Last night, we disembarked our plane onto a hot, humid tarmac way past dinnertime. This is one of the things that always makes me think of Asia. Yes, we are on the road again, and this weekend, we are visiting the Kingdom of Ryukyu, which is better known to the greater world as Okinawa. Okinawa is similar in some ways to Taiwan, being just a hop, skip, and 90-something minute flight away, but it’s also, as we are finding out, a distinct place all its own, even different from Japan.
We are staying in an Airbnb in Naha City, the capital of Okinawa Prefecture, and the biggest city on the island. Okinawa itself is known as 沖縄, which means “rope in the sea”, as it is a long, thin island, with Naha City at its most densely settled bottom section. Other than being here just for a visa run (those pesky 90 day limitations on staying in Taiwan…), we figured it was a good time to get reacquainted with Japan and something new.
This morning, first up was my renewed appreciation of FamilyMart, which is bigger here than 7-11 as far as convenience stores go. Other than getting breakfast, I was hoping really hard that someone there had a pin which could trigger the SIM card holder on my smartphone. I needed badly to switch my Taiwanese SIM with my US T-Mobile SIM so I could have slow, albeit real data access here in Japan. Our smiling FamilyMart cashier rang up our breakfast rice snacks, was quite confused at my request initially (the language barrier not being the only problem), and then lit up with understanding, and promptly unpinned the nametag that she wore on her shirt. It was perfect for our uses, and in a trice had my SIM card slot popped out so I could switch it. We profusely thanked her (arigato being one of two Japanese words we know), and emerged triumphant to start our day.
We set off for the Naha monorail, and bought some day-tickets to head north to Shuri Castle, one of the must-sees around Naha. Steve leaned over the railing at the station to take a picture of the oncoming monorail, before realizing he had been leaning on a sign that told him explicitly not to do that. I guess people just love the monorail here. We traveled seven or eight stops before getting to our destination.
To explain about Shuri Castle, we’ll go back to talking about the Kingdom of the Ryukyus. Okinawa is actually the largest of the surrounding islands (most are relatively tiny) which all together are considered the Ryukyu Islands. Back in the 14th or 15th century (I did not read museum plaques all that carefully), the island was subdivided into three principalities, which was united by one king who made Shuri Castle his seat of power. The Ryukyu Kingdom had formal relationships and were in fact tributaries to both China and Japan, but were not actually a part of Japan until much later. In 1879, the last Shuri king was deposed when the Japanese formally annexed the Ryukyu Islands. The present Shuri Castle (not what Western minds think of as castles with spires and towers) is a complex of gates and buildings built on a stone outcropping, and a restoration of the most recent iteration of Shuri Castle. It shows a distinctly Chinese influence in the color and construction of roofs. There are even lots of Chinese-looking dragons around. Walking around the grounds doesn’t require a ticket, but going into the inner palace buildings does, and since I was a little overwhelmed by the sun and all the walking around today, I was almost loathe to spend the extra 820 yen (approximately $8.20 USD) per person to go in to see what I thought was a mere reconstruction. Fortunately, we decided to, and gleefully found that most of the inside space is actually as complex as a museum complete with sweet A/C. We even needed to take off our shoes and carry them around with us through the entire complex. We learned a lot about how they did the restoration modeled on the most recent Shuri Castle (dating from the early 1700s to 1940s), based on old photos and archaeological excavations. In fact, this is the fourth time Shuri Castle has been rebuilt, as it has burned down twice previously, and most recently, was destroyed in the Battle of Okinawa. I realized that it was actually pretty interesting to think about how many structures have been built and rebuilt in the course of time, and that it doesn’t take anything away from the structure – it’s almost more authentic because we’re rebuilding and reconstructing structures, just as people before us have always done.
After our tour of Shuri Castle, Steve and I set off for this stone path nearby, which is very historical. We walked down a very steep stone path that reminded a bunch of Croatia and walking around Dubrovnik, actually. Nearby houses had driveways with Nissans and Suzukis, but the entire atmosphere was very sweet and felt like a walk back in time. Every home had a pair of shisa to the left and right of their doorways or gates. Shisa resemble a very ornate cross between a dog and a tiger, and are made of pottery. They’re very unique to Okinawa, though China and Japan both have different variations on this guardian animal. The female, which always sits to the left of the door (for those outside), has its mouth closed, and the male, sitting to the door’s right, has its mouth open. These small houses on the steep stone path had beautiful blue-glazed or plain brown pottery colored shisa, perhaps only five or seven inches tall, but larger banks and businesses in Okinawa will have ones of stone and bronze, which may be more fierce and imposing or silly and attention-grabbing. I even saw one for a restaurant that had a bowl of ramen and chopsticks in its paws. They are lovely and interesting, and we’ll hopefully visit a pottery street tomorrow where we can see some more.
Tonight, after a filling dinner of some local Okinawa rice and stir-fry, Steve and I went in search of awamori. For those who can’t Wikipedia on their own, awamori is a type of rice alcohol, again a specialty when it comes to Okinawa. So we bought a bottle at a local store. Since there are of course dozens and dozens of kinds, ranging in price from 420 yen to 20,000 yen (that bottle had a snake marinating in it), we asked the staff for some help. The language barrier again came into play, but I managed to communicate that we were looking for awamori, and wanted to spend no more than 1,000 yen ($10 USD). After some back and forth, the employee indicated two bottles that were “good” or deserved a thumbs up. I pointed at both, and then with my palms up, lifted both hands up and down, to ask how they compared. Without hesitation, he pointed at the one on the right. We all laughed a little, and then grabbed the bottle at the right to finish the transaction. So far, I am decently pleased with the ability to mime. Language is such a curious thing – so fragile – if you take it away, it becomes so, so much harder to communicate basic needs and requests. But sometimes, we manage anyway. The awamori, by the way, was pretty decent.
Tomorrow, Steve and I will set off for a large public market nearby, the pottery street, and a museum. And perhaps some more delicious food and fun. I hope the sun stays out for our travels, and the rain stays far away.