River Rats: Trekking to Tadake Falls


I'm my own lifeguard at Tadake Falls!

I’m my own lifeguard at Tadake Falls!

Hiji Falls?  Yep, a grand meandering nature trail which follows a snaking river to a delightful waterfall.  But where the river cannot be enjoyed as it is roped off in most locations.  And where swimming is not allowed, supposedly made too dangerous due to rocks and freshwater parasites.  Ah, the intersection of both American and Japanese cultures of fear.  Want to get wet and trek up a river through the jungle and enjoy climbing behind, in, and even up to a high and pounding waterfall?  Then Tadake Falls must be your next off-road adventure on Okinawa.

Most of the riverbed looks like this.

Most of the riverbed looks like this.

Okinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, trekking with our Japanese friendsTadake Falls, which I have also found on some maps written as “Tatake,” offers magnificent river trekking.  There’s not just an unprepared trail here, there is no trail.  No, the trail is the river running through the dense Okinawan rain forest.  And that means in various points there is deep water to wade across, rocky constrictions to scramble across, and even a rope swing or two along the way for the more daring to try!

Okinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, happy in the Okinawan jungle

Okinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, a river runs through itJody and I decided to try the trek on a summer weekday morning in August, the height of the Okinawa oppressive summer.  Thinking that the crowds would be smaller and that we would be beating the high heat and humidity of the afternoon, we set out early.  WRONG!  Although the falls has been historically a somewhat hidden treasure on Okinawa, the increased tourism to Okinawa, combined with a number of recent articles about the fall trek in the American periodicals on the Island has turned what surely was once a quiet, tranquil hike into a still enjoyable journey, just with a slew of Japanese and American like-minded visitors.  And one inherent with problems finding parking.

There are some really rocky stretches!

There are some really rocky stretches!

Okinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, navigating the streamOh, did I mention that the trail here is the river?  Unlike at Hiji Falls, itself a worthwhile visit and hike, come prepared to get wet – that’s the whole point!  Water shows are a MUST since the path is totally improvised and quite rocky.  And although we lathered up with sunscreen before embarking on our latest adventure, it really wasn’t needed, at all.  The path is almost completely shaded by the jungle’s canopy, encroaching overhead from both sides of the river.  And although our visit was during the sweltering Okinawan summer, the shade combined with a forested breeze and the downright cold river water kept us calm, cool and content.

Okinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, beginning our trek

Okinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, fall colorsOkinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, dragonfly friendIt takes about 30 minutes or so to get from the trek’s starting point to the falls.  That is unless you stop to enjoy nature in all her wondrous ways.  Or perhaps you decide to try a rope swing into the river’s refreshing water (but be wary of the Tarzan-esque vines found everywhere!).  Or maybe you stop just to float for a break in one of the deeper pools fed by a mini-waterfall found along the way.  The hike is not hard, and often easier for unflinching, lower-center-of-gravity humanoids we call kids.  Just take your time and watch your footing.  Although you don’t have to be an athlete to journey to the falls and back, I would not suggest this particular adventure for anyone with back, knee or foot problems, or those who are unsure of themselves on their feet.

Okinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, trekking through the river

Okinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, managing the rocksOkinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, jungleMake sure you take your leisure along the way.  Make time to appreciate nature’s beauty that here folds around and over you like a thick, green umbrella.  While the walk is predominantly shaded, tantalizing glimpses of bright blue sky can be spied through the canopy’s gaps.  Colorful leaves in the water, brilliant and not bashful dragonflies, and thousands of gemstone-like rocks offer innumerable distractions along the way!  The riverbed is mostly firm, coarse sand and pebbles, but there are areas of soft sand, and still others that consist of jagged and sharp rocks.  Although there is a warning about the river and its potential hazards at the head of the trail, the river was quite low, with very little current.  Most of the river is no more than knee-deep, maybe waist at a couple of points, and the deepest parts can be completely bypassed on land if you do not wish to swim.

Mini waterfall and pond along the way.

Mini waterfall and pond along the way.

Okinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, peaecful waterfall and cairnsOkinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, Kevin jumping for joyEverything changes, however, once you round a river bend to the right and arrive at Tadake Falls!  Water comes cascading down with force from a cliff sixty feet overhead.  The water turns into a showering spray at the base, pushing away a cushion of air that is surprisingly powerful.  In front of the waterfall is a large pond, perfect for swimming and lounging.  Its comfortably sandy bottom has a fairly steep slope, and quickly reaches a depth where wading is necessary.  In front of this pool across from the falls you will find some nice areas to set up camp or a picnic, in sandy patches or on rocky ledges of your choice.

Watch your skirts - there's a Marilyn Monroe like updraft from the falls!

Watch your skirts – there’s a Marilyn Monroe like updraft from the falls!

Okinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, climbing around the fallsOkinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, Kevin jumping for joyThe fall’s water hole itself gets deep as you near the falls, but be careful – there are “hidden” rocks underneath in the areas to the falls’ left and right.  If you approach the falls from its sides, you can find a slippery rock ledge that will take you fully behind the falls.  And, as you look at the falls from across the pond, a rock pinnacle to the left allows for catapulting jumps into the falls’ pond!  The water is a cold spring-fed 70 degrees, and can be quite a shock, but one which quickly passes as you acclimate.  There is also a trail that leads up to fall’s source, but it is almost impossibly steep (and unprepared).  We did see a number of people take this excursion; Jody and I were happy enough to stay and enjoy the falls from down below.

Okinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, victory at the falls

Okinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, tall fallsOkinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, jumping for joyDo yourself a favor and pack a few things for the trip.  Wear a bathing suit and water shoes for the trek.  I do not recommended scuba booties unless they are the kind with rubber tread that offers some traction; the felt kind so common here would be very slippery on the slick rock found all along the river.  Snacks and drinks are really nice to have at the waterfall, but of course you’ll have to trek them in and out.  Sunscreen was not really necessary, and neither was bug spray – put both on if you are the paranoid type, they won’t hurt.  Taking any or all this will necessitate a waterproof bag or the need to bypass on land the deeper parts of the river.  But what you really want is a place to leave/lock your keys, towels for when you get back to the car, and a change of clothes makes the long trip back home much more comfortable.  To top off an adventuresome morning, stop by Café Captain Kangaroo for one of their unbeatable burgers.

Okinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, Jody's attention signage at the falls

DIRECTIONS:  Do yourself a favor and take the Expressway all the way to the end, and then the Nago bypass tunnel, which will save you a TON of time and frustration avoiding 58.  It will still take you about an hour to get there.  Taking a right on 58 once out of the tunnel, and note then you hit the Family Mart (on the left) where the turnoff for Yagachi Island is found.  About 7 kilometers further down the road, you’ll reach the “Henan” bridge, which you’ll know from the colorful blue and red pillars covered in hearts on either end.  You can take either the road just before or just after this bridge – they meet up at the same place once inland, but there is a small sign for the falls just before crossing the bridge, one you’ll probably notice too late to make the turn!  Follow a curvy road for almost 3 kilometers, and stay on the “main” road.  You’ll think you are lost, but keep going; you’ll know when you have arrived at the falls.  A large “warning” sign serves as the head of the trail, and while there are a few parking spots there (4 or 5 cars at the most), you’ll most likely have to keep going straight and park along a long stretch of the road running along the river.  Parking options here are VERY limited, and some people had to walk quite a distance just to get to the river.  If you have any question about whether you are in the right place, look for Japanese wearing brightly colored full-size life vests.  Then simply follow them!

Map Tadake Falls

A “JAW-some Valentine’s:” Diving with Hammerheads at Yonaguni


“We provoke a shark every time we enter the water where sharks happen to be, for we forget: The Ocean is not our territory – it’s theirs.” ~ Peter Benchley

“We should be afraid of sharks half as much as sharks should be afraid of us.” ~ Peter Benchley

Yonaguni Japan 2015, Jawsome Valentine

Life is Like a Box of Chocolates….

“Valentine, you’re JAW-SOME!”

So read the cover of the box of chocolates that Jody hauled all the way down to Yonaguni Island…. Deciding to spend the long lovers’ weekend to dive specifically with migrating hammerhead sharks in the waters around the extreme southwestern Japanese islands, this was indeed the perfect valentine gift. A picture was immediately posted on Facebook, and “JAW-SOME” became the catch-phrase of the trip to describe our dives with such wondrous apex predators of the mysterious deep.

Yonaguni - more Chinese than Japan!

Yonaguni – more Chinese than Japan!

Yonaguni Japan 2015, arriving in YonaguniYonaguni Japan 2015, Scuba Diving, unpacking at our hotel - test shot with the underwater cameraYonaguni (与那国島, sometimes Yunaguni) is one of the Yaeyama Islands, famous for being the westernmost inhabited island of Japan. Located only a mere 67 miles from Taiwan, that island-nation and general thorn in China’s side is visible from this part of Japan on a Chinese-pollution-free day (see Smoke Gets in Your Eyes for more on Japan’s smoggy skies). Yonaguni is exceedingly popular with divers exactly because of the large numbers of hammerhead sharks that school there during winter. February and March are said to offer the best times to swim with the sharks, often times schooling in numbers verging on the uncountable. Not only are the sharks present daily during this period, most of the shark dive sites are located just minutes from port, situated over steep cliff-like underwater drop-offs, allowing for great visibility, big pelagics, and strong currents in which to cruise.

This is what we all dreamed of!

This is what we all dreamed of!

Dives one and two (of eight total) during our 4 night stay were on the Yonaguni Monument – more on that is an upcoming blog. The next six dives over three consecutive days were all about stopping…because…(wait for it)…it was Hammer Time! Or they involved shark hunting. The kind where the only shots taken are with cameras and the only stuffing was of our large western bodies into Asian-sized souvenir t-shirts!

Our Dive Site, Affectionately nicknamed "Shark Point"

Our Dive Site, Affectionately nicknamed “Shark Point”

The weather was beautiful for diving, almost couldn’t have been better. A rainless weekend with temperatures actually reaching up into the 70s, we were all surprised that even the seas around Yonaguni were about five degrees warmer than the cold winter waters of Okinawa this time of year. Although the winds shifted and started to blow and its fetch raised a healthy sea, it was only bad enough to cause one case of sea-sickness in our group of eleven divers.

A Money-Shot from our Dives!

A Money-Shot from our Dives!

The hammerheads of Japan’s southern seas are of the “scalloped” variety Sphyrna lewini, part of the family Sphyrnidae. Not surprisingly, the Greek sphyrna translates as “hammer”. The most obvious feature of this shark, as in all the other kinds of hammerheads, is the “hammer” shape of their head. Although smaller than the Great and Smooth hammerhead species, scalloped hammers are fairly large at around 14 feet and well over 300 pounds, and is the most common of all hammerheads, consisting of nine species total.

