Having been in Japan for close to six months, I must admit I’m a little disappointed that up until last week I hadn’t left Tokyo.
I love Tokyo; it’s a great city to live in, it’s convenient and there’s always something weird and wonderful to surprise you. There’s also the weird and not so wonderful – like the old man I saw walking through Shinjuku station just before Christmas wearing a miniskirt and knee-high socks, but I digress. The point I’m making is that there’s so much of Japan I want to explore.
Seeing as we have a three week school holiday over Christmas (I told you teaching was great), I decided to make the most of the opportunity and booked some flights out of Tokyo. In fact: I actually booked a number of flights.
You see, in Japan there’s a rather brilliant system you can book things online – such as concerts, sports tickets, flights, and so on – and go to the convenience store to pay later. Essentially, it’s a 24 hour window for you to change your mind. A quick search on Skyscanner gave me a few options and I narrowed it down to Okinawa and Hokkaido – the two furthest prefectures of Japan.
The logic behind this was simple: Osaka and Kyoto were two other options, however, they’re much closer to are quite easily doable in the shorter holidays. In fact, you can get there by shinkansen (high-speed train) quicker than you can by plane. Time was on my side, so it made sense to go as far as possible. With that in mind, I booked flights to Sapporo – the capital of Hokkaido – and went to bed.
I woke up the next morning with one thing on my mind: what the fuck was I thinking?
I wanted to get out of Tokyo for a number of reasons, one of which being that it was absolutely bloody freezing. I may be from northern England, but I really don’t like the cold. Hokkaido was guaranteed to be much colder than Tokyo, and covered in snow. I hate snow. I don’t ski; it’s cold, and it’s wet. Why on earth would I choose to go there in January?
Okinawa, on the other hand, is way off the south coast of Japan and – in theory – should have been a much safer, warmer bet. It may not have exactly been hot, but it was sure to be a damn right warmer than Tokyo. So with that, my decision was made: Okinawa it was to be! Praise the lord for the convenience of convenience stores!
¥100 beer? Sure. Raw chicken? Why not…
Okinawa is known for its beautiful scenery and subtropical climate. It is made up of a number of islands spread over a thousand kilometres off the south coast of Japan.
Unfortunately, the time and expense involved in getting to the further islands meant that for my short three night trip, it made sense to stay in Naha on the main island. This isn’t exactly a bad thing; Naha is a cool place with lots to see and do, but it meant the beauty of the smaller islands will have to wait for a future trip.
Not to worry, there are plenty of things to see and do on Okinawa Island (no idea how they came up with that name) and so after a late arrival on the Tuesday night, I set about spending the whole of Wednesday seeing the sights. With the weather not being bad but not that hot, I thought it would be a nice climate in which to walk around and casually take it all in.
What I didn’t account for was the hangover that would accompany it. After my fairly late arrival, and a flight which included four screaming children on the row behind me, I decided my first port of call needed to be a bar and, after a recommendation from the guy at my hostel, decided to set up camp at a local bar offering ¥100 beers; who said Japan had to be expensive?
After a few cheap beers, I was getting ready to head off when the waiter informed me that for my beers to cost ¥100 I needed to order one plate of food. No worries – it was all fairly cheap. The main worry was what was taking my fancy; I had the confidence of a few beers when this particular item on the menu caught my eye…
Yes, chicken sashimi. For those of you unaware of what sashimi is, it’s usually raw fish. It can however, mean very fresh raw meat which in this case was chicken. After a quick Google search, it appeared raw chicken is apparently safe and I went ahead and ordered it. If it’s on the internet, it must be true, right?
Sadly, this dish must be incredibly popular as the waiter informed me it was sold out, so instead I settled for some ‘tako wasabi’. Maybe some things just aren’t meant to be.
Ah well, another few beers went down and as the night went on I did what I (rather worryingly) seem to do best: befriend the local nutter. I’d only been on the island for about four hours, but there I was, drinking cheap beer and being slightly passive-aggressively spoken at by a Japanese Charlie Sheen lookalike. See for yourself…
Where were we? Ah yes, actually doing something productive.
Shuri Castle was to be the first stop on my whirlwind tour, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the former residence of the Ryukyu kings hundreds of centuries ago. Today, it’s a rather pristine reconstructed site on top of a hill which allows for pretty nice views of Naha.
I must admit that old castles, temples and shrines have started to blend in to one for me over the past few years – it’s probably a by-product of spending too much time in Asia – but Shuri Castle was a great place to spend a few hours. I could go on about what I saw (lots) and what I learned (a little), but in this case I’m going to allow the pictures to do the talking.
