My hostel in Naha was run down and grubby, carrying with it the feel of a random backpacker’s hostel plucked straight out of the back streets of somewhere in South East Asia. In fact, the city itself had a very different vibe to the Japanese mainland. Being one of the country’s poorest prefectures, it had buckled and sand swept sidewalks, ramshackle buildings and city parks that resembled nothing more than small pockets of wild, mosquito infested jungle. But this by no means detracts from this outgoing city, if anything it gives it an underlying quality. The Okinawan’s themselves have quite a different ethos to that of the mainlanders, with their bronzed skin and tattooed bodies; they are a people that throughout the course of history have been noted for being extremely accommodating. This was clear to see when the receptionist at my hostel offered me a beer upon arrival, something that would soon become a problem.
With beer in hand I took a leisurely stroll into the city centre, along Kokusai dori, International Street. For just over a mile the road stretches: buzzing and vibrant with cafes, bars, night clubs, restaurants, souvenir shops and department stores. A number of sheltered shopping arcades also trailed off from the main strip, meandering around the capital’s backstreets. Here I made a new friend; on a small market stall a dear old lady served me some home-made bento for the meagre price of just ¥200, about a quid.
I paid her a visit most days and every time she would chuckle joyously upon my approach to her stall. I would tell her how good her cooking was, in my worst Japanese, and she in turn would burst into further hysterics and tell me to stop.
Settling some place for just the briefest of time allowed me to familiarise myself with my surrounds and develop a new pattern. I got to meet local people and eat and drink where the locals would dine themselves – and I was always welcomed. It felt very humbling to be in this situation – even if it was just for a short while.
On this beery evening, I took in some more beers and walked the streets at random, soaking in as much as I could before I forgot which way my hostel was, and when such a time came… I just drunk some more.
I woke face down in a sweat drenched dorm bed, wondering how many others had sweated out their alcohol juices into the very fabrics of my mattress. Sitting up, my head consequently began to throb. Food would have been an appropriate resource, but as I wondered out into the open furnace-like streets, I instinctively walked in the direction of the coast instead. Just some 200 metres away from my hostel sat Naminoue Beach. Situated in a small cove, it was far from the island’s most attractive beach; its view obscured by a vulgar high-rise bypass rammed with noisy, trucks whipping back and forth from the nearby docks. Yet the beach appeared clean and tidy and its waters were clear and inviting. Submerging myself into the cool relief of the ocean, considerably numbed the pain of my hangover.
Feeling better I noticed a vendor sat in a deckchair close to the shorefront who happened to be selling cold beer, hair of the dog I thought. My empty stomach condemned the idea, but I refused to listen to it, and after a few more beers I wouldn’t feel the pain any more anyway… so what did it matter?
The older I get, the worse my hangovers get, the August heat was unforgiving too. Instead of lingering about feeling sorry for myself and dripping sweat all over the hostel furniture, I thought I’d let my sweat roll all over the island’s roads instead. Filling up my water bottles, I grabbed my bike and went for a little excursion around Southern Okinawa.
As the biggest island of the chain of Ryūkyū Islands at only 70 miles long and 7 miles wide, it wouldn’t take me long to explore the southern reaches of the island. Sadly, this would be about the full extent of what I would be able to achieve during my time on Okinawa. As romantic as the notion was to visit further islands, time and money restraints just wouldn’t allow. And in the 100% humidity I was also quite relieved as just a few short miles to the east of Naha I‘d find myself getting vaporised by the sun’s relentless rays.
Yet, had I been here between April and June 1945, the intense climes would have been the least of my worries. The horrors of the last ground-based battle of World War II on Japanese soil became more than apparent as my day progressed. I visited a number of sites across the island’s south. The Battle of Okinawa or the ‘War of Attrition’ as the Japanese would call it, was one of the bloodiest battles of World War II; one that would scar these islands for years to follow. At the time, surrender was not an option for the Japanese, for if the Americans took Okinawa, then they would be only one small step away from the mainland. Capture wasn’t even considered for the heavily outnumbered Japanese troops, and in such an instance it was common for the Japanese to either die martyrs or to commit the ancient samurai ritual of seppuku. And in no place would this be more evident than my first port of call at the ‘Former Japanese Navy Underground Headquarters’ – in the outer suburbs of Naha. Here, by foot, I descended down a gloomy flight of stairs into a network of doom-clad tunnels that stretched claustrophobically for about 450 metres.
The atmosphere sombre and the air stale, this was a site initially used as a command bunker for the Japanese Navy –eventually becoming a tomb for over 4,000 soldiers.
In early June 1945, Admiral Ōta, along with his men, found themselves cornered by the American advances. Ōta, knowing that all was lost, would sign off by sending one last telegram to headquarters, ‘There are no trees, no grass; everything is burnt to the ground. The food supply will be gone by the end of June.’ He then turned a gun on himself, many of his men following suit, some using hand grenades instead of bullets – this was evident by the shrapnel-splintered walls of the tunnels.
Exiting the tunnels back into the light of day, I suddenly felt very sober. I continued south in a heat unparalleled to anything I’d experienced back on the mainland, all the time thinking about the war, thinking about how lucky I was to be able to be doing what I was doing.
By the coast, I found Heiwakinen Park, home to the Peace Memorial Museum. Here an even more sobering account of the grim realities of the Battle of Okinawa are remembered, in the shape of an informative museum – its timeline of events leading up to and after those grim months of 1945.
