My Frolic to Okinawa Before the COVID-19 Lockdown
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
This is a story about my last trip to Okinawa in March 2020, just before the impact of the COVID-19 was fully felt there. Now it all seems like a dream; the pandemic has since affected all of our lives. Who knows when we will next travel to places we love?
I planned the visit many months in advance, when my cousin asked me to be a tour guide for his family’s first trip to Okinawa during their son’s spring break.
Why ask me?
As a civilian engineer for the U.S. Navy, I have made over 20 trips to Okinawa. Over a 30-year span, I visited every military base and travelled across the islands.
On one of my first visits in the early 1980s, I watched the reconstruction of the Shuri Castle walls that had been destroyed in 1945 by the Naval bombardment during the Battle of Okinawa. I was stunned by the painstaking effort it took to restore the beautiful limestone walls.
My visits to Okinawa sowed the seeds of an interest in the history and culture that laid dormant through most of my adult years. Whenever I meet Okinawans, and they learn that I am half-Okinawan on my mother’s side, they always ask where my grandparents came from (Haneji in the area north of Nago City). This is the Okinawan equivalent of Hawai‘i people asking other locals what school they graduated from.
I made my last work trip to Okinawa in 2008, just before I retired from the Navy. In 2015, when NHK World ran many programs about the 70th anniversary commemoration of the end of World War II, almost every piece featured a section on the Battle of Okinawa. The wartime scenes juxtaposed with those of modern Okinawa really made me miss it, so I booked a trip for April 2016, rented a car and revisited many areas and explored new ones over a two-week period.
During a subsequent visit in October 2018, I met my second cousin Tomonori Itokazu thanks to the help of the Okinawa Hawaii Kyokai (OHK).
All these experiences made me love Okinawa and awakened a deep interest in Okinawan history and culture. I joined the Haneji Club (one of about 50 clubs of the Hawaii United Okinawa Association) and the Okinawa Genealogical Society of Hawaii. I soon became regarded as an expert of sorts on Okinawa by my family. Hence the request to be my cousin’s tour guide.
In the months leading up to the scheduled trip, I dropped off many sightseeing brochures for my cousin and his wife to review. The plan was to arrange as many activities as possible during their son’s vacation. After that, I would stay on for another few days to do my own sightseeing.
Two weeks before the trip, just as the effects of the coronavirus were being felt here in Hawai‘i, they decided to cancel their trip due to concerns that they would have to self-quarantine before returning to work and school. Meanwhile, I checked with my friends in Okinawa, learning that Okinawa had experienced only three known COVID-19 cases and that business operations were still fairly normal. So I decided to go on my own.
Relieved of tour-guide duties, I turned my focus to how to spend two weeks traipsing around the island on my own, similar to my 2016 visit. I decided to visit all the castles, or gusuku, in Okinawa. I was aware of about 10 or 11 castle ruins that had collectively been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. However, I learned that there are actually at least 20 gusuku that still exist in Okinawa.
I arrived in Naha late on the evening of March 19. After staying a couple of days in downtown Naha, I rented a car and moved up to the Mihama area, near the American Village. For those unfamiliar with Okinawa, American Village is a shopping and dining district patterned after U.S. shopping malls. It is normally buzzing with young Japanese and Chinese tourists along with Americans associated with the nearby military bases. However, most of the streets and beaches were sparsely populated.
My secondary mission was to see as many of my friends and family as I could. I was able to make great use of my time in Naha and visit with some friends over dinner and lunch as well as cruise Kokusai Döri (International Street) and visit the temporary Makishi Market (the original facility is under renovation).
I noticed a severe drop in the number of tourists. Okinawa gets over 9 million visitors a year, mostly speakers of Mandarin, Cantonese or other Chinese dialects from mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. The COVID-19 situation had drastically reduced their presence.
While in Naha, I was also able to meet my friend Satoru Miyagi and his wife Akemi. They took me to see Urasoe Castle near their home. The castle ruins was the site of a battle made famous by the recent movie, “Hacksaw Ridge.” The escarpment in the area known as Maeda Ridge was the cliff portrayed in the movie.
