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 cafĂ©, 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.