Friday, June 20, 2008 Japan Japan

Okinawa road trip

Cape Hedo [Enlarge]

OK, so the ferry company's gone bust and so the only way out of Okinawa is to fly. But where to? Of the limited selection of international destinations available from here, Taiwan or Hong Kong were the only obvious choices to avoid backtracking too much. But where after that? Cheapish, reasonably close onward flights are available to Singapore, Bangkok, Manila and Kuala Lumpur.

We chose to stick to our original plan of going to Taiwan. Taiwan's immigration rules are strict about requiring an onward/return ticket, so we had to book a flight out too. We chose Bangkok. From there we will be able to take a train south to Malaysia and Singapore. We'll be able to visit Southern Thailand, which we missed last year... And eat Thai food again!

Okinawa is a big island, and Naha is a decent-sized city at the southern end of it, so again we decided to try to hire a scooter in the hope that our International Driving Permits would be recognised here. We asked at the tourist information office where the best place to hire one would be. The impossibly helpful lady told us that actually a car would be only a teeny bit more expensive than a scooter, and would be much better. We really wanted a scooter for the convenience, but it was true that a car would have AC and be able to travel much further—maybe even right round the island. The tourist office lady phoned the rental company for us, and they came out to collect us in an MPV. Here our licence wasn't a problem at all and in no time we were sitting in our brand new Honda Fit Aria (which seems to be a sedan version of the Honda Jazz) with sat nav and AC. And the steering wheel is even on the correct side! (The right.) This is one civilised country.

It was 11:30 when we set out, and drove north on Route 58 which runs the length of Okinawa's west coast. It's been 20 months since we drove a car, and the freedom was great. We could go anywhere we wanted! After an eternity we finally got out of Naha. The city seemed to stretch pretty much halfway up the island from the southern shore, but gradually it gave way to beach resorts and the occasional convenience store, oh and a huge great US base, and finally we found ourselves in rural Okinawa. We stopped to pick up a picnic at one of the many convenience stores and sorted out the GPS, setting it to navigate us to Yanbaru Subtropical Botanical Garden using the magic GPS code on our tourist map. Even though everything was in Japanese it was extremely easy to use.

We arrived at Yanbaru. In our heads, and after reading the description on our map, the 'amazing tropical garden' was going to be something like the Eden Project but without the dome. We paid our 400 yen each (GBP 1.88 / USD 3.71) and entered the subtropical jungliness. However, although we walked down every path we could find, we never got more than 80 metres from the car (and the traffic noise)! The garden was pretty much indistinguishable from the 'normal' jungle which was lining the road and through which we could have walked for free. The place was very disappointing and to be honest, a complete rip-off.

Causeway to Kourijima [Enlarge]

It gradually became clear that we weren't going to have time to drive around the whole island in one day, since we were taking our time and exploring loads of little dead ends (like the impressive causeway to the offshore island of Kourijima—see picture). We did think we could get to the northernmost point on Okinawa, Cape Hedo, and back in a reasonable time however.

The far north of Okinawa has a varied and beautiful coastline, covered as ever with lush, green jungle. The beaches are white and the sea is shades of aquamarine, turquoise and royal blue. From the Cape Hedo we could see Yoronto (the island we didn't stop off at on the way here) in the distance. If we'd known that the ferry to Taiwan wasn't running any more we could have stopped there and taken our time.

It was late afternoon as we programmed our hotel's location into the GPS and started driving back south. The polite Japanese lady who lives inside the GPS recommended that we use the Okinawa Expressway to get us home and although we knew it was a toll road, we decided to go along with her instructions. It was all going very well until we came to our exit on the edge of Naha. Immediately after paying at the toll booth we came to a traffic jam. We queued, creeping forward, for about 40 minutes until we turned off onto a side road in "How much worse can it be?" frustration, at which point the GPS lady woke up and found us a much better way back to the hotel.

Our final excitement came in the form of the hotel car park. They have a parking elevator! Yes, we're easily pleased these days. A parking elevator is a tall, narrow tower, with an automatic door on the front and a small control panel outside. You see them quite a lot in Korea and Japan because of the lack of space, but of course we had never tried one out before. You drive your car up to it, the door opens, you drive into the space, get out and lock your car. The door closes and the car is lifted up and put on a shelf somewhere inside the tower. VoilĂ ! Space for up to 50 cars in the footprint of a double garage.

Our car, automatically retrieved and turned around for us [Enlarge]

The next morning we checked out and went to retrieve our car to take it back to the hire office. We put our key in the control panel and pressed the number of the bay in which it was parked. After a lot of whirring, the garage door slid open and there was our car. The machine had even turned it around so we wouldn't have to reverse out! So cool.

We really liked Okinawa. It has a very laid back feel, almost European. The only thing we didn't like about it was the airport. They only have a few international flights (the vast majority of flights from here are to other cities in Japan). But bizarrely there is a dedicated international terminal, which is in fact a shed stuck in the corner of the airfield. While the domestic flyers have their malls and restaurants and free wi-fi, the international customers have to make do with a departure lounge like a doctor's waiting room, with a TV in the corner on endless loop showing you all the great things you could have been doing in Okinawa if you weren't leaving (?!).

So now we find ourselves effortlessly transported to Taipei courtesy of China Airlines (Taiwan's national carrier), relaxing in our spacious and cheap room at the Royal Garden Hotel, wondering what experiences this new destination will bring. It's a shame that we couldn't sail here, as we really feel that we're travelling when we're going slowly across the surface of the earth.

So what's our verdict on Japan? Firstly, the Japanese are the most friendly and polite people we have met so far. Japan didn't seem as expensive as we feared it would be, but when we look at how many Yen we have left over, we still managed to spend GBP 77.88 (USD 153.60) per day in total, including the train passes. That was despite obsessing over every Yen we spent! This is a deceptively big and varied country that needs a lot of time to explore, but sadly time is something we didn't have much of due to the cost. Communication was much more of an issue than we expected, too—next time we come here we'll try to study the language a bit more before we travel.

One final note. Avoid the Lonely Planet guidebook for Japan, at least the 2005 edition. It's superficial at best, plain wrong at worst. In fact, it's next to useless except for when you use a public toilet in a station and realise you forgot to buy your toilet paper from the machine before going in. (Come to think of it, the Lonely Planet is cheaper page-for-page than vending machine toilet paper at 100 Yen a time... Maybe it's not so bad after all!) Anyway, you're left with the impression that the authors have never ever even visited Japan. Lonely Planet, you should be ashamed to have your name on the cover of this one. There is a newer edition out now which may well be an improvement, but we haven't seen it.