On Friday, December 1 I am traveling SOLO to Naha, Okinawa. I am going there for a long weekend getaway to watch my friends run in the Naha Marathon. John was kind enough to let me go away by myself (he’ll spend the weekend planning his own trip I’m sure) while he holds down the fort at home.
For the past year I have been working at a company called Semco teaching English once a week. I teach for about 4 hours every Tuesday. Semco is a family run business that deals with research and product development for pest control management. Our friend Jay is the president of this company, his father founded it, and his mother ran it for a while before Jay took over. Jay has a policy that every Semco employee younger than him must run in a marathon as a company activity. Actually they run two marathons per year, one in the summer and the Naha Marathon in December. When he hires newly minted college graduates (most of them with advanced degrees) he asks them in the job interview if they can run. I think this is a pretty phenomenal company to work for, and if you like bugs you’d want to work here whether you can run or not. So I bet everyone says yes they can run, or yes, I’ll try to run.
Some of the employees take it very seriously and train all year. Jay himself runs in the marathons, as does his wife and sister. He also competes in triathlons and is a former high school water polo player (this is how we met him in the first place). When he takes his employees on a business trip, for example a few of them went to Baltimore last fall, guess what they did in the morning before sun up. Run.
Several of the employees that I am teaching English to are running in the marathon. Jay’s wife and sister are my close friends here and they will also be running. I thought it would be fun to cheer them all on and see Okinawa at the same time. I booked an Airbnb apartment not far from the marathon route. It’s near the main street in Naha called Kokusai-dori.
The Airbnb listing has exact directions, including photos, of the path to the apartment. From the airport I can take the Naha monorail to the neighborhood and walk from there. When I find my apartment I see that it is located on a small hill. It’s in the Tsuboya Pottery District, where Okinawa’s famous pottery kilns were originally located back in the late 1600’s. The kilns caused so much smoke and pollution in the air that eventually the potters all moved out of the downtown area to the outskirts of town. Now the main pottery center is in an outer coastal area called Yomitan Pottery Village, about an hour taxi ride away.There are still a handful of pottery shops around my apartment building and the Tsuboya Pottery Museum is located just down the street. It’s an awesome location. But the very best thing about my place, and I had no idea when I booked it, is that on this hilly street leading to my place are the most colorful and wonderful manhole covers, pottery shards and decorative pottery tiles. I saw a photo of this street online and I wondered if I would be able to find it. I didn’t dream it would be out my front door. What luck!
This is an Okinawa Shisa, or lion dog, on a manhole cover. They are guardians against evil and can be found everywhere in Okinawa, especially on roof tops and inside houses. Also, those are bougainvillea flowers around the Shisa.
Another lucky thing about my location is that it is in the Makishi area, which turns out to be centrally located near everything that I want to do, including meeting, eating and walking to. It’s a lucky coincidence. The apartment itself is a small studio but I’m hardly spending any time there so it’s perfect. It ended up costing about $150 total, including fees, for three nights. I couldn’t have been happier!
John researched some vegetarian restaurants for me because I’d read that Okinawans eat a lot of pork. Every famous signature dish they eat is full of pork. So after I drop my stuff off at the apartment I’m checking out Ukishima Garden which is about a 7 minute walk from my place. Ukishima Garden turns out to be an amazing vegan restaurant that far surpasses any expectation I might have had. My multi-course meal consisted of dishes that were inventive, beautiful and delicious. And the lemongrass hot tea that I ordered was out of this world.
Featured here is my black carrot mousse. The texture was velvety and the taste was so unique. There’s kind of a thin jelly layer on top. The black carrot was distinctly carrot, but the yellow-orange carrot sauce underneath gave it a sweet, mild flavor. I can’t really describe it. But I’ve never eaten anything like it before.
The first thing I noticed when I stepped out to see Kokusai-dori at night was the multitude of high school students that are wandering around the streets. I mean hundreds, maybe thousands, of students. I had heard from the college-age student that I tutor that her senior high class all went to Okinawa together, but I didn’t realize the scope of it. It was like of sea of students all dressed in their school uniforms. The boys wear dark slacks, white shirts and dark coats with shiny brass buttons. The girls are wearing dark skirts and white shirts. They are everywhere.
