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.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Shuri-Ori Weaving

Shuri-Ori Weaving

This weather pattern of rain one day and glorious sunshine the next is odd, but we are trying to use it to our advantage. When the sun is shining we make it a day of discovery and photography. When the weather is wet and cold, we stay close to home and work on our various projects.

I suggest that we visit a Shuri-Ori Kohbo (weaving school) that I have heard about. This weaving school is below Shuri Castle in the same general area as Chuzan, a shop selling fine kimono fabrics and antique items. (We discovered the Chuzan store last April and I want to treat my senses to a second visit.)

Art plans our attack and we walk to the monorail and purchase three all day ride passes. I adore the “metros” of Paris and the “tubes” of London, and I am adding the Monorail of Naha to my list of “favorites.” The skyline of Naha is not pretty but I am growing use to the juxtaposition of the old red tile roofed houses dwarfed by multistory concrete apartment buildings. The spider web of electrical and telecommunication wires are mind-boggling and all the buildings are in desperate need of a painting. Priorities here are very different from home. We step onto the futuristic monorail and glide above the rooftops. We gaze down upon rooftop gardens and laundry hanging out to dry. The day is so clear we can see the Pacific Ocean glistening in the distance. We get off at the Gibo Station and with map in hand navigate in the direction of the weaving school.

Hunger strikes and we stop into a “Soba” noodle restaurant along the way. The restaurant is quite busy and has a new twist. A ticket vending machine sits just inside the entrance and you choose your entrée and pay for it at the vending machine. A ticket is issued to you and you present this to the waitress who in turn delivers it to the cook. We sit at the counter to watch the action. Huge cauldrons of water boil for the soba noodles, cooks chop and woks sizzle. Our meals are delivered shortly; not memorable, but adequate and very cheap.

Art navigates us several blocks further on, down a very steep hairpin road, to the weaving school. Naha is densely populated; the homes and apartment buildings crammed closely together, but around any corner you may come upon an ancient tomb or an undeveloped lot overgrown into a jungle. Below the road to the weaving school and spanning a small gully is a beautiful dense tangle of trees and vines. Rows of apartment buildings are just the other side of this small canyon but the jungle between is so dense that it would be virtually impassible.

The weaving school is small and the teacher is obviously surprised to have foreign visitors, but after removing our shoes and slipping into the plastic house slippers provided, we are invited into the classroom. There are 16 looms arranged grid like in the studio. Most of them are actively occupied by students who do their best to ignore us while they continue to slide shuttle between warp and woof. Art is intent on learning all that he can about the various styles of weaving and he bombards the instructor with questions. She leaves the room and returns with a dozen rolls of silk unwrapping each carefully, almost reverently and explaining the various techniques. A Kimono requires 13 meters of fabric. An average of 1/3 of a meter can be woven each day. By my calculations, this means that it takes 40 days of nonstop weaving, to make the cloth for one kimono. It is no wonder the rolls of silks and cottons that I have admired cost many thousands of dollars. My request to take photographs is denied.

We climb back up to the main street with intentions of continuing onto the Chuzan Shop but John is antsy and BEGS to go home. Initially he was somewhat interested in the weaving studio, but we stayed for an hour and the unrolling of the many bolts of fabric was painfully boring to him. We tell him he may go home and he balks. He wants us all to go home together, but John is 14, has an all day monorail pass and is in one of the safest cities on this planet. We give him some yen, one of our cell phones and point him back in the direction of the monorail. Both Art and I think that finding his own way home will be a good experience for him. Art and I trudge uphill in the direction of Shuri Castle and the Chuzan Shop. Even my feet are beginning to tire, but I am immediately revitalized when we enter this beautiful kimono shop. Alone, I would have been too intimidated to enter, but with Art I feel comfortable and I browse for close to an hour. This established shop offers traditional Okinawan luxury goods to the sophisticated and well funded shopper. It feels more like a gallery than a shop and I wish that I could afford one of the noren (fabric door curtains) that they have on display. A simple hemp bingata noren is $1,000. There is one with a dragon that I rather like, and another with an elaborate dyed floral pattern that is $2,500. After placing our shoes in cubby holes along side of the carpeted stairway, we proceed up to the second floor. The second floor has rolled silks displayed in glass cabinets, antique furniture and pottery. The third floor is my favorite and is actually a working studio. Skylights light this work space and low work tables are set along the floor. There are glass containers with natural plants used to make the dyes, brushes and brain coral stamps. This gallery/shop makes a unique line of clothing with stampings from the coral. Strung above our heads and along the pitch of the roof are miles and miles of woven and bingata fabric. All is breathtaking and I leave with many photographs but wish that I could take home the hemp dragon noren.

