When I first decided that I wanted to dive as well as see things, few places came to mind. Okinawa was one of these places, because it seemed ‘cultural’ enough with things to do apart from dive, yet small enough to cover in a short period of time. For about a week away, Okinawa seemed like a fantastic compromise and so different from what I know about Japan: subtropical region that showcases its mix of cultural influences so boldly (particularly in the cuisine) such that calling Okinawa an integral part of Japan sounds almost like a misnomer. But it is in any case; standard Japanese is spoken here, as are incomprehensible dialects and ruins that mark out this former Ryukyu Kingdom – an independent Kingdom that ruled over the islands between Japan and Taiwan from the 15th to the 19th centuries – like a proud rebel standout.
Hong Kong was my transit point into Okinawa and I’d already placed a reservation for a rental car with Rental OTS which did offer considerably lower prices than other rental companies, especially for advance online bookings. It is self-explanatory then, that many from Hong Kong head to Okinawa for that resort experience, even though the main island itself feels way more like a city than Hokkaido did. The drawback? The large number of people hiring their cheap cars, the long queues at the counter and the long bus journey from airport to rental station.
Chatan (about 45 minutes away by car, or in my case, a hybrid Toyota Axio) from the decidedly ugly urban Naha is my first stop. Getting to Sunny’s Stay or rather, the collection of buildings known as Ocean Front Apartments wasn’t too difficult with an English-speaking GPS although wrangling with sunday traffic was another story. My apartment faces the Sunabe Seawall (Miyagi coast) and the ocean, a long walkway by the water along that offers spectacular views of sunset and it’s all relatively peaceful until the roar of the planes break the morning silence at 6 a.m. Tourist or resident, the unwelcome wake-up call is probably the only reason I can’t wait to get out of this town and out to the northern villages.
The significant American presence here because of the military bases is jarring; there is about a fifth of the island that is still under American sovereignty after it was returned to Japan in 1972. More importantly, the friction that exists between American and Japanese relations is rubbed raw here, when assault and murder cases in connection with the Americans have prompted mass protests and top-level discussions on base relocations to more isolated sites. Yet businesses around Chatan clearly cater to ‘Western’ tastebuds and food in the Izakaya(s) can be an alluring mix of Japanese, Tex-mex and Chinese cuisines.
I’m neither Japanese nor American but watching the drama play out is disconcerting. It is nonetheless strange to see 2 very separate and distinct groups of people here however; the Americans and the locals (as well as the tourists) occupy the same geographical space but don’t entirely interact unless by necessity. The latest furore over the murder of a 20-year old woman by a former Marine and a military contractor has only pushed the island into the media spotlight again. At ministerial level, Shinzo Abe has made an official call for military discipline when when Barack Obama made his historic visit to Hiroshima.
The draw of this place is the very laid-back, chill-out vibe that’s clearly missing from dense urban centres like Tokyo or Hong Kong, which probably explains the rush of tourists here dying for their resort-island fix. Perhaps it’s nowhere better seen as the dive boat headed for the Kerama Islands for sun, crystal clear waters and circling planes overhead. I met Richard on board, a Brit who has been living here for 3 years and loves everything about Okinawa and the Japanese.
We argued over English tea, Japanese tea and in general, English accents and other dives sites, until the day ended with a nose bleed (on my part) and severe sinus blockage. Dai, my guide for the day, simply crowed over our disagreements as he cut a kiwi, then offered its skin to Richard.