Okinawa and Beyond

 Asia 2018, Japan

9 November, Airbnb Naha City, Okinawa
A fairly long couple of days' travel were required to get us to Japan's southernmost prefecture, Okinawa. Following a day flight from Brisbane to Osaka, via Cairns, we overnighted at the Kansai Airport hotel. From there it was a two and a half hour flight to Naha, the capital of Okinawa Prefecture.
The Okinawan archipelago is a string of islands in the East China Sea scattered between Kyushu, the southernmost of the main Japanese islands and Taiwan. Naha lies on the 26th parallel or latitude, putting it closer to the Equator than our home city of Brisbane. This probably accounts for the extremely hot and humid day today. 

This is our seventh trip to Japan and sometimes we think we have just about done it all. Then we discover another little corner of this amazing country and we are again enthralled.
Okinawa has a long history and a culture that is somewhat different from the rest of Japan. Until relatively recent times, everyday life here more closely resembled that of the islands of the equatorial southern Pacific. Its isolation left it exposed to domination by China rather than Japan and it was well into the 19th century before the islands fell fully under Japanese control.

The more modern history of these islands has not been a happy one. On 1 April 1945, the US Army and Marines attacked Okinawa in what was to be one of the bloodiest battles of WWII. The surrender of Japanese forces on the island was only achieved after the deaths of more than 14,000 American troops, somewhere between 70,000 and 100,000 Japanese troops and more than half the civilian population of 300,000. Ninety percent of the buildings on the island were totally destroyed, leaving what had been a lush, sub-tropical island looking like a WWI battlefield.

Seven decades on, the island has been totally rebuilt. Naha City, with a population of around a million, looks a little like Honolulu, but there is no escaping the fact that this is a Japanese prefecture. The ubiquitous brands are all around us, particularly our favourite convenience store, LAWSON. Then there are the melodies, beeps and bings at every pedestrian crossing and the never-ending, incomprehensible, high-pitched female voice constantly announcing - who knows what - emanating from every store front. You gotta love it!
Public transport here is not as well-developed as on the main islands, possibly due to the strong American influence. The islands were under American administration until 1972, so the car is king. There is a very efficient monorail that serves many of the main attractions, but to explore further would probably be best managed by car. An interesting side story to the end of American administration of the islands was the change from driving on the right to driving on the left. While the rest of Japan had always driven on the left, the Americans had imposed their own, right- side preference on Okinawa. On 30 July, 1972, everything was reversed.

Today we invested in a monorail day pass for 800 yen (about $10 AUD) and headed out to the end of the line to visit Shurijo Castle, the seat of the rulers of the Ryukyu Kingdom that ruled the islands from the 14th until the 18th century. As with everything on Okinawa, the castle is a complete reconstruction. Still, it was an impressive site and probably a great improvement on the original which had fallen into disrepair by the latter part of the 19th century.

Just back from a trip to Europe, we are a bit over museums. Nevertheless, we made the effort today to visit the Okinawa Prefectural Museum and were pleasantly surprised. Not large in floor space, it is well-organised and extremely well-presented. We spent the best part of the afternoon learning about the history and culture of the islands, assisted by great technology that gave us a self-guided tour using an audio-pen device that we tapped on a board to get an English explanation of each display.

11 November, Naha, Okinawa
In keeping with the centenary of the end of WWI, today we made a long bus journey to the south of the island to the Okinawa Peace Park. The site of this large monumental park is close to where US forces landed on 1 April 1945. Reminiscent of the Vietnam memorial in Washington DC, the park features a large section where there are hundreds of rows of black stone tablets listing the names of the more than 200,000 people who died here. 

On our return journey we stopped off at the Himeyuri Peace Museum, which records the sacrifices of the students and teachers of the Himeyuri Girls School. As the Americans advanced north, the Japanese Army conscripted the girls and teachers from the school to tend to wounded soldiers in makeshift hospitals in nearby caves. Of the 240 students and teachers who worked in the caves, 34 survived. Faced with inevitable defeat, the Japanese Army abandoned the children and their teachers, left to fend for themselves in the face of the terrifying battle that raged around them as the US forces advanced. Today the site of the school is a much-visited monument and museum where school groups and families come to learn about the sacrifices of these innocent girls and their teachers.
Yesterday we joined a very small group tour, just us, a young Mexican guy and our young Russian guide. Yes Russian. Natalia had done extensive  research into ancient Okinawan culture and, assisted by her knowledge and experience, we  were off to explore lost castles in the jungle. Seemed like a bit of a con to us, but we had some vouchers that gave us close to a free ride so we took a chance. Extremely good call as it turned out. Natalia and our Mexican companion were fellow travellers; that is, they weren’t tourists! We discovered ruins of castles overgrown by the jungle and, in one case, extremely difficult to reach. The ravines and narrow rock caves we trekked through were just as spectacular as the ruins, tombs and pilgrimage sites that we explored.

