Monday, 9 March 2015

down and out in okinawa

We've been cycling a couple of hours when a sheet of rain hits us full on.  We have seen it coming and typically there's nowhere to escape from it. Except...
"Gayle, you've just passed a bus shelter!!"
"Back there, on the corner".
We are going up a steep hill, and we quickly turn around and coast down to the corner to the bus stop.
"That's not a bus stop, John."  Gayle is, as ever, correct.  It's a brick building housing a water pump and there's no room for us.  We merrily turn around and plod up the hill.  At the top we stop under a tree for a breather.  A group of about ten cyclists appear behind us, riding an assortment of bikes.  They are on the pavement.  
"Where are you going?" a woman asks.
"Err, we don't know" we reply honestly.  The woman laughs and shouts to her friends "They don't know where they're going!"  We catch up with them at a 'pagoda' next to a long sea bridge to an outer island.  They are from Hong Kong, on a week's cycling holiday.  Daytrippers.  One of the men weighs up our bikes. "Heavy?"
"About 50kg?"
"Slow on the hills, eh?"
He nods and smiles knowingly.  There's almost a look of pity on his face.  But he doesn't know we topped out at 4,655 metres on this journey and I really want to tell him. Oh well.  They head off into the rain and we think about camping early.  There's a track rolling up the hill opposite towards some pine trees and a radio mast.  We can get water at the Italian restaurant down the road.  We find a grassy path up on the hill and pitch the tent as soon as the rain has stopped.  We have a room with a view.
sadly not the season
The top tourist draw on Okinawa is the aquarium.  It's the second largest in the world.  Gayle noticed that the entry ticket is cheaper after 4pm so we turn up with a group of others at the appointed hour and spend a wonderful two hours or so wandering through the displays.  The Main Show is the big tank.  Before we reach it I notice a small theatre with seats so I go in to have a sit down.  In front of me is a large screen and there are a few big fish and mantas swimming around.  I'm looking into the big tank.  There's no-one else here.  I call Gayle in and we stand and watch as the fish and rays swim past.  And then all of a sudden the window is filled with one huge shape. A huge wide mouth and fins.  A whale shark - the biggest fish in the world.  Wow.  We could reach out and touch it, but for the two-feet thick glass between us.
Down below you get a full view of the tank through an absolutely enormous window about three storeys high.  There are three whale sharks and this enormous tank suddenly seems a bit small for such large creatures.

the manta is massive...
The aquarium is set in large landscaped grounds with lots of 'pagodas', a beach, toilets and rest areas with tables and chairs and wi-fi.  There are flower gardens and a large recreation of a typical Okinawan village with examples of the different homesteads over the last two hundred years, based on constructions still surviving.  Okinawa is the largest of the Ryukyu Islands which existed as an independent set of kingdoms until the Japanese moved in in the 1880s.  The villages were built according to rules on social status and the geography.  We enjoy pottering around and, as we are in no rush to go anywhere, move in for a few days.  Except that even the most artful dosser would be hard-pressed to get around all the security.  So, we opt to camp in nearby locations each night and return during the day.  The nights are wet and windy but the days are generally dry, if grey.  It is beginning to dawn on us that Japan might just have weather that most resembles that of the UK. there wi-fi?
We potter about and do exciting things like catching up on 'computer tasks', a spot of laundry and looking at routes on the mainland.  We also need to research ahead for what to do after we have visited Korea.  Cycling around the back roads we come across quite a few of the old one-storey traditional wooden houses still lived in.  These are lovely and the style has been copied, sometimes successfully, in concrete but you can't beat the originals.  It seems remarkable that there are still any standing - so much would have been destroyed in the war.  
a safe arbor
We camp in a 'pagoda' surrounded by tidy allotments for a couple of nights and are awoken each morning by farmers coming at first light to tend their crops.  In the evenings we are lulled to sleep by the omnipresent tannoy announcements in each village.  No matter where we camp, we always hear the dong-dong-a-ling.  It feels a bit surreal at times - as if you can never escape.  There are signs all over Okinawa telling you your current altitude above sea level with advice on what to do if there's an earthquake and/or tsunami warning.  At 8 metres you have to clear out.  At 76 metres you are probably okay - the tsunami which took out the Fukushima nuclear plant was 40 metres high.  Sleeping on the beach suddenly seems like a risky business rather than a romantic activity.

