To be completely honest, for the longest time I really didn’t have much interest in going to Japan’s southernmost prefecture. From what I’d seen in pictures, Okinawa looked pretty similar to Australia’s east coast – white, sandy beaches and clear, blue water – and I thought what would be the point of travelling to the other side of the planet only to go somewhere that looks just like home?
But then, I kept meeting more and more people who raved about it, some saying it was their favourite place in Japan, others claiming it to be one of the most beautiful places in the world. Little by little, I started getting curious about this far away archipelago until last year I decided that was it; I was going to go in 2016!
As luck would have it, my new position this year at school allowed me to join the Year 11 class trip. Any guesses as to the destination? Yep – Okinawa! To say I was stoked is an understatement. But I had to keep reminding myself I was going on a work trip, which meant being partly responsible for 360-odd students, and not sitting on the beach drinking cocktails all day. What a shame! (Just kidding). The way everything worked out could not have been more perfect, and I consider myself extremely lucky and grateful!
Day 1: Okinawa Main Island – learning about history
After a very early start to the day, we arrived at Naha Airport around lunchtime. From the plane window, I’d seen some of the smaller islands and was super excited to touch down. My first impression after having stepped off the plane: the humidity! Holy, it was terrible. Sticky, stifling, unbearable. Everyone had warned me about how hot it would be, but it was worse than I’d ever imagined. And the most shocking thing – it wasn’t even the middle of summer yet at that time. All we could do was try to distract ourselves with the beautiful scenery!
Being a school trip, we weren’t there just to swim in the sea and eat delicious food. It was also an educational trip, and being Okinawa, we were there to learn about the war. Prior to visiting the Peace Memorial Museum and hearing talks about WWII, I knew very little about what had happened.
The Battle of Okinawa had been fierce, destructive and described by the Okinawan people as hell on Earth. Okinawa had only become a part of the Japanese empire in the 1870s. Possibly for this reason, the people were not much of a priority to the Japanese military whose main goal was to prevent the Americans from creating a base from which they could attack the 4 mainland islands. Every day for almost 3 months, from April to June 1945, Japanese and American soldiers fought on land, air and sea. When the Japanese Army retreated to their last defence line at the southern tip of the island, they became cornered and thousands of soldiers and civilians were killed, resulting in what’s known as the killing fields or the Battleground of Hell. The surviving Okinawans fled for their lives and hid in dark underground caves called gama. Many died here from sickness and starvation. But the most gut-wrenching stories to hear were that the Japanese Army forced mass suicides of the Okinawan people, as though they were the enemy. I really can’t comprehend this. In total, over 200,000 people died, the majority of whom were innocent civilians, young and old.
The Peace Memorial sits on the top of a cliff near that final battleground. The names of 240,000 Japanese and foreigners have been inscribed as a way to remember those who lost their lives and so that future generations can learn from this battle and make sure it never happens again. Inside the memorial museum, you can read about exactly what happened, watch video clips, read testimonies and see life-like exhibits which are very confronting. After the museum, we got the chance to visit an actual gama. It was disguised from the ground level, and I didn’t even notice the entrance till we were actually walking down. And boy, was it hot in there – no escaping the heat. And to think we were there around the same time the battle occurred. It was an eye-opening experience to say the least.
Day 2: Okinawa Main Island – sightseeing
After a sobering first day, we spent the 2nd day sightseeing around the Okinawa Main Island. The most memorable place for me was Churaumi Aquarium, which is one of the most well-known aquariums in Japan. The main tank is insane! Made from 1m thick glass, it’s home to many manta rays, countless varieties of fish and huge whale sharks! I could have sat there all day watching the mantas swim through schools of fish and twirl round and round, while the whale shark glided by so peacefully. It was also a great place to escape the heat outside!
Another historically significant place we visited was the World Heritage Shuri Castle in Naha city. Before Okinawa was taken over by Japan, it was part of the Ryukyu Kingdom and the capital was Shuri city, present day Naha. In the centre of the city was Shuri Castle, originally built in the late 1300s. It has only 2 storeys and is painted vermillion red from its Chinese influence, making it look more like a shrine than castle in my opinion. Over its 500-odd year history, it was damaged from fire many times, before being completely destroyed during the Battle of Okinawa. Inside the current reconstructed castle is a museum with lots of artefacts – like the beautiful king’s chair – giving a rare glimpse of a lost kingdom.
The Okinawa Main Island is the most developed and largest of the 5 main islands in Okinawa. I was expecting a bigger presence of the U.S. military since they have a major base there, but actually I really didn’t notice them – maybe it was just the places we visited. And although the seashore did resemble Australia a little, after the first 2 days, I realized how completely different it was due to its unique culture and history. It was awesome to explore the Main Island and I was excited for the next few days of island hopping away from the crowds!