In Japan, there is a string of holidays referred to as “Golden Week” wherein people get some much-deserved time off to celebrate with friends and family. Since we had some days off, my friends and I decided to go to Tokyo and then all the way to Okinawa. Since Okinawa used to be its own kingdom before becoming a prefecture of Japan in 1879, compared to Honshu and Kyushu (I can’t speak to Hokkaido), Okinawa had a very distinct feel.
As we landed, the ocean shifted form slightly; waves crashed against black rocks and familiar dandelions bowed in the wind. I was instantly struck by the island’s beauty. Before we’d even struck the ground, the sun had already peaked through the cabin windows to say a golden goodbye. It was perfect.
Whenever I visit another tropical place, I become some strange old woman reminiscing about Florida palm trees and a childhood enchanted by island songs. I imagine what Puerto Rico might feel like and feel all at once connected and far away from my culture. Okinawa stirred up my heart a little and reminded me of how much I love the sizzle of sun on my skin and ocean in my lungs. For me, if I am not near the ocean, I feel lost.
I became curious about what stories were there in Okinawa, curious about the way people live every day and how they imagine themselves. Ocean people have an easiness about themselves although I can’t tell you if it’s the exposure to sunstroke or the way life plays at a different pace. I had my suspicions that Fukuoka existed in a similar universe, so imagine my excitement when the buses in Okinawa also ran late! It confirmed my nonsensical little theory, that time is slower by the beach and no matter how many clocks you set, the world has a way of winding it to wherever it pleases.
We spent most of our time in Chatan which is where American Village is located. Of course, we explored, but truthfully, my favorite part of the trip was when I stepped out of our Airbnb to get strawberry milk. There was this dinky, sun-washed vending machine at the corner of the road before you entered our street. It was lined with a small gathering of cats and surrounded by vined fences. The sky was that precious deep blue color and the streetlamps amber and bug-smudged. Only beach towns have that magic, the type that draws you into a time vacuum. The strawberry milk sat chill in the palm of my hand and the breeze picked up as I scaled up the summer-bleached stairway. Time was forever in that moment.
We took a stroll as a group to get dinner at a local okonomiyaki place and ordered an assortment of okonomiyaki, takoyaki, and yakisoba for everyone to try. Waited for the take-out for about a half hour, whereas in Osaka and Kyoto, I don’t think I’ve waited longer than fifteen minutes, but I didn’t mind at all. It was nice to sit in the re-fashioned home-turned restaurant. The walls were this bright Ron Jon turquoise color and there were Americana pieces hung up on the walls. A family who were friends with the owner watched their toddler run around the raised tatami area and the group chatted amongst themselves, the owner getting a word in between okonomiyaki flips at the griddle.
The owner had this hardy laugh and good-natured way of carrying himself and the group of older friends seemed to be the type to poke a little fun at each other. A couple came in and sat for a bit; everyone except us were locals who already knew each other. I came to love that sense of familiarity I saw in the neighborhoods in Okinawa. There was a real sense of community.
I suspect tourism and COVID changed Okinawa though, as it did most of the world in some way. It could be the aging population too, but many businesses were shut down and homes empty in some parts of our travels. Even when visiting the grocery store, I realized how empty some parts of town felt compared to others. It reminded me a lot of Florida and how the chaos-cocktail of aging populations, over-tourism, and the pandemic desolated our communities and left locals to struggle as new people came in. I’m not sure if this is Okinawa’s story, but it was a story I saw unfolding in the residential area we stayed in. It brought me back to the questions I had in Hiroshima: is there an ethical way to travel? I’m not sure. Being aware of the history of Okinawa wasn’t enough to offset any impact my presence had, I’m sure.
I saw too much of Florida in Okinawa. While I could see this being a fun, tropical paradise for the overworked, I think there is also a need to recognize how our presence can impact a space even if we are respectful. It also made me excited, though, because it ignited a desire to honor my home too.
As the world around shifts and changes, as the climate worsens and places we grew up are swallowed by seas, isn’t it our job to remember and resist? I think understanding a place’s value by learning from it and not imposing upon it is key to honoring it and then protecting it well. I think joy is an integral part of that process. Our love and joy are a type of remembrance and resistance. We commemorate everything by living in celebration. Every time I remember the beaches from my childhood even if I’m a world apart, am I not keeping it alive?
This might all be an extrapolation, but my brain works by associations so for me it feels connected. I think gratitude both while you’re living the moment and after when you recall it are so important. It made me hopeful as the laughter swelled within the okonomiyaki restaurant. Watching everyone smile and live happily in each other’s company despite the evidence of change in Okinawa reminded me of how joy is where the real power lies.