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Journal Entry:

Tuesday, April 29, 2003 03:11:53

Asia Pacific 2003: 6 - From Okinawa

Sunday, April 27, 2003

After a big complementary breakfast at the hotel, I checked out. Chang Hyun Jeong, who was the guide the first day, was waiting in the lobby so we loaded my suitcase into the van and headed for Kanghwa Island. It was foggy, but as we progressed it gradually burned off.

The island is accessible by a fairly new bridge, which replaced the ferry. It is quite a large island, one of many in the Yellow Sea off the coast at Incheon. There is a tremendous amount of history here, as this was the point chosen by Britain, France, the US and Japan to attack Korea at various times when they were trying to force it to open for trade. The museum at the first fort we visited depicted some of the naval and land battles fought in the channels between the various islands. As we drove around the coast we visited other old forts, and could also see some of the more modern defense emplacements. The island is not far from North Korea.

We climbed a steep hill to visit a large Buddhist Temple complex. It was decked out with hundreds of colourful lanterns in honour of Buddha's birthday. This is a major fund raising event for the monks. A message with the name and wish of the donor is attached to each lantern purchased from the temple. The closer your lantern is to the main shrine, the higher the price, and apparently the better the chance of your desires being fulfilled. Lanterns one's attached to the ceiling inside the temple cost top dollar - or in this case, top won.

While we were hiking up the mountain, the driver was off locating a good restaurant for lunch. It turned out to be an excellent choice. The three of us put a sizable dent into the 16 different dishes of Korean food which were served, which we chased down with Korean rice wine (like cold sake) and beer. Once again I was at a loss as to what much of it was, but Hyun Jeong was able to explain. It was a very tasty feed!

After lunch more mountain climbing was scheduled, this time up a high mountain where the temple platform from which the god that created Korea is said to have worked. It was a beautiful hike, following a small, clear river through the forest.

By 3 PM the driver was anxious to head for the airport, and with good reason. In the heavy Sunday night traffic it took 2 ½ hours to get there. We said our goodbyes and I headed for my flight without a hitch.

There were a couple of things that were a bit different at the airport. One was that everyone had to take off their shoes to put them through the X-Ray machine, but slippers were provided. The other was that each of the urinals in the mens toilet had a carpet under it, and on the carpet were the outline of feet. An interesting way of getting people to step forward so they don't pee on the floor!

The hour and fifty minute Asiana Airlines flight to Okinawa was on a half full Boeing 737-400. I had the bulkhead row to myself, so was very comfortable. There were very few people wearing masks. Quite a few passengers looked like US military personnel. A tasty Korean dinner was served up en route.

The airport looked fairly large from the plane, but we disembarked down a ramp to a bus, and then to the terminal. We were obviously the only international flight in, so I guess all the ramps are for domestic Japanese flights. There were no services in the airport, so I could not change money. The health officials asked where we came from, and when I answered Seoul, Korea, they just waved me through. People who said Hong Kong or China had to fill out forms.

There is nothing here written in English - it is all Japanese characters. The fellow in charge of the taxi area was able to read the name of my hotel and instructed a taxi driver as to where I was going. Traffic moves on the left side of the road. I was amazed that from the time we left the airport we were in urban area - through miles of city. I'd expected a laid back, more lightly populated place.

The desk staff at the hotel each spoke a few words of English, enough to get me checked in and to my room. I was given a package of discount coupons, but have no idea what they are for - they are in Japanese. Two of them had a picture of a pint of beer on them, though, so I kept them. The idea of discounted beer appeals to me!

It seems to be my day for toilets, but I have to tell you about the one in the room. It has an armrest on one side, with buttons and controls built into it. I puzzled over it for a bit, then when I got my gear off to shower I tested it. When someone sits on the seat there is a whoosh of water in the bowl as cold water is purged from the system. There is a button on the armrest which when pushed causes a jet of warm water to shoot onto the user's backside. A dial adjusts the focus of the stream fore and aft for precise aiming. Another button turns the device off - something I found out when I stood up and an arc of water shot out of the toilet and into the hallway. The green button is off! It's an intriguing device, but somehow I don't think a quick rinse is going to replace toilet paper!

Having nothing planned for the next morning, I took my time getting up, then got a lot of little things done that had been put off due to the busy schedule in Seoul. Eventually I went down to the travel office in the lobby to ask about tours, but no one spoke a word of English. Finally the front desk staff put me onto the concierge, who spoke a little English. She checked but found there was not a single tour offered in Okinawa that is not in Japanese. She did find a taxi driver who spoke some English after a number of phone calls, so he is laid on to pick me up tomorrow morning at 9 AM. Even renting a car here would be tricky, as all directional and road signs are in Japanese characters. This is true immersion!

The concierge gave me a government travel publication showing sights to see, so I'll be able to put an itinerary together. She also gave me an island map and a town map for Naha and Shuri where the hotel is located, pointing out a bank where I could change money. As tomorrow is a holiday that will have to be done today.

