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The Goldenest Week There ever Was

Part 1: The Wrath of Okinawa

Go to hell, Aronne.

That's what I was secretly thinking when he said he wanted to go to Okinawa on our Golden Week trip. (Golden Week is a series of consecutive Japanese holidays implemented to ensure maximal crowding and inefficiency at all times - our Okinawan leg thankfully wouldn't actually be during Golden Week as I had an extra week off prior to the Japanese mega-holiday)

Now, I have no problem admitting that I am a baby when it comes to hot weather. I am a disgustingly pasty creature most suited to living in subterranean caverns, and thus have no business in tropical places. Particularly tropical places with a rare species of pit viper. You can even buy awamori (a sort of sake liquor) with viper corpses sitting at the bottom of the bottle. Yummy.

I'm kind of used to it now. I've been to Mexico nearly a dozen times, and then a handful of other places with average temperatures ranging from hot to Mount Doom. And I always whine. And I always will.

Actually, I was quite looking forward to Okinawa. The islands may technically be Japanese, but they remain culturally distinct even to this day. It would be vastly different from everything else we would see on our trip, and inner disgust about the climate aside, I agreed with Aronne's reasoning when he said we should see something different.

You might be surprised to hear that I was worried about the weather in Okinawa for a completely different reason. About a week before our trip I decided to take a look at the forecast for the island we would be staying on (Ishigaki island). Thunderstorms. Every single day.

This was akin to that initial moment in every scary movie where you immediately think to yourself "TURN BACK NOW! YOU'RE GOING TO DIE!" and the characters just sort of uneasily move towards what you know is a graveyard filled with chainsaw-wielding ghoul things with disgusting burn wounds because they spent $30 on the shitty cabin next to the graveyard and don't want to eat the cost due to as-of-yet-unconfirmed suspicions about the supernatural world.

I've had plenty of stuff go wrong on my solo trips, and it's an incredibly discouraging feeling. But this time I wouldn't have to suffer alone. We were already sardonically amused at the ridiculous weather forecast before we even took off. It seemed as if we would be able to laugh off the blunders as long as we didn't get sick of each other. The Okinawan leg of our trip did its very best to test this theory, and we didn't have to wait long at all.

Picture a beautiful sunny day. Birds are chirping. The sky is blue, and there is a gentle breeze rolling through the air. Can you picture it? Okay. Now picture the sound of a thousand boulders crashing through that peaceful scene. That's the sound of Aronne's big rolling suitcase as it trundles down the street on the walk from my apartment to the train station. Now picture a gawky red-headed giant swerving on the sidewalk with a small rolling suitcase perched precariously in the basket of a bicycle with handlebars that are so low he has to stoop. Picture that. For twenty minutes.

Now picture the most crowded place you have ever seen. And double it. Shit, triple it. That's what the train we were supposed to catch looked like on the inside.

"There's no way we can fit in that. We'll risk it and take the next one."

The next one was worse.

With all of our shit clutched as close to us as possible, we forced our way into the mass of sweaty bodies, thinking all the while that we were the most rude people in the world. But it was either catch that train or miss our flight.

Then the next station came, and I had to completely alter my understanding of physics and the pliability of the human body, because, somehow, more people got on. Every station we said to each other, "There's no way they're going to fit... There's just no way." They found a way. One middle aged woman literally grabbed the frame of the train door for added torque as she jammed the mass of people closer together in order to squeeze on. I felt like I was made of plastiscine, contorted in ways that I have never been able to contort of my own free will. Both of Aronne's feet were somehow off the ground, half crowd-surfing, half laying on top of his suitcase. It was hilarious in a sweat-soaked, going-to-need-some-therapy sort of way.

Two plane rides and one bus ride later, we found ourselves breathing air so thick with moisture, the cold that I'd had that morning had all but disappeared. There isn't a whole lot to do in Ishigaki, so we found some flip-flops, and then some food. The cook spoke no English but told us in Japanese that he knew what gai-jin liked. He wasn't wrong. We had some beer. We had some food. Then some convenience store beer. When in Rome.

We woke up the next day and the sun was gleaming. So much for that thunderstorm. Or so we thought (here's some obvious foreshadowing for you).

Anyways, we took a short but diesel filled ferry ride to Taketomi island. It was a tiny island and village with old preserved Okinawan buildings. The first thing I noticed was an abundance of beautiful black and red butterflies that nobody else seemed to give  a shit about. Aronne applied sunscreen (so he says) and I took 30827 photos of purdy buttaflyyyys.

