May 31, 2011

Exploring Okinawa

Okinawa is one of Japan’s southern islands. It has one of several US military bases in Japan. We stayed at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in the heart of Naha, the capital city, with an incredible array of duty free shopping. We had planned to rent a car for a couple of days and tour the island but we could not because we did not have an international driver’s license. It has been years since we were asked for one so we didn’t even think to get one. However, it turned out to be for the best because we accomplished more by taking two day tours and for about the same price.

Because of the earthquake and tsunami tourism was way down so there were only a dozen people on the tour bus. The guide only spoke Japanese but we had a headset that gave us great narrations. We loved the guides because between the narratives they would sing a beautiful Japanese ballad. Very impressive. One day the tour took us to the northern part of the island where a lookout point called Manzamo, which translates into “where 10,000 people can sit.” We had a wonderful lunch at a restaurant served in what they call a “bento box,” a lacquered portioned lunchbox. We visited the aquarium and saw the dolphin show which was excellent but wish we had more time as the Ocean Expo Park is huge and we didn’t have time to visit the cultural village. The tour also stopped at the site of Nakjin Castle and then Nago Pineapple Park with great pineapple wine tasting included.

Another day we visited the southern part of the island which is where most of the fighting during World War II occurred. We stopped at the Former Japanese Navy Underground Headquarters where the soldiers committed suicide instead of surrendering. That was followed by the Himeyuri Monument where over 200 young volunteer nurses (ages 15-19) killed themselves instead of surrendering. The most impressive memorial to WW II we have ever seen was the Okinawa Peace Prayer and Memorial along with the Cornerstone of Peace that is a place to remember and honor the 200,000 people who lost their lives in the Battle of Okinawa and to “appreciate the peace in which we live today and to pray for everlasting world peace.” It lists everyone who was killed in the battle – Japanese and American soldiers along with civilians. It made me wonder where our “peace” memorials are. It was even more profound for us because we had just finishing reading “The Girl with the White Flag.” It is a young adult book written by Tomika Higa who at the age of seven wandered around the battlefield for seven weeks alone. It is an amazing survival story which should be compulsory reading – better than the Anne Frank story because she survives. While looking at photos in the museums we realized that the author was just one of many children caught in the crossfires of war.

There is an excellent monorail in Naha so we took it to the Shuri Castle. The original castle was destroyed during the WW II bombing but the replica is excellent. It was once the seat of the Ryukyu Kingdom which ruled the island from the 15th to 19th centuries. It was impressive. Luckily we visited on a day when they had an excellent folkloric show.