Japan is more expensive than anywhere else we’ve traveled on this trip (unless you count family visits in Singapore) so we’ve decided to ‘wild camp’ as much as possible. This does not mean painting our faces, taking hallucinogens, and setting fire to things while whooping (although that does sound interesting – and I feel like I’ve probably actually done it at some point), it simply means camping somewhere that isn’t an actual campsite. As in, ‘in the wild’. Without paying for it, for those stragglers who still haven’t quite grasped the concept.
‘Okinawa’ in this post doesn’t just mean Okinawa city, it means Okinawa Honto, which is the largest island in a chain of other islands that lead from Taiwan all the way to mainland Japan. This group of islands is called the Ryukyu Islands, and part of the group is made up by the Okinawa Prefecture. Okinawa Honto sits about halfway between Taiwan and mainland Japan, and this is where we did the majority of our cycling. Occasionally we took bridges to other little islands to marvel at the scenery and/or camp for the night.
As an aside, in Kill Bill, The Bride visits Hatori Hanzo in Okinawa to commission a katana. I was slightly disappointed to learn that Hanzo’s sushi store and workshop were just film sets built in a Beijing studio.
Everything I’ve written below about this little Okinawan excursion was entirely unplanned. We had no idea where we would end up from day to day, let alone hour to hour. We had no specific destinations in mind, save for a rough idea to potentially loop the island in an unforseen number of days.
Day 1 – Naha town to Ojima Island (40ish km)
Southern Okinawa on a Sunday was peculiarly void of life. There were very few cars on the road, and occasionally there would be a lone pedestrian scuttling on an errand. No shops were open, and the few signs that promised an opening time of 11 a.m. – which is around the time where you stop saying, “Ohayou Gosaimasu!” and start saying, “Konnichiwa!” – remained closed after 11 anyway. Perhaps Sunday had something to do with it? Happily, we could still feed ourselves because two big convenience chains – Family Mart and Lawson – were open 24/7. We could also drink any time we wanted because vending machines were absolutely everywhere. Even cycling down farm lanes past greenhouses and corn fields we would find rows of vending machines, displaying a huge variety of cold beverages.
We rode south under patchy rain to Cape Kyan, the southernmost tip of Okinawa. The view was of a rugged coast, and the landscape consisted of gentle hills, farmland, and occasional rows of tidy houses. I took a photo of Caroline at the lighthouse there, and as I was doing so our wallet fell out of my jacket pocket. Credit cards, all our cash, and our ID cards were all in that wallet, and I didn’t notice it was missing until about an hour later. Distraught, we retraced our path and finally found it lying in the wet gravel by the lighthouse. We were lucky, and for a couple of days Caroline became the holder of the wallet. Somehow, though, it’s ended up in my care again.
We followed the coast through the rain, and eventually found a perfect spot for our first Okinawan campsite. Ojima Island held a tiny community. The bridge connecting it contained local kids who leaped into the seawater below, and the road around it was lined with small eateries. Old men in hats sat around chatting lazily, and the boxy Japanese cars rolled around slowly.
“There’re two cats at this park,” I exclaimed to Caroline as we stopped at a vending machine. “No, wait, four cats,” I corrected, as more cats emerged from somewhere. As I walked to the park toilet I called back, “There are six cats!” The cats looked well-fed, but they had clearly seen many battles. All of them had chunks missing from their ears, and a mangy ginger with a single eye bashed me when I got too close. We sat at a picnic table drinking our freshly dispensed beverages, and came to a mutual understanding with the cats of Ojima Island: we wouldn’t try to touch them, and they wouldn’t bite us.
Our campsite was a nameless island attached to Ojima island. It contained the ruins of an old building, a shrine of some sort, and a rocky outcrop which looked out east over the Pacific. We set up the tent and huddled inside just before the rain kicked in. A storm began to brew and our night was punctuated with lightning and heavy downpours. Our tent is generally waterproof, but there was still a pool under my sleeping mat in the morning.
