This past weekend I decided to take my bike out for its first long-distance “spin.” I had seen signs for “Gosamaru Matsuri,” a festival being held at Nakagusuku castle (or, Nakagusuku gusuku), and I thought, yeah, sure, here’s as good an excuse/opportunity as any to go visit this UNESCO World Heritage Site super famous castle that’s relatively close by – only an hour and a half walk, according to Google Maps, and presumably at least somewhat quicker by bicycle. The southernmost end of Nakagusuku Village lies immediately outside of campus, so I’m basically in the right town already, and, the one time I went up to Futenma Shrine (by bus), there were signs suggesting that Nakagusuku castle wasn’t that much further…
A large part of the reason I was eager to get a bike was precisely so that I might take trips like this. The bus lines are rather hit-or-miss around here, with many of the north-south bus lines (for example) running a good ways east or west of the campus, such that I’d have to walk 30-45 minutes just to get to a bus stop that would allow me to get on the right bus, only to ride it for only another 5-15 minutes to my actual destination. In short, if I’m going to have to walk that far to begin with, I might as well just walk (or bike) the whole way, making the bus more or less useless. And, judging from Google Maps walking directions, I can get to quite a lot of places in only about an hour’s walk. Which is a long way to go, but not entirely unreasonable, if it’s a nice day and I’ve set aside that this is my main activity, my main goal, of the day; and it should be all that much faster by bike, right?
Well, after this journey to Nakagusuku, I’m still rather on the fence about the whole thing. On the one hand, the bike was an absolute pain in the ass, at times – or, at least, I should say, it was no help – as I lugged it up lengthy inclines. And, there’s my chief concern, which is that if I should discover there is a convenient bus line, or if I should get lost or stuck or just too tired and decide to just take the bus home, I can’t, because I’m stuck lugging this bike. But, then, on the other hand, there were so many sections where having the bike was so much faster, and easier. Once I finally got to Nakagusuku castle, for example, it was such an easy, pleasant ride the next few blocks to the Nakamura residence. .. And I can’t even imagine doing that whole trek on foot; even if it was only an hour or so, it would have felt like it took forever… Still, there were definitely sections where even though it was easier to have the bike, it was also more frightening and dangerous. Unbelievably lengthy downhill sections, where it just keeps going further and further downhill, and I’m screaming along, probably ruining my brakes in the process as I try to keep some semblance of control over my speed. Had I been on foot, it would have been long, and annoying, and on the bike it most certainly did go faster, but, the number of times I could have lost control and crashed into something…
Anyway, let’s go back and take it from the beginning. Leaving the University of the Ryukyus campus, there’s a road to the east side of the campus, just past the San-A mini-mall, that goes down, down, down, into the Ôkuma and Asato neighborhoods of Nakagusuku Village. It seems to be one of the only ways across to those neighborhoods; otherwise, one has to go way the way around whatever the hell this giant grey area to the east of campus is – it’s not a military base; I don’t know what it is. This was the route Google Maps said was fastest, and I believe it. Still, next time I think I’m going to stick to the surface roads, so to speak. The sidewalk on the side of this crazy downhill road isn’t much to speak of – it’s a rather narrow space between a wall and a set of metal barriers that are separating you from the road. There are heavy poles every few meters, and the whole thing is pretty overgrown. If I were on foot, I don’t know that I’d walk along this at all, amidst the weeds like that. But on a bike, well, I don’t know. I certainly didn’t feel it was the best choice to be trying to navigate around each of these poles, amidst these weeds, while screaming down the hill. But, what was the alternative? To be in the road, amidst the traffic? I don’t think I’m taking that road ever again. There’s also a higher path, a “historic road” with some plaques and stuff that’s explicitly supposed to be a nice walking/biking tourist path along a section of the old Hanta Michi “highway.” But I explored that a bit a week or two ago, and as nice as it was at first, it soon ended, and I couldn’t figure out where the next section was supposed to pick up. Maybe I’ll have to give that one another try…
So, now I’m at the bottom of this crazy hill. Finally. And I’m in the Ôkuma neighborhood of Nakagusuku. From here, the next lengthy stretch was quite nice – just riding along on wide, well-maintained sidewalks, along a major street. I stopped in at a convenience store for a little food and something to drink, and all was good for a little while. But, of course, Nakagusuku gusuku being a castle, of course it’s up atop a hill, so of course there’s going to be some uphill.
