Okinawa’s Hedo Point: Go North, Young Man


“Nature always wears the colors of the spirit.”  ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Colors of the Spirit, Found Underwater at Okinawa's Hedo Point

The Colors of the Spirit, Found Underwater at Okinawa’s Hedo Point

A drive north along Okinawa’s rugged coastline mimicked by Highway 58 can be quite refreshing, at least once north of Nago, having left behind the hustle and bustle red-lighted, gridlocked traffic of southern Okinawa in the rearview mirror.  But sometimes, contrary to the cliché, it’s not really about the journey after all; this long drive north is just a pleasurable expedition to a must-experience destination:  Hedo Point.  While the view from this Cape may be captivating, it’s the serenity of hearing the rhythmic crashing of the ocean’s waves lapping at the shore from our campsite on the beach that compelled us on this visit.

Cape Hedo Annotated; Beach Camping is on the Crescent Sandy Area at Bottom

Cape Hedo Annotated; Beach Camping is on the Crescent Sandy Area at Bottom

Cape Hedo (辺戸岬 Hedo-misaki), or Hedo Point, is the northernmost point of Okinawa Island.  A narrowing spit of land jutting out north from the island’s tip, it faces the South China Sea on its west flank, and the Pacific Ocean on its east.  Hedo is part of Okinawa “Dai Sekirinzan Quasi-National Park,” a prefectural nature preserve first established in 1965.  This landside park is worth the travel alone, but that wasn’t the intent of this particular trip.  No, this time my friends and I were off to camp and scuba dive at our gentlemanly leisure in this place of known jagged beauty, above and below the waves.

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As one of the island’s most prominent landmarks, the area and adjacent park attracts visitors who come to enjoy their sheer beauty and challenging environment.  Offering a mixture of luscious green temperate rain forest, craggy cliffs scattered among high hills, and a seemingly ever-present ocean breeze, people arrive to enjoy breathtaking panoramas of Okinawa’s island life.  Even Commodore Perry, full of the bravado characteristics of his “gun-boat diplomacy” of the time, couldn’t resist its charms and visited (but recorded it as “Cape Hope”) during his expedition to Japan.  For our group, however, it was all about the near-virgin diving found here, and, when not diving, an opportunity to camp on a beach mere meters away from high tide!

Looking Over Our Beach Towards the Point

Looking Over Our Beach Towards the Point

Be forewarned:  the point doesn’t offer much in the way of amenities, except for maybe the most basic public toilets, a few stalls that sell food on what appears to be a relatively random basis, and, of course, Okinawa’s ubiquitous vending machines.  None of which are anywhere near the beach.  You can’t even expect a convenience store, which seem to dot every other square kilometer of Okinawa much further to the South.  If you plan to spend any time here, come prepared!

Paved Access Ends Here

Paved Access Ends Here

Camping here is rather unique and particularly refreshing, since you can camp right on the beach.  In fact, you can DRIVE your supplies directly to your campsite, located on a rather expansive crescent-shaped beach, complete with easy-to-get firewood and stones to act as a fire break.  HOWEVER, please don’t attempt to drive here unless you have full 4-wheel drive.  We watched a tourist drive a smaller type station-wagon onto the sand only to get promptly stuck.  Without any tow ropes, we couldn’t offer assistance.  Lucky for this couple, the beach sees visitors from time-to-time, and a Japanese-plated 4-wheeler was able to pull their care to the sanctuary of paved road with a proper tow, but only after a good hour or so of being stranded.

Water and Terrain Found at Hedo Point

Water and Terrain Found at Hedo Point

One other comment for you brothers and sisters in uniform:  I wouldn’t tell “dad” about your plans to camp at Hedo, at least if you are Marine Corps.  Two of our dive buddies were forced to get a “motel” (and that term is used only in the very loosest sense in this isolated part of Okinawa) about 20 minutes away since, according to the wisdom of the Corps, camping on anything but an “official” campsite is not legal.  Except for and to the Okinawans.  Go figure….  It’s ridiculous restrictions like these that make me lovingly hug my DD-214 a little tighter almost every single night.