Shark Hunting:  Drifting in the Strong Currents, Mid-Water at ~60'

Shark Hunting: Drifting in the Strong Currents, Mid-Water at ~60′

Me Chillin' in the Drift

Me Chillin’ in the Drift

Hammer Hunts dives 1 and 2 were almost identical disappointing repeats of each other. Taking a left out the port and heading southeast, we dropped in just about ½ mile offshore in water so deep that the bottom often couldn’t be seen even at 80’ but which ripped by at what we estimate as 8-10 knots. We all would corral into a loose group at 30’ with the Divemaster, then head down to 60’ to drift and wait. And wait and wait we did, for the next 30 minutes each time. At that point “time” was called by our Japanese divemaster, making a “T” with his hands. We slowly ascended up to our safety stops, and then surfaced together to await pickup by the dive boat, quickly backing down on our group bobbing in the 2-4 foot seas.

The Scramble for the Boat Begins

The Scramble for the Boat Begins

“Okay! Go to the boat. Go! GO! GOOOOO!” the divemaster pleaded with us as both we the divers and the boat captain fought the ripping current. Once aboard we all agreed: yes, there were shadowy sightings here and there by some members of the group, but no real confirmed sightings of anything concrete and in the numbers all of us expected.

Find the Shark Shadow

Find the Shark Shadow

Yonaguni Japan 2015, Scuba Diving, Jody suiting up for our dives 2The scalloped hammerhead primarily lives in warm temperate and tropical coastal waters, down to a depths exceeding 1,500 feet. These sharks have a very high metabolic rate, which governs much of their behavior. Hammerheads feed on cephalopods, such as squid and octopus, and fish such as sardines, mackerel and herring. Larger sharks also feed on smaller sharks, such as smaller reef sharks. During the day they are more often found close to shore, but at night they become solitary hunters moving further offshore and into deeper waters.

On Yet Another Shark Hunt

On Yet Another Shark Hunt

For shark hunts 3 and 4 we all were getting more eager (and maybe less patient) to see sharks. Some of our group met some Japanese ladies who, the previous day, had dropped into a huge group of schooling hammerheads! And this very morning another group with our dive charter spotted 5 swimming together. Our chances had improved. Or so we thought.

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Our Selfie, Underwater!

Our Selfie, Underwater!

While these sharks can pose a danger to humans (Scallops are one of three hammers that have bitten humans), they are not normally considered aggressive. But that’s not what we’ll tell all our friends! Nor is that what most people will think regardless of any bizarre statistic illuminating the chances of a shark attack that you may choose to quote. Like my personal favorite: a person stands more of a chance of dying from falling coconuts than he or she does of a shark bite…. It’s true; check it out! Hammerheads, if confronted or provoked, respond by dropping their pectoral fins and swimming with stiff, jerking motions – a clear warning that a diver should retreat or seek shelter.

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“OHHHH-kay, ev-re one! Red-EEE?” our Japanese guide inquired while standing on the top of the boarding ladder at the stern of the boat. “OHHHH-kay, let’s GO!” he finally responds to our impatient replies, then counted quickly in Japanese, “Ichi-nei-san!” And with his “one-two-three” he disappeared into the foamy white waters churned by the boat’s screw and stern dive ladders. We all followed in quick succession, dive-bombing the ocean much like skydivers exiting an aircraft as quickly as they could. And believe me, we certainly were no more graceful!

This Shadow Came Back Around for Another Pass!!

With whitish bellies and greenish-grey dorsal coloring, hammerheads quickly blend into the reduced visibility ever-present in the murky ocean depths. I’m convinced this type of melding with the environment is exactly why combat aircraft are painted the same greenish-grey coloring: to blend in with the haze always at the horizon. These sharks have an uncanny ability to simply disappear with a sweep or two of their tails. No wonder we saw so many creepily teasing shadows!

That's Me Framed in the Extreme Lower Right of the Photo

That’s Me Framed in the Extreme Lower Right of the Photo

stop-hammerhead-timeHammerheads have better vision than most and can actually see 360 degrees; by looking up or down, they can monitor the complete seaspace all around them. Like all sharks, hammerheads have electroreceptory sensory pores and nostrils on their snouts. But in hammerheads these sensors are spread out over a much wider area, allowing these sharks to hunt more effectively. This special arrangement of sensors allows for the detection of as little as a billionth of a volt, and when combined with excellent smell, the sharks can quickly classify and hone in on distressed, diseased, or decaying organics and other bodily fluids. And yes, to answer your question, those fluids primarily include blood.

Shark Hunting from our Rock Stand

Shark Hunting from our Rock Stand

Drifting quickly with the fast-moving currents, we drop again deep to about 70’. And then THERE. There was one. In the murky distance. And as quickly as all of us could grab a tenuous handhold on a massive nearby stone block, the shark was gone. There wasn’t ever enough contrast for any of our cameras to focus. And you know what divers say about underwater claims: didn’t happen it there isn’t photographic proof! We released our grips and were immediately flying again with the swift currents, and surfaced once again with only a couple of sporadic sightings and lots of talk about shadows darting here and there.

