The Golden Plantpots 2010

Another year, another hundred or so films reviewed, filed and ordered. There have been some actual crackers this year, some predicted and some complete surprises. There has also been some middling, tatty throwaway stuff you fortunately will only see at a festival, or should stay well clear of if it creeps onto a DVD shelf. Either way, the opinions expressed are completely my own and could well be the opposite of yours if you saw the same film.

I think I've just invalidated the existence my entire blog.

Weeeeeeeeell, ignoring that. Here are links to the festivals I went to this year.
Now in it's third year, the pots are designed to add a little tiny bit more highlight to the films that might not otherwise be known. If you see one advertised in the 2011 festivals, or more likely, your local indie cinema, why not give one a go?

As usual comments are open.

Best Film - Micmacs (France)

Long-time readers will know my love-hate relationship with French cinema, which can give us the highs of action-packed thrillers or beautiful love stories, through to the lows of confusing, pretentious, downright annoying arty crap. Yes, other countries' output can have this same description levelled at them, but not to such a polarised degree.

Anyway, Micmacs continues the Jeunet trend of producing succulent, juicy, velvetty films that reveal more detail on each viewing. Micmacs' tale of an underdog uprising with a complicated array of likeable characters (including some long-time Jeunet collaborators) lasts a long time but you are too busy enjoying it to notice. Out now on DVD.

Honourable Mentions:

- Third Star (AKA Barafundle Bay) (UK)
Benedict Cumberbatch is a name to watch. Already with a string of performances behind him (including a small part in last years' Creation) he brought his talents to this fantastic film about childhood friends gathering for one last very English hurrah, at their favourite beach. A funny, unpredictable, deep film that in its last few moments grabs you by the throat and doesn't let go.

- Elling (Nor)
Spawning a pair of sequels, Elling was shown as part of a retrospective segment at Leeds. It's a Norwegian comedy about two disfunctional men living in a flat, trying to make sense of the scary world, having just been released into it. But it is absolutely brilliant. Achingly funny and able to make you care about the two well-played leads.

- Inside Job (US)
The reasons for the latest fall into global economic debt, the largest so far, are told in a refreshingly non-dumbed down style by Matt Damon (sorry, Matt), in an epic documentary (and I mean that in a good sense) that shows that when we have let capitalism completely off the lead it will run rampant and destroy itself. I don't doubt that in 10-20 years we have an even bigger crash, down to the stupidity, greed, incompetence and inaction of those in power just not listening, but this film does all it can to say how it happened, and how it might be avoided.

- Inception (US)
Shock-horror. A mainstream film! Yes, a mainstream film with a complicated, interesting concept, made clear and compelling without simplifying it to the level of the dumbest yokel in the seats. Inception is full of special effects, which puts it in my targets for criticism, traditionally, but manages to avoid them by being so damn good.

- Mai Mai Miracle (Jpn)
In-between waiting for the masters of animation at Pixar and Studio Ghibli to do their next thing, this lovely film surprised me and won me over, having thought it was very much a poor man's Miyazaki film. Quiet, considered and intelligent, but at a child's level like Totoro, there is enough here for children and parents alike who are prepared to look past the kiddy name.

- Russian Lessons (Geo/Rus)
A very disturbing look at the conflicts between Russia and Georgia over the past few years, told by a husband and wife team of journalists who risk their lives to get through to the most ravaged areas of the war and report what they see. Not a film to forget in a hurry.

- Evangelion 2.0 (Jpn)
The experience would be even better if you watch 1.0 first, but the shocks in 2.0, as the story and characters implode in on themselves is tense, adrenaline-pounding stuff. Evangelion is the best example of the 'big robots' anime out there, a genre I am not so keen on, but even I had to admit to being utterly glued to the screen.

- Home from Home (Ger/S. Kor)
This unassuming documentary film about German men and their Korean war brides moving to a German-themed village in Korea is made infinitely watchable by the characters, in particular the unassuming old man who for the most part wears a weary scoul, but occasionally shares his alter ego side with the camera, and we are privileged.

Best Short Film - The Astronomers Sun (UK)

Evoking the best nostalgic memories of short Christmas films from the 80's, devoid of [obvious] computer graphics and instead sprinkled with the glitter dust you could buy down the newsagents, the Astronomers Sun is a short and beautiful paean to the life work of a man. I dare you to have dry eyes at the end.

Honourable Mentions:

- Scent (UK)
A quietly shocking film about the days of an elderly man when his wife dies and he finds he can't let go.

- Love and Theft (Ger)
There are no more odd, disturbing or hypnotic films I saw this year than Love and Theft. The characters you know from childhood, plus more besides, are animated, morphed and mutated as one long psychedelic sequence. An experience to behold.

- Uncle David (UK)
An example in the British can-do attitude, one to give you a warm feeling. In the face of teen confrontation and the same scene greeting him every day, a retired man takes it upon himself to clean the local park and surrounding area of litter, and worse; all lovingly captured by his nephew.

Best Animation - Mai Mai Miracle (Jpn)

Quiet and unassuming but with hidden depth, Mai Mai Miracle will pass many people by. But if you loved films such as Ghibli's Only Yesterday, you should definitely try and see this.

Honourable Mentions:

- The Astronomers Sun (UK) - A gorgeous stop-motion animated film that could easily be a rediscovered childhood memory from 80's television, but is actually brand new.

- Evangelion 2.0 (Jpn) - The Daddy of all 'big robot' anime just got remade, and this second installment came laden with heavy drama.

- Avatar (US) - Yes, this is only 'sort of' animated, but I couldn't leave it out of the plantpots entirely. A rare, decent use of 3D, the most fantastic melding of computer graphics and live action - period, and a pretty strong storyline on top (which does admittedly sound a lot like a load of others but lets just sweep that criticism under the carpet). And yes, I mean the James Cameron film, not that other abomination.

- A Town Called Panic (Fr) - If those Cravendale adverts exude any charm at all for you (and they do for me) then this is a must for you, because it is what they are in homage to. An energetic, frenzied feast for the eyes that barely lets up through the entire film.

- Love and Theft (Ger) - A short film bringing back memories of all sorts of cartoon characters, and then mutating them in wierd, nasty but brilliant ways. A psychedelic way to zone out your brain for five minutes.

- Jackboots on Whitehall (UK) - Curiously absent from mainstream cinemas so far, this puppet animation borrows heavily from the excellent Team America, with a thoroughly British World War II theme. If you want to see Hitler in a dress, you come to this.

- Redline (Jpn) - Even though it lacks a bit of meaty story, there is no denying that this comes as close as we're probably going to get to F-Zero The Movie. At least, until the American movie studios start sniffing around the franchise (please, no). It's insanely fast, a bit saucy, and a good laugh as well.

