Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Opportune Okinawa Odyssey Part 2: School Trip

My second year students (grade 11) from Tatsuno went to Okinawa from Sept 30 to Oct 3. It was because of this I was probably able to get the holidays I was now enjoying; a lot has changed from last year in regards to my job. Anyways, to get to the southern area it was going to be difficult with all the bus transfers and stuff, I was going to be fairly late trying to catch up with my kids because I had that scuba test and stuff in the morning. While I was sitting there waiting for a bus, a taxi driver drove up and started talking to me… in English! Not only that, he haggled with me over the price!

I was quite shocked; this was a first for me in Japan although it’s quite common in the other Asian countries I have been to. Not only that, this ride was twice as long and cost half as much as the one in Tokyo. No wonder so many people want to move this cool part of the world. So with the taxi and spending slightly more than what the bus would have cost, I easily caught up with my kids and sat in on their first destination, a museum set up by the few surviving school girls from the war.

During the war, they were forced to be nurses in underground caves under horrible conditions. As the war turned worse and mainland Japan sacrificed Okinawa as much as it could to postpone a mainland invasion, the girls were ordered to the war’s frontlines. Of course it was a massacre, absolutely horrible. Then they talked about the mass suicides, as surrender wasn’t an option. The lucky few that did survive, wanted to die a fast, much less painful death from bullets so they ran outside the cave to the Americans. There, there were taken as prisoners and survived, a concept practically unheard of to them.

Many more brutal stories and an interesting museum peruse later, I was informed I could join my school for their trip! It was great seeing my students look all shocked when they saw me. Anyways, this was great news, as before I thought I’d have to tag along from the shadows and probably have to spend a lot more doing so. There were 5 buses for the 5 classes of students that came down. We got on the buses and headed to the cornerstone of peace. It’s a huge park-like area, where the names of fallen soldiers, including Americans and the UK, are etched into stone. Class photos were taken and I strolled around the area. I remember my sister Patty saying how she was intended to see the area while she was doing her Asian navy stuff, but even after asking, we couldn’t find any Canadian names there; perhaps she was talking about a different place.

Humbled by the solemn reminder of war and brutal sacrifice again, we headed back to our hotel in Naha where all you could eat buffets awaited, a theme that played out for every meal during the trip. I had a buffet only a handful of times while being in Japan, and how here I was having it for every meal. By the 3rd day or so I was hardly eating at all anymore with all the food I put away. Good times. At night, the teachers met up for mini drink parties, so I passed the time by reading my book at the top floor of the hotel overlooking the city at night, it was really pretty.

How the work parties went, were they were suppose to start at 10. Of course by the time everyone gathered it was 10:30. Then they had a meeting for the next day, which didn’t end until 11. Then we drank and had snacks until 11:30. This happened every night and then next day I would always get a wake up call at 6:15 in the morning. Good thing we could sleep on the bus I guess.

So on Wednesday we started the day at another gravesite. We didn’t stay long because it was raining, but the pile in front of us contained the cremated remains of tens of thousands of unidentifiable bodies. There were many different monuments in this park too, apparently different ones for different prefectures of Japan.

Later we went to a nearby place that had a huge natural cave underneath it maybe a kilometer long, as we sure walked for a long way. It was really cool seeing all the stalactites and pools of water. A couple times small… somethings would fly in front of you and freak you out. I liked the pools of water the most though, they were crystal clear and gave the place a really cool atmosphere; something I’ve never experienced before.

When we finally came up (it was a big walk), we now had to walk the distance back above ground, and there were many different types of shops. The first thing I noticed were those delicious Dragon Fruit we ate in Vietnam. Here, they were 1000% more expensive. In Vietnam maybe 70 cents, and here they were 70 dollars for one. It was great seeing the students’ reactions by the way when I told them I got my hat for 20 yen (about 20 cents) in Vietnam by the way.

Another shop was a glass molding setup. They had the furnace and the equipment, and all kinds of cool stuff. Later on there was a brewery, where they showed how they made the special snake’s venom vodka or whatever it was. Real creepy stuff for sure! Oh and live cultural music and dance near the end. Back on the bus, the tour lady person would usually talk or sing a cultural song for everyone. She said although we were surrounded by beautiful green everywhere (Lots of sugar canes! Those things are cool), she said during the war there was no green at all, just scorched Earth from the gears of war. I was so lucky my caretaker, Uchiyama sensei, was with me to translate.

Afterwards, we all donned helmets and took care moving down very steep stairs into a huge cave used extensively during the war. This place was massive and was used as another makeshift hospital during the war. It was eerie just how dark it was down there. One of our first stops was a deep section in the cave where the heavily injured were taken to die. There they weren’t taken care of or fed, and the tour lady got us to turn off our flashlights and we experienced the pitch black that was experienced by thousands before their end. After the war, they filled up over two large trucks with bones from the cave and took them to the large pile we visited that morning. What a horrible way to go out.

The cave was huge and used for a long time, so there were other stories and explanations, like how this pile of rocks over there was going to be used to make a central command station, but later was used as a bathroom. Or how over a hundred people that couldn’t walk were left for dead during the last few days, and how one person saved 7 of them by bringing them water from this hole; the same hole a body was thrown into when a bomb fell in through an air hole in the roof. Twisted metal was flung and deeply implanted itself into the roof and has since rusted. Part of the cave was scorched too by flames, when the Allies dumped in some oil and lit it on fire trying to get them to come out.

After, we went to see the American Air Base near where I had been scuba diving. There, the tour guide asked me how I felt there was a foreign military base on Japanese soil. Like a politician, I thanked him for asking such a controversial question, but after I realized he wasn’t going to let me off without an answer, I gave the pros and cons of both sides of the argument. Like how good it was for Okinawa’s economy for example. Interesting they would ask me that question; maybe it was because I’m not American.