Campfire, Smores, Various Adult Beverages, and Tall Tales!

Campfire, Smores, Various Adult Beverages, and Tall Tales!

Access to this beach is easily found on overhead imagery anyone can view on Google; it is a short side-street drive from the point proper.  We could find no rules or regulations about camping here, and built fires for the duration with firewood and stones easily collected from within a couple of hundred meters of our site.  We were the only over-night guests, and we only saw maybe seven other people (no divers though) during our entire weekend stay!

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28928401894_f893d3bb29_bCape Hedo offers exhilarating diving as well, but maybe not for novices.  Here the Pacific Ocean meets the East China Sea, one of many reasons that makes this area so interesting to scuba divers.  From the Cape’s observation point high on the cliffs, the undulating underwater terrain can be spied through the area’s clear waters, at least on a calm day.  Which leads to this important tip:  do NOT tempt fate here by diving in the wrong conditions.  Hedo is generally known only as a summer-time dive spot when gentler winds blow mostly out of the south and east.  In contrast, through much of the winter, the northwest winds and seas make this site unsafe to dive.  To complicate matters, strong currents are encountered once offshore, and rips can develop in the tunneling recesses found nearer to shore which make this geography so interesting to now explore.  Hedo hosts particularly unforgiving seas, so take heed and respect the elements.

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28928373444_00ca8390b2_bOn a clear day Yoron Island, the next major land-mass in the Ryukyu Island chain, can be seen on the horizon to the north.  Yoron used to be the symbolic demarcation point between Japan and Okinawa during the days of American Occupation of the latter (the former reverted to Japanese sovereignty shortly after the end of WWII).  Reversion activists frequently gathered at Cape Hedo to set watch fires, answered in turn by similarly minded people on Yoron.  A fact to which most Americans remain complete unaware (even those stationed here in the Military), control of Okinawa reverted to Japan only in 1972.  A monument, erected in 1976, to this the reinstatement of Okinawa’s sovereignty now stands tall overlooking the sea to the north.

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28930706873_a092030870_bWe camped in the fall, hoping to avoid the oppressive heat and humidity of high summer.  Even though temperatures were moderated by a fast-approaching tropical storm, It never really cooled off at night.  I had assumed that between the breeze and temps in the low 80s, we would sleep well.  I assumed wrong.  What I didn’t factor was having to close up my tent due to rain.  Without that ventilating breeze blowing through my temporary domicile, I sweated way too much to sleep well through most of the night.  Between that and laying on undulating beach sand (should’ve leveled it more carefully!) without the benefit of any type of bedroll or padding all made for a very rough night of sleep indeed.  Luckily, we were planning a dive just after sunrise, with breakfast to follow.

Watch Out for Surprisingly Deep Pools, Especially at Night

Watch Out for Surprisingly Deep Pools, Especially at Night

29473209771_ac56798459_bThe inlet formed by the inward-bending crescent of the beach is chock full of crevasses, providing the opportunity to explore some unique underwater terrain.  There are huge, labyrinth-like landscapes here found almost immediately after dropping under the waves.  A note of caution about entries; there are some very deep and narrow crevasses that are quite masked by what appears to be a relatively flat, stable and shallow shelf.  Falling into one unprepared can be quite a shock at best, and potentially dangerous at worst.  Watch your footing, and watch the wave breaks, especially at night.  Trek the reef here with a BCD inflated to comfortably support you and your kit should you be surprised.  Moving to the “center” of the beach were a wash from the shoreline can be seen offers the earliest and perhaps the easiest entry, but a long walk at low tide.  And like all areas with such washes, this is also prime areas where rips can occur.

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We camped for two nights, which provided us 1.5 days to dive.  We elected to bring six tanks each, and arriving late afternoon on the first day we spent our time setting up camp, cooking dinner, and drinking by the fire until the rain chased us off.  The next day saw four dives in almost perfect sea conditions, while we only dove twice in the morning of our departure day.