Back Aboard for Yet Another Try

Back Aboard for Yet Another Try

On the Hunt

On the Hunt

But these nebulous sightings weren’t what any of us had come so far for. Personally, I’ve had the pleasure of diving with many sharks along the southeastern coast of the United States, where sharks (grey reefs, nurse, and bulls mostly) are seen routinely. I’ve also had the opportunity to partake in no less than three “shark feeds,” a rare chance to see a shark feeding-frenzy, live, up close and personal. No, we all were in Yonaguni to see schools of hammerheads, not just their fuzzy ghosted shadows at the edge of our perception.

Not-sure-how-many-people-get-eaten-by-sharks

Unfortunately, hammerhead sharks are massively overfished, slaughtered simply for just their fins. These sharks are captured, “finned” where their dorsal, pectoral and tail fins are all sliced off, and then the shark’s body – still alive – is thrown back into the sea to die a slow, painful death. Because of this savagely wasteful practice, the scalloped hammerhead is on the “globally endangered” species list, with population declines of up to 95% over the past 30 years. Hammerheads are among the most commonly caught sharks for finning. But they are also used in food products (“flake,” fish fingers, fish & chips), and commonly killed as by-catch due to indiscriminate fishing practices.

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d011345920070228091707Yonaguni Japan 2015, Scuba Diving, peaceful scuba diver Jody WMOur last day on the island had arrived, and we only had two dives left. This was it. The weather was moving in, winds were up and the seas had started to kick. Some boats were not going out to the area where the sharks congregate, but our diving service was still gaming for the hunt. We were pleading to be taken to another dive site, as the last four dives at the same location yielded just about squat. The staff at YDS – Yonaguni Diving Service – agreed and our boat’s captain decided on a different locale. Making the quick trip from port, we got ready once again. The boat was a-rockin’ as we scrambled off the stern, but on dive five, again only a single hammer was sighted, one much deeper and more shy who fled no doubt upon sensing not our presence but our desperation!

Tim Shooting a Scalloped Hammerhead

Tim Shooting a Scalloped Hammerhead

Killing millions of sharks every year just for their fins is an immoral waste and non-sustainable practice. Shark fin soup is merely a status symbol in Asia, one reserved for only royalty. The fins don’t even add flavor, but instead are dried and used as only a texture. While shark fin soup is an expensive delicacy at up to $100 a serving, more and more people, groups, and even restaurants are giving up the dish and calling for a ban on the practice of finning.

Jody is Ready for Some Shark Schooling!

Jody is Ready for Some Shark Schooling!

Hammerhead Sign!

Hammerhead Sign!

Divers Happy about the Sharks!

Divers Happy about the Sharks!

And then the last dive was upon us. This was it. A $1,400 per person five-day trip with three days of rather exhaustive diving had all come down to this one final sub-30 minute dive. The pressure was on for YDS; their and our divemaster’s reputation for amazing shark dives was on the line. We returned to this new location in even rougher seas and dropped in once again. And very soon after reaching our drift depth…. One. Then two more. No wait, there are FIVE! Yes, we had found them – there they were, schooling together!! Our divemaster tapped on his tank with his simple noise maker – a long steel bolt tied to his buoyancy compensator. I only glanced his way having already spotted the sharks, enough to see him make the hammerhead sign he had briefed. I was lucky enough to be on the side of the group where the sharks were schooling, and immediately but slowly starting making way in their direction as I descended deeper and deeper to match their depths. Snapping photos and admiring their sleek and powerful beauty, I checked my computer as I was passing 110’, plenty deep enough with our time and air constraints. We were warned the sharks would drag us deeper and deeper, and as these sharks continued downward there was still no bottom in sight as I leveled out at 116’.

A Small School, but Still a School!

A Small School, but Still a School!

Ed Chills Vertically

Ed Chills Vertically

The Divemaster Saves Face!!

The Divemaster Saves Face!!

This school of scalloped hammerheads, although small by Yonaguni standards, was an amazingly invigorating sight. While an accurate count is hard to come by, we agreed that there were at least ten in our immediate vicinity. A few even hung around to make another pass, seemingly as interested in us as we were in them, an event I decided to video with my ten-year, non-HD small point-and-shoot underwater (see my underwater photos of Japan at Dive The Blues Scuba). To divers, this experience is akin to those seeing a lion up-close-and-personal on safari in the Serengeti plains of Africa. It is hard to describe the surge of emotions one feels when faced with an uncaged, untamed wild apex predator on their own turf (as it were) and terms. And in numbers that could not be defended against. It may be difficult for some people to grasp, but stepping foot in the ocean at the beach in just a bathing suit is really no different from walking into the jungles of Southeast Asia wearing just the same. And who would do that, right? The sea is not our domain nor do we belong there, and when we tread into the jungles, terrestrial or aquatic, we must be ever wary and always respectful.

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We rely on the earths’ oceans, every bit as much as the hammerheads do. The earth’s weather, our fresh water, much of the world’s food supply, and even the very air we breathe are all sourced from the seas. Sharks play a critically irreplaceable role in the ocean’s massive aquatic ecosystems, and have every bit a right to be here as you and I. They deserve our respect as much as they get our admiration.

Yonaguni Japan 2015, Scuba Diving, Jody and I enjoying our time with the hammerheads

Shark fin soup? No thanks.

I’ll take an inexpensive box of “JAW-SOME” chocolates any day….

Yonaguni Japan 2015, group shot at YDS at the end of our adventure

Our Dive Group with our Japanese Guide!

