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 entrĂ©e 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.

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