Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Okinawa Part 3 (Zamami Hobo)

The only other inhabitant of the Zamami island campground, a sun-wrinkled old man who had been there a long time, was in the process of moving when we arrived, dragging his tent from a pine grove along the beach to the concrete terrace of an abandoned administrative building with a faded mural of a happy cartoon whale on its side.

“There’s a typhoon coming,” he said quietly by way of greeting, gesturing towards the tops of the pines. “Everyone left this morning. Boats won’t run today or tomorrow, maybe not until next week.”

“Feel the wind? Out of the south. This is the best spot here, sheltered. But there’s a nook in back of the building that’s not bad either. Still, your best bet is Robinson’s. In the village, 3000 yen for a room. ”

Tired of overblown amateur weather forecasts, I thanked the man for his advice but told him we would try our luck camping under the trees. With a shy smile and a little bow, he went back to his preparations for the coming storm.

After pitching the tent, pulling the rain-fly tight and snug, fastening clips to the poles and finally staking everything firmly into the sandy soil I walked down for a look at the beach. The campground was situated along the middle of a shallow bay spotted with wave-battered black outcrops and low-lying strips of sand. Tall bluffs sheltered the beach at both ends, blocking the view to the ferry terminal and, combining with the ring of islands to give the place a sense of placid isolation. Off in the direction of the village, a concrete pier marked the entrance to a harbor used by dive boats and sea kayakers, but apart from a dozing lifeguard, reptilian-like under his umbrella, the only other trace of civilization visible from the cove was a gazebo perched on top of the western bluff, built (along with an access road) for the exceptionally civilized purpose of viewing the sunset.


Last month, a friend visiting from New York gave me the paperback he read on the plane to Tokyo. The ideal airport book, a poorly written bestseller, it chronicled the adventures of American traders making millions in Japan during the frothy years of the bubble economy. The protagonists slogged through fifteen-hour days in front of computers “flogging the Nikkei Stock Exchange,” had their lives threatened in property disputes with yakuza squatters and spent what free time they had racing expensive motorcycles and sleeping with $5,000 hookers for an adrenaline rush that might begin to compensate for the stress of their jobs.

At the end of the book, its author listed off the rules by which the most successful trader managed his lifestyle. After the usual points about working harder than the next guy, taking advantage of greed and recognizing how risk can equate to opportunity, the trader’s final point was to “always remember, the only thing that matters at the end of the day is ending up on a beach with a bottle of champagne.”

The passage came to mind as I watched clouds forming on the southern horizon from that empty cove on Zamami Island and the old man from the campground brought a chair down to the waters edge, kicked off his plastic sandals and opened a can of Okinawan beer.

And I had to wonder…was it worth the stress, the screens, the alarm clocks to have champagne instead of beer, or beer instead of clean water? Why not cut out the slavish, amoral years of money grubbing and go straight to the beach?

Rolf Potts, the author of Vagabonding, a sort of inspirational guidebook for the lifestyle of extended travel, discusses a similar example from the movie Boiler Room, this time involving a Wall Street trader played by Ben Affleck who confesses his dream to make enough money to ride a motorcycle across China. As Rolf incredulously points out, Affleck’s character could make enough money to fulfill his dream by mowing lawns for a summer, with no need for three piece suits, power lunches and long, speed-fueled nights sniffing out arbitrage opportunities and market inefficiencies.

Market inefficiencies. Arbitrage. Finding something with an intrinsic worth that the other guy either doesn’t recognize or overvalues, then exploiting that imbalance for profit. Watching a sunset and drinking a glass of water while the traders sweat in their cubicles and go drive their fancy cars. Free time is the ultimate undervalued resource and money is its overvalued equivalent. Those truly using arbitrage to their advantage in this day and age are the heirs of Gary Snyder and John Muir, “the millions of young Americans wandering around with rucksacks, going up into the mountains to pray.”


I wanted to talk with the old man nursing his beer at the edge of the sea. Later, as the first rain showers quieted the dust and the lifeguard stashed his umbrella in a shed and slowly pedaled home, I joined him under the overhang, where he sat shirtless in front of his tent while a puppy tied to the leg of his chair enthusiastically dug holes in the sand.

“It’s raining,” I said, handing him a can of beer.

“And getting windy,” he answered, smiling softly and giving me a mosquito coil. Formalities completed, we sat back and watched the weather roll in.

“Are you from Okinawa?” I asked. A good part of Japanese conversations consists of questions with obvious answers.

“No,” he answered. “Do you know Tohoku? Sendai?”

I did. Sendai is a grimy, industrial town on the Pacific, the largest city in Northeast Japan, where homeless people sleep under the overpass in front of the train station.

“How long have you lived in the islands?”

“Eight months now,” he said after thinking for a moment. “Three weeks on Zamami so far. That little one keeps me company. I bought him on Ishigaki Island a few months back.”

