Friday, September 22, 2006

The Wrapup

So much for daily blog updates. Here it is, a full week after our return to the States, and I'm finally writing the wrapup. Anyway, if anybody cares, this is how the final days in Okinawa went down.

Wednesday, September 13 - We're all excited to get to Camp Foster, where Teena's arranged an aerial tour of Okinawa island for us. After a quick breakfast on base, we head to the airstrip to meet up with our pilot, a cute Korean girl named Jo. She hands us our headgear and we walk out to the awaiting Cessna four-seater. She also warns us not to snap photos until we get to the plane, or cross the painted red line separating us from the fighter jets stored in nearby hangars. We're in the air for a good hour, taking in the entire coast of the island. Great views of the coral reef and crystal clear water. What a beautiful place.

We head back to our waterfront cabin on base, change, and hit Oura Wan beach. A bit disappointed that we can't snorkle or rent a boat, we lay out in the sun for awhile. I find some hermit crabs. I realize that we'd just seen this very beach from a coupla thousand feet straight up.

Thursday, September 14 - This morning, we're off to meet Masa and Yumi at the world-famous Churaumi Aquarium. "Churaumi," I assume, can only mean "Big Ass" in Japanese, because the tank there is frikkin' GINORMOUS. We take in the Seaworld-esque dolphin show, check out some manatees, turtles, then whammo, we get a peek at the piece de resistance - the Big Tank. Man, words cannot describe this marvel of engineering. According to Wikipedia, this thing holds 7,500 cubic meters of water and features the world's largest acrylic panel, measuring 8.2 meters by 22.5 meters, with a thickness of 60 centimeters. It's also chock full of Whale Sharks and Manta Rays the size of horses. Big, flat horses.

We end the day back on base with Masa and Yumi. They're excited to visit the Military Excange, where we stock up on Coronas, chips, pizza and tacos. Good times.

Friday, September 15 - A sad day. Time to head back home. After meeting up with Masa and Yumi one last time to exchange goodbyes and gifts, we're off to Osaka for a 4 hour stopover. A little shopping and grubbin', then Nana and I hop our last flight of the tour, back to LAX. Man, I had a blast. An unforgettable trip. A big thanks to Teena, Nana, Deb, Hiroko, Masa and Yumi! I love you all.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006


Today we fly into Okinawa. A short 2 hour flight and we're there. It immediately reminds me of Hawaii, tropical and lush. Two family friends, Masa and Yumi, pick us up and show us the southern part of the island. First stop is a nice Japanese bento lunch. I try to pay the bill, but Masa practically tackles me at the cash register and insists on treating.

We then head to Peace Park, home of the Okinawa Museum and memorial for the thousands of people who died in the Battle of Okinawa. I find the name of my grandmother, Isa Kamado, on the memorial and make a charcoal rubbing to take home. The museum exhibit is a sobering reminder of the atrocities that took place on this tiny island. I now understand why mom never speaks of Okinawa. We buy souvenirs. Lots of Okinawan Shisa lions and t-shirts. Again Masa insists on paying for everything. Whenever we pull out money, he protests violently.

Masa and Yumi are phenomenal hosts, gracious and accomodating. Even though they speak no English and we speak no Japanese, we find a way to get through the day and have a good time. They take us to a Korean barbecue restaurant in Naha city, and Masa introduces me to what he calls "Samurai Sake". Turns out Okinawa has their own version of Japanese rice wine. About 120 proof. It hurts me. This time, Teena attempts to pay for our meal. And Masa covertly arranges to have her credit card charge reversed. He's a tough one. Yumi's brother, wife and their impossibly cute daughter drop by and drive us to Camp Foster, as Masa is no longer in driving condition. I nap in the car, buzzed and happy. I like it here. Tomorrow we take an aerial tour of the island.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Bullet time

Monday, September 11 - Caaaaaaa-Rack! It's 4:30am and I'm shaken out of bed by... a car crash? Or maybe an earthquake? Nope. Thunder. The sky lights up and illuminates my room. Twenty seconds later, another brain-jarring crash. I rush to the window to check out the show. Crazy electricity fills the horizon. To the south, a dazzling hot white bolt splits the sky in half. I try in vain to capture a quick video of the storm, but of course the lightning stops. Sigh. Back to bed.

Today Teena and Deb have to work, so Nana and I must venture out on our own. We'd been nervous about this day for awhile. I mean, really, have you seen a map of the Japanese train system? Talk about a sloppy bowl of soba noodles.

We decide we're not leaving Japan without a ride on one of the fastest forms of public transportation on the planet. We manage to take some train to some other train, then transfer to a different train altogether. Finally, we make it to the Mother of All Trains. The world famous Shinkansen - Bullet Train.

It takes us all of 20 minutest to get to our destination. The small town of Odawara. After a quick lunch of ramen and pork, we hike out to the town's big landmark - Odawara Castle. A beautiful piece of ancient Japanese architecture that was originally built in 1417, then rebuilt in 1960.

We take a quick tour of the Edo-era castle and its on-site zoo, then hit downtown. Odawara's a sweet little city, chock full of cool shops, restaurants, video arcades, pachinko parlors and more barber shops per capita than I've ever seen. Nana and I buy a few souvenirs, including a badass adidas duffel-purse thing, and head back to the train station. Time to meet up with Teena and Hiroko for a 6 o'clock tofu dinner.

