さくら….or Sakura.

14 02 2011

You’re pretty impressed with my Japanese there aren’t ya?  Juuuust admit it, I know you are.

Disclaimer:  If you are not a White Stripes fan, I apologize in advance.  I’m hoping you’ll read this and just not ever know what’s going on.  For those of you who waited hours to see Jack White live (forever damaging your ear drums in the process) and those of you who cried when they cancelled the aftershow at ACL,  read on.


When I arrived in Okinawa last year, I planned to essentially conquer the island and  do it fast-like.  I wanted to do everything, and do it NOW.  Much like my Houston adventure plan that dream fizzled out quickly.  Between real life and settling into a foreign country, I only had time for a conquest every so often.  I’ve finally realized it’s better that way.  No need to go bone broke trying to see everything in a short time.  So then (and now) I take it slow. Figure out the roads, see the little acorns, feel the air near my fingers, and thank St. Andrew I can live somewhere that castles still exist.  And it’s working out nicely I’m proud to report.

One of the activities that I failed to get to last year was the Sakura festival, otherwise known as Cherry Blossoms.  It’s one of those things that really creeps up on you around here.  The trees only bloom for about two weeks so if you’re going to do it, you better make it fast – like a 300 MPH torrential outpoor from the sky fast – and get your behind to a good flower-viewing site.

Cherry Blossoms are the beautiful, sometimes stubby trees you see that have thousands of little pink or white blossoms all over them.  They only bloom for a few weeks out of the year and climate drastically affects when that will be.  The trees are mostly found in Japan, Canada, the US, the Philippines, the Koreas, and Germany.   Okinawan cherry blossoms are special for two reasons – 1. Opposite to mainland Japan, the flowers here bloom North to South on the island, mainland being South to North and 2.  our cherry blossoms are pink.  I mean PINK.  Okinawa is famous for many things – Shisha dogs, Ryukyu dancing, blue orchids, a massive aquarium, and their PINK cherry blossoms.

DC Cherry Blossoms:

Okinawa Cherry Blossoms:


Like I've been saying…..PINK!

While I’m not really into it the background of the Cherry Blossoms, perhaps you are so I am willing to explain. If Jolene rang my doorbell and asked for the story, I would tell her, “The legend goes something like this.”  Way way way back in the day, it was considered good luck to have “hanami” –  a picnic – under a Sakura tree.  Initially, this practice was only allowed to the elite, those of the imperial palace, but eventually it was an activity that all were allowed to participate in and a tradition that is still carried on today.  The Japanese Meteorological Agency monitors the cherry blossom season, called the “sakura senzen (translation: the cherry-blossom front),” and annual festivals are scheduled around the predicted dates of the front’s arrival.  The “front” always starts in Okinawa and works it’s way to to the North of mainland by April.  If you ever visit Japan, you’ll see cherry blossoms plastered all over everything and a pure overload of the flowers arriving during the early few months of each year.  They can be found painted on plates, t-shirts, mugs or stationary, used in anime and manga, and sewn onto kimonos.  The flower is also represented on the back of the 100 yen coin and used as a flavor in Starbucks drinks for a while: think, the sakura latte.  Seriously.  The Japanese are a culture of symbolism and not to fret, the cherry blossom was not left out this tradition.  Because it is only in bloom for about 2 weeks before dying and falling off of the tree, the flower can sometimes represent mortality and the preciousness of life.  It’s an omen of good fortune to come and the beginning of spring.  They were even painted on the sides of WWII suicide bomber planes as a sign of intensity and get this – there was actually a unit of air raiders in Japan called “Yamazakura” or cherry blossoms.  Pretty scary stuff right?  I don’t know what I’d do if I saw a cherry blossom plane of the seven nation army flying over me…..

Anyway, enough history don’t you think?  I mean, I’m bound to pack it up and call it done if I have to type much more of that, sorry.  Back to the story at hand.

Somewhere near Nago

So I missed the festival last year, we’ve clarified that.  And as shocking as this is going to be, I, little Jimmy the Explorer, I missed the festival again this year.  I had the schedule, I had the dates, I had a staff alerting me that the flowers were blooming.  I just don’t know what to do with myself sometimes, ya know?  Thankfully, my Cherry blossom death letter had not been written quite yet.  I was talking to one of my employees about wanting to go and being sad that I missed the festival and she mentioned she wanted to go as well.  Now, Miki is one of those people you meet and you just think, we’re going to be friends.  We’re always trying to plan things and nothing ever works out.  But it sounded like this was going to work!  There was a festival still going on down in Itoman (the town furthest South on Okinawa) which happens to be Miki’s hometown.  It was a night festival so the trees were adorned  with little lanterns and beautiful lights.  With the backdrop of a full white moon, it was going to be a perfect night.

Miki came to work the morning before our little plan was to take place and let me know that the festival was over.  The little bird that told her it was still going on had lied, it had ended two days before we planned to see it.  I think it was her baby brother so you can’t really be too mad at the guy right?  Or maybe we can…I mean, he does LIVE in the city.  Oh well.  Never fear, we had a new plan.  We were saying screw the festival, who needs a festival with lots of little lights and tons of people and absurd amounts of fried dough balls of octopus?  The new plan was to meet at the restaurant the following day and we would just make our own festival.