Day 2 – Ojima Island to Ikei Island (70 km)
During a 1-hour break in the rain (at around 5 a.m.), we packed our things and headed away from our island within an island. As we rode upwards, the rain poured hard and set the tone of the morning: grey. The towns seemed to mix together in this area with mostly stand alone houses – some fancier than others – and the occasional concrete rectangle of a shop. Many people took great pride in their gardens, and the exterior of these homes were very tidy and somewhat satisfying. Twin roads snaked around a cliff overlooking the coast; we chose one at random and witnessed a large fruit bat swooping under an overpass and into the hardy coastal shrubs. The ocean was seldom out of site, and we managed to snap a few photos when sunny patches pushed through the rain clouds.
There was still very little open (it was now Monday), and so our meals were various Japanese dishes courtesy of Family Mart. This was mostly rice and seaweed combos with meats, or noodles with mochi for dessert. The convenience stores were everywhere in the south, so we never had to worry about not finding a meal. The road followed the hilly coastal edge for seveal hours, and we eventually reached a bridge that lead to a chain of three islands: first Henza, then Miyagi, then Ikei.
The main bridge, which connected Henza to the mainland, contained a beach, a restaurant, and a camping zone which was powered by two small wind turbines. We inquired about the campground but were told we must hire a tent from the site, and couldn’t use our own. The price would 7,000 yen, and so I said one of the few things in Japanese that I know from my “Pimsleur Speak and Understand Japanese” course (currently up to lesson 6; downloaded from KAT before it got shut down), “Ie, keko desu,” which hopefully meant ‘no thank you.’ The woman bowed happily, so if I did somehow offend her she kept it well hidden.
Instead, we rode to the farthest island – Ikei, where Google promised a beachfront camping site. We arrived, and it was indeed a beach – that much was certain – but it was not a campsite. It was 6.30 p.m. and a security guard told us the beach was closed for the evening. So we cycled to the nearby settlement of Yonashiroikei, which was practically a ghost town save for a few lonely fisherman and some yapping dogs on a rooftop. We camped for free behind a bush near the ocean.
Day 3 – Ikei Island to Sea Glass Beach (70-something km. Maybe)
It was laundry day, and it was also ‘where the hell can we find a phone charger and a shower?’ day. Finding these three things would be our primary mission as we continued up the eastern coast of Okinawa. The shower came first, as we already knew it would. The bridge (expensive campground) area had showers that opened at 9 a.m. We slowly cycled back over our three, small connected islands, marveling as the beautiful early morning sun highlighted them. I missed a prime opportunity to perform a Karate Kid pose on Miyagi island in front of the sunrise, and then we swam in the ocean until the showers opened. The showers were 100 yen of bliss, and I scrubbed my stink off using the ‘magic gloves’ – purple exfoliating gloves that we picked up somewhere in China.
Food came next and we found it, since nothing else was open that early, at Family Mart. Opposite the Family Mart we manage to kill two birds with one stone: a coin-operated landromat with power chargers. We cleaned our horrific clothes and powered up the devices. Caroline’s brother Keith gave us some German washing liquid when we met him in Taipei. Keith, if you’re reading, Rei in Der Tube is doing its job well. Thanks!
Seaglass Beach was not called that because the water resembled glass. It was called that because the sand was littered with smooth-edged sea glass that had washed up to shore. There was so much of it that it almost seemed intentional, as though locals had smashed bottles all over the nearby tetrapods in order to create a unique beach-going experience. People who think sea glass is lucky (not naming any names) would be shitting themselves at sea glass beach. It was a veritable treasure-trove of good fortune.
A lonely fisherman cast off from the beach, and the town of Henoko where the beach was located was, not uncharacteristically, mostly void of life. It appeared to cater to the nearby stationed US Marines (more on them later) because the tiny selection of eateries had English menus with things like ‘taco rice’ for consumption. We chose gyudon (beef bowl) with egg, and oyakidon (parent-and-child rice bowl) which is chicken and egg over rice.
We ‘showered’ by using a (drinking?) fountain in a park. A jet of water shot straight up in the air from this fountain, but with some careful finger placement one could angle the jet towards oneself. It was a very public place, so we waited until dark to attempt this unconventional shower. Halfway through the process, a car pulled up and just kind of sat there while we tried to look like we weren’t in our underwear spraying ourselves down in a public park in Japan. It was awkward.
