Okinawa Day 2: Birthday in Paradise

September 19, 2009

I woke up coughing, my head pounding so hard I occasionally forgot to breathe, even in the rare moments air found pockets to slip through in my stuffed nose. It was raining. I was on the top bunk – Callie below me – and from the communal stirring in the room, I knew I had woken up people. I sipped some water, trying to quiet my labored breathing and still the tickle in my chest. Quiet now, I added a sweater to the growing mound on top of my pillow to keep my head more elevated, hoped for sunny skies with daylight and slowly drifted back to sleep.

We woke up later than planned but readied quickly and set out to find the bus stop. Our bartender the night before had surprised us with her broken English – and between that, Callie’s equally broken Japanese and a paper napkin map, we were almost certain we knew where we were going.

It was still raining as Callie, Jane and I left the hostel. Jane had only tentative plans for the day and we all decided to journey together north until we needed separate buses. Callie’s and my plan for my birthday seemed really simple back in August, when I was jotting down notes for our trip. They read something like this:

  • Rent a car
  • Head North out of Naha [laughable attempt at directions]. Continue past Nago.
  • Hiji Waterfall – hike, swim – have until 3-4pm
  • Continue North to Cape Hedo (northernmost point). Hope for a clear day to see the islands off of Japan’s mainland. Watch the East China Sea meet in crashing torrents with the Pacific Ocean on the cliffs 230 feet below. Stand on the edge of the rocks and look down. Be awed. Try not to die.
  • If time – Naha Aquarium on the way down south
  • Dinner along the coastal route to Naha

It was unwritten, but I chose these plans for this day with a purpose. With the end of college, a major internship and the start of my first “real” job all in my 23rd year, I needed to start my 24th year off with something monumental – something that would invite earth-shattering, mind-blowingly new, different and incredible things in my life for this next year.

This year on JET, in Japan, is already so big and so full of possibilities that I wanted to reach out to the universe and simultaneously say, “Thank you” and “I’m here. I’m ready.” That when Japan is over in July, and I head into the great, terrifying unknown that is my career and my personal life, I will be excited and prepared. 24 is the start of a new, post-collegiate era, and I wanted life to know – throw everything you got at me – I’m ready to make extraordinary decisions. I’m ready to fail, succeed and mostly – keep growing.

So I chose Hiji – as a literal interpretation of this metaphor; I would ascend to the heights of greatness, cascade straight down into the pools below and, like the falls itself, head straight back up again. Also… because for this year, I’ve made a commentment to myself to be more physically active than I’ve ever been – to get in shape, push myself to my limits and then demand more. Waterfalls do this everyday; they continually smooth out the rough edges of the cliffs they hit until they are bigger and stronger than ever.

I chose Cape Hedo for the majesty of it. It is the physical embodiment of that aforementioned ‘terrifying unkonwn’ that is figuring out my life and career post-college. It’s sheer intensity and beauty is a reminder not to get discouraged – that on a clear day- you can see the big picture, and even on cloudy or stormy ones – as lost and insecure as you may feel – the chaos is beautiful.

All that… and I like jumping off stuff and seeing breath-taking views, especially on my birthday.

We left the hostel in a rush but hit Kokusai Dori with enough time to grab a Starbucks sandwich for lunch, McDonalds for breakfast and sprint, screaming for the bus. The driver kindly stopped and waited for us, and, panting, we took our seats. Herein comes the first flaw in my carefully laid-out notes; we were on a bus and not in a rental car.

We tried. We really tried. But during Silver Week (nickname for this week in September with several holidays), there are –

No. Cars. Available. On. Okinawa.

We even tried renting up north once we got to Nago – nothing.

Attempting the scarce and even-difficult-to-navigate-for-locals pulic transportation turned into just another part of the adventure.

The bus ride to Nago is beautiful… and never-ending. It was still raining, and my head still felt like a ticking time bomb, but our spirits were high (probably from the Mcdonalds sugar rush).

3 hours later, we were dropped off at the Nago Bus Station. We wandered into the information office and the most patient man with extremely limited (IE – nonexistent) English began pulling out bus map after time table after map, trying so kindly to help direct us to Hiji and Cape Hedo.

After a while, it became evident to even me that he was telling us we couldn’t make it back to Naha from our desired locations with the current bus schedule. The last bus left approximately 2.3 seconds after we would arrive in Cape Hedo.

“So…” I looked at Callie, my face surely crestfallen. “We just rode 3 hours on a bus to nowhere, and we can’t go anywhere?”

I could tell she didn’t want to have to answer, but she nodded her head yes.

My plans, and hopes, crushed, my head and the rain pounding, I walked outside, around to the back of the station… and, yes, cried my spoiled, privileged, birthday vacation tears (it’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to? Anyone?). I felt pathetic. So I gave myself one last, “Happy birthday to me” sniffle and stopped.

