Okinawa: Meeting Murphy

Day 1 – September 18, 2009

I’m not a superstitious person – except when I tap the windshield twice after running a yellow light or knock on wood to prevent the jinxing fates from destroying any good fortune I encounter. Generally, though, I’m not a superstitious person — except that I believe in the outcome of crossed fingers, wish on shooting stars, hold my breath driving past cemeteries, cringe at the news of 2 deaths as I wait for the inevitable third, and, mostly, put all my faith in the outcome of a year on how I celebrate two days – New Years Eve and my birthday.

In retrospect, I may be a slightly superstitious person.

Whether it’s karma I subscribe to or the general power of positive thinking, I completely, in all regards and respects, believe that how you bring in a new year with your birthday and New Year’s Eve determines the course of your life for the next 365 and 1/4 days.

So when I booked my first “grown up” vacation with money from my first “grown up” job to sunny, tropical Okinawa for my 24th birthday weekend (which happened to be a holiday weekend, too- good karma, neh?) I was certain the fates were going to be on my side next year. As my friend Jesse would say – I expected I’d receive a lot of life cookies throughout this next year… in a lot of flavors (I may have added that last part, but what’s a cookie if it’s not chocolate with white chocolate chunks like Subway makes?). Callie (hails from Colorado – turned 22 about 5 posts ago) and I would spend 5 days and 4 nights in a tropical paradise, sipping Pina Coloadas and listening to the sounds of perfection. What could go wrong?

I researched Okinawa to the best of my google abilities. By the time we arrived, I knew the best island day trips (Zamami and Tokashiki of the Kerama Islands), the best dive spots (limestone caves around the outer Kerama islands), the best waterfall (Hiji in the north of the main island), the best view (Cape Hedo – northernmost point of the main island) and, of course, the best foreign restaurants (Italian and a Thai restaurant in Naha). This, subsequently, was the itinerary for our trip. I planned every major detail, and given that I’ve never planned much of anything in my life — major life goals (“go to Yale and be a gymnastics coach when I grow up”) withstanding — I should have known this would be my first… and fatal… mistake. But with my travel plans, a bottle of water, a backpack, my purse and a slightly drugged feeling (remnants of the battle of Me Versus The Great Sinus Infection of September), I set forth into the great unknown that is being 24.

With our sights set to the heavens, we boarded our plane, and our tropical misadventure began.

The Throw-Up Thrown-Down

We arrived on a beautiful, sunny, picture-perfect Friday.

This might have gone better under the "set our sights on the sky" ... I'm too lazy to move it. Blogging fail. 🙂 This was the view coming into the main island of Okinawa from the plane. It was beaaaaauuutiful!

We stepped off the plane and came face to face with Murphy… and His Law. Whatever could happen would happen… and did happen.

Even the airport itself, is so close to the beach that when we landed I could have jogged to it. I find this an appropriate placement of this photo, however, because everytime I tried to get a picture of this first taste of beach everywhere'ness, people walked in front of me. By the time I could shoot a picture, we couldn't see the beach. So perfect. 🙂

Sheisas are mythical imaginings of lion-type animals that guard the entrances of shrines, primarily. There are usually two sheisa - one on either side of the torii (shrine entrance). One has its mouth open to release all evil and one has its mouth closed to keep in the good. They are historically Okinawan but now are widespread through Japan.

As we waited for our luggage from the Sheisa guarded carousel, a putrid, tangent smell assaulted my senses.