The puppy was chewing on my finger with sharp little white teeth.

“See this?” He handed me a fishing pole, smiling nervously. “I eat sashimi all the time.”

He said it as if he needed to justify this life to me, to justify his empty campgrounds, dirty tent and slow-sipped cans of beer. I wanted to tell him that he didn’t have to justify anything but couldn’t find the words in Japanese and after a few more minutes I left to go watch the sunset.

It did rain that night, hard, and the wind shook the rain-fly against the sides of the tent. The next morning loudspeakers announced that all ferries were canceled, but the day after that one boat came in and we went home to Hokkaido, leaving the old man and his puppy alone at the campground.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005


An inspiring travel message with hallucinogenic overtones courtesy of Misaki-kun, my three year old neighbor, and the back of his grubby sweatshirt.


BOOM! An elegant proposition from the sky.


It will become the supreme travel



Friday, September 16, 2005

Okinawa Part 2

Okinawa is the poorest prefecture in Japan. Of course, this doesn't mean that its children are sleeping on cardboard in the streets and huffing glue fumes when they can't find food; the great majority of people in this world would be thrilled to enjoy access to luxuries that even the most impoverished Japanese take for granted. Likewise, I find it difficult to feel sorry for anyone living on a sun-soaked island in the glinty green water of a tropical ocean. Give me a rasta-shack on the beach and a stack of good books and keep your I-banking job.

That said, the streets of Naha, Okinawa's largest city, are a little grimier, a little looser, a little less well-groomed than the sparkling avenues of Tokyo and Sapporo. Colorful hand-painted signs advertise flophouses that charge less than $10 for a night and $250 for a month's stay. The main drag, Kokusai-dori (International Street) is packed with swarmy too-bright souvenier shops selling painted shisa lion trinkets and shochu whiskey with whole snakes fermenting in the bottles. Long haired stoners sell hemp jewelry off of blankets laid out on the sidewalk in front of army surplus stores and taco stands, the sort of places that would have long since given way to Armani boutiques and Mr. Donut restaurants in the capital cities of most prefectures. Surprisingly, I didn't spot a single foreigner on International Street - apart from Thai import stores and a small sign advertising a Canadian Bar, even the taco stands were wholly and distinctly Japanese, right down to the Orenji Juusu on the menu.

Naha is hot. It smells like a city, a city where people do all the dirty things that people do, in contrast to Shinjuku, in Tokyo, which sometimes seems more like a marble mortuary whose inhabitants do nothing but stride purposely about in black suits all day. But Naha is also undeniably Japanese. A shiny new monorail whisked us from the airport to downtown and, perhaps most tellingly, the toilet in the convenience store across from the bus terminal was not only spotlessly clean, but also featured a heated seat and bidet.

Okinawan's seemed to take after their city, although it could very well be the other way round. While the waitstaff in many Japanese establishments function as polite automatons, shouting a standardized greeting when customers arrive, the owner of the restaurant we ventured into the first night simply looked us up and down, glanced forlornly at a recently vacated table covered with empty bottles and dirty plates and, after asking if we really had our hearts set on sitting down, waved us over to help him clear off the table.

He kept up the informal banter throughout the meal, vetoing menu selections one by one until our order suited him and demonstrating how to mix the sauces that accompanied each dish. "People in Hokkaido are 'koi-kuti' (strong-mouthed)," he said. "Too much salt and miso. You should eat healthy like us Okinawans."

Healthy or not, the food was fantastic. Okinawan cuisine is known for large amounts of imaginatively prepared pork and an extremely bitter bumpy green vegetable called goya, which went well with scrambled eggs and bacon bits. Sea grapes, tiny pops of salty seaweed were also fantastic - a sort of low budget vegetarian caviar.

My skin starts to crawl after 24 hours in a city, so we left the exhaust fumes of Naha behind the next morning, boarding a ferry that took us 30 kilometers west to Zamami island, a coral outcrop surrounded by uninhabited islets, home to 300 fishermen and dive shop operators. When the Americans staged their invasion 60 years ago, the fleet massed in Zamami harbor before the assault on the main island. Like so many of their fellow Okinawans, hundreds of Zamami residents were killed during the invasion, many by their own hand. Concrete bunkers set deep into coral walls stood out against the dusty brush in back of town, easily visible from the ferry terminal. It was hard to reconcile the sleepy village, the tanned sea kayakers and the stray cats wandering lazily through the streets with the historical fact of American soldiers younger than me holding flamethrowers to the slitted windows of the bunkers, while Japanese soldiers tossed grenades among the families sheltering within.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005


Sometimes, without really trying, you find yourself doing something that has never been done before. It's a rewarding realization. You feel a little giddy, the edges of the moment sharpen to a cleaner focus and yet another little germ of chaos is added to the world.