“I’m in Okinawa,” I scolded myself. “If that, in itself, is the worst back-up birthday plan I have, life is pretty great, and this next year will be wonderful.”

I walked back into the office, wiping away the last pieces of evidence of my pity-party. Callie, in a perfect demonstration of her bad-assitude was calm, level-headed, un-phased and excitedly working on a Plan B with the now exhausted man.

“We can’t do it all,” she said, reassurance in her voice. “But I think we can at least do Hiji!”

Callie hates hiking.
Callie is amazing.

Callie sorted out the bus times; we would have 3-4 hours once we got to the drop off point on the road to walk to the start of the trail, hike to the top of the falls and get back for the last bus back to Naha.

It would be tight, but it could be done. This was no longer fun-times, leisurely day, kid-play; this was a mission.

We set out with a renewed confidence, excited for the famous Falls. We felt like Lewis and Clark, exploring the great unknown lands of Northern Okinawa. The bus system in itself was a conquered expedition, and if you ever actually want the “secluded, pretty land and ocean” thing travel writers romanticize and travelers wane about – head to Okinawa. Even on the main island, head north, and it’s not long before it’s just you and a tiny road with fields on one side and seemingly untouched ocean on the other.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition Okinawa 2009 adventure (in theaters April, 2072!), left us in the middle of the road and a lot of nowhere. There is a conbini (convenience store) to our right, down the road a block or so. We buy drinks, use the restroom and head out to find the Hiji trail.

Except that we can’t find the road/trail (we have no idea what we are looking for). Compounding the curiosity of the situation is the massive overhead road sign the clearly says, in English, no less, “Hiji Waterfall” with an arrow pointing left. The sign is 30 paces after a dirt road and 30 paces before another road leading left. We take the 2nd road (that is how road signs work, no?), and it dead ends at a jungle/dirty river fork that seems like a snake’s castle home… that we’re not willing to gamble on. We try the earlier road, and it, too, dead ends. We wander up the main road again to see the sign coming from the other direction. It, too, has the ambiguous arrow pointing right this time to either of the roads.

We walk back to the conbini and ask. They stare at us like we’re dumb, prattle off some Japanese (“There’s a sign right there- you’d think even Americans could read it!”) and motion towards a third, hidden road before the first and second roads (making it about 50 feet before the highway sign). We wander down that road, giving ourselves 15 minutes before we head back and try again, because this can’t be what that sign was pointing to, can it?

Oh, but it can. Japanese Road Signs 101 – the arrow does not necessarily mark the spot.

The road to Hiji is gorgeous. 10 minutes down the road, and we see our first charming, wooden, painted sign with the words, “Hij Waterfall” and an arrow pointing right. We can’t believe we found it; I laugh and realize my nose is finally clear and I breathe in the sweet smell of nature. As we take in the incredible, jungle-mountain view and admire the old sign, we feel the warmth of a noonday sun upon us. We look up and it seems almost magically, the clouds are gone, having taken the rain with them, and the sun is so bright we can already see the sparkling raindrops on leaves begin to dissipate. We accept the sun’s invitation, turn right and walk into a Japanese paradise.

The highway sign "leading" us to Hiji Falls. Which road?!

We were one with nature... AND on the right track! It turned into such a beautiful day!

The road leading to the beginning of the trail was several kilometers. At long last, we began to see the first sight of a parking lot and, beyond it, a camp ground. This was it. As we paid our nominal admission fee and headed towards the trail, we came across our first “danger” sign. This one, old and difficult to read, discouraged swimming, jumping and diving in the falls. We had heard it was forbidden, so “discouraged” got us excited!

Swimming is discouraged. We got excited... until we saw the next, newer sign, saying it was forbidden. Damn!

Japan is a little emphatic about safety. Our second “danger” sign:

We learned on this trip that Callie would rather come across a poisonous snake than a bear. Me, I'd rather the bear - at least if I get mauled it'd be a cool headline.

I was so excited to be hiking again. Back in LA with fellow intern and now terribly missed friend, Noelle, we hiked all the time. She turned me into a hiking addict. I couldn’t wait to hit the trails again, this time exploring Japan. But, well, Japan had a different idea…

Callie, "hiking" on the MAN MADE trail!! There were man-made bridges and steps everywhere. When in Japan...!

The third danger sign (there are so many ways to die hiking in Japan!):


The 4th – and best – danger sign:

the trees might eat you?

Man-made or not, the hike is gorgeous. Mid-way there is a suspension bridge… and the view is unbelievable. How cool would it be to be a monkey and see – better yet, swing through – this every day?!

The view is spectacular!

3/4 of the way to the falls, there is a tribute, we think, to an old tree that used to stand here. We can’t be certain, but this is our guess. We felt compelled to take a picture inside of it!

I feel like this is a perfect venue for a puppet show.

Great picture-op!

What's that old saying? Oh yes - if there's something to be climbed, an American will do it!

