Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Sayonara Okinawa

Sayonara Okinawa

(I am writing this entry after having returned home. The actual day of these events was April 9th 2007.)

Art gets lucky and is able to change our frequent flyer tickets home. He will return to L.A. on Tuesday and John and I will return to San Francisco on Friday and drive to L.A. the following afternoon. Mizuho’s memorial service will not be until April 16th. We have only today to pack everything up, clean our apartment, return our cell phones, disconnect the internet and find storage for our bicycles. We work at light speed and with the help of Takaaki and Tadashi, all is accomplished except for the final cleaning which I will be responsible for in the morning after all is removed from the apartment.

I manage to escape mid afternoon for a last foray along Kokusai Street. The Schulman’s have been on their own today, but I still hope to show them the Tsuboyu pottery district and John has been coveting a trick battery operated car in the Naha Main Place Mall. Time is of the essence and since our bicycles have been whisked away by Takaaki, John and I catch a taxi up to Shintoshin so that he can buy the coveted toy car. We virtually jog from Shintoshin to Heiwadori street to meet the Schulman’s in the covered market. After finding an exchange bank for Michael, I guide them along Heiwadori market, our goal being the historic Tsuboyu district but there are many distractions as we progress along this bustling arcade. Helene wants to find a lounging kimono for Michael, Annya is hungry and I want to find a few final gifts to take home. I expected to have a final week in Naha after our island get away and had planned to do all my shopping at that time. Michael bashfully models a striped cotton kimono, but it looks good on him and Helene snatches it up. I steer Annya to a small kiosk and order her a crepe with an egg cracked on top. Michael orders one too and they sit together on tiny stools and consume the minimal fare. The crepes take the edges off their hunger and we proceed to the end of Heiwadori and stroll into the sunlight of the Tsuboyu district.

Late afternoon sunlight drenches this picturesque area of cobbled streets with stone walls and historic buildings. We sip iced coffee together at an outside café, our table tucked under a huge Aka tree alongside a crumbled hillside pottery kiln and pay $5.00 each for our icy drinks. Our impending departure has been sudden and I am not ready to take leave of all of this but I console myself with the knowledge that I will be back again soon. My melancholy is replaced with the rush of the caffeine and the 6 of us take leave of our table beneath the tree to continue our wanderings. I am familiar with the narrow side streets now lush with spring foliage clinging into the crevices of the ancient stone walls. We walk along the pedestrian path, with beautiful and historic houses secreted behind stone walls, gates and spirit walls. One of these properties has been converted into a pottery studio where guests can make their own Shisa’s or pottery bowls. The grounds of this pottery studio are beautiful, the workshop opening out into the front garden. A few students are working on projects and Michael wishes that Annya had time to make her own special guardian Shisa and I wish the same for John. I am not sure there will be another chance for Annya, but I know that John and I will be back. We continue along our side loop reconnecting with the main street of this district. Pottery shops line the street, many with adjoining studios. At our favorite Shisa shop, John and I part from our friends and take a taxi back to our now empty apartment.

Our landlord comes by with a gift of cake for us and two tea cups. Narumi has left us flowers. Shigeru stops by briefly to hand Art a formal decorated envelope of money for him to take to Mizuho’s wife, Satomi. Later in the evening, Tadashi and Harruyo give Art similar envelopes to carry back to Satomi. Everyone is so very kind.

Tonight’s impromptu farewell dinner is at Kai Restaurant in Shintoshin. The party is small, consisting of just us, the Schulman’s, Takaaki, Tadashi and his mother Harruyo. We are seated in a private room away from the activity of the central kitchen and dining room and I wish for the distraction and energy the main room has offered us in the past. There is a solemn finality about tonight’s gathering and I am sad to be leaving in such haste. Harruyo has dressed simply and elegantly and I note how beautiful and composed she is. Tonight’s meal is disappointing, or perhaps I am just disappointed to be returning home under these hurried and sad circumstances.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

A Change in Plans

A Change in Plans

(I am writing this entry after having returned home. The actual date of these events was Sunday, April 8th, 2007.)

We need to return home and change our flights, but it is Sunday and the American Airlines rewards desk won’t be open until Monday. With much on our minds we decide it’s best to continue showing our California friends the sights of Okinawa. After meeting the Schulman’s’ for breakfast at their hotel, Art rents a mini van inside the D.F.S. shopping mall we head north to the Yomitan district. Art drives and Michael navigates using both the G.P.S system and a map. We all remind Art to make wide rights and tight lefts and Art flips on the windshield wipers almost every time that he reaches for the turn signal. Our first stop is the 15th century Zakimi Gusku. The ruins are high on a hill and it’s a gradual walk along a defined pathway up to the fortresses’ stone archway and impressive walls. The surrounding grounds approaching the castle are beautifully manicured and the overcast and misty day adds atmosphere to our excursion. John attempts to scale the castle’s walls finding hand grips and foot holds in the uneven stones, but his attempts are thwarted by Art who reminds him that this is a historical treasure and John is grounded to the pathways. Delicate succulents, vines and moss grow in the cracks between the ancient stones and Helene, an avid gardener seems to enjoy every detail. Rain spits upon us as we return to our rented van and we continue on to the pottery district.

Our family has visited the Yomitan pottery district on several occasions, but never on a rainy Sunday afternoon. There are many ceramic and glass studios clustered together in this district and one can walk from one workshop and showroom to another. Art parks the car at one end of the district and I lead the way into one of our favorite glass studios past the kilns and glass blowing area where just one man is working on this overcast Sunday. Happily this showroom is open and all of us enjoy perusing the wares. We continue our walk through this rural artist’s district popping into many of the small showrooms and finding a few treasures to buy. Central to this area is a giant traditional hillside kiln stretching some 150 feet up a hillside. It is a huge wood fueled kiln with an undulating red tile roof and adobe walls. Although I have never visited during a firing I imagine the kiln looking like a fire breathing dragon belching smoke and fire into the night. After a couple of hours wandering the workshops and galleries we stop for a late lunch at a soba restaurant adjoining one of the pottery shops. Our lunch teshakus are mindfully presented and Michael and Helene purchase two ceramic bowls similar to the ones that our soba was served in. The rain is more persistent as we leave but in spite of the weather we visit the tomb of Sho Hashi, the first king of the Ryukyu Kingdom. We have visited here before with Takaaki and Art manages to navigate the correct turns and drive the several kilometers along a muddy road to find the marker where the short hike to the tomb begins. The trail is slippery from the rain and we slip and sink into the sticky mud holding tight to branches and vine tendrils in order to steady ourselves and avoid a bottom plant. The jungle is deliciously wet and the narrow path slick with the red clay mud and decomposed leaves. When we arrive at the tomb, I am awed again by a monumental aka tree; vines and tendrils cascading down forming a natural cathedral above this ancient resting place. It is a serene and magical setting for a burial ground.

Art hopes that before returning our rental van he will be able to drive to the airport and change all of our tickets to return home. The afternoon traffic is terrible and the 20 mile drive back to Naha takes us nearly two hours and there isn’t time to drive to the airport before our dinner reservations with Takaaki and his cousin at our favorite restaurant, Ania.

Takaaki picks the 6 of us up at the Shulman’s hotel in Shintoshin and John and Annya climb into the back of his mini van for the short drive to the restaurant. It occurs to me that in California I would not allow this mode of transportation without seatbelts and I know that it is not the preferred mode here. Nevertheless the 5 adults buckle into seat belts and our most precious children are allowed to bounce around freely in the back.

We arrive at Ania shortly, tucked away in a residential district. We climb the stairs to this lovely restaurant, are greeted formally but warmly and place our shoes into the cubby holes provided. We are ushered to an annexed room at the front of the restaurant with a long low table to accommodate our large party. Takaaki’s 16 year old cousin and her parents are awaiting our arrival and we all nod and bow and slip into seats along the table with a recessed well for our feet. Initially everyone is somewhat shy and nervous, but Annya, 13, sits beside Lisa and the girls awkwardly converse, giggle and in the end exchange e-mails. Takaaki, always charming, orders two each of many dishes. The plates, in pairs, are brought ceremoniously to our table and set mid way between both ends. Art and John sit at the center of the table and I sit at the end with Michael, Helene and Annya. Our dishes empty much quicker that those on the opposite end where Lisa sits with her parents and Takaaki. Much of the conversation surrounds Mizuho, the state of his family and our plans to return home. We visit with Lisa and her parents and learn that Lisa would like to come to California and we invite her to visit this summer with Takaaki. Lisa speaks English beautifully and it seems natural that she would stay with the Schulman’s with Annya as company. Takaaki will stay with us and he tells us that he wants to visit the Grand Canyon and to see a ball game. We have encouraged him to visit us for years and it all seems more likely now that his niece wants to come as well.