 

Live and Let Die: The Yaru and Tabira in Okinawa


“Long after the bomb falls and you and your good deeds are gone, cockroaches will still be here, prowling the streets like armored cars.” ~Tama Janowitz

No.  No, there is no "cute" roach.  EVER.

No. No, there is no “cute” roach. EVER.

Live and let live. One of the many messages the holiday should convey. Both which always remind me of a most welcomed houseguest we hosted back on Okinawa in 1999.

She ended up staying for the next 20 months. She didn’t take up a lot of room, was seldom if ever seen, and didn’t cost us a dime to keep around. I’m not even sure “it” was a female; I respected her privacy too much to really check, and my guess is based only on “her” reclusive Goth-like teenager behavior….

Who we welcomed into our home back then was the more beneficial of two perennial icons and adversaries of Okinawa. Sorry to disappoint, but I’m not talking about the mongoose-snake pairing famous in the Ryukyus. What I’m talking about is the yaru. And she became our home’s guardian from the rather disgusting creature in the pairing, the tabira. Unfortunately she couldn’t protect me from the Land of Misfit Toys I found myself shipwrecked upon….

I bet Ace feels the same way about roaches.  I mean with their fangs and all….

rodanus1tAG_46603The tabira is a much nicer-sounding name for something most of us detest – the large almost indestructible cockroach that seems so ubiquitous at tropical and sub-tropical latitudes all across the globe. I grew up sharing South Florida with these creatures, some approaching the size of Rodan, and who can fly every bit as well. Hell, Godzilla would even have issues warring with these underworld sleuths. Urban legend within my own family states that one can never, ever make eye-contact with a roach: they sense fear and will leverage that advantage by flying directly into your face! Personally, as a hardened veteran of decades of war with these invaders, I conclude that there is not much that can be done to defeat and declare victory over such a robust warrior. Only a pyrrhic win is in the realm of possibility.

Our savior, guardian and protector!

Our savior, guardian and protector!

Humans have a hard time with roaches.

Humans have a hard time with roaches.

Far more agreeable of this classic pairing is the yaru, Japanese for what we in the west are familiar with as the gecko (“wall lizard”). Like most Japanese characters, it’s an idea more than just a simple word, which best translates as “protector” or “guardian of the home.” This moniker is easily sourced to this particular lizard’s inherent ability to do what we humans can’t: organically control and even defeat roach infestations at every turn.

Our 5 bedroom, two story home back in 1999.  A veritable roach-ryokan if you will....

Our 5 bedroom, two-story home back in 1999. A veritable roach-ryokan if you will….

Our immediate neighborhood.

Our immediate neighborhood.

Back in 1999 we lived in a very large house, which actually had a yard complete with brushes and shrubs. The surrounding neighborhoods were dotted with sugarcane fields, they themselves riddled with roaches. Which, sooner or later, found their way into our home. Contractual pest control is not something the Okinawans do, and as Americans we are largely left to defend ourselves out on the local economy. While our cat Tora did kill and finally eat a roach or two, it was only when she found one, and then only after about 68 minutes of torturous play. That is if the insect didn’t escape during a lapse in the cat’s attention…. For an interesting tale of how we named our Okinawan-adopted cat, see Tora Tora Tora!

Our Cat Tora, while a killer of shrews, thought roaches to playthings.

Our Cat Tora, while a killer of shrews, thought roaches to playthings.

Okinawa is hot, humid, and often wet, and still in many places covered with dense foliage that you might expect from a subtropical island located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Still being quite rural in places and without extensive use of pesticides or other more formalized pest control measures, there is a high probably of personal interaction with all sorts of creatures, great and small. The gecko foremost among them.

Moving into our office/computer room.  Our four-legged assassin live in the far corner above the room's AC....

Moving into our office/computer room. Our four-legged assassin live in the far corner above the room’s AC….

So one night came the call from the direction and vicinity of our computer room office. That distinctive chirp that announces a gecko’s presence. At first we didn’t know what it was, and unless one is used to sharing their abode with a reptile or two, it can be quite disconcerting. I tracked our guest’s presence down to one corner of the office, but since her call was so random and short-lived, nailing down the location of her home became an entertaining game of sorts. The kids and I would run to the office door and screech to a stop, me motioning for them to stay quiet and enter the room with stealth in order not to spook our little friend. And then we would tip-toe into the room, looking here and there, motioning to each other in precise coordination using military-like signals.

Which would you rather have:  the lizard or that other really creepy thing!

Which would you rather have: the lizard or that other really creepy thing!

This four-legged friend is unique in appearance with almost transparent skin, and usually announces its presence not visually, but using its very distinctive call, a song usually heard in the evenings, intermittently throughout the night. And what many Americans might consider an uninvited guest, the Japanese welcome into their homes. Okinawans – a very superstitious people – believe that Gecko brings good fortune when found in their homes, so geckos here are not killed or removed from the home, but are left in residence, both as living good luck charms and the guards against insects which they are. From a pragmatic standpoint, this creature – cute to some – really does protect the home from a whole plethora of undesirables, devouring life forms like mosquitos, flies and cockroaches.

I prefer to think of Okinawan Yaru more like this....

I prefer to think of Okinawan Yaru more like this….

Unfortunately, like most other aspects of life, there is no free lunch. Well, there is for the gecko, but of course there is a price to pay. All living things excrete, and the yaru is no exception. Thus, small amounts of processed bug may be found around the home, looking like those chocolate sprinkles so popular on cupcakes. These we found often, mostly located below the room’s AC unit, on window sills, and in corners of other rooms in our home. I made this too a detective game to play with the kids, using these finds to track our vigilante’s movements through the home.