At exact this same moment, Callie groaned, and we both swiveled our heads to the fresh pile of child vomit on the floor beside us… and on callie’s shoes. The kid was en route to the toilet by this time, in tears. My eyes watched him, but my sympathy stayed with Callie and the projectile excrement she was squishing on her walk of shame to the toilets. I held back my laughter and thought, “Our tropical paradise vacation has begun.” 🙂

Mickey Mouse

The throw-up mishap behind us, we went in search of our hostel. A long walk, large alcoholic beverage incognito as soda (these vending machine-related mistakes are more frequent than you might imagine) and a sky train ride later, we stood in front of the Guest House Kerama, our new humble abode. It is barely noticeable – literally, difficult to find and has all the markings of a nondescript, unmarked building. There’s absolutely nothing exceptional about it on the surface, but even from the unimpressive outside, it sniffs of character, like an average, mangy cat about to entertain you for hours with a piece of wayside thread yanked off a coat and thrown to the ground.

okay, so it was yellow... but somehow that didn't seem helpful when we were trying to find it!! (picture taken from google images)

We walked inside and were greeted with the world’s largest dirty shoe collection. As is custom in Japan, we took ours off and added it to the pile before we stepped onto the landing and headed to the front desk. The Front Desk was a low table with a computer, attended to by a man in a uniquely uncomfortable, Japanese squatting position (he never moved from that position in 5 days) and a woman that truly appeared prepared to fight to the death to obtain and retain the World’s Highest Ponytail Record (she also seemed to be aiming for the world’s most flexible record, but that’s a much weirder story involving her post-showering habits).

“Konnichiwa!” We greeted. “We have 2 beds booked for 4 nights.”

They stared at us blankly.

Finally, after an awkward moment of silence, the man greeted us. “Konnichiwa!”

We knew this meant both – “good afternoon” and the more popular – “No understand English.” Hostel workers with no English… excellent.

We gave them our IDs and as I handed the balance I owed to the man, who was now amicably chatting at Callie in Japanese, I saw a large animal dart from one end of the kitchen (situated directly behind the front desk, in my immediate line of sight) to the other. I blinked, and it was gone.

“Callie,” I nudged her, interrupting her focused attention on the rapid directions to the beach in Japanese coming at her. “I just saw a… cat, or um, something supernaturally large with a tail.”

The man was flipping through my bills, preparing a receipt.

Callie glanced into the kitchen, just as the animal darted across the floor again. She nudged me back, with the full force of her terror.

“That thing is huge,” her voice was was shocked as her gouging eyes.

“It must be some sort of cat,” I replied, my voice about as persuasive as my fears. The hostel dog, that had been lounging in the sun, was now slipping and stumbling his way through the kitchen in hot pursuit.

I turned to the workers, my mouth open. Their hands were outstretched with our receipts; our fate was sealed.

“I think I just saw a…” I paused. “A cat run through the kitchen. Is that a hostel pet?” I held my breath.

He smiled, and in perfect English said –

“Oh him? That’s Mickey Mouse.”

They Dammed Paradise and Put Up a Factory (or – A Bridge Over Troubled Water)

The Guest House Kerama knows how to treat their guests, and so they took Callie and me, along with Mickey and whomever else wanted to follow, on a tour of the grounds. The hostel was far more spacious than either of us realized, and if it hadn’t been for our first impression, we would have been more than pleasantly surprised – especially for the price ($10/night!). The tour ended on the second floor, and the clean, well-lit room came complete with a women-only bathroom, clean sheets and the promise of human-only patrons. We were sold.

Our fears assuaged (we would just avoid the kitchen at all cost), we bid Mickey adieu and set out for our first taste of Okinawan paradise: the Naha Beach.

Let me first say that we knew the Naha beach isn’t exactly the Playboy Mansion (oh, big feminist cringe – why would I use that analogy?!) of beaches in Okinawa. Naha, the capital of Okinawa, is a quintessential Japanese city – cookie-cutter and concrete. We expected, in this sense, a second-rate or even third-rate beach. What we did not expect… was what we found.

But first we tasted lunch, which was down a side street in Madrid, Spain in a classy, triumphant Tapas restaurant. Callie spent a semester in college studying in Spain, so she was prepared to answer my first, and most important question —

“Sure, let’s go here… but, uh, what’s tapas?”

Some of us are evidently less cultured than others (although, if she ever needs to know the ingredients of a Springbok Shot to get to the next level on Millionaire – I’m the one she’s calling. Guaranteed).