I woke up the morning of said event in my little room and immediately started thinking of ways to bail.  For starters, it had been a cold, cold night and I had the beginnings of a killer headache.  It felt like little Suzy Lee was throwing broken bricks at my head.  I mean really Okinawa, why can’t you be nicer to me? Let’s shake hands and make a pact to show each other some love.  On top of that, I was pretty sure I was wasting my time – I mean, I’m not a huge fan of flowers, not going to lie.   I strongly considered the passive manipulation approach but as I was deciding my game plan,  I got a text from Miki. “The weather is perfect, I’ll let you know as soon as I’m off work!  I’m so excited!”  Shit.  Stop breaking down Steph, there’s no home for you here negative sakura thoughts, time to get on board.  I made a pot of coffee, hopped in the shower and prepared for our little journey.  Miki was off a little earlier than expected so I slammed one more cup of coffee (when I really wanted to slam a screwdriver) and off we went.

Things to know about Okinawa: 1. There are no street signs.  Like….none.  It’s like every man’s nightmare and every woman’s dream: directions MUST be based on landmarks.  2.  When you do see a sign it’s one of those that says how much further to your destination; they are never right.  On this trip we passed 3 signs for our destination starting at 11 km away, then 7, then 4.  We travelled 16.  And finally 3. The highest posted speed limit on island is 80 kph and that’s on the expressway.  For those of you who won’t take the time to do the black math – that’s 49.7 mph.  Forty freaking nine.  Okinawa is a continuing, never ending lesson in patience, ladies and gents.

This is what it can, but did not, look like. at least when we were there.

Miki and I are slowly (as there’s no other way) making our journey up to Nago and we start to see the cherry blossoms.  Just a few at first dotting the expressway shoulders and then more and more as we can see the hills the further North you went on island.  Miki hadn’t been acting completely thrilled with this trip either as the weather had turned a little nasty on us, but now we were really getting excited.  I was thinking I can’t wait, I just don’t know what to do with myself.  The trees were beautiful.  When the expressway ended our little journey led us onto a two-lane road that we followed all the way up to Mount Yaedake.  This is where the trees REALLY started.  They lined both sides of the road and leaned juuuuust enough to give you a tunnel effect.  It was like the trees were mocking us, thinking, Sure.  It’s MY fault for being famous. I’m allowed to slouch a little.  You idiots drove all the way up here to see me!

You know how there’s always the hardest button to button on your favorite peacoat ladies or gentleman on the cuff of your sleeve?  Well that’s what it was like trying to find this last turn.  This was the 16 km journey that we were told was 11 and then 7 km about 8 km later.  Did you get all that?  Yea… exactly.  But alas, we found our turn and we found our cherry blossoms.


the holes for your head were SO big!

I think we squealed just as loudly around every corner as we had around the first corner as these things seriously make you think you don’t know what love is until you’ve see them.  They can truly hypnotize you.  We were practically doing hand springs, and I have to say Miki was adorable.  Even though she lives in Okinawa, it had been forever for her since she’d been to a Sakura festival.  In the end, we decided it was much better that we went by ourselves and missed the actual festival.  The amount of people that were out at 3 o’clock in the afternoon on a Tuesday was amazing – I can’t imagine what it would have been like over a weekend.  And not to worry, there was one hold out family still making fried dough balls of octopus.  We opted for the ice cream wagon instead.  Miki had sakura flavored and I had a choice to make between the apple blossom pie, a little cream soda, or the hot chocolate.  The day was clearly a success and I was SO glad I hadn’t bailed.  Oh, and I went with the hot chocolate.

Sugar never tasted so good.

All for now friends, have a good day.



R.I.P White Stripes.  You did us good.


ziiiiip! lining.

2 05 2010

Well, what do you know.  I have completed an actual adventure!

About 6 weeks ago, TB (“the boy”) and I said we were going to go ziplining that very weekend.  Clearly, that didn’t work out.  Turns out we like to drink too much.  We would stay out until ungodly hours of the night and then fail to get out of bed until noon the next day.  Oops.  On the few occasions were we decided, okay, no drinking tonight so we can zipline tomorrow and not puke all over everything, it was raining the next morning.  See, Okinawa and I have a love hate relationship about my days off.  I love them and plan fun things around them, and Okinawa hates me and manages to produce rain for several hours on said day off, thus crushing all of my hopes and dreams.  Okinawa 1: Steph 0.

Last weekend though, all of the stars aligned.  TB and I managed to have a nice dinner on Friday, a few drinks, and called it an early night.  I woke up at 9 am – no alarm, thank you very much, to a cloudy yet beautiful day.  Alas!  Ziplining could happen.

We drove north to Onna Village to a place called Forest Adventure Park.  Just finding the place is a little ridiculous considering there is a small shop, convenience store size, where you have to first stop and pay (along with sign your life away).  From there you drive across the way to park your space shuttle, ahem, I mean car, and then finally board a Forest Adventure Van that takes you to the actual park.  I was out of breath from the 200m hike up to “the lodge” where you get all of your gear.  Great.  This should be super fun running around in a forest all day…..

