Driving north from Naha, Okinawa's largest city where the airport is located, feels a lot like passing by endless strip malls bedecked with neon signs advertising a surprising number of 'pachinko' casinos. (Surprising because gambling is illegal, and yet tokens won inside can be exchanged for cash behind the main buildings. Or so I'm told. I am too risk-averse to actually find out). And then finally the cheap sushi restaurants, convenience stores and outposts of American fast food chains subside, giving way to tall trees, gorgeous ocean views and the occasional hotel resort.
Okinawa may have been the home of the earliest hominids in what is now Japan, but it doesn't look or feel like it. There are virtually no old buildings because World War II left the island in ruins. Instead, it's like an alternate version of Hawaii where people drive on the left. The trees are alive with the humming of cicadas, and from every angle the water is bluer and prettier than any other part of the Pacific.
Aside from military-related visitors, most tourists come from mainland Japan. Because as lovely as the island is, it doesn't quite offer enough to bring a person to Asia. Luckily I had good reason to visit, in the form of a good friend from college who is in the midst of an internship at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University - a sleek, insular facility that lures students and faculty with state of the art equipment on a tropical island. (Because if you're going to dedicate years of your life to the pursuit of science, why not do it in paradise?) On the day that I accompanied my friend to work, I attended Japanese class with her and was pleasantly surprised at how much I remembered from childhood.
By day I braved the unpredictable bus system and went up north to visit the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium and surrounding park, as well as back to Naha for the museums and Shuri Castle. Making use of the rental car she'd checked out, Poncie and I wandered the famous pottery village in Yommitan, hiked up to a waterfall, sat on the beach, discovered the eery melody road and devoured borderline unhealthy amounts of sushi.
People often ask if it gets lonely traveling solo. Usually I find that not to be the case, but through staying with Poncie I came to appreciate just how much the presence of an old friend can make a foreign environment feel less daunting. A home away from home.
See more of Okinawa here.