Every year, the second-year students at my school take a trip to Okinawa, and I’m always envious (although I don’t envy the teachers who have to look after the 280 students!).  I finally made it there during spring vacation this year and I had ten days to explore the main island of Okinawa.  Not only that, but my friend from Italy was visiting Japan, and although our original plan was to visit Ishigaki Island in the south of the archipelago, near Taiwan, flights were quite expensive, so we decided to fly to Naha on the main island and then get a ferry to Zamami island to the west.

We were both fans of Megane, a Japanese film about idyllic Okinawan life (set on the island Yoron, technically part of Kagoshima prefecture).  We definitely felt like we were in that film on Zamami Island.  We took a two-hour ferry (though there is a faster one that only takes 50 minutes) and stayed for two nights at Nakayamagwa Guest House, and even though the weather was really windy or rainy for most of our stay, we were blessed with beautiful sunny weather and a gorgeous view for our first morning there.IMG_4452IMG_4437We explored the tiny island, searching for shells and dry coral on the beaches.  Time was different there.
IMG_4454Zamami is famous as a place for whale watching from January to March when Humpbacked whales come down from the Arctic to mate or give birth.  It was at the end of April so the season was ending, but we were lucky that when we took the whale watching boat tour, there was a mother and her calf who were then joined by a male escort.  Calves can’t hold their breaths for as long as adults so it meant that the whales had to stay close to the surface.  I couldn’t take good pictures, but we were close enough to see the whales without getting too close for their comfort.  Although by the end of the two-hour tour I wasn’t feeling very comfortable, so I would recommend taking something for sea-sickness, because the waves got pretty choppy.  I was reading Moby Dick at the time, which made an interesting prediction about Japan – “If that double bolted land, Japan, is ever to become hospitable, it is the whale-ship alone to whom the credit will be due; for already she is on the threshold” (Chapter 24, “The Advocate”).  A few years later when Commodore Perry arrived in Edo, he demanded that American vessels (whale and merchant ships) be allowed to access supplies at some Japanese ports.

IMG_7622IMG_7624We also got to go snorkeling, despite the strong wind, and the sea was just amazing.  The water was a little too cold for swimming so we wore wetsuits which were made of a kind of foam that also added to our buoyancy, and it was incredible to float on the waves, looking down at the coral and fish below.  When we went to the famous Churaumi Aquarium on Okinawa Island, I saw many of the fish I saw in the sea at Zamami.IMG_4448IMG_7726IMG_7729When my friend flew back home, I stayed on the main island for a few more days with friends from Ishikawa, and we rented a car so that we could enjoy the spectacular scenery in the north and the historical war monuments in the south.  We went to Ryukyu Mura in the centre of the island, a tourist village that is dedicated to the culture of the Okinawan islands before they became part of Japan.  It was a strange mix of lush vegetation, hidden speakers playing music, reconstructed traditional houses brought from all over the island, performances and craft workshops.IMG_7693IMG_7709IMG_7707IMG_7720I drank some sugar cane juice and tried my hand at bingata dying.  The pattern was  surrounded by a dye-resistant substance and painted over.  It was wrapped in newspaper and after about a week, when I was back in Kanazawa, I washed it to reveal the dyed image.  The patterns used in bingata are very different from Japanese ones, and definitely show a southeast asian influence.IMG_7702IMG_7704IMG_4547It was great to be able to travel around the island by car, it gave us a lot more flexibility and freedom, because the public transport system is not the best outside of Naha.  The island of Okinawa is quite long, so we drove up north one day, visiting the Ryukyu Village, the Aquarium and passing vast stretches of US military bases, and we stayed at a shack-like hostel on Kouri Island, that can be reached by bridge.IMG_4483The next day we drove up Cape Hedo along beautiful coastal scenery, to the northernmost tip of the island, and did some light hiking at Dai Sekirinzan that had some really interesting karst rock formations.IMG_7742IMG_7776The next day we explored the south of the island that was just as beautiful, but very sad.  In the Battle of Okinawa, when the US army arrived at Zamami (one of the Kerama islands) to attack Okinawa, the Japanese army pulled out of Naha in order to wage guerrilla warfare from the caves in the south.  The Japanese army in Okinawa were under orders to keep the US troops bogged down on the island and away from the mainland.  Not only were they prepared to fight down to the last soldier, but they were prepared to sacrifice as many civilian lives as they thought necessary.  


The pictures below are from the Peace Memorial Park which commemorates the people who died, and there’s a museum, which we unfortunately didn’t get to visit because we wanted to go to the Himeyuri Monument and Museum before it closed.  It told the sad story of 240 students and teachers of a high school, who were mobilized to act as nurses for the Japanese troops during the battle.  The museum explained the nationalistic education the students had received until then, their wish to serve the army and their false expectation to be able to continue their studies.  In the Battle of Okinawa, there was no defined battlefield and no distinction between civilians and soldiers.  The girls lived in caves with wounded and dead soldiers, performing surgeries and fetching water as war was waged around them.  Near the end of the battle, they were dismissed by the Japanese army, many were given grenades and told to leave the caves and fend for themselves.  104 survived.



Kibi Plain, Okayama

I was in Okayama on a Monday when all the museums are closed, so I took a 10 minute train ride to Bizen-Ichinomiya Station and rented a bicycle to go exploring the Kibi Plain. This was the site of the Kibi Kingdom which was very powerful in 4th century Japan, with its strategic position between different tribes in Japan and its connections with kingdoms in Korea.  It was a really nice cycle through rice fields, passing temples, historic sites, and sites connected to the legend of Prince Kibitsuhiko, who was the basis of the even more legendary Momotaro, a hero born of a peach who battled ogres and enjoyed kibi dango, sweet millet dumplings.IMG_7505IMG_7506IMG_7509IMG_7510My first stop was Kibitsuhiko Shrine where the prince prayed before going to fight the ogres.  The omikuji fortunes at this shrine are in the form of peaches, in honour of Momotaro, the Peach Boy.IMG_7513It started out as a dull day, and the rice fields looked very desolate with their burnt stalks.IMG_7516


Kibitsu Shrine is where the prince battled the ogre, and it has really long covered corridors which look out on lovely little gardens where the plum trees were blossoming.IMG_7522IMG_7525What I was really excited to see on this trip were the kofun, keyhole-shaped burial mounds dating from between the 3rd and the 7th centuries A.D. that gave their name to that period.  I don’t know much about them but they remind me of the megalithic monuments in Ireland, although of course, the ones in Ireland are thousands of years older.  The mounds were build to house tombs of the Kibi royalty, who were interred in stone coffins in the round part of the mound, with swords, mirrors and other accessories.


These mounds are really noticeable in Japan because of the lack of hills.  It’s either flatland or mountains.  I liked Tsukuriyama because of its rural setting, dividing a tiny hamlet from rice fields.  The only tourist facility was a box where you could take a photocopied map of the mound.  There was a shrine built over where the grave would be on the circular part, and then two rows of trees going down to the squared-off end.  The sun came out and cast a golden light over the rest of the afternoon.


After Tsukuriyama Kofun, I went to Komori Kofun where a tunnel had been excavated into the burial chamber so you could see the stone coffin through a gate.


The last notable place on the trail was the Bitchu-Kokubunji Temple with its five-storey pagoda, and the yellow fields of rapeseed made a nice change from the burnt rice paddies. It being a Monday in February, I was the only tourist exploring the plains, the only other people I saw were working in the fields or walking their dogs.  My pink rental mama-chari bicycle served me well and I dropped it off at another bicycle rental shop at Soja, from where I got the train back to Okayama city.