Friday, 13 February 2015


After a short flight and a struggle with our baggage through customs because there are no trolleys ("this is the LCC terminal", the customs officer politely inform us - in other words, if you must be so cheap.....), we find ourselves outside the "normal" domestic terminal.  Okinawa, Japan.  It's exciting to arrive by plane but a little nerve-wracking when you unpack the bikes because you know you could've done it better and how were the bikes handled?  The bikes are slowly rebuilt by me while Gayle goes in search of cash and maps.  After quite a long time we finally ride off into the wind and sunshine into Naha city, stopping for a quick pot noodle before continuing to Tomomi's house.  Gayle has sketched directions on a scrap of paper - neither of us understand our host family's address: a series of hyphenated numbers and a district.  Apparently road names are rare in Japan.

The roads are busy but silent, almost silent.  Cars swish by.  Buses glide past.  No noisy scooters.  No noise.  The cars look odd - like toy cars designed by 5 year-olds. But most noticeably there is hardly a sound from any of them.  It's wonderful and scary at the same time - cars overtake without you hearing them coming.  But hang on, is that car waiting, pausing? Yep, polite and careful drivers. Oooh, so nice.  And finally, another country driving on the right side of the road.  Not the right side, the left side. The correct side.

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We reach our destination without a hitch - Gayle's map is perfect.  When we do stop to consult our tourist map an old man approaches and asks in English if we need any help.  At the house we are greeted by Aran, the youngest of the family.  He's home alone and we feel a little awkward at first as he says very little and our Japanese is not much more than hello and thank you.  But he shows us in and invites us to sit down.  His father, Masao, comes home and puts us at ease because he speaks English.  He's a translator, translating technical magazines and books into Japanese, and more impressively he sometimes turns his hand to a project to test his own translations.  
Tomomi arrives with her mum and lots more children.  There's Marin, their daughter, and three cousins.  Takito is the least shy simply because his English is good.  He's extremely polite - keeps nodding his head, which is short-hand for bowing - ahhh, Japanese etiquette. Bow to your elders, bow in thanks, bow in greeting, you can feel like a nodding dog quite quickly.  Tomomi and Masao may not be a typical Japanese couple - they are hosting us through Warm Showers -  but it's hard to judge this when they are the first family we meet.  While we are invited to relax in the lounge Masao sets to work mixing dough and preparing the dinner with Tomomi's mum.  We are all soon recruited to help make what we call baozi (stuffed dumplings), enveloping the filling in circles of rolled-out dough and pinching the joints together.  After a little steaming we then tuck in with vinegar and mustard on the side.

We sleep in a room that is really just a raised platform in one half of the lounge, covered with a tatami (reed mat), and partitioned off by sliding wooden doors lined in paper.  The paper allows light to enter but gives privacy.  We sleep well on mattresses unrolled on the mat and when we awake everyone has gone to work or school. Masao works from home and suggests we visit the nearby beach as it's a lovely sunny day, so we do. 
learning some useful Japanese phrases

In the evening we join the family around the low table in the lounge for a delicious hotpot of chicken, mushrooms and various vegetables.  A friend of Tomomi and Masao joins us - he has travelled a bit and cycled through South America.  He's an environmentalist and was doing assessments for a development company on the island but gave it up because of the inevitable conflicts of interest.  Okinawa remained under US control after the war until 1972 when it was finally handed back to the Japanese government.  There remains a strong US military presence on the island as there are several air bases and a naval port here.  We ask what the feeling is about this and after some pause Masao replies "It's mixed.  It's very complicated." Masao is from Tokyo and came here to study.  Tomomi is from Okinawa and they met at university.  The island has its own dialect, and a cultural tradition distinct from Japan which is slowly diminishing, although preserved a little for tourists.  Most of the tourists come from China, and then Korea and Taiwan.  We are surprised.  Regretfully, we cannot stay longer as the family also host guests for local running events and they have a runner coming from Hong Kong the next day.  Tomomi insists we return before we leave the island and we are keen to until we realise that will probably catch a ferry from the port in the north of the island. Still, we've had a good introduction to the country.

can't beat a picnic bench for lunch

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