Golden Week is a week of Japanese holidays, such as Showa Day or Children’s Day, that many people take off to vacation and travel. For us exchange students it meant a week off from class, my spring break. Golden Week is an opportunity to travel and therefore the prices of the shinkansen, Japan’s infamous bullet train, flights, and hotels are bumped up. Even though expensive, I asked myself when would be the next time I get a chance like this. And so, I booked a flight and an inn in Naha, Okinawa.
When I left for Okinawa, Tokyo was cool in the morning. The sun was bright and an early morning breeze swam through the city and across the shoulders of other people pulling suitcases alongside themselves. After a three-hour flight to Naha, I found myself overdressed. My leggings and t-shirt were too warm for Okinawan weather and I was paying the price via sweat. But the air near the airport smelled of the ocean and palm trees stood tall along the roads.
I decided to stay close to the airport since Okinawa doesn’t have trains. Besides a car, buses are the main form of transportation. In Naha, however, there’s a monorail that goes through the city. My inn was about ten minutes from one of the stations on the monorail. It was also about 20 minutes from one of the most popular tourist attractions in Okinawa, Kokusai Dori (Kokusai Street), a long road abundant with yakiniku (grilled meat) restaurants and Okinawan souvenir shops where one could buy a jar of habushu, or Okinawan snake wine.
The owner of the inn was a talkative, friendly older man who referred to himself as “Master” and spoke in the third person. In the morning he was usually near the entrance of the inn stretching to prepare for a daily run. Sometimes I would come down and see him playing with a short-tailed cat that often frequented the inn. The kitten was a girl who he had wanted to name Kentarou, a traditionally masculine name, but had yet to name her because he couldn’t think of anything else he liked. “See, if I named her Kentarou,” he said, “she’d probably get scared by the name and run off.” Every night he was usually in the kitchen, watching television and inviting people to sit and drink with him. Amongst some of those conversations, I had come to know him in a way that I wasn’t expecting. He was open and honest about his life, his feminine personality, his open marriage and three girlfriends. He had probably told me too much for even American standards, but I undoubtedly appreciated his honesty.
“Master” was just one person in Okinawa that I encountered and made me feel like I belonged, almost as if Okinawa had been waiting for me. Although I wasn’t free from the prolonged staring, Okinawans were more willing to approach me and ask me questions than people in Tokyo. It was also the first time I received so much positive attention on my braids since my arrival. There is something to be definitely said for Okinawa’s excellent hosting skills. It was the first time in my exchange experience thus far that I wasn’t the odd man out. I wasn’t othered. I was welcomed and I cannot begin to explain how necessary that was for me.
This isn’t to say that people in Tokyo haven’t been kind and gracious either. I’ve run into many nice people who were patient with me as I tried to explain myself in nervous Japanese. I will say, however, that even though Tokyo is the most global in its visitors and stores, Okinawa’s mindset is far more international. There is no need to remind a foreigner how un-Japanese they are in their mannerisms or mother-tongue. Okinawa knew that, and it didn’t care.
Okinawa was laid-back, lacking some of the rigid social rules I discovered in Tokyo. I noticed this especially when it came to clothing. In Tokyo, certain styles of tops and dresses–off the shoulder tops, open back dresses, spaghetti straps–have a reputation for promiscuity. In Naha, however, these tops and dresses were abundant in Naha. Simply put, it was too warm in Okinawa to cover up. Tokyo is serious; Okinawa is a beach.
Two days before my flight departing from the island, I visited an interactive workshop that specialized in traditional Okinawan sango dyeing. The building was styled after traditional Japanese architecture and soft music played overhead. Upstairs was where I sat at a table and used coral and paint to create designs on a t-shirt. The entire workshop, which was about an hour, cost about 30 dollars but it was well worth my money. Later that day I also visited Shurijo Castle, a World Heritage site and one of Okinawa’s oldest historical monuments. The inside curved and weaved through numerous rooms that each held their purposes, such as the throne room for celebrations and a raised platform room where past kings conducted political business.
