To look at Okinawa, you would think: hideous. It is quite a big island, and a large proportion of it is covered in an unplanned sprawl of concrete buildings. Driving up the one main highway it feels claustrophobic. There is no open space, no thinning out of development into countryside, just pockets of thick forest crouching between roads and ugly urbanity. Even when it starts to thin out further north into sugarcane and vegetable patches, it is thick with vast resort hotels and tourist stuff.
And yet, it is a wonderful place. The nature is there, it has just been pushed into a thin line around the coast. There are countless beaches fringed with tropical plants and coral reefs, and all the “cliffs” are made of former coral reef. Because the resorts concentrate tourists in certain spots, there are any number of deserted beaches to explore. And there is lush forest everywhere, it’s just that people can’t get into it. But that’s ok.
Everyone says hello and smiles when you pass, at least outside the cities, where I was. It doesn’t matter that you can’t speak Japanese. All that stuff they say in the guidebooks about a shy people who are unwilling to use the little English they know for fear of losing face is just not the case in my experience – or to clarify, there are shy and extrovert people in exactly the same proportions as everywhere else. No one expects you to be able to speak Japanese, and most folk are only too willing to use whatever words they can dredge up in order to make friends.
I was befriended the other day, sitting in a small cafe by a harbour, by a retired english teacher. His family had lived on Okinawa for generations and, having nothing much on that day, he showed me round the area where he was brought up. I went and had tea at his house and met his wife and we all had a right old time.
Seems like everyone has a story to tell about the war, though it’s not like everyone is chatting about it. The battle of Okinawa devastated most of the island and tens of thousands were killed. I met a woman, who has a high-powered job and is very elegant, who also happens to come from a long line of shamans of the island’s religion. Noro, I think is the correct name, a kind of priestess/goddess, and these woman are the big cheeses on the island.
Well, towards the end of the war, this person’s grandmother was hiding from the Americans in a cave by the sea, along with some Japanese soldiers. During this time, she gave birth to a baby. But the baby wouldn’t stop crying and the soldiers told her to go outside with a hand grenade and blow herself and the baby up, so as not to betray the others hiding in the cave. She did it, but the grenade didn’t go off. Managed to escape somehow, and that’s the only reason the line of shamans still continues today.