The dinner here is excellent as always and we say goodbye outside of the restaurant; the Shulman’s catching one taxi home and we another. We are emotionally exhausted and overwhelmed with logistics of changing our itinerary home, packing and moving out of our apartment and saying our goodbyes to all prematurely.

Saturday, April 21, 2007



I wake to a troubling e-mail this morning telling us that Mizuho, Art’s eldest brother is sick, but not to worry too much. We are taking the Shulmans to Shurijo Castle this morning and we meet them at their hotel as planned. The logistics of sightseeing with two families is proving challenging and we split into two taxis and are dropped off at the bottom of the wide promenade leading up to the castle entrance. Art is a knowledgeable guide and Annya suggests that we get him a flag to hold up for us all to follow. There are many large groups of Japanese tourists following obediently behind their flag waving guides. Helene’s foot is troubling her, making walking painful and our progress slow but we are able to rent a wheelchair when we reach the ticket kiosk at the castle entrance. The weather is overcast and it is drizzling ever so lightly. A small stage is set in the center of the castle courtyard and a traditional Okinawan Dance performance will start shortly. While Art and Michael buy tickets to tour the interior of the castle, I lead Helene to a chair in the courtyard and indicate to her to save the two adjacent seats. I spot another block of three seats elsewhere and hold these for Art and John. I’ve seen this dance performance before, but it’s good to be seated under a canvas tent, off of our feet and out of the rain. From the expression on Michael’s face, I surmise he is enjoying himself. It’s a 40 minute performance and half way into it, Helene leaves and enters a small information and rest center behind the stage. Art follows shortly and when I enter I find Helene reclined on a raised tatami bench, legs elevated and a dosen, formally dressed in a kimono serving her tea and offering her a pillow.

Before entering the formal rooms of Shurijo Castle, Art steps aside to call home and John and I hang back to wait with him. I watch Michael push a smiling Helene, on her rolling throne past the ticket gate into the inner courtyard. Within a minute, Art is connected to Mizuho’s daughter and his expression changes. I immediately know that the situation is serious. The phone call lasts only a few minutes, and I know by the tears in my husband’s eyes that his brother has died. Art disconnects and leans heavily into the stones of the castle walls.

Wondering where we are, Michael calls Art’s cell phone and we are brought back to the present. Art explains the situation, tells them to go on without us, and the three of us walk in a daze to a castle view point overlooking all of Naha. The drizzle has turned to rain and for a long time we stand in the shelter of a stone archway, gazing over the gray city and struggling to make sense of the news we have just received.

It’s long past lunch; we need to eat and we manage to reconnect with our friends. We walk with them through the lush, rain drenched park below the castle, to a traditional Okinawan restaurant that the three of us discovered on Valentines Day. The restaurant is in an old house, the veranda set around a traditional Japanese garden. Shojo screens open out onto the garden and we are seated in a tatami room on low stools around a rough hewn table. The menu is in kanji and Art does his best to translate the few simple options and orders for all of us. Annya, still sick, wants only miso soup and to return to their hotel. We return to our apartment, emotionally exhausted and with much to figure out.

We connect with our friends on Kokusai Street for a late dinner at “Sam’s Anchor Inn” restaurant. Art will be retuning home via L.A. as soon as possible and we promised John a farewell dinner here before returning home. There are many Sam’s Restaurants in greater Naha; each with a slightly different theme but the common dining experience is watching your chefs skillfully slice, prepare and cook your food on a center grill inset into your table. The six of us are seated in captain chairs around our grill table and our experience begins as our waitress, dressed in a sailor outfit presents us with over sized glossy drink menus. For the first time in 2 ½ months I peruse a menu with accurate English translations and pictures of exotic fruit and liquor cocktails’ served in curvaceous glasses, topped with skewered fruits and paper “umbrellas”. John orders a virgin cocktail which is delivered in a “take home” ceramic shark mug, a red plastic mermaid dangling from its jaws. Our shared flask of awamori is presented in a faux ceramic “dochi bin” which at the end of the evening we give to Michael and Helene to keep as a souvenir. We toast and talk about Mizuho.

Art is friends with the manager of Sam’s and has a coupon for “free” Shrimp cocktails. Six “fishbowls” with dry ice mist swirling blue inside the glass, are ceremoniously served to each of us. A shrimp plate sits atop each icy blue bubble sealing off the opening of the bowl. Salad and soup follow the shrimp cocktail, but the shrimp have stolen the show. Two chefs appear beside a rolling cart with our steaks, lobster, scallops and vegetables neatly arranged and ready to be grilled. John and Annya are captivated by the theatrics of their swirling knives as the chefs slice, juggle and flip the various meats and vegetables. The grill sizzles and steams, our mouths water and we are soon served our various orders. Dinner is good and the experience very fun; perhaps just what we needed to lighten our hearts and minds.

Jay Jay and the Top Note Lounge

Jay Jay and the Top Note Lounge

Art assumes that the Schulman’s will wake up early because of the time difference and bicycles up to Shintoshin to meet Michael for breakfast. There is no indication that the family is awake and Art returns to our apartment and crawls back into bed. We connect with Michael mid morning at Starbucks inside the Naha Main Place Mall and after our coffee we stroll Michael through the electronics department, a visual and mental overload to me, but of extreme interest to Michael, a Microsoft colleague of Art’s.

The report from the hotel is that Annya has a high fever and understandably, both Helene and Michael want to stay close by to check on her regularly. We eat a late lunch together at a Japanese restaurant inside the Mall. Each “teishaku” is presented on a lacquered tray arranged with smaller plates and dishes; Michael and Helene are delighted with the meal. Helene returns to the hotel to be with Annya while Art, John and Michael walk over to Kokusai Street and Heiwadori Market. I take this opportunity and return to our apartment, pack up my weekly wax carving and bicycle to the post office to ship them to my casters back home. Later in the afternoon, Michael returns with Art and John and sees our small apartment, meets John’s beetles, and takes a nap in the quiet of John’s room.

We have evening plans to go to a concert at the Top Note Café, a nightclub lounge adjacent to the Libre Garden Hotel. Jay Jay, a Kubasaki high school alumni and friend of Art’s, is a popular local vocalist with quite a following of adoring women. Weeks ago, he invited us to tonight’s performance and conveniently the club is next door to where the Shulman’s are staying. We hope to eat dinner before the performance, but our time is short and we resort to eating from the limited “snack” menu at the club. The food is expensive and bad however the club is intimate with seating for perhaps 100 people and we choose a table against a back wall. There are quite a few American’s in the audience and Jay Jay entertains to all in a smooth mix of both Japanese and English. He is extremely handsome, a beautiful blend of Okinawan and American with chiseled features and a golden voice. He sits casually on a high stool, microphone grasped in manicured hands and belts out tunes from American Classics. His talented band backs him up flawlessly and I wonder if we have somehow been transported to a Vegas lounge act. This is Michael’s and Helene’s first night in Naha and they are slightly taken aback, but we are all soon under his musical spell and enjoying the evening. Still jet lagged, Helene and Annya return to their rooms before the close of the performance, but Michael stays to the end and Art and I dance to the last few songs.

Friends from Home

Friends from Home

We have been anticipating the arrival of our friends from California for many weeks. On Thursday night, Art, John and I take a taxi to the Naha airport to meet their 10:30 P.M. plane. Art stands along side the taxi drivers and tour guides, holding up a paper sign with the name “Shurman” printed on it. The Japanese L is a combination of an L & an R so the sign is meant to be a joke. They are too exhausted to appreciate the humor, but we are happy that they have arrived safely and I try to clam my excitement and remember that they are in a jet lagged and altered state. Just two months ago, I floated along the brightly lit airport corridors in a timeless dream state and I see the disoriented glaze in their eyes. They have taken our advice and packed lightly and we usher them to the elevator, up to the next level and across to the monorail station. Annya, their 12 year old daughter is flushed with a fever and I know that our touring itinerary will not be as I have planned. We glide in our monorail capsule, above a sleeping city, to the Shinotshin station. The modern station is adjacent to the D.F.S.mall, (duty free shops) and the hotel “Libre Gardens” is illuminated brightly just two blocks away. Art helps with the registration and we escort our friends to their 9th floor rooms on the.

I’m sure Michael is exhausted, but he is jazzed to be here and isn’t ready to end the day. After the “girls’ are tucked into their rooms; the four of us walk out onto the promenade to a familiar restaurant a few blocks away. We glide over glass floors with sand and sea shells recessed beneath the glass, curtained rooms on either side of the narrow hallway. We are seated in a partitioned room at a low table and Art orders a few small plates for us to share. We introduce Michael to awamori. It’s after 1:00 P.M when we are home in our own beds.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Goya Champuru & Hiraya-chi

Goya Champuru & Hiraya-chi

Narumi arrives at 11:00 A.M. for Art’s kanji lesson. She carries a bag of groceries and has her 7 year old son with her. We’re delighted that she has brought her son and in spite of the age difference the two boys have a good time together. John shows off his beetle “Frack” and they play “Mario Brothers” on a Nintendo D.S. game console that he has brought along. Narumi shows John how to play their version of solitaire and the two boys play cards. After the kanji lesson I get a cooking lesson.

