Saturday, 18 February 2012

How We Didn't Do Okinawa - Part III

The final instalment in our Okinawan Odyssey. I can't believe it's taken me three posts to write about a six day trip.

For those who are reading these posts out of order, this is the story of how we didn't really do all those things you're supposed to do when you holiday in Okinawa, though I think this last episode is least able to qualify for that definition.

For a start, we did have a meal in a traditional-ish Japanese restaurant. We slipped off our shoes (noticing too late that we'd all worn our oldest, dirtiest shoes for the occasion) stepped up onto the dining platform and sat awkwardly on the floor while the attendant slid our cubicle door closed.

I have to say I found the fact that other diners were partially screened from view to be the greatest spark to my curiosity I have ever known. I was so fascinated by what our neighbours were doing I could barely concentrate on our own meal.

On one side there was a young couple having what looked like, from the level of formality, a first date. I could be wrong on this, though, as they were also, very ritualistically, serving each other and offering morsels on chopsticks for their partner to enjoy. They were also quite shamelessly posing mid-bite while their partner taking photographs of each other.

On the other side was a group of men who we believed were Taiwanese or Chinese, as they were speaking in English to the waiter (this was a phenomenon which tickled us, that English was the lingua franca between two Asian countries). There were some interesting dynamics going on there. One of the younger men was trying to order for everyone, which I think annoyed the older man of the group who barked 'I want a beer!' in the middle of the process.

But I digress.

Here's Conrad looking suspiciously at his starter:

which turned out to be some kind of smoked chicken strips, I think. Here it is, anyway. Maybe you can figure it out.

These are Andy's photos as I'd forgotten to take my camera, so not everything we ate is here. Here's Andy's sashimi. One of the delights of eating in Japan is the beautiful presentation of the food.

We also had some kind of seaweed fritters and (cooked) fish. Here's the view from under the bottom of our partition:

This meal took place at Mt. Onna village, where we stopped on our way up the island.

On our final day we did another thing you really should do if you're holidaying in Okinawa, which is to visit Shuri Castle in Naha. This was the palace of the Ryukyu Kingdom, originally built in the 14th century but burnt and rebuilt several times since then; the last time being when it was sadly all but demolished by three days of American bombing during the Battle of Okinawa at the end of the Second World War.

Some of the original palace remains and the rest has been reconstructed, showing what an amazing feat of construction it was. The site is huge and set up on a hill. Here are the palace walls, which are about 14 feet thick I think:

Here's the one of the entrances:

And here's one of the original features, dating back to the fourteenth century. It's the outlet for one of the springs that were a guaranteed water source when the castle was under siege.

Inside, I found the understated beauty and simplicity of design and decoration a strong contrast to European palaces of the same period. Here is one of the lower rooms where the king would hold public audiences:

There is clearly a lot more to be said about Shuri Castle, but I can't do it justice on these pages, so I'll leave it here. Suffice to say we had a couple of interesting and awe-inspiring hours there.

That visit took place on our last full day in Okinawa. The next morning we took the monorail back to Okinawa airport.

We had a great time, all in all. One of my lasting memories of the trip will be, I think, the huge contrast that it was to Taiwan, in my necessarily limited perception. The high level of ritual, politeness, fastidiousness and tidiness was quite a shock to the system after six months of living in Taiwan. As someone who doesn't have an intuitive understanding of social mores and customs, though, I have to say I feel more comfortable living here where things are more relaxed, and my occasional faux pas is shrugged off as due to me being a crazy foreigner.

Having said that, there was one thing I deeply appreciated about Okinawa on those cold, humid, windy days, and a revelation I've deliberately left to last - the fact that that many of the numerous drink vending machines sold delicious hot cocoa. Hot cocoa virtually on tap is difficult to beat.

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