before.'. Nori-san looked unimpressed at my apparent lack of enthusiasm. 'You are too late,' she said. 'You need to give at least 24 hours notice.'. I stood, deflated, but Nori-san leapt up with an idea. She got onto the phone and rang a friend of hers. A friend that gave Scuba lessons, who did half-day trips to the nearby shoreline.

Any excitement died down quickly enough as I heard forlorn-sounding voices in the conversation. 'Too late, sorry.', she said.

Never mind, I had an alternative strategy. I also wanted to catch a ferry and visit one of the nearby islands. The nearest one was Kume-jima, which from the look of my map, would have taken an hour or two to get to.

'Too late', repeated Nori-san as I explained plan B. There was apparently only two ferries to and from Kume-jima, and I had missed the first one. If I took the second one, then unless I was a very good swimmer, I'd be staying there for the night, which was not possible, given that I had to be at Naha airport the next morning ready for the flight to Kagoshima.

I thanked Nori-san for ruining my plans and trudged back to my room, trying to think of an adequate 'plan C' that didn't involve sitting on my arse all day. This was not that sort of holiday and I had taken a bloody long while to get there - I could sit on my arse all I wanted when I got back home.

After some time studying the map it became clear that any nearby attractions yet to discover were quite far away from each other. Unfortunately many of them had also been built a while away from the monorail route, meaning it would be difficult to see many of them if I relied on that. Then I remembered the bikes.

When I first heaved myself and my backpacks up the flights of stairs, the 3F landing I passed was home to a trio of black bikes, each with 'SORA' painted on their mudguards. Perhaps plan C could be a cycle tour of Naha. It fell criminally short of the things I had hoped to do, but it was something.

500 yen later and I had the bike for the day. Equipped with a long, curled up bike lock and key to go through the wheel, I emptied my small backpack of most things to accommodate drinks bottles and any souvenirs I felt powerless to ignore along the way. I bade Nori-san farewell and heaved my steed down to the ground floor.

After heading to the Family Mart just up the road to get some breakfast, the first stop was Tomari Wharf where my ferry had left. A small park with trees to shade under provided a picknicky spot to stuff my face with, and a few pigeons joined me, eventually giving up on the possibility of tidbits and sitting down in the long grass to kip in the sun. Filled up, I took what route I could between the bollards and cars down the bustling port road, something which may not have been allowed on a cycle, but I pushed my luck and managed to reach the waters' edge. I stopped there briefly as one of the ferries came in.

Exiting round the back streets, I decided that my ultimate aim was to reach the Manko Wetlands Centre some miles to the south. Given how much day I still had, that was easily achievable, and I should be able to stop at a few places on the way. As a general rule, I decided to stay as close to the shoreline as possible until I hit the estuary, and then follow the river inwards and I'd be pretty much there.

It was a pleasant enough trip around the back streets, although the overbearing buildings either side did not offer much in terms of view in some places, and it was hardly Blackpool promenade - the design of the shoreline roads kept travellers away from the coastline most of the time. Forced into a backstreet around a residential area, I decided to stop briefly at a rare point where I could see the sea, although this was marred by the general scruffiness of the area, and the huge overpass that loomed down above me.
As I supped a drink, grateful at least for the shade the overpass gave, a man with a huge bagful of tin cans comically perched on a bicycle wheeled over and stopped a couple hundred feet away, got off and started working his way through the thousand or so cans, crushing them ready for recycling. I headed on through residential parks, the coast so hidden that it was instead more interesting to look in on the lives of the average Okinawan. Flats and houses with modest gardens, a primary school with the kids out playing sports, a few people walking their dogs or jogging, or cycling like me. It was all quite pleasant.

Eventually the residential area stopped an I hit a main road, revealing a large amount of roadworks at the waters' edge. To the right it joined with the overpass, to the left returned me to where I'd came. The road was busy and the cars were fast, but there looked to be no other routes to get me to where I wanted to be. Gingerly, I crossed several crossings until I was on the pass, and then with some relief found a pathway on it's far side where I could cycle in relative safety. The overpass rose quickly and at it's height I had a pretty good view of the surrounding area, a curious castle being the most interesting feature, poking it's top out of a small circle of trees. But with no way of getting off the overpass at that point, I carried on.

Attempting to stick to my rule of following the coastline, I came off the pass at the first exit onto what eventually became an industrial dirt road, and no matter how much I tried, each turn I took brought me no nearer to the coast. Shiny cars and people carriers were slowly replaced by dusty, heavy duty lorries passing a bit close for comfort. Hitting a car park at the far end of the road, which had by now doubled back on itself at least three times, I was fortunate enough to talk with an elderly attendant who spoke some English, who basically said 'you haven't got a hope on this road, turn back and stick to the main one.', so reluctantly, I did.

Eventually, on returning, I had managed to gather enough of my bearings to realise that I could visit the temple that I had seen on the overpass if I cut down a small road. I passed a large building and what looked like a giant playground on the way which turned out to be a driving school - complete with a mini road layout with junctions, other cars and traffic lights. Over there, learner drivers are not allowed onto the road until they have passed and instead use these 'playpens' to learn the rules of the road.

