The telegraph poles that once lined Okinawa’s Route 58 have long gone, but the great coastal avenue still reminds me a little of the Dire Straits song “Telegraph Road.” Like the lyrics of Mark Knopfler’s extended anthem, Route 58 is a journey through time, a digest of history.

Dubbed Highway No. 1 after World War II, the road was built primarily to serve the interests of the U.S. military in swiftly deploying heavy vehicles and transporting fuel trucks — military vehicles were given priority over civilian ones. Okinawans who owned cars and taxis were not allowed to overtake American transports. If they did so, they were pulled over and reprimanded.

Fittingly, the first kilometers of the six-lane highway, which starts its journey in the prefectural capital of Naha in the south of the island, is a strip of Americana: a mash of fast-food outlets, bars selling Millers Draught, furniture stores draped with the Stars and Stripes, tattoo parlors, used military supply stores and vehicle dealerships with names such as “Johnny’s Used Cars.” Signage on this section of the highway is largely in English.

Miles of razor wire surrounding Camp Kinser in the township of Urasoe represent the first of a series of U.S. bases along Route 58 that are tantamount to tightly managed mini-cities. As the road resumes its northern progress, it slices through the sealed peripheries of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in the district of Ginowan — another massive installation whose existence is founded on the will of Tokyo and Washington rather than the wishes of Okinawans.

Proceeding north, Route 58 passes through the township of Chatan, home to American Village, a shopping and entertainment district. Popular with young Okinawans and American service people and their families, this is a place to shop for imported goods, catch a film at the Mihama 7 Plex movie theater, sample some of the island’s best frozen yogurt, have dinner at Tony Roma’s or stroll along the sea wall at Sunset Beach. American Village is easily spotted from the highway, its huge Ferris wheel offering superb views of the East China Sea.

Chatan hosts Camp Lester, a base that seems relatively small when compared to Kadena Airbase, the largest such installation in the Asia-Pacific region, a little way up the highway. Old folk still remember the area when it was an expanse of sugarcane fields. Village shrines and family tombs are said to lie within the borders of the base — reminders of communities that once lived there. The noise from the fighter jets and rotary blades of low-flying helicopters is sometimes intolerable. I can’t imagine how people continue to live in an area like this. Some locals have complained of impaired hearing. Above a nearby elementary school, a fighter plane performed a corkscrew maneuver as an attack helicopter banked and dropped down onto the runway at Kadena. I make a stop outside the school’s playground, where children were screaming their heads off. Their mouths were open, but voices inaudible — like actors in a medieval dumb play.

Okinawans’ traditional lack of resistance is viewed by some as a weakness of character, as evidence of a submissive disposition. I have driven up and down this road enough times — slowing down to observe protest groups huddled against base fences; hearing Okinawans lean out of their car windows to shout in English, “Get out of Okinawa!”; and even catching the uncharacteristic animus of “We hate you!” yelled at drivers of military vehicles — to know this is only half the picture.

The analogy between the idea of passages — things such as major trunk roads and routes, but also historical channels — and chronologies of time was well expressed by Fusako Kushi in her 1932 short story, “Memoirs of a Declining Ryukyuan Woman”:

“We always seem to be at the tail end of history,” she writes, “dragged along roads already ruined by others.”

Leaving the ammunition dumps and firing ranges behind, an older Okinawa begins to reassert itself further along Route 58, in Yomitan. This is home to fields of sugarcane and purple potato, the ruins of Zakimi Castle and one of the island’s best known pottery centers, a site known as Yachimun no Sato. Each workshop at this “Pottery Village” has its own showroom, featuring items by individual craftspeople, who fire their pieces in traditional climbing kilns.

The highway continues north toward the city of Nago, passing through the roadside villages of Onna, Nakama and Kyoda — a study in marine life, a welcome strip of coves, limestone caves, small jetties and beaches popular with divers, windsurfers and picnicking families. I check the small change in my pocket to see if I can scratch together enough coins for a cup of coffee at the Busena Terrace Hotel, a luxury complex with a private beach visible from Route 58. In 2000, G-8 members stayed here during the Kyushu-Okinawa summit. The hotel aside, it was difficult to imagine the likes of Bill Clinton, Jacques Chirac and Tony Blair being air-dropped into Nago, a small settlement that reminds me of some of the dustier Mekong River towns I had visited.

A short detour east of Nago takes you to the Yanbaru Forest. The U.S. military uses parts of the woodland for jungle warfare training. Much of the Vietnam War was rehearsed here. Local villagers were occasionally dragooned into posing as black-pajama clad Vietcong in order to bring an extra degree of realism to the exercises.

Now in the deep north, Route 58 returns to the sea after a short inland incursion, winding its way to the coastal village of Ogimi, known for its production of bashofu, a textile made from banana fibers woven with a technique that came to Okinawa from Southeast Asia in the 13th century. Ogimi’s elders enjoy extraordinary prolonged lives, and have become the focus of food and health writers, gerontologists and others interested in longevity issues. Even a BBC film crew visited the village in a quest to discover the secrets to a long life. Villagers remain perplexed by the fuss.

All that remains to be accomplished on this drive is a visit to Daisekirinzan, at the northern tip of Cape Hedo, a fantastic landscape of limestone rock cones, cavities and blowholes. This 200-million-year-old site, the oldest geological landform in Okinawa, is a sacred spot strongly associated with rituals performed by shamans. Climbing the paths leading up through the eroded, tropical karst to a rock shelf with magnificent views of the ocean, it strikes me that traveling Route 58 is a journey from clutter to space, from the man-made to the mystic, a journey back to the natural world.

The light at the summit of the plateau is magnificent. One yearns for it long after leaving. Okinawans, unlike mainland Japanese, are not much given to darkness, or folk tales of forest ghouls and spirits wailing at the bottom of gloomy wells. The light here is too relentlessly clear for that.

There is no toll for using Route 58. For details on renting a car, visit Times Car Rental (www.timescar-rental.com) in Naha.


Route Inn Nago (route-inn.co.jp; 0980-54-8511) is a reasonably priced business hotel right on Route 58.

Churaumi-Kun Backpackers (www.churaumi-kun.com/english; 070-5400-2084 ) offers basic private rooms and bathrooms near the beach.

Food and drink

Partyland Frozen Yogurt (www.partyland.co.jp/archives/store/mihama; 098-926-4910; open 11 a.m.-11 p.m.) is a do-it-yourself frozen yogurt shop in Mihama’s American Village that offers more than 30 flavors.

The Busena Terrace Beach Resort (www.terrace.co.jp; 0980-51-1333) is a perfect place to stop for a for morning coffee. Try to get an outdoor table at the Cafe Terrace “La Tida.”

Emi-no-Mise (eminomise.com; 0980-44-3220) in Ogimi offers healthy lunch dishes a la carte, and special sets that have to be reserved a day in advance.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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