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Saturday, Nov. 10, 2012

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Watching the dolphins at Churaumi Aquarium in Okinawa was a just a hint of what we'd see later on the open waters. AMY CHAVEZ

JAPAN LITE

Okinawa — a different world with its own time zone


After waiting 10 days on Amami Oshima for Typhoon No. 21, it finally blew in. All week long, locals had dropped by our boat to inform us that it was not safe tied up where it was — at the guest berth at the sea station. But when we inquired where we could move it to, no one knew. We couldn't leave Amami Oshima until the typhoon passed, unless we risk getting caught in the middle of it. So we waited. And waited. Until finally, the typhoon came.

The captain and skipper slept on the boat while the rest of the crew took accommodation on land. "It was a wild and wooly night!" the captain told us later, as he surfaced from the cabin the next morning after the typhoon. He had been up on deck six times over the night to adjust ropes as the boat pulled and heaved on her lines. But we were lucky — the brunt of the typhoon, contrary to predictions, had missed us. Not only that, but the tropical storm behind it, which had turned into Typhoon No. 22, had spun off to the east and was already gone by the time the slow moving Typhoon No. 21 arrived.

Finally, we were cleared to sail on to Okinawa! But Typhoon No. 21 had selfishly taken all the wind with her, leaving us with barely a breeze. As it was the first smooth sailing we had experienced since we left the Seto Inland Sea over two weeks ago, we just enjoyed the tranquility that allowed us to cook, eat and relax on board. We sailed all through the night and by sunrise, we could see Okinawa Island in the distance.

But Okinawa is a long island and the port we were headed for, Ginowan, was another five-hour sail down the coast at the leisurely pace we were traveling. So just before sunset we dropped anchor in Nago Bay in front of the Sheraton Hotel, planning to enter Ginowan in daylight the next morning.

The protected bay offered a delightful atmosphere as a catamaran sailed past, music flowing from its cabin, with hotel guests enjoying a sunset cruise on the deck.

On our own boat, happy hour commenced. As the sun set over the East China Sea, and all the hotels along the bay lit up in small bulbs of yellows and whites. The moon shone above, the stars popped out one by one and we toasted with glasses of wine while the world sparkled around us. After dark, we set up a movie theater in the cockpit and passed the evening bobbing up and down on the gentle waves.

At dawn, we set sail again for Ginowan. Upon arrival, we found our friend George Colona beckoning to us from the marina "Mensoure! Mensoure!" which is Okinawan for "welcome!" George took us out to lunch, gave us the lowdown on Okinawa and left us with his car for the next few days. Now we were armed and ready for Okinawa!

On the first day, our foreign junk food roots took over and we pigged out on steak (well, some of us, did), A&W root beer (free refills!) and Baskin Robbins (we ate at least 31 flavors!). We continued our American food rampage at Sam's by the Sea, run by local legend Mark Payne, where we drank "Jaws"-inspired cocktails, ate fresh seafood, and indulged in Mile High Coconut Cream Pie — oh my! The presence of the American military has ensured a good American food almost anywhere on the island. In the days to follow we tried local favorites such as goya, pigs' feet and Okinawan soba, all accompanied by Orion (the local beer) or sanpincha (Okinawan tea).

For sure, Okinawa is a different world. The Okinawans are so laid back, they even have their own time zone. Whereas mainland Japan has Japan Standard Time, Okinawa has Okinawan Time, which is anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes later than JST depending on the person and the place you're meeting. But I like Okinawan time, mainly because it is very close to something I am familiar with: Gaijin Standard Time, which is 10 to 15 minutes later than JST.

In addition, the people are free and easy in Okinawa. They dress in shorts and T-shirts, marine sports are big and every day I saw people jogging along the road. Unlike mainland Japan where everything has its proper place, in Okinawa anywhere is the proper place. It's no wonder Okinawans are the longest living people in all of Japan.

We took one day to go to the Churaumi Aquarium, one of the world's largest aquariums. Here, I was reminded of what we were travelling over every day while sailing. On the yacht, we are primarily concerned with what happens on the surface of the sea: the weather, the winds, the waves. We think of the bottom of the sea as a dangerous place — one with shoals or coral reefs that could ground a boat. We tend to forget that the sea creatures are sharing their vast bathtub with us. Even if their house is the sea, a yacht running over their roof would be worse than reindeer at Christmas time.

In the waters around Okinawa, we were sailing over local sea creatures such as manta rays, zebra sharks and giant guitarfish. We passed over the backs of yellow fin tuna, mackerel, marlin and swordfish.

Okinawa is surrounded by deep seas where you'll find the rare black snoek, the Japanese sawshark and even luminous shrimp. Within these depths also live the Japanese spear lobster (edible) and the Japanese spider crab, the largest crab in the world. Imagine this crab at more than 3 meters across when its legs are extended. Nightmares, anyone? You've got to wonder what dark secrets these deep-sea creatures share.

Do you remember the giant squid caught off Okinawa in 1994? Large enough to feed a family of 50, this guy was spared the chopsticks and his 6.37 meter long corpse is on display. Don't miss it!

If you're afraid of the deep sea like I am, don't worry. Why do you think so many fish stick to shallow reefs? They're afraid of deep water too.

It was at the aquarium that I first suspected that our yacht was part whale shark. At 13.5 meters long and 24 tons, our boat fit the description of a whale shark perfectly — except that she does not eat zooplankton. She does, however, accommodate various barnacles and sea creatures on her belly.

But soon it was time to bid farewell to Okinawa Island, so four days after we arrived, we embarked on our whale shark headed for Miyakojima. We should arrive in 24 hours. Or 36 hours in Okinawan Time.



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