The park and grounds were immaculately kept, as expected, with a cenotaph listing the names of the fallen soldiers and civilians from all sides. The Japanese military lost some 70,000 men and the allied forces 12,000, yet the greatest casualties were those of the Okinawan’s, where it is thought that over 100,000 citizens perished – almost a third of the island’s population at that time. It was thought that the Okinawans would welcome the American’s as liberators, but anti-American propaganda from the Japanese military soon saw to it that the Okinawan’s would not side with them. They were told that if they fell into the hands of the enemy that they would be raped and tortured, many stories speak of fathers killing their wives and children through fear of what the enemy would do to them if they were captured.
Just a short ride away from the Peace Museum was a much smaller memorial dedicated to Hime-yuri no to, The Princess Lilly Girls. The Japanese under heavy attack had little in the way of medical assistance and so 222 local high school girls were selected from local schools – to aid the wounded and crippled infantry. They would do so with little or no experience in dire conditions, amongst caves and uninhabitable swathes of jungle, whilst a relentless shower of mortar shells rained down around them. It isn’t possible to enter one of these caves, but you can peer down into one. It was dark, dank and craggy, a nightmarish, foreboding sort of place. Here, girls were forced prematurely into becoming women – women of war. I’d like to say that there was a happy ending for all the girls, but of course for many there wasn’t, it was war, and war will always be spiteful. During the actual 3-month-long conflict, it was thought that there were just 19 student fatalities, it was only when the Japanese had officially surrendered the islands that the death toll would raise to 123 student deaths. The girls had been told by their superiors not to surrender to the Americans… and so many students in a state of panic would jump off cliffs to their deaths, whilst others pulled the pins of hand grenades issued to them by broken bodied soldiers.
These museums, cenotaphs and memorial sites are a constant and important reminder of the horrors of war that once plagued these islands; horror stories that I hope, first hand, that you and I will never get to experience. Yet, despite all I’d seen and learned today, as I cycled around the island’s southern tip – amongst the most idyllic of tropical paradises – I still found it hard to believe that such atrocities ever took place here. But they did, they really did.
I awoke the following morning without a hangover, this would be the first and only such instance during my entire stay on Okinawa. The previous days’ sombre outing destroyed that sensual holiday vibe. Today, however, I planned to get back on track, but not before exploring a little more of the south.
Cycling south-easterly out of Naha, I hit Mibaru Beach. There a quiet and secluded portion of coast greeted me, its waters calm and its beach pristine. I slung down my bike, peeled off my sweat-soaked backpack and hastily immersed myself into the wet stuff as if my life depended upon it. Coming from England it will always be a surprise to me when I look down into crystal clear waters and see my own feet planted firmly upon the sea floor; a complete polar opposite to the shivering cold, murky depths of the North Sea. Casting my mind back to Skegness 1992, I’ll always recall two red-headed children playing catch in the sea with a used condom; a truly tragic day for gingers.
My fun would be spoilt when a series of rain clouds began to encircle me, the weather in Okinawa not to be trifled with, as multiple tropical storms and typhoons often play havoc with the island’s annually. It just so happened that through my own supreme timing, I’d arrived during the middle of typhoon season.
Exiting the sea, I jumped straight onto my bike wet and journeyed back west towards Naha. With the searing heat, I’d be dry in minutes. Weaving in and out of the rush hour traffic, along a selection of horrifically destroyed roads, I’d just about make it back to my hostel before a ferocious rain storm broke. Relieved, I plucked a cold beer from the fridge and pitched a seat on the tatami floor, next to a passed out drunk. A man after my own heart. Pulling back the ring-pull of my beer let forth that unmistakable and expected hiss, a noise that for me would also signal the beginning of an unwarranted 12-day binge.
Once the beer started to flow, I knew it would be difficult to wean myself away. For when it comes to alcohol, my genes are extremely susceptible to its poisonous wrath. On a nightly basis, I would meet up with an eclectic contingent of characters, some strange, some beautiful, some dangerous. And where each consecutive night would lead I felt that not even the god’s could have fathomed. From the night clubs, to the karaoke bars, to the house parties, to the back streets – each morning, afternoon or evening that I awoke, my head would be a scrambled and dreary mess. Some of it I remembered, some I didn’t, and what I did remember I mostly just wished that I didn’t. Why did I chose to drink to complete and utter excess each night? I really don’t know. It was only when I woke up in the foetal position on Naminoue Beach early one morning, feeling a series of abnormal heart palpitations, that I realised I was beginning to lose sight of my actual goal. For each day I wasted on the piss, was a day that both punctured my health and crippled my chances of making it back to Tokyo in an able-bodied state. I stumbled to my feet with difficulty and brushed myself down, my body pouring with sweat. Reaching into my pocket, I pulled out my iPhone to check the time. Steve Job’s little brother was shattered and dysfunctional, I sighed before instinctively skimming the phone into the Pacific Ocean. I sighed again. Now, why did I just do that?
It was time to leave these shores.
Returning to my hostel, I vomited a little and then gathered my belongings, before taking a brief cycle ride to the ferry terminal. I’d enjoyed the buzz of Okinawa, worlds apart from the mainland, it had a completely separate country-feel to it. A little like Hokkaidō, but with a slight edge. I felt I’d merely scratched the surface however, and not completely done my break here justice, for obvious alcoholic driven reasons. However, I had reached and just about survived my 32nd prefecture. Grabbing a bottle of water, I toasted to just 15 more, and then vomited on my arm.
The 25-hour ferry ride back to the mainland was a choppy one that certainly did no wonders for my dicky stomach. I shook and sweated out like a junkie, as the mother of all hangovers took a grapple hold on me. I’ll never drink again.
Dates: 24/08/2014 – 9/09/2014
Total miles traversed: 5,092 miles
Total time in the saddle: 512 hours and 29 minutes
For a more gratuitous insight into my journey please take a visit to your respective Amazon store or contact me directly for a signed copy and colour map:
Tokyo to Tokyo: A Cycling Adventure Around Japan