Weekend trip to Okinawa

In mid February I have a four day weekend, what to do, what to do? I decided to visit my old friends V, N, and S in Okinawa, Japan.


I took the China Eastern flight via Shanghai. Unfortunately my seat recliner was broken in the unlatched position and my screen would randomly turn on, flashing my whole row with light, but I was so exhausted after the previous week it didn’t matter. Our flight path took us up and over the north Pacific, crossing Magadan at one point, though the entire flight occurred at night. I watched Ant Man 1 and 2 and cried, as I always do during superhero films at 30,000 feet. I think it’s a feature?

I’ve had mixed luck in the past with flights through Shanghai, but this time I found a lounge that would admit my decidedly unflashy “Priority Pass”, ate most of their food, and took a nap until the next flight departed.

It’s a short flight to Okinawa. In the long and distant past I was habituated to deeply researching my destinations before I went, but it turns out this is a time-consuming luxury, so I landed with just the barest idea of where I was and what I was doing. Fortunately Japan is a very civilized country and completely safe to bumble around in. It turns out that Okinawa is a rather large island with a human history dating back 30,000 years. Geologically the southern part is an elevated reef, so is mostly limestone and full of caves, and nearly totally urbanized supporting a population of 1.4 million. The northern part is much less developed and more igneous in origin. Like the Santa Monica mountains, differential uplift has resulted in the ability to time travel by walking along the range.

Okinawa was the last major chunk of land to endure a ground invasion by US forces towards the end of WW2, where four months of bitter fighting killed or injured nearly half the population of the island and nearly all the occupying Japanese troops. Many of the surviving Okinawan people committed suicide rather than face the propaganda-derived fear of rape, torture, and cannibalism the US forces were expected to inflict. Historians generally agree that occupying US forces did not eat anyone, but control was not returned to the Japanese government until 1972, though numerous US bases remain. As a result, Okinawa is one of the few areas to have switched road driving sides twice in the 20th century.

Today it’s a peaceful island with a great climate, a growing tourism industry, and most relevant to me, a rapidly growing Institute for Science and Technology (OIST), where N has a position doing mathematics research. V, who specializes in zoology, has explored most of the neighboring islands, caves, beaches, reefs, mountains, trees, and so on looking for cool animals. S is just turned 4 and speaks Russian much better than I do, so there was plenty of fun and sushi to be had.

But first, I had to get through immigration. I’m not unaccustomed to having my small travel bag searched. I think that taking infrequent and very short trips across the Pacific Ocean must trip some smuggler warning somewhere, but for the first time ever I was detained instead because my biometrics (face) had a weak match with some known criminal. While unfailingly polite, my immigration people were unable to provide me with many specifics, and after a few minutes they decided I was not the same person and let me go.

I had booked a car with a rental company that appeared to be located in the airport. It’s not that I’m lazy, though I am, but for the return and flight out I hate being stranded at some remote rental lot 3 hours walk from the airport while waiting for the courtesy shuttle bus which runs twice a day. This time, though, I was unlucky and the airport agent referred me to a minibus that drove me to an adjacent island. I had to sign some forms declaring that I wasn’t part of the Yakuza, then got my princely steed.

My wife C and I are fortunate to drive a Tesla, which is basically like sitting in a time machine with flawless user interfaces, climate control, and a very, very powerful motor. Okinawa, by contrast, is a small island which must import fuel, so the standard car is the Japanese sub-sub-compact, a four seater built around a Vespa engine, with an additional power limiter installed just to make sure. That said, I was billed for 12L of petrol to fill up from ¾ full (after driving about 200km), so either it must have appalling fuel economy, or else the petrol station is scamming people…

It just barely managed to reach 35mph (60km/h) on a level road given plenty of patience. Fortunately, the rest of the traffic also drives extremely slowly. My hosts explained that there were two possible reasons for this. One is that many of the drivers were Japanese tourists who didn’t routinely drive and were paranoid about damage. Japan has an extremely rigorous driver licensing process virtually unchanged since the 1920s – N is notorious for having passed in only two attempts, the median is more like 12. The other reason is that Okinawa has historically been a “blue zone” with the longest life expectancy on Earth. In Australia, most of the WW2 veterans are now dead but in Japan many are still alive, as life expectancy is almost half a generation longer. So some of the drivers might literally be 110 years old.

In any case, I did not object to slowly poodling down the roads between concrete-laden typhoon-resistant structures, looking at signs, people, trees, rocks, and anything else that kept me awake after a day of flying and jetlag. After about an hour the road emerged from the concrete jungle and started swooping over canyons and through tunnels. When the underlying rock is soluble, the landscapes get interesting. Sometimes we could see tombs by the side of the road, some of which were more than a thousand years old. Okinawan funerary customs are different to mainland Japan, and even today most Japanese people who die in Okinawa are repatriated for burial.