We call John on his cell phone and he has just made it home. He tells us that he got off at the wrong monorail station and had to walk some distance home, but he is now plugged into a computer game and is very happy. We are tired, but with our all day monorail pass in hand we decide to stop first at the Ryubo Department store to shop for groceries in their basement gourmet market-delicatessen. All of the department stores have a floor devoted to gourmet take home food. The selection is overwhelming and we wheel our miniature cart along the aisles and taste samples. John loves “ebi fry” (large batter fried shrimp.) We pick up several of these to bring back to him as a “Peace Offering” for having deserted him this afternoon; or did he desert us? We taste and gather a different kind of shrimp, scallops and steamed vegetables, hop back onto the monorail and return to our apartment. We eat a gourmet T.V. dinner.

Thursday, March 15, 2007



We took the ferry to Tokashiki Island yesterday and it was bright and sunny but today cats and dogs are falling from the skies. I walk down to the phone at our corner “Family Mart and make phone calls in the rain. I want sushi for breakfast and with umbrella in hand, walk briskly over to the fish market returning with two “bento boxes” of nigiri sushi. After breakfast, Art leaves to go to the “One or Eight Internet Café” to work on his web site. I spend the better part of the day absorbed in carving a “Lava Dragon Ring” around a delicious piece of Arizona Fire Agate. John is fascinated by the gemstones that we purchased at the Tucson Gem and Mineral show and he shuffles through the collection offering up some very good design suggestions. John busies himself with homework and plays internet games on the computer. By late afternoon my shoulders are aching and John is frustrated playing games without a “mouse.” He has Christmas money to spend, the rain has ceased and the two of us bicycle up to Shintoshin to the “Good Will” (an electronic store) to purchase a mouse. After his purchase we part ways, John returns home to hook up his new electronic gadget and I bicycle towards Kokusai Street. I have tried on several occasions to “shop” for gifts in this international shopping district and each time I have returned empty handed. Realize that I am traveling with two men who dislike the sort of stores that would interest most women. Realize also that when I am alone I cannot communicate more than minimally with the store keepers. Add to this, that I am not a good shopper to begin with.

I park my bicycle in a corner plaza across from the Mitsukoshi Department Store. I push open the glass doors of Mitsukoshi and am “greeted” with a cheerful and formal ”irashaimase.” (Please come in.) This greeting is called out to me in every department that I pass through. I would like to be invisible, but eyes follow my every move. My destination is the 6th and 7th floors, where traditional Japanese and Okinawa goods are for sale. I browse the lacquer ware and potteries displays and want to go into the Kimono gallery, just to admire the rolls of silk fabric, but I am intimidated and turn on my heels and escape back down the elevator, across the street and into the bustle of the Heiwa Dori arcade. I know my way around here and have my favorite shops. I am looking for two birthday gifts and a dragon noren. (A noren is the cloth curtain that hangs in many doorways.) Two hours later I still have not purchased anything and my cell phone rings. Art asks where I am and offers to come join me. 20 minutes later I spot him standing beside his bicycle, wearing his red helmet and waiting to cross the street. I am so very happy to see him and we retrace my steps back through the maze of arcades and tiny shops. I have been too timid to ask prices and unable to ask for different sizes and Art goes with me and is my translator. We score one of the two gifts I am searching for. (Mom, keep your eye out for a package!) I take him to a picturesque alley that I’ve discovered where a tiny Sanshin Izakaya is hidden. We ask questions about it and hope to return some evening to eat and drink and listen to the traditional music. We bicycle home in the dark and I cook a quick dinner for all of us before Art and John leave for Tuesday night Karate.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Tokashiki Island

