The day after I returned to Kyoto from a lovely whirlwind trip to Okinawa, I was worn out from unpacking and a cold I’d come down with, so I was lying on my bed with a book. At 2:46 pm I sighed, shut my book, and looked at the clock. I rolled over and took a nap. I wouldn’t find out until nearly 2 hours later that the largest earthquake in Japan’s recorded history had struck the northern Tohoku area just then.
Kyoto is so unaffected, sometimes the disaster seems to be something just happening on the TV. At other times I’m overwhelmed and get weepy. At church we prayed and cried together, and found comfort in shared faith. Then yesterday a dear friend and dorm-mate of mine, Carina, announced she would be going home to Germany. That made me really depressed and I thought I might cry again, so I decided to make naan bread. Deep down I’m a very politically incorrect 50s housewife who finds great pleasure in cooking for other people. Baking and feeding the results to Stacey, Carina, and Ela cheered me up a lot, and Stacey did something she always does—make me laugh. So now even though a large part of Japan is in ruins and Carina is leaving, I’m at peace and in a much better mood, and think I can write about Okinawa.
I went there for 5 days with my friend Jenni. Our plane arrived quite late in the evening but we noticed two things immediately: Okinawa smells good, even in the middle of the city, and the people are friendly (a boy with a long ponytail saw us looking lost and showed us where the hostel was; cars will wait for pedestrians when there’s no crosswalk). In the morning we got up early and met with Jin-san and Seiko-san, my Japanese professor Itomitsu-sensei’s brother and his wife. They were so sweet! They took us to the most beautiful aquarium I’ve ever been to, and down a narrow little village of traditional Okinawan homes, each surrounded by sturdy thick-leaved trees to keep out the constant ocean winds.
They were also very patient with our childish excitement over our first Okinawan beach: “The water’s so clear!” “Ooh, the sand is full of coral; look at this piece I found!” Seiko-san had come to Okinawa for the first time when she was about our age, and she had acted the same way, Jin-san said laughing. Jin-san seemed quieter than his older brother but is no less kind. He had a habit of disappearing to get tickets or maps or drinks, and of wordlessly capturing our shining eyes with his camera. Seiko-san supplied much of the conversation; she was interested especially in Jenni’s homeland. I learned a lot about Finland and the Finnish language as well! Usually Japanese people don’t know anything about Finland, except that cute character Moomintroll comes from there, doesn’t he? Jenni, who is usually of a silent, Moomin-like presence herself became very animated with Seiko-san. I was glad about that.
That night it poured, and the next day a blustering wind blew under grey clouds that spat rain now and again. I had to give up my dream of seeing red Shuri Castle under a broad blue sky, but we bundled up in almost all the clothes we’d brought and went there anyway. More than any impression of the castle itself I was struck by how much was destroyed in WWII. All that is left of the original castle are some dusty piles of rock that were its foundations.
We found a tiny rocky path leading down from the castle. I’d heard in the olden days it used to be the main road connecting the castle to the Naha port. We wandered down it along with schoolchildren returning home, and came across a traditional-style Okinawan house, that seemed a few tatami-mats large, with a sign, “Community Rest House, please use freely.” We heard voices from inside and poked our heads in. Two little schoolgirls were there staring at us. “Hello” said the younger one finally. “Konnichi ha,” we replied. “Ooh, they can speak Japanese! Where are you from? Do you know what this is? It’s used in a festival. My dad’s carried one once. Look what I can do, a cartwheel. Can you do cartwheels? Let’s play hide-and-seek!" We spent the rest of the afternoon playing merrily with them.
The next day the weather was so fine, though I’d planned an itinerary I was tempted to just find a bus to the nearest beach and spend the day on the sand. We went deep underground after all: the Former Navy Underground Headquarters in Naha—the place where the last resistance of the Japanese military holed up at the end of the Battle of Okinawa. I had had to decide given our limited time between there and the Peace Memorial Park, but thought rather than nice plaques in green lawns I wanted to see something real. In one bare narrow tunnel I put my fingers into pock-marks in the wall before reading the sign “Damage to walls from hand grenade of suicides.”
After that eerie place we headed to Okinawa World, a theme park of Okinawan culture, but the best thing about it was the beautiful natural cave under the park. Jenni and I wandered slowly through it for almost two hours, me thinking just a little regretfully of the tropical sunshine above and how we had somehow spent most of the day in caves and tunnels of some kind or another. But we did see a very mysterious creature there, some kind of huge salamander that was definitely not listed on the “Animals You Might See” section of the pamphlet we’d received. A little creeped out, we hurried out of there to watch some traditional pottery-making and glass-blowing. We bought some Ryukyu glasses for our moms and in one of the workshops I tried my hand at Okinawan tie-dying. My hands were a bit smelly for a few days afterwards!
