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Rising Monkey 2012 Part 4: Nago, Okinawa

Buscema Observatory, near the back there somewhere[previously: May 18-21, May 21-28, May 28-June 1]

June 1-4

[Yes, that's right, it's the last part of a travel piece about a holiday that we came back from nearly ten months ago. Deal with it.]

It’s quite late in the holiday when we realise how our hotels are conforming to an arithmetic progression. Dai-Ichi, Tokyo: 20,000 yen a night for a high-rise Western style room with a city view. Sawanoya, Tokyo: 10,000 yen a night for a comfortable Japanese style room. Lohas Villa, Naha: 5,000 yen a night for a bed and a giant telly, with everything else counted as an optional extra. By that reckoning, our final destination – Nago, a couple of hours north from Naha by bus – should cost us 2,500 a night and consist of a sheet of cardboard with a radio next to it.

Happily, this is not the case. Hotel Yugaf is a perfectly fine, if somewhat anonymous, Western-style place. After our four nights in Lohas, we’re completely overwhelmed by features that just a few days earlier we’d considered to be standard. Aircon! Bath! Tea! Running water! Privacy! Okay, so our bathroom has a giant beetle in it that keeps scurrying under the bath when you put the light on. But still! Bath!

If you're looking for a symbol of how much things change in the journey from Naha to Nago, all you need is the gaudy sign we pass towards the end of the trip advertising something called ‘Nago Paradise’. On close inspection, it appears to be the cemetery. Compared with the big city rush and monorail travel of Naha, Nago has much more of a small town feel, despite being quite widely spread out. Our hotel’s nicely positioned for the bus station and the coast, but it’s a fair bit of a schlep from there to the nominal centre of town where all the fun stuff is. A lot of the routes require you to walk along motorway hard shoulders, or back roads where the only light comes from the vending machines. This doesn’t seem to be a town designed for pedestrians.

The bus station turns out to be important, as most of our time in Nago is spent taking day trips to places outside of the town. One location definitely worth considering is Busena Marine Park, which has two major attractions. The first is a glass bottom boat ride around the harbour. We’ve been disappointed by these sorts of things in the past (most recently in San Sebastian), but this one is well worth the money – you get a 20 minute journey through fabulously clear water, with plenty of marine life to be observed through the floor of the boat.

For a longer view of the fish, you need to take the dinky shuttle bus that runs between the different parts of Busena, and go to the observatory. There, you can descend several hundred feet below sea level and peer through the windows at all manner of creatures. There are helpful signs for the kids, who inevitably want to spot some clown fish now that they’ve all seen Finding Nemo – and yes, there are plenty of those on display too. And when you’re back at sea level again, you can buy some fish food from a slot machine and watch them come up to the surface at your bidding.

The BBG's dinner at Kunenbo. Not pictured: my tacorice.Speaking of creatures being led around by their desire for food, here’s The Belated Birthday Girl again.

Nago is convenient for several of Okinawa’s major attractions, and that’s why we decided to have a change of scenery and base ourselves there for a couple of days. Although it is considered a tourist city, there is a lot less touristy hustle and bustle when you compare it to Naha. This means there are fewer options when it comes to eating and drinking, but it also means that there is less pressure, and that prices are lower.

Finding places to eat, particularly if you have picky dietary requirements like I do, is inevitably going to be a bit more of a challenge in such a small town. But that task was helped by the Nago Night leaflet produced by the local food and drink trade association (Japanese only), which we picked up at our hotel. This leaflet has a list of restaurants, and includes helpful information for each such as opening times, average prices, whether they take plastic, and a couple of low detail street maps to help you find them.

One such place which we found from the leaflet was the delightful “things on sticks” restaurant Jin Jin (no website, but map and contact details here). A friendly little izakaya with 24 seats, serving a variety of the usual things you usually find on sticks in such places (meats, fish, veg) at decent prices, this was just the sort of local restaurant it is such a delight to find in Japan. Washed down with a couple of beers, our meal only came to a couple of thousand yen each, and we felt wonderfully welcomed.

We didn’t spend long in Nago, so there's only one other place to recommend, and that is the stylish “dining bar” Kunenbo which we regularly passed on our way walking to and from the hotel. From the outside, it looked like a very appealing place, cool and modern, with takes on Okinawan cuisine. And it had the added appeal of cheap set meals between 6pm and 8pm, which proved particularly useful on our final night. Spank had one more version of taco rice - the best he had the whole trip - in a 650 yen set meal. Meanwhile, I had a similarly excellent seafood donburi meal at 750 yen, with tasty raw seafood atop a bowl of rice, a couple of side dishes including some decent cold tofu, and a lovely light soup. And we each had a very welcome beer to wash it all down.

As with many restaurants in Japan, cards are not accepted, so we couldn’t hang around for more drinks, which was a shame as the place had a lovely atmosphere. But it still made for a very enjoyable meal for our final night.

This is *not* a picture of The BBG's seafood donburi.Here’s something I've only just realised. 2009: on the last day of our China holiday, I come down with something that could be food poisoning or bird flu. 2010: on the last day of our Japan holiday, the normally 100% reliable airport express train breaks down and we nearly miss our plane. 2011: on the last day of our America holiday, I have to cancel my flight back home and travel to Austin for work. It appears that these days, we can’t do a big trip without some sort of final act jeopardy imposing itself on us. And in 2012, it happens again.

