Okinawa: A Year in Review


  “Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

1stanniversary

Well, when I wrote this we had just celebrated our one-year anniversary of relocating our domicile to Okinawa, and although it’s now over two months past due, I still thought it would be a good idea to do a “year in review” blog. So, here’s an eclectic summary of the King’s Flirtations with the Far East to date (as of this past August), along with a personally favorite blog selected for each month.

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July 2013.  Preparations for our overseas move.

See Sayonara Amerika to read and see our Asian-inspired going-away blowout

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August 2013.  Moved!  Rented our Florida home and moved overseas with our cat!

See Jody Drives Naked about used-car shopping in Okinawa.

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September 2013.  Divine winds!  Experienced something like 8 typhoons in two months.

See Surf Nazis Must Die to read about a scuba diver’s angst with the powers that be on Okinawa.

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October 2013.  Scuba Diving!  Kevin becomes a PADI scuba-diving instructor!

See Are You Breaking Up with Me on Mount Fuji for perhaps my favorite breakup story of all time!

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November 2013.  Jody’s birthday!  Celebrated by exploring the northern reaches of Okinawa.

See Shipwrecked on the Island of Misfit Toys about my first foray to Okinawa in 1999.

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December 2013.  Household goods!  Our forgotten “stuff” finally arrives on-island.

See Oh Christmas-Half-a-Tree to read about Christmas in Okinawa.

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January 2014.  Kevin’s birthday!  Celebrated by our first off-island trip to Kyoto, Japan.

See Okinawa Kijimuna for Okinawa’s version of “Red Power!”

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February 2014.  Contracted!  Dive the Blues Scuba gets well underway.

See Surprising Swastikas about an unlikely and unfortunate connection between East and West.

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March 2014.  Earthquake!  Friends breaking bad on Okinawa.

See Cat Cafes in Japan to read about the special bond between the Japanese and their feline friends.

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April 2014.  White Day and Zip-Lining on Okinawa.

See Timeless Townhouse for our rustically historical stay in Kyoto, Japan.

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May 2014.  Iriomote!  Off-island weekend getaway to this remote nature preserve.

See Tainted by Tats to read about the stigma of body art in this corner of the Far East.

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June 2014.  My daughter gets married!  A whirlwind trip home to the states and detour because of an unexpected hospital stay.

See Placenta: Prescription or Placebo to read about some strange herbal remedies popular in Japan.

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July 2014.  Ishigaki!  Off-island weekend getaway to dive with manta rays.

See The Cat-Dogs of Okinawa to read about the special guardians of the Ryukyu Islands.

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August 2014.  Okinawan World and Hospital Caves.

See Okinawan Hillsides & Hornets to read about my past explorations in the Okinawan jungles searching for traces of WWII.

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Okinawa’s Valley of Gangala: A Walk to Remember


“One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”  ~William Shakespeare

Welcoming Shisa Dogs at Okinawa World

Welcoming Shisa Dogs at Okinawa World

“I think you understand what I say,” started our favorite part of our tour blanketed in the dank darkness of a tunnel as our guide spoke to us in very broken English.  While she spoke for the following few minutes in overly-dramatized Japanese whispers, it soon became apparent that she was telling a ghost story.

And in a voice quite mousy, she started slowly in a whisper, “(gan…………gala).”  Then, with a fastening crescendo, she forcefully muttered, “Gan……Gala.”  And finally, in a full booming declarative spectacle (taking advantage of the tunnel’s acoustics, mind you), she exclaimed, “GAN…GALA!!!”  And like kids anywhere in the world, they both listen to scary stories and don’t…at the same time.

The classic and worldwide reaction to a scary story!

The classic and worldwide reaction to a scary story!

The Valley of Gangala is an ancient and ornate forest that is probably better served as the backdrop for perhaps yet another movie in the Harry Potter series – Harry Potter and the Soki Soba Sorcerer, for instance.  But we only discovered it when we visited the area for our spelunking adventures into Gyokusendo cave.

Okinawa 2014, Valley of Gangala, dramatic cave entrance

It is literally across the street from its more famous and popular parent attraction, Okinawa World, but it’s every bit as enjoyable…and dispenses with the cave-themed amusement park and commercial shopping arcade that the former offers.  Being more hidden and garnering much less attention, the Valley of Gangala is much more natural in experience and personably rustic.  A pleasant surprise, it also seems to be the center of the ancient history of mankind on Okinawa.

Okinawa's famed "Banana" Spiders

Okinawa’s famed “Banana” Spiders

Be forewarned:  there are a lot of spiders!

The disappointing Cave Café in the background.

