Okinawa: Japanese Paradise or The Land of Barbed Wire?

The weekend began with the aquarium debate.  Would we or should we drive a round trip total of 4 -5 hours to see the world’s 2nd largest aquarium?  I was torn.  How do you visit a place and not go to it’s #1 tourist attraction?  Tom was on the opposite side of the equation.  How do you spend 5 out of a possible 48 hours of a weekend away in a car?  He won.  We didn’t see any sharks or whales behind glass although when we came out of the baggage claim we did find a man inside a large fish tank cleaning the glass.  This was the closest we came to an aquarium.  We landed in Okinawa on a Friday evening, following Tom and Hayden who had left Tokyo on Thursday afternoon with their baseball team to take part in “Spring Fling” a 5 school baseball tournament held yearly at Camp Foster.  As I boarded the plane and changed my FB status to alert the media to our imminent departure for Okinawa, a good friend wrote a little message warning me of the sea snakes.  What sea snakes?  I typed frantically back into my iphone.  It was at that moment that the nice stewardess reminded me to turn off all cell phones as we were about to take off.  I spent the next two hours wondering what they were.  I didn’t have to wait long to find out.  When I turned the phone back on in the gate, I had a long description of sea snakes and even a link to wikipedia (  Turns out they are pretty lethal buggers and they are all over Okinawa.  Putting that out of my mind for the moment, Tom and I began the quest to find our rental car.  The idea of Hertz Gold service is non-existent in Japan.  Walking up to a garage and finding your name on an electronic billboard and the keys in your car – HA!  Not happening in Okinawa.  Each rental car company has a small flag posted outside the airport and you have to go one by one reading the signs (most of which are in Japanese) to find the small ma and pa shop you happened to rent from.  You stand in front of the flag and wait until someone drives by and decides you are their customer and they pick you up on their bus and drive you fifteen minutes away to their small shop.  They speak no English; your Japanese is ridiculously bad.  You sign sign sign and nod your head.  Once in the car, I showed the name of our hotel to the clerk and he used the Japanese navigation to enter the address.  He had to come back out again to show us how to make the navigation begin.  He must have thought we were so stupid!  Couldn’t we just read the Kanji for Start?  Somehow, Tom managed to interpret the road signs and direct me where to turn.  We called one of the coaches and found that the boys had just begun a night game as we got in the car and so somehow we managed to find our way to Camp Foster.  Thinking back on it, there had to be some divine intervention guiding our car.  We arrived somewhere into the second inning, saw the boys play (and lose) and enjoyed Taco Bell under the lights.  Fast food on the military bases is a treat.  Japan is littered with McDonalds but that’s about it.  The game ended rather quickly and we got back into the car to drive to our hotel to check in.  Within two minutes of starting the car, Tom managed to delete the hotel from the navi and we were in the dark so to speak.  After several u-turns, much frustration and a few laughs, we found our hotel.  Pulling up to the Tokyo Dai-Ichi Grand Mer Resort it was obvious that it was not so grand and the Mer part was way in the distance if you could see past all the concrete.  However, there were actually four beds in the room which was unbelievable.  I had requested extra beds for the girls but you just never know what you’re going to get.  We left the girls in PJ’s watching a movie and Tom and I went in search of the advertised Sheesha Lounge.  What we found was a sign in front of the bar that said it was closed for a private party and we were invited to have our drinks in the rooftop lounge.  We followed the sign, through the kitchen to a dirty concrete roof with a few outdoor plastic tables and chairs.  I was in need of a cocktail and at that point I didn’t care.  Within a half hour, they said the private party was over and we could enter the lounge.  It was a funny sort of place.  The walls were covered in Hawaiian shirts and grass skirts.  There was an electronic dart board, signs that read “We Welcome The Military” and there was lots of smoke.  Just not from any hookah.  Actually I never even saw a hookah (real or otherwise) which just made the place even more authentic.  In Japan, Western-like establishments are named for all sorts of reasons, most of which have nothing to do with the actual place.  On the bar was a large glass jar filled with a light brown liquid and yes, you guessed it, sea snakes.  The unique beverage is called Kubasake  (snake sake) and can be enjoyed almost everywhere you go.  You can even take home a glass container yourself for a mere $600.  Tom was actually considering the small jar for $300.  It would have made quite the mantle piece.  The patrons were mostly military and the servers native Okinawans.  They look different than mainland Japanese – more like islanders.  Loaded with maps and tourist pamphlets Tom and I came up with a plan to incorporate two baseball games, some beach time, history and some shopping into the remaining 36 hours.  The next morning we were at the breakfast buffet by 7:30 am, with beach towels and sun screen filling our plates with fish, miso soup and rice.  