This is why I was smiling last Monday night at 10 pm as I stood in the light rain of an early Hokkaido autumn next to the gas station at the corner of Rt. 12 and the mountain road home to Utashinai, pack on my back, a dozen hermit crabs scritch-scratching away in the pockets of my jacket and pants, thumb held out high.

From one extreme to another...

The skinny humps of coral, jungle and sand that make up the prefecture of Okinawa are scattered in a loose formation between Taiwan, to the south, and the Japanese mainland, hundreds of kilometers to the north. Originally inhabited by a Polynesian race known as the Ryukyuu islanders who operated an independent kingdom within the Chinese sphere of influence, the islands were overwhelmed during the early stages of Japapanese colonialism in the late 19th century. Today, Okinawa, like Hokkaido, is more accurately Japanese territory than part of Japan.

Or is it even accurate to call the islands Japanese territory? Since winning the Battle of Okinawa during the final days of World War Two, the American military has maintained a formidable presence on the archipelago. Although official sovereignty was returned to the Japanese in 1972, residents of the main island are so accustomed to living on the outskirts of a foreign military base that they barely bat an eye when American fighter jets roar past during exercises pointed over the horizon at Taiwan.

Both Japanese and American officials discourage interaction between soldiers and the local populace. The policy seems somewhat odd considering that the job that I and thousands of other Americans are hired to perform consists of mingling with the locals in the name of internationalization, but in light of the potential for ugly incidents, such as the gang rape of an Okinawan schoolgirl by four American enlisted men nine years ago, the military and the civilian administrations have less to lose by keeping the military presence out of sight and out of mind (fighter jets notwithstanding).

As fascinating as Okinawa may be from a sociological and historical standpoint, I decided to go there simply to get my money's worth. The major Japanese airlines offer a really sweet discount birthday fare by which anyone can fly with up to four friends anywhere in the country for only $100 each way within one week of their birthday. It almost seemed like cheating to book a domestic flight from Sapporo to Okinawa (like flying Anchorage to San Juan). If only the generals had decided to keep pushing West instead of bombing Pearl Harbor 60 years ago. I could have flown to Burma.

This is typhoon season in Japan, and the Okinawan islands lie along the center line of the storm-path, but as my lovely travel companion, Rika, was born on September 6th, we would have to rely on luck for blue skies. Nervously following the weather reports for Okinawa all week, it wasn't until the day of departure when we noticed that the clouds over Hokkaido had turned an onimous shade of purple. With the rain slicing down and wind howling, just getting to the airport became a concern.

The omens and oracles intensified. Waiting for Rika in the train station, I took a seat between a puffy faced orange haired girl in an impossibly tiny skirt holding a massive Louis Vuitton bag and a shabby middle aged man who reeked of stale beer. Both took an interest in me.

"Hello," said the girl from my left as the man leaned over to stare, eyes off-focus.

"Hello," I said back. She giggled.

"Sapporo?" she asked, pointing at the train platform. The glitter around her eyes was blinding me.

"Okinawa," I said.

The man to my right was poking my shoulder, trying to get my attention. The girl looked at the man like he was a dog with a mouth full of peanut butter. Then she turned to me, made a little circle with her finger next to her temple, rolled her eyes and walked away laughing without mirth. The man was tugging on my sleeve.

"Typhoon! Typhoon!" He was talking loudly, urgently, lisping between missing teeth.

"Frrssssssshh! Big rain! Big Rain! Wind! It's dangerous! You have to go, go now! Go!"

"Ah, soo desu ka," I said.

The man was clearly frustrated with my calm and grew more agitated, sprinkling bits of English in with his frantic Japanese in a desperate attempt to communicate.

"I came from Hiroshima! Hiroshima! Bomb!"

I nodded my head to show that I was aware of Hiroshima.

"Go Shiretoko! T..tt..tt.tour! But typhoon! Danger! U-turn!"

He demonstrated a sudden U-turn motion with both arms.

"Go back! Go Back!"

"I'm going to Okinawa," I said. He looked as if I had said I was going to the 4th layer of Hell.

"Okinawa!" (Much vigorous head shaking).

"No no no no no. I would never go to Okinawa. They have the habu! The habu! Snake!"

He bit his arm to demonstrate. I was impressed that he knew the English word for snake.

"You die in 5 minutes! The habu!"

The man rummaged around in the pockets of his filthy overcoat and found a can of beer, which he pressed into my hands as if it was the only thing in the world that could protect me from the habu.

"Thanks," I said. "But my train is here."

As I walked away, the station manager was hurrying towards the man from Hiroshima with an expressionless face. I met Rika, boarded the train and plunged south through the rainy night.

Thursday, September 01, 2005


The less you have, the less you have to worry about.

But there are exceptions.