The disappointing Cave Café in the background.

Okinawa 2014, Valley of Gangala, Kevin cave explorer with oil lanternYou reach the starting point by descending into a cave that’s been transformed into a café.  Although you can still find menus online which offer lunch-type fare, only coffees, teas, juices and snacks/desserts are offered now.  It is an amazing setting, and it’s unfortunate that more can’t be done with such a fabulous ambiance.  This sore point isn’t to detract from tea-time under the stalactites, though, before or after your tour.

Okinawa 2014, Valley of Gangala, cave approach along a stream

300 year-old burial vault

300 year-old burial vault

While the only way to explore the Valley is through a Japanese guide, the Japanese know how to do tours RIGHT.  The seating area where our visit started conveniently had bug repellent available for every two people, and insulted metal bottles of cold jasmine tea were handed out for us to sip as we sauntered through the flora and fauna of the excursion.  Although it was the middle of summer and the middle of a hot summer day when we toured, I don’t really think the bug lotion was actually needed.  The cold and refreshing tea, however, was!

The oil lanterns are such a lovely touch!

The oil lanterns are such a lovely touch!

Okinawa 2014, Valley of Gangala, early humans on OkinawaThe tour was entirely in Japanese, but our Japanese host offered us iPod-like receivers and ear buds that provided us with some English explanations along the way.  It was an unexpected and further nice touch.  It turns out that the Valley has been inhabited for over 10,000 years, and may have served as home for what is considered the forerunners of all the Japanese peoples (migrating from the south to the north through the Ryukyu chain), although there are competing theories and the vote is still out.

Early man lived here

Early man lived here

Get your mind out of the gutter.

Get your mind out of the gutter.

It appears size DOES matter.

It appears size DOES matter.

There are two sacred areas in the Valley, both in caves, one large and one small.  Both center on anatomical-like configurations of rock, male and female (use your imagination).  Women would attend to the female parts to pray for family and good childbirth, while males would enter the large dark cave to pray for things more male-centered.  It’s amazing how many ladies in the group seemed like they needed to go up and touch the rather phallic symbol!  The Japanese are not as conservative as they appear.

Okinawa 2014, Valley of Gangala, cave explorer Jody 2

Okinawa 2014, Valley of Gangala, gigantic banyan treeOkinawa 2014, Valley of Gangala, Kevin and Jody portrait with the valley's banyan

One of the other highlights of the tour is the huge banyan tree “Ufushu Gajumaru” which grows up and inside a huge natural arch of rock, just down the path from a family burial vault over 300 years old.  But for those of you still wandering about the ghostly story that so enthralled our young and somewhat frightened explorer, the Valley is named for the spooky sound that stones would make when thrown down into the deepest, most haunted caves.  Apparently, no matter the nature of kinship, no one – not even spirits – likes rocks thrown at them!

The Valley of Gangala

Zip:  901-0616

Address:  Japan Okinawa Nanjo City Tamagusuku Maegawa; parking and the valley is located directly opposite of Okinawa world.

Phone (for required reservations):  098-948-4192

Times:  9:00-18:00, but tours are conducted only 4 times a day @ 10:00, 12:00, 14:00 and 16:00; tour time is approximately 80 minutes

Website:  http://www.gangala.com/

To get to Okinawa World and the Valley of Gangala, drive south on the expressway to Haebana Miniami 1C, Take 507 South, turn left on 331 and another left on the 17.  Follow the signs to Okinawa World Cave Park. You’ll see Okinawa World on the right side and the Valley of Gangala on the left; park in the free Okinawa World parking lot.

Okinawa 2014, Okinawa World, Kevin and Jody at the park's entrance

Spetacular Spelunking: Okinawa’s Gyokusendo Cave


“The frame of the cave leads to the frame of man.”  ~Stephen Gardiner

Okinawa Cave Spelunking 2014, Kevin in chest-deep water

So, while I’m still med-down from most things I love to do that involve summer-time crystalline waters, swaying palms, sauna-like sun and sea creatures most can only imagine, I’ve had to reinvent how to explore Okinawan waters in different and unexpected ways.  Okinawa offers much more, of course, than the ocean to escape the oppressive heat of summer.

Okinawa 2014, Okinawa World, shisa lion-dogs at the park's entrance

Okinawa World 2014, Gyokusendo Cave, Kevin dropping down into the cavesThe Gyokusendo cave is the second-largest cave system found in Japan and largest on Okinawa, and is open to the public…for a fee (of course).  Water streaming through the rock and down various waterfalls has helped form the stalactites, stalagmites and “flow-stone” over the past 300,000 years.  Hand-railed metal stairs and catwalks make strolling the cave a memorable and easy experience.  Motion detector-operated lights offer dramatic backdrops and psychedelic shows of colors.  The soothing sounds of rushing and falling waters are heard trickling throughout the cavern.