Let’s just say what Americans eat for breakfast and what Japanese eat for breakfast are “different”.  We were staying in Central Okinawa which is where all the U.S. bases are located.  In Okinawa there are approximately 27,000 personnel, including 15,000 Marines, contingents from the Navy, Army and Air Force, and their 22,000 family members and you see them everywhere.  It’s pretty strange to go from Tokyo where foreigners are a small minority to Okinawa where you see Americans with short hair cuts everywhere.  Here are a few of the names of the bases:  Camp Shields, Camp Lester, Camp Foster, Camp Kinser, Camp Schwab and of course the all important Futenma Air Force Base (the current battle royale between Obama and Hatoyama).  Not to mention the barbed wire.  The central area of Okinawa is covered in it.  Every wall, building, golf course in site.  All protected.  I have heard Okinawa is beautiful – i’m thinking its in the Northern part of the island – close to the Aquarium we decided not to visit.  After getting in an hour or so of beach time (no sea snakes were spotted although we were only allowed to swim in a very small area that had netting), we entered the base and watched the first game of the day.  ASIJ won their first game of the tournament 17-0 and it was also their first win since they were first invited to Okinawa three years before.  By the time the game was over, it was 85 degrees, and we were frying in the stands.  We left the boys to have lunch in the food court with their teammates and we went in search of a fun place for lunch.  We found it at Seaside Jet City Burgers.  A shack a block from the beach that had delicious burgers and an even better atmosphere.  Were we really in Japan?  It didn’t feel like it.  Driving by the beach, listening to AFN (Armed Forces Network) on the radio, reading signs in English it was surreal.  After lunch we even went shopping in stores that had our sizes!!!  We returned to the base ready to watch the second game in the double header and found that Thomas had visited the base barber and was sporting a new mohawk.  The afternoon game went something like the morning competition and our boys were triumphant again, this time beating Seoul 17-4.  Dusk fell at the moment of victory and the speakers around the base rang out taps announcing colors.  The coach for Camp Foster yelled “Colors” and everyone turned and faced the flag.  This is the time that the flag is lowered for the night.  I was told that no matter where you are on a base  during colors you must stop and face the flag.  Even vehicles must stop.  It was a proud moment.  The moms and dads of the players from the host base threw a bbq that night inviting all teams, parents and coaches for dinner.  The buffet line was overflowing with good old American food – things you couldn’t find within a thousand miles of Tokyo.  Waldorf salad, creamed corn, pasta salad, baked beans, cupcakes, cookies, coleslaw, real hot dogs, RC cola, root beer floats, american beef hamburgers…the list went on and on.   We ate more than we should have and said good night to the boys and made our way back to the hotel.  It was a long day, the girls watched more baseball than you can ask of 11 and 12 year old girls so when we walked into the lobby and saw tables set up for manicures and pottery painting (at 9:30 pm) the girls pulled up chairs and had a ball.  We checked out first thing in the morning, skipped the breakfast in the hotel and set out to find something decent.  Tom spotted a billboard advertising The Rose Garden for Sunday Brunch and magically fifteen minutes into our drive we happened upon it.  It was the most amazing breakfast we have had since we moved to Japan.  Steak and eggs, eggs benedict, french toast, crispy bacon, huge portions.  The works.  We ate and ate and ate.  Fat and happy, we left and made our way to the capital of Okinawa, Naha in search of the “historical” part of our trip.  Tom and I wanted to visit the last headquarters of the Japanese Naval Forces during the battle of Okinawa in World War II.  In the final days of World War II a Japanese Naval Admiral and 4000 of his men committed suicide rather than surrender to the advancing US Forces. Descending the stairs of this cave thirty meters down into the bowels of the earth is a haunting experience. The girls refused to get out the car.  They couldn’t understand why we wanted to go in the first place.  The last stop on our 48 hour journey was Kokusai Dori, a shopping street born immediately after the end of World War II.  It started with people selling out of tents and has morphed into a “miracle mile” of cafes, boutiques, surplus from the military bases, loads of glass jars of kubasake, various sizes of sanshin (the ukelele of Okinawa) sugar cane, every time of spice, tea, fruit, vegetables, fish (fresh, dried and fried).  The street was alive with people.  We didn’t know where to look first.  Tom even made a new friend. After a great day, we made our way back to the rental car shop (this time it really was divine inspiration that helped us find it), handed in the keys, boarded the bus and caught the afternoon flight home.  The boys had arrived before us and we ended the day at our favorite Mexican restaurant, La Jolla where you can usually find us eating dinner on Sunday nights.  Was this only 48 hours?  Seems impossible!

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