The Naminoue Shinto shrine was at the top of a steep hill, so I got off the bike and pushed it to the top. It was a modest temple with a medium sized shrine, a couple of statues in a gravel garden, and the inevitable shop. Pushing my bike toward the temple, a young woman in traditional dress ran out to explain their no-bike policy, so I wheeled it down the side of the shop and strapped the bike to a concrete pillar out of sight. Once a young couple had done their thing, I approached the shrine, threw a couple of yen into the donation box, and paid the appropriate respects for the first time this holiday. To be honest, that was about all that could be done there, aside from watch a pair of children pour sand onto a small dog, and take a look at the shop.
One thing they had was a selection of Ema, rectangular plates of wood about 6x4 inches often found at Shinto shrines. Many of them were decorated with a local symbol or phrase, with a space for you to write your message or wish on them. The idea was that you buy one, write on your message, and tie it to a nearby tree or, if the owners get sick of you doing that, a structure built specially for them. This place had one such hanger, but the one I bought (complete with a drawing of a white tiger in a blocky Okami style on the front) was coming home with me as a souvenir.

Heading back to the bike, I noticed that the view over the wall stretched out to an open area below which led to a small copse and a pathway down to a beach. I left the bike and headed down to the beach.

It was clear that the people who lived on this pleasant stretch of coastline had got a bum deal a few years ago. A short stretch of sandy coastline sported a couple of shops, showers and changing rooms, but they had all fallen into disrepair, at about the same time I would guess as when the dirty great overpass was built, which blocked out any decent view of the sea. Almost to rub salt in the wounds of the local residents, the uncompromising government decided to have a second overpass built just behind that one, which was in noisy progress as I arrived.

I descended the steps, but was stopped in my tracks by a middle aged man, sat on the concrete breaker wall. He had become curious at this strange foreigner who had stopped by, and when my voice showed no sign of an American accent, his curiosity was piqued. He had a motorbike helmet next to him, but curiously no bike in sight. It's fair to say there was a mutual curiosity.

Taking the opportunity to practice his English on me, we sat and talked about a broad range of things; the Japanese economy, British fish and chips, the attractiveness of Geisha, imported words between cultures, and - strangely - Bjork. We chatted for an hour in the hot sun as several recognisable (but re-authored) western songs were blared out of a loudspeaker in the background. Eventually I pointed in the direction of the beach, and realising my intentions he pointed to a man and his son swimming in the sea. 'Go say hello to my friends while you are there', he said, so off I went.

The empty changing room was in a poor state. The lockers swallowed my 100yen coin without opening up, so I placed myself in one of the shower cubicles and removed most of my things except for a t-shirt and a pair of trunks I had brought along in the hope of seeing some beach action. I stuffed them into my bag and made my way to the beach.

Overlooked by the noisy traffic above, the beach had been restricted in it's use by a semicircular chain of floats, giving an area of perhaps a hundred yards square to play in. The beach was larger than the available swimming area, consisting of a beautiful light-coloured sand, almost devoid of people. The father and son played to the left end, while an American-looking couple at the right - a bald dude in sunglasses was wading out into the water while his other half lounged on the beach. In the centre was a large high-chair not unlike you see for beach guards on Baywatch, although this was empty. I set my bag down, camera and all at its base among the sandbags keeping it in place. Not wishing to look like I was gawping at the woman, I started my shoreside walk a respectful way from them and headed to the left side.

I still hadn't decided whether or not I was going for a swim. Jellyfish signs were up here and there, and the water looked a little green, but on the other hand, the others were having fun, it was blazingly hot, and my t-shirt had been worn one day too much. I waded in up to my knees and tested the cool but murky water for a while, before saying 'sod it' and going all the way in. It was my first swim in ocean waters for a long long time, my normal swimming experience being in the local municipal pool. It's this I should have had in mind as I let my mouth slip below the surface, slightly open. Green, salty water seeped in between my teeth.

Remembering to keep my mouth firmly closed and above water, I did a couple of lengths in the deeper water. It was rich with floating algae, stopped by the floats from dissipating, and the rumble of cars overhead, and the dusty workforce in the distance made for a not particularly enjoyable swim, but at least I could say I did one. Feeling the need to get out I headed over to the father and son and said hello. After an understandably reserved welcome, I pointed out the guy on the wall, who waved back, upon which they gave me a big smile. The son started swimming round me enthusiastically, listing all the English football players he knew (more than I did) before going back to their games.

I got out and waved goodbye, and then headed back to the changing room. Fortunately the showers were working, allowing my once-white shirt to remove some of it's new green tint. Suitably refreshed, I headed out looking slightly haggard, relying on the weather to dry me off.

Before heading back to the bike, I took a pleasant walk around the nearby grounds, a garden full of broad-leafed bushes and semi-tropical palms, with the occasional Buddha statue or memorial poking out. At it's peak was a sit-down area where you could see the shrine, the overpass I had come over on, and the bustling inland city.