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Our gecko’s home was never officially located, or at least I made sure “we” never found her. While I knew exactly where she was living – atop and/or in our room’s air conditioner unit, I wanted the mystery to remain for the kids. I had no intention of ruining our good thing; since the gecko’s arrival, our roach problem had…ceased to exist. But this also highlights a related source of well-known trouble in Okinawa regarding the yaru: air conditioners. In fact, one of the leading causes of AC trouble here is this little innocuous lizard. Air conditioners are nice and warm inside, and offer an inviting place for the lady yarus to nest and start a family (lay eggs). Problem is that often times this results in an electrical short, resulting in not just costly repairs, but the untimely demise of a valued protector. To counter, it’s very easy to find a special attachment for ACs called “Gecko guards” in the home-improvement stores here on Okinawa. In an ironic twist sometimes we have to guard against the guard.

qjuo

Revell%20H450%20GekkoThe nocturnal hunter-killer aspects of the gecko are often confused with a similarly named Japanese aircraft from WWII: The Nakajima J1N1 Gekko (or Gekkou). Developed to meet the Japanese navy’s requirements for a long-range escort fighter, the J1N1 instead entered service as a reconnaissance platform instead. The need to counter the largely unopposed American night bombing raids of 1943 in the Southwest Pacific led to its conversion into a night fighter, a role served so well by the carbon-based version. Starting In May 1943, the J1N1-S meet with success by downing two B-17 Flying Fortresses, and was quickly nicknamed the “Gekko” (or “Gekkou“), meaning “moonlight” or “moonbeam.” Like most other elements of Japanese aviation in 1945, Gekkos were further modified as kamikaze suicide platforms, something its reptile namesake would never consider.

Live and let live after all.

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I mean, except for those terrible tabira….

Scuba Certification in Okinawa: Get it From The King or Don’t Get it At All


A blush-inciting, overly-flattering blog written about me as a scuba instructor here in Okinawa by a recent star student, Mermaid Mindy.

Walking Through Wonderland

Just kidding. Every person we have met in the Okinawa diving world has been so laid back and helpful and happy to share their diving knowledge with us that I can’t imagine you could have a bad experience getting your scuba certification out here… But our instructor was Kevin King, aka Elvis, and we had a blast with him.

When we moved out here we had heard that if we didn’t get scuba certified in our first couple of weeks, we would quickly find that we didn’t have time to do it at all, especially since Dane is a flier. We looked at a couple of ways to do it, and ended up signing up for a week-long open water certification course through the Kadena Marina with the King. Our dog is not sure what she thinks of him… she met him only once after he finished a Halloween dive…

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Zip-a-dee-doo-dah: Onna’s Forest Adventure Zip Line Park


Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah, Zip-A-Dee-A, My oh my, what a wonderful day! Plenty of sunshine heading my way, Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah, Zip-A-Dee-A!

Okinawa Forest Adventure 2014, entering the Forest Adventure Park in Onna Okinawa

Not just for thrill seekers, Forest Adventure (“Mori No Bouken”) Park in Onna, Okinawa, promises wholesome fun and a bit of exercise too, all among the scenic hillsides near Cape Maeda. Billed as an adventure sports park coexisting with Okinawan nature, the park involves ten substantial zip lines over and through a sample of Okinawa’s lush greenery, but also includes many “adventure” obstacles, such as cargo net climbs, narrow vertical “apple-picker” ladders, and hard to navigate swing rope and wooden bridges!

Okinawa Forest Adventure 2014, Jody ready to tumble

Print ads don't mention the snakes!

Print ads don’t mention the snakes!

Okinawa Forest Adventure 2014, Kevin on a shaky wooden bridge in the jungleIn a classic “lost in translation” from native Japanese, a description online loosely reads, “The nature coexisting adventure sports & park of Okinawa nature Japanese version “Mori No Bouken” (Forest Adventure). This is the same famous forest adventure in Europe which lets you swing from tree to tree using their exclusive harness (life rope). Take a skywalk looking down the East Asia Sea from 30m high sky. There are 33 activities which challenges (sic) your courage and let you have a thrilling time. The nervousness you feel as a action hero does will change to a feeling of accomplishment after you get across from one tree to another. It is the 4th oldest and located on the southernmost in Japan. Forest Adventure in Onna is the largest adventure sports & park of natural symbiosis style in Japan in terms of width, length and height of facilities….”

Okinawa Forest Adventure 2014, managing the early beginner obstacles

While one literally doesn’t swing from tree to tree – the obstacle and zip line platforms are all mounted on steel trunks artificially placed in jungle-cleared ground, and the “life rope” are all actually all steel cable and carabiners, one can take in amazing views of the East China Sea while flying through the air as a de facto action hero!

Okinawa Forest Adventure 2014, zipline backwards landing in the wood chips

The park’s main office is located just off Route 6, well past the Renaissance Hotel (~3km), and a few hundred meters past the turnoff for Maeda Point. Stop here first for paperwork and payment, then continue on to the business’ parking lot, where a bus will pick you up for further transport up to the actual Forest Adventure site.

Okinawa Forest Adventure 2014, Jody coming in for a zipline landing!