I didn’t know what to expect what when I landed at the airport. I imagined long rural roads, strangers distancing themselves from me. Okinawa surprised me, opened up a whole other side of Japanese identity I thought I would rarely see. The friendliness I experienced in Okinawa alone is reason enough for me to go back. I was reminded that Japan is not only Tokyo, the one place that seems to ring in our minds the loudest when we hear the country’s name. Okinawa reminded me that central Japan, the big cities, are not the end-all-be-all. It also reminded me about the pleasures of taking a break from crowded areas to breathe and stretch, feel the ocean on my toes and the sunshine on my skin.
When I hear the name Osaka, I think of medieval Japan. I think of how important Osaka was as a trade post and a cultural hub where many of the great poets journeyed to. I think about its proximity to Kyoto, Nara, the once great capitals of Japan before it was decided that Tokyo would become the next, and final, capital.
Japanese literature classes can only teach but so much. I knew of Kansai-ben, or Kansai dialect, and of Osaka’s infamous okonomiyaki, which I can only describe as a vegetable and meat pancake. Other than that, Osaka remained a mystery to me. Japan is ultimately more than just Tokyo and I wanted to experience the Japan that wasn’t in Tokyo. After Okinawa, I returned to the airport and boarded a plane heading for the port city.
Admittedly, when I arrived in Osaka I was excited to have trains and subways to ride again. The airport stood atop an island about twenty minutes or so from Osaka itself. When I landed, the waters and sky were streaked with flecks of gold and purple, the windows of the stylish airport glittering with the sunset. It was rush hour but people were calm, taking their time to board the trains heading into the city. Osaka has its own loop line that circles the city, making stops at the most popular locations. The guesthouse I stayed at was on one of these stops, two minutes from the station.
My favorite part about Osaka is the fact that the city weaves its rivers into its architecture. Bridges are abundant, each with their own character and connecting different areas together. Atop the Umeda Sky Building is an observation deck. I went and ordered a parfait to enjoy the breathtaking view. Mountains stood tall along the horizon and I could see planes descending to land at the nearby airport. The outside observation deck had speakers playing the epitome of cafe music, with its soft guitar and drums. It was windy but the circular deck gave me one of the best views of Osaka. I could see the curves of the river and how they emptied into the sea; I could see clouds lifting off from the mountains.
It was at night, however, that Osaka’s young spirit opened itself up to me. Dotonbori is undoubtedly a tourist site, but the attention it attracted was nothing but positive. Everyone was relaxed and enjoying themselves. I indulged in the sights and smells of ramen and okonomiyaki. There was laughter and music and relaxation. As I walked through Dotonbori, crossing bridges over a glimmering river to the other sides of the area, I walked aimlessly and took in what Osaka gave to me. I had chosen a small izakaya to eat dinner at that night. I sat at the bar, where I watched the two chefs prepare the meals and joke with one another. I was the only foreigner in there at the time, but that didn’t stop anyone from asking me questions. Before I left they wished me luck in my studies, asked that I come back to the izakaya when I’m in Osaka again.
Although my time in Osaka was limited to a day, it’s easily one of the most memorable. I didn’t want to leave. The people were incredibly friendly and unbothered about my foreignness. If anything, it emboldened many to ask me about my studies, where I came from, my reasons for coming to Japan. The week of traveling reminded me about the importance of traveling in the first place. Of course seeing monuments and visiting famous areas is always an experience in itself, but certainly, the beauty of venturing oceans away from home is to interact with people and to learn their stories and their habits. Okinawa and Osaka presented to me the beauty of human curiosity and kindness, the kind that one can find only when they travel.
I returned to Tokyo via the shinkansen, or the bullet train. I was convinced by some friends who have been to Japan numerous times to ride it at least once while I’m here. From Osaka to Tokyo it was about two and a half hours, but the trip itself felt so much shorter than that. At one point Mount Fuji stood in the distance. I scrambled to take a picture, but the train curved and Fuji-san disappeared from my sight.
I wasn’t expecting Osaka to leave such a deep impression on me, but that’s what makes it so alluring. Osaka was young and carefree, wanting to take you everywhere and show you everything it could. Osaka showed off its mountains, its rivers like snakes emptying into the sea. Osaka’s nighttime dress was bold and kind, and when it saw me off to return to school I knew I had to visit again before I returned to America. Osaka still has so much to show me, and I eagerly await my second chance.