I’ve written about the goya in other blog entries. It is a popular Okinawan vegetable. It’s translation in English is “bitter melon” and is thought to be one of the secrets of Okinawan longevity. It is a member of the gourd family, shaped a bit like a large fat ridged cucumber. It has high vitamin C content and a bitter taste. Goya Champuru (stir-fry) is a traditional Okinawan dish that up until now I have done my best to avoid. This funny vegetable has become an Okinawan icon. Every tourist shop sells green plastic goya key rings, costume jewelry and goya printed T shirts with silly slogans. This healthy and unsuspecting vegetable has been given a face and often wears a hat and shoes. Think of it as the Okinawan version of Mr. Potato Head. Today, I meet Mr. Goya on a different level.

After slicing Mr. Goya in half lengthwise, Narumi shows me how to scoop out it’s pithy pulp and seeds. I cut thin slices from both halves and sauté the crescent slices in olive oil over a high heat. Narumi sprinkles salt and brown sugar (to offset the bitterness) into the frying pan and stirs with chopsticks. I mix two eggs in a bowl and when Mr. Goya is too limp to complain, we pour the beaten egg over him and cook a little more.

Next,Narumi shows me how to make “Hiraya-chi”, a savory Okinawan crepe with leeks. The recipe is simple, 2 eggs, 2 cups flower, 2 cups water, diced leeks and a pinch of salt. I mix and she ladles the mixture into a hot oiled skillet. Within a minute the crepe is ready to be flipped, and in another minute it’s ready to be served. She cuts it into quarters, squeezes okonomi sauce onto the crepe, and tops it off with dried mackerel shavings. (Okonomi sauce is a bit like a sweet, thick Worcestershire sauce.) In the interim, Narumi has filled 4 cups with dried mackerel shavings, a tablespoon of Miso and sliced leeks. (Green onions.) I add boiling water to soften the dried fish and we let it steep. We serve the boys on our small coffee table. Her son eats three servings of the Goya Champuru. (I am sure he will live to a very old age.) John is a good sport and eats a small serving of the goya, a quarter of the crepe and all of his fish soup. Narumi and I sit at our kitchen table and eat our lunch. I am surprised how good the goya is. In the past, I found goya very bitter, but with the addition of brown sugar and mixed with egg, it is quite tasty. The savory crepes are wonderful, but I prefer them dressed with just soy sauce rather than the sweet okonomi sauce. (Thank you Narumi, for taking the time to share your recipes; I will look for goya back home and cook both of these dishes for my family and friends!)

It’s Wednesday as I write this blog. We spent Monday and Tuesday mostly at home working. Yesterday, the weather was blustery and rainy, but this afternoon the sun is blazing and after finishing another wax design, I urge John to levitate from the couch and go to the Tsuboya district with me. We decide to walk, not wanting to battle the bicycle helmet issue. We are both in good spirits and wander down the covered Heiwadori market together. John is surprisingly patient as I poke into tiny shops. Our destination is Tsuboya, which begins at the end of the Heiwadori arcade and our first stop is the Tsuboya pottery museum to see a special Shisa exhibit. On our many visits to Okinawa, John and I have grown very fond of the Shisa, a guardian that is neither lion nor dog, but a creature unique to Okinawa. The exhibit has a small but special exhibit of a few very fine and unique Shisa and I am inspired. When we exit, we walk along the historical and picturesque street, stopping into every shop along the three block stretch. We admire the many Shisas, in all sizes and qualities but always in pairs, one male with mouth open, and one female with mouth closed. There are several Shisa studios in this district where you can watch the artisans create these magical creatures or create one of your own. Every artisan and studio has its own unique style of Shisa. We purchase two tiny turtle soy bottles and catch a taxi back home.

At noon today, Art went to a “Spa Symposium” to learn about the spa industry and to promote his website. He is back from his day when John and I return and we make a quick turn around to go out to dinner. (I have been cooking half our meals at home, but our cupboards are empty tonight) I ask Art if he has money, and sling my camera over my neck. I have taken to traveling lightly and seldom carry a purse. It’s nearly 7:00 P.M. and the evening light is magical. We walk towards Kokusai Street, full of energy and with a particular restaurant in mind. We have been walking for 15 minutes when Art suddenly halts, his hand feeling his back pocket. He has forgotten his wallet. We have no money and must walk back to the apartment. This puts a kink in our carefree evening and by the time we have retrieved the wallet our spirits are not as light. It’s nearly dark and we catch a taxi, but don’t know the name of the restaurant. Art directs the taxi driver as best as he can with one eye on the meter but we are driving around in circles and traffic signals and one way streets loom at every intersection. Art asks our confused taxi driver to stop and he lets us out on a dark street, alongside a park and we hoof it from there, past several homeless men, pop out onto the brightly lit street and come upon our restaurant.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Oiwai Celebration


We are invited to attend an oiwai (a celebration) for the birth of Rinta, Tadashi’s and Shoko’s new baby boy. This particular “oiwai” is to welcome a new baby and takes place when the baby is 100 days old. Shigeru and Mika pick us up and drive us to their parent’s home where preparations of a feast are underway. Tadashi’s mother, sister and both daughters in law are in the small kitchen, busily arranging platters of food. Three large plates of various tempuras, pork, and fried tofu are laid on the long low table in the back room. We sit on the tatami floor around a table that accommodates about 14 people. Bottles of sanpin ice tea, orange soda and beer are self serve in the center of the table. The 4 women serve individual plates of sashimi to each guest. Our end of the table is seated first and we are encouraged to begin eating while more tiny plates and bowls are laid before us. In addition to our sashimi octopus and cucumber plate, we each receive a small dish of kombu, kelp, a special bowl of celebratory rice, and a covered lacquered bowl of pork miso stew. We serve ourselves from the large tempura and pork platters. Other guests begin to arrive and are seated at the other end of the table. Every guest, bows at the doorway, greets and holds baby Rinta and sits down to eat. I soon grasp that there is a rotation at the table and after we have finished eating we move away to allow others to sit and feast. I want to help, but know that I will just be a clog in the rhythm that these 4 women have set of preparing, serving and washing up. Shoko is extremely gracious and calm as mother and hostess for her son’s birth party. Tadashi is all smiles and when one of the guests isn’t holding Rinta, he cradles his baby. I see decorated envelopes pass to Shoko and Tadashi as each guest enters and I realize that these are gifts of money for the baby. This all seems much more sensible than our American style “baby shower.” We gave a small gift of clothing to Rinta several weeks back but have come to this “oiwai” without an envelope of money. This baby is a blessing, and I want to honor and gift the new family, and Art and I manage to manifest an “envelope” by the close of the evening.

Relatives, friends and neighbors stop in to greet the baby. Most stay to eat and when each group leaves, the family or individual is presented an elegant shopping bag with a “cake” inside, a gift from Tadashi, Shoko and Rinta. John spends most of his time in the front room with a 7 and 2 year old “nephew.” He seems to be having a good time with the younger boys and they play with blocks and battle plastic beetles together. When one of the three battling beetles looses a leg, there is a serious beetle dispute but overall the kids have a good and easy time together.

As the evening wears on and the table is cleared of food, Tadashi’s father and uncle take out sanshins and play and sing. They play a song that is traditionally the first song sung at every Oiwai celebration. It is an ancient melody that doesn’t seem very celebratory by today’s standards. We learn that the lyrics are about a young mute Prince that eventually talks so that he can become king. I assume that this song was first written hundreds of years ago when the Ryukyus existed as a kingdom. Several bottles of awamori are given to the family tonight and the bottle we bring, aged 7 years from Kumejima is the one opened and served. The music and the conversation become livelier as the bottle empties.

The Good-boy Haircut

The Good-boy Haircut

We will be in Okinawa another month, but much of that time will be spent on Ishigaki and Irimote Island so I need to do some shopping and take care of a few simple things like getting my hair cut.

At home in California, I usually go to the likes of “Super Cuts” for a hair cut. I’ve enjoyed the luxury of upscale salons, but for my simple blunt cut hair style, most anyplace will do. Since our arrival on Okinawa, Art has had two haircuts at “Good-boy” and when we peddle past this salon, I ask if he can make me an appointment? He has raved about this barber shop where a shampoo, head massage, hair cut, shave and a shoulder massage is $15.00. We stop in and the bewildered receptionist writes me down for a 4:00 P.M. appointment. (I look forward to the shoulder massage, and hope to avoid the shave.)