Okinawa Forest Adventure 2014, Adventure Course net bridgeOkinawa Forest Adventure 2014, Jody survives the Tarzan Swing but now has to do the Scramble NetReservations are required to confirm a time and your slot, as are closed-toe athletic shoes. You’ll get dirty on this course, particularly during the zip line landings, so wear light athletic clothing and bring a change of clothes! Personally, I recommend long pants, although plenty of people there were successfully navigating the course in shorts. Oh, use the bathroom before you leave the office; the facilities at the park are, well in a word, rustic. Thankfully for us it was mostly cloudy during our adventure, which helped to moderate what could be a rather steamy time in the jungle.

Okinawa Forest Adventure 2014, Kevin and Jody in the hills of Onna Village

Okinawa Forest Adventure 2014, harnesses (impact B&W)Okinawa Forest Adventure 2014, Jody's thread of life while on the courseAt the park itself you’ll have a chance to stow your personal belongings in lockers which cost ¥100. Cold drinks are also served for a small fee. The staff will fit you into a harness; don’t be shy about your junk at this point – the harnesses are no joke and will squeeze, squash and otherwise spill your business in maybe some rather awkward ways. Let’s just say there are no camel toes indigenous to Okinawa, and I prefer to reserve my personal circumcision status for a more intimate audience.

Okinawa Forest Adventure 2014, Kevin away on a zipline!

Okinawa Forest Adventure 2014, gettting schooled in Japanese!Okinawa Forest Adventure 2014, Jody tops out on a rope ladderOnce properly adjusted, the staff will show you basic hook and clip operation, then after a short walk to a proving course, will provide a short brief (most likely in very broken English), and then you’ll have a chance to demonstrate your prowess by completing a “test” climb and zip line before being turned loose on the course…ALONE. Yeah, that’s right – you move through the course on your own, at your own pace, which is one of the best things about this park. This type of freedom, and dare I say “trust” in others’ own personal responsibility is really a refreshing relief from the “it must be someone else’s fault” overly litigious society back home. While there is a staff member at one particular point on the course (for which you’ll just have to figure out why), we only saw one or two other staffers along the course, no doubt helping to ensure safety and rule following.

Okinawa Forest Adventure 2014, Jody likes steep and narrow ladders

Okinawa Forest Adventure 2014, rules and rocksOkinawa Forest Adventure 2014, many dangersSpeaking of rules, some of the rather pathetic rules the park has – and I’m sure because they have to deal with ugly (drunk) Americans behaving in such ugly ways – if you appear intoxicated you will be subjected to being breathalyzed, and after a warning the first time you take your shirt off, you be expelled on the 2nd such offense…. Unfortunately, we happened to butt up against a Marine Unit outing, which I simply could not tolerate their brazenly bad language. Although I didn’t want to, I felt it necessary to confront these rather poor examples of American citizenry, out of respect for the elder (civilian) couple in our group, let along the Japanese National couple traveling through the course with us.

Okinawa Forest Adventure 2014, taking the Log Swing after enjoying the Trazan Swing

Midway through the course is a complimentary cold drink case, where we got to choose between orange or grape soda – 1 per customer, please! This was a nice touch, although we drank up quickly to keep ahead of our rather Neanderthal North American cousins who were hot on our heels.

Okinawa Forest Adventure 2014, Tarzan Swing into a cargo (scramble) net

Okinawa Forest Adventure 2014, pussies need not attempt!Okinawa Forest Adventure 2014, zipline landing for JodyThe last section of the park is a giant-sized multi-level jungle gym for adults, complete with swinging board bridges, swaying rings, and the final zip line of the day. There’s a special surprise here, one I’ll not spoil, but let’s just say that if you can’t jump within 3 minutes, GET THE HECK OUT OF THE WAY! This entire part of the park is a hoot!

Okinawa Forest Adventure 2014, Jody and Kevin GOAL!!

After reaching your “GOAL,” you’ll be offered an opportunity to travel back through the course. It seems if the park is not busy, this is a rather standard thing, which adds a tremendous amount of value to the $35/person (¥3500) entrance fee. We, however, elected to pass, partly due to the company we would choose NOT to keep, but more so because we had a lunch date at a terrific restaurant in Onna called Casa la Tida, worthy of its own blog in the near future!

Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah, Zip-A-Dee-A, Wonderful feeling, Wonderful day!

Okinawa Forest Adventure 2014, Onna's forest adventure map

 

Okinawa Forest Adventure 2014, map to the parkReservations: 098-963-0088

Open: all year 9:00-18:00, summer season 8:30-Sunset; the park will close for bad weather!

Must be over 140cm/55inches tall, and under 130kg/286lbs weight

http://www.forest-adventure-onna.jp

Tuesdays and Thursdays are “Lady’s Days,” where women get a ¥500 discount; under 18 is ¥2,500, family of three is ¥8,000, family of four is ¥9,500, and family of 5 is ¥11,000. Yen Only!!

 

Hiji Ōtaki, The Great Falls of Okinawa


“Many a calm river begins as a turbulent waterfall, yet none hurtles and foams all the way to the sea.” ~ Mikhail Lermontov

Okinawa Nov 2013, Hiji Waterfall, the falls at the destination 2

Okinawa Nov 2013, Hiji Falls, boardwalk through the jungleOkinawa Nov 2013, Hiji Falls, tall and lonely stairwayThe dense tangle of exotic jungle canopy covering Okinawa may not inspire thoughts of peaceful relaxation in some, but after trekking to Hiji Falls, one might change their mind! No need to grab a machete and hack your way through the undergrowth in search of nature’s bounty Indiana Jones style. One of the most accessible and famous nature trails on Okinawa leads to a treasure, Hiji Ōtaki (Great) Falls (比地大滝).

