After a weekend of rest and relaxation – and rugby – I’ve decided that Okinawa is my new vacation destination. What a gorgeous island, perfect for adventuring and chilling, and only an hour and a half flight from Taipei! This was my first time to Japan in three years, though I felt that Okinawa is really nothing like the main island. Also because I only stayed in the Naha area it felt a lot more like America than Japan to me. The small bits I saw were beautiful and welcoming, and have convinced me to return as soon as possible.
My rugby team caught a Friday evening flight from Taipei to Okinawa, and by the time all we girls and guys had made it through customs and onto the bus to a taxi stand it was pretty late. A bunch of us had booked rooms in a small hotel, but when we arrived no one was at the reservation desk. A real comedy of errors ensued as we tried everything to contact the staff and get into our rooms. At one point I googled how to say manager in Japanese, and I thought we were finally getting somewhere when a local fellow jumped up to offer his assistance… by walking over to switch on the massage armchair and spreading his arms wide in welcome. When pulling the fire alarm didn’t result in anyone showing up, we decided we’d exhausted all options, and went to a have a midnight snack and then crash on teammates’ floors in other hotels. Sleepless rugby tours are a thing, and we definitely kept with that tradition.
We got up early the next morning to go play some RUGBY! You know, the reason I was even in Okinawa to begin with. Our matches were slotted to be played on base, and we were meant to be at the gates of Camp Lester at 8am to verify our presence. Our team was down several players in advance because we had been told that ROC and HK passports aren’t allowed on US military property, and those nationalities are about half our team. Those of us hailing from countries acceptable to US military review sailed through the checkpoint, slopped on sunscreen, and then slipped back out for a Starbucks run before we started warming up. We played three matches and watched the guys play their games. It was a total blast – lots of playing time and good competition, and fun times just hanging out. And the weather cooperated 110 percent with gorgeous blue skies and a breeze that took just enough edge off the heat.
We ladies were finished around 2pm, so I left with my friend J who’d come to watch our last match. I was already pretty tired and banged up and super hungry, but I was rejuvenated by the idea of seeing more of Okinawa than just some military camp’s rugby pitch. We headed for food straight away to a restaurant where customers push buttons on a computerized menu, and then sit down to wait for their orders. Japanese innovation for you. After a quick stop at J’s apartment to change, we ended up at the seawall with a bunch of friends, a bag full of snorkel gear and a couple paddleboards. I’d heard Okinawa has some of the best snorkeling in the world, and I was not disappointed. Underwater was a turquoise blue world filled with schools of fish and beautiful coral. I saw a blowfish, sea urchins, sea cucumbers, and some venomous black and white snakes that I swam away from really fast! We snorkeled out to where the reef dropped off into deep water, and my friend gave me some deep diving lessons on equalizing so that my eardrums wouldn’t burst. Now I just need to work on holding my breath.
After we swam back to the seawall, we paddle boarded for a little while just as the sun was going down. J swore that this was far from one of Okinawa’s best sunsets because the clouds had come in, but I thought it was pretty darn gorgeous. We went back to get washed up, as we both had social engagements that night. Guys, the dude has one of THOSE toilets IN HIS HOUSE. One of many future apartment goals of mine, along with incredible views of the city and ocean. But I digress. I hitched a ride over to my rugby social, where I found all the teams who’d played in the tournament that day, including my own Babes who had done some excellent work on their tour outfits. I’ll just say that the tour theme was “jorts” and leave it at that. And this is the only picture of the evening I’m willing to provide… without my jorts.
I’d love to say I woke up early and gung-ho for touring the island the next morning, but it’d been a late social night, and I was both exhausted and in some serious pain. J suggested a chill morning complete with an all-American breakfast. Sold. We went onto Kadena Air Base where he works, and after stopping to get me registered for a pass, I got a whirlwind tour. I was essentially back on American soil for an hour, which was cool and all, but mostly really strange. Here I was in Japan standing in the cereal aisle of an American base supermarket like, what even IS all this stuff? We swung through a gas station and paid in American dollars, and I realized I was getting some serious reverse culture shock vibes while still half a world away from home. Don’t even get me started on the home-cooked bacon and eggs breakfast and the fact that I was heading back to Taipei with graham crackers and Reese’s cups in my bag.
J was on duty that afternoon, so after brunch I said goodbye to the American Village and hopped a bus south to Naha, where I spent a few hours touring the city and visiting Shuri-jo. I ran into a few guys from the squad there, so we headed together directly to the airport to catch our flight. The natural thing was to head for international departures, but none of us had been paying enough attention when we arrived on Friday to remember now that we needed to be at the LCC terminal, since we were flying on the cheap with Peach Air. That required us to walk all the way to domestics and catch a bus to the proper departure area. Fun times.
I’m planning another trip to Okinawa this autumn, and I hope to get farther north, and also do a lot more snorkeling and some hiking and cycling. I didn’t visit any of the war memorials because I didn’t want to rush through, so that’s on the list as well. I want to get more of a feel for Okinawan culture… not that I’d say no to another weekend with a decidedly American feel, either.