-14th of December 1986:
After 6 months working on Saturday morning cartoons in Taipei (and saving more money) I caught an Arimura Line ship from Keelung in Taiwan for a 20 hour voyage to Naha in Okinawa to connect onward to Tokyo. My long awaited trip to Japan was finally underway. With a ticket for ‘communal sleeping’ I expected bunk beds, but found a huge room of tatami mats with pillows & blankets instead. This arrangement was actually comfortable, but the room quickly filled up with passengers who turned on the TV, opened their snacks, and soon there were about 15 raucous conversations at the same time in various dialects of Japanese and Chinese. In search of quiet, I went up on deck.
I watched Taiwan slowly become a line on the horizon, and then wrote letters home to friends & family, returning to my room hours later when the hubbub was even more raucous than before (now that sake was flowing!) With no sign of anyone quieting down, I took my bag, bedroll & pillow to a large empty room elsewhere, setup there instead and began to read. Before the era of TripAdvisor and easy access to travel information via the internet, travel guidebooks were a way for budget solo-travelers to learn about a place before getting there. I’d known nothing of this when I left Australia, but Janine Dawson, a well travelled friend in Taiwan, had given me her old Lonely Planet guidebook to Japan. A few days at sea prior to arrival on the main islands allowed me to read up on where to go and what to see when I arrived.
I’d left Australia with a simple suitcase, but had bought a bigger bag in Taipei. Not a modern roll-on (they weren’t common in 1986) but a tall sack with little plastic wheels that went >squikka squikka< as I pulled it along by a flimsy strap. As crappy as this sounds, a certain World Traveller Wannabe back in 1986 thought it an utterly brilliant upgrade, and proudly pulled his teetering tower of necessaries down the gangway of the ship when it docked at Naha.. only to have the rough pavement of the wharf grind the flimsy wheels to mere nubs within a few blocks, when rolling luggage became dragging luggage.. Shortly thereafter, the pull-strap snapped.
By the time I’d wrestled this stubborn lump from the Naha wharf to the main drag of Kokusai Dori, it was coming apart at the seams. A traffic cop blew his whistle as I desperately hobbled across the street like a flustered Mr Bean, with deteriorating baggage shedding underthings & toiletries hither and thither. I’d intended to stay at a Youth Hostel (and had joined the Youth Hostels Association in Australia for that very purpose) but stayed instead at a hotel conveniently located at the epicentre of my clothing explosion. My room was closet sized, with a little hobbit bed & bath, both much appreciated after getting neither on the ship. There was a teeny tiny telly too, upon which I was surprised to find softcore porn. Japanese attitudes to such things were clearly different from reserved Taiwan.
Though travel guidebooks were very handy, I found out (literally the first time I ever used one) that they were often out of date when you needed their information;
-15 December 1986 NAHA noodle Bar, 8:00 PM.
“Today was spent traipsing around the city of Naha looking for a tourist information office. It appears however that my guide book is way out of date, as the building has since been knocked down. I asked for help a few times and received friendly assistance each time. The 2nd time, two fellows took me up into their building, sat me down in their office, gave me coffee and phoned up some buddies, asked around and got me the new tourist bureau on the phone. They were even going to drive me there but I took a taxi instead. The woman at the travel bureau was also helpful, though went to all sorts of bother to talk me out of staying in a ryokan (or traditional hotel). Maybe they just thought that being a westerner I wouldn’t like it. Also, I have to buy a new bag..”
First impressions of Naha Okinawa were in comparison to Taipei Taiwan, where I’d just been. Both places were pounded by typhoons, quakes, and the occasional tsunami, but Taipei tended to leave the previous disaster’s detritus lying around (in 1986 at least) whereas the Okinawans tidied up Mother Nature’s tantrums. After strolling about downtown Naha, I arranged to see some of the island. Then as now, I couldn’t drive, and was at the mercy of local buses and tour groups.
Long after I’d left Okinawa and seen other regions of Japan, I realised that Okinawa was different. Though considered part of Japan now, it was only absorbed into Japan in 1879. Previously, it was known as The Ryukyu Kingdom, with its own culture, language, traditional clothing, and architecture, different from elsewhere in Japan. Located betwixt both China and Japan, at various points in Ryukyu history they paid tithes to both Empires, which is an incredibly shitty deal, as actual protection from other goons should be the point of paying protection money to the main goon. Later of course, the Okinawans were thumped by yet another Empire when the USA used Okinawa as the launch pad for their invasion of Japan in 1945.
I took no photos inside the subterranean Naval Base outside Naha, but remember it well. There is a small museum at the entrance to the complex today, but in 1986 a nondescript building housed the staircase leading into the network of tunnels that Japanese forces used in their last ditch resistance to the landing of US troops. Weeks after the islands had been secured by the Americans in 1945, this hidden base was discovered, revealing the ghastly fact that thousands of people had committed suicide within, upon learning of their defeat. The day I visited, amongst a group of elderly Japanese & Okinawans, I didn’t feel like using my ever present camera in such a solemn moment, in so sobering a site. This tragic catacomb made a huge impression on me. Okinawa is yet another place on planet Earth scarred because it became an arena for giants to squabble in.
