The past week or so has been pretty hectic for me, with a lot of planes, places, booking stuff, researching, touring around and very little sleep. After Sri Lanka, I headed to the Maldives for a few days to chill and because I had to get a plane from there; since it was booked before the Chagos trip was cancelled. From there I went to Singapore for a night to connect to Hainan, Taiwan and Okinawa. I am going to focus this post on Okinawa because there is the most to talk about and I will mention some of the others as well. As I write this from my room in Okinawa, I am rested, ready to finish up this trip strong and head home for Thanksgiving but for now I am still lost in translation!
Okinawa had always been a place I was interested in because I remember Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) from the Karate Kid movies was from there and part 2 was actually filmed here; at least it was said to be in the movie. I was also always aware of it because of the history of the island with World War II and the huge US Military presence that is still some 50,000 strong to this day.
Okinawa Prefecture is the largest island in the Ryukyu Islands and is administered by the government of Japan although there are still many rumblings of potential independence. I am situated in the capital city of Naha which is a really cool little bustling city. It certainly feels like Japan. In fact most of the time, I feel like Bill Murray from Lost in Translation when everything looks so strange, bright and loud. It is Asia and everything is always cutesy, cartoony and technology is everywhere. Even the vending machines are bright and they are everywhere. School girls pack together by the dozens giggling and playing on high tech phones. School boys try to distinguish themselves from each other wherein everyone looks even more the same as they try. It is urban Asia at its best; bright, brash, loud and totally in your face at all times.
I am staying at the Best Western in Naha located right next to the Asato monorail stop which has affordable, small, clean and very Japanese prepackaged rooms. The monorail is the main way of getting around Naha and is extremely efficient, clean and well run. Nobody talks on the trains except for giggling school girls, the men are all dressed in dark gray or black suits and then there’s me staring at their every move trying to understand things I seemingly cannot.
The driver of the monorail is very regimented doing the same routine at every stop which include yelling stuff out loud to himself and making hand gestures when it’s time to go but as you can see, he is all by himself. It led me to wonder if it was out of habit, teaching or was he just going insane from stopping at the same 12 stops over and over every single day of his life! Either way, it was pretty funny and certainly cool to see.
The main site in Naha is the Shurijo Castle Park which houses all of the Okinawan UNESCO World Heritage Sites including the main palace above which is under some repairs. This protection was granted during the banquet dinner of the G8 countries in Shuri Castle in 2000. There are pictures of this dinner everywhere inside the castle near the gift shop from when Clinton was still President. (Look at Putin, would you trust that man?!) This was after the whole complex and especially the main palace which is currently undergoing repairs as you can see, was destroyed by the US during World War II.
The park is beautiful and very impressive. It is packed with mainly Japanese mainland tourists. This was easily discernable from the dozens of Japanese tour groups with leaders holding up flags and thousands of flashbulbs going off at all times and often in front of nothing of note while making the two fingers Asian pose. Can someone please explain why they all do that to me? I would really love to understand. That and Hello Kitty (which I secretly love) are their two huge things, at least that most Western outsiders see. It’s so funny to me and I just don’t get it!
Inside the palace is a museum which seems like it would be OK, but most of the exhibits are not translated into English which makes it difficult to follow what they are about. However, the King’s area is very impressive as you can see with his chair above. The lighting was dark throughout but the walk through the museum very pretty entertaining, especially because they give you a plastic bag and you have to carry your shoes the whole way.
As a 6’3” big American, I also had to take pictures with at least 15 different Asian women people including 3 different groups of giggling school girls, which was adorable. The Japanese, and Asian in general, kids are so cute and so curious, I guess would be the word. They always want to take pictures and know about things American and Western. But they are so different than US kids in their behaviors, I know that goes without saying, but it’s true. Also, at night they are always out on the main street. These kids cannot be more than 12-14 and they are out, still dressed in their school uniforms at 11pm. I wasn’t allowed out late when I was that age…I just don’t get it and probably never will but it sure is interesting to see and talk about.
Speaking of the main street, it is called Kokusai Street (above) and is very easy to find. It is certainly the main drag and is very bright and in your face as I described earlier. Each store is affixed with bright lights, crazy, compact decorations and has a ton of stuff in it. What you cannot tell from the pictures is that each store also has loud Japanese pop music playing. All songs played appear to be sung by young girls put to an upbeat rhythm. Again, it’s like being in Lost in Translation. I haven’t been to Tokyo in years but I do remember it being like this just a lot bigger!