It‘s two hours before my appointment, time enough for lunch and a little shopping. Art and I eat lunch at a soba restaurant and part ways. I head for the Naha Main Place Mall to shop for gifts, but this is a mainstream mall and I don’t find much of interest to me.

The receptionist bows slightly when I enter the “Good-boy Salon” and motions for me to be seated. I sit on a cushioned bench alongside several stone faced men, a wall of magazines in front of me. Absently, I pick up the nearest magazine and flip backwards through the pages of a golf magazine. At 4:15, I am motioned to a seat, and my attending barber, spouts off a flurry of questions? I tell him that I don’t speak Japanese, make a few hand gestures and hope for the best. During my 20 minute wait, I have ascertained that this is strictly a barber shop and women are an oddity. My “barber” lifts stands of my long hair as if it were soba noodles. He cuts one strand at a time, seemingly bewildered with the length, color and texture. The hair washing is pure ecstasy, as he massages and scrubs for 10 intense minutes but the drying becomes another excruciating strand by strand procedure. An hour later, my hair perfectly styled, I exit the salon with all eyes watching in disbelief as I place a bicycle helmet upon my perfectly coiffed hair!

Friday, March 30, 2007

Friday Night in Shintoshin

Friday Night in Shintoshin

It is Island weather tonight; nearly 80 degrees and my skin, comfortably damp from the humidity, feels hydrated and smooth. The evening is timeless and full of possibilities as we stroll towards Shintoshin to take in the bright lights and its youthful, fashionable energy. The three of us are in high spirits, tonight being the close of a successful work week for all. John chatters endlessly, asking us questions about energy sources and medical “impossibilities”ranging from head transplants to “do it yourself liposuction kits.” We laugh over the do it yourself liposuction kit and stroll through the Naha Main Place Mall to weigh ourselves on the precisions scales in the electronic department. Both Art and I have lost weight and John, as it should be, is gaining. (If I loose another 5 pounds and John gains another 5 we will weigh exactly the same!)

We eat dinner at Kai Restaurant for the second time. It’s bustling on a Friday night, they remember us and we wait only a few minutes for a table. Last time we sat at the counter and it was very fun to watch the chefs create the unusual and artistic plates. Tonight we are set at a private booth, smooth concrete slabs forming our alcove with pin prick lights shining down at us from above. It is not a great table, but the food and service are excellent. John remembers everything that we ordered here before, and he pours over the menu excitedly (it has funny English translations) and gets us started on our dinner. We begin with drinks, ginger ale for John, and awamori for Art and me. At an Izakaya, one orders many small plates to share. We order two different chicken dishes, a Vienna pizza, and a fat sushi roll. After consuming these, Art orders a tofu dish with peanut sauce and umibudo or “sea grapes,” a caterpillar like seaweed that is scooped out of an aquarium, arranged on a small dish and served with a soy dipping sauce. I suggest we try the “Fried squid foot wear with garlic.” We all laugh at this translation, interpreting the translation to be fried squid tentacles with garlic. We finish the meal with a small plate of extremely dense, awamori soaked tofu. The tofu chunk is only the size of an “ice cube” and surrounded by paper thin slices of cucumber. We break off small bits of the tofu with toothpicks and spread the rich creamy tofu onto the cucumber slices. Dessert is a tofu based tiramisu. Dinner, a splurge is 7,700. Yen, or $67 including tax and service.

Earlier today, we bicycle towards the Naha Antique Fair, stopping first at the post office to mail a third package of waxes to my casters back home. I’m no longer particularly anxious when I ship these packages and I feel a satisfied closure to two weeks of work. We eat a late lunch at the “Monkey Pod,” a “Hawaiian” café, a block off of Kokusai Street. It’s hot and humid and sticky as we bicycle on to the antique fair at Naha Civic Center, behind Yogi Park. The fair consists of one large upstairs room of venders. Expecting a larger venue, I am slightly disappointed, but we peruse the booths for an hour and I buy three lovely antique hair sticks from the 1920’s.

We start home together, but separate near Kokusai Street, John being painfully bored by an afternoon of shopping. I poke into a few boutiques on my own and just as I am opening the door to our apartment, my cell phone rings. Art is calling from a zenzai restaurant near the Tomari Elementary school. This restaurant was pointed out to us by Narumi on our way to the onigiri (rice ball) shop the other day. I’m back out on the street in a flash bicycling to join Art. An icy zenzai sounds delicious on this hot afternoon but by the time I arrive, Art has eaten all of his and not wanting a whole zenzai one of my own, I order a wasabi avocado, the first avocado I have eaten in over two months. Yummy! The restaurant is very cute and the menu a bit different. Their specialty is zenzai and they serve several different kinds, a shaved ice dessert accompanied by sweet red beans, mochi, sweet milk and sometimes fruit. The zenzai is presented on a tray; one dish filled with shaved ice, another dish with sweet red beans, another with mochi and set alongside is a tiny pitcher of sweet condensed milk. All this for 350 yen! (About $3.00)

It's 6:00 P.M. by the time we return to our apartment to rest, cool off and bathe. We head back out around 8:00 P.M. walking towards Shintoshin anticipating a fine dinner at Kai Restaurant.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Onigiri Rice Balls and Other Tidbits

Onigiri Rice Balls and Other Tidbits

Art has two Japanese lessons this week and on Wednesday after his second lesson, our new friend and tutor, Narumi offers to take us to a special Onigiri shop. Onigiri is a rice ball that can be filled with any number of things. Earlier on this trip, I discover a triangular onigiri filled with cooked salmon available at many supermarkets. The chunk of protein embedded deep within the rice and wrapped in seaweed has kept my blood sugar even on numerous occasions.

This special onigiri shop, Memichi, is nearby our apartment and adjacent to the Tomari Elementary school. A white noren (curtain) hangs in the doorway of the tiny shop. Narumi parts the noren, looks inside and tells us we will need to wait for a few minutes. There is a customer already inside. When we finally step into the tiny shop, a kitchen annex built off the front of a traditional Okinawan house, I am immediately intrigued. It is a one woman operation and the owner, a woman about my age, stands behind a small counter, a dozen small pottery bowls along side her each filled with unusual mixtures. (Unusual by my standards.) She is forming rice balls from a nutty brown rice and mindfully stuffing each ball with tidbits from the many dishes alongside of her. Behind her is a cluttered back sink and a shelf with a menagerie of handmade clay animals and the walls of her tiny shop are papered with paintings, snippets of paper and posters. I sense immediately that I am in the presence of an artist and watch enthralled as this woman creates rice balls, sealing them carefully with two square sheets of seaweed and then filling in any gaps with thin strips of seaweed moistened with water from yet another shallow clay dish. Naromi chats comfortably with this woman and I learn that she has been taught this culinary art from Sato Hastume, a respected teacher in the Aomori Prefecture of mainland Japan. She hands me toothpicks to taste the many ingredients from her magical bowls and I choose the stuffing and spices for my rice ball.

We order a “lunch set” to eat while our “take out” rice balls are created and we sit on low stools at the single square table and sip tea while our magical chef prepares our lunch. She places two, 5” sardines on a kitchen tray and I wonder if they will be part of our lunch? They are obviously cooked, but their heads and tails are attached and their glassy eyes stare blankly. We are each served covered lacquer bowls of soup, and Narumi tells me to let it steep so that the shaved dried fish can soften and the flavor permeate the soup. Small plates with our specially created rice ball, a 5” sardine and pickled vegetables are set before each of us. I watch anxiously as two more small plates are prepared with two fresh chunks of tofu, one chunk topped with dried fish shavings, and the other chunk topped with a whole grey pickled “goldfish.” I know I cannot enjoy eating this tiny whole fish, head and all, and Narumi, sensing my discomfort “trades” out my fish for the fish shavings atop her tofu. I eat the tofu and fish shavings with grateful pleasure. In spite of all the flavorings put into the rice ball, it is bland until I reach the treasure in the center. Narumi tells me to alternate bites of the sardine with the rice ball. I nibble on the sardine, bones and all and understand that it truly adds flavor to the rice ball. The stuffing within the rice is wonderful and I drink my soup and slurp out the softened shaved fish with the help of chopsticks. We are there over an hour, watching the preparation, eating and talking. The price of the set menu lunch is 500 yen each. (About $4.50) I am the second foreigner to be in her shop. I spend a magical hour and Narumi and I each leave with a bag each of rice balls for our families.