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One of the funniest things to happen while we were there was the unexpected growth and quick approach of a tropical depression, which made a run at Okinawa from the south.  We had checked the weather prior to departure, but once on-site, our weather became a simple matter of looking at the ocean, 20 meters away.  Although we did note that the winds had increased, and rain showers started here and there, we thought little of it because the seas in our crescent bay were completely protected from the somewhat gusty southerly winds.  In fact, on our last day, with the winds picking up even more, the seas actually got calmer since the wind was, in effect, countering what little waves were coming in from the north.

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On our surface interval on our last day, one of our buddies, a retired Army pilot and contractor here on Okinawa, got a call from a coworker asking what we were doing up there diving in “Danger”.  Of course hearing only a one-sided conversation, all I heard was Ben replying, “What are you talking about Danger, it’s beautiful here!”  There wasn’t much more to the phone call, and I think most of us dismissed that comment as a jealous someone trying to ruin our fun with a rather low-brow prank.

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Well, he wasn’t pulling our leg after all!  We had expected to enjoy one of Okinawa’s gorgeous sun-sets over the East China sea during our drive home south along Highway 58.   But that was not to be.  As we excited the protected northern-facing bowl that our campsite sat in and crossed over the slight ridge to get back to the coastal highway, we were met with angry skies, gusting winds, and growing seas.  During the roughly three-hour drive home, the weather became downright nasty.  The storm hit us that evening.

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So, having been deprived of that sunset, I’ll have to plan this trip all over again.  Except this time I’ll bring a bedroll, more scuba tanks, and perhaps check the weather a little bit more closely….

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What a Hoot:  Owl Cafes in Japan


 “Don’t count your owls before they are delivered.”  ~J.K. Rowling

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But count them when you see them!  It seems that animal cafes are becoming much more deeply ingrained in Japanese culture.  While still rare on Okinawa, it’s not hard to find a “Cat Café” in most any major city one can visit in the main islands of Japan.  But that’s only where the idea just began.  Snakes, lizards, goats, penguins, rabbits and squirrels all have their places now at cafes where animal lovers can call.

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kobe-2016-owl-cafe-owls-head-wmkobe-2016-owl-cafe-owl-pet-carrier-wmHowever, what is NEW, at least to Jody and I, is the idea of an “Owl Cafe.”  Many say the popularity of the Harry Potter series has helped in creating this new expansion.  The Japanese, undeniable leaders in the strange and novel (see Kawaii Monster Café and Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto for more of Japan’s cutting edge culture), have managed another kawaii-cute breakthrough featuring owls!

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The BiBi & GeorGe Kobe Fukurou (Japanese for “owl”) Café is a small establishment located just outside Chinatown in Kobe, Japan, and offers a number of different types of owls from around the world.

kobe-2016-owl-cafe-bibi-george-owl-cafe-jody-at-the-storefront

kobe-2016-owl-cafe-bibi-george-owl-cafe-automated-ticket-venderkobe-2016-owl-cafe-bibi-george-owl-cafe-signageThe experience of one’s visit begins with attempting to operate a ticket vending machine outside on the ground, street floor.  Here you can purchase tickets and prepay for drinks ahead, but you’ll need help, to which the staff is only too eagerly and happy.  I believe the minimum amount of time is 1 hour, which costs 1,000 yen (about $10 USD), perfectly reasonable for a chance to see rare birds up close and personal.

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kobe-2016-owl-cafe-owls-purr-wmkobe-2016-owl-cafe-owls-perch-wmThe cafe has three floors.  Entering the narrow shop, you’ll meet Sakura, apparently the café’s greeter…who is apparently unimpressed with the guests and all passers-by.  The first floor seems to be just an entrance lobby for the café, but does include a varied and eclectic selection of owl-related goods that has to been seen to be appreciated.

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kobe-2016-owl-cafe-petting-a-petite-owl-wmkobe-2016-owl-cafe-petting-a-new-feathered-friend-wmAfter climbing a very narrow stairway, the second floor is attained.  Here there are no owls, only seats for guests to enjoy any beverages they may have bought with their entrance.  The prime attraction – owls, await you on the third floor, and after leaving your bags on the second, another narrow set of stairs offers access.  The main aviary is there where about 15 or so resident birds are located.