Tokashiki Island

Sunny weather is predicted today and we are going to Tokashiki Island but he skies are still grey when we board the 10:00 A.M. ferry. Our one way tickets are 1,470 yen each. We plan on returning this afternoon, but the regular return ferry leaves at 4:00 P.M. and I think we may want to return on the later and slightly more expensive 5:30 express ferry.

20 minutes out at sea, we see a gathering of 6 to 8 boats still in the water. These are the whale watching boats and our ferry slows and actually stops so we can watch the whale (or whales?) We are not as close or well positioned as the smaller chartered boats, but we see the whale spout, surface, dive, flip its tail and then resurface and lie on its back in the water and flap its flippers together a number of times. He is quite a show off! After his show is over another whale surfaces and spouts further out. It is very amazing to see these creatures and to know that these huge mammals are gliding beneath the waves. As we near Tokashiki Island we spot a pod of dolphins but they don’t pose for photographs and swim quickly by. John catches a glimpse a flying fish launching itself from the water and soaring through the air. (I personally didn’t witness this, but Art verifies the sighting and recalls the flying fish he saw as a boy living on Okinawa.)

The sun begins to break through the clouds just as we dock on Tokashiki. We catch a mini bus “taxi” to Aharen Beach. The price is 2.50 yen per person and 11 of us cram into the bus. This is my third trip to Tokashiki Island and to Aharen Beach. The bus takes us up a steep road cutting through the lush mountain vegetation, switching back and forth and then dropping back down on the other side, to Aharen Village and beach. I would guess Aharen Village has less than 1000 inhabitants. The village itself is an odd mixture of ancient wooden homes with traditional red tile roofs, hinpins, limestone and coral walls, interspersed between ugly modern 2 and 3 story concrete menchkus, (guest houses.) All the houses and menchkus are behind walls and often the ancient walls morph into cinderblock walls. The village is a mish mash of architecture and portable storage containers serve as out buildings, their ugly steel exterior contrasting with the beauty of the traditional island homes.

Our mini bus drops us at the end of the street. There are a handful of tiny shops and restaurants on this 2 block stretch of town. The pathway to the beach drops abruptly down from the small asphalt parking area and John, having been here twice before makes a beeline for the white crescent beach. I follow on John’s heels and flop down on the sand. John is already in the water wearing his snorkel and mask. The turquoise water is crystal clear and John swims out to take a look at this underwater world. Although the sun is out, it’s not one of those scorching beach days that make one want to cool off in the water. When John returns to shore he is shivering and his lips are blue. Last April we stayed here overnight and we prearranged a dive trip for Art and John. Wet suits were provided by the dive shop and I went along and snorkeled above them. John coaxes me to join him, but I balk. (I regret this decision in retrospect.) Art doesn’t want to go into the water without a wet suit, and I wonder where I will change into my swimsuit and worry about how cold it will be etc. Art and I stand on the beach and watch John swim further and further out and soon his snorkel is indiscernible from the snorkels of a dozen divers. We have neglected to tell John exactly how far out he is allowed to swim and I begin to panic. I assure myself that the ocean is calm and that there are other divers out with him but I had a terrible scare three years ago, snorkeling in the Galapagos Islands with John and Alisha. John disappeared from our group and was missing for over 20 minutes. I refused to believe the impossible but it was the most terrifying 20 minutes of my life. Gratefully, John was eventually spotted on the far side of the bay snorkeling with a young man from our ship. John had been with us one minute and then he was gone. His excuse was that the water was clearer away from the rocky ledge so he swam with his new friend to the distant side of the bay and with the sun low on the horizon; their snorkels were invisible to us.