Following are a few more “tidbits” about our week: John’s teeth are cleaned for the second time this morning. Last week Art made him an appointment at the dentist, just a block up from our apartment. The price quoted is 2,000 Yen or about $18.00 but when we arrive and they discover that John has braces they tell us apologetically that it will take two sessions to clean his teeth but they don’t increase the price. Last weeks session to clean his bottom teeth takes over 45 minutes and the charge is 1,000 Yen. Today the session to clean his top teeth takes only 25 minutes and charge is just another 1,000 Yen. Remarkable! Art and I both hope that we will find the time to have our teeth cleaned before returning back to the States.

Every Tuesday and Thursday night, Art and John go to the Makashi Dojo to practice karate. Tuesday night, I walk over and watch the second half of the practice and take photographs. The dojo is small and there are three black belts practicing; Art, John and another kid John’s age. The front shoji screen is open to the street allowing the cool night air to enter the practice room. Art’s form is impressive and I take too many photos, ceasing only when until Art shoots me a glance to “cool it.”

Overall this week has been a work week. Our friends, the Shulmans’ arrive a week from tonight, so Art, John and I have focused on getting things wrapped up so that we can spend time touring with our friends. Art has had meetings all week and is moving further in connecting with numerous individuals and businesses. John has worked on his home school assignments and I have focused on finishing up a few more charm designs that I will ship to my casters tomorrow.

We have been in Naha, Okinawa for two months and I am suddenly anxious that our final 3rd month will not give us time to accomplish all that we have planned.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Sayonara Kumejima

Sayonara Kumejima

We wake slightly stiff from a night spent sleeping upon futons in a tatami room. There is no buffet breakfast this morning and John asks for change to buy a drink from the ever present vending machines virtually everywhere. He returns with an ice tea for himself and hands me a hot canned coffee. Okinawan drink machines offer both hot and cold selections. I have become accustom to drinking my morning coffee from a heated can when necessary. We sit on the cement stairs of our minchiku with Tadaou and Yuko and together we plan our day. There is a light drizzle of rain as Art and Yuko walk to rent a car in her name. Our ferry leaves at 2:00 P.M., we will share the cost of the car, and they can use the car to sightsee in the afternoon.

G.P.S. system operational, our first stop is the Uezu historical house, a beautifully restored traditional Okinawan home, built in the 1700’s. On our many trips to Okinawa, we have visited other historical houses, owned by wealthy farmers and all are picturesque with beautiful surrounding gardens. The rain ceases and sun bathes the red tile roofs, stone walls and the grounds in a clear morning light. As with most of these historical houses, a hinpun, (spirit wall) sits just inside the stone gate to keep the evil spirits from entering the home. I am becoming enamored with the “hinpun” and wonder how a spirit wall will look in front of our Santa Cruz Victorian?

Next, Yuko drives us to a “Mystery Spot” and when we arrive we find several cars parked and families placing empty drink cans on the pavement. Everyone is exclaiming that the cans are rolling uphill. Art mentions that he is getting a headache and in sympathy I think I might feel a slight ache in my temples. Yuko puts our rental car in neutral and it rolls uphill. We spend 15 minutes on this back stretch of road and I really can’t discern the subtle differences between uphill and downhill, but we all have a good time.

We have a little over 2 hours before we must be at the ferry dock. Art directs Yuko to turn off onto a rural road to visit a cave; a sight is not listed on our tourist map. Traditional houses are scattered along this road, their red tile roofs draped with flowering spring vines. Several immense turtle backed tombs are embedded into a distant hillside. The surrounding farm and jungle is breathtaking. The signage to the cave is not clear and Yuko asks directions from a man in a beat up pick up truck. We follow him, bumping along a rutted, muddy dirt road to a small dirt parking area. As the daughter of a geologist, I have been to many caves in my lifetime. I am not particularly enthused about visiting this one and my expectations are low, but since we are here, we might as well take a look. A shabby cracked cement kiosk sits across from a rusty steel stairway leading down to the caves entrance. Two plump island women attend the kiosk. Entrance to the cave is 800 yen apiece ($7.00) and Art looks at me quizzically? We have become used to Okinawan prices and the $21.00 it will cost our family seems a bit steep, but I nod and we are soon descending the uneven cement stairs to the mouth of the cave. The ground is slick and muddy from the rain, there is no engineered walkway, and the lighting consists of infrequent bare light bulbs. I wonder if we might be electrocuted from the cords stretched across the wet floor of the cave but coveys of sleeping bats are startled by our approach and I forget about any electrical hazards in my enjoyment of the moment. The stalactites and stalagmites are beautiful, surprisingly pristine and mostly undamaged. The cave is 800 meters long, (about half a mile) and each chamber is more wonderful than the last. John is leading the way with Art at his heels, but I am taking my time, taking photographs, and Yuko, who has never been inside a cave, is further behind me with Tadaou. I see daylight ahead and believe that I have come to the end of a lovely cave adventure but when I exit I gasp in amazement as I step into a jungle grotto. Sunlight streams in from above turning the elephant ears and ferns a backlit emerald green. Roots and vines entwine with the stalactite formations and large terracotta vessels lay cracked and broken, many filled with human bones. The grotto is large; perhaps 130 feet lengthwise and 50 feet below the world above us. Stalactites form one entire sheer wall of the grotto and the other side, also rising steeply up, is rock and compacted red earth. The dense vegetation grows lush in the rich soil and hanging vines cascade down while other jungle plants struggle to root themselves into the steep wall, and grow upward towards the openings of sunlight from above. Midway up the walls of the grotto, on rock ledges and between cracked stalactites are other broken earthenware vessels containing still more bones. It occurs to me that perhaps I should feel frightened, but the grotto is extremely beautiful and I am awed by the magic of this spirit filled utaki.

As we understand it, the earliest human remains here date back to the 7th and 8th century. Much later, during the 1700’s there were many epidemics and famines and the villagers, unable to deal with the sick and dying took the gravely ill to these caves to recover or die. Traditionally, a year after a death, the bones of a family member are washed by the women and placed in a clay vessel. It is my understanding that many of the vessels here are filled with the bones of these ancient villagers who were taken to this cave grotto for entombment. Over the centuries, earthquakes have broken the vessels, exposing the bones. I am being intentionally vague about the location of this cave and grotto because it is a private island utaki, not meant for tourism. We misunderstand directions, a sign is missing and we come upon the grotto by mistake. We are politely asked to leave.

*The last two paragraphs are repeated from my opening paragraphs of “The Bones of Kumejima.”

I don’t want to leave the grotto, but we are being escorted back by one of the two women from the kiosk. Minutes earlier, enthralled by the magic of the place I whispered to Art that perhaps we should stay on Kumejima another day so that we could spend more time here. John and Tadaou have discovered another cave entrance at the far side of the grotto. They entered it with the light of Tadaou’s cell phone. They crouched and crawled along until they came to a rope ladder and climbed 6 feet up to an unlit chamber. At that moment the battery on Tadaou’s cell phone died and they had to descend, crawl and feel their way back in utter darkness.

The adventures of the day, have made us forget about breakfast or lunch and our ferry leaves shortly. Yuko drives us hurriedly towards port, stopping at a market so we can pick up “bentos” to eat on our ferry ride home. It’s Sunday afternoon, and on the best of days these small market “bentos” would have been questionable, but even as hungry as we are, they look inedible. Art drops John and me at the dock and with 15 minutes to spare, takes off with Yuko and returns with a few snacks for our ferry trip home. Yuko and Tadaou wave up to us from the dock until our ferry is out of the port. I don’t think that our Kumejima Island adventure would have been the same had we not met and shared the experience with our new friends.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Part Two - Getting Wet in Kumejima

Getting Wet in Kumejima

Breakfast is included at our resort hotel, so at 9:00 A.M. we enter the dining room. The elaborate buffet is an array of many types of pork and bacon, French fries, cold spaghetti, cold tamago, an assortment of seaweeds, pickled vegetables, a salad bar with grated vegetables, miso soup, rice, cereal and rolls. John is not thrilled with his options, but chooses the one cereal offered and eats a few pieces of bacon. Self serve, hot coffee, tea and juice are also available. After breakfast, we head out to the beach immediately, and at high the beach looks much more inviting. I have hopes of taking a boat out to the Hateno Sand Bar, but we have a late start.

I glance up, surprised to see Art making a call on his cell phone. He is calling Yuko and tells me that Yuko and Tadaou are taking a trip to the sand bar this morning. Art informs Yuko that we will try to catch up and join them, but there is not a single taxi or pedestrian on this beach resort street so we begin walking in the direction of the dock. We stop to pick up a few rice triangles, water and sunscreen along the way. I see a bicycle coming towards us and am surprised and confused to see Tadaou. He tells us that Yuko has already left for the Hateno Sand Bar, but he needed to take a driving lesson and couldn’t go with her; he would like to go now. We have already checked out of our resort hotel with the "virtual" swimming pool and have no place to spend the night. Tadaou tells us that there is room at his minshuku (guest house) and agrees to bicycle back, reserve us a room and meet us at the dock. We continue walking the mile to the dock and wait for Tadaou.