Okinawa Nov 2013, Hiji Falls, nature-walk

 

Okinawa Nov 2013, Hiji Falls, Kevin shooting during his nature-huntOkinawa Nov 2013, Hiji Falls, peaceful jungle waterfallHiji waterfall is located in the northern Yambaru area of Okinawa, where there are fewer people and the land remains covered by natural forests, largely unexploited. Human encroachment has yet to take hold in this part of Okinawa, and thank goodness. The natural surrounds here are a welcome change from the urban sprawl of the south.

Okinawa Nov 2013, Hiji Falls, future butterfly

Okinawa Nov 2013, Hiji Falls, Otaki means big waterfallOkinawa Nov 2013, Hiji Falls, Selfie on the suspension bridge, the halfway pointThe modifier Ōtaki in the Japanese language is composed of three kanji characters: the first, ō (大) meaning “large,” the second ta (多) meaning “many,” and the third ki (喜) meaning “happiness.” However, in loosely translated local vernacular English, the falls are generally referred to as “Hiji Great Falls.”

Okinawa Nov 2013, Hiji Falls, Jody poses at Hiji Giant Falls

Okinawa Nov 2013, Hiji Falls, selfie at the fallsOkinawa Nov 2013, Hiji Falls, tree fleur de lisThe trailhead, where an entrance fee (¥500) must be paid, is a little over a mile inland from the island’s western coast. From this starting point, where restrooms, a restaurant, and plentiful parking can be found, a casual walk to the falls is about a mile and a modern and attractive nature trail and boardwalk, taking about 40 minutes one-way. On the way you’ll pass a dam that’s been recently rebuilt, now cleverly disguised to resemble a much more natural rock facade and waterfall spillway.

Okinawa Nov 2013, Hiji Falls, paper tickets

Okinawa Nov 2013, Hiji Falls, Kevin shoots back!Okinawa Nov 2013, Hiji Falls, Great Falls guide mapAlthough at first you may worry about all the amenities and concrete which initially line the path, after passing the dam the sidewalk quickly gives way to dirt, and the natural beauty of Okinawa begins to slowly unfold all around with each and every step. The trail and boardwalk are well maintained, but be forewarned: there are quite a few steep sections with many stairs along the way. One of the trail’s highlights is crossing a suspension bridge that spans the Hiji River valley over 60 feet below! And once across, you are wholly enveloped by the jungle, surrounded by tall, swaying bamboo, fanned by massive ferns and ancient-looking trees, complete with trunk-twisting vines.

Okinawa Nov 2013, Hiji Falls, Okinawan shrine and tomb along the way

Okinawa Nov 2013, Hiji Falls, grasshopper along the wayOkinawa Nov 2013, Hiji Falls, suspension bridge at the halfway pointThis is not a serene or silent stroll, however. Mother Nature here is abuzz with all-things life: song birds, the ever-present chirping of the cicadas, and the growing rush of the Hiji River compose a cacophony befitting the soundtrack to such a Far-Eastern adventure. Finally, after traveling up and down staircases and across bridges, the crashing water of the falls dominates, best consumed from a wooden viewing platform at the terminus of the trail. Here the 85 foot tall “Great” falls is found, nestled remotely in the forest and cascading into a pool-like clearing rift with rocks and boulders of all sizes, far removed from even a hint of the ubiquitous urbanization that seems ever-present elsewhere on Okinawa. Given this scene, one can almost sense the presence of Kijimuna, the mischievous Okinawan fairies of folklore (see my related blog here).

Okinawa Nov 2013, Hiji Falls, Okinawa's highest falls

Okinawa Nov 2013, Hiji Falls, lost in translation it doesn't say anything aobut crossing the ropeOkinawa Nov 2013, Hiji Falls, sunlit nature walkAlthough the water seems to beckon out for a swim, there are barriers all along the trail stating that swimming is forbidden and that the pool at the base of the falls has been the site of numerous injuries. However, there is a river trek to another lesser-known falls on Okinawa, something we have been saving for more hot and humid weather this summer. Stay tuned for that flirtation of our Far East Fling soon! Regardless, The Great Falls of Hiji can provide a much-needed calming respite to what can otherwise be, for many of us, a hurtling, turbulent, rather foamy life, sometimes, all the way to the sea.

Okinawa Nov 2013, Hiji Falls, couple's selfie at the falls

Okinawa Nov 2013, Hiji Falls, Kevin on one of the many staircases

There are no bathrooms, either!

There are no bathrooms, either!

Not only does this outing provide for a wonderful morning drive up the Okinawan coast along Highway 58, this particular place is easy to find – a rarity on Okinawa. Instead of turning left at Okuma’s intersection, turn right and follow the signs to the falls. Campground facilities are available for overnight stays of about 2,000 yen/night (~$20), offering picnic tables and elevated wooden decks for tent set-up. Finally, there are a few things to know before you go: there is no water along the trail, and bringing fluids in the summer is a MUST. The trail is largely shielded from the sun, but in the summer the humidity will be HIGH. Most importantly, be prepared for stairs, quite a few of them, and please note there are many uphill portions in BOTH directions!

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