A Night, A Day and Some Petty Larceny in Okinawa

by Joshua Samuel Brown, May 9, 2002 | Destinations: Japan / Okinawa

The sun was sinking into the Pacific and I was feeling the first pinging of a headache as my airplane hit the tarmac at Okinawa airport. This was not my first trip to the Island, but it would be the first one in which I actually left the airport. The first trip had been one of those bi-monthly "get out of the country and back as quickly as possible" deals that anyone whose lived in Taiwan with a multiple entry visa is familiar with. On that occasion, I'd just gotten off the plane, gotten my passport stamped, only to turn around on my heels and head back on the plane. The stewardesses had thought I'd been hiding in the bathroom. But now I had some time, and the Yen was way down, making exploration economically feasible. I had a hundred dollars US, was crazed with hunger, and what felt like a golf ball lodged in my left sinus. An inauspicious way to begin a vacation, even one of only 20 hours.

The first thing I needed was yen. Okinawa airport is an anomaly in that the international terminal is an old building with almost no conveniences, and the domestic terminal is a wonder of modern convenience, complete with restaurants, convenience stores, bars and even a foot massage booth. And that's where the moneychanger was, at least after eight on a Friday night, servicing visitors from Tokyo, Osaka, and other points on the home island where they already have plenty of Yen. Once in the new terminal, I headed to the information desk, where I was directed to another information desk, from which I was instructed to proceed to a third information desk where a lovely young lady changed my hundred dollars into a bunch of oddly shaped coins and bills that came in at around 13000 yen. I had no idea if this would be enough money for 24 hours, having heard all sorts of horror stories about Japanese prices ("fifty dollar cups of coffee!"), but I knew that this fist full of yen was a lot more than it would have been ten years ago, when the Yen was throttling the greenback and Japanese tourists were returning with suitcases filled with American landmarks.

Money in hand, I had a snack, some sort of rice dumpling thingy for 390 yen. It was then that I realized that while, yes, Japan was a bit more expensive than, say Taiwan, most of the sticker shock was psychological. It felt weird to pay three digits without a decimal point for something that you can eat in two bites, even if that price was less than three bucks American. I made my way out of the terminal, and headed to the bus stop. I had the official Okinawa "Paradise of the Sun" tourist map, and my friend Michael, and old Japan hand, had told me to head to Kokusai Dori, where I would find a well known "Capsuru - Hoteru," or capsule hotel, wherein I could rent myself a comfortable coffin complete with TV and AC for under thirty bucks US.

The air was foul that night; there was a low pressure system over much of east Asia, keeping the car exhaust, dust, and god knows what else hovering at ground level from Beijing to Taiwan, and this served to kick the throb in my sinus from low hum to medium pulse. I grabbed the pressure point on the crook of my hand between my thumb and forefinger, and tried to chase the pain away holistically. No sense in resorting to drugs just yet, I thought. Once I'd eaten, I should be fine.

The bus came, and I sat next to a young couple who, had they been any cuter, could have passed for cartoon characters. They could tell that I was lost, and struck up a conversation. Both of them were native Okinawans, and I wasn't surprised to find out that they had no great love for the American servicemen garrisoned on their Island. They summed their feelings up thusly: "Yes, they have been long time Okinawa, but now is time for them go." What did surprise me is that they had no great love for the Japanese government, either. "We are Okinawan, not Japanese. Okinawa is unwilling colony of Japan." This, it seems, is a common story of Island provinces anywhere I've traveled. While the Taiwan / China situation is the most complex (and well-known) example, even people in Newfoundland occasionally hoist the "Free Newfoundland!" banner, and refer to Canadians as "Mainlanders."

I told the cute couple that I wanted to do some exploring before I turned in, and they advised me to walk around the side streets off Kokusai Dori. "There are many traditional buildings there not bombed by America in war!" After turning onto Kokusai Dori, Okinawa's "Miracle mile," the bus slowed to a crawl. Bidding farewell to my new, never to be seen again friends, I headed north into the fetid night air. Headache getting worse, I searched for someplace to eat. There were several American steak houses, a Burger King that my friend Zippo swears is the best in Asia ("they put this sauce on the burgers, man, its fantastic"), and a whole bunch of tourist shops on the main drag. I settled for a mom & pop sushi joint, where for 590 yen I got a plate of tekka maki, kappa maki, & a few pieces of Nigiri sushi.