The village itself was excellent. Though eerily quiet. And it was hot. Like, putrid drenched t-shirt hot. I sort of hoped that thunderstorm might suddenly appear so I would have an excuse for being soaked. Stupid.

Incredible volcanic rock walls lined the streets, the houses were all shingled in orange, each with their own set of shisa dogs guarding the premises from demons and white people. We saw many domesticated animals along with an abundance of goddamned bugs. Most of these animals were particularly well endowed in the testicular region. Dogs, goats, cattle, and of course water buffalo.

We walked through the town, through Okinawan graveyards with mausoleums entirely unique to anything I'd seen in Japan. We walked through beaches and jungle. And then, laying in the middle of the road like an unfinished piece of jerky, we encountered habu, the Okinawan pit viper. More accurately, we found half of a pit viper. Still, it was enough to leave me feeling like Indiana Jones, with a very sour taste in my mouth. When we went down a narrow path lined with high grass (Aronne picked this gem) I glared at him, even as he screamed at the massive butterflies that cut him off every three seconds.

Then the rain decided to grace us with its presence. A sound rumbled in the distance, and much like a stampede it grew until finally monsoon-like rain pelted us as we walked through pit-viper grass and rude butterflies. That was all but the end of my photo taking, and even though I badly needed a shower at this point, neither of us were particularly pleased with this development. What was worse was the sensation of skin bubbling like melting cheese when the rain disappeared three minutes later. Having stripped us of sunscreen, the rain left us to roast in the inferno. Still, we trudged on, heading down an interesting pathway that would apparently bring us back to the beach. The rain came back like a vengeful god. We huddled together beneath a bug infested tree, pit vipers be damned. There wasn't much else to do at this point but laugh. Aronne had a change of shirt, and I leered at him the entire ferry ride back as I sat in my sweat and rain-soaked shirt that smelled like some rancid jungle mystery meat.

Later that night we had Okinawan soba with pork and ordered what we thought was sake but what turned out to be the previously mentioned awamori liquor, or in laymen's terms, battery acid. I enjoyed mine so much that I decided to steal Aronne's which conveniently sat untouched next to his noodle bowl. I then proceeded to ask for ask for separate bills by asking "teishoku daijobu desu ka?" I was wondering why the servers were giggling at me with puzzled expressions. Aronne enjoyed some laughter at my expense when I finally remembered that "teishoku" means set menu. "Set menu is okay?" We went to A&W for dessert because it was the 4th highest rated restaurant on Trip Advisor... Yeah...

The next day we had planned to do a river kayaking tour on Iriomote-jima, a nearby rain-forest island with a population smaller than my apartment building. It's famous for being the sole home of yamaneko, a unique mountain cat, which is essentially a spotted house cat, and of course vipers. Always with the vipers. Regardless, this was the part of the trip we were perhaps looking forward to the most, but we also had decided that this part of the trip had the most flexibility as far as weather was concerned. We would be getting soaked either way, right?

Aside from the constant smell of 1940's boat engine, the ferry ride to Iriomote was magical. It was like the scene in King Kong when the island appears out of the mist. Mountains coated in lush dark green were shrouded in grim looking clouds. And rain. Lots of rain. Sideways rain.

When we docked, we immediately hurried forward to find our kayak guide who would supposedly meet us there. He found us instead. I guess two pasty foreigners were rather easy to spot under these circumstances. Because of the intense rain, our guide told us that we wouldn't be hiking to the top of the waterfall as we had anticipated, but would be going to its base and kayaking as long as the water levels didn't grow perilously high. There would also be thunder he said. I'm an idiot, so this excited me.

We decided to wear sweat pants, in case of bugs. Because apparently there are bugs to be found in torrential rain. In my mind it made sense.

Mangrove trees submerged past their roots lined the river, with dark green mountains ahead, still nestled amidst puffy black clouds. I have never wished for a waterproof camera so badly in all my life. Regrettably, the image of that kayaking trip can be found only in my memory, along with the sound of a single peal of thunder in the dark sky. I practiced my shitty Japanese with our guide Kai, and Aronne struggled to keep up courtesy of his stubby T-rex arms.

We docked our canoes in a cluster of mangroves, and rather than waiting for Kai to pull my kayak to shore, I brashly hopped out, eager to peel off my soaked sweats. Massive mistake. The water was chest deep, and Kai hurried to help me, embarrassment on his face, while Aronne cackled, still patiently waiting in his kayak. There was maybe a 15 minute hike to the falls from here, and it was an incredibly strange walk. A tree with roots reminiscent of octopus tentacles, stone with footprints eroded into it, and the ever-present fear of habu, my nemesis.