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kobe-2016-owl-cafe-petting-owls-wmkobe-2016-owl-cafe-petting-an-owl-3-wmKobe‘s first owl cafe boasts a wide array of owls, including Western Screech, Eagle, Snowy, Barn and Tawny owls.  The room was long and very narrow, but clean and tidy, and numerous staff were on hand to help with and discuss the various owls, but only in very broken English.  Bright sunlight was streaming unchecked through the room’s windows, and the overhead fluorescent lights seems to be unnecessarily too bright for nocturnal animals with such sensitive eyes.

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kobe-2016-owl-cafe-proud-tall-owl-wmkobe-2016-owl-cafe-proud-owl-wmBehind each owl is a montage of kawaii-cute pictures of that particular bird, along with some basic information, like name, weight, and type of owl and their habitat.  Most of the information is in Japanese, but there is some basic English offered.  Each owl is featured on the café’s website, where English can be selected as your language, but most of the detailed information remains untranslated.

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kobe-2016-owl-cafe-small-gray-owl-wmkobe-2016-owl-cafe-sleepy-owl-2-wmWe received some quick instructions on how to properly interact with the owls, like only gently pet them on the top of their heads, and leave them alone if they don’t wished to be touched.  The guidance is provided via a handout, in English.  One of the owls was “on break,” and was not to be touched for his/her hour off the clock; still others were sleeping.

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kobe-2016-owl-cafe-unlikely-owl-house-wmkobe-2016-owl-cafe-squat-owl-wmThe assorted owls have beautiful feathers of all colors and patterns, and are much softer to the touch than I would have imagined.  Although at first you may be timid about their long talons and sharp beaks, there really was no issue of potential harm from either.  While each owl has their own unique personality and responds to touch and attention in different fashion, they all seemed perfectly unaggressive.  A flapping of large and strong wings was all it took for guests to prudently withdrawal their hands!

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kobe-2016-owl-cafe-jody-holds-an-owl-friendkobe-2016-owl-cafe-jody-holding-a-new-feathered-friendA staff member will offer you an aviary glove and place an owl on your arm for photos.  Such animals seem to offer an almost universal mystique, and some are adorable while others are downright beautiful.  With their haughty attitude, they really are cats, but with wings.

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kobe-2016-owl-cafe-momo-chan-princess-owlkobe-2016-owl-cafe-petting-an-owl-3-wmIt certainly is a unique opportunity to see and touch all these beautiful creatures.  But unlike a cat café, these animals are not domesticated and probably not tame, and it is not normal for them to be kept inside as, well, prisoners, chained at their ankles to bars, negating not only their getaways, but even their movement about the space.  I feel bad enough about keeping my cats indoors (and they are all indoor/outdoor cats), but for these wild animals, it seems, in a sense, juts wrong.  Especially since they are such nocturnal creatures who are forced awake and on display primarily during daylight hours.

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The owls seem to be well-fed and well-care for, however, something that can be quite challenging from what I’ve read.  The fact, though, that they can’t fly free, seems so repressive (see Whale of a Time for more on a similar situation).

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But the chance to get up close and personal with these magnificent creatures is a novel opportunity that shouldn’t be missed…at least once!

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Bibi and George Owl Cafe

Phone:  078-391-2960

Opening:  Tues-Sunday 11am-7pm (last entry 7pm)

Cover charge is Y1000 for one hour

Chuo-ku, Kobe, Sakaemachi-dori 1-2-14, Umifuku Bldg 1-3F, located in Motomachi

Reservations are accepted via the shop’s website or by phone, or you can just show up.

Sharknado!!!


Okay, so it’s more like a shark circus.  Or at least that is what it’s called  aboard the MV Orion, a scuba live-aboard in the Emperor’s fleet that we were guests on this past September.  Jody and I booked this scuba vacation (her first live-aboard) coincident with our 5th anniversary, to a far away, exotic location that many Americans have never heard of:  The Maldives.  Go ahead, look it up on a map…I’ll wait.

