A voyage of discovery from Tokyo to Naha

by Hillel Wright

Special To The Japan Times

On the Autumnal Equinox of 2011 I finished teaching a monthlong summer intensive course at a university in Tokyo, and had six days before I had to be back in my new hometown of Naha, Okinawa, for a meeting at my new university in the nearby town of Nishihara. Since I was in no particular hurry to return, I decided to take, quite literally, the slow boat to Okinawa.

So on the morning of Saturday, Sept. 24, I boarded the bullet train at Tokyo Station, bound for Hakata on Kyushu Island, and from there to change trains for Kagoshima. Although I had once visited Amami Island, which is part of Kagoshima Prefecture, I had never actually been on Kyushu itself.

After spending a few days at Kagoshima, the southernmost city on Kyushu and home to the active volcano Sakurajima, I would board the Marix Line ferry Queen Coral 8 for a 25-hour voyage to Naha.

The bullet train from Tokyo to Kagoshima takes about seven hours and costs just under ¥30,000. Adding the ¥14,000 Ferry fare, it’s roughly the same as an ANA or JAL flight from Haneda to Naha. For those in a hurry or on a tight schedule, the 2½-hour flight is certainly the only option, but if you have the time, a long shinkansen trip is a pleasant way to travel. I bought a bentō lunch box from one of the several vendors in the departure area to eat on the train. If you’ve never traveled by bullet train in Japan, be advised that station stops are very short: just a couple of minutes, long enough for passengers to exit and enter, and then — off it goes.

If you have a reserved seat ticket, you can’t get off en-route and board again at a later hour without purchasing a new ticket, which will increase your costs. There was, however, a half-hour changeover stop at Hakata, enough time to grab a cup of coffee and a snack at one of the station cafes, but not enough time to explore the town.

My train’s schedule allowed me to travel the length of west Japan in daylight, without having to get up too early in Tokyo or arrive too late at Kagoshima. I checked into my hotel at around 6 p.m. and had several hours to explore the neighborhood and find a place to eat dinner.

My hotel was close to the Tenmonkan covered shopping and entertainment mall. The mall contained a Starbucks coffee shop, so I was assured of being able to feed my coffee habit, and I found an Italian restaurant that served a reasonably good seafood pizza — at least, they didn’t cover it with canned corn — one night, and an Indian restaurant that served a reasonably good lamb curry another, but food, other than shirokuma, a sweet shaved-ice concoction covered with condensed milk, various fruits and azuki beans, is not the main attraction in Kagoshima.

The Big Show is Sakurajima, the volcanic island across Kagoshima Bay from the city, which has been active for the past 55 years. For most of this time, said activity has involved the belching of great black clouds of smoke, which descend daily upon the city in dustings of volcanic ash. The sky, even on sunny days, presents a thin veil of gray haze, and the garbage-collection sites are stacked with yellow plastic bags containing the ash swept up daily by the residents. Cars carry similar brushes to those found in Canadian vehicles in winter, to sweep not snow but layers of ash off their windshields and side-view mirrors.

The Marix Line and A”Line Ferries sail on alternate days from Kagoshima to Naha via the Amami Islands, except when there’s a typhoon. And since September is still typhoon season, an untimely delay remained a nagging worry in the back of my mind until I boarded the ship at 5 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 26. The ferry left the dock some time after 6, and while on deck awaiting departure I was treated to the sight of a thick black plume exploding out of Sakurajima’s crater — a dramatic farewell indeed.

One has the choice of a private room (¥35,900), First Class, which gives you a bed in a room with just a few other people (¥28,800), or Second Class, which provides you with a bed or futon in a large, much more crowded room for a lower cost (¥14,600-20,600). I chose the latter and was amazed to discover that most passengers retire immediately to their assigned futon and spend the entire 25-hour passage there, either sleeping or simply lying around. Many I took to be long-haul truck drivers catching up on their sleep.

As for myself, I took advantage of the cafeteria, whose decor and dinner menu were similar to that found at the Skylark Gusto highway rest-stop chain, including the vending machine for purchasing your meal ticket. After dinner I made myself a cup of coffee with the French press I carry with me whilst traveling in Japan, using the hot water dispenser such cafeterias provide for making green tea or instant noodles.

The ferry made its first stop at Amami-Oshima at 4:30 a.m. and stopped for about two hours, offloading cargo, vehicles (car tickets start at ¥52,700) and passengers and taking on the new.

Being at first reluctant to lie down to sleep in a room resembling an evacuation shelter, I explored the decks, watched “The Great Escape” on the ship’s social-lounge TV and — perhaps the highlight of my trip — spent two hours from 11 p.m. out on a deserted deck, taking a virtual wheel watch alone with the sounds of the sea and the ship’s smooth passage along its barely rippled surface. Thus relaxed and refreshed, I peacefully retired to my futon and slept, missing breakfast — which is served from 5 to 7 a.m.

Luckily, I had taken the advice of a friend in Kagoshima and brought along an onigiri (rice ball) from a convenience store, which, along with a cup of ¥200 coffee, made my breakfast.

The next 10 hours were spent either on deck taking pictures or just watching the beauty of the sea. Although I saw no whales or dolphins on this voyage, shoals of flying fish abounded and this, along with catching a few innings of baseball on the social-lounge TV, provided my entertainment. I got lunch in the cafeteria at noon, the same menu as the previous night’s dinner. The ship serves three meals only, there being no dinner the second night.

After Amami-Oshima the ship calls at three more Amami islands — Tokunoshima, Okinoerabu and Yoron — as well as Motobu harbor on the northern part of Okinawa Island, before reaching its final destination of Naha at 7 p.m.

If you are a visitor to Okinawa, Naha offers a number of attractions. Okinawans love festivals, and among them are the Naha Hari (Dragon Boat Races) held during the May Golden Week holiday, and the Eisa Dance festival held the first week in August. Shurijo Castle (reconstructed after World War II), home of the Ryukyu kings for 500 years, is designated a World Heritage Site, as is the also-reconstructed Shikinaen Royal Garden.

The Shogenji Ishimon stone gate, which survived the 1945 Battle of Okinawa (known as the “Typhoon of Steel”), is one of the very few remaining examples of original Ryukyu architecture and is about 500 years old. The grounds of the now-vanished temple within the gates provide a peaceful retreat under the branches of an enormous banyan tree whose roots have intertwined the stone, a fitting example of the unity of mankind and the rest of nature.