After a not entirely successful shower, I headed out in the direction of the monorail, getting as many cold drinks from the nearby machine as my backpack would allow. It was another beautiful, clear day in Okinawa, and I was going to see some fishies.
Using the previous day's dry run I alighted at Asahibashi station and went straight to stand 14 where I waited patiently for the 7.42 bus. The route would require one bus to take me to Nago bus terminal, and then a second one to go from the terminal to the aquarium entrance, a total trip of about 3 hours and 3000 yen. A couple of teenage girls came by looking lost, and using hand gestures I reassured them it was this stand for the aquarium, although my doubts were creeping in that I'd got it right.
A little later, our group had swelled to a dozen or so, including James, a young man from Northern Ireland, and his partner Nokya. They were on holiday from Tokyo and had heard about the aquarium, and were as eager to see it as me, They told me that it's not just the aquarium that's there, but a whole park complex with beaches, botanical gardens and dolphins too. News of this got me even more excited, although now I wondered if a single day was going to be enough to cover it all. James knew Japanese very well, and so was able to previously swot up on what was on offer and how to get there, so I felt fortunate that I managed to get the same bus. When I asked about the service for the return leg I got another shock; they stop running criminally early - the last one leaving Nago terminal at 6pm, so the aquarium trip would have to finish at about 5pm at the latest. I lamented not getting going an hour or so previous.
When it arrived, the cool, air conditioned interior welcomed us in from the heat. The bus slowly made its way through to the outskirts of Naha, the need to reach Nago as soon as possible ever present in my mind and making my patience at the never-ending stop lights wear very thin. It followed the general route of the monorail until that ran out of track, and then shortly after joined the main Okinawa Expressway which connected the two main cities, Naha in the south and Nago in the north. Hopes of getting there in double quick time picked up as the bus gathered speed, but faded again when it slowed down to come off the interstate at just about every junction, stopping at cute little bus stops, usually with no-one getting off or on.
We got to Nago approaching 10am. James came to the rescue once more; he was able to parlez with the driver prior to stopping and work out which was the next bus.
The bus finally arrived right outside the aquarium entrance. We picked up a leaflet attached to the pole, which told us when the buses left for the terminal. Entering the aquarium together, we headed straight to the information booth to get maps and ask about the bus times back. Nokya had an excited look on her face and waved before rushing off with James at her side, both of them disappearing into the complex. I looked at my watch; it was about 11am.
The shop was heaving, but after almost permanent apologies for bumping into other people and sending them flying into piles of T-shirts, trinkets and a hundred kinds of fluffy toy sea creature, I settled on the last of the English language Churaumi Aquarium books, and a little stuffed whale shark.
Exiting round the back of the aquarium, I had forgotten just how hot it was. The pathway ushered us around a section that was being redeveloped, until we appeared back at the entrance again.
It was only a 20 minute show which worked out good for me, but my camera had died, lasting just up until the end of the show, so there is a bit of a photo gap here. Disappointedly, I looked for a mains socket on an external wall I could sneakily plug a charger into but there were none, so I followed the signs in the hot sun to the tropical gardens. (Note there are a few official pictures here).
The gardens were about 10 minutes away, enclosed by a canopy of ivy and vines on a large wooden frame. The surrounding woodland was filled with invisible but noisy Cicadas that refused to show themselves [I was going out of my way to photograph the wildlife as I went and Cicadas were quite high on the want list]. It was now 3.30, so I would have to be quick. Scanning the literature earlier I had noticed a discount if you presented your aquarium ticket, so it only cost 500 yen. The gardens were made up of several greenhouses connected by pathways, each of them about as hot as it was outside, but with artificial humidity pumped in. The first couple of houses were the most impressive; filled with every different kind and colour Orchid I could think of and more besides, some of them in pots, but many growing on the trunks and branches of the trees that snaked their way around the enclosed spaces. In among the Orchids flew tiny birds and butterflies of all different colours, and growing in quiet corners were tropical fruit trees, like Mangoes and Starfruit.