There will be a lot more written about this particular vacation, but this video is all I wish to share at this point.  Oh, and listen with the music turned all the way up.  I have something in excess of 1,500 scuba dives from all over the world, but this dive easily tops the list.  The video was shot from sunset going on to full night, with a large domed wide-angle lens, so the action was really much closer than it often appears.

What else can I say, except what Jessica said upon surfacing from this dive:

BEST … DIVE … EVER!

 

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.

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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….

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

Tropical Trek: A Juant to Iriomote Island


“A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent upon arriving.”  ~ Lao Tzu

vacation

“McQeen,” I said as I smiled broadly to the Okinawan rental car agent as I followed him to our rental vehicle.  He was a much older gentleman who spoke no English, and was wearing a shirt which on its back had a cartoonish car and largely printed letters spelling out “McQueen.”

He turned and returned my smile.  I continued, this time with a more inquisitive inflection:  “Steve McQueen?”

Hai!  MAC-keen!” came his replied, his grin widening.

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I’ll take it as a rental!

steve-mcqueen-bullittpapillon mcqueenSteve McQueen?  Really??  What the hell was the connection to rental cars, especially in Japan, particularly on one of the most remote and least populated Japanese island?!  Could it be tied to McQueen’s movie Bullitt?  Sure, that movie starred a really kick-ass car, but still….  Could it be tied to McQueen’s movie Papillion?  I certainly hoped not; repeatedly failed escapes from an island prison was not a way I wanted to characterize our tropical vacation.

Pixar Post - Lightning McQueen - Disney Infinity

What’s in a name, anyway??

Not being a huge animated Disney fan (hey Dana, I really didn’t need to watch Frozen), and with kids long past that phase of childhood, I had no idea of the connection with their movie, Cars.  But the Japanese absolutely adore all-things Disney, and thus, a rental car company is born, probably out of a miscarriage of copyright infringement.

It seems Jody drives "Naked" wherever she goes in Japan!

It seems Jody drives “Naked” wherever she goes in Japan!

It was, however, the ding-dang easiest car rental process, EVER.  Reserving a rental car from the non-English-speaking hotel staff for 4,000 Yennies (about $40), we met Mr. McQueen the next morning, and after staring at my military Japanese “SOFA” driver’s license (no doubt he had no idea what it said; it’s in English!), he gave me the key and motioned for me to follow.  No paperwork.  No signatures.  No legal bullshit, no endless printouts of paper and checkouts of the car.  He passed me a hand-drawn map of the island, pointed out the one of two gas stations depicted there, and motioned where to leave the car the next morning.  And with that, Jody and I were turned loosed on Iriomote…and its ONE major road!  We drove the entire thing.  In one afternoon.  In a couple of hours.

e_iriomote_map

One…Short…Road. With a really slow speed limit!

Day bed meets gazebo?

Day bed meets gazebo?

4461996It’s that time of year for, yes, you guessed it:  Summer Vacations.  The wife and I departed back on the 24th of May (2014) for a 4-day retreat in the southern most reaches of the Ryukyu Islands, which Okinawa anchors.  We stayed on Iriomotejima (jima means “island” in Japanese), at the rather remote resort “Hoshino Resort Nirakanai Iriomote,” which from what we can tell is only one a just a handful of full-service, 3-star+ hotels located there.  Although Iriomote is the 2nd largest island in the Ryukyu chain and in the Yaeyama island grouping, there live only about 2,000 permanent residents.  But with over 150,000 visitors every year, eco-tourism there rocks!  The island promised kayaking, waterfall trekking, eco-tours, and ox cart taxis to name just a few…along with some serious R&R from the military culture back on Okinawa.

A nicely adorned hotel room.

A nicely adorned hotel room.