But, as I started to push the bike uphill, I was feeling pretty terrible. Like I might genuinely pass out, or throw up. This was totally my fault, not being more well-fed and better hydrated, and so forth. And maybe also for picking a relatively hot and humid day. But, yeah, I was just desperate for somewhere air-conditioned to sit down. I did not happen to find that, but I found a tiny garden, associated I think with a temple that was under construction; just the tiniest little “pavilion” sort of think, like you might find in a public park, or as a bus shelter. And so, I sat there for a few minutes, and felt the cool sea breeze, and laid my head down on the table and closed my eyes. And enjoyed the shade. And gulped down a bottle of Pocari Sweat. And then I headed the rest of the way up the mountain. I don’t know if there was some other entry point into the castle grounds, but I found myself walking and walking and walking, far past where Google Maps had said my destination was, looking for some way in. By the time I finally found the main entrance to the grounds, I’d gone roughly half the way around.
From there, I realized the Nakamura residence was only a tiny bit further, so I went and did that. More on the house in another post, I suppose, as I’ll just focus on the trip itself. But, let me add in two small things – one, if you should ever happen to go visit the Nakamura residence yourself, note that there’s a small monument quite nearby to Ôyama Seiho, the man who discovered Minatogawa Man, one of the oldest finds of human remains anywhere in Japan, dating back to something like 15,000 BCE. So, get a picture of that. Also, Gosamaru’s grave is somewhere quite close by, but I was told it’s a bit of a hike, up a ton of stairs. Maybe I’ll go try to check that out another day. Maybe I won’t. But, yes, I was very pleasantly surprised with the Nakamura residence’s gift shop / visitor center. It’s a beautiful shop, and surprisingly large for such a small, out of the way, historical site. Tons of great Okinawan souvenirs. And it’s air conditioned, and the staff was so kind. And they provided free tea and snacks (black sugar jello), and encouraged me and other visitors to enjoy as much tea as we wanted, both before and after visiting the house itself. Very kind. And, really, just what I needed after such a trip.
Recovered from my bike trip by the tea and air conditioning, I enjoyed taking it easy for the next few hours, visiting the Nakamura house and the Nakagusuku castle ruins. Of course, festival food is festival food – corn dogs and stuff like that – so I didn’t eat too well; didn’t really properly catch up to prepare myself for the return journey. Whether because of the food, or more likely because I guess I still hadn’t managed to hydrate myself sufficiently, despite drinking quite a few bottles of various drinks over the course of the day, I developed a pretty major headache by the time I got back.
But, yeah, the journey back. I decided to go a different way, because I knew that climbing back up that insane hill by the San-A near campus – with a bike – would be the end of me. Surely there must be an easier way, even if Google Maps says it’ll take 15 minutes longer. Plotting it out first on Google Maps, I followed the route it suggested, and took a left to run just past the Nakamura house, going west along a road that looked, on the map, like a major road connecting this area straight across over to the Okinawa Expressway, which lies a bit to the west. Yikes. Holy crap. I guess I’m glad for the experience – certainly helps make it an adventure. But this road, while it was properly paved, was in pretty much every other respect the equivalent of a dirt path through the wilderness. Though not nearly as steep as the road over by the San-A, still this one too had me barrelling downhill at a quick pace, along a two-way road only wide enough for one car, with very little shoulder, a good number of twists and turns, and the occasional sign telling you to watch out for wild boars that might suddenly leap out into the road. Let me remind you, dear reader, that I am very much a city boy. I guess when people told me to get out of Naha and to see and experience “real Okinawa,” I guess this is what they meant.