My head feeling a little better, I headed up the block towards a cacophony of beats coming from a side street. Turning a corner, I found myself on Heiwadori, in the middle of a scene that would have felt normal in Boulder, Colorado or Northern California, but seemed out of place in a Japanese city: A drum circle, complete with long haired Japanese youths dressed in tie-dye clothes. Some were playing African percussion instruments while others danced around in a circle on the closed market street. While my Japanese consisted of little more than "Hello, I'm Mr. Brown from New York," I do speak drum. Against the protestations of my receding headache, I began laying down a complimentary beat on the wooden shutters of a closed fabric store. After a while, I struck up a conversation with an older looking couple with long hair and aboriginal garb. Mika and Yumi, as it turns out, were both from Osaka, but relocated to Okinawa several years ago.

"Life is much slower here, there are more people who share our more spiritual view of life, and besides, its much cheaper to live here than in the city." It occurred to me that Okinawa just might be Japan's own Northern California, or Burlington, Vermont, a place where disaffected youth move to escape the pressures of an ultra-consumerist culture. By this time, the drum circle seemed to be dying down, and my headache picking up, so I headed back to Kokosai Doru and towards my awaiting coffin for the evening. As I did, Mika handed me the business card of the hostel run by his friends. "Many artists stay here," he tells me. "It's very cheap, and you can also rent motorcycles."

Two things struck me as odd as I walked up to the end of Kokusai Dori. The first were the number of cigarette machines, one every fifty feet or so. But I shrugged this off - the Japanese, after all, are notoriously heavy smokers. What really puzzled me were the posters of actor Ewan Macgregor smiling down from nearly every spare spot of wall along the avenue. Had the young Scotsman, in some bizarre twist of fate, been made governor of the Island? I vowed to look into it, and, if possible, to steal one before I left.

Towards the end of Kokusai Doru, I found my capsule hotel and went into the lobby, which was clean, well lit, and very small. The manager couldn't speak a word of English, but another customer helped me to translate, telling me that I'd have to wait until six AM to indulge in the Japanese baths on the sixth floor, as they'd just closed. Just as well, I thought, as I was starting to feel a bit dizzy. The manager led me to my capsule, one of about thirty stacked two high along both sides of a wall in a room about the size of a school bus, and I crawled in. Inside, was a hard mat, a light blanket, a pillow, an overhead TV, and about enough room to sit up. Finding nothing on the TV but Japanese news programs, I shut the thing off and went to sleep.

Some hours later, I awoke with a feeling of claustrophobia, a dull nausea, and a heavy thudding in my left temple. I crawled out of the capsule and made my way to the bathroom, where I threw up. I went back to the capsule and pulled on my shorts, then went down to the manager's desk to beg him for some aspirin. I tried everything I could to make him understand. "Aspirin-u" I said, and he smiled and nodded. "Heada-achu" I said, to the same response. I pantomimed the throbbing I felt in my skull, and then pretended that I was washing pills down with water. "Ah!" he said, and reached behind the desk and fished out a bottle of whiskey. "No, no..." I said, and he smiled and shrugged his shoulders.

The sun had just risen, and the light hit my eyes like a thousand screaming knives as I headed out into the street to look for a drugstore. Nothing was open, and in desperation, I stumbled into the lobby of the Emerald, a very swank hotel across from my own, and once again performed my little charade of pain, this time throwing in a seppuku motion for good measure. The desk clerk seemed to understand. "Matte Kudasai" He said, and went into the back room, emerging with two pills and a glass of water. I took the pills, not caring if they were morphine or cyanide, and thanked him profusely before heading back to my own bargain basement, aspirin-free hotel.

But there was no way I was going to crawl back into the claustrophobic capsule, not yet anyway, and as the baths had just opened, I didn't have to. If you've never been to a Japanese bathhouse, then you're missing something. After scrubbing down at the communal washbasin, I slowly sank down into the three foot deep tub of hot water, feeling the horrendous throbbing in my head settle into a manageable thud. It was just past six, and I had the place to myself. I spent the next hour alternating between slow soaks in the hot tub, quick jumps into the cold tub, and visits to the wooden sauna (which, in true Japanese tradition, had a television set). By seven, I felt human again, and headed out for some daytime exploration.

While the headache was gone, I didn't feel up for any major exploration. Instead, after a shopping mall breakfast of waffles, iced coffee, and 600 mgs of Ibuprofen (just for good measure), I headed back towards the shopping area where I'd seen the drum circle. By this time, it was packed with shoppers, so I stepped into a store that looked promisingly empty, one selling beads, tapes, incense and other spiritual paraphernalia. But the syrupy new aged music droning over the store's in-house stereo (we are all god's children / every bird and every stone) sent me running for the exit, where I heard noise of a different type coming from the avenue. A punk rock band was playing on a vacant lot on Kokusai Doru, where a crowd of about ten leather clad teenagers stood shaking their heads in time to the music. This was more my scene, and I hung out there for a few songs, neither knowing nor caring what they were singing about.