The falls were tall, rainy, and epic. We had to take pictures beneath the shelter of a makeshift raincoat tarp. And there was no way we weren't going for a swim after Kai said that it was okay. He did make sure to tell us to avoid the sharp rocks near the rushing water, ever-conscious of the stupidity of tourists. I leapt in, and the water was wonderfully cool, if a bit murky. We made our way out, thoroughly refreshed, and were looking in awe at the falls when Kai pointed to something in the water. A slithery black thing, maybe a meter long.

"Shit it's a snake!" said Aronne.

I was thinking eel the whole time... The only thing worse than pit vipers...

"Unagi," said Kai. Eel. Go to hell jungle.

He went on to tell us that the eel we had just seen was a baby. That adults in this god-forsaken pool could reach two meters in length. He put his hands together to form a massive circle, apparently an indication of their girth. I wasn't particularly happy with Kai after this. Nor when he asked if we needed to use the restroom, conveniently located beside a snake pit. Literally, a snake pit.

We made it back to the dock just in time to catch the next ferry back to Ishigaki, but decided we'd rather wait a half hour for the next one if it meant we could change into dry clothes. It was a good plan. It just didn't take into account the fact that half of the ferries had been cancelled due to inclement weather... So we would be stuck at the dock for a few hours. The heat was disgusting, but the view wasn't so bad.

We said goodbye to Ishigaki and the Yaeyama Islands the next day. Very early. Like responsible travelers, we arrived at the airport at 6:00, two hours before our flight. That was when we learned that some airports do, in fact, close. That this one in particular wouldn't even open until 6:30. A kind security guard let us in ten minutes early, so we walked around the empty airport in anger at waking up so early. Security showed up at around 7:00.

Naha on the main Okinawan island was a sort of hazy-sunny when we got there. We immediately headed for the bus that would take us to the other side of the island, and the famous Churaumi aquarium. It would be a nearly three hour bus ride through curious coastal mountain forests that reminded me a bit of southern France. When we arrived there were two things in abundance. Sealife and rude tourists.

It was a cool aquarium, with some disturbingly colossal sea creatures. By far the coolest were the three whale sharks in the main tank. They waded about with their unintelligent faces always peering forward, and watching them feed was a fascinating experience. Sort of like when you successfully vacuum a mess that you think will be impossible for your vacuum cleaner to handle. Dat suction.

The ride back to Naha wasn't particularly noteworthy, other than Aronne's consistent irritation every time the hilariously tacky "next stop" announcement jingled up from the front of the bus with it's cheesy bird sounds and rapid fire Japanese. And also seats that unfold into the aisle when all the other seats fill up. Oh and there was a massive protest when we got off the bus. Still have no idea what it was about, but it sounded angry. We didn't stay long.

Our hotel in Naha would be the four-star Loisir hotel, and we were both looking forward to a bit of R&R. We were in a budget room so our expectations were tempered, but we were both thinking about the hot tub, massage, and spa with saliva dripping from our mouths. In the truest fashion possible for this trip, our room exceeded expectations, but everything else went wrong.

In our v-neck t-shirts, we immediately felt out of place in the fancy hotel lobby, and a few quick questions told us that we would not be welcome (and by that I mean allowed at all) in the spa facilities, which were a tattoo-free zone (there is a 2.5% chance that we are Yakuza members). Both of us being gai-jin savages with body art, this was a crushing blow. But not so crushing as the lack of restaurant choices in our vicinity. We wore the stupidly small pyjamas the hotel provided and did nothing of any use for a long time before finally throwing in the towel and buying enough bento boxes from the grocery store next door to feed a whale shark.

There was a screaming child on the flight back to Tokyo, and its parents couldn't give any less of a shit.

How could I tell?

They were beside me.

I watched them.

This Okinawan trip was all about the things that went wrong. And in all honesty, that is what made it so awesome. If I had gone through these things alone, I can guarantee that the trip would have been a failure. Standing alone in the pissing rain is vastly different than standing there with your best buddy. The world has conspired to bring you down, and the hilarity of it is what makes those moments so incredible. They cease to be complications, and they add to the flavour of the experience. Aside from the lack of a waterproof camera on Iriomote, there is not a thing I would change about this trip. Each of us left with some cool souvenirs - black pearl jewelry and underwater pirate awamori among them. But more precious than pirate booze and blue potato Kit Kats are the stupid moments that I'll never forget. It seems that laughter rings loudest in the presence of communal suffering.

Coming soon - Part 2: Kyoto; the city of 1000 temples and green tea everything

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