Okinawa World 2014, Gyokusendo Cave, dramatically lit pooling waters

Although the journey can be peaceful, relaxing and quiet (if you let the loud school-children pass you by), the landscape of the cave is foreign at best.  And it’s imposing enough to imagine it a place of other-worldly monsters, so much so that the 1974 Godzilla vs. Mecha Godzilla movie was in part filmed here.

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Okinawa World 2014, Gyokusendo Cave, fantastic pathways through the cavernsAlthough the cave system totals over 5 kilometers of maze-like tunnels and caverns, those accessible by walkway runs for just about 900 meters (about ½ mile).  If you take your time to thoroughly enjoy the journey and take a plethora of photos (like we do), you’ll be in the cave for at least an hour.  And during that 60 minutes or more, if you are like me and find yourself needing facilities in the most inaccessible of places, urinating from the walkway elevated about 3 or 4 feet above the underground stream produces a loud and echoing splash.

Okinawa World 2014, Gyokusendo Cave, soothing path through the cave

Okinawa Cave Spelunking 2014, this way to adventureHowever, that’s not where the adventure ends; rather, it can just begin there.

 

Okinawa Cave Spelunking 2014, Kevin coming under a low passageDuring summer months (July and August), Okinawa World offers a special spelunking cave tour that lasts about 90 minutes and takes you to places not normally seen from the walkway.  It requires some uneven trekking and a good deal of energy, so you adventuresome types will find it tons-o-fun.  While not really “spelunking” as I have always imagined it, it’s probably as close as I can get here in Okinawa.

Okinawa Cave Spelunking 2014, Jody smiling in the underground caves

Okinawa Cave Spelunking 2014, navigating through the caveOkinawa Cave Spelunking 2014, peaceful Jody excited about exploring the cave!It is more of an off-trail guided tour, but it does meander through the more mystical paths of the Gyokusendo caves.  It does traverse over hidden obstacles along an underground river and some parts of the path are narrow and require a healthy measure of dexterity to navigate.  While the water is not deep, often times you have to duck under obstructions, putting you in the 60 degree water up to your waist.  That certainly makes for a cool-cool summertime activity.

Okinawa Cave Spelunking 2014, Kevin in chest-deep water

The stalagmites and stalactites are hard not to touch, but when they take up to three years to grow just one millimeter, the slightest touch can destroy hundreds of years of nature’s finest work.  Some of the growths are measured in many meters inside the cave!

Okinawa Cave Spelunking 2014, Jody navigates a very tight passage

There are some critters in the cave, although we didn’t see any of them other than the small bats that silently fly overhead.  While they often stay at the caverns’ ceilings, there were some surprising near-misses as these winged creatures flew up and down the passages.

Okinawa Cave Spelunking 2014, soda straws on the cave's ceiling

Okinawa Cave Spelunking 2014, crawling through low ceilingsOkinawa Cave Spelunking 2014, Jody navigates a very tight passageYou’ll need yen for on-site locker rentals, and if you are bringing a camera, it needs to be completely waterproof (housed or amphibious).  Pants and a long-sleeved shirt are required, and for good reason – it will save you from more than a few potential scrapes and contusions.  Footwear choice, perhaps, is the most important decision; I wore waterproof, closed-toed sandals, but almost rolled my ankles any number of times.  Gloves are also a nice touch, since some of the rocks you may grab for footing are sharp and/or slippery.  We wore parts of our scuba wetsuits, but that was overkill; of course since you’ll be wet to your waist or chest, you’ll need a change of clothes and a towel.  There are hot-water showers (with soap and shampoo) offered as part of the admission fee, and parking is free.

Okinawa Cave Spelunking 2014, Jody pauses in the cave's passage

If you’re looking for an unusual and unusually-cool (figuratively and literally) adventure on Okinawa, be sure to not to miss this one.  For me, it was good to be back in the water.

Okinawa Cave Spelunking 2014, Kevin and Jody couples cave exploration

 

Okinawa World

Phone:  098-949-7421

E-mail:  info@gyokusendo.co.jp

Times:  9:00-18:30 (April-October), 1700 closing in Winter.  Last admission 30 minutes prior to closing.

Website:  http://www.gyokusendo.co.jp

The spelunking tour is NOT recommended for people with knee or back problems and pregnant women.  Child must be at least six to participate.  Although we were under the impression that this was only available through MCCS+, you can reserve directly through the caves.