OIST is perched on a steep ridge overlooking the East China Sea and Ie Shima island. The road twisted and turned toward faculty housing – at last I had located my destination! I found N and V at home, and took a well-needed shower. It goes without saying that while Japan is behind the curve on electric vehicle adoption, Japanese bathroom technology is still incredibly futuristic. We collected S from day care, took an hour-long detour through the playground, then went out for dinner at a sushi train restaurant. Not only could you order any of 200 different kinds of locally caught sea creature, the orders arrived on the train with a warning bell so you could grab them as they shot past. Towards the end of the meal V said he saw another table with higher piles of plates, so we’d need to keep eating.

The deep overindulgence of raw fish and rice had their desired effect – back at the house I curled up in the guest room and went to sleep. I had been warned that S often woke up early but fortunately all the playground zooming let us all sleep in for a few hours.

The next day was Saturday. N was in the throes of hiring people, so V, S, and I headed out to the south-western cape. There we found a lighthouse perched amongst the razor-sharp sea-eaten black limestone shore. For 200Y we climbed up 99 stairs. Unlike many Australian lighthouses, the stairs crisscrossed instead of spiraling, but it was still a lighthouse. During big typhoons the storm surge can easily reach the base, and from the top it was rather windy with a great view. Also from the top S’s sharp eyes managed to spot an icecream truck and a playground, so that’s where we went next. Beneath threatening clouds we learned how to swing, slide, hang, climb, and balance. All good stuff, though I must say I’m not as good at dangling as I was when I was 13.

The next stop was the local castle ruin. Okinawa has ruins of more than 200 castles, originating in more than a thousand years of constant warfare between 3-20 groups. The islands were eventually unified in about 1600 (don’t quote me) after which the ruler decreed that all but Shuri castle be destroyed. The enormous stone foundations often remain, however, and were good fun to scramble around, situated in a flawlessly manicured garden. We had to keep an eye out for snakes, as V told me that the four local poisonous species had been augmented by escapees from some snake wine breeding stock.

We found a nice restaurant near the castle, ordered the local variety of ramen (wheat noodles and pork), and relaxed on the tatami mat. S immediately introduced herself to two other girls of a similar age in the restaurant, who were tourists from China. V remarked that it was now getting difficult to tell the difference between Chinese and Taiwanese tourists abroad, as China’s development has changed the way its people act when travelling: they no longer look like they’ve escaped from the Soviet Union! My experience with small children is consistent – it is difficult to avoid making new friends because, and I’ve seen this the world over, children don’t care about trivial differences.

The final stop for the day’s adventures was a reservoir at the head of a small, traditionally farmed valley. The Ryukyu islands traditionally do not practice terrace agriculture, so the population of islands is largely set by how much flat farming land is available. The reservoir was mostly full, with quite a number of floating birds paddling around. S and I practiced balancing on a low wall. The art of walking with four year olds requires patience and good conversation with whoever is around. At length we crossed the dam and walked down the road on the other side, only to find it inexplicably barred to traffic. Unlike Italy, one could not rely upon sensible people having previously made a hole in the wire. S could easily squeeze under the fence, while V found the same space too narrow. I was able to scramble up and down a nearby embankment, avoiding a tangle of barbed wire, and V managed to climb the hinge. Once safely past, we ran down to the bottom of the hill, finding a small family of chickens running through the field.

Back at the house, I continued my quest to eat every last morsel of food they had left. N demonstrated that the fridge had only one button. Indeed, they’d bought it specifically for its spartan user interface, only to discover once they plugged it in that the button activated a hidden touchscreen embedded in the door with even more options than any of the other fridges! S and I played a role-playing game called “two cats”. Don’t be fooled, since it involved three cats, one of which was a medical doctor and the other two sporting improbably colored fur and somewhat smaller size. Eventually we managed to cure all the ailments of the two cats and retired to the living room, where we watched Frozen, with Russian dubbing. What a great film! Yes, I sang along to all the songs.

Sunday morning we all slept in once again, though I was the only one with a half-reasonable excuse. S asked me how many weeks I was going to stay, which nearly broke my heart. I had to explain that I had a baby back home, which was much more reasonable than some trivial requirement like not getting fired for chronic absenteeism. N and S decided to stay home, so V and I jumped into my one ferretpower car and poodled off to the aquarium. Along the way we got hungry so stopped off at a convenience store and bought an incredible packaged rice+seaweed invention. V told me the producer spent 12 years perfecting the packaging, which managed to both present and protect the product, but also keep the seaweed separate from the rice until the opening procedure was executed. This procedure involved a single fluid motion of the hand, resulting in a tightly-wrapped triangular prism of tastiness being left over.

