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Monday, July 4, 2011

Okinawa Getaway: Days 1 and 2 6月25日と6月26日

To commemorate my recently completed and very enjoyable 8-day visit to Okinawa, I've changed the theme of this blog to Ocean Blue, and my user pic to that of a Deigo flower デイゴ. We now return to our regularly scheduled blog update...

No T'ái​wān Beer 台灣啤酒 for this traveler while waiting for my China Airlines 中華航空 flight from T'ái​wān T'áo​yuán International Airport 臺灣桃園國際機場.

My first day in Okinawa Prefecture 沖縄県 (though not my first trip; I visited Miyako Island 宮古島 back in the summer of 1993) was a short one. My flight arrived at Naha Airport 那覇空港 in the early evening on Saturday, and by the time I had taken the Yui Rail ゆいレール monorail into central Naha 那覇 and checked into the Tōyoko Inn 東横イン那覇旭橋駅前 (www.toyoko-inn.com/e_hotel/00076/index.html), there wasn't  much to do except take a brief walk around the neighborhood, and then call it a night. Sunday would prove to be much busier...

Following breakfast and checkout (and entrusting my bag in the capable hands of the hotel staff), I rode the monorail to the end of the line, Shuri Station 首里駅. From there, it was a 15-minute walk to Shuri Castle 首里城, formerly the seat of power of the rulers of the Ryūkyū Kingdom 琉球王国. For an overview of the kingdom's history, you can read the Wikipedia entry: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ry%C5%ABky%C5%AB_Kingdom. For those who don't have the time, here's the condensed version: a unified kingdom was established in 1429, and governed from Shuri. The kingdom prospered as a vassal state of the Ming 明朝 and Qing 清朝 dynasties, until the armies of the Satsuma domain 薩摩藩 on Kyūshū 九州 invaded in 1609, and took over control of the Ryūkyū Islands 琉球諸島. The Satsuma rulers ruthlessly taxed and exploited the Ryukyuans, but maintained the fiction of an independent Ryukyuan royalty. This lasted until the end of the feudal era in Japan. The monarchy was abolished in 1872, and Japan annexed the islands as Okinawa Prefecture in 1879.

As for the castle itself, like much of Naha and southern Okinawa, it was devastated during the American invasion in 1945, and what can be seen today is a painstaking recreation of what once stood on the grounds of Shuri. But what a recreation it is! Everything has been done so well that the area has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

To reach the castle, you pass through a series of gates. First up is the Shurei-mon 守礼門, a beautiful sight even in the heavy rain (Sunday was the only day of frequent showers during my entire trip, fortunately):


The most impressive of the remaining gates is the next one, the Kankai-mon 歓会門, a guard tower set between limestone walls:


Finally, you reach the ticket gate and the central courtyard, and the colorful Seiden 正殿, which served as the palace for the Ryukyuan kings. Like so much of Okinawan culture, the architecture of the buildings in the Shuri-jō complex demonstrate both Chinese and Japanese styles:


Visitors can walk around the interior of the Seiden, the highlight of which is the upper-floor throne hall. The sign behind the throne is a gift from the Qing Dynasty Emperor Kang Xi 康熙帝, and reads Chūzanseido 中山世土, "For generations, Chūzan is a nation ruled under the King of Ryūkyū":


The fact that all of this splendor had to be recreated in the late 1980's and early 1990's was a sad reminder of what a senseless waste the Battle of Okinawa 沖縄戦 was, feelings that would be really be driven home later on in my trip.

After checking out the splendors of the Seiden, I walked over to Irino-Azana 西のアザナ, a lookout with a great view of Naha below, and the Kerama Islands 慶良間諸島 in the distance:





...and the ruins of Enkaku-ji Temple, the walls of which are pockmarked with shell holes from the war:


The last thing I did at Shuri Castle was watch a series of four short performances of traditional Ryukyuan dance:
Most of the dances were very slow and measured, but the third one was more uptempo. I managed to record most of it (in two parts):


At this point, it was time for lunch. I resolved on this trip to try as many different kinds of Okinawan dishes as I could, and at the restaurant inside the visitors center I had gōyā champurū ゴーヤーチャンプルー , bitter gourd, egg and pork fried together, and washed down with a mug of Orion Beer オリオンビール, the local brew. I ate well on this trip, if I do say so myself:


With lunch taken care of, it was time to return to the Tōyoko Inn, retrieve my bag and take the monorail back to the airport for my flight to Ishigaki Island 石垣島. Alone among all the prefectures in Japan, Okinawa doesn't have any railroad lines, but Naha's monorail system was very convenient. Though it's only a single line, it runs between the airport and Shuri, and many of the city's sightseeing spots are a short walk from a station:


At the airport, I noticed this sign indicating the distances both to Ishigaki (414 kilometers/257 miles), and T'ái​pěi 臺北 beyond (655 kilometers/407 miles):


It only took an hour to fly from Naha to Ishigaki. Ishigaki Airport 石垣空港 had a very laid-back feel to it - you walk down the steps from the plane, across the tarmac, through the very small terminal and onto a waiting bus for the 20-minute drive into town. All this will probably change in 2013, however, when a newer (and more environmentally destructive) airport is due to open:


Once in Ishigaki city 石垣市, I checked into my home for the next five nights, Rakutenya 楽天屋 (www3.big.or.jp/~erm8p3gi/english/english.html), a 90 year-old traditional Okinawan home that has been turned into a guesthouse. My room was small, but it was a bargain at only ¥3000 ($37/NT1070), and the husband-and-wife owners were extremely friendly and helpful. The wife spoke very good English, and showed me the way to Amurita Noniwa あむりたの庭, a cool-looking restaurant where I had the local Yaeyama soba 八重山そば, but done with a twist - green curry soup (Yaeyama 八重山諸島 is the name of the island group of which Ishigaki is the most populous). And instead of Orion, I enjoyed the first of many Ishigaki Beers 石垣島地ビール, a local microbrew:


The young owners, Shingo and Sayuri Miyamoto, were very friendly, and kicking back with them was the perfect way to end what had been a very enjoyable day:


Akata Sundunchi 赤田首里殿内, "Inside Akata Shrine in Shuri"

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