The next day, Saturday, December 2, I am meeting the Semco staff at the Naha Airport when they arrive. I will join them on a tour of Okinawa’s military and war history. I think most tourists come to Okinawa to sit on the beach and relax, or to drink and party the night away. They probably don’t come to see its war history. But I learned a lot about Okinawa and Japan in general from the war tours that we took. Here I am with my friends at the location of the Okinawa Peace Memorial Park.Sunday, December 3 is the marathon. We have arranged that I will stand in front of the post office on Kokusai-dori to watch them run by. I have my camera ready and I want to get all of them on film. The marathon begins at 9 am so I need to get there early. This is the first marathon I’ve ever been to and it’s very exciting. The energy of the crowd is spirited and when the runners begin to go by it’s still the very beginning so everyone is smiling and happy. So many runners are dressed up in costumes (Pikachu, the whole Mario gang, men in outlandish women’s clothes, dinosaurs, crazy hats and glasses, hula skirts, etc.) and the crowd goes wild when people in costume go by. I waved and took photos of a lot of Semco runners.After I finish watching all of the runners pass me I want to look for some of Okinawa’s famous sokisoba (so-key-SO-bah) without meat. Soki literally means boneless pork ribs so it’s a tall order. The guys at the vegan restaurant gave me a lead on a place that might make it with a seafood broth instead of the traditional pork bone broth. It’s not open until 11 so I wander around Kokusai-dori until then.
There are a lot of souvenir shops, restaurants, coffee houses and t-shirt shops on Kokusai-dori. The street is very lively at all times of the day and that really surprised me because the rest of Japan doesn’t feel like this. Even when Tokyo streets are bustling it’s with people on a mission, to get to work, shopping or some destination. Here, the destination is having a good time and maybe not much else. It reminds me of Waikiki, Honolulu.
I decide to buy t-shirts for everyone in my family and pottery bowls for myself. Okinawa is also famous for its glassware so I’m looking to buy a beautiful set of hand made glasses too. I don’t want to take all the heavy tableware back to Minoh with me so the shops said they could pack my purchases really well and I could take it all myself to the post office and ship it wherever I want. So I hauled it all to the post office and had it shipped to the US. It cost roughly $115 USD to send two boxes to California. I’ll see if it arrives in one piece when we are home for Christmas.
After finding a bowl of delicious, pork-free Okinawa soba, I head to the big stadium where the marathon finish line is. Near the end, the course runs around the outside of the stadium and then once around the track inside. I find a place to stand under the trees in the outside track. I’ve got an eagle eye out and I’m looking for anyone wearing a Semco t-shirt. Some of them pass me by too fast for a photo. I can’t believe they’re still going strong after running nearly 26 miles. I’d be crawling on my hands and knees at this point, or more likely I would have quit ages ago. I manage to see Jay, but I can’t find Mari or Jay’s sister, Hiroko.
Later, Hiroko sent me a text from the finish line saying she missed me and she’s already done! How did I miss her? Mari also sent me a text saying she’s on a bus and she nearly made it but this Naha marathon has a time limit and she wasn’t able to finish this time. She nearly finished but she said she got swept up by the “dustpan,” by which she means the clean up crew came and got her and put her on a bus!
I mainly used our larger Nikon camera to take photos. I only took one photo with my cell phone because I wanted to send a photo of the runners to John’s phone. So I just held out my phone and took a random photo of people going by. When I went to send it to him I noticed that my friend Hiroko is in my photo! I couldn’t believe it. I was looking so hard for her to pass me and she turned up in my random photo.
Later on Jay showed me a video that he took at the place where the marathon staff close the stadium gates when the time limit to finish running – 6 hours and 15 minutes – has been reached. First, about 10 staff people lock arms and suddenly step out in front of the runners. Then they force them back with all their strength. Of course some people are getting through because there’s still hundreds of people running. Then other staff people shut big metal gates with bars that look like jail behind them. The runners are literally trying to scale these gates and it looks like a cattle truck where they are all smashed up against the bars. A lot of the runners are crying or shouting. It is heartbreaking. You can really feel that these people have run their hearts out for 6 hours and they aren’t allowed to finish and they’re just at the end…
Both the night before the marathon and the night after, the company hosted a big staff dinner. They graciously invited me to join them. It was so much fun to hang out with them. Most of the staff are from the main office in Takatsuki, between Osaka and Kyoto, but a handful came from the Tokyo office, including a gentleman who is about 65 years old. I saw him at the end and he finished in good time and he wasn’t dragging at all. Hiroko told me he runs something like 100 kilometers a week regularly! Wow.
At the first dinner we all sat on the floor Japanese style (hard on the knees, butt, and hips). A local man played the jamisen, which in Okinawa is typically covered in snakeskin and it looks like a banjo to me, and sang local songs. I think they’re famous songs because everyone knew the words. Some of the staff took the mike and sang along. On the second night we sat in proper upright chairs and ate Japanese and European fusion cuisine. Here we all are.I think this is such a unique and terrific company to work for. Because it is family run they treat their employees like family. Sometimes they send them all down to the local udon noodle shop and pay for their lunch. They have a tea time every afternoon. It is generous that they have someone like me coming in to teach whomever wants to learn English. It’s pretty much just an open class to any employee that is interested in improving their English skills. I don’t know much about Japanese companies, but I can’t imagine they are typically run like Semco. And everyone seems so happy to be there.