I imbibed Callie’s description and out of it imagined these Tapas restaurants dotting the cobblestoned streets of Spain as classy, sleek romance cellars.* This restaurant, in Naha, Okinawa, Japan perfected this ambiance. It was chic and understated, with just the right absence of light. The smell of the hanging, drying ham (and the taste), mixed with the bitter, sweet fragrance of our sangrias (and the taste) in such a way that in one meal, I went from a Spanish food novice to a well-fed, delighted Spanish food novice. We ordered another plate of ham, finished the sangria and then set out again for the beach.

Thank Buddha Callie was on this trip. I will fear for my life when I travel alone in a city where maps… and the ability to follow them… are necessary. I must have sworn 8 tmes the beach was in one direction, just to have Callie nod her head sympathetically, turn and walk the other way. Our map led us down side streets, main streets, past shrines, through parks, and, finally, to the smell of salt, the sound of surf and the sight of blue skies, rolling waves and a towering, rumbling commuter bridge. Wait. What? Rewind.

We finally arrived – to the feel of sand under ouf feet, the sound of surf and the sight of blue skies, rolling waves and a large, fume-emitting, atmosphere polluting factory.

Well, that didn’t have a better ending.

We turned in circles on the sand. Were we lost? There seemed to be people in bathing suits – tanning, swimming, dumping water in piles of sand – all beach activities. There seemed to be sunshine, sand and salt water. But the sound of the surf was occasionally drowned out by fog horns from freight trucks passing overhead, and swimming was confined to a roped off and coned area, where, presumably, the levels of toxins from the plant were least likely to cause supernatural side effects (maybe Mickey’s mother swam too far here?).

We stared… and stared.. .and blinked and stared some more. And then, we laughed – hysterically – with the full force of our guts and tear ducts behind it, because we were in Okinawa – and this was paradise. We threw down our towels and off our clothes and gleefully ran into the toxic water.

We mocked it, for sure, but it turned into one of the best moments of the trip. The irony  – the incongruity of it all – transformed our island getaway from simple, naive perfection to a nuanced mosaic of imperfection, which, as any child of a even a short-term candle seller would know, is inherently more beautiful. As would become the theme for our entire trip – it was imperfectly perfect.

Two thumbs up for the Naha Beach!

The beauty of irony.

As we let the sun massage our skin with its flaming tendrils and drifted asleep on the sand to the roars of engines above us, I thought –

“So Murphy… this is what happens when unstoppable optimism meets an immovable reality.”

He smiled and said, “Game on.” We shook hands to seal the deal.

Walking back from the beach, we came across this... playground. The dangerous things they allow kids to do here astonishes me! But what do Americans do in foreign countries? We climb things!

When the Lights Go Out

And so it came to pass that anything that could go wrong would, during the days. But as days faded into the brilliant sunsets that play the opening act for Naha nights, promises of magic – by way of culture and foreign food – beckoned to us. And each night in our endeavors, we danced with success (one crazy night it was a swing number).

Naha, if concrete, difficult to navigate and wholly lacking in public transportation by day, is a swarming, excited, funky, upbeat mecca of varying cultures and customs by night. From the frequent street Eisa performances (traditional Okinawan drumming) to Kokusai Dori, Naha’s contemporary, bright shopping and dining street, it’s easy to believe that the city is Never-Never Land; it’s an adult playground. Kokusai Dori is one of the most famous shopping areas in Japan, and it’s easy to see why – it fuses together traditional and modern Okinawan culture with mainland Japanese culture, while incorporation American must-haves (Okinawa economy is heavily fueled by American interests, with the strong military presence there). And by “must=haves” I mean, there’s a camoflauge/American paraphanelia store and a lot of steak. The true cornerstones of democracy, amirite?

Besides incredible shopping, dozens of bars, clubs and restaurants line the seemingly never-ending street (though in reality, we walked in several times during our stay). There are reggae clubs (unfortunately we never made it to one!), American clubs, Japanese-pop clubs, billiards bars, fancy bars, sleazy bars – you name it – they’ve got it.