And then… the Falls. The day had been frustrating and not as we had planned, but the second we climbed the last step and rounded the last corner and saw this view… all the frustration of the morning vanished. It was breathtaking. Even better, with our first view, we saw people doing the forbidden – cliff-jumping and swimming! Somehow… we knew they were American 😉


We didn’t have much time before we needed to head back, but of course we joined in! We quickly stripped, ran up the wet, slippery rocks and threw our lives over the edge into the crashing falls.


Callie - air-surfing!

We were right about the guys jumping; they were Americans – military guys stationed up north. Maybe it was wrong of us to follow their lead and break the rules… or maybe it was incredibly fun. The Japanese tourists wandering around took pictures of us and some even waded to the rocks to sunbathe. We were a good influence, neh?!

Callie and me at Hiji Waterfall

The guys were climbing up higher and higher slopes of rock to jump. I was itching for a higher jump than the 5 foot base one we had been doing. One of the guys showed me an area to climb for a bigger jump… and I set off. I struggled to get up; the rocks were so slippery. At one point, near the top, responsibility threatened to take over, and I thought, “If I were to get hurt doing this – I would lose my job and probably have to leave the country since jumping, climbing and swimming are all forbidden.” But then I was at the top, looking down, scared out of my mind and thrilled at the same time. I’m here man, I’m doing this.

Putting on a much braver, valiant face than I felt. Actual thoughts: deep breath. deep breath. I made it. Okay, don't look down. You can do this. JUMP.

The guys below on the rocks were goggle-eyed, shocked that I had actually made it to the top, waiting to see if I would jump. It was about a 20-25 foot jump. I smiled and thought, “Damn straight this is how you bring in a new year!” and leaped off.

Aw, shoots! We couldn't get the actual jump, but here's the awesome splash!

It was awesome.

After that, we hurried back to catch the last bus. We got a few shots of the waterfall again before we left.

Hiji Waterfall - Okinawa. Beautiful.

It makes sense now why it's on Japan's top 3 waterfalls list!

We made the hike back down the trail in a hurry… me wearing this Top Model-worthy outfit:

Tyra would be proud.

Back on the road that led us to the main road, we took in the setting. It had turned out to be a picture-perfect day.

Perfect blue skies.

We got back to the bus stop with enough time to grab a snack from the conbini. It was a 5 hour trip back to Naha; we entertained ourselves with the gorgeous views, great conversation and movies from Callie’s ipod.

Beautiful sunset over the ocean

We got back to Naha around 9pm, still damp. We had spent 10 hours on buses, gone through the entire gambit of emotions and come back refreshed, excited and exhausted. We had dinner at a small Japanese restaurant that served the famed taco rice (every bit as delicious as it sounds!) and talked about our day.

Once again, things hadn’t gone quite the way we had planned on this trip. Having a car is almost necessary to get around in Okinawa; we learned our lesson. I had been frustrated and unsure, thinking our plans were in vain, that I would spend my birthday sick on a bus while it rained in Okinawa. Turns out, I had too little faith – in myself and in the power of Plan B’s.

It was one of the best birthdays I’ve ever had. It wasn’t what I expected or what I had been determined to MAKE happen, and that was the joy of it; it was an organic, imperfect adventure, and one that I will remember always. I turned 24 jumping off a 20-foot cliff into a pool at the biggest waterfall in Okinawa, Japan, and I don’t take for granted just how cool it is to say that.

I learned a lot of lessons. Mostly that my obsession with birthdays may be a little over the top (maybe?). But mostly that maybe this year isn’t about finding the majestic and inviting in epic events; maybe it’s about balance, about learning to trust myself. This next year is about flexibility and adventure and travel and exploration – within myself and the world.

In college, my closest friends and I had a birthday tradition; we would go out to eat at “our” restaurant and say our best and worst moment of the last year. And with that, like the Sheisa that guard the shrines in Okinawa, we would let out the bad and keep in the good.

The worst moment of my last year – of 23 – was graduating. It was leaving the comfort and safety of college, of leaving my friends, who had become a second family to me. it was saying goodbye to Lincoln, my column in the Daily Nebraskan and 4.5 years of football games in Memorial Stadium.

The best moment of 23 – was graduating. I’ll never forget hearing my name called, wearing that cap and gown, placing my hands on that diploma. I’ll never forget that all I thought as I walked down to receive my diploma and couldn’t stop smiling was, “I did it.”

After we ate our taco rice, we headed to a local brewery and restaurant to have a drink and a piece of birthday cheesecake. I thought to myself, with that first bite of cheesecake, that I have no idea what will happen in the next 365 days, but I won’t be surprised if this day and this trip make into the best moments of this year.

Wine and cheesecake - a perfect end to a perfectly imperfect day.

Thank you, Callie, for celebrating my birthday with me and making it unforgettable!


Next post: We Snorkeled/Dived Okinawa and God This T-Shirt to Prove It!

~ by C on November 29, 2009.

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