- Pigeon Impossible (US) - A promising talent in Martell Animation brings us what should be the first in a long line of quality animation films, as a secret agent is foiled by an over-intelligent pigeon.

Best Documentary - Inside Job - (US)

By a country mile, Inside Job is the most important, authoritative source for the problems we have found ourselves in financially, and why, sadly, it will probably all happen again sometime soon, thanks to greed, incompetence and stupidity.

Honourable Mentions:

- Russian Lessons (Rus/Geo) - The husband and wife documentary duo risk everything over several years to bring a comprehensive account of the Russian/Georgian conflict to the screen.

- Home from Home (Ger/Kor) - A fantastic, funny and heart-warming documentary about German men and their Korean wives being tempted to live out their retirement in a German-style village built for them on the Korean coastline. Deceptively able to get under your skin.

- Uncle David (UK) - A lovely short film about one man's determination to make his environment a little bit better.

- Article 12 (UK/Arg) - A subversive rallying call to those in the UK, who are the most surveyed in the world, about how our privacy is being massively eroded by cameras and laws, imposed on us in the name of protection.

- Dive! (US) - A positive look at the problem of massive worldwide food waste, from the point of view of one American man trying to feed his family, and ending up doing his bit for the community.

- Restrepo (US) - Just about the most in-depth, shocking and authoritative documentary on the war in the middle east this year.

- Countdown to Zero (US) - An American take on the threat of Nuclear War, which only just outshone the UK equivalent, Beating the Bomb, which was also shown this year.

- 43565 (US) - Films like this shouldn't work. No plot whatsoever, just film footage of the goings on of the various residents of an American town. But this one did work, about as well as something like this could.

- Face the Wall (Ger) - A handful of Germans talk of their treatment by the Stazi in the years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Slow, and can be a bit stodgy at times, but equally harrowing and compelling stories.

Enjoy The Journey Award - The Art of Negative Thinking (Nor)

Norwegians have some of the blackest humour, and it's clear from the off that inviting perverse disabled drunk Geirr into the fragile world of a support group is going to end up with the other members being comprehensively destroyed. But just how it is carried out is one of the highlights of the year. Hilarious, unpredictable and very enjoyable from start to end.

Honourable Mentions:

- Sweet Little Lies (Jpn) - The two leads of the film are in a loveless marriage, and though it is obvious what will happen when their attentions are picked up by others, the quiet nature of the film keeps you watching.

- The Woman who Dreamt of a Man (Den) - The whole film is basically the title. A woman dreams of a man, and then sees him in real life. She becomes besotted, to the cost of everything she knows. Even though you know all this is coming, her comprehensive self-destruction is compelling viewing.

- Blue Bus (US) - Two men go on a road trip from LA to New Orleans, in memory of a friend. As with the best of these films, the value is in the journey, as the two characters fill out nicely on their journey.

- 43565 (US) - This documentary asks nothing of its' viewers but to sit back and relax, and look in on the lives of the people the camera meets. You don't even need to keep a plotline in your head.

- The Taste of Tea (Jpn) - A deeply oddball comedy from Japan, about a quiet family with unusual habits. Little goes on, other than the members interacting in the way families do, with the odd smidge of magic thrown in. The final few minutes will grab you much more than you expect them to.

After the Credits Roll - Leap Year (Spain)

Few films will have you putting your guard up more than Leap Year, as it's quiet character study of a lonely woman evolves into a disturbing realisation of her innermost demons. A powerfully unsettling film that leaves you with memories for a long time after.

Honourable Mentions:

- Dogtooth (Gre) - Completely out there, this brilliant film manages to be both barkingly abstract and completely relevant to the world at large. A shrinking down of a society to the size of a single family, under the rule of an uncompromising dictator overflows with excellent social and psychological observation.

- Third Star (UK) - What begins as a jolly, buddy film quickly deepens as it becomes clear what the ultimate aim of James' last trip to his favourite seaside spot before cancer renders him incapable. The final scenes will not leave you in a hurry.

- Vital Signs (Fr) - A beautiful tale of one woman who finds meaning in the care of the elderly people at an old folks home.

Emotional Kick - Third Star (UK)
Just as you are getting used to James' terminal cancer, he goes and throws a bombshell at the end of the film that leaves you hugging your coat.

Honourable Mentions:

- Never Let Me Go (UK/US) - Though a little too thick in syrupy schmaltz, this emotional adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's novel is still capable of pulling at the heartstrings, as the second-class children of an alternate Britain learn of their commoditized existence.

- Face the Wall (Ger) - The tales of the German survivors of the Stazi treatment prior to the reunification of Germany tell of a stifling existence for anyone even thinking of stepping out of line.

- Elling (Nor) - A great piece of character comedy with a surprising ability to get under the skin.

Twist Award - Evangelion 2.0 (Jpn)

If you had seen it first time round, then the reboot would hold little in the way of new things, but I am glad I got to see this for the first time on the big screen. Anno decides from the halfway point of the film to let all hell loose, and if you don't see it coming, it'll floor you.

Honourable Mentions:

- Third Star (UK) - The final stage of the film completes the transition between light-hearted final hurrah to something far darker.

- Inception (US) - Multiple levels of story are all going on at once, and never once are you able to predict where it will turn, right down to the final seconds of the film.

- Leap Year (Spn) - The scene where Laura waits patiently for her 'lover' to arrive is one of the most highly strung in recent movie history, the audience having been floored by what she is expecting to happen in that very room when he does.

Cleverest Film - Dogtooth (Greece)

There are few films so inventive as Dogtooth, a cleverly imagined view of a dictatorship and its corrosive effects. I for one am very glad that video tapes are being replaced by DVDs.

Honourable Mentions:

- Micmacs (Fr) - A magical underdog story, packed with a thousand little touches like only a Jeunet film can be.

- Inception (US) - Dreams within dreams, folding cities and the power of suggestion. It's complicated themes and ideas are presented cleverly and intelligently without trying to patronise the viewer.

- Avatar (US) - The best example so far of 3D integration, and the most convincing meld of computer graphics and real life.

- Love and Theft (Ger) - A fantastic short film that puts your mind in a trance.

Biggest Laugh - A Town Called Panic (France)

Horse, Cowboy and Indian, three little figurines in the style of those farmyard animal sets you played with and stuck up your nose as a small child. They seemed to have little potential as the central characters in not only several episodes of a cult French comedy, but also a full-length feature film, and against the odds they pull it off. Masses of energetic action, near constant machine-gun gaggery fired at the poor, helpless audience, and precious few places to catch your breath between laughter.

Honourable Mentions:

- The Art of Negative Thinking (Nor) - A film all about going through the mincer and hoping to come out better against the odds on the other side. Geirr is the most horrible, self-loathing heap imaginable, but he has something his fragile little support group doesn't, and that is a grounding in reality that they have long since let go of, and it's a brilliant laugh seeing them learn this lesson.

