Tuesday, 6 November 2007

The island of Okinawa

(above: the sunset that greeted us when we arrived in our hotel and checked in. The two pictures were only taken minutes apart).

Okinawa is a prefecture of Japan encompassing hundreds of islands, the biggest and most populated of which is... (funnily enough), Okinawa.

We flew into Naha, the capital, from Shanghai which took only 2 hours. Love a quick flight (living in Australia everywhere is a mega long flight). Since we had planned to go to the amazing Churaumi aquarium we needed to hire a car. The reason is because it is at least 2 hours away from Naha and the buses don't run that frequently. Also Okinawa can be a difficult place for non-Japanese as there isn't much English signage or international tourists around. It took me a bit of effort but after extensive searching on Google and getting nowhere I actually emailed the Australian consulate in Shanghai and they told me how we could apply for an international licence whilst not being in Australia so I sent off the forms, photocopies and photo and a few weeks later we got our international driver's licence in the mail, which enabled us to drive in Japan. Too easy!

So anyway, I thought it would be best to stay closer to the aquarium so we could get there from our hotel easily. I researched and researched, which was a hard task given most websites were in Japanese and most of the hotels were luxury resorts which were out of our budget.

In the end Mike agreed we could splurge and the hotel I chose was about halfway between Naha and Churaumi. We could also get a great rate with them and they were by no means one of the top end ones! So we ended up staying at the Renaissance Okinawa. We had had a great experience with the Renaissance in Kuala Lumpur (which by the way is part of the Marriott chain) and were in no way disappointed with the Okinawan one.

The resort was out of this world gorgeous. The room was spacious and we had a balcony overlooking the sea. We unfortunately did not have a room on the 'nice' side of the hotel but nevertheless we had a gorgeous ocean view and saw brilliant sunsets. The hotel seemed to be quite full and they did not have any double rooms left so we got a twin but they ingeniously put the beds together and it actually felt like a king size bed.

There were so many restaurants to choose from I don't know where to start. We ate at 3 of them and also had room service. Since the resort is located in a fairly isolated area there was no point looking elsewhere nearby to eat so we just ate, slept and played in the hotel grounds.

One of the main reasons for choosing this hotel too was because I had seen pictures on their website about helmet diving or sea walking. It looked like the coolest thing ever as I can't do scuba and it seemed like a cross between snorkeling, snuba and diving. Mike agreed that I should do it as he likes to get me to do anything sporty because I'm usually so non sporty.

As well as giving us each free buffet breakfasts they also gave us each 3500 yen credit to use towards any of the many water activities. Since the sea walk cost 6000 yen we used both sets of credits for this. Mike still had 1000 yen to use but didn't because he actually fell ill on our very first day in Okinawa!

The next day we woke up and had one of the most amazing buffet breakfasts I have ever seen. The variety was endless and covered Japanese food, Chinese food and typical Western/American food. There was also a cute little low stand for the kiddies. They also had freshly made pancakes, any kind of eggs you wanted, and delicious dessert treats.

(Part of the amazing hotel. There are two restaurants inside the hut.)

After that we headed back to the room for a short rest (we both hate early mornings but had to be up so we could have the breakfast which finished at 9:30am) then I went out to do my sea walk.

Then, I realised that the Japanese are extremely punctual and although I thought I was on time I was in fact late. Major embarrassment! They were still polite and helpful as ever and quickly got me to sign the waiver form, gave me a wetsuit and told me to put it on. The others had left and were on the little floating pontoon thing already.

I was personally escorted by boat to the pontoon. I felt really special. I also had my own personal instructor and demo with his very limited English. On the pontoon we were also asked to take off our thongs and put on the booties.

All I knew was that I had to equalize the pressure inside my nose and go down the ladder slowly. I actually started panicking on the inside thinking what if I missed some major thing and didn't know what to do if something went wrong?

There were 7 in our group including me (they allow up to 12 people per time slot) and one by one we descended down the stainless steel ladder. At the top of the ladder I actually started freaking out. I am actually scared of deep water and it was 3 metres deep.

I took the ladder really really slowly and when the water was around my chin level they plonked the 30kg helmet on me. Due to the buoyancy effect the helmet didn't feel anywhere near that heavy though!

I went down the ladder one rung at a time, each time letting my ears adjust. It was a really weird feeling. My breathing also sounded really slow and loud. Like that moon walk. In fact when I got to the bottom the effect was exactly like the moon walk!

You cannot walk normally. You can only walk really slowly and you sort of 'bounce' along barely even touching the floor. I really did feel like Neil Armstrong for a while. You breathe normally and your face and hair are actually completely dry. Amazing! Anyone can do it and the only discomfort you feel is the pressure in your ears constantly changing but it's by no means painful just a little weird and annoying.

We fed the fish and saw some Nemos and sea anenomes. Our guide had a waterproof magna doodle type whiteboard which he used to communicate to us, and even wrote in English just for me (I felt special!)

After around 10 mins our time was up although it felt much much longer than this and I wanted to stay down there forever. It was just so much fun I really recommend it to anyone who wants to experience the underwater world but can't scuba dive.

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