Art waves and apparently catches John’s attention and I am greatly relieved to see a lone snorkel moving back towards shore. Back on land, John excitedly describes all the colorful fish, tells us that there is a lot of live coral, including table coral and that he saw some clown fish swimming inside anemones. John also reports that the divers have hooks and nets and that he thinks they are collecting abalone. We discover shortly that they are collecting the “Crown of Thorn” starfish, an invasive starfish that eats the coral. I take photos of their nets filled with the villain starfish. We take a long walk together along the sand and then up and along the road above, to take the perfect photo of this beautiful beach.

Our lunch options are limited and all the restaurants serve pretty much the same thing at the same price. We choose a restaurant with the half dozen cats lounging in the sun outside the door. Art orders me a Yasai Champuru, (Vegetable Stir Fry.) The vegetables are cooked with the virtually unavoidable spam chunks. I push the spam to the side of my plate and do my best to appreciate the flavoring it gives to my cabbage stir fry.

On our last visit to this island we stumbled into a magical spot just outside of the village in the edge of the Jungle. I named it the “Salamander Utaki” and I want to go there again. We walk away from the beach along narrow village streets towards the far left corner of the village. The village ends abruptly and there are fields and small private vegetable gardens here. One of these tiny gardens is fenced creatively using broken fishing poles tied together with wire and rope. Plastic bags and colorful paper are tied to the wire and flutter in the breeze keeping the crows away. A stream runs along side of the path and the ground is soggy and overgrown. I am certain that there are habu here, (a poisonous Okinawan snake) but equally certain that the habu don’t want to meet us any more than we do them, so we push through the high grass and duck under overhanging vines. The pathway enters the jungle and crosses over the stream. The jungle has all but taken over. I am surprised how this magical place has changed in less than a year.

The following excerpt is what I wrote about this spot in April of 2006: “John discovers several newts in the shallow water and as our eyes adjust to the dim light we see dozens of red bellied newts. We tread carefully as we walk further up the stream making certain not to step on any of these wonderful creatures. We are all delighted to have stumbled upon this enchanted spot. When we return back along the path towards the village a wizened old woman is now tending one of the tiny gardens. She is surprised to see foreigners but greets us warmly. She points to where we just came from and tells us that it is a spirit place. I understand because I just experienced the magic.”

Tonight we “Google” Ryukyu Salamander and we believe that these creatures are the Ryukyu Fire Bellied Newt, a member of the salamander family.

We have never visited Tokashiki beach, another popular snorkeling beach on the island. Art speaks with the woman who owns the private mini van and she agrees to take us there for $1,000 yen. Again John is in the water in an instant, and reports that the water is cloudy near the shoreline but that snorkeling is even better than at Aharen Beach. We walk together along the rocky shore for an hour. The rocks are slippery with mossy seaweed and I almost take a plunge. It’s nearing 5:00 P.M. and time to catch our express ferry back to Naha. It only takes 35 minutes to return, the sun sets a brilliant orange and we see another whale.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Weekend

The Weekend

The overcast weather is conducive to nesting and I am content to work on waxes and catch up on writing. We allow John to sleep late but when he wakes, his cough and congestion are considerably worse and my focus for the day is to get him antibiotics for the sinus infection. The need to find doctor clouds my morning but Art is not so concerned and the logistics are not easy. John busies himself with scissors, poking ventilating holes in the plastic top of one of his beetle’s containers. I am startled from my waxes when John exclaims about the blood! The scissors have slipped and he has sliced his left forefinger deeply and almost completely around. I look at the clean but extremely deep slice and pale. My maternal inclination is to rush John to emergency and get the cut stitched together, but the cut is clean and blood is oozing not gushing. John holds a paper towel tightly over his finger while Art hurries out to get bandages and disinfectant. (I have the remembered to bring Neosporin from home.) The next several hours are spent alternatively checking on John’s finger, the color of his nasal mucus and making phone calls to find out where best to take him, should we deem it actually necessary to go to either emergency or to a doctor over the weekend. The afternoon slips slowly by and we do nothing. John complains little and I return to work. Sometime later, I hear a raspy sound and look up to see John sawing wooden chopsticks with a serrated knife. His intention is to cut splints to immobilize his already wounded finger. I ask him, none too gently, if he wants to slice open another finger today? Art bicycles up to Shintoshin to escape it all.