- Skeletons (UK) - A brilliant and funny low budget British effort, Skeletons is both funny and charming with its tale of two lonely men trawling the countryside for closets to empty.

- Elling (Nor) - A great and now classic film about learning to live in the big scary world.

- The Bothersome Man (Nor/Icl) - A funny and surreal Prisoner-esque film, with a black streak of humour running right through it. The subway scene will have you simultaneously laughing and wincing.

- High on Hope (UK) - One for the acid house crowd. The idea of a load of bored Lancastrians arranging spontaneous garage rave nights, keeping one step ahead of the law and only just able to stop themselves flying through the air on direct current is retold in this touched-up and very funny documentary; well worth a watch even if you weren't part of the scene.

- My Invisible Friend (Spa) - A great little short film about a fat kid and his invisible friend, the only one he has the courage to talk to, suddenly becomes real.

A Thousand Words - Avatar (US)

Leaving aside any talk of lifted plotlines, Avatar does one thing at least exceptionally well, and that is give your eyes a serious feast. You could watch the entire film without even considering any plot and just looking at it, and you would still get your money's worth. It's also one of the few films in 3D I've seen so far that actually benefits from it.

Honourable Mentions:

- Micmacs (Fr) - A beautiful, rich velvety film, filled to the brim with little Jeunet-style incidental details.

- Mardock Scramble (Jpn) - Cyberpunk future Japan has been done a million times before, but they're getting very good at it now. Mardock Scramble has some achingly beautiful backdrops and character models.

- The Illusionist (Fr) - The world of 1950's England is brought back to life with this gorgeous animation from the creator of Triplets of Belleville.

- The Sky Crawlers (Jpn) - Although it became largely forgotten under all the other films, Oshii's latest is an undeniably beautiful film, especially the gorgeous aerial scenes.

Best Indie to Show Your Friends - Inception (US)

Many other films might have beaten Inception if they had been in English, but the old problem of subtitles will no doubt always push foreign language films down the list in this category. However Inception is a brilliant way of showing people that a film can be intelligent and complex, and not be hard to follow or boring.

Honourable Mentions:

- Elling (Nor) - If you can get them to accept the subs, Elling would be my first choice for showing friends. It's a funny and charming film that takes it's time without getting dull. I sat with an almost constant smile on my face through it.

- Neurosonics Audiomedical Labs Inc. (UK) - A brilliantly barmy short film, with a simple concept. Computer trickery puts the dismembered heads of beatboxers onto turntables, and they are played in front of your eyes.

- A Town Called Panic (Fr) - Even though it's in French, there is so much visual humour here that you can't help but laugh.

- Jackboots on Whitehall (UK) - Funny and unsubtitled, Jackboots on Whitehall is the ideal film for when you're a few hours away from going down the pub. A good lads film.

- The Astronomers Sun (UK) - A beautiful short film with no dialogue. If this doesn't show it's face on Channel 4 next Christmas (they made it) then I'll eat my own head.

The Manky Sankey Awards

Mankeys are the films that, in my humble opinionation, are best avoided, because they frustrated, angered, confused, wasted my time, or rendered me comatose.

Biggest Let Down - I Am Not Your Friend/I Will Not Be Your Friend (Hun) (UK)

After the controversial Taxidermia, and the (so I read) charming Hukkle, György Pálfi did not manage to pull off the triple. What could maybe, if the circumstances were just right, have been a successful experimental film where the actors were just plucked off the street and asked to completely ad-lib themselves a plotline, wasn't. Too often, the actors (who looked seriously out of their depth) just passed the buck to their opposite when put under pressure to move the story forward, resulting in a massive game of 'I don't know what to say you have a go' ping-pong. It wasn't funny. It wasn't thrilling, and after the first ten minutes, even the novelty stopped being interesting. Please never do this again.

Dishonourable Mentions:

- Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Thai/UK/Fra) - Supposedly, this won all sorts of awards, but I just can't see why. It started so promisingly, as the spirits of friends and family are attracted to the final breaths of a dying man, but it didn't take long to completely break down into a mushy soup as they took a journey through a cave.

- The Secret of Kells (Fra/Bel/Irl) - Undeniably beautiful, Kells was high on my list and I just had to see it at Leeds, having missed it at least twice previous. It had a reasonable start, a strong middle, and then.... it finished. At the point where you expected a big finale, it just stopped dead.

- Mundane History (Thl) - Another one that could have set the hair on fire but didn't, Mundane History decomposed into a soup of apathy, as the story built up in the first half is thrown out of the window and replaced with a 2001-style abstract journey of healing in the second.

- The Blacks (Cro) - A team of soldiers find themselves in dire circumstances in a forest somewhere, this poor mans' Memento flashing backwards through their story to some epoch moment, meaning, rather predictably, that there was no ending.

- Toto (Aus) - Bloody Toto and his memories. A 2+ hour film of a man sl-oo-oo-oo-wly working his way through his thoughts - which half of it you can't interpret because it's subtitled and in black and white - which are so disjointed as to not be worth investing the time and effort required to parse his enormously long and protracted sentences.

- A Spanking in Paradise (UK) - The local Edinburgh lasses who took part in the film had filed in, tanked up on booze, and were there at the front to give their precious film every cheer that they could. And they tried, bless them, to make the film appear more entertaining than it was, but the fact was that there were other films (Perriers Bounty, Bad Family, Animal Kingdom, The Misfortunates) that managed to pull off the same plot in a far better way.

Most Pretentious - Kosmos (Tur/Bul)

Kosmos had some good things going for it; if it weren't for my haggard, cynical attitude I might have viewed this with more kindness. It's story of a man who trudges through the snow to a remote village, and bewitches its inhabitants with his mystery has a bewildering, sometimes magical charm, but it's the sort of charm that would be best suited to a short film. He becomes quickly tiresome in a full-length feature.

Dishonourable Mentions:

- Mr Bradley Mr Martin Hear us Through the Hole in Thin Air (UK) - A short film where the words of William S. Burroughs are jumbled and assorted so he sounds like a confused old grandad trying to keep a hold on the last threads of sanity. Perhaps mysterious and beautiful for some, confusing and annoying for others.

- The Pandrogeny Manifesto (Fra) - Oh you frenchies. This is what happens when you let French people loose with a little bit of information, some abstract religious concepts and a few recreational drugs. They are meant to be a new version of humanity.

- Terrorism Considered as one of the Fine Arts (UK) - What twaddle I had to sit through. Overly self-aware rubbish that took itself way too seriously. The only film I have walked out of.

- Verdrehte Augen: Videoversion-2 - A self-important mess of a film about some people talking, cutting up fish, and getting assaulted in a car.