We set up the tent on a grassy patch near the beach. It was a hot, windy night, and made for a very sweaty, frustratingly patchy sleep. None of our campsites in Okinawa could be considered pleasant, mostly due to the high humidity factor, but this particular site was probably the least pleasant of them all. We both looked forward to the coming autumn months on the Japanese mainland insofar as camping was concerned.
Also, the zipper broke.
Day 4 – Sea Glass Beach to Oku Port (85 km-ish)
In the morning we repaired the zipper with the sewing kit we’d bought from Daiso (a Japanese chain store that sells very useful, very cheap everything), and then pushed north. The last of the convenience stores had by now melted away, so we found breakfast and lunch at a small grocery store that had tasty bento boxes and various onigiri. The road up the northeastern side of Okinawa is not a main route – people tend to travel up the northwestern side – and so there was very little traffic most of the day. There were, however, many steep hills. We would climb for hours only to roll all the way back down to sea-level to begin again.
On our right was the ocean, and on our left was a huge cordoned-off area used by the US Marines. The controversy of the US Marine presence in Okinawa is a very confusing assortment of conflicting opinions. A very, very short history is this:
During WWII, the Battle of Okinawa was the most bloody in the Pacific. The US stormed up Ryukyu Chain of Islands with the intent of establishing a base of operations on Okinawa Island. The locals Okinawans unsuccessfully attempted to repel the attack, infamously using school boys as front-line soldiers and school girls as a nursing unit (a nursing unit who were given grenades and told by the Japanese to blow themselves up rather the risk the horrors of what would happen to them if they were captured). Around 150,000 civilians from the local population pool of 300,000 died during the fighting, and enormous amounts of historical sites and castles were destroyed. Essentially, the indigenous population of Okinawa was caught between the two warring sides. The US didn’t know who was a soldier and who was a civilian, so they simply fired into houses and killed everyone, and the Japanese stuck kids on the front line and brainwashed the civilians into thinking the best course of action was suicide rather than capture.
90% of the buildings on Okinawa were destroyed. The US found the episode so difficult and bloody, that instead of attempting to continue the land battle into the Japanese mainland, they decided to drop two nuclear bombs instead.
After Japan surrendered, the US-led Allies occupied the country in order to rehabilitate it. Over the course of about ten years, they punished war criminals, de-militarised Japan, banned former military personnel from holding powerful political positions, and downgraded the status of the emperor from ‘guy pulling all the strings’ to ‘familiar figurehead for Japan’s road to recovery’. Emperor Hirohito, for that was his name, was controversially never put on trial for war crimes, but he was forced to admit that the imperial family was not actually the offspring of a sun goddess, and therefore did not have divine power over the country – a claim that was backed up by Japan’s 1889 constitution…
Where was I?
Even this cherry-picked, extraordinarily abridged history of the US military in Japan could go on for pages, so let’s just say there remains a considerable US presence in Okinawa today. The bases there are seen as strategic sites for the States to keep an eye on China and North Korea.
But there have been ongoing protests about the marine’s continued presence. Most recently, a US civilian (I think the man worked for the military, but he wasn’t military personnel, or something like that – reports vary), raped and murdered an Okinawan woman. 65,000 people turned out to protest. An interesting fact that gets thrown around is this: the crime rate from the stationed marines is considerably lower than the crime rate of Okinawan citizens, yet any crime committed by a US soldier garners a disproportionately enormous amount of attention which leads to protests and the removal of certain rights/luxuries for military personnel.
“Konnichiwa!” said a smiling officer, as he made us stop our bikes. I explained that we couldn’t speak Japanese, could the officer or his friend (who had ambled over officiously) speak English? They couldn’t really, although it was better than our nihongo – but they looked like they weren’t sure what to do with us.
“Where go to?”
“Cape, uh, what was it called?” I turned to Caroline who always has the answers.
“Hedo,” said said.
“Ah, Capuh Hedo!” said the officer.
“Travel?” said the second officer.
“Yes, hai,” I replied. “Tourists. We start in Naha.”
This seemed to relieve them, and after some communication through unseen devices, the first officer gave me the a-OK sign. We continued up the hill – a particularly long and steep hill – and passed by rows of police officers, guards, prison buses, razorwire topped fences, and road cones. Some officers smiled at us. Some nodded. Some remained stern-faced. After a few minutes we cycled past a sign written in English:
US Marines, Okinawans don’t want you here. Go back to your home.