Iriomote Okinawa 2014, Urauchi River, boat trip Kevin smilesIriomote Okinawa Vacation 2014, welcome to sub-tropical (almost tropical!) Iriomote Island WMThe vast majority (90%+) of the island is covered by dense jungle, low mountains and mangroves, and the vast majority of that is protected as government-owned or administered lands.  A full third of the island serves as the Japanese Iriomote National Park.  The island’s Urauchi River is the largest river in Okinawa Prefecture, and it is home to Pinaisara Falls, the largest waterfall in Okinawa Prefecture.  Although mighty close to the Tropic of Cancer, the island doesn’t quite cross that magical latitude.  However, the island’s climate is considered tropical rainforest, and for very good reason.  In other words, it’s hot and humid there, exactly what one would expect from a tropical Pacific isle.

Iriomote Okinawa Vacation 2014, Urauchi River Jungle Trek, Jody and Kevin happy in the heat

Iriomote Okinawa 2014, Urauchi River, Jody and our guide wooden uphill jungle trek WMIriomote Okinawa 2014, Urauchi River, making inset friends WMWe ended up doing a combined boat-safari/rain-forest-nature-walk/waterfall-bento-box-picnic along the Urauchi River, which we both highly recommend.  For such a densely wooded and wet area, we encounter little if any biting insets or bugs…even though our quasi English-speaking Japanese guide caught every creepy-crawly he could find, proclaiming them proudly as “my friend!”  It’s been a long, long time since I’ve seen a Daddy Long-Legs or a Walking Stick!!

Iriomote Okinawa 2014, Urauchi River, our guide making insect friends on our jungle trek WM

Iriomote Okinawa Vacation 2014, watch out for attack of the Iriomote cat!!Iriomote Okinawa 2014, Urauchi River, Iriomote cat (billboard) sightingOne thing we didn’t see was the island’s fame carnivorous hunter-killer mammalThe Iriomote Cat, “discovered” only in 1965, is celebrated throughout the entire Yaeyama islands, but is exclusive to Iriomote Island.  A critically endangered leopard-cat, they live in the smallest habitat of any wild cat in the world.  Numbering only about 100 cats, in Japanese it is called Iriomote-Yamaneko (西表山猫, Iriomote mountain cat), but in local dialects it is known as “the cat in the mountain,” “that which shines on the mountain,” or “that which has flashing eyes,” owing to the cat’s distinctive and highly reflective amber irises.  These cats are similar in size to the more familiar domestics, weighing in at up to 10 pounds and reaching lengths of 35 inches.  Its coat is dusky brown with fairly long hair, patterned with dark (leopard) spots in rows and bands.  Their bodies are elongated but with short legs and tail, while the ears are rounded and adorned with white spots on their reverse sides.  Nocturnal and twilight hunters, their prey includes rats, flying foxes, wild boar and a wide range of birds, reptiles and insects.  Terrestrial in general, they sometimes swim and dive to catch water birds, fish, and freshwater prawns, rather uncommon behaviors for any cat in the wild.  Destruction of habitat, predation by dogs, traffic accidents, and traps set for wild boar all have contributed greatly to their decline.  The cat otherwise has no natural predator….

Cat Cartoons Adorn All!  Even our hotel bus.

Cat Cartoons Adorn All! Even our hotel bus.

Iriomote Okinawa 2014, Urauchi River, Kevin and Jody deep in the island's tropical rain forestIriomote Okinawa 2014, Urauchi River, trekking with our guide through the dense dark rain forestOur rain-forest guide did find us a famed habu snake (Sakishima habu) though during lunch.  Excitedly calling us over, I eagerly brought the camera, having never seen one of these pit-vipers in the wild.  Sure enough, tucked between layers of eroded rock, was a sleepy snake, much lighter brown and smaller than expected.  Our guide was poking near the beast with a long stick, waking the serpent and no doubt pissing it off.  As I maneuvered my Cybershot for a good photo, our guide became visibly nervous, and in his most serious tone of the day, he commented flatly, “Please be careful.”  Sorry, no photo; they were not worth keeping…and I wasn’t willing to get my hand any closer!