I also contacted Colin Sewake who writes a column for The Hawai‘i Herald about his life in Okinawa and is a key contact for Hawai‘i Okinawans trying to connect with people in Okinawa. I had met him in 2018; he put me in touch with the OHK and ultimately my second cousin. Colin, knowing that I’m a history buff, in turn recommended Yukari Marsh who gives tours in Shuri — the home of Shuri Castle and an historical core of Okinawan government and culture.
I contacted Marsh and signed up for a tour. We met at the Shuri-jö station of the Yui monorail system and joined up with a Japanese gentleman also taking the tour who spoke excellent English. Fortunately, most of the tour was conducted in English.
We slowly worked our way from the station up the hill to the castle site, as she pointed out special features such as the color of buildings and signs designed to provide a thematically coordinated atmosphere. In the U.S. we would call this “historic-district zoning.”
Marsh proved to be a great guide, speaking excellent English and experienced with leading many groups from Hawai‘i. She greatly enhanced my understanding of the history and culture of the Shuri area well beyond my reading of the tourist brochures prior to visiting the sites.
She explained the restoration efforts for Shuri Castle: that by 2026, the government aims to complete the reconstruction of the main buildings (which will include fire sprinklers, this time, after Shuri Castle burned down again last year). Most of the restoration area is hidden behind barriers. You can see only a small portion of the main courtyard between two of the buildings.
We ended the leisurely walking tour at the Tamaudun or royal mausoleum which was also damaged during the war and reconstructed in 1974.
The visit was off to a great start. However, soon after settling down in Mihama and orienting myself to all the new buildings that had been built since my 2016 visit, I started hearing about the progression of the COVID-19 virus across the United States and its impacts on Hawai‘i. My return flight was scheduled on United Airlines; I grew concerned reading a news item that the company was canceling all of their flights to and from Japan.
After frustrating attempts to reschedule my flight, I was able to book a seat on one of the last Hawaiian Airlines flights out of Haneda Airport, Tökyö. Having had to cut my trip short by a week, I shifted my focus from seeing tourist sites to visiting as many friends and relatives as I could before I had to leave.
I was able to visit Colin at his home in the Yomitan area, the day before I left Okinawa. From there, we went to visit his good friend Masaji Matsuda, an Okinawan local with strong ties to our islands. Matsuda and his home were prominently featured in a Pamela Young-produced “Mixed Plate” TV episode about Okinawa filmed in 2018 (youtube.com/watch?v=7hBbWOpBPj4). His wife is an Okuhara with about 500 family members in Hawai‘i.
Matsuda was an integral part of the committee that had raised funds to support the construction of the Hawaii Okinawa Plaza.
With a fantastic green thumb, Matsuda is also famous for his beautiful flower gardens and jade trellises which he showed me in his home. After enjoying the mini-tour and hearing an impromptu concert of his sanshin playing and singing, we hurried over to a restaurant featuring a buffet of many types of Okinawan food, where I had several servings of ashi tebichi (pigs’ feet).
Later that afternoon, I met up with my second cousin Tomonori, and we discussed our upcoming family reunion (which was subsequently postponed) and our family tree.
Returning Home to Hawai‘i
I departed Naha on March 25 and arrived in Honolulu on the same day due to my crossing of the International Date Line, one day before the mandatory quarantines were imposed.
I then self-quarantined for 14 days as all the stay-at-home restrictions were put in place by that time.
I learned that the day before I left Okinawa, a family returning from Spain was tested at Narita Airport near Tökyö. Instead of waiting for the results, they took a flight to Naha and while in the air, the results showed that they had tested positive for the virus. They were met at the airport in Okinawa and escorted into custody for isolation. I don’t know if any charges were pressed for their disobedience.
Subsequently, Okinawa has discovered many new cases of COVID-19, so Gov. Denny Tamaki is asking Japanese tourists to stay away for now. This decision sounds very similar to Gov. Ige’s request for tourists to defer travel to Hawai`i. Both Okinawa and Hawai‘i are in the same boat economically as both places depend so much on the tourism industry.
Despite my trip getting cut short and missing its goal of visiting many Okinawan castles, I feel it was a success due to my getting to see those friends and relatives. Under the current situation, I don’t know when I will able to see them in person again.
Byrnes Yamashita is a retired engineer and volunteers with the Nisei Veterans Legacy, a non-profit organization that preserves and promulgates the contributions of the Nisei soldiers of World War II.