After a huge buffet brunch I headed out on foot in bright sunshine and warm weather, having been able to shed my coat for shirtsleeves in this wonderfully warm climate. The local map was great, even showing the shortcut foot paths which wound between houses. The bank was a mile or so away, but after the near vertical first part of the walk I joined the main road on relatively level ground and it was easy going. If it wasn't for the Japanese signs it could have been the high street in any English small town. Everyone was friendly and very helpful - even people walking by would often smile and nod. The bank was quite straightforward, except that the yen dropped three against the US dollar in anticipation of my need to change money! I'm glad I prepaid the main part of the Japanese trip before leaving when the yen was stronger!

I passed a pretty little lake along the road, and a sign saying Shurijo Castle Park. That sounded intriguing, so I found my way there to discover a massive castle, built for the king who headed the Ryukyuan Kingdom, a dynasty that lasted 500 years It has been designated a world heritage site. It covered a lot of ground on the top of the highest hill in the area, so the views were worth the trek alone.

The Ryukyu Islands, of which Okinawa is one, aligned themselves with China in 1372, and became a major trading country throughout SE Asia, their ships going as far as Indonesia. In 1609 the Japanese invaded, but satisfied themselves with an alliance allowing the Ryukyuan Kingdom to continue their profitable alliance with China at the same time. That came to an end in 1871 when Japan forcibly made the islands a prefecture, and the kingdom came to an end.

Not too much changed as far as the way of life on the islands went, and the city did not change very much either, remaining in appearance as it had in medieval times until 1945 when it was taken by the US in a fierce battle. During the battle the castles and city were totally destroyed, but the historic buildings have been restored to their original form. One of the many war memorials here is huge. It lists on black marble tablets the names of everyone killed in the battle that could be identified, military or civilian, regardless of nationality. There are more than 230,000 names.

I walked a different route on my way back to the hotel, and came across another world heritage site, the location of the tombs of the kings. This was built in 1501 and survived the war as it is built into a cliff face. There were three stone buildings in an enclosed area, two for the resting places of the royal family, and the central one for cleaning the bones before they were entombed. Both of the world heritage sites had brochures in English, and all explanation signs were in English as well a Japanese. Throughout the neighbourhood there are many white markers, also bilingual, showing the location of houses of various royal family members and castle officials from the imperial days.

What was to be a day of rest turned out to be very interesting. My explorations took about four hours, and several miles of walking. Getting to the bar at the top of the hotel to use my beer coupons was considered a justly earned reward!

The Ryukyu Archipelago consists of 41 islands inhabited by 1,283,000 people. Okinawa is the largest of the group at 2,267 sq. km. The average temperature is 22.4 degrees C, which suits me just fine! It is a heavy Japanese tourist destination, with 4,126,500 visitors last year. There are several US military bases on the island but I've seen no sign of the troops so far. As a matter of fact, the last person I saw who was not Asian was at the airport when I arrived.

Friday, April 29, 2005

I went down for breakfast, but it was slow getting to me. I drank the juice and ate the toast, but the rest was just coming out of the kitchen as I was asking for my bill at the desk, so they said to forget the bill even though I was willing to pay.

The driver spoke some English, having worked on one of the US bases, but was far from fluent. I was able to get most questions across to him, though. His method of driving drove me nuts! I'm sure he trained on a peddle car! He pumped the gas continually, causing the car to move ahead in a series of jerks. If there had been music I'd have thought he was tapping his foot in time to it, but there was no music. I hoped that when we hit the freeway he'd be a bit steadier, but no such luck. He was still pumping away at 90 kph. This continued without let up all day.

We first went to the wartime headquarters of the Imperial Japanese Navy, a maze of tunnels and rooms built well underground. It is still as it was then, right down to the pit marks in the wall from those who chose to use a hand grenade to commit suicide. We then headed north on the 120 km. long island.

The south end still has the names of many towns and villages, but they have overflowed into each other making one massive urban area. In the north there are still unpopulated forest and mountains, small towns and beautiful beaches. Being a holiday, many people were scuba diving or swimming, but there was no where near the crowds I'd expected. The water is quite warm and very clear.

The driver initially took us to a super deluxe hotel where he said we would have lunch, but I said no way - I wanted something traditionally Okinawan, so we headed for a small place in Nago City that was packed with locals. He ordered us up Okinawa noodles, which came with meat and broth and were delicious. The portion was huge, but I was hungry enough to get through it. While we ate, the car was left running outside with the air conditioning on. It was never turned off once during the whole tour, just locked up and left running whenever we were out of it.

We covered a lot of the island, and also four connecting islands which have causeways and bridges to them. There are some beautiful spots here, and a lot to see. We didn't arrive back at the hotel until 5 PM.

Two of my major impressions on Okinawa are of golf driving ranges with enormously high nets to accommodate the multi-level platforms, and vending machines. They are everywhere, selling cold drinks and cigarettes. Some are huge, with up to 50 selections of cold drinks. Most are located outside - even at remote bus stops, so crime cannot be too big a problem. A hot item in cold drinks, which I also saw in Korea, is Pocari Sweat. I don't know what type of beast a Pocari is, but the thought of drinking any kind of sweat doesn't exactly get the saliva flowing! That one would be tough to crack the North American market with!

Tomorrow morning it will be necessary to leave the hotel by 8:30 AM for my flight to Osaka, Japan, so I'm hoping I'll be able to get this away tonight before I go.