With so many things going wrong today, I am happy when Art calls later on and suggests that we meet him in Shintoshin for dinner? John and I are out of our apartment in a flash, walking the ¾ miles to meet him. When we connect, Art asks if I have any cash? I have very little. This actually frees us and we search for a restaurant that will accept credit cards. It’s a Saturday night, we are in a very fashionable district and there are many inviting restaurants. We choose an upscale Izakaya and are seated at the counter, their only available seats. We are happy to be watching the preparation of the exotic entrées and Art does his best to order us many unusual dishes. The service is first class and the waiter kneels to be at our level when he takes our orders. The décor is ambient, a mixture of contemporary with traditional. Even John has a memorable evening. The three of us eat and drink to our hearts content and the bill is less than $75.00 for us all, including tax and tip.

Sunday: John is still under the weather, and his finger is not yet throbbing with infection. His wish is to sleep in so Art and I bicycle together to Starbucks and relax into another Starbuck Sunday. Several hours vanish as I write an article on shopping in Naha, for We return back to our apartment, read, write and check the weather for Monday. Sunshine is predicted for Monday. Our plans are to take the ferry to Tokashiki Island, Monday morning.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Sayonara Dragons!

Sayonara Dragons!

It’s a cloudy Friday morning and with my body is sore from our hike to Hiji falls, I’m happy to have a day at home. Art dresses in a suit, takes one of our laptop computers and goes to the “One or Eight Internet Café” to work on I spend the morning finishing my Soaring Dragon Ear Cuff wax. John has never fully recovered from the cold we all had last month and this morning he complains that his throat is sore and he sniffles and coughs as he lazes in front of the television. I nag him to read his novel for school, but he resists and I get lost in the concentration of my work and let him be.

The cupboards are bare and I break to ride my bicycle up to the market in Shintoshin. I take John’s empty backpack so that I can carry home the groceries. I buy a large bottle of vitamin water for John and two tiny concentrated bottles of a vitamin C cocktail. These tiny vitamin drink bottles are a novelty to me and there are dozens of varieties to choose from. Deciphering the Kanji labels would be impossible for me but the “1350 mg C” stands out clearly from the kanji and I place them in my tiny shopping cart. The vitamin water is a great idea and I wish we had this at home. The large 2 liter bottle contains 4,000 mg of vitamin C. It’s a slightly sweet citrus flavored drink, but not as intensely sugared as soda. I buy all that I think I can fit into John’s backpack, including 6 eggs and peddle home. The eggs make it home unbroken.

It’s now late Friday afternoon and I have been agonizing over shipping my three original dragon waxes to my casters back in the U.S. I have considered carrying them home with me, but that will not allow time for casting and for the stones to be set before my summer shows begin. Scheduling aside I am equally worried about carrying home “all my dragon eggs in one basket” so to speak. (I think this journal entry has an egg theme to it.) I carefully remove the gemstones from the dragons and package each of the three dragon waxes in small zip lock bags and tuck the tiny bags gently into a soft nest of shredded plastic bags accumulated from marketing . I place the “nest box” inside a larger box, also padded with recycled plastic bags and carefully fill out the mailing label. I place my treasured dragons inside John’s backpack and bicycle off to the post office. It is misting lightly and as I peddle, I worry that the package will get lost, or that the waxes will break, or melt. This tape plays over and over in my head and I am anxious and emotional when I arrive at the post office. Unlike our post office at home on a Friday afternoon, there is no one in line. I was here two days ago gathering forms and asking questions and two women recognize me and motion me to the counter. They look my form over and frown in confusion when they come to the content declaration on my form. I have printed neatly, “4 original wax sculptures.” (John’s wax carving of his beetle Frack is also enclosed in the package.) Wisely, I have brought along my cell phone and I dial Art and ask him to explain what is inside the box. I also tell him I would like to insure it for $500; not that $500 would compensate me in any way for all the time invested, but I think the insurance might give the package some special care. I haven’t sealed the package and John’s wax is separate from my dragons and easily accessible. I show the women the beetle wax. She asks if it is a candle? Art speaks with the clerks for several minutes and then hangs up. They take my forms over to a supervisor and the three of them talk for some time, and then make copies of the forms. I watch this all anxiously. One of the women returns and points to my phone and I dial Art again. She looks very puzzled throughout this second conversation. I need to call Art a third time and he is exasperated with the whole situation and is short with me. The gist is that t is too complicated to insure the package and that it will take a week to 10 days to get there. Art suggests that I wait until Monday and ask Narumi to help me mail the package. I feel tears welling up in my eyes and struggle not to cry. I know that the addresses are correct, that the box is well packed. With hand signals I tell them to go ahead and mail the package without insurance. I am reasonably certain that the package will arrive safely, but to be unable to communicate and be completely dependent upon others to do things for me diminishes me to tears and I cry as I bicycle home.