Most Drawn Out Scene - The Silent House (Uruguay)

Filmed in one long take, The Silent House annoyed the hell out of me because so much of it was trying to make up for the deficiencies you get in a film when you can't cut between scenes. After a certain amount of build-up, it was just one long shot of a once-terrified-but-now-bored teen girl shining her torch at various ornaments and objects in a darkened house.

Dishonourable Mentions:

- Freezer Fright (US) - There is no more grating intro than the one at the start of Freezer Fright, where the filmmaker 'treats' us to a static graphic of the film title, to the sound of her own guitar and some bird sqwaeking outside. FOR FIVE TORTUROUS MINUTES.

- Terrorism Considered as one of the Fine Arts (UK) There were far too many arty shots of the man going round the tram system for them not to be annoying, mixed with repetitive abstract shots of this and that.

Most Annoying Film - Terrorism Considered as one of the Fine Arts (UK)

The only film I have ever walked out of. Unfathomably bad. The film was a badly written, recorded and scripted mess of a guy sat on a tram all day waiting for a woman to appear, while a stupidly realised conspiracy theory of the Rainbow Warrior sinking is crowbarred into the already confusing thoughts of this pretentious idiot on screen. There is nothing, literally nothing, to recommend in this truly awful film.

Dishonourable Mentions:

- The Pandrogeny Manifesto (Fra) - Mercifully short, the two women blathering on about their transformation into the next stage of humanity made me want to slap them many times until they got themselves a proper job.

- The Sickness Is Coming or, The Blind Man's Television (UK) - A completely nonsensical short about teenagers in a future wasteland of rubbish book-to-film conversions.

- The Temptation of St. Tony (Est/Swe/Fin) In an attempt to out-French the French, Tony's monochrome journey was a creepy, disjointed nightmare of a man who is little more than a passenger to the stupidity around him. It started off strange, got a couple of semi-coherent plot threads going, and then snapped them all and vomited over it.

- Freezer Fright (US) - Kudos to Nancy Silver for inviting us into her house and pretending that her freezers and those of her neighbours are filled with plastic toys and dildos, but the combination of the drawl, the obvious fakery and the damn annoying intro made the breaking of the film partway through nothing short of sweet release.


It will be three short months until it all starts up again; the Bradford Film Festival is in mid-March, with Edinburgh a month or so after that, and I get my holidays reset in a few days so I get some time to take off for them!

Japan 2010: 7 - Where I Clean Blood off the Walls

I knew today it was important to get up and conscious quickly. At 10.30am, my plane to Kagoshima would take off and I had to be on it, or all my future stopoffs would be up the spout. Once I was back on the mainland I could relax, but at this point it was most important to get some sleep. However, long before that I was given a shock.

My world was shaken awake in the middle of the night. There was someone at the door of my room, banging and calling my name. Bleary-eyed, I looked at the alarm clock. It was 3.30am. Barely having the wherewithal to check that I wasn't about to be mugged, I opened the door. The bright light of the landing forced me to lower my gaze; first I saw his legs, and then his body, and finally John's face. His blood-covered face. Barely able to stand, John was stood before me with a confused and horrified expression, looking as if he had been through hell.

Once my brain had caught onto the situation, I helped get him up the steps into the communal room and found him a tissue. The building was empty and quiet, but it was clear John had been here before. Bloodied hand-marks decorated the walls, with splashes of congealed blood here and there on the floor also. It was concentrated in the communal bathroom, where the mirror, walls, toilet - and bizarrely, the pot plant - were all covered in it.

John recounted his evening. After we had parted company, he had decided that the beer needed to flow a little more and so had headed back out to Kokusai. Finding a pub, he had made friends with a couple of Americans and a woman who was a girlfriend of one of them. Things went well - he had even taken pictures of them all larking about - until John received a consolatory hug from the girlfriend after telling her of his girl dumping him. This apparently triggered a jealous twinge in one of the guys, and the resulting beating was particularly one-sided.

Me, John and Aoi (who I had woken up to help sort things out) sat on the steps outside as he recited his story, and a lot more besides. We sat and talked for a while, mostly to try and stop John who was now convinced he was going to leave Okinawa and go back home, from letting this incident spoil his holiday. Eventually, we managed to persuade him to clean himself up a bit and then head to bed, while we got with whatever cleaning materials we could find and started the process of cleaning his blood from off the walls, both inside the hostel and out. At about 5 am, we staggered back to our rooms and tried to sleep.

My already jittery nerves were jangled still more a little later when I thought I heard giggling coming from the street below through waves of sleep, but I was too comatose to put two and two together at the time. I should have gone and had a look.

In the morning, I checked on John, who was sprawled out asleep on his bed. I gathered my things together (which thankfully was 90% packed from the night before) and headed out for a drink from the machine on the street.

Except my shoes had gone.

I had left the shoes under a little rack in the stairwell on 4F just outside my room the night before. Now they had gone. I ran downstairs to 3F. The gate was ajar. John must have staggered through it and not locked it behind him. Then I remembered the voices. My mind rushed to take a stab of the last night's activities - maybe the gits had followed John back to the Sora house, seen my shoes and decided to nick them, thinking they were his. They could be anywhere.

It was all speculation, but I ran barefoot down the steps and out into the street in my nightclothes. The road outside was a picture of quiet; a pedestrian gave me a funny look and a cyclist sped past. And then there was the gently flowing canal that split the road. I looked in vain but I knew that if they had been thrown in there, they would be several hours downstream by now, and there was no way I could retrieve them.

Nori-san was calmly watering the plants on the steps as I returned. I gaspingly explained my situation, and her eyes lit up. 'I saw a shoe next to the bikes', she said. I hurried back down to where the bikes were, and sure enough, one of my shoes was there between them. But where was the other? The bikes were down a dark and narrow dead-end passageway, with a ledge that overlooked a cramped space between it and the next building. There was little hope that I could retrieve anything if it had been thrown down there. I descended to the ground floor and squeezed myself as much as I could into the dark, dirty passage, and peered into the gloom. Nothing.

With a single shoe in my hand, I trudged back upstairs, considering the possibilities of either racing barefoot (or even worse, in those bloody sandals) around Naha to try and find a shoe shop that sold westerner-sized shoes, or hop the rest of the way. I decided to take one final look around the bikes, but there was nothing, so I headed back up the steps. As I turned in the stairwell, something caught my eye. There was a ledge connected to the next building that overhung where the bikes were, and there was something on it. I raced back down, and when stood on tiptoes could just see it - the other shoe.

A certain amount of balancing later and I was just able to reach it while stood on the balcony. Breathing a massive sigh of relief I headed back up to my room, with my shoes firmly in hand. Japanese etiquette could go hang for the moment, these were coming inside with me.