So.  What do you call employees that watch over people zipling?  Like the beach and the pool has lifeguards, right?  What do you call those that watch over zipliners?  Because whatever they are called, apparently the people of the Forest Adventure Park feel as if they are unnecessary.  I was quick to realize we were about to be on our own for this.  Granted you do have to complete a safety course before they just let you out into the park.  Let us discuss.

First of all, we’re in Okinawa.  Can I just remind you how many Americans live here?  I’m all for learning the language of the land, but when it comes to a safety course, don’t you think you could have an instructor that can say more than “danger” in English?  Eek.  So our safety course consisted of this: 4 Americans and about 10 Japanese standing around watching a lady demonstrate the proper ziplining techniques.  It was a lot of show and tell, with the four Americans not understanding the tell part at all.  The woman would speak in Japanese for a good minute and a half and then would look at us, point at the rig she had set up and simply say, “Danger.”  The actual zipline and the safety facing the same way?  Danger.  The safety being in front of the other apparatus? Danger.  The safety not being on top of the ziplining thing?  Danger.  So you see my point perhaps.  I’m all for doing ridiculous things, but when there are no lifeguards (for lack of the proper word) on this zipling course, I would like a better explanation of my gear than “danger.”

Of course being Mr. Army that he is, TB volunteered to go first across the safety course, thus volunteering me to go second.  Great.  I’m already scared as hell, would have been happy watching 20 people go across this safety thing, and now I’m second with a bunch of Japanese people staring.  I managed to hook the safety to the correct rope (you have to climb up rope ladders and sketchy wooden ladders to get to the platform you actually zip from), climb up the ladder and then I failed.  I unhooked the wrong thing first.  Then I was standing on the platform not hooked into anything.  Big no no in ziplining world apparently.  Somehow I managed to cross the first obstacle without falling off so I was gaining some confidence.  I guess my smile and the fact that I was with TB cleared me for the course because I definitely should not have passed the safety course.  I probably did 3 out of 5 possible things incorrectly.  Who knows.  Maybe TB slipped the safety lady a 20 to let us on our way.  More of a, look, I’ll take care of her.  Don’t worry.

So doing something like this with someone in the Army is hilarious.  The first thing you have to do is walk down this pathway to get to the first zipline.  TB though wanted to be ahead of everyone else so we wouldn’t have to wait in line behind them since only one person can zip at a time.  So instead of walking down the pathway, we ran.  TB, boot camp style and me tripping over my own feet.  We had a quick chat about, hello, do you remember how clumsy I am?!?! and we slowed down.  Though only slightly.  We got on the first line, he hooked my apparatus up (probably since the safety lady could still see us) and away I went: zzziiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiipppp across a jungle!


How much fun is that?!?!  The answer is real fun my friends.  I couldn’t stop laughing for a very very long time.  It was absolutely imperative to make a silly noise every time I stepped off of a platform to zoom across another section of the forest.  It was either that or get a running start and fling myself over the edge.  I went with the former.  Check out these other crazy things that were randomly spaced out across the course:

Tibetan bridge

sketchy bridge

The best/weirdest/craziest part was at the very end.  There was an obstacle course that started with you JUMPING off of a platform, on a loose line, and throwing yourself into a giant rope net.  Imagine how people swing on a trapeze line, that was similar to this only you’re not grabbing on to another person that’s going to take you with them, you’re slamming yourself into a rope net.  I earned a nice hip bruise from this one.  It was very American Gladiators which I thoroughly appreciated.  You continued on this course through swinging logs (30 feet off the ground), a wire that had zigzagging wires running through it, thus making you step around them (again, 30 feet in the air), and yes.  Yes, my friends it’s true.  Even the rings from American Gladiators.  Only instead of swinging back and forth like a monkey from your arms, you had to get your FEET in each one before you could move forward.  By this point I had had enough so I opted for the shortcut.  TB took the long route, clearly it wasn’t going to get the best of him, and it was definitely decided I had made the better decision.  One last zipline and away we went.

I have recently come to appreciate the difference between adventuring with friends and adventuring alone.  While I do enjoy both, with friends is way better in cases like this.  We laughed so much – at ourselves, at each other, and at the tiny Japanese girls who couldn’t stop their nervous giggles.  I was so thankful to have someone to share this kind of thing with, doing it alone just wouldn’t have been the same.

Last thing, I swear.  After all the adventuring was done, we were driving and saw THIS.

Holy giant statue, holy giant bell.  The bell had one of those big ass round pieces of wood hanging next to it, perpendicular to the bell to ring it with.  There was a thought there for a few seconds of, shoot.  Do we ring it or not?  Is it only for sacred days?  Sacred ceremonies?  Funerals?  Births?  GOOOOONG.  The pressure was too much, we had to ring it.  And the statue was awesome.  I need to decipher who the guy was, I’ll get back to you on that.

And that ladies and gents concludes this edition of awesomeness in Japan.  Jaa mata!