After showering off the sand and scrubbing off the Naha Beach Water, we headed out for our first taste of this famous street. In the hostel, we met Jane from England. She’s a quiet, petite, well-educated, kind teacher. She’s my real-life imagining of Jane Eyre, which makes her a heroine in this, and any, story. Jane quit her teaching job in England to travel, rediscover herself, reorganize her goals and generally rejuvenate her zeal for life. Jane is a JET of several years past, and Okinawa is a revisitng of unfishined goals. Jane is in her 30s and will be meeting up with her long-time boyfriend in Australia after she leaves Japan. Jane may be a woman after my own heart.

Callie, our new friend Jane, and I headed to Kokusai Dori. Callie and I made it our singular goal in life to eat at a Mexican restaurant (gasp! in Japan!) place we read about on the Okinawa JET website. In our search for it, we came across 3 or 4 steakhouses – hibachi steakhouses (gasp! in Japan!). By the 4th, our wills weakened, we stopped to look at a menu.

Sam’s Anchor Inn, outside of which we were standing, slowly reading the katakana menu and peering in to get a whiff, is not owned by Sam – as some may presume – but by a Hawaiian man named Wyatt. To our surprise and his amusement, he greeted us outside, talked us into eating there (he had us at “medium rare”) and took us down the road to one of his 8 steakhouses in the cty, where we wouldn’t have to wait for a table (yep, he owned all 3 or 4 we had already passed – in the same three blocks!). We justified the mighty splurge as my official birthday dinner. My birthday was the next day, but we would be hiking all day and probably too tired to do a proper meal. Before he knew this, Sam gave us free appetizers and hand selected our chef. After he knew this, he gave us free dessert, me a birthday present and even offered us pot (a joke?). To us, he will always be Uncle Sam.

My birthday dinner was as delicious as it sounds. The salad involved real lettuce (Japanese salads use decidedly fake lettuce, although i’m not sure how to describe it), a cherry tomato, a cucumber, and top it off – dressing. Real American dressings too – like 1000 Island and Ranch. We got steak, and it was served, in true American hibachi style, in a huge portion, with a plethora of other vegetables, potatoes and whatever else they could smother in delicious butter. It was the Royal Flush of Birthday Dinners, and we left so full we could barely walk. Heaven.

Callie (on the right), Jane (in the middle) and me at my birthday dinner at Sam's. I still have my bib!

The three of us with Uncle Sam, and he even let us wear the sailor hats!

The three of us with Uncle Sam - he even let us wear the sailor hats! We aren't exactly sure why he took such a liking to us - but it could just be because we were Americans who weren't in the military. Or he just really loves people. Or he wasn't joking about that weed....

At the end of the meal, his staff served us dessert and he handed me an actual, wrapped gift! I have the Sam's Anchor Inn teacups displayed in my apartment 🙂

After dinner, we explored Kokusai Dori.

These is a Power Ranger right? I'm definitely the pink ranger, if it is!

We finally found the Mexican place we were looking for. Sadly, we never got a chance to eat here, but we DID experience Okinawan Taco Rice (weirdly a specialty there?), and it is delicious!

When it was late enough, we headed to a bar to have a birthday shot at midnight. Coming full circle, with my emphasis on birthdays telling the tale of future time – I couldn’t have been happier with where we chose.

The bar was dead, which disappointed us... until I saw this hanging on the wall. If a birthday is a fusion of past and present, there couldn't have been a better sign (literally) at almost midnight the night before my birthday. Go Big Red 🙂

And if that wasn’t enough… this was.

So. Perfect. So funny.

And then at midnight, we took a rainbow shot for my birthday. The bartender was awesome – I’ve never seen so many separated layers of colors!

To 24. Cheers!

With a clink of our drinks, we said farewell to our first day in Okinawa, and me to the last year, and we headed to home sweet home.

——-

Next post: The Okinawa saga continues with—  Okinawa – Day 2Birthday in Paradise (they won’t all be this epic… I don’t think….)

Thanks for tuning in! I love the feeling of knowing that I’m sharing my journey with so many of the people I love and even those I don’t know! 🙂


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~ by C on November 25, 2009.

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