Okinawa. Dear, dear Okinawa. With your palms trees and your deep blue sea, you are truly a sight to see. Ryohei just read my first few sentences and laughed at me for being so corny. For my defense, I can’t help it if I’m an overly emotional person, I got it from my papa. I don’t know if it’s because we visited the island at the height of the pandemic, just before the Go To travel campaign started and when the local economy was at the lowest of lows, but the locals there were so warm to us, so welcoming. Just like I talked of Kyoto, I can confidently say that there is something truly magical about Okinawa, and it’s not so much the architecture, the exquisite traditions or even the delectable local dishes, but I’d rather say that it is all about the heart of the people living there that you can feel through their genuine smiles and that make you feel an indescribable and raw magic. How different is it from Tokyo and the forced kindness that we grow accustomed to here! The kind of impersonal, sterile kindness plastered on the faces across a counter, the fake politeness and smiles you might encounter once in a while, crammed here and there within an endless chaos of cold concrete buildings and self-absorbed faces. Okinawa and Tokyo are like night and day, I sometimes even wonder if they even belong to the same country.
I remember the first cab driver that took us to the shopping streets of Naha from the random and unpaved streets we bravely ventured in the outskirts of the city until we ultimately gave up and caught the first cab that came our way. He was a jolly old man, smiling with his eyes and with the playfulness of those Shīsa, the mythical dog creatures that you can find sitting together as a pair at both sides of the entryway of almost every house and shops in Okinawa.
He talked without reserve with a very thick islander accent known as the Okinawaben ( 沖縄弁), the Okinawan dialect, about everything and anything related to Okinawa, his younger years (that we called in Japanese Seishun ( 青春)) and the deplorable situation everyone was in because of the recent events who-shall-not-be-named.
It was our very first day in Okinawa, we’d arrived the same morning and after quickly dropping our luggages at our hotel, we were already outside exploring avidly, as would have probably done any sane person who had been completely stuck in a lockdown for the past 3 or 4 months. The kindness struck me hard. It wasn’t until we were sitting in that cab, driving from Kinjo stone road to Kokusai-dori, the main street in Naha, that it dawned upon me. How deprived I had been of that simple human connection and that warmth for the last three years I had spent here in busy, bustling Tokyo.
Coming from a laid-back community of small villages where everyone has known each and everyone for generations, I was taken aback by the blatant loneliness of this overloaded megacity. But Okinawa was different. Years away from all that solitary feeling. People were as warm as the sun slowly roasting our skin and as sweet as the Okinawa staple Beni-imo tarts, and for a while it felt like the home of my childhood summer days, playing with the neighbors in the swimming pool without a care in the world.
It was also the very first time in my life to swim in the ocean, so we celebrated big and went with a full kayaking, snorkeling and scuba diving tour near the famous blue grotto somewhere between Naha and Nago. Once again, our tour guide, who happened to be the owner of this touristic business (called Aruguide, by the way), was so incredibly kind and funny that I felt comfortable enough to fully enjoy my experience, even though I’m probably the shyest, most insecure and awkward foreigner girl in all of Japan. And what an experience it was, to swim in that eerie blue grotto and in the clear turquoise water with all the colorful fishes and the almost translucent squids zooming past us. That same evening we moved to a resort not too far from Nago and had a barbecue by the beach with a breathtaking sunset. A very happy and magical day in an otherwise depressing year, to say the least. Probably the happiest I have been in 2020, come to think of it.
On our very last day of our small honeymoon in Okinawa, we decided to go big once again and do snorkeling in the Kerama islands, South-West of Okinawa, in the hopes of meeting some wild sea turtles roaming freely in the ocean. We could have chosen the more popular Zamami island, but we opted instead for Tokashiki island and what a great decision it was! Even on Tokashiki island, we could have decided to go with the tourists on the well-known Aharen beach, but, once again, we decided to follow our gut and we took a small cab with the friendliest obaa-chan ever and went to the secluded Tokashiku beach in hopes of increasing our chances in encountering the sea turtles I prayed for all week. We had the beach to ourselves, almost no one in sight. It was sunny and hot, and the water was as turquoise as you’d dream it to be on your honeymoon. Nearing noon, we finally saw them. The sea turtles. At first eating the seagrass below us, and then finally moving up, swimming right next to us in a relaxed, unbothered way. As an animal lover, it was something I could finally check off my bucket list and I felt extremely lucky to have had such an experience despite all the pain and the misery the past year has brought to all of us.
Not everything was magical about our week in Okinawa, though. I brought with me a cheap pair of sandals bought in Ameyokocho the week before that literally destroyed my feet to the point of making me cry at some point during our excursions, and we did catch a few times the well-known short-lived downpours of Okinawa, called the guerilla rain. However, I know that no trips can be all sunshine and butterflies and be 100% idyllic. I guess it’s part of all the fun or travelling, piling up the small misadventures to tell as comical anecdotes later on to friends and family during small talk and gatherings. (Anyone remember those gatherings, pre-covid19? I know I don’t). And I still absolutely loathe the hot, humid, sultry weather of Japan during the summer. Beautiful island or not. As a Canadian girl, I’ll always be in my element somewhere involving chunky sweaters and a cup of hot cocoa rather than bikinis and a glass of crisp cold beer, even if it’s an Okinawan original like Orion beer. It doesn’t mean I don’t want to go back to Okinawa, especially if the chance arises in the near future. Heck, I long every single day for the Okinawan food, the car rides and the endless walks on the beaches when the sun is about to set. I dream to go back to its heat, to the kind of warmth coming from both the locals and the sun, warming up your soul after a cold long year of trials and isolation. I can confidently say that Okinawa is a wonderful memory, hands down the best thing that happened to me and Ryohei last year amidst all the grief and the challenges we faced.
With all of these tender memories of Okinawa in mind, I hope 2021 has something just as beautiful and as warm as our trip in store for all of you too. After all, we all need a vacation, somewhere on an island where the sun shines strong and bright and where people genuinely smile back at you. Trust me, I thought beachy vacations were not for me, that I’d rather hide my body at home than showing it off in a swinsuit, but it turned out to be the thing I needed the most, albeit unknowingly. So, go on 2021, bring us some warmth and some sun. And some confidence, too.
– Lisa Poirier
✥ Maple & Sakura ✥
Disclaimer: All the pictures used are mine.