Art is home when I unlock the door and it’s pretty obvious that I am upset. John is feeling worse and is reading his novel quietly. I sit down to my work table and try to focus on a new project. Art breaks the silence with light humor, suggesting that he take his “miserable” wife and son someplace bright and cheery for dinner. It’s drizzling lightly and we catch a taxi to the D.F.S. Mall and glide up the sleek escalator to the stylish Galleria Food Court. Our intent is to sit outside on the covered patio, but there is a private party going on and we are not on the guest list. John inhales his hamburger and is anxious to leave, but we ply him with dessert while Art and I eat leisurely and share a small flask of awamori. The 4 inch ceramic flask of awamori is presented on a tray beside two glass tumblers, bottled water and an ice bucket. Art clinks ice into our glasses, adds the awamori, mixes it with bottled water and stirs. A few sips into the icy cold drink and I feel much happier.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Gambate to Hiji Falls

Gambate to Hiji Falls

I wake up before the 7:00 A.M. alarm in anticipation of our drive to Hiji Falls. Takaki has another day off and has offered to take us to the falls and to Hedo point, the most northern point of Okinawa. It’s heavily overcast and I check the weather report via Art’s site. We won’t see blue sky anytime soon, but rain isn’t predicted until tonight. Takaki drives Highway 58 North following the coastline and I gaze out the window at the Onna Coast on a steely grey day. We drove this route two weeks ago on a bright sunny day and the water was an intoxicating turquoise and the white sand was blinding. Today the ocean is a deep indigo blue. Engineered seawalls define the contour of the island delineating land from water. The Highway winds along the edge of the seawall. Very little coast line remains natural. Cement breakwaters shelter the “designed” beaches and at one prime spot our lane of traffic is stopped while land moving vehicles groan across traffic to add to the coastal land fill upon which another resort hotel will be erected. As we near Nago, sea stacks become more plentiful, dotting the offshore coastline. These whimsical mushroomed shaped island rock formations are crowned with lush tropical foliage. I e-mailed my father, Dr. John Crowell, a renowned geologist, to ask how these formations were created. Here is his explanation verbatim: “Sea stacks, in Okinawa, Oregon, or at many other places on Earth, are almost always due to a combination of sea-level changes over an interval of time along a coast with bedrock that is fairly resistant to wave erosion, but can still be eroded away. The stacks are most conspicuous where relative sea level stays level for a time and waves eat away at the coast, and resistant parts between bays are left standing high, and less resistant parts are worn away. Most of Japan and the Ryukyu chain are geologically young volcanic rocks -- at some places easily eroded and at others more resistant so they remain as stacks. In general the stacks along the Oregon coast are made of much older rock and very much more complicated in their history than the Japanese stacks. Geologists these days are interested in whether the changes in sea level are primarily the result of climate change or tectonics (including volcanism) or the lowering of sea level because water is tied up in polar ice caps, lowering the world-wide sea level, or the rise and fall of the crust through tectonics.”