Today has been our last day in Okinawa; we are off to Osaka tomorrow. We had come here expecting a Japanese Hawaii. Nothing could be further from the truth. Much of the island that we viewed on our long bus trips was just like most other Japanese cities, with low-rise buildings interspersed with industry and the usual detritus of car yards and repair shops. The coastline, at least in the south, doesn’t have sandy beaches or spectacular headlands. However, once over this misconception, we came to appreciate the slower pace of life and we have learned an enormous amount about the history of these islands and just how different that history is to what the locals call the “mainland.”

12 November, Wing Hotel, Osaka
The last time we flew into Osaka and took the train into the city, we roamed the streets for hours in the dark and rain, searching for our hotel. We discovered on that trip that knowing the correct exit to head for in a major Japanese station is the key to finding your way. Today we were well-prepared and found our digs with no problems.
The train journey from Kansai airport was another matter altogether. We are big fans of the JR-East Suica Card, an IC card that can now be used throughout most of Japan for everything from travel to purchases in convenience stores and vending machines. We came undone today on the express train from Kansai airport to the city because we assumed our Suica card would cover it. Oh no. The special express to Osaka costs a premium rate, that we were charged on the train. Put it down to yet another learning experience.
Our hotel in Osaka is a good example of what reasonable accommodation can be arranged in Japan. For about $80 AUD, we have a nice, but small, room in easy walking distance from the station, a free welcome drink at the bar and an open bar for an hour from 5:00 pm. Try getting that at home folks!
We don’t usually comment on our hotel accommodation, but every now and then we score a gem. We have two nights in the Wing International Select Osaka Umeda and by happy circumstance, another day later in the month on our way to Taiwan. We have stayed at the Wing chain before and had the same experience. Fantastic service, great locations and unbelievable value. Sounds like a paid advertisement, but no, their hotels are incredible.

13 November, Wing Hotel, Osaka
On previous trips we have spent a good few days in Osaka and probably seen everything of interest for us. Today we decided to revisit Nara, a city that is well and truly on the tourist trail and just an hour away on the Shinkansen. Even today, a Tuesday in mid-November, the streets, temples and shrines were crowded.

15 November, APA hotel, Nagasaki
It was close to a 900 km trip from Osaka to Nagasaki yesterday. We were on the Shinkansen out of Osaka at 10:08. And that means exactly 10:08. A quick change in Hakata and we were standing at our hotel reception desk in Nagasaki at 2:55pm, right on time for a 3:00pm check-in.
We only had one day in Nagasaki. We have been here before as a day trip, so we sought out something a little different - a visit to Battleship Island.

We were booked on a 1:20pm boat to the island, so we filled in the morning with a tram ride out to the Atomic Bomb Museum and the memorial at Ground Zero in the Nagasaki Peace Park. The museum presents a fairly graphic and thought-provoking display of artefacts related to the Atomic Bomb attack and material on the proliferation of nuclear weapons in a modern context. The monument at Ground Zero is very simple and could be easily missed. Today though, we witnessed a moving commemoration ceremony by a group of Japanese primary school children. We couldn’t understand the words, but we got the message.

We had booked our tickets online for the trip to Hashima (also known as Gunkanjima or Battleship) Island and we were a little confused by the directions we got back with our confirmation. We could find the place ok, but the process for visiting the associated museum on the mainland and boarding the boat had us flummoxed. As usual, we arrived early, to find that we were entitled to a refund. The girl at the reception desk had no English, a very unusual circumstance these days in Japan, so we had some difficulty understanding why she was insisting on giving us money. We finally realised, with the help of Google Translate, that we were getting the refund because we were unable to land on the island because of the dangers created by a recent typhoon. As we were early, we managed to score Position Numbers 1 and 2 for early boarding. Now, this might be something to be taken lightly by poorly informed westerners, but we were fully aware of the honour bestowed upon us.
We, the “blessed,” there were 20 or so others, all Japanese, were told to meet at a special location, a few hundred metres from the boat’s departure point. Here we were placed in line according to our Position Number and marched ceremoniously through the streets to the docks, where the, “not so blessed”, waited in line for our arrival. Having led the parade through the streets, as number 1 and number 2, we were first to board the boat, with crew members bowing from the waist on either side of us.
What could be better than this little bit of truly Japanese theatre? The trip itself. A beautiful day, a fairly smooth sea and the incredible sight of Hashima, which looked just like a battleship.