We only have one full day in Nago - a Saturday - and we have some tight plans to fit in. The first thing we have to schedule is the withdrawal of enough cash to get us through to the end of the holiday. If you’re familiar with Japan at all, you’ll know that the only places where you’ll be guaranteed to find Western-compatible ATMs is at the post office. Happily, the tourist map we’ve been given by the Yugaf indicates there’s one just a few minutes' walk away, close to the bus stop where our main journey of the day will start.

So after breakfast, we start out a little earlier than planned to swing by this post office. And it takes us half an hour of walking up and down the street to realise that it doesn’t exist – in fact, the large piece of fenced-off open land we’ve walked past at least four times turns out to be where the post office used to be. (A subsequent peek on Google Maps suggests that the post office had already been torn down by the time the Street View van had last been down there, late in 2010.)

By the time we’ve found this out, it’s too late to find another post office, as we’ve got buses to catch. Along this road run a pair of complementary buses, the 65 and the 66. Their routes run in opposite directions along the road but somehow end up going to the same ultimate destination, presumably along some sort of fifth-dimensional corridor. We don’t appreciate this until we get a bus apparently travelling away from the bus station, and are thrown off it some five minutes later as it brings us back to the bus station again.

So we lose a lot of time over that, but eventually get to where we were aiming for in the first place, the Churaumi Aquarium. (We have discount entry tickets, part of a handy deal we got for booking the Yugaf via Rakuten Travel.) As you can see, marine life plays a big part in Nago’s tourist trade. We don’t get as good a closeup view of the creatures as we did in the observatory the day before, but the very large tanks look spectacular. The aquarium turns out to be one of the places where the American soldiers go on their weekends off – there’s a huge number of their families visiting here.

Our next port of call is the Pineapple Park, because let’s face it, nobody could resist the idea of a theme park based around pineapples. What could stop us? Well, the bus service, again. We’d identified that there was a direct bus from the aquarium to Pineapple Park – what we hadn’t identified was that the bus ran approximately once every four hours, and there wasn’t a hope in hell of getting there now before the place closed. Happily, we manage to console ourselves with one of the aquarium’s side attractions. Tropical Dream Center gives you discounted entry with an aquarium ticket, and has lots of delightful flora and fauna spread over a surprisingly large area. And you can take part in a stamp rally along the route, which always cheers up The BBG.

Cliched sunset photo to finish off this series. Sorry for not asking your permission, anonymous person who makes the composition interesting.We get back to Nago town centre for 6.30pm. All we need to do now is go to the central post office and withdraw enough cash so we can travel back to England. This is the point where we discover that all the post offices close at 5pm on Saturdays. So our final night is spent with our nerves completely shot, trying to conserve the little cash we have left: trying (and failing) to find a restaurant in Nago that takes credit cards, spending the bare minimum of cash in the one where we end up (see Kunenbo above), and repeatedly trying to work out all our options regarding exchanging sterling or withdrawing yen at the airport.

In the end, of course, it turns out to be no big deal at all. Our main panic for cash wasn’t about the bus journey from Nago back to Naha (which we had enough for), or the plane from Naha back to Tokyo Haneda airport (which was obviously already paid for) – it was the Airport Limousine bus journey from Haneda domestic airport to Narita international airport, and uncertainty about whether we could do that on plastic. Short answer – yes, we could. End of problem. But we’d spent over a day panicking about not being able to get our plane home because we didn’t know that, which is why I’m telling you now.

The journey home is perfectly fine once we’ve got over the hurdle of paying for the airport bus. Just like when we left Tokyo for Okinawa a week ago, a group of staff bow to us as the bus leaves – the Airport Limousine's in-flight magazine suggests it’s a post-3/11 thing, with staff trying to make a good impression to persuade more people to travel. The bus ride is fabulously smooth and comfortable, and gives us one final view of Tokyo Sky Tree along the way. Our flight to Hong Kong includes the chance to see our second Hiroshi Abe film of the holiday after Thermae Romae, an overly sentimental police procedural called The Wings Of The Kirin. (We only find out some time afterwards that while we've been in Japan, Abe has been performing on stage in London.) And after a fast transfer through a sleepy Sunday night at Hong Kong airport, it’s off on the plane back to Heathrow, where my one memory of the in-flight entertainment is just how chubby James Spader looks nowadays. (Particularly when you’re watching him in episodes of The US Office that have been stretched by Cathay Pacific from 4:3 to 16:9.)

Sometimes you have to remind yourself what a blessed age we live in – the way that we can travel huge distances and see sights that would have been unimaginable to our grandparents. Over the last two weeks in Japan, we’ve seen an eclipse, a record-breaking building, a couple of sporting milestones, and all manner of fabulous architecture, natural sights and people. And in a mere 32 hours of Asian buses and planes, we’ve travelled all the way from there back to London again. Only to discover that all the trains out of Heathrow have been cancelled due to a points failure. Maybe I should start making plans for our 2014 visit now. Being a monkey, and all.

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