Scooting down the steep hill, I got back on track. After a quick stopoff at a Tsutaya for a replacement of the missing DS stylus (they had none but did have a second hand AC adapter and pouch set which I bought and stuffed in where I could), and the nearby Mister Donut, thanks to the alluring sight of a waitress in a retro skimpy shop uniform from the 70's (honestly, that was enough to get me in there, although 'Mr Donut' himself tempered any feelings of arousal) I found myself at an intersection of two main roads, one of which headed up into the heavens, while the other slinked underneath it. Predictably, I took the wrong one, and ended up cycling down the track of a lakeside park. I stopped for a breather on a bench next to a man feeding a disturbing number of cats, got my bearings and moved on.
Eventually, getting back on the right road and crossing the beautiful Toyomi bridge I arrived at the wetlands centre. It was 4.40, and it closed at 5pm. Feeling the strain of saddle friction on moist inner thigh, I decided the toilets would be a good place to change back into my main clothes. By the time I got out, everyone was packing up for the day, which was good in a way because they let me scoot around for free.

The wetlands centre extended out into the mangrove swamps of Lake Manko, after which it had been named. A U-shaped wooden walkway rose out of the marshes and mudflats to allow visitors to walk among the plants and animals, a viewing platform at the far end allowing an aerial view, which was better for birdwatchers with its hide-style peekyholes.
As I walked by, dozens of little crabs scuttled into their homes and birds chattered overhead. It was a pleasant, and unusually silent area, the trees forming a natural sound barrier from the urban noises beyond, but I was increasingly aware as I looked back to the building that they were waiting for me to finish so they could go home.

I took the bike along the 329 until it met with the monorail once more, and followed it back to the Sora house. It was a pleasant enough trip, but my last day had been missing something compared to the others. With a degree of disappointment I lugged the bike up the steps and handed back the key. I took a shower and changed into something clean and joined the others in the communal room. John and Aoi were chatting as new guy Sam was playing his guitar in the corner. Since my stomach had woken up, I steered the conversation towards food in amongst sharing the days' photos. John and Aoi had got up early and went to Chinen on the east side of the island, proudly sharing his photos of coral reefs through the glass bottom of a boat.

Aoi had eaten, but John was up for it, so I suggested Kokusai-dori once more. He hadn't been there yet, and so we were both guessing a little bit, but I recalled seeing some sort of Steak House the day before, a suggestion which pricked his ears up.

We strolled down the Ichigin-dori that ran from the hostel to the main street, and turned right, bumping straight into Sam's Steak House. A western-looking gent with an enormous smile greeted us at the door as we surveyed the outside menu. Hawaiian in origin (and thus useful in an Hawaiian themed place), he now makes a good living serving the Americans and natives in the restaurant he serves.
His face lit up and was twice as happy as he was already when we revealed our nationalities. I asked if he was the eponymous 'Sam' but he wasn't. However he did seem to have a good deal of authority in the restaurant.

Though the house he was in was full of people with a half-hour wait, there was another one just across the road with a Titanic theme, which had places. If you doubt my claims that the people of Okinawa were glad to see non-Americans, you should have seen the extras we received that night. Taking us into the heart of the slippy-floored second restaurant, we were sat down at a sheet metal table in the middle of the restaurant. The first of our freebies were Hawaiian flag pin badges, (we are now honorary Hawaiians apparently).
'Sam' disappeared, leaving us in the capable hands of our own chef, who proceeded to start up his half of the table, which turned out to be a large hot-plate. As he began to prepare a load of meat for us, we were treated to shrimp cocktails, biscuitty treats, some east indian soup, and a citrus punch cocktail - all this before our chosen steak had arrived. The steaks were cooked to perfection in front of us and we had it with vegetables and spicy 'fire rice'. Barely had all that gone down that we were given another treat - a large blob of ice cream. It cost us about 2500yen (about £20) each. Before we left, 'Sam' returned and pushed a complementary drinking glass into my hand as a final present, which somehow despite it's fragility managed to make it home and sits in my cupboard.

The night couldn't get much better, but they had a parrot outside as well. He sat rather grumpily in the cage, no doubt having become wary of idiots poking him or banging the cage, but a few soothing words had him in a much more friendly mood, and I talked to him for a few minutes as John waited patiently for me to finish.

A walk up and down the vibrant Kokusai-dori, looking in at the still-open shops (by now it was past ten and fully dark save for the neon signs and lights) rounded it off, spoilt only by me doing a 'doh' moment and spilling soda over Johns' leg as I checked my watch. We placed coins on a lazy cat, and I bought a new belt, and some time looking at the myriad different sake available in the massive shop halfway up, as we made our way back. Wanting to be up for the plane back to the mainland the next day, I dragged John back to the Sora house and packed my things in preparation for the morning. Even though it had been a slow start, the day had ended well. Okinawa was shaping up to be a good place to make memories.

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