The island was a coal mining settlement from the late 19th century. At its zenith more than 5000 people lived on the island, roughly 500m by 150m, the most densely populated place on earth. The community was fairly wealthy, though extremely hard working. Wages were high and in the post-war years, living standards were among the best in Japan. In 1974 this all came to a sudden end when the Japanese government turned away from coal as the country’s main energy source. Within a couple of years the island was totally deserted, its infrastructure and buildings rapidly decaying.
Today, Hashima is a World Heritage site that is preserved as representative of early 20th century modern urban development. The buildings are in a state of decay that has been exacerbated by exposure to the frequent typhoons that lash this part of Japan.

17 November, Airbnb, Hiroshima
A fairly full day on the rails yesterday. Our local train from Nagasaki was four minutes late into Shin-Tosu for our transfer to the Shinkansen to Hiroshima - an almost unheard of event. Heads will probably roll. We actually had to hurry between platforms to make our connection!
Our last visit to Hiroshima, some years back, was a day trip and we had little time to look around. Today we took the train south towards Miyajima, bypassing the extremely popular ferry trip to the island for the lesser known town of Iwakuni, another 30 minutes down the line. Famous for its five arch wooden bridge, the locals obviously know about Iwakuni, but the crowds were fairly small and there was ample space in the town’s extensive gardens for some quiet wandering. We purchased a combined ticket at the local tourist office that covered us for crossing the bridge, the cable car up to the hilltop castle and the castle entry fee. It was all extremely well-organised, as we have learned to expect in Japan.

On our return journey, with a bit of time up our sleeves, we decided to revisit the very touristy Miyajima. 
The ferry to the island was covered by our JR Pass, but what we failed to consider was that it was a very nice day and a Saturday! We got on the ferry without any delay, but on the island itself it was mayhem. Thousands of people moved slowly in procession along the waterfront as the ferries continued to disgorge hundreds more every few minutes. We cut through the crowds to a good viewing point to get a shot of the famous torii gate of Miyajima, then rushed back to the ferry in anticipation of the time when the throng would arrive back at the station to return to Hiroshima. As it turned out, we were able to get on a train, albeit a very crowded one, making it back to Hiroshima just in time to pick up a tram to our apartment. A big day, but we proved yet again that it is always possible to find something different and interesting to do in Japan.

18 November, Hiroshima
Well-prepared, we arrived on time at Hiroshima JR Station this morning. We booked our reserved seats for the fairly short and not too complicated trip to the well-preserved old town of Takehara, about an hour and a bit from Hiroshima, another of the lesser known places we have sought out on this trip. We had a 5 minute transfer to make at Mihara to a local train to Takehara. In a bit of a rush between platforms, we were a little alarmed to see no trains running on the line we had to take. As is usual in Japan, our confusion attracted immediate assistance in the form of a young woman of western appearance who spoke Japanese. She informed us that buses were operating the line we needed to take and took us back to the ticket gate to pick up a timetable. Her help was much appreciated, but when we examined the timetable, which was all in Japanese, we realised that we would have no way of getting to Takehara and back on the bus in time to get back to Hiroshima at a civilized hour. So we took the next Shinkansen back to Hiroshima.
So to plan B. We thought we might visit the Peace Park tomorrow morning before catching a late train to Osaka for our last night, prior to heading to Taiwan. Today now looked like the better choice, so we boarded a tram for the Peace Park to visit the Atomic Monument and museum. This was not our day. The park was fine, though by this time the clouds had closed in, but just our luck, the museum was closed for renovations and earthquake-proofing.
They say getting there is half the fun. We tested that today. And yes, it is at least half the fun!

19 November, Wing International Hotel, Osaka
Back at one of our favourite hotels.

We had a lazy day in Hiroshima today, filling in time waiting for our 1:00pm train. With nothing much else to do, we took one of the city loop buses for a 40 minute ride through the city. With our JR Pass, this was a free ride, so why not? A time filler was about all the ride was as it took us through parts of the city we had seen previously.
Hanging around the station for an hour or so before heading up to our Shinkansen platform, we had time for some people watching. The Japanese are not the stereotypical race that many like to think. Sure there are the hordes of be-suited worker drones constantly marching through the stations, but there are also ample “kookie” folk to observe. Mostly young, this group is a combination of young girls who seem to be cursed with bad dress sense and guys who have watched too many anime cartoons. Then there are the oldies, tiny, often badly bent people, part of a generation that survived the war, but missed out on the benefits of the better diet that allowed succeeding generations to develop to a physical size closer to that of  their  western contemporaries. There are as many “daggy” dressers, male and female as anywhere else in the world and a good sprinkling of under 5s who have been allowed to pick their own outfits. It has to be noted that in Japan this group is probably the most bizarre.
Stations are also places where the other Japanese obsession is probably best observed, that is the need for constant noise! Sometimes it seems that Japanese people need the constant, probably meaningless, announcements to keep them connected to the rest of the flock. Just like birds that call to their mates to keep in contact, the Japanese seem to require a constant background babble to feel secure. In fairly small towns, where we have been alone on station platforms, there are bird sounds played on the speakers. In parks, where you could expect some zen-like peace, we have often been serenaded by music from hidden speakers. Strangely, it is easy to become so accustomed to this background noise that it becomes almost part of the environment.