The aquarium was part of a larger park complex in several buildings overlooking the ocean. It wasn’t too busy, and we were able to see all the amazing animals, including lobsters that were as big as me and a sea turtle enclosure that had a successful breeding program. It was a really spectacular place – check out my photos for more stuff. I wish I had time to do more SCUBA diving. V had a tank ready to go but unfortunately the weather wasn’t great the whole time I was there.


After the dolphin show, we checked out the exhibit of traditional Okinawan houses. For much of the period immediately before Japanese occupation in the 1890s, the architecture of peasant domiciles was strictly regulated, include floor space, materials, and roofing material. Unfortunately, the thatch blew away every typhoon, which can occur several times per year. Last year there were 17. It was interesting to see how the styles developed over time and between different islands – the structures there were either replicas or transplants of some of the few surviving historical buildings in the island chain.

The last museum we saw that day focused on Pacific navigation, and was full of boats from various island nations arrayed around a very large map of the Pacific Ocean. It reminded me of Moana, which is also worthy of a singalong. Among many interesting features, two highlights stuck in my mind. The first was the boat used by the “sea gypsies,” a people who live mainly in the Philippines and traditionally go ashore only for burial rites. The second was the reflection that large ocean-going catamarans were often tied together with plant fibers and sealed with unlikely mixtures of coconut and other available sources. Most of the Pacific Islands are either igneous or carbonate, so ingenious methods were required to overcome the inherent materials limitations faced by the shipwrights. I’ve been enjoying the “Acorn to Arabella” YouTube channel over the last year, following two people in the northeast building a large wooden cruising yacht basically from scratch, and the more I think about it, the more I recognize the virtues of steel and fiberglass for yacht construction. Wood is a great material, but it is very labor intensive!

On the way back from the museum we stopped at Shiokawa, the shortest river in Japan. All 120m of it is a National Monument. It bursts fully formed from a rock outcrop, flows beneath some trees and enters the ocean about 2 minutes later. V snoozed and I drove the car all the way back to OIST, where we decompressed with copious quantities of tea.

We still had a little in the tank so decided to go to a nearby salt water spa, which also happens to be the world’s largest. After a decade of concerted effort, my body fat percentage is now high enough to float in salt water, and we enjoyed the wide variety of massage jets, although towards the end of the trip the water began to sting a bit as pores opened up.

Back home, S passed out and for some reason N, V, and I stayed up chatting about stuff other than children. N lovingly related a series of anecdotes about getting up to crazy adventures with V. For example, just after she got her diving certificate they were diving in Indonesia and V confused her with another diving lady, swimming off into the distance. Another time, they dived a sinkhole which required descending through 10 meters of zero visibility sulfur-rich water, before getting into a really cool flooded cavern that was, of course, completely dark except for their lights. When diving in Namibia her gear malfunctioned and her entire air supply escaped in a giant bubble. V went to hand over the backup reg, but got distracted by an eel. Not all the adventures involved diving. In Brazil, they hired a car and attempted to drive to a section of the Amazon that was about to be developed, but found that government contractors had stolen money meant to be used to build highways. After 11 days of sliding about in the mud N lay down in front of the car and said “enough!” They were being overtaken by three legged mules. It took another 10 days to get back to a paved road, but fortunately they found a specialist who could repair the damage caused by the car sliding off the road (while parked) into a tree before returning to the rental place. Then there was the story about chasing wolves around Alaska without warm clothes, but this blog is mostly for describing my trip. The point is, adventures were had! Finally, I dragged myself to bed and passed out.

It was Monday, the day I had to leave. We had a slow start in the morning, V and I dropped S at daycare, then I packed my things and drove out via the eastern side of the island. On the way to the airport I stopped at Shuri Castle. This castle was, like the rest of the island, completely destroyed in 1945. But, beginning in the 1980s through to the present time, enough historical records and living witnesses were able to reconstruct the design and the structure. It is so accurate that it is the only replica that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was interesting to see how various parts of the castle were built to entertain Chinese or Japanese delegates in different styles. Archaeological work is ongoing, since not every aspect of the castle was documented.

Back at the airport I initially got lost in the domestic terminal, spent hours in various queues, then found my plane and boarded. Unfortunately the flight to Shanghai was in a miserably old A320 with totally crushed seats, so I was pretty uncomfortable the whole time. I don’t mean to complain too much – I can quite happily sleep on a wooden floor – but this just wasn’t good. Fortunately the longer flight across the Pacific was in a more regular plane. I slept most of the trip, wrote some notes, and did a bit of reading. I landed back in LA on Monday afternoon, took a Lyft back home, and basically felt no jetlag. That said, for some reason the following week I barely needed to sleep and got a LOT of awesome work done on a project that will be the subject of a future blog.

It is a privilege to know such interesting people who live all over the world, to be able to afford to visit from time to time, and to be able to find the time to do so.

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