I struck up conversation with another westerner, a teacher named Janine, who was able to explain the deal with the posters. "Yeah, that's an advertising campaign for the school I work for, Aeon English. The Japanese are big on endorsements from Western celebrities, no matter how ridiculous they actually seem." I tried to imagine thousands of Japanese students learning to speak English like Renton, the Junkie with the nearly unintelligible Scottish brogue Macgregor played in "Trainspotting." The thought only made me more determined to take a poster home with me, and I headed through the market to stake my claim.

If you're into Japanese food, the public market is probably the coolest place in all of Naha, as even with the high digit sticker shock, things are relatively cheap. A boat filled with fresh sashimi cost me 1200 yen, and a plastic container filled with about as much ikura (salmon roe) that you'd want to consume in one sitting costs about 500 Yen (best eaten with crackers on the plane ride home). The heart of the market is the Kosechi public food court, which houses stalls selling fresh meat, fish & produce on the first floor, and restaurants on the second. It was here that I contemplated trying fugu, the dreaded Japanese blowfish. Delectable when prepared properly, fugu contains a toxic nerve poison that will kill you in minutes if prepared wrong. I've trusted much to strangers in food courts in my travels, but I wasn't prepared to go that far.

Despite the excellent food and tremendous amount of ibuprofen and caffeine in my blood stream, I still was feeling a bit under the weather, so I headed back to the capsule hotel for a few more quick dips in the hot & cold pools before heading to the Kaisway guest house to rent a scooter. At 1000 yen for the afternoon, the 50cc bike actually cost me less than I'd have paid in most third world countries. With fuzzy head and full belly, I set a course due north to Urasoe city, a sleepy little seaside town just a few miles north of Naha, where I gazed upon the sea from the hillside ruins of an ancient Shinto temple. I figured that it would be a shame to come all the way to Japan without actually seeing something of historical interest that hadn't been blown up completely, so I headed back down south to Shurijo Castle, capital of the Ryuku dynasty, a few miles north of Naha city.

It was here that I got an objective lesson on why most Okinawans feel that American soldiers have long since worn out their welcome as I watched a group of marines engaged in a spitting contest into the tranquil waters of Ryutan pond. The soldiers hocked phlegm into the pond, hooting in delight as the carp rose to eat their loogies, while several families picnicking nearby tried to ignore them. Apparently, ignoring the antics of US personnel is a local pastime in Okinawa, which is probably not a bad thing.

I figured I should leave before I got into a fight or burned my passport in disgust, and headed back into Naha and turned in the scooter. I had two hours before my plane left, and just one more thing left to accomplish. The market was still in full swing, and I knew I'd have to be subtle about it. Sticking as close to the wall as I could, I crept around until I saw one of my coveted posters. It looked freshly hung, and I quickly got to work peeling it from the wall, trying to get away with a minimum of cosmetic damage.

Suddenly, an ancient woman who looked like Yoda confronted me and rattled off a string of Japanese. I've long since learned that, in situations of clear guilt, the only way out is bullshit.

"Watashi wa new-yoku no Brown-san des!" ("I am Mr. Brown, from New York,") I said, bowing deeply while spouting out the only complete Japanese sentence I knew. I then began discussing the merits of various Macgregor films with the old woman, who just smiled and nodded, watching as I continued peeling the poster off the wall. After 30 seconds, I'd gotten it down, and began walking away, leaving her with a smile, a bow, and the words "I really think he'll be super in "Attack of the Clones," don't you?"

Apparently, she didn't call the cops on me, because I got to the airport unmolested and with all possessions intact. As the great bird flew me back home to Taiwan, I reflected on my nearly 24 hours in Okinawa. As vacations went, it hadn't been the most memorable, but as a day trip it was pretty good. I didn't get mugged, managed to hold down most of my food, and best of all, I'd come away with something priceless: a poster of a major celebrity whoring himself for Yen. And that alone was priceless, because I'd stolen it.

* * * * *

Useful facts about Naha which allow me to maintain some veneer of journalistic professionalism:

The Kasiwaya, a funky guesthouse that rents motorcycles cheap. (098-869-8833 / map on line at http://www.88smile.com/kasiwaya/05map.html)

The Kapusuru in Naha, a capsule hotel and Sauna across from the Emerald on the northern end of Kokusai Dori. (098 - 867 - 6017)

Okinawa Visitors Bureau - http://www.ocvb.or.jp

* * * * *