We carried on without further interruption.
We finally arrived in Oku exhausted. A quick scout of the lovely little (mostly abandoned) town revealed no good areas to set up our tent. As we did the rounds, a man driving a boxy car pulled up beside us and said something in Japanese, pointing down a lane. Suddenly, a small dog flew out of his window and ran over to us barking.
“Hey,” called the guy, opening his car door. The dog bounded back and they both drove away.
We followed his directions and they led down to the local docks. A gravelly patch of grass was available to us, and we eventually found a place where all our pegs could go in. We pulled out the camp stove and boiled some water for our dinner: ramen for Caroline and pumpkin soup with croutons for me. We showered in the field – Caroline using wet wipes and me pouring a bottle filled with water I’d taken from a graveyard over myself. It certainly wasn’t luxurious, but with no noise or lights nearby, sleep came easy.
Day 5 – Oku Port to Motobu (several km then BAM, no more bikes)
Sans breakfast, we started with a 5 km climb and a 5 km drop all the way to Cape Hedo: the most northern part of Okinawa. This particular patch of road was the stomping ground of the Okinawa Rail or Yanbaru Kuiana. This endangered bird is endemic to Okinawa, and can be described as a mostly flightless, dark, shy little fellow who eats lizards and is monogamous. We saw a couple running for their lives into the bushes as we approached, and then we caught one skinny-dipping in a watering hole. He finally noticed us staring, freaked out, and ran away.
When we arrived at Cape Hedo, we celebrated our cape-to-cape cycle with iced cocoa from a vending machine.
The cycle down the west coast was far, far easier than the cycle up the east. Instead of going up the mountains, the helpful road builders had simply cut tunnels through them. This resulted in a very pleasant seaside cycle. After several hours, I looked to my left briefly, and when I turned back I was in the process of colliding into Caroline. We both fell over and Caroline’s rear wheel bent out of alignment.
I mentioned in one of my earlier posts that we bought a spoke wrench for aligning the wheels, and then Brent left a comment saying how difficult it was to true the wheel once it went out of adjustment. Now, Brent, I understand what you mean. I spent an unhappy and unsuccessful half hour making it worse.
So I took most of Caroline’s possessions, and we rode off a a hobbled pace towards the next town. The next town, however, was closed. “Today,” an Italian man who ran an Italian bistro in the middle of nowhere informed us, “is a public holiday in Japan.” A quick Google told us that yes, today happened to be the (get this) inaugural ‘Mountain Day’, which was created for ‘businessmen to relax’. On top of Mountain Day, we also learned that the whole week was a holiday in Japan. It was Obon, the annual Buddhist festival of the dead. This tomb cleaning, spirit returning festival brings with it a long family holiday, and it explained why everything in Okinawa seemed closed and quiet since we’d arrived.
So we hobbled on towards the bigger city of Nago and found Sports Depot, which is a huge Japanese sports chain warehouse. It was open, as these mega-stores always tend to be, and the bicycle mechanic inside said he could realign our wheel for $10.00 – although it wouldn’t be ready until 6 p.m. This wouldn’t leave us time to find a good campsite since we were in the middle of a town, and on top of that we were feeling exhausted. So we booked a hostel.
We then went to a nearby Mos Burger, charged the phone, and crammed burgers into ourselves. It was practially the first chance we’d had since entering Japan to get some relaxing done, and so I wrote this post up to exactly here. (I am satisfactorily full of burger as I type these words. I’ve no idea where I’ll be when I proofread them).
Hell. Things went downhill after those burgers. The hostel we booked was in Motobu 14km away, and we had planned on cycling to it. But when we arrived at Sports Depot to collect Caroline’s bike, the guy said he didn’t have enough time to fix it and we’d have to come back tomorrow – at 6 p.m.
This put a spanner in our works. I left my bike at the depot as well, and with the sun almost set we had to figure out how the hell to get to Motobu. After walking in the general direction of the bus stop carrying panniers full of gear for half an hour, we decided to just give up and check into a closer hotel. The one we tried was full, but I asked the very helpful lady if there was a close stop with a bus going to Motobu. Yes, she told us, it leaves in 20 minutes and is a 15-minute walk away.
We made it just in time. Covered in sweat, we boarded the bus and told the driver where we were going.
