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Sunday, Jan. 6, 2013

Remembering that 'life's a beach' keeps winter at bay


Special to The Japan Times

Summer to me has always meant the beach, and now in the depths of winter it's to sun-kissed strands and sparkling blue seas that my thoughts are prone to wander.

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Simple pleasures: Picnic tables and benches under awnings (above) are provided — usually without charge — at various spots along Okinawa's 2-km Mibaru Beach; while this photo shows the writer in his element there, by the Amamikiyo stone that's submerged at high tide. HILLEL WRIGHT PHOTOS
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In my childhood days, from kindergarten through high school, I was lucky enough to be able to spend a couple of weeks and several other weekends every summer at a cottage my grandmother had at Saybrook Manor Beach, on the Connecticut shore of Long Island Sound.

It was there that I learned to swim, to skin dive, to fish and — in due course — to meet girls.

Then, perhaps the most significant moments of my young adult years came when I spent six months living the life of a carefree beachcomber, from July through December 1969, at Hapuna Beach on Hawaii Island — that was, it pains me to report, before that area was turned into a state park and camping on the beach was disallowed. But before that calamitous occurrence, I spent many memorable hours there just bodysurfing and spearfishing, "cosmic adventuring" and, yes — meeting lots of girls.

Later on, I was again fortunate when I was able to spend 10 years, from 1985 to '95, living beside a beach on a small island in the Gulf of Georgia, west coast Canada's inland sea. Then, after two further years in which I lived just across the road from a river beach on Vancouver Island, I moved to Japan and began my (so far) 15-year career as an expatriate.

And here — predictably, I suppose — I again zoned in on a beach, since my first home was a mere minute's walk from the Sea of Japan shore in Niigata Prefecture. After that, however, I was well and truly grounded when I took a job in the Tokyo area.

Now, though, since fleeing our home of 12 years across the Tamagawa River from Tokyo in Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, just five days after the meltdowns that followed the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, my wife and I have fetched up in Naha, Okinawa — about as far from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant as we could get and still be in Japan. Or make that the Ryukyu Kingdom currently occupied by Japan and the United States.

Once we were settled in after finishing the arduous and stressful task of moving, the next thing on my agenda was, of course, to start searching for a good beach.

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Chilling out: Two visitors to Mibaru Beach take a break from the sun and sea, if not sand.

During the first few weeks following our arrival, friends here in Naha were kind enough to drive us to a number of beaches on the main island of Okinawa, from Cape Hedo in the north to Cape Kyan in the south, and from Okuma Beach on the East China Sea in the west to Mibaru Beach on its eastern, Pacific Ocean shore.

It was at the latter that I had my "eureka" moment: I had found my beach, a place where I could swim, take long walks on the sand, take out a boat and go fishing — or just get away from the hustle and bustle of the city; for after all, Naha is home to more than 300,000 people, which is nearly a quarter the population of Okinawa Prefecture.

Naminoue Beach, right in city-center Naha, is easy to reach, but a major highway bridge goes right over the swimming area, so rendering it none too conducive to a day's relax by the sea. Further up the western shoreline are Tropical Beach in Ginowan and Sunset Beach in Mihama, but both are crowded. Tropical Beach is located just behind the Okinawa Convention Center and Sunset Beach is next to the Mihama American Village which, for some reason, is a very popular tourist destination.

About a 3-hour drive north from Naha, are Manza Beach and Moon Beach in the village of Onna — both crowded, fronting resort hotels — and Zampa Beach, which is also part of a resort. Meanwhile, one of the most beautiful beaches up north is Okuma, on a narrow peninsula outside the city of Nago, with one side facing the open sea and the other a protected bay. Sounds perfect, but the whole area is a U. S. Military Rest & Recreation Area — and so is open only to U.S. military personnel and their families and guests.

As part of its occupation of Okinawa, the U.S. military seized not only the most strategic locations, but also the best beaches. And right in the faces of Okinawans, the occupation continues despite the island having "reverted" to Japan in 1972. In other words, the nominal administration of the former Ryukyu Kingdom was turned over to Japan — a faraway country whose own military deposed the king and annexed the islands in 1879.

Fortunately for me, it seems that most beachgoers in Okinawa, whether tourists or locals, prefer crowded popular places with many "attractions" — which by and large means easy access to a variety of greasy, high-cholesterol fast-food outlets and things that go fast and tend to make a lot of noise.

Enter Mibaru Beach, located at the end of a long, steep and winding road, far from any highway, convenience store, fast-food franchise or paragliders' speedboat.

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Quality time: Shared play on Mibaru Beach.

Descending the stone stairway from a small parking lot or the bus stop, you find yourself on an idyllic 2-km-long white-sand beach fronted by a coral reef about 300 meters offshore (which unfortunately negates the possibility of bodysurfing), with no jet-ski rentals or hordes of U.S. Marines flaunting ghastly tattoos.

You can, however, rent a rowboat for ¥1,000 an hour or ¥3,000 for a daylong fishing expedition — but remember to take your own tackle. And more great joy: The Mibaru Marine Center rents snorkling gear and a shower, a locker and use of its changing room for ¥300 — and also has a small air-conditioned restaurant. Open from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. daily, this features Okinawa soba noodles, "original" curry, taco rice and goya champeru — all for less than ¥1,000. There are no resort hotels, but there is a small pension, called Beach-Side Pension Mi-Baru, where rooms range from ¥5,700 to ¥7,700 a night.

Truth be told, you might see the odd jet-ski off Mibaru Beach, as the sand is hard-packed near the Marine Center and some local people trailer their own machines to the beach, often to get out to the reef for scuba diving. In contrast, the northern part of the beach provides a soft landing for paragliders, and a small group of these enthusiasts are frequent visitors. Once they achieve altitude, though, you can barely hear the sound of their small motors.

If you want to see the fish along the reef but are not a diver, you can book a ride on a glass-bottomed boat — ¥1,500, or ¥800 for children aged 4 to 8.

The sun in subtropical Okinawa in summer can be fierce, but you can rent a beach umbrella and recliner chair from the Marine Center for ¥1,000 per day, or simply hove to at one of the wooden picnic tables under awnings — first come, first shaded — that are sited at several spots along the strand. Usually there is no charge for these, but the ones in front of the Marine Center are ¥500 on weekends and holidays. If all the tables are taken, look for one of the many small caves or shelters to be found under an overhanging limestone formation behind the beach.

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Pacific paradise: Time and space on Mibaru Beach, less than an hour's drive from Naha.

To me, the most significant thing about Mibaru Beach is that, so legend has it, it was the very place that Amamikiyo, the goddess who created the Ryukyu Islands, first stepped foot on land after descending from Nirai Kanai, the Home of the Gods. Near the north end of the beach is a sacred grove (utaki) where the Ryukyu King and High Priestess formerly came to pray, and a stone monument (yaharazukasa) visible only at low tide marks the exact spot where Amamikiyo began her work of creation.

Mibaru Beach is less than an hour's drive from Naha, or a one-hour ride from the city's bus terminal on the No. 39 bus. The fare is ¥760 each way and there are usually two or three buses an hour. The first one leaves Naha at 6:07 a.m. and the last to leave the beach is scheduled for 8:45 p.m. on weekdays and 8:25 p.m. on weekends and holidays.


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