Eventually, at 12:30, the 4 of us depart to the sand bar on a small motor boat. The agreed upon price is 3,500 yen per person and we are handed purple waterproof windbreakers to protect us from the ocean spray as we speed out across the choppy waves. The trip takes 20 minutes. A lone motor launch is leaving the sand bar as our boat eases up onto the sandy beach. We wade ashore to a pristine and deserted sand bar and carry our belongings to a simple shelter constructed high up on the beach. We have until 3:00 P.M. to snorkel and walk along this sand bar. John finds a surfboard from behind the shelter and immediately begins to construct a coral anchor weight for the board so that he can snorkel on top of the board and not worry about the current. The sand is a pristine white, the water a calm delicious turquoise and Art and I set off to explore the perimeters of our island. It’s only when we reach the tip of the sand spit that trash begins to appear and as we round the point to the other side, choppy waves agitate the remains of the coral reef, slick with velvety green seaweed.

There is a light afternoon cloud cover, but the sun breaks through frequently bathing the ocean and beach in magical island sunlight. I join John briefly to snorkel and watch colorful trigger fish take bread from his hand; one bites his finger and my mask continually fogs. I’m glad to be witnessing this underwater world of white sand and small schools of tropical fish, but it is void of living coral and I retreat to the shore to sit and warm myself in the fading afternoon sunlight. Promptly at 3:00 P.M. we return to Kumejima as clouds darken and the choppy waves change to indigo.

On shore, sandy and salty, and in an area with no taxis, we begin walking to the Bade-haus. It is across a lengthy bridge, roughly a kilometer away and adjacent to the Tatami Stones. Tadaou is peddling slowly beside us when a mini pick up truck pulls along side. Within seconds, the three of us are in the truck bed, bouncing along to the Bade-hause. We thank our driver, wait for Tadaou to catch up, and enter a contemporary upscale spa. Entrance is 2,000.Yen per person for unlimited day use of the facilities. We check our shoes into special shoe lockers, are handed bags with plush towels and given a wrist band with key, for yet another locker. My three men depart for their changing room leaving me on my own to navigate the woman’s facilities alone. I eventually emerge into a naturally lit rotunda with an immense circular pool and am relieved to spot Art and John at station #1 & #2. Light streams in from floor to ceiling windows that open out onto the ocean beyond. Art spots me and motions me towards the gradual steps entering the pool and I wade down to join him in the warm saline water. Numbered stations around the perimeter of the pool blast powerful jets of warm, (not hot) water out at various heights and intensity. John is already into the swing of things and is holding tight to the bars at his station and allowing the jets of water to massage his back and spine. I soon understand the intended rhythm and float from station to station relaxing into the pulsating water jets. Art pulls me aside to join him in the wet sauna and together we enter a room thick with fog and the rich aromas of burning mochi. I sit beside him on a tiled bench completely invisible in the mist as my sweat trickles down onto the tile floor beneath me. All three of us soak outside in the hot tub and John tries to persuade me to join him in a cold plunge. I decline, but retreat to the woman’s facilities to shower and dress.

Yuko picks all of us up and drives us to the minshuku, a 20 minute walk to the beach. The Japanese style rooms are sparkling clean and the price is a bargain at only 2,000 yen per person. The bath is shared but John has a room of his own. We have become friends with Yuko and Tadaou and invite them to join us for dinner. We walk together in the dark, following unlit rural dirt roads and when we arrive at the beach we choose an izakaya for dinner. It’s a relief to have someone else to help “order” and our new friends are gracious and careful in their selections. We share a dozen small plates, a bottle of awamori and walk back to our minshuku in the village. The three hour feast for the 5 of us, all inclusive is around $80.00. It is raining lightly as we retrace our steps. We sleep reasonably well, Japanese style as torrents of rain pummel the roof.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Bones of Kumejima- Part One

The Bones of Kumejima- Part One

I am writing this on our return ferry trip after spending nearly three days on Kumejima.

Two hours ago, by sheer magic, we stumble into a jungle grotto. Sunlight streams in from above turning the elephant ears and ferns a backbit emerald green. Roots and vines entwine with the stalactite formations and large terracotta vessels lay cracked and broken, many filled with human bones. The grotto is large; perhaps 130 feet lengthwise and 50 feet below the ground. Stalactites form one entire sheer wall of the grotto and the other side, also rising steeply up, is rock and compacted red earth. The dense vegetation grows lush in the rich soil and hanging vines cascade down while other jungle plants struggle to root themselves into the steep wall, and grow upward towards the openings of sunlight from above. Midway up the walls of the grotto, on rock ledges and between cracked stalactites are other broken earthenware vessels containing still more bones. It occurs to me that perhaps I should feel frightened, but the grotto is extremely beautiful and I am awed by the magic of this spirit filled utaki.

As we understand it, this burial site was from the 7th and 8th century. Traditionally, a year after a death, the bones of a family member are washed by the women and placed in a clay vessel. Many of the vessels with the bones of these ancient villagers were taken to this cave grotto for entombment. Over the centuries, earthquakes have broken the vessels, exposing the bones. We are also told that during the epidemics, villagers who were very ill were taken here to to die. I am being intentionally vague about the location because it is a private island utaki, not meant for tourism. We misunderstand directions, a sign is missing and we come upon the grotto by mistake. We are politely asked to leave.

Our Kumejima adventure begins at 8:30 Friday morning when the three of us catch the 8:30 A.M. ferry to Kumejima. The ferry is surprisingly full, so we take seats in an open air section and stand topside for most of the trip. We watch the hazy silhouettes of the Zumami Islands growing closer and then watch them fade into the distance. The captain invites us to stand at the front of the ship and for an hour we keep a sharp look out for whales, spotting several. Halfway into the 4 hour ferry passage, a young Japanese couple strikes up a conversation with Art. At this point I am stretched out on a bench enjoying the light breeze and warm sunlight and I listen sleepily, but don’t participate. Both Yuko and Tadanori have just graduated from universities in Tokyo and have jobs that will start in April; Yuko as a computer programmer and Tadanori in sales for a construction company selling “manhole covers.” They are traveling to Kumejima for their last taste of freedom before they begin work. They are smart and charming and speak English and before the ferry docks we exchange business cards and mobile phone numbers.

I have a voucher for a“resort hotel” and have been told that it is a 5 minute walk from the ferry; but I have been told wrong so we hop into a taxi for a 15 minute drive to the other side of the island. The meter reads 1600 yen when we arrive and we regret that we didn’t just rent a car at the ferry terminal. The exterior of the hotel is lovely and John is looking forward to swimming in the hotel’s pool. He races out to the pool and rebounds within 30 seconds to angrily inform us that there is no water in it. He is very disappointed and our idyllic island get way is in serious jeopardy. Its 1:30 P.M. and we are all very hungry and getting crankier by the moment so lunch is our first quest. After a 15 minute stroll down the street to survey our restaurant options, we choose an Okinawan restaurant; the food is good, ample and inexpensive.

With full stomachs we are all more optimistic, and walk a block down to the beach. It’s extremely low tide when we step onto the sand and what remains of any coral lies exposed and slimy brown with velvety seaweed. Along the edge of the high tide mark lays a flotsam and jetsam of bottles, buoys, discarded shoes, broken sea shells and coral. John collects cuttlefish bones and plays catch with Art throwing the football shaped buoys. We walk to the end of the sandy strip, cutting back to the street through the lobby of a resort hotel on the beach. This hotel has two pools, one of which is drained, but the other is filled. The sight of a swimming pool with water sets John off again and I wonder how to save the day. We know there are many wonderful sites on the island and we consider renting scooters, but naturally, John wants to drive his own, but is not old enough, nor will they allow him to ride behind Art. The beach resort strip is about 8 blocks long and earlier we passed a tiny rental car lot. Our plan was to rent a car when we got off the ferry and with the afternoon advancing I pressure Art to rent one now.

$35.00 later Art sits behind the wheel of a miniature automobile while John navigates via the G.P.S. screen. Our first stop is the Tatami Ishi Stones, a hexagonally patterned rock formation along the shoreline. John immediately notes the similarity between this formations and the “Devils Post pile” in Mammoth, California. It takes me a minute to grasp that we might be walking on the top of a “post pile” the surface slanting gently down into the ocean beyond. (Are we correct in our assumptions Dad?)