I got washed and dressed, and headed to the communal area. It was about 8.30am, and no-one was up yet, save for Nori-san. I took her to one side and explained the situation as best I could about the blood she might find here and there, John's bruised and battered face, and the possibility of some nicked or vandalised stuff (although shoes excepted, I couldn't find any). Nori-san thanked us for trying to sort it out and bade me farewell. I called in on John, who had by now reduced his sleep to a catnap. We said our goodbyes, and I waved to Aoi on the way out, and asked her to keep an eye on John while I was gone. And with that, I was.

One more small surprise was in store. I waited quietly for the 9am opening of the nearby post office so I could get out some folding for the next stage of the journey, but when I entered my card and tried to remove 20,000 yen, it said I had been refused! In a clammy sweat I tried again with 10,000 yen and thankfully it allowed it. But why had it refused 20,000? Had my account been hijacked? Did I only have 10,000 yen funds left? Had it been emptied thanks to a hacker responsible for my weird Ueno experience? My already jumpy mind was coming to all sorts of nonsensical conclusions, but time was tight and I had little time to do anything about it. There was a plane to catch.

The final few hours of my time in Okinawa had given my mind a lot to think about as I stared out of the window to the beautiful scene I had called home for the past four days. There was no doubt that my experience had been poisoned by the little bastards who had a go at John, but I had also been to many interesting and beautiful places, met lots of lovely people, and I had even semi-acclimatised to the temperature. I can say now that I am home that I really want to return to Okinawa some day, but at the time my feelings were certainly mixed, and my nerves were jangling.

I sat in the same tourist café I had visited on the way in, watching the planes in the same seat as before. I downed a not particularly healthy or breakfasty bacon pizza as I waited, and then lugged the now considerably heavier backpack to the departures lounge. I headed through the security and got on the plane in a rather melancholy trance, not knowing quite what to think of things, and that's how I stayed on the whole flight back.

I arrived at Kagoshima airport just before noon. Coming out of the air-conditioned airport and into the open air, it was refreshingly several degrees cooler.
I waited patiently in line for a Limousine bus which for 1200yen took me to Kagoshima Station in about an hour. It took the expressway round the coast and through several miles of hilly woodland before it fell away to reveal the outskirts of the city. I had chosen a hotel close to the rail station specifically to make the next leg to Nobeoka easier (as it was quite a long trip), but there was still the streetcar system to navigate.

Kagoshima is sometimes called 'the Naples of the Orient', which when you see it's remarkably continental-themed city streets, temperate weather and beautiful sea views, you can understand why. The massive and imposing train station is several stories of modern-looking featureless panelling with a cinema, shops and a ferris wheel tacked on for good measure, but move away from it and you are greeted with pleasantly decorated shops and houses, and streetcars (160yen per ride, flat rate) that seem to float along on grassed lawns. It was all very pleasant to ride through, once on the bus, and then again on the tram as it turned out I stayed on the bus one stop too many.

Hotel Review: Hotel & Residence Nanshukan (5000 yen/night, 1 night)

Hidden down a backstreet behind a Buddhist temple, this place is pretty well tucked away from view off the main tram road. The hotel was recently refurbished, and the rooms were very spacious for a Japanese hotel. The staff spoke some English and were very helpful. I spent a very comfortable and luxurious night here in a large bed with silken sheets, and got a free nibble from some Doctor Fish in the lobby in the morning! I would happily stay again. 9/10

I took a lucky guess at the road I needed to head down, every other one seemed to be one of the covered market types often seen in Japanese cities. I dropped off my things and after a rest and a look at the city map, headed out west towards the intriguing forested hills behind the city known as Shiroyama Park. I chose this not just because of it's imposing presence above the city, or it's ideal spot for getting some good pictures of both the city, the coast, and Sakurajima bathed in sea fog in the distance, but because it was last on a snaking route around the roads leading up to it.
Starting up the road, I passed a couple of silver statues debating politics and under a giant stone Torii bestriding the wide road. Just beyond a set of koi ponds sunk into the pavement was the Kagoshima Prefectural Museum, which sounded worth a look. It was an old building, kitted out some years ago with various stuffed animals and models in the natural history vein, as well as a few live specimens in tanks. The place was split over three floors, each brimming with excitable kids on a school trip, running up and down the stairs in small groups with little clipboards. I sidled up to the reception desk, slightly unsure if I was over the age limit for visitors, but was instead greeted with some enthusiasm by the ladies at the counter, who seemed happy that a foreigner had come to visit them.

Reflecting back the happy, I smiled and gave them a bow before turning and beginning my exploration. The lower floor housed little more than a few tanks of overly-large fish, but the second floor was quite interesting, giving a history (in Japanese only, unfortunately) of the wildlife in that part of Japan, although the polar bear did look a bit out of place, especially when it was stood over a sea turtle and was being occasionally poked, prodded and hugged by curious children.

The third floor was dedicated to a movie theatre and reading room, and I had arrived about 30 seconds too late for the former, so I took a look in the latter. Quiet and empty compared to the rooms below, the room had generous windows allowing you to look out on the city.

On my way out I was collared by the women again, who plopped a small plastic sachet into my hand - it was a free sample of volcanic dust from Sakurajima's rather angry outburst in 2009. I thanked them and, deftly avoiding tripping over a curious child right behind me, went on my way.

The town map had mentioned a archaeological museum somewhere, but after wandering into the nearby MBC building - what seemed to be the closest match to the spot on the map - I was helpfully accompanied by a woman who seemed sure she knew what I was looking for quite a few blocks away.
I ended up at an art museum, and not wanting to cause offence, I thanked her and let her go back to her reception desk. Not particularly wishing to double back and try my hand again at finding it, I headed round the rather large building and took a look inside. The rather grand insides comprised a small free exhibition on the ground floor, and signs to something rather larger up the grand central staircase. Heading upwards, the sections to both the left and right were bustling with young, fashionable types cooing at various pictures on the walls, something I could see from beyond the ticket desk. Feeling a little out of place, I decided to decline, and after using their super-squidgy leather sofa to recheck my position, I left.

The map was being less than accurate. The upcoming castle ruins turned out to be a library (only the castle walls remained) and after scaling them to see what was on the other side (thanks to some out-of-place metal steps) I found myself underwhelmed at a massive grey featureless building containing - from what I could tell - a pre-Meiji exhibit of some sorts. Shame it was closed.

Not having much luck, I exited the generous grounds of the building across a bridge spanning a dried-up moat that must have protected the castle from intruders. Now it sat rather overgrown and in need of some repair. I sighed at the busy road beyond, and decided that Shiroyama Park - the final intended stop - would have to be next. By good fortune, the park had it's northernmost entrance just up from the bridge, headed by the memorial to the retainers of the Satsuma kingdom, whose castle had burned down some time ago.