I was recommended some good restaurants. I will not even attempt to pronounce the names as the hotel wrote them in Japanese and pointed on the map where approximately they were and I just asked around showing the paper. I did have some of the best Yakisoba I have ever had along with amazing pork dumplings (below). I was pretty happy and the dessert they gave me free was interesting as well. It contains several unidentified ingredients including some types of beans, very chewy balls of some sort and ice cream looking stuff that wasn’t ice cream. I forgot to take a picture of it but believe me it was weird, yet strangely pretty good. Afterwards I had to have some regular ice cream, well not regular, purple soft serve that was killer from one of the thousand ice cream places here in Naha.
So as you can probably tell, I really like Okinawa and Japan in general, but it is so strange to me. Again, I know that goes without saying, but just watching the people interact and the way they look at you is so fascinating. It’s a culture that is so foreign to you but you see it every day if you live in a big city anywhere in the world. But being in Japan is very exciting, it’s almost intoxicating because you can’t stop looking at things, hearing things and just being intrigued. I think of Japan as the capital of Asia and I think it really does represent the continent well. The people are so nice, friendly and accommodating. They look at you as their guest but they are equally fascinated by you as you are of them. That’s pretty cool I think and I cannot wait to come back.
Tomorrow I head back to Taiwan, I will write a whole Taiwan post next as I will wait to I have spent all my time there because Taipei is a great city as well. Now I will just give a brief summary of my past few stops.
I spent two great days in the Maldives just getting some sun, sleep and relaxing before catching my free Singapore Airlines flight to Singapore. Singapore Airlines is still the best airline on the planet and is a true pleasure to fly, even in economy. I won’t write much about my Maldives time because it was as I just described but here is what I wrote last year if you want to see the hotel etc. One piece of good news was the prices have come down significantly for food at the Sheraton resort which so generously gave me an over water bungalow for free!
I had only about 24 hours in Singapore, which I have been to several times before but not in a few years. I will also be spending my last day of this trip there because I fly home for Thanksgiving from Singapore. Singapore is not my favorite place, so I basically tooled around town, went to Orchard Road, which is the main shopping street that looks very familiar as in any big city in the world and decided to head to Batam, Indonesia. I was curious how the island has changed in the past 11 years since I was last there.
Batam is only a 45 minute ferry from Singapore but is a world away. You don’t need me to tell you about the economic differences between the two countries but Batam had shown a lot of improvements since I was last there in 1999. There are many more malls and shops. It is Asia so of course there would be. There are many more developments than I remember and they are pretty nice. I was very pleasantly surprised.
I only spent about 4 hours there because I had to get back to have dinner with a friend of mine in Singapore. Of course, when I got back to the ferry terminal, I couldn’t get a ferry for another 2 hours which really sucked and pissed me off so I was unable to make dinner. We were going to have some great local food and he was going to show me around little seen Singapore. I felt really bad too because I didn’t have my blackberry with me and had no way of reaching him. I did apologize and he understood; maybe on the 22nd.
I flew budget carrier Tiger Airways to Haikou which is the capital of Hainan Island, China. This island is somewhat of a Chinese and Russian Hawaii. The island is basically divided between the Haikou area being for Chinese and Taiwanese tourists and the Sanya area being almost exclusively for Russians with direct flights from many places in Russia and Siberia.
I had all these thoughts to drive 3-4 hours one way to see Sanya but I didn’t account for flying through the night two straight nights and no sleep in between. So when I got to the Sheraton resort in Haikou and saw how beautiful it and my free room (below) were, I was basically like “Fuck it, I’m not going anywhere”. Plus very few people speak any English there so I didn’t feel like working to figure everything out, I needed the rest.
The city of Haikou is a typical massive Chinese city that looks like it threw up on itself from the clear and rapid expansion from the population. It is not that nice, or that picturesque and it very crowded and has the longest traffic lights in history. However, the beaches and resorts are pretty nice in Haikou and are well worth a trip if you have the time.
They just got finished with a celebrity pro-am golf tournament at Mission Hills which is the fancy golf resort in Haikou. Apparently all these American celebrities were paid exorbitant amounts of money to show up. Their pictures were all over billboards in town. I have heard that Sanya is great too so next time, if there is one, that’s where I will head.
So that’s the quick skinny of it. I will have more on Taiwan in a few days before I head to Bangkok for a night to see a buddy who is from there. Then I go to Northern Vietnam which I am really pumped for. I have only been in the south previously so I cannot wait to see Ha Long Bay and Hanoi.