The pilot of the flight from Haneda to Naha prepared our half-full plane for the worst – it was possible that we would fly all the way to Okinawa, and he would decide that it was too stormy to land safely, and we would return to the mainland instead! But as it turned out, he was able to land without much fuss, and our adventure in Okinawa had begun.
We picked up our backpacks and went outside the airport – it was overcast and windy, but quite warm and humid. Just in front of us was a line of buses with workers in front of them, each one holding a clipboard. By looking at the little banners hung on the barriers next to this lineup, we easily found our company, ABC Rental Cars. We gave our name to the worker, who found our reservation on her list. We waited a couple of minutes with the other ABC customers, and then our bus pulled up, our backpacks were loaded into the back, and off we went to the rental agency office. Once we arrived, we picked up our car and got a quick lesson in how to use the GPS, just as efficiently as could be.
And before we knew it, off we were, me driving in Naha, Okinawa, Japan! Not difficult at all, as they drive on the left here, same as in New Zealand, and the local drivers are quite courteous – you never hear the sound of a car horn here! We drove to downtown Naha’s main shopping street, Kokusai Dori, and found a place to park.
The parking meters are space age in Naha! They have flashing lights when you leave your car longer than the one hour allowed, so that the parking police can spot cars to ticket quickly. Also, the meters are equipped with sensors to prevent you from staying in one place all day by feeding the meter. Each hour, you’ve got to pull your car out of the space, then park it again, so you can deposit another 200 yen for the next hour. I’m hoping that the meters can’t also detect your license plate and issue you a ticket electronically, because we were about fifteen minutes late returning after the first hour, and then almost 90 minutes late after the second hour!
Okinawa had a long and cosmopolitan history before its being the scene of one of the fiercest battles of World War II, a battle that began when five divisions of American soldiers, supported by massive air and naval strikes, landed on the beautiful Okinawan beaches on April 1, 1945. By the time it was over, after 82 days of deadly fighting, well more than a hundred fifty thousand soldiers and civilians had died, including a sizable number of Japanese civilians and military personnel who committed suicide rather than be captured by the Americans, whom they believed to be barbaric.
Before becoming a part of Japan, Okinawa was a Chinese colony, dating from at least the fourteenth century. Over the years, its native peoples have absorbed not only Chinese, Japanese, and Western influences, but also those of the Philippines, Korea, Southeast Asia, and even Mongolia, due to the island’s prominence in maritime trading. Okinawa has a language, cuisine, culture and relaxed lifestyle distinct from the rest of Japan, some of which has managed to survive the World War II invasion and subsequent occupation by American troops (which are still very much a part of the Okinawan landscape today – there are eighty-eight American military bases remaining, taking up a sizable amount of the island).
With Super Typhoon Guchol beginning to make its presence felt with blustery winds and some rain, the streets of Naha were quiet, with few strollers like us. We found a terrific spot to enjoy lunch, which featured local dishes we had never seen before, including a bitter gourd called “Goya,” and a type of tofu made from peanuts, called “Jimami Tofu.”
After lunch, we wandered around a bit more – Kokusai Dori has the air of a seaside town, with lots of shops selling tourist souvenirs, crafts made on the island, and snack food. Of course, there was even a Starbucks here, and we stopped in for a drink and some people-watching. We finally decided to drive north to the Akachichi guesthouse, ourhome for the next two nights, as the weather was getting a bit stormier.
Kenny and Komaki Ehman are the owners of this beautiful guesthouse in the village of Maeda, on the west coast of Okinawa about an hour north of Naha. Akachichi consists of a building housing two spacious accommodations which the Ehmans built a couple of years ago on the same oversized lot where they live. It is a serene place, simply and beautifully designed, located just a short walk from Moon Beach, one of the prettiest on the Island.
We settled in, seriously considered going out for dinner, but then, as the typhoon intensified a bit more, we decided to stay in for the evening.