The noise of the cars quickly subsided as the steep and ancient-looking pathway snaked it's way through the trees. Branches hung low above my head, many of which covered with large cobwebs and spiders that were best left alone. As the pathway straightened and levelled out, it became clear it would be a picturesque but long walk, especially when the map hoved into view, that showed the main path as a rather indecisive snake making it's way with apathy to the summit.

Once I reached the top, having been shown up by several elderly gents jogging their way up as I wheezed and sweated in their wake, the sun was getting low in the sky. This was slightly worrying as any trail down would be steep and done in the semi-dark. However, it did mean that the view of the city would be pretty great.

As I arrived at the viewing platform - an open circle of land covered by a dense tree canopy with a section cut out to see the mountain in the distance - I was greeted by a trio of elderly gents, who might have been waiting for me to arrive as at least one of them had passed me sometime earlier. In friendly but slightly mischievous spirits, they offered to take my picture against the mountain backdrop, but after several attempts fiddling with the settings, got little more than a silhouette. I thanked them and they seemed satisfied with their work, and I took a couple more pics of the rather smoggy city and the mountain beyond once they had gone on their way.

The day was coming to an end and at 5pm the light was quickly disappearing. A cat was stretching out on the warm top of the drinks machine as I got myself a soda. After a quick look at the summit of the hill - a sizeable clearing in the trees that must house several gatherings in the year but unfortunately not today - I headed down the pathway at the other side, a journey that looked much more like it was the one tourists would head up, because it was lined with a selection of souvenir shops, each equipped with an elderly lady who gave a smile as I passed, as they were putting their wares away and shutting up shop for another day.

I quickened my pace slightly with the encroaching evening. At the end of the line of shops was a bus terminal, and it was not immediately clear whether another one would be due at this time, having found myself at the mercy of early stopping times in Okinawa. I decided to ignore the buses and carried on down what appeared to be the walking route, which became increasingly like a tatty and unkempt backwater track as I headed further down to city level. However it did manage to keep itself from becoming impassible long enough for me to make it to the bottom, and by good fortune I emerged out at the giant Torii I had seen on the way in.

After tickling the koi in the pond for a while, I heard my stomach rumble, so I retraced my steps along the route I had taken while being guided by the woman from the MBC building, as I had noticed on the way a Tempura bar over the road. I waved to the MBC woman walking home from her day at work and she gave a cheery wave back, and then I was there. The bar was small and inconspicuous aside from the little sign on the road outside, and sat comfortably next to an even smaller Italian restaurant, in case I lost my nerve. I wasn't given the opportunity. A bald man opened the door as I stood indecisive outside and invited me in. His English wasn't perfect, but he was able to make me feel I couldn't refuse, and the Italian wouldn't open anyway for another hour.

I was the first customer of the night. The man (who was the owner) seemed a little busy once I had got sat down at the long horseshoe-shaped table that comprised half of the ground floor. His head was cocked to one side, holding a phone to his shoulder, seemingly clinching a deal for a batch of fresh ingredients. After a degree of hurried conversation about where I had come from and where I was going, interspersed by more phone calls, he apologised and motioned to what seemed to be his head chef, who was asked to give me the works. With that he disappeared upstairs to more conversations.

A refreshing bit of Oolong tea was accompanied by some strange starters. Some looked like slugs, which I quietly sidled under the plate, and others looked like snails, which I had a go with and were actually quite nice. A bowl of miso soup with mushrooms (nice), a side salad with radishes in sauce (less nice), and then the tempura started coming. Rather than receiving it all at once, the chef unloaded it to the plate as it came out of the pan, so it was hot and fresh. There were all sorts of battered things passed to me; scallops, green beans, cuttlefish (knobbly, chewy meaty stuff), cod, pineapple (odd but very nice), melons, eggplant and a few others.

The boss returned a little later to see me surrounded with plates, trying to keep up with the chef who was fortunately coming to the end of his tempura burst. Seemingly finished with his buying and selling, we talked more at leisure (over a free sherbet ice cream!) about my experiences both this time (I neglected to mention the morning's activities) and my previous trip, and he told me of his passions to expand his restaurant empire, which currently comprises two in Kagoshima and another up in Fukuoka.

Pleasantly full, I left just as the place was starting to get busy. A group of tired-looking older men who had probably just finished a hard day at the office came in and greeted the boss warmly, before heading upstairs to what I assume was a more cosy atmosphere reserved for the regulars. It was 8pm, and now almost completely dark. Although it was still early, the day had taken it's toll on me, and I wanted for little more than bed. I strolled back towards the hotel in the evening air, and after sending an email to John to see how he was, went off to bed.

Japan 2010: 6 - Where I Swim Under a Motorway

A high priority during my planned stay on the island was to have a go at scuba diving. I have never had anything close to the experience, further than diving underwater in my local swimming pool. Okinawa has a good deal of diving sites for both novices and experts, and on my entry to the island I picked up a couple of English leaflets, including a 'best 100 dive sites'. I had decided that day 3 would be the one to have a go.

Thing was, I had slept quite soundly, and was not in a thoughtful enough mind the night before to set any alarm. The I had however learned how to use the air conditioner over the door, and had basked in lovely cool air, something that my tired body felt reluctant to leave. As soon as I opened a window or door, the oven-warm air of the outside assaulted my senses.

I made it to the communal area about 10.30am. Aside from Nori-san, who was doing some paperwork behind the desk, the place was empty - everyone else had gone off doing their things at a non-lazy hour. She asked what I was doing today. 'I want to do some Scuba diving', I said. 'I've never done any before.'. Nori-san looked unimpressed at my apparent lack of enthusiasm. 'You are too late,' she said. 'You need to give at least 24 hours notice.'. I stood, deflated, but Nori-san leapt up with an idea. She got onto the phone and rang a friend of hers. A friend that gave Scuba lessons, who did half-day trips to the nearby shoreline.

Any excitement died down quickly enough as I heard forlorn-sounding voices in the conversation. 'Too late, sorry.', she said.

Never mind, I had an alternative strategy. I also wanted to catch a ferry and visit one of the nearby islands. The nearest one was Kume-jima, which from the look of my map, would have taken an hour or two to get to.

'Too late', repeated Nori-san as I explained plan B. There was apparently only two ferries to and from Kume-jima, and I had missed the first one. If I took the second one, then unless I was a very good swimmer, I'd be staying there for the night, which was not possible, given that I had to be at Naha airport the next morning ready for the flight to Kagoshima.

I thanked Nori-san for ruining my plans and trudged back to my room, trying to think of an adequate 'plan C' that didn't involve sitting on my arse all day. This was not that sort of holiday and I had taken a bloody long while to get there - I could sit on my arse all I wanted when I got back home.

After some time studying the map it became clear that any nearby attractions yet to discover were quite far away from each other. Unfortunately many of them had also been built a while away from the monorail route, meaning it would be difficult to see many of them if I relied on that. Then I remembered the bikes.