Shadows of the war loomed over every site I went to in Okinawa, even if it wasn’t explicitly a war memorial or battlefield, and much of historical & cultural interest was destroyed in WW2. Near Naha, I visited the remains of Shuri Castle, the palace of the Ryukyu Kingdom. Though I was able to see the footprint of the old site, as some of the castle walls remained, in December 1986 a college campus stood there. Nearby, I sketched a pretty temple, Benzaiten-do, where university students crossed the bridge to eat their lunch. As light rain, fell I took shelter on the temple veranda. where a sign informed me that it was a reconstruction. Many years after my visit, the university campus was moved elsewhere, and the castle too was rebuilt, and a spectacular reconstruction of Shuri Castle is open today. Reconstruction was a theme that I’d see often elsewhere in Japan, and not just because of WW2. Japan had long adapted to its cities being flattened by one natural calamity after another, leading to a philosophy about the beauty of impermanence. In fact, certain religious buildings are torn down and rebuilt, ritually.
Every tourism site I ever went to in Japan had some sort of mascot. It may have been a famous samurai, or perhaps a local animal, or folklore creature, repurposed by tourist giftshops as cute knick knacks, and in Okinawa the tourist shops were hawking cute versions of the US Military. Little dolls in USMC uniforms, military surplus clothes and so on. I never saw any actual GIs in the week I was there but saw evidence of their presence in Naha. English language signs outside bars made it clear that rowdy military personnel were not welcome (I later saw a similar signs in Roppongi, Tokyo). The main tourist draw for Japanese coming from the main islands appeared to be the beach, and the sight of Japanese surfers initially startled me, looking so much like a scene from Australia. I had not realized that there was a surfer culture anywhere in Japan until I’d arrived.
-21 December 1986, aboard the “Sunshine Okinawa”
After my brief look around Okinawa (and now with a better bag) I caught another ship for the 44 hour voyage to Tokyo. The Keelung-Naha service no longer operates, but this Naha-Tokyo leg of my journey is still in service today (operated by Arimura Sangyo ferries). Even in 1986, it probably made more ‘sense’ to fly, but while exploring Asia over the next few years, I often travelled by ship. A formative memory for me is when, at the age of 9, my family travelled by sea from Sydney to Southhampton. That long, 6 week voyage taught me that the journey itself can be an adventure too, if the mode of transport is right. Rather than the ordeal of flight, I’ve always preferred ships or trains, if the option was available.
-23 December 1986, Coffee lounge 1:00 PM Higashi Nakano, Tokyo:
“After all the talking. thinking, and planning, I’m finally in Tokyo. I still don’t really have anywhere to stay yet, as the place I had hoped to camp at seems to be unoccupied. I’ve given several phone calls this morning, all unanswered. The reason I would rather move into this lodging house than the others on my list is the one person I know in Tokyo lives in this area and it would be handy to be near them”.
Sean Newton had worked with me in Taipei, and was now in Tokyo working at TMS studio, which was near the guesthouse (that did eventually return my calls and let me stay.) Sean is a talented life drawing & sketch artist, and in the Winter of 86/87, he & I often drew together. We sketched Kabuki, and sketched at Ueno Zoo and I decided to simply explore Tokyo for a few weeks before activating my Japan RailPass.
-28 DECEMBER, Coffee lounge, Higashi Nakano, Tokyo:
“Tokyo is indeed very expensive, as I had been warned. Most things are from twice to 4 times as expensive as in Australia. food rent and clothing are all extremely expensive. Most foreigners I meet are English teachers here in Tokyo. They can earn vast sums of money even without knowing any Japanese. As for me, I’m not too keen on the idea of teaching. Unlike most other folks here, I came to Japan to see Japan.”
I’d arrived in Tokyo just before Christmas 1986, in time to see snow falling, and would soon see the charming sight of people in kimono celebrating the New Year of 1987.
I’m not sure what inspired me to go to Japan in the first place, but possibly that I’d grown up watching Japanese TV cartoons? Childhood in the pre-internet age meant a view onto the outside world limited to telly or the cinema, with nothing so handy as a search engine. Even so, I had some notions of what went on elsewhere because I was raised on a combination of British, Canadian and American movies and TV shows, and Japanese cartoons. Whereas I’d formed an impression of what REAL life might be like in some of those far off places by watching a wide variety of their dramas and comedies, I had only a vague idea of what Japan was really like after watching SPEED RACER and BATTLE OF THE PLANETS. Imagine forming an impression of daily life in the USA from only watching SCOOBY DOO or STAR WARS and you’ll see that my understanding of the complex culture of Japan left a lot to be desired when I first set foot upon its soil in Naha, Okinawa, at the age of 22..
But, over the next few years of travelling the length and breadth of the archipelago, I was about to learn more..