23 metres - our last camp in Okinawa

Monday, 2 March 2015


We complete our circuit of Okinawa with a ride around the quieter northern end, where the forest still dominates the island and small villages are dotted along the coast.  We take the hilly eastern coastal road passing a few reservoirs where we can camp.  The grounds are beautifully manicured, there are toilets and picnic tables under roofs.  We start calling these 'pagodas' and welcome them when the rain draws in.  The sunshine becomes rarer and heavy grey clouds roll overhead every morning and evening.  Thankfully most of the rain comes in the night and we only have one really wet day on the bikes.  On this day we pass a man walking along the road with a trolley and an umbrella.  We stop to chat and he tells us he's walking around the island.  Judging by his speed, he'll do it before us.  We seek shelter under eaves of shops, in bus shelters or 'pagodas' to escape the heavier downpours.
local wildlife

One morning we are awoken by the 'Stars and Stripes'.  We thought we had camped in the middle of nowhere but not far along the road we come to a Marines "Jungle Training Camp".  I hope the gnats bite the marines like they bit us.  A bit further along the road are posters and a small tent with protesters against a helipad being built in the area. 
Finally we reach the northern cape and look forward to a strong wind blowing on our backs down the flat western coast road.  We've seen some locals on roadbikes riding in the hills and now we're on the low road by the sea we come across young Japanese touring in groups, usually with just a couple of panniers each.  We joke about how they probably won't get 10 metres above sea level.  Erik had warned us about the hills in the north - he had ridden the Tour of Okinawa last November with two friends and eventually they were disqualified because they were too slow - the hills beat them.  We are ready for a break and we think we have found the right place in the village of Hentona.  It's small and peaceful and there's a little patch of unused ground just by the tennis courts that looks perfect for camping on.  When the tide is in we can even hear the waves on the beach from our bed.

We hang out in Hentona for a few days.  One day there's glorious sunshine - perfect for the beach.  And then the clouds return and each night there is rain.  We are in limbo.  I don't mean we are listening to calypso music and practising how to dance under a low bamboo pole without putting our hands on the floor.  We're waiting for spring before heading to mainland Japan and we're hoping for more settled (i.e. sunny) weather so that we can visit some of the smaller islands along the way.  We resolve our internet access issue by sitting close to the nearby posh hotel on the beach.  There's a glass church (for show weddings, rather than worship) with a socket on its gatepost.  Yeah - internet and electricity.  Gayle is thus sitting on the pavement uploading photos while I am by the bikes in the carpark, sitting on the ground to sew a patch on one of my panniers.  The morning has been wet and windy but there's the promise of it clearing.  A car pulls up and a young man in a suit gets out and starts gathering things together, samples or gifts, for someone in the hotel.  I guess he's a salesman.  He tidies his hair, puts on his jacket and then spots me across the carpark.  For a very brief moment our eyes meet and I wonder if he's thinking what I'm thinking.  There he is, young and eager, in a sharp suit, hungry for success, and here I am, with a week-old beard, nowhere to go and sprawled on the ground. Poor sod.

We are awoken each day by the sound of tennis balls being thwacked around.  A group of women are clearly on a 'tennis' holiday with training each day.  But when Gayle starts chatting with the diminutive trainer she tells her that they are playing Japanese 'soft' tennis.  The ball is different, softer.  Up to that point we'd been really impressed by the standard of tennis.  Just next door is a 'pitch 'n' putt' course.  It's busy most days with pensioners playing a round of 18 holes.  There's a nice 'pagoda' here where we usually cook our tea in the evenings and a couple of times we meet Hiroshi, an old fella who speaks a little English.  He used to work for the Americans.  The second time we meet he invites me to have a go at the golf.  They only use one club - a bit like a wooden no. 2  I parr the first hole and eagle the next.  Hiroshi looks impressed.  But the ball is bigger than normal and the hole is the size of a dinner plate.  It seems that all the sports are made easier for the participants.  Before he leaves, Hiroshi fetches us a bag of chocolate bars from his car. 
the dining room
Having got into the lazy habit of eating instant noodles in the evenings in China and Taiwan, we are now happy to be cooking proper meals again in the evenings.  There are plenty of good supermarkets and having sussed out what ingredients we can find cheaply we now have the opportunity to be more creative.  So why are we eating so much spaghetti?