21 November, Papo’a Hotel, Kaohsiung
A very long day yesterday travelling from Osaka to Taipei. Our flight was to leave at 5:00 pm, so we had a lot of time to kill in Osaka, a city where we have been a few times before. We have always wanted to visit the Noodle Museum. Why? Because nobody we know has visited a noodle museum and in Japan, even the most mundane can turn out to be a memorable experience. Sadly, it was Tuesday and the Noodle Museum was closed. Our fall back plan was shopping, well, more like window shopping.
Our last night in Osaka had been a late one, out with a local lady who had boarded with Paul's sister while studying English on the Gold Coast. Myabi and her boyfriend took us to a couple of fantastic restaurants, where were able to experience some food that would have been difficult for us to access by ourselves. We were rather late home, which only added to our lethargy as we explored the 13 floors of the outrageously expensive Hankyu department store near Osaka station.
To add to our weariness, our flight was delayed more than an hour. By the time we arrived in Taipei, we just wanted to get to our hotel and to bed. In the airport, we bolted past the other passengers to get to the head of the queue, as the last time we flew into Taipei we spent over an hour in Immigration. As we entered the main Immigration hall we were well ahead of the pack, but, no such luck, the line was just as long as it was last trip. Then we noticed the sign that said that Australians could use the Egates. We had to register at a nearby office and fill in an online entry form. The latter held us up for a bit, but once that was done we walked through the gates in seconds and were on our way. Well, almost. We caught the MRT train into the city with no problems, but from the main city station we had to catch another MRT to our hotel.
Taipei's Main Station is just enormous. We got lost last time we were here and this time we managed to do it again. It was just before 11:00pm as we exited the MRT close to our hotel. We had stayed there before, so we knew there was a 7-Eleven at the exit and we needed food and beer. As it was 10:56pm, the girl behind the counter was less than impressed with having to heat up our meals. She obviously was totally unaware of just how long a day we had had and just how close she had come to experiencing the self-righteous wrath of people who know what 7-Eleven actually meant.
Amidst all the hassle of our arrival in Taipei last night we managed to collect our tickets for today's train ride south. The Taiwan Rail online booking system was a little difficult to negotiate and we were a little uncertain as to how to collect the tickets. As it turned out it was a breeze. The passport number used to book was all that was needed. Done and dusted in seconds.
The train ride from Taipei to Koahsiung was about 5 hours, but it was comfortable and a chance for at least one of us to grab a few cat naps.

23 November, Papo'a Hotel, Kaohsiung
We have a fairly long history of travel disasters, but as they say, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” So let’s hope our dramas of the last couple of days fit that maxim.
We have had stolen passports, Bulgarian highway thieves, minor car accidents and being locked out of our apartment compound in Warsaw in winter. There may well be others, but in the current circumstances, they seem a little insignificant. 
The night before last, after our long train trip down the west coast of Taiwan, Janita had a slip in the hotel room. We suspected an ankle sprain or dislocation, but after an ambulance trip to the ER Ward at the Kaohsiung University Hospital, a fracture of the fibula was diagnosed. So here we are again planning an early termination of travels.
This was not a great loss in time as we are just a few days off the end of our journey anyhow. The obvious physical pain aside, our tribulations were lessened by the wonderful hotel receptionist, Mia, who accompanied us to the hospital and stayed with us throughout all the usual hospital processes.
Our disaster management experience had us rebooked on new flights home by lunchtime the day after the accident. A great skill, but not one we want to develop further.
Three days in the same hotel room has given us some understanding of what cabin fever is. Kaohsiung is not a major international destination, so the flights we needed  to get home don’t go everyday. Tomorrow we have a late night flight to Singapore, a 15 hour layover, then home.
Kaohsiung City deserves some comment. Despite our difficult time here, we will come back. The city is the jumping off point for Kenting National Park and, from our brief exposure, it is an interesting combination of the old and new Taiwan. Brief walks around the city back streets expose a little of the old Asia that is rapidly disappearing. Street stalls, motorcycles lined up on the footpaths and every now and then the smell of a poorly drained sewer. The smells and tastes of old Asia - gotta love them as well.


Post a Comment