After making the most of the obligatory photo opportunities, myself and a Thai politician who I met along the way (yes, really) decided to check out another seemingly popular tourist spot: Tsuboya Pottery Village.
By this point the cloudy, rather humid weather was about to give way to lashing rain. It suddenly got very grey and the heavens well and truly opened, making a complete mess of my paper map and reminding me that only having one pair of non-work/non-gym shoes is not good practice, especially when said footwear has holes. Pay day is just around the corner…
With wet feet, destroyed maps and low morale, we eventually found our way to the village. Our aim was the museum which, naturally, was right at the other end of the street. We trudged along until we found the museum and took a bit of respite from the rain, only to be greeted by a receptionist who only said one word to us: “closed”.
It turned out the museum was closed until March. No reason was given and a quick Google search doesn’t give much away either. My main question though was not about why the place was closed, but more to do with the fact they were paying a lady for two months to sit there and tell people this. I’m no Alan Sugar, but surely this doesn’t make much business sense. A printed bit of paper in the window could surely do the same job, couldn’t it?
Aside from sun (of which there was very little), the other main reason I wanted to visit Okinawa was to do some diving.
Since getting Open Water certified in Koh Tao back in 2014, I’ve had an on-off relationship with diving. Living in the city makes it difficult to regularly dive, so I try to take every opportunity I can. Unfortunately, the opportunity hasn’t been there since my time on Bohol which – rather unbelievably – was almost 12 months to the day of my dive in Okinawa.
When you hit 12 months of inactivity, you’re supposed to take a refresher course to brush up on the stuff you may have forgotten since your last dive. From what I gather, this takes place in a swimming pool and costs more than the dives themselves. I missed the 12 month cut-off point by about a week, so was feeling a little rusty when it came to actually diving but I was confident it would all come back to me.
After a last minute phone booking the previous day, I decided to dive with Marine House Seasir as they were running a trip to the Kerama Islands which I’d heard were absolutely beautiful. I was a little nervous, but mega excited to get back under the water.
An early morning wake up call was followed by an incredibly choppy hour-long boat ride which gave me terrifying flashbacks to my whale watching trip in Mirissa, but we finally reached the islands just before I felt the need to lean overboard and let it all out. I got my gear on and – after a few reminders of the basics from my instructor Daisuke – it was time to take the plunge.
The slow descent started and it was all good. Nothing to be worried about, I thought.
Hang on a minute, what the…?
Upon reaching the 10 metre point, something didn’t feel right. Not right at all. My left cheek, and more specifically my sinus, felt like someone had taken a knife to it. The pain was unbearable. It spread to my mouth, and the space between my teeth and gums were throbbing with agony I’ve never felt before in my life. I tried to signal to Daisuke that something wasn’t right, but there’s only so much you can give way when you can’t talk. My constant pointing to my cheek had him thinking there was a problem with my mask. I can’t blame the man, not one bit, but Christ was I glad to hit the surface 40 minutes later.
A bit of Googling suggests that I was suffering from ‘sinus squeeze’, or ‘sinus barotrauma’, to give it its proper name. This is lifted from DivingMedicine.info:
“This condition usually presents during descent with a sensation of pressure, developing into a pain in the region of the affected sinus. It is usually felt over the eye (frontal or ethmoidal), the cheek bone (maxillary), or deep in the skull (sphenoidal) depending on which sinus is involved. Maxillary sinus barotrauma can also present as pain in the upper teeth.”
Yup, sounds about right. Bloody painful.
I was expecting something to go wrong from the beginning. I thought I’d forget something vital and completely balls everything up. I take a bit of comfort from the fact that it wasn’t my fault but make no mistake: it was, by all accounts, an absolute disaster. Ah well, the views were nice at least…
After sitting out the second dive, I was hoping that I’d be pain-free in time for number three but it wasn’t to be. One dive, nine hours and ¥17,000 later I was heading back to Naha to prepare for my flight the next day.
Back in Naha, it was time to tick off a visit to the famous Blue Seal ice cream shop before calling it a night. It wasn’t exactly the most successful trip, but ice cream makes everything better…even purple potato flavoured ice cream. Yes, purple potato. Your eyes are not deceiving you. It is amazing.
Despite the pain – which I could only shake off two days later when I returned to work – my time in Okinawa was a blast. There’s a hell of a lot more to see, so I guess I’ll just have to go back in the summer and explore more. I said in my New Year’s resolutions that I wanted to visit five new places in Japan this year. It’s only the beginning of January, and I’m already 20% of the way there.
Here’s to the next 80%!