We stop for lunch just before the turn inland for Hiji Falls. We are in the Yanbaru district far north of the Motobu Peninsula, in a sparsely populated part of the island. It’s a bit before noon and we have the cavernous restaurant and huge gift shop to ourselves. From where I sit I can see into the kitchen and the cooks are busily preparing dozens of Teishokus. A teishoku is a meal “set.” and in addition to the entrée it usually includes miso soup, rice and a small plate of pickled vegetables or salad. I expect to see tour buses pull into the vast parking lot at any moment. Shortly after we are served two dozen elderly men appear out of nowhere and their teishokus are delivered to them quickly. Why are there are no buses in the parking lot?

We drive to the trail head and park for our hike to Hiji Falls. Entrance to the park is 200 Yen each and I expect an easy hike. A wooden boardwalk leads to the falls and we begin our hike. I am fueled from lunch and even on this grey day, the jungle is beautiful. Ferns and moss carpet the ground under a low canopy of trees. Vine tendrils drip down and strangler vines cut patters into the trees. I am trying to paint a picture, but know very little about plants. The route follows the river and we climb up and then drop down and then climb up some more. The wooden stairways have handrails and become steeper and steeper. I feel exhilarated each time I reach the top of a long flight of steps, only to be deflated when I see that the stairs descend down on the other side, and then back up again! I take more photos than usual as an excuse to catch my breath. There are many young hikers on the trail and one returning group cheers us on with the popular phrase “Gambate!” Gambate means to “strive on.” It is a positive phrase of encouragement and becomes my hiking mantra. John is the first to arrive at the falls but I am not far behind taking photos of him and Takaki as they leap and scramble onto large boulders beneath the falls. Three young men in slacks sit on another large bolder and take photos of the waterfall with their cell phones. I take photos of them. It has taken us just short of an hour to hike here and I am having a wonderful afternoon, but the falls are not spectacular. (Keep in mind that I am a California gal, the daughter of a geologist, and have hiked to waterfalls around the world.) The hike itself and the surrounding jungle has been the reward. After 20 minutes resting at the base of the falls we start our return trip and make it back to the car in less than 30 minutes. My legs feel like Jello as I settle into the back seat of Takaki’s mini van.

Takaki drives us further North to Hedo Point. Although Takaki had never hiked to Hiji falls, he has been to Hedo Point on many occasions. He waits patiently in his van while the three of us walk out to the windy point and take photos. The volcanic rocks protrude sharply through varieties of low growing succulent plants. John and I wonder where the marine iguanas are? This particular terrain looks remarkably like parts of the Galapagos Islands.

Art wants to drive to Aha on our return route. Aha is a remote village on the Northern Pacific side of Okinawa. He has read that there are still homes with thatched roofs in this village. Takaki returns via the Pacific side of the island and John and I fall asleep in the back seat of the car. The road is a bit like the less traveled coastal sections along Highway 1 along the California coast where the road twists and turns but the miles add up slowly. We eventually arrive in Aha and it is a small, unattractive and nondescript town set beside a river with cement river embankments. Takaki dutifully asks where the thatched roofed houses are and receives blank stares. We park and climb up an old stone pathway lined with ancient stone and coral walls to the park high on the hill. (I am not happy to be climbing anything more at this point today; but I certainly don’t want to be left behind.) There is very little that is charming about Aha except for the ancient walls and pathways; but Art and Takaki inquire several more times about the existence of the thatched roof houses. We find that we are 30 years too late.

Dusk is falling and Takaki drives us back towards Naha. We have covered less than 120 miles round trip from Naha to Hedo and back, but every mile has been a long one between the traffic and the winding coastal roads. Okinawa is only 70 miles long from top to bottom, a distance that we could cover in an hour on our U.S. freeways. At 7:30 P.M. we pull into a simple restaurant for dinner. We each order a basic “Teishoku” and the bill is 3,300 yen for the four of us. ($28.00) During dinner I learn that Takaki has an early morning plane to catch to mainland Japan. I am sure Takaki is exhausted, but he graciously drives us home.