I had made no plans for the next day, but Jenni wanted a beach, and to see whales—we’d heard it was their season. We decided on going to Zamami, a tiny island reached by ferry from Naha. The ferry was a small, high-speed affair; Jenni and I clung to the railing on the deck and laughed every time we bounced over a wave, getting looks from the apparently more seasoned Japanese passengers. I reveled in the salt spray, the sight of the ocean spreading to a purple haze at each horizon, the high puffy white clouds drifting over us. In under an hour we pulled into the harbor at Zamami, its waters clear and smooth as glass and blue as jewels where it was deep. Green hills rose behind a silent, dusty little town clustered near the harbor. It was just 10:00 in the morning, not a tourist to be seen besides ourselves! “Let’s go find a beach." Walking there along verdant green hillsides, where purple morning glories grew thick in the treetops and black butterflies drifted and a Japanese cuckoo called alluringly, we passed a field of sighing sugar cane. The sun came from behind a cloud and its brilliant tropical light seem to hang in the air. “Oh Jenni, we’ve found heaven!”
The beach was empty. White sand stretched to impossibly blue water. A pile of black rocks, crowned with spiny plants, was a home to schools of tiny silver fish. Jenni and I combed the beach for a few hours, enjoying the variety of shells and corals we usually only see in shops or National Geographic magazines, and then decided the clear water was too much to resist a swim. It was not cold, but the wind on our wet skin was! The water was so salty, it was easy to float and bob on the waves while gazing at the sky, or paddle out deep and marvel at far we could see to the bottom. We waited for the sun to come out from behind a cloud before dashing out to dry in the cool wind.
We wandered back to the town to find a place to eat. We had a little tourist map listing all four restaurants on the island but all were closed except one. It consisted of a little garden (complete with kids' toys left here and there) with an awning and three picnic tables covered in neat red-check cloths, and a pretty middle-aged lady who made by hand the two choices on the menu: a pizza or a pasta dish. Also eating there were a very talkative older Japanese gentleman, a Japanese boy who looked about our age, and two foreign girls I assumed were fellow Americans (it turned out they were exchange students from Lewis and Clark University! Small world). The old man greatly enjoyed himself, keeping the Chardonnay he’d treated us all to flowing and rattling about Zamami’s economic and education problems and how we would all come back here after we graduate to teach English and promote foreign tourism. We laughed and feigned interest (while I suppose the problems faced by the tiny island are real, the old man’s blunt enthusiasm was a little frightening!) The boy Keisuke, who turned out to be a recent graduate from Osaka, kept silent but every so often I’d catch a gleam of his very pretty, honey-colored eyes from across the table. At last we were released from the old gentleman by the impending arrival of our ferry back to Naha. Keisuke walked Jenni and me to the harbor, where we dangled our legs over a warm cement wall and chatted merrily until the ferry came all too soon. Keisuke did have such nice eyes.
On the ferry home we saw our whale! Just his spout and broad barnacle-crusted back, quite close. I don’t think any of the other passengers noticed.
Back in Naha we enjoyed a last sumptuous dinner with Seiko-san and Jin-san. This time the conversation flowed freely, and we were the last customers to leave the restaurant. By the time we said goodnight I felt we’d made new friends. But the next day we had to catch our flight home, and it was farewell to Okinawa—a lovely place I longed to stay and explore longer. Someday, I thought, I will return! Especially to Zamami. Like Nikko, it was a small town of mostly old folks that depends economically on tourism, but visiting in the off-season we found it especially quiet and welcoming, really heaven.
And then I came back to Kyoto, to the TV, to my Facebook page and email on fire with inquiries from close friends and people I haven’t spoken to in years, to frantic texts trying to locate friends. I remembered a saying I’d heard while in Okinawa: nuchidu takara, “life is a treasure.” The Okinawans, who besides natural dangers of island life, experienced the loss of their proud Ryukyu kingdom, and later the devastation of the Battle of Okinawa, would certainly know a thing or two about life’s preciousness! Life is a treasure. It can be snatched from you or your loved ones in a moment. This Tohoku Earthquake and tsunami will probably color the rest of my year of study abroad here in Japan. A lot still remains uncertain, but I am sure of one thing: nuchidu takara!