Well, it takes a good hour and a half to make it back to Tokyo, but as it turns out, Teena's running late too. In fact, we end up on the same train as she, and we all meet up together with the always-punctual Hiroko. Hiroko treats us to a phenomenal multi-course dinner at a high-end tofu restaurant - a unique experience to end our stay in mainland Japan.

So tomorrow we get up early and fly to Okinawa. Time to get the bags packed...

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Harajuku and Sumo

Sunday, September 10 - After a quick bowl of Cheerios (not very Japanese, I know), I'm ready to head back into Tokyo. Teena's good friend (and world-famous massage therapist) Hiroko enters our lives, armed with sumo tickets, and ready to lead the charge into Harajuku. Teena, Nana, Deb, Hiroko and I head out and hit the trains.

The Harajuku girls are something to see. Some rock the Goth look to the absolute extreme. Others are crazy colorful and cartoony, like walking manga creatures. I hear some truly cool music in the distance, and find a teen playing original J-rock through a portable Crate amp and sounding like an Asian Jack White. He stops mid-chorus and unplugs his Telecaster just as I get him in the crosshairs of my Canon Powershot. I try to sneak a photo of a fishnet-wearing transgender biker with red hair. She politely says no, claiming she doesn't want the attention. Anyway, we do some shopping and hit lunch at a popular cafe. Steak salad for me. (not so Japanese again, but still funkalicious.)

So then it's off to Sumo it up at Tokyo's Kokugikan Stadium. Turns out Japan holds tourneys 6 times a year, and we're in town for one of 'em. Opening day, in fact, which is a big deal. The prince and princess even show up for the last hour or so. They get a standing ovation like they're Jack Nicholson and Dyan Cannon at the Staples Center. Lots of fantastic matches, and according to Hiroko, a bunch of big upsets. A great time, even though my hot dog (again with the round-eye cuisine) tastes more like a skinny kielbasa than a Nathan's frank.

Then it's off for a quick dinner at a place called Garlic Jo's. We've managed to spend a day in Tokyo and not have one lick of J-food. Who cares, I needed a break from fried shrimp heads and fish eggs anyway.

Tomorrow, Nana and I explore Japan without our trusty Tour Guide Teena. Wish us luck!

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Three days down!

So it's been a crazy few days here in the motherland. Here's a quick summary for y'all:

Sept 2 - Oakland to Burbank. First, I hang with the parentals for a bit, then hit Iccho restaurant in Torrance with old time friends Lisa and Alfredo, along with the famous Jacob and new sibling Evan. A lovely Japanese meal with a lovely Japanese family.

Sept 5 - My sister Nana and I fly out of LAX, headed for Tokyo!

Sept 6 (Wednesday) - We land in Tokyo's Narita Airport 10 hours later and are picked up by my neice Teena. She flies choppers and planes for the Navy. She's hooked us up with a 5-star military hotel, the New Sanno. We check in and have a nice hibachi-style dinner.

Sept 7 (Thursday) - Today, we do up Tokyo, big time. Ginza, Shibuya, Shinjuku, Akasaka, Asakusa. Four shrines, 6 train rides, 5 vending machines, 2 cabs, 1 ferry tour, 1 big-ass Tokyo Tower, 1 loud-ass pachinko parlor, and tons of photos. We have a fantastic dinner at a wacky theme restaurant called Ninja.

Sept 8 (Friday) - We wake up early and hit the famous Tsukiji fish market. Craziness. Nearly 2000 stalls of (for the most part) beautiful sea creatures. Took a quick video of a guy sawing an 80 pound chunk of tuna in half. Hit a quick lunch at a curry house, then back to the hotel. We're checkin' out of the New Sanno Hotel and heading to Teena's house, about an hour north of Tokyo. We hang a bit at the military base. Later that evening, we meet up with Teena's bud Deb, and have a beautiful sushi dinner at my neice's favorite local spot. The owner/head chef, Shin-san, takes good care of us. Teena gives him a case of Bud, his favorite beer. He hooks us up with some of the finest sushi ever. Even fries up some shrimp heads for me. This kicks off what will become a recurring pattern of me ordering wacky Japanese food, and my sister Nana refusing to touch it.

Teena drops Nana and me off at a local pachinko parlor, where we manage to lose 40,000 yen in 15 minutes. We walk home.

Sept 9 (Saturday) - Today, we see the Great Buddha of Kamakura. Turns out Kamakura was Japan's capital from 1185 to 1333. It's now a sweet seaside town with a lot of Hawaiian Island feel to it. Daibutsu, the Great Buddha, is the town's most famous treasure. Once covered in gold leaf, the Great Buddha stands (or sits) over 40 feet tall, and has survived tidal waves, fires, quakes, and typhoons.

Then we hit Yokohama. It's an overwhelming flurry of human activity my brain can't fully grasp. Anyway, after hitting the Toys R Us, where I purchase an inappropriately sexy anime doll, we make a beeline to the train station and head back home. We sit down to another great local dinner and tuck into lots of chicken cartilage and other random goodies, and wash it down with frosty mugs of Kirin.

Anyway, that's our first 3 full days in Japan. More to come...