Our next destination is the Gushikawa, Gusku and John navigates us inland and upward towards the castle remains on the hill. The site is breathtaking. Inland, we have a view of the fertile valley and jungle below; on the other side is the East China Sea. A cloud cover is blowing in and a dozen black crows circle in the gusty late afternoon catching updrafts of wind. We climb the steel grated stairway up to the castle, wish we had jackets and inhale the view. Most of these gusku’s were built in the 13th and 14th century and only portions of the castle wall and the well remain. We drive to a second castle site, the Ueshiro Gusku, on a cliff overlooking the East China Sea. Sago palms and lush jungle foliage are silhouetted by the sun dipping low on the horizon. We are the only visitors at either of these castle sites this afternoon and it is lovely to be stepping over crumbling castle walls in solitude.

Winding back down from the hilltop we navigate to the Mi-fu-ga; an ocean level lava rock arch formation. The lava below and around this archway has formed tidal pools, but they are strangely absent of life except for several recently deceased crabs, most likely caught in the pools as the tide reseeded and cooked in the afternoon sun. The lava is sharp and we tread gingerly across it to the arch way beyond but John is already far ahead of us climbing the inner curve of the monumental arch. We coax him down anxiously since the terrain below him is sharp with jagged lava.

We drive back to the hotel as the sun dips into the ocean, an orange ball of fire.

To be continued……

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Kumejima Get Away

Kumejima Get Away

The weather is supposed to be perfect this weekend and just this afternoon, I booked a trip to Kumejima Isalnd without Art’s help. We leave on the ferry tomorrow morning at 8:30 A.M. I am feeling empowered and excited tonight but I will not be able to write a “blog” until we return.


Marty .

Shunbun No Hi

Shunbun No Hi

Today is the spring equinox or Shunbun no hi, which literally means the day that divides spring. Tonight we are invited to the Shinzato’s to share in their celebration.

It’s a beautiful morning and Art has business to attend to so John and I take a short bicycle ride to the Chinese gardens to feed the koi fish and turtles. Entrance to the gardens is free and we pay 200 yen on fish food and I spend a pleasant hour watching John dole out the pellets to turtles and fish. The turtles are foolish and come close enough to be caught and John scoops a couple out of the pond and onto the bank. We laugh and watch them scurry back into the pond with a relieved splash. Hungry and having had enough of turtles we bicycle a few blocks further to Ryubo department store where I am sure we can find a “picture menu” restaurant on their top floor. Nothing suits the both of us and in frustration we descend back down the 8 floors and settle for Kentucky Fried Chicken, where John wanted to eat initially. Art calls my cell phone but we get disconnected and when I try to call back, the LCD panel, with a mind of its own has switched to kanji and is useless to me. I feel suddenly powerless and overwhelmed once again. We bicycle back home but my cell phone rings just before I spot Art’s bright red bicycle helmet moving towards us.

I spend the afternoon working on the wax original for a Sumo wrestler charm while Art tries to decipher the Japanese instructions for his new printer while John fusses over homework.

Tadashi arrives promptly at 6:00 P.M. to drive us to his parents’ home for the Shunbun no hi celebration. I am confused when he presents me with a gift bag, the contents being a beautifully boxed cake. John is delighted by the cake; no questions asked, but I ask Tadashi why? He explains to me that it is because we gave them a gift of baby clothes. In an earlier “blog” I mentioned that Tadashi lived with us for more than a year, 7 or 8 years ago. He is now married to Shoko and they have a 4 month old baby boy, Renta.

I show Tadashi my recent wax carvings of a puffer fish, ginkgo leaf and a goya. He flashes me a bright smile when he sees the “harisenbon” (puffer fish) charm. He and Shoko are divers and I promise to send him one when it is cast. I explain to him that I want to make a “Peace Crane.” I am taking paper with me tonight in the hopes that someone will show me how to make a paper crane to use it as a model.

I feel happy and at home when I enter the Shinzato’s home. After removing my shoes, I step up into their house and am greeted warmly. Exotic aromas fill the house. There seem to be more children than usual and I am immediately hopeful when I see a boy about John’s age lounging on a chair. Tadashi’s sister has three boys and the oldest is John’s age. (It’s probably the age but unfortunately neither boy exchanges a word throughout the entire evening.) I offer to help in the kitchen, but I am motioned to sit at the low table on the floor. I pull out the origami paper and within minutes the table is covered with squares of colorful paper, and dozens of cranes take to life.

There are 13 of us, including 2 babies and one toddler. The women, (all except me) busy themselves in the kitchen and 10 places are laid at a low table in the back room. Serving plates are set down the center of the table and small plates are put on the table before each mat on the floor. Before we sit down to eat, Shigeru, Tadashi’s older brother lights incense sticks and gives one to everyone. We file along the side of the table, bow slightly and offer up a prayer. The incense sticks are placed on the family alter before we sit down to eat. The serving dishes are piled with “fatty pork”, fried tofu, purple sweet potato, seaweed, daikon radishes etc. We are each served individual bowls of a pork and vegetable stew, a bowl of rice and another tiny bowl of vinegered seaweed. I enjoy the evening immensely.

John laughs and plays shanshin with Shigeru. Shigeru helps Art translate his brochure into kanji and we all help Shigeru understand the lyrics to an American/Japanese Rap song. I get to hold a baby! It’s a lovely evening.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Ryukyu Mura & the Yomitan

Ryukyu Mura & the Yomitan

Takaaki is driving us to the Yomitan district. It is easy to pry John out of bed with an excursion to anticipate. It’s a bright sunny day and our first stop is the Ryukyu Mura, an enclosed tourist park that is the recreation of a historical Ryukyu village. I have read, (or misread) that there is a Habu (Snake) and Mongoose fight and I know that John will enjoy this. When we arrive at the gate, we find out that the snake and mongoose fight is in the form of a 3D movie. Not reading Japanese, I assumed that this “fight” would be a humanely supervised encounter of mongoose and snake. John is obviously disappointed but we pay our entrance to the village and add on the few hundred yen necessary to see the Habu and Mongoose encounter in 3D. We are handed special glasses as we enter and the 4 of us sit in a small darkened tiered theatre. A mongoose and habu are on the stage in separated enclosures and a professorial looking man in a white smock talks excitedly about these two animals. Art translates as best he can, but most of the “hype” is lost to John and me. The habu, draped over a stick, is waved over the audience and children gasp and lean away from the dangling snake. The curtains part and a very low tech 3D movie unfold. The animated mongoose and snake encounter is so absurd that one must laugh and accept the performance for what it is. The film is over within 10 minutes and we file past information and photographs displayed along the wall. Happily, 6 years ago, habu and mongoose fights were outlawed but then we enter a small shop that is literally selling “snake oil.” We are graciously handed small folded papers containing a pinch of yellow habu powder. Initially I decline, but when Art and Takaaki take the powdered habu, I think of my good friend Stephanie with all her magic herbal remedies and accept the folded paper and chase down the “medicinal” habu with water. John is not allowed to have any. As we move further into the store, I see snake skin wallets and belts for sale. I regret having accepted powder and contributing to the demise of these graceful reptiles. No snake oil for me!

Bougainvilleas and morning glories vines bloom and the village glows in the afternoon sunlight. Many of these historical houses have been moved here from other parts of Okinawa so there is a sense of history here. A kneeling kimono clad musician plays the sanshin inside one of the rooms. A shansin is a traditional Okinawan three stringed instrument. Another house is devoted to weaving, the looms set and ready and for a small price you can weave a piece of fabric. A pottery studio is fully operational and Shisas are lined up waiting to be fired. We head in the direction of the Taiko drumming to watch a performance of Eisa; a drumming Troup accompanied by vocalists. Ryukyu Mura is a well orchestrated blend of reenactment and history.

It’s 1:30 P.M. when we leave and Takaaki suggests a fish restaurant for lunch and drives us up the coast just north of Yomitan. The tide is at its lowest and the white sand and water reflect vibrant shades of turquoise and emerald. A dozen distant figures are gathering seaweed offshore. We climb the stairs to an upscale restaurant with a view of the crescent bay and eat a delicious but rather expensive lunch. Throughout most of my “blog” I have noted that food and accommodations on Okinawa are considerably less expensive than in the bay area, but today’s restaurant is an exception. We order 4 teishokus, (a teishoku is a set plate that includes miso soup, rice and pickled vegetables in addition to the entrée.) Takaaki orders a whole fish that is presented head and all, white fogged eyes gazing up blindly. Knowing how a whole fish would be served, John and I have wimped out and ordered Ebi Fry and “select” pieces of fried fish. All is delicious and our bill is close 5,500 Yen; about $50.00 for the four of us. Both the view and the food are exceptional and it is still a bargain by California standards.