When I first heaved myself and my backpacks up the flights of stairs, the 3F landing I passed was home to a trio of black bikes, each with 'SORA' painted on their mudguards. Perhaps plan C could be a cycle tour of Naha. It fell criminally short of the things I had hoped to do, but it was something.

500 yen later and I had the bike for the day. Equipped with a long, curled up bike lock and key to go through the wheel, I emptied my small backpack of most things to accommodate drinks bottles and any souvenirs I felt powerless to ignore along the way. I bade Nori-san farewell and heaved my steed down to the ground floor.

After heading to the Family Mart just up the road to get some breakfast, the first stop was Tomari Wharf where my ferry had left. A small park with trees to shade under provided a picknicky spot to stuff my face with, and a few pigeons joined me, eventually giving up on the possibility of tidbits and sitting down in the long grass to kip in the sun. Filled up, I took what route I could between the bollards and cars down the bustling port road, something which may not have been allowed on a cycle, but I pushed my luck and managed to reach the waters' edge. I stopped there briefly as one of the ferries came in.

Exiting round the back streets, I decided that my ultimate aim was to reach the Manko Wetlands Centre some miles to the south. Given how much day I still had, that was easily achievable, and I should be able to stop at a few places on the way. As a general rule, I decided to stay as close to the shoreline as possible until I hit the estuary, and then follow the river inwards and I'd be pretty much there.

It was a pleasant enough trip around the back streets, although the overbearing buildings either side did not offer much in terms of view in some places, and it was hardly Blackpool promenade - the design of the shoreline roads kept travellers away from the coastline most of the time. Forced into a backstreet around a residential area, I decided to stop briefly at a rare point where I could see the sea, although this was marred by the general scruffiness of the area, and the huge overpass that loomed down above me.
As I supped a drink, grateful at least for the shade the overpass gave, a man with a huge bagful of tin cans comically perched on a bicycle wheeled over and stopped a couple hundred feet away, got off and started working his way through the thousand or so cans, crushing them ready for recycling. I headed on through residential parks, the coast so hidden that it was instead more interesting to look in on the lives of the average Okinawan. Flats and houses with modest gardens, a primary school with the kids out playing sports, a few people walking their dogs or jogging, or cycling like me. It was all quite pleasant.

Eventually the residential area stopped an I hit a main road, revealing a large amount of roadworks at the waters' edge. To the right it joined with the overpass, to the left returned me to where I'd came. The road was busy and the cars were fast, but there looked to be no other routes to get me to where I wanted to be. Gingerly, I crossed several crossings until I was on the pass, and then with some relief found a pathway on it's far side where I could cycle in relative safety. The overpass rose quickly and at it's height I had a pretty good view of the surrounding area, a curious castle being the most interesting feature, poking it's top out of a small circle of trees. But with no way of getting off the overpass at that point, I carried on.

Attempting to stick to my rule of following the coastline, I came off the pass at the first exit onto what eventually became an industrial dirt road, and no matter how much I tried, each turn I took brought me no nearer to the coast. Shiny cars and people carriers were slowly replaced by dusty, heavy duty lorries passing a bit close for comfort. Hitting a car park at the far end of the road, which had by now doubled back on itself at least three times, I was fortunate enough to talk with an elderly attendant who spoke some English, who basically said 'you haven't got a hope on this road, turn back and stick to the main one.', so reluctantly, I did.

Eventually, on returning, I had managed to gather enough of my bearings to realise that I could visit the temple that I had seen on the overpass if I cut down a small road. I passed a large building and what looked like a giant playground on the way which turned out to be a driving school - complete with a mini road layout with junctions, other cars and traffic lights. Over there, learner drivers are not allowed onto the road until they have passed and instead use these 'playpens' to learn the rules of the road.

The Naminoue Shinto shrine was at the top of a steep hill, so I got off the bike and pushed it to the top. It was a modest temple with a medium sized shrine, a couple of statues in a gravel garden, and the inevitable shop. Pushing my bike toward the temple, a young woman in traditional dress ran out to explain their no-bike policy, so I wheeled it down the side of the shop and strapped the bike to a concrete pillar out of sight. Once a young couple had done their thing, I approached the shrine, threw a couple of yen into the donation box, and paid the appropriate respects for the first time this holiday. To be honest, that was about all that could be done there, aside from watch a pair of children pour sand onto a small dog, and take a look at the shop.
One thing they had was a selection of Ema, rectangular plates of wood about 6x4 inches often found at Shinto shrines. Many of them were decorated with a local symbol or phrase, with a space for you to write your message or wish on them. The idea was that you buy one, write on your message, and tie it to a nearby tree or, if the owners get sick of you doing that, a structure built specially for them. This place had one such hanger, but the one I bought (complete with a drawing of a white tiger in a blocky Okami style on the front) was coming home with me as a souvenir.

Heading back to the bike, I noticed that the view over the wall stretched out to an open area below which led to a small copse and a pathway down to a beach. I left the bike and headed down to the beach.

It was clear that the people who lived on this pleasant stretch of coastline had got a bum deal a few years ago. A short stretch of sandy coastline sported a couple of shops, showers and changing rooms, but they had all fallen into disrepair, at about the same time I would guess as when the dirty great overpass was built, which blocked out any decent view of the sea. Almost to rub salt in the wounds of the local residents, the uncompromising government decided to have a second overpass built just behind that one, which was in noisy progress as I arrived.

I descended the steps, but was stopped in my tracks by a middle aged man, sat on the concrete breaker wall. He had become curious at this strange foreigner who had stopped by, and when my voice showed no sign of an American accent, his curiosity was piqued. He had a motorbike helmet next to him, but curiously no bike in sight. It's fair to say there was a mutual curiosity.

Taking the opportunity to practice his English on me, we sat and talked about a broad range of things; the Japanese economy, British fish and chips, the attractiveness of Geisha, imported words between cultures, and - strangely - Bjork. We chatted for an hour in the hot sun as several recognisable (but re-authored) western songs were blared out of a loudspeaker in the background. Eventually I pointed in the direction of the beach, and realising my intentions he pointed to a man and his son swimming in the sea. 'Go say hello to my friends while you are there', he said, so off I went.

The empty changing room was in a poor state. The lockers swallowed my 100yen coin without opening up, so I placed myself in one of the shower cubicles and removed most of my things except for a t-shirt and a pair of trunks I had brought along in the hope of seeing some beach action. I stuffed them into my bag and made my way to the beach.