“Where in Motobu?” he asked in Japanese. I showed him a map.
“Okay. Ticket.” he said in English, and pointed to a ticket dispensing machine.
“How much?” I asked. He pointed to a a digital display. It said 1 – 160.
“Go up,” he said.
Our tickets had the number ‘1’ on them, which we soon figured out was zone 1. As we traveled further, the price slowly clocked up as new zones were added to the display. By the end, the fare had gotten so high that we didn’t have enough money in the wallet to go any further. We pleaded our case, and the friendly driver took us all the way with no further charge.
The hostel was cozy, cool, and inviting. Jazz guitar wafted from the owner’s computer speaker, and we had a chance to take a shower and have a chat with some of the other travelers. Korea and Hokkaido (far northern Japan) were represented. We spoke about the anti-marine stance in Okinawa, and the owner spread out a map which displayed all of the USA’s presence in Japan.
“Ano…the old generation in Japan still want, but young people are against,” he said.
“Maybe all of Okinawa doesn’t want?” said the man from Hokkaido, to which the owner seemed to agree.
“In Korea, it’s the same,” put in the Korean. “Young people don’t want the US there, but the older generation are still afraid of the north attacking.”
I managed to publish my last blog post (see here), and sleep was wonderfully luxurious on a proper bed inside an air-conditioned dorm.
Day 6 – Motobu to Genka (by walking and hitch-hiking and, eventually, some cycling)
“Ano, the bicyle repair guy at Sports Depot, he is my friend,” said the hostel owner. We were fretting about what to do, because we weren’t sure if the bike would actually be fixed by the end of the day. The issue was simple, yet difficult: nearly all the accomodation in the area was completely booked out, but we didn’t want to reserve anything until we knew our bike would be ready. If it was, we could camp. The hostel owner called on our behalf.
“The wheel cannot be fixed, but he has a solution. You must go now!” he told us. Then he wrote us a hitch-hiking sign in kanji and sent us to the main street to thumb a lift back to town. An old man in a Hawaiian shirt (for that is the fashion of older Okinawan men) picked us up and said barely anything as he drove us the 15km back to town. We all watched a highlight of Japan’s Rie Kaneto winning gold at the Rio Olympics for the women’s 200m breaststroke on his built-in car tv, and finally he dropped us at a corner close to the repair shop.
“We cannot fix the rim,” the repairman told us. “You can order a new one and it will take a week, or we can use this smaller mountain bike wheel instead.” This was the solution he’d spoken about on the phone.
Neither of these options seemed particularly thrilling. After half an hour of debating and questioning, the mechanics (for there were now two of them) came up with a better solution: they would take a rim (700c) from another bike, and transfer over the cassette and disc brake from our destroyed wheel. This would be a rather costly 10,000 yen, but it was the fastest solution.
“It will take two or three days,” they told us. Then, after some quick discussion in Japanese while we looked on helplessly – “It maybe will be done tonight. By 6 p.m.”
Somewhere in the midst of all this commotion, Caroline booked us an Airbnb house several kilometres away, and then, while the bike was still being repaired and we were uncertain of our future, we sat in a manga and DVD cafe doing things that typically didn’t involve sweating profusely while using our legs to push 30 kg of bike and gear up steep hills. Despite the stress of everything, this forced relaxation was a welcome reprieve.
Lucky for us, the bike actually was repaired. Also, it was oddly comforting to know that I couldn’t have possibly fixed it myself.
Our Airbnb house was exactly what you might think of when you imagine a Japanese house. Fold-out futons, paper sliding doors, little fans for us to keep as gifts, and and an incredibly friendly hostess. We luxuriated in the small room, and watched season 2, episode 6 of Mr. Robot. It was an excellent episode of an excellent series, and we felt a lot better about our path forward now that we were fully mobile again.
As you have read, if indeed you are still reading, our cycle tour of Okinawa has by now gone slightly awry. Therefore I will end the post here, in Motobu (we camped in a park last night, now we’re in a laundromat at 7.19 a.m. cleaning our shoes in a shoe-cleaning machine; I’m typing these words to the sounds of whirring and banging).
This post may be over, but the weird life we’ve decided to live for the forseeable future will go on. Stay tuned.