There are two routes around the gardens, and reluctantly I took the shorter one. Emerging at the point where the longer route rejoined the shorter, I was dwarfed by a strange tower rising up into the sky. Panting from the sun and humidity exposure, I forced my tired legs back into action and headed over to it. The spiral steps to the top flowed around the outside, hidden behind a high wall. Fortunately they were very shallow meaning that you didn't notice the exertion so much going up, but that evened out as it meant twice as many to get to the top. The view at the top was a beautiful scene, looking past the greenhouses and out to sea, and you could see the way that the gardens had evolved; newer sections surrounded those that were overgrown and hidden away, one curious section was sealed off, the walls on both sides hidden by years worth of vines and bushes. It made me want to go inside and explore, but there was little time and I would probably have been detained.
Reluctantly and under constraint of time, I headed out at 4pm, the thought occurring to me that the buses that went back to Nago might well be full to the brim and I might have to wait in line as maybe two or three filled up in front of me. To my surprise the stop was deserted, but I had trailed back too far to return to anything interesting, so I settled down on the shaded seat and watched the cars go by. Sometime later, and still without a bus appearing, the two Japanese girls from Naha came to the stop. We shared a recognising smile and continued waiting. Eventually, the empty bus came by about a quarter hour late and we hopped on. The return journey back was a lesson in where not to sit in a Japanese bus when the driver is trying to make up time (i.e. not over the back wheels), and we eventually returned to the bus terminal in early dusk. Asking the driver about Naha, he pointed at stand 5, where the bus was about to depart, so another hurried scramble later we were all heading on the final leg, rather than having to wait an extra half hour for the last bus. My trip to the aquarium was over; it was criminally short but I had enjoyed it immensely. It's just a shame it's in such a remote corner of the world that so few people will get to see it.
By the time the bus pulled into the terminal in central Naha, it was 7pm and pitch black save for the neon signs and the headlights of cars. I ambled back to the Sora house and set my camera back on to charge. In the communal room, we had a new visitor: John had arrived this morning from Australia, intending to spend a month in Okinawa with his girlfriend. Problem was, she had dumped him on the day he went. To his credit, instead of drowning his sorrows and staying at home, he went for it and was determined to have a good time on his first visit to Japan. We talked and got to know each other along with Machiko and friends, and decided en masse to go down to the cosy-looking Teriyaki restaurant on the corner. I had eyed this place - only a stones throw from the Sora house - a couple of times as I had passed it and resolved to go in and get some proper Japanese tuck, but hadn't quite managed to pluck up courage. Now I was going in a group.
2000 yen each, and it was all you could eat. John's eyes widened at the sight of the huge casks and bottles of saki near our table as the six of us sat down. It was John's mission to try everything they would throw at him, immerse himself completely in the culture. I was also open to new things, but my mind was working overtime at just what that could involve and thus didn't quite match up to John's gung-ho spirit. The group talked and shared stories in between joking about how far us foreigners should go with the plates of food that were coming over. The early offerings were quite tame, the classic Teriyaki chicken, marinated in local sauce on skewers. A bit of bacon and leek, some calamari, and shiitake mushrooms bunched together and wrapped in a bacon belt, made to look like little octopus. This all went down fine. And then came the fish.
A little tiny fish on a skewer. Probably a sprat of some kind. Not so much of a problem, except that it was looking at me with it's cold, dead eyes. This wasn't just a section of fish - the fleshy bit minus the bits you normally throw away - it was the whole fish. I looked at John and he looked at me with a smile. To the expectant eyes of the rest of the group he picked up one of the fish, and ripped it off the stick with his teeth. 'Say yes to everything' he said, chewing it audibly with a little trouble and gulping it down. I looked at the pile of fish, and the group across the table. All of them stared back expectantly. I grabbed one and gingerly bit into the belly. It wasn't so bad to taste, except my tongue was telling me that the usual feeling it receives when dealing with a fillet were not being felt. I looked at what remained. Held back by a comb of tiny rib bones were a couple of hundred yellow fish eggs. Little fishy was pregnant, and I had ripped her guts out. A little heave of the lower digestive tract was enough to seal the disappointment of my new peers.
But it was all forgotten in the next moment, aside from the slightly fishy after-taste, (and John being told that you're meant to throw away the head and tail of the fish instead of gulping it right down). We talked and laughed until the small hours and then went back to the hostel and then collapsed into our respective beds. It had been a good day.