Planeloads of Korean and Chinese tourists pour into the customs and immigration area with us and we shuffle along looking decidedly out of place. We lack the designer tourist clothes, hats and sunglasses and don’t have any cute toddlers in pig-tails in tow. The large crowds at immigration mean there is no waiting for our luggage. But there is a moment of confusion as we search for the car rental pick up point – there are no signs indicating care rental. So we ask a very helpful person at the information desk. Her English is fortunately better by far than our Japanese which is limited to “hello” and a variety of brand and place names. Hokkaido. Kawasaki! She points us at the domestic terminal where we should look out for the name of our car company representative on the sidewalk. That makes little sense but we soon find a girls standing on the sidewalk with a clipboard, a list of names (including ours) and who points us to a bus. We duly get on board thanks to a whole lot of sign language and finger pointing and a little humour, and are carted off into the suburbs to a car park where we are introduced to the Blue Angel of Death. Well, we had to name it something.
It’s a blue box. On small wheels. It looks like we shouldn’t fit into this azure, cubist thing but it proves to be a Tardis with more room inside than we expect. We get instructions in rapid fire broken English on how to use the GPS and in the end settle for our instructor to lock in the hotel. Remembering how to use the gadget was going to require more than a quick lesson by someone leaning through the window, no matter how helpful she might be. We ease into the traffic, our GPS southern US belle accent guiding us into down town Naha where we join peak hour traffic. Such as it is. It crawls along giving us a good chance to look around.
In truth we were not sure what to expect. We know this place was wiped off the map in 1944-45 by B25’s and B36 bombers. Perhaps that explains the strange, mundane and uninspiring architecture. But where is everyone? Some are in the traffic with us. But pedestrians are few and far between. It is a strange sensation to be in a major city like this and to not have any people on the sidewalks. We creep along watching out for the signs, listening to the southern belle, and taking photos. We inch out of town but we are hours in suburbia. Naha creeps up the coast blending into other towns. Near Kadeena, the huge Air Base home to USAF units we are ‘buzzed’ by the very distinctive P-3 Orion that circles around us a few times laying down the familiar haze of smoke. We spot AWACs, KC135s, F-15s and F-16s and have to concentrate on staying on the road. Kadeena is not the only military base we roll past. There are no personnel visible but along the highway there is a lot that reflects the US presence. From shops selling new and second hand US furniture, Harley Davidsons, and US fast food, through to local businesses that hijack US brand names for their own purposes, mashing and mangling the words to give humorous results. We wonder how many servicemen actually frequent these places. Americans are not known for wanting to depart the little America’s they build around their military bases. But we also know that the local population turned out in their tens of thousands recently to protest the US presence. And some time in the recent distance we have a recollection of upheaval here in the wake of rapes carried out by US servicemen. If there is local hostility that alone will mean the Americans will keep a low profile.
Nothing seems to change as we crawl up the coast. It’s a ‘tropical scruffy’ flavour. Concrete does not do well in this humidity and heat and is quickly discoloured by mould. The architecture is unremarkable, with a kibbutz or uni dorm feel to it rather than anything reflecting any unique culture or heritage. There is no sense of civic pride and the lawns, verges, median strips and other vacant sections of land are overgrown, albeit with a lush cover. But we arrive at the hotel in the early evening without any traffic stress – everyone seems pretty relaxed and slow on the roads. The Blue Angel of Death was not pushed to its limits but we have time enough to do that. We are safely here in a nice Marriot pub and looking forward to poking around. We start by driving to the nearby ‘Lawson’ store, purchase a few things for the fridge, check out the local deserted beach and pore over the maps for tomorrow.