Art is carrying the “Okinawa Explorer” guidebook and with book in hand we set out on an adventure to find the “Takayamaa Gushuku.” This ancient prayer site is supposedly situated on the crest of a hill in the Zakami area. We turn off of Hwy 58 onto route 12 and after a few wrong turns, we follow a dirt road to a recycling plant. The road ends and we find ourselves in a rural farming area. Takaaki tells us that he thinks that this Utaki quest is a “bad idea” and waits in the car while Art, John and I set out to find this spiritual place. The path is tangled in vegetation, but the directions in the guidebook are clear. Art pauses at a fork and asks me if I think that the path to the right might be the one? I have a few misgivings as I lead the way and step knee deep into creeping vines and underbrush, but there is a shadow of a trail and only the spider webs catching onto my arms deter me. The jungle is beautiful and the foliage is back lit by the sunlight as I power up the almost invisible path. The climb is steep and short and we emerge upon a small utaki at the crest of the hill. Noro priestesses revered this magical spot where a single palm tree stands rooted onto a piece of limestone.

Our last side trip is to visit the tomb of Sho Hashi, the first king of the Ryukyu Kingdom. Getting there is another adventure and Takaaki drives us several kilometers’ along a dirt road to the spot where we think we should begin our hike. The jungle is deliciously backlit with golden rays of sunlight, the narrow path slick with mud and decomposed leaves. It is a short walk to the tomb and when we arrive I am awed by a monumental aka tree; vines and tendrils cascading down forming a natural cathedral above this ancient tomb. It is a beautiful and magical setting for a burial ground.

Traffic is extremely heavy on the way back and Takaaki may be late for a 5:00 P.M. meeting. We walk the final few blocks back to our apartment and hope that Takaaki makes his meeting on time.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Goya Weekend

Goya Weekend

It’s Saturday morning and we have been here 6 weeks. What is there left for us to do on a drizzly Saturday? Art and I can always find work to do. I can carve waxes and Art can work on his web site, but it’s not so easy for John. We hoped that he would make friends but that hasn’t happened and it looks like John will spend much of today playing computer games

Art walks up to the One or Eight Internet Café. I start my Okinawan Charm Collection by carving a “Goya” charm. Goya is a popular Okinawan vegetable. It’s translation in English is “bitter melon” and is thought to be one of the secrets of Okinawan longevity. It is of the gourd family, shaped a bit like a large fat ridged cucumber. It has high vitamin C content and a bitter taste. Goya and Tofu Champuru (stir-fry) is a traditional Okinawan dish that I do my best to avoid. This funny vegetable has become an Okinawan icon. Every tourist shop sells green plastic goya key rings, costume jewelry and goya printed T shirts with ridiculous sayings. This unsuspecting vegetable has been given a face and usually wears a hat and shoes. Think of it as the Okinawan version of Mr. Potato Head. No Okinawan charm collection would be complete without a sterling silver version of the goya. While I work on my goya charm, John plays Fable and Halo in a contented daze. I cook a very early diner at home.

Around 9:30 P.M, antsy from being home all day and slightly hungry, I suggest that we (Art and I) walk out to a nearby Izikaya that we stumbled upon earlier this week. John, still glued to his computer game is oblivious to our leaving. The air is freshly washed from the rain earlier and we walk a dozen blocks to the Izikaya. Earlier this week, Art and I ate here for lunch and we and feel like “regulars” as we duck in and seat ourselves at the tiny counter. This Izikaya is owned by two women who I suspect are mother and daughter. The older of the two women is in her 70’s. There are three Japanese style tables along one wall, and 7 or 8 chairs at the counter. A group of men sit eating, drinking and smoking at one of the low tables. Art studies the menu boards strung along the wall and orders several dishes and a small flask of awamori for us to share. I relax into the experience and watch the two women cook as I sip the icy awamori and water. Awamori is distilled rice liquor unique to the Ryukyu Islands. Other than beer, it is the beverage of choice for the locals. Most Americans are familiar with Japanese sake which is fermented from rice, just as wine is fermented from grapes but awamori is distilled liquor, comparable to whiskey and unique to these islands. We nibble on gukuten, a taro fritter; teriyaki chicken and an Okinawan stew with daikon, tofu and kelp. Our bill is only 2,800. Yen, or about $25.00. John is disappointed to see us return since it means the end of his computer game marathon but he wants me to write in my blog that he has beaten Halo. (He may not get into Stanford, but he is dam good at computer games!)


The sun is out this morning and the three of us ride bicycles up to Shintoshin for our “Starbuck Sunday” morning. I wish we were going to the Bonny Doon Church instead. I am feeling homesick today. As we sit and sip coffee, Art practices writing kanji, John works on homework and I type a short travel article for There is a free 1:00 P.M. concert just outside the doors to the Naha Main Place Mall and we stick around to listen. For three weeks running a different musical group has been featured. Last week, a sanshin folk musician preformed and I enjoyed his energetic style. Today’s featured group is not my taste and John wears that “suffering” look, that only a 14 year old can achieve. It is a small audience and I poke at John and whisper to him to at least try to look enthusiastic.

We eat a late lunch together and afterwards, at John’s suggestion, we bicycle to Kokosai Dori to watch the Sunday street scene. Kokosai Dori is closed to traffic on Sundays and throngs of people are out; families and children everywhere. Small but official stages are set up along this long shopping street. We stop to watch several musical groups and a troop of “hip hop break dancers” perform. The dancers are especially awesome! Unfortunately, we are not a particularly harmonious family this afternoon, so we cut John free to ride his bicycle back home. (My suspicion is that the newly arrived computer games have taken John under their spell.)

Art and I take our time meandering back and I cook a simple dinner at home. I am in a melancholy mood and after dinner I get lost working on a puffer fish charm.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Safe Landing!

Safe Landing!

I usually wake before Art and John and tiptoe into our tiny dining and kitchen area to make coffee and check my e-mail. I relish the hour alone before anyone wakes but this morning’s e-mail confirms that my 3 original dragon waxes arrived safely and in tact. I shout out loudly with relief and excitement at their safe arrival! The package arrived in the U.S. sometime Thursday. It is Friday morning in Okinawa as I read the e-mail and I am already planning my day around sending a second package this afternoon before the post office closes. Art is fully awake from my loud outburst and sleepily shares in my relief.

Art’s Japanese tutor arrives at 11:00 A.M. and after pouring the two of them tea, I retreat into our small connecting living room and work on my Lava Dragon Ring with new enthusiasm. John sits on the couch typing journal entries on the computer. Narumi isn’t even out the door before Art has dressed in a suit to go to the convention center for an American Chamber of Commerce event. John and I spend the afternoon at home and at 4:00 P.M. I bicycle towards the post office. A week ago the trip to mail my original waxes was an emotional ordeal but today I am confident and light of heart. I suspect that the women who helped me last week have a different view upon my arrival, but with forms filled out and the package wrapped properly, the mailing takes less than 10 minutes. Although I will wait anxiously for news of the packages safe arrival, I am not the emotional wreck that I was a week ago.

Art returns from his day excited and stressed. He has a business party to attend tonight at the convention center, has purchased a printer and is hurriedly printing off material to promote To John’s delight, his Papa has stopped by our friend’s house in Urasoe to pick up a package mailed from California. The package contains three computer games and an Xbox 360 controller, all compatible with our laptop computers. John is ecstatic! (Thank you again Michael!)

Tonight, John and I walk up to Shintoshin for dinner with plans to shop for groceries on the way back home. This is only the second time that John and I have eaten out without Art as our personal translator. The first time was weeks ago when I needed to motion the waitress outside to point to the plastic display food in the window. I realize that we must stick to a mainstream restaurant with a glossy picture menu so John and I walk to the Naha Main Place Mall. I know we are in trouble as soon as we enter the restaurant and the hostess asks us a question? I stare blankly back at her until she asked me a second time in stilted English, “Do we preferred smoking or non smoking?” Even with pictures to point at, ordering is difficult. The waitress asks us more questions and all I can do is smile vacantly. I imagine the questions were something like “What kind of noodles do you want in the soba?” “Would you like something besides tea to drink?” John orders an elaborate sukiyaki dinner, and to compensate, I order a small shrimp and vegetable set, knowing that I will get to eat the exotic mushrooms and vegetables included with John’s dinner. Our shiny lacquered trays are delivered. John is delighted with the presentation, the cooking pot and all the meats and vegetables simmering in the broth. As I predicted, John passes the “fungi” and the vegetables to me, and then inhales every lasts morsel of his dinner. I am pleased to see him so delighted with his meal. Our two dinners are 3,100 yen, about $28.00 including tax and tip. We stop at one of the huge supermarkets on the way home and fill John’s backpack with bottled water, tea and other provisions. In addition to the backpack we carry several heavy plastic bags of groceries home. I have not yet been asked “Paper or Plastic?” It is always plastic and very much of it. Everything is over packaged. We catch a taxi back home. It’s a bit difficult to communicate our destination to the driver, but our apartment is just a few blocks from the ferry terminal and we are practiced at saying “Tomair Port”. Taxis are a bargain here and our taxi ride home is 5.40 yen, less than $5.00.