Overlooked by the noisy traffic above, the beach had been restricted in it's use by a semicircular chain of floats, giving an area of perhaps a hundred yards square to play in. The beach was larger than the available swimming area, consisting of a beautiful light-coloured sand, almost devoid of people. The father and son played to the left end, while an American-looking couple at the right - a bald dude in sunglasses was wading out into the water while his other half lounged on the beach. In the centre was a large high-chair not unlike you see for beach guards on Baywatch, although this was empty. I set my bag down, camera and all at its base among the sandbags keeping it in place. Not wishing to look like I was gawping at the woman, I started my shoreside walk a respectful way from them and headed to the left side.

I still hadn't decided whether or not I was going for a swim. Jellyfish signs were up here and there, and the water looked a little green, but on the other hand, the others were having fun, it was blazingly hot, and my t-shirt had been worn one day too much. I waded in up to my knees and tested the cool but murky water for a while, before saying 'sod it' and going all the way in. It was my first swim in ocean waters for a long long time, my normal swimming experience being in the local municipal pool. It's this I should have had in mind as I let my mouth slip below the surface, slightly open. Green, salty water seeped in between my teeth.

Remembering to keep my mouth firmly closed and above water, I did a couple of lengths in the deeper water. It was rich with floating algae, stopped by the floats from dissipating, and the rumble of cars overhead, and the dusty workforce in the distance made for a not particularly enjoyable swim, but at least I could say I did one. Feeling the need to get out I headed over to the father and son and said hello. After an understandably reserved welcome, I pointed out the guy on the wall, who waved back, upon which they gave me a big smile. The son started swimming round me enthusiastically, listing all the English football players he knew (more than I did) before going back to their games.

I got out and waved goodbye, and then headed back to the changing room. Fortunately the showers were working, allowing my once-white shirt to remove some of it's new green tint. Suitably refreshed, I headed out looking slightly haggard, relying on the weather to dry me off.

Before heading back to the bike, I took a pleasant walk around the nearby grounds, a garden full of broad-leafed bushes and semi-tropical palms, with the occasional Buddha statue or memorial poking out. At it's peak was a sit-down area where you could see the shrine, the overpass I had come over on, and the bustling inland city.

Scooting down the steep hill, I got back on track. After a quick stopoff at a Tsutaya for a replacement of the missing DS stylus (they had none but did have a second hand AC adapter and pouch set which I bought and stuffed in where I could), and the nearby Mister Donut, thanks to the alluring sight of a waitress in a retro skimpy shop uniform from the 70's (honestly, that was enough to get me in there, although 'Mr Donut' himself tempered any feelings of arousal) I found myself at an intersection of two main roads, one of which headed up into the heavens, while the other slinked underneath it. Predictably, I took the wrong one, and ended up cycling down the track of a lakeside park. I stopped for a breather on a bench next to a man feeding a disturbing number of cats, got my bearings and moved on.
Eventually, getting back on the right road and crossing the beautiful Toyomi bridge I arrived at the wetlands centre. It was 4.40, and it closed at 5pm. Feeling the strain of saddle friction on moist inner thigh, I decided the toilets would be a good place to change back into my main clothes. By the time I got out, everyone was packing up for the day, which was good in a way because they let me scoot around for free.

The wetlands centre extended out into the mangrove swamps of Lake Manko, after which it had been named. A U-shaped wooden walkway rose out of the marshes and mudflats to allow visitors to walk among the plants and animals, a viewing platform at the far end allowing an aerial view, which was better for birdwatchers with its hide-style peekyholes.
As I walked by, dozens of little crabs scuttled into their homes and birds chattered overhead. It was a pleasant, and unusually silent area, the trees forming a natural sound barrier from the urban noises beyond, but I was increasingly aware as I looked back to the building that they were waiting for me to finish so they could go home.

I took the bike along the 329 until it met with the monorail once more, and followed it back to the Sora house. It was a pleasant enough trip, but my last day had been missing something compared to the others. With a degree of disappointment I lugged the bike up the steps and handed back the key. I took a shower and changed into something clean and joined the others in the communal room. John and Aoi were chatting as new guy Sam was playing his guitar in the corner. Since my stomach had woken up, I steered the conversation towards food in amongst sharing the days' photos. John and Aoi had got up early and went to Chinen on the east side of the island, proudly sharing his photos of coral reefs through the glass bottom of a boat.

Aoi had eaten, but John was up for it, so I suggested Kokusai-dori once more. He hadn't been there yet, and so we were both guessing a little bit, but I recalled seeing some sort of Steak House the day before, a suggestion which pricked his ears up.

We strolled down the Ichigin-dori that ran from the hostel to the main street, and turned right, bumping straight into Sam's Steak House. A western-looking gent with an enormous smile greeted us at the door as we surveyed the outside menu. Hawaiian in origin (and thus useful in an Hawaiian themed place), he now makes a good living serving the Americans and natives in the restaurant he serves.
His face lit up and was twice as happy as he was already when we revealed our nationalities. I asked if he was the eponymous 'Sam' but he wasn't. However he did seem to have a good deal of authority in the restaurant.

Though the house he was in was full of people with a half-hour wait, there was another one just across the road with a Titanic theme, which had places. If you doubt my claims that the people of Okinawa were glad to see non-Americans, you should have seen the extras we received that night. Taking us into the heart of the slippy-floored second restaurant, we were sat down at a sheet metal table in the middle of the restaurant. The first of our freebies were Hawaiian flag pin badges, (we are now honorary Hawaiians apparently).
'Sam' disappeared, leaving us in the capable hands of our own chef, who proceeded to start up his half of the table, which turned out to be a large hot-plate. As he began to prepare a load of meat for us, we were treated to shrimp cocktails, biscuitty treats, some east indian soup, and a citrus punch cocktail - all this before our chosen steak had arrived. The steaks were cooked to perfection in front of us and we had it with vegetables and spicy 'fire rice'. Barely had all that gone down that we were given another treat - a large blob of ice cream. It cost us about 2500yen (about £20) each. Before we left, 'Sam' returned and pushed a complementary drinking glass into my hand as a final present, which somehow despite it's fragility managed to make it home and sits in my cupboard.

The night couldn't get much better, but they had a parrot outside as well. He sat rather grumpily in the cage, no doubt having become wary of idiots poking him or banging the cage, but a few soothing words had him in a much more friendly mood, and I talked to him for a few minutes as John waited patiently for me to finish.

A walk up and down the vibrant Kokusai-dori, looking in at the still-open shops (by now it was past ten and fully dark save for the neon signs and lights) rounded it off, spoilt only by me doing a 'doh' moment and spilling soda over Johns' leg as I checked my watch. We placed coins on a lazy cat, and I bought a new belt, and some time looking at the myriad different sake available in the massive shop halfway up, as we made our way back. Wanting to be up for the plane back to the mainland the next day, I dragged John back to the Sora house and packed my things in preparation for the morning. Even though it had been a slow start, the day had ended well. Okinawa was shaping up to be a good place to make memories.