I finally reached the bottom, worried for a good moment as I looked at my phone trying to figure out how it wanted me to go, following along the expressway but not actually getting on the expressway? I had Google Maps set to walking directions, so in theory it shouldn’t take me onto the freeway itself. But, still. I found myself, for just a very short stretch, but still a worrying one, literally walking my bike uphill right in the middle of (bumper to bumper, moving extremely slowly) traffic, and wondering what the drivers thought of this idiot foreigner. But, honestly, I’m not sure what the alternative was. For that very brief stretch, there really was no sidewalk. There was nowhere else for me to be. Getting past that part, I finally found myself back in a relatively normal-looking suburban sort of neighborhood, along a regular, busy but not too busy street. I stopped in to an Okinawa soba shop to get some food. Probably the most standard soba shop I’ve seen yet this whole trip. Dark wood decor, with half the shop taken up by small tables, and the other half a raised seating platform with tatami (in other words, sit on a chair, or take your shoes off and step up to sit on the floor). I took a seat at the bar and took a stab at what turned out to be a surprisingly large bowl of noodles. And then I found a nice road leading parallel to the highway, but not in any way riding right in/on the highway. Thank god. For a nice stretch, things were great.
Then I turned away from the highway, as I entered the last final “home stretch,” turning towards campus. Still, though, I wasn’t quite as close to home as I thought I was, and it would be a good number of very slight (but still just obnoxious enough) uphill inclines, and other stretches, before I finally got back. And, along the way, even though things were starting to look and feel more fully suburban, suddenly, what, I look to my left, and there’s a cow. A whole cow – yes, we all have some sense that cows are big animals, we’ve seen pictures. But in person, you really get a sense of just how big they are. And there was a cow, just there, across the street, in someone’s front yard, tied up to a post. I of course stopped to take a picture. But, then, just a few blocks later, suddenly there was a guy brushing his cow, much like you might brush a dog, or hose down a car, right in the middle of the sidewalk. I guess this, too, is the “real” Okinawa. Not that I’m complaining, mind you. I was just surprised. It’s just not quite what you expect to see.
Long story not so short, in the end, I did finally make it back. I suppose, in the end, I am glad to have had the bike. Walking all of that distance would have been horrendous. There were definitely stretches where it was really nice to have the bike, in terms of just easy, breezy, riding, e.g. from the entrance of the castle grounds, over to the Nakamura residence a few blocks away. And I suppose I was better off being on a bike on that weird wilderness road, too, because walking along that road, where there’s no sidewalk or shoulder of any kind, where you’re genuinely truly on the road… I don’t know. Would that have been weird? Would it have been more dangerous? Less? And, as difficult as it was lugging the bike up all those hills – the big ones, and the really subtle but longer inclines too – would it have actually been all that much easier, less taxing, walking that without a bike? And what would the balance be, between not having to lug the bike up the hill, but then also not having the bike to cruise down the next stretch, and having to walk it?
I’m thinking at some point in the next week or two to make my way over to Urasoe – to see Urasoe yodore, the remains of Urasoe gusuku, and maybe while I’m at it the art museum, and on a different day also back up to Futenma, to see the Jingû-ji temple I missed when I visited the shrine. Each of these trips is also supposedly just about an hour according to the walking directions on Google Maps. Ginowan/Futenma shouldn’t be a big deal; I’ve taken the bus up there, and I’ve walked the full length back. Urasoe, well, I’m curious to see how it goes. Will there be crazy unexpected rural roads? Will there be unavoidable stretches of riding right in traffic on a busy road? Will there be massive inclines, up, or down? Will I, in total, on balance, be happier for having brought the bike, or not? We shall see.
And if anyone has thoughts or suggestions on this – on biking around Japan, or Okinawa in particular, I’d love to hear them!
All photos my own.