Waterfall Bento Box Picnic

Waterfall Bento Box Picnic

Iriomote Okinawa 2014, Jody touching the longitudinal meridian 123456789Iriomote Okinawa Vacation 2014, Jody visiting the 123456789 meridian line of longitude WMWe also found, quite by accident, that one of the most special meridians passes through Iriomote.  This line of longitude, at 123 degrees east, 45 minutes, and 6.789 seconds (there are only two of these in the world!) runs through the island at a few points, where some rather cool monuments have been erected.  One of them used to project a laser line up in the sky to mark the meridian’s position, but apparently got in trouble for using such high-powered, dangerous lights without the right permission.  When we visited all the wiring for the lights was simply cut.  In another village, the meridian’s track is marked with a large, operable sun-dial.  It seems we also had just missed their local dragon boat races!  Dang.

Iriomote Okinawa Vacation 2014, village flying fish wooden dragon boat

Iriomote Vacaton 2014, Night Kayaking, Jody smiles in the mangrovesIriomote Okinawa Vacation 2014, Yubu Island, happy old-man sanshin player! WMWe decided to try night star-gazing kayaking, especially since the same Japanese guide was available during our stay.  Given that we were some of the very few non-Asian people staying at the hotel, and probably the only Americans, all the guided tours we booked were, in essence, “private.”  Although the skies remained cloudy, the heavens did finally open just as twilight set in.

Sunset from our mangrove-positioned kayak

Sunset from our mangrove-positioned kayak

Iriomote Okinawa Vacation 2014, Yubu Island, ox cart crossing entertainment (B&W impact) WMIriomote Okinawa Vacation 2014, Yubu Island, Ox Carts WMIn the southeast of the island can be found Yubu Island, which, although with its charms, turned out to be the one and only tourist trap we came across during our holiday.  The ox-drawn cart ride across the mud-strewn tidal flats is probably one of the most photographed and promoted “things to do” on IriomoteYubu Island itself has been turned into an eclectic collection of botanical displays and animal exhibits.  A restaurant, one of the few we ever saw, can be found here, along with cold drinks and desserts, perfect after fighting the tour-bus loads of Japanese that you’ll unfortunately encounter here.

Iriomote Okinawa Vacation 2014, Yubu Island, lonely ox cart crossing WM

Star_sand_Iriomote_300x199star-sand-beach-okinawa-japan-woe3-690x447The most disappointing thing about the touted highlights of Iriomote was our visit to “Star Sand” (Hoshizuna-no-hama) beach.  Marketed as a beach covered in star-shaped grains of sand, the actual stellar forms are hard to find, and much smaller than you might think.  The shapes result from abraded calcium-carbonate bodies of foraminifers, akin to plankton and amoeboids, which are deposited upon the beach after their demise.  More convenient than searching the shoreline is to hit up the Japanese man at the entrance to the beach who peddles small bottles of purified stars!

star_sand

10084627204_b211c83338_zIriomote Okinawa 2014, dinner at the Hoshino Resort Nirakanai IriomoteAnd perhaps the funniest thing that happened to us we owe to the island’s large, block crows.  During a foray in the water, we watched as a crow flew in and grabbed a half-eaten contained of chips.  While this was funny, that very afternoon we were planning to split a freshly baked maple and brown-sugar muffin on our pool-view balcony, and while in the room fixing drinks, we watched in horror was the hooligan bird swept in for yet another snack.  Jody, rushing to the door, spooked the feathered interloper, who, just as quickly as it regained its composure, picked up the muffin and flew away…AGAIN.  Of course, we both cried, “Fowl!”

Take you Tats to the Waterfalls!

Take your Tats to the Waterfalls!

PS – BTW, even though the hotel’s paperwork states very clearly that no tattoos are allowed at their outdoor pool, I (and another guy with an arm tat) used the pool without issue.  Well, I strategically kept my back away from the pool and hotel staff in large part.  The Japanese are very strange about how they view – and treat those with ink.  See my blog on that interesting subject here:  Tainted by Tats