We weren’t there for long, and we went over to an overlook of the ocean. The rocks dropped off 30 meters into the ocean or so, and got some really memorial scenic photos. We enjoyed the air and the view for a good while, taking in what we could on our tight schedules. It was breath taking. After which we went to the hotel, where I was on a high floor of a fancy place with a huge room to myself with a balcony with an unobstructed view of the ocean, emerald beach (actual name), and a large island in the distance. One of those you-had-to-be-there sort of things, as this picture can only capture a bit of the awesome.

We were staying there two nights and our hotel had a pool. Since we got back so late the beaches were closed; totally unlike Vietnam where they didn’t even have lifeguards, haha. I swam in the pool and it was really nice, even if my students called out to me like every 5 minutes from a different balcony window. The one time though, I did the “dead man’s float” that Dad taught me a long time ago. I could hear the kids screaming “Tony! Tony! Tonyyyy~~~!!!” and screams of ‘Daijobu?!?! Shinda!?!?’ (Is he ok? Is he dead?)

It took my every fiber of my being to keep some relaxed composure; I was trying so hard not to laugh. I’m sure there were some body convulsions and some air must have escaped through my tightly clenched teeth and wide grin a number of times during my stint though. Eventually I couldn’t bear it anymore and bust my gut laughing, their cute voices had multiplied and were really loud now, as lots of them were shouting down at me; never underestimate the cuteness of Japanese girls’ voices.

The next day was slightly more relaxed as we did cultural things like making jewelry or learning to dance. It was all in a village used to make an old sitcom, but has since been converted for this park as it has historical roots in the architecture. Anyways, I ended up making a gel candle with sand decorations and such; it’s really pretty. After which I lost interest in the other stuff so I checked out the nearby natural beach. This altogether was a new experience because it doesn’t see tourists. There were seashells, coral, crawling things, and all sorts of natural splendors I haven’t seen before. I easily spent and hour going around picking up seashells that looked pretty and adding them to a quickly growing collection. I stopped and laughed at my newfound nerdiness: picking up pretty seashells on the beach.

We went to some kinda pineapple processing plant next, but there wasn’t much to see and do other than be ushered into the monstrous shop inside where they had all kinds of goodies from jalapeƱo spiced pineapple cookies, to a pineapple chocolate fondue fountain, to pineapple wine; you name it. Lots of cute toys too; Japan’s a fun country.

After we went to the Okinawa aquarium, which is one of the largest in the world or something. Either way the place was absolutely massive, and inside was a monster of a water tank, holding monsters for sharks as large as 7 people, stingrays and schools of fish. This room had rows of seats set up too, where you could sit back and take in the show. There was so much and we had so little time as I wanted to see the dolphin show. It ended up not being as good as Nagoya’s, but hey, dolphin show right? It was great being with Uchiyama sensei and teaching her some stuff in return for once, like what root beer is (not alcohol!) and why it’s so good, or getting her to see her first dolphin show; she’s a great friend.

We enjoyed our last night, and Friday morning we got up early for the last time to see the castle in Naha. The place had been completely destroyed in the war, so the portion that had been rebuilt that we saw still smelt like saw dust. It was still cool though to see what a brand new castle would have looked like. After which we said our goodbyes and I checked into a super cheap surfing place or something, where it was $10 a night. Cheapest place I’ve stayed at in Japan thus far. It was ok, but no real mattress to speak of.

After checking my guidebook, I realized the school bus hit most of the large tourist attractions so I had the next couple days to just relax. I checked out a nearby garden museum kind of place, where there was waterfalls, statues, ponds with fish and turtles, rock formations and all kinds of cool stuff if you’re looking for your Zen. Or something. Either way I really liked it. I spent most of the day on the beach that was a quick walk away. It was kind of disappointing though, with the view being concrete all around, even including a large freeway overpass over the water. Since the water was so calm too, lots of seaweed was growing wild. Crystal clear and warm though, it was still relaxing. I think I preferred having the waves crash into me like on Vietnam though.

I went out to a really cool restaurant that where you could pick and choose your shishkabob thing and I had a really great meal coupled with really great beer. One of my pickings turned out to be chicken gizzards! It has been a while; I don’t remember them being that tasty. The swimming and the beer must have made me sleepy though, not to mention how little sleep I got the last couple days.

I ended up riding the monorail around a bit and checked out a nearby Chinese style market. I quickly lost interest though and just wanted to relax for my last day of holiday. I read a whole James Bond book not much else. It was interested to see things from bond’s eyes, and funny again to hear how things keep changing in his world. Like he referenced his training from WW2, and the evil villain had to be stopped because he made computer-training programs to make super precise thefts and stuff. Laughable at best, but still entertaining; I guess that’s why this one hasn’t been turned to a movie yet, that and “the reds” were a big background enemy along with other stuff I haven’t heard of.

Other tidbits: one week later Okinawa had the world’s largest tug of war again, where a one meter thick rope is used by thousands of people. I saw a picture and it’s unbelievable. Also, the TV offerings were really cool, with the airbase broadcasting their own news and commercials. I never realized how bad it was back home until I saw those commercials that were actually good. Things like don’t smoke, here’s how credit card debt works, here’s a website were people are ‘supporting the troops’, here’s to go if you need help raising your kids, gambling help, your rights, and on and on.

Anyways, Sunday I went from sweating on a beach to freezing in my house in Nagano. As my sunburn continues to peel, my fingers are numb typing this; it’s 15 degrees in my house right now. Since I have no car now, getting kerosene to rough out the winter is a ½ hour walk away… with those heavy jerry cans. Haha I’ll figure something out.

"Blame no one. Expect nothing. Do something." -Gene Valvano


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