Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Eki Den is not a box lunch

It’s running season in Okinawa! Yes, the winter is here, the heat has abated and as long as the weather will cooperate, people tend to include more outdoor activities in their routines. That includes more running events and road races. Recently, in early December, Naha held its famous Marathon Race and soon Okinawa City will hold theirs too. Everyone who likes or lives to run will be out and trying to get some valuable road work in. Ask any self respecting Marine and they’ll say the temperature matters not, nor whether the sun is shining brightly or in liquid form, every day is running season here on Okinawa.
One of the more popular forms of road races held in Japan this time of year is a distance relay race known as the Eki-Den or “station run.” The word Eki means station as in train station and Den is an abbreviation of the word Densha or train. Please don’t confuse the word Eki-Den with Eki-Ben which, though they sound very much alike, the latter means “Station Bento.” Those are the popular box lunches found at most train stations throughout Japan. Even one of the monorail stations in Naha offers an Eki Ben. If you ask someone if they’d like to go for one and mean the other, well it could be embarrassing.
Rather, the Eki Den is a road race that usually pits teams of runners from local schools, the various branches of the Japanese military, police and fire departments and running clubs against each other. Many of the local high schools also compete against each other regularly in this manner. Because each runner has a shorter distance than the whole race to run, the pace is usually quite fast. I get short of breath just watching them. Of course now that I’m retired from active duty the only running I do is to the bathroom after my morning pot of coffee.
What does it all mean for the rest of us who live here? It means that you should be extra cautious while driving about the island during this time of year. No matter what your best laid plans have in store, you just never know IF, WHEN OR given the time of year it’s more likely to be WHERE (emphasis added) you’re going to see one. The police will be out on their motorcycles and they do watch the traffic very closely around the runners. If you’re out driving and happen to run into one, (pun intended) be patient and wait for the opportunity to pass safely. If you happen to out on the street and you see a group of runners passing by, cheer them on. They’ll appreciate the gesture. And lastly, just to help you keep it straight, Eki-Den are better to run when you’re less filled, Eki-Ben taste great!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Playing in Taffic

It's Cherry Blossom season in Okinawa! For locals, as well as the "terrorists," er make that the "tourists," that means driving out to some of the places one usually doesn't go to, to take in the scenery. In the early part of the season, that means heading up to the northern parts of the island where the cherry blossoms bloom first. Popular "hot" spots include Hwy 58 between Cape Hedo and Oku, Nakijin Castle in Nakijin Village, Mt. Nago Dake in Nago City and of course, Mt. YaeDake in my adopted hometown of Motobu.

For those of you unfamiliar with Cherry blossom season in Okinawa, it's a bit different than what you may think. First of all, the trees here are Taiwanese Cherry trees. The blossoms are pink instead of white and they don't blossom because the spring temeratures are beginning to warm. These are subtropical warm weather trees and as part of their survival mechanism, at the first cold snap, they lose their leaves from the previous year and start to bud anew.
 Mt. Yaedake is the second highest peak on Okinawa Honto with an elevation of about 1600 feet or just over 500 meters. At the very top is a automated communications station for the U.S. military. For years this was an actual military base but as the result of advances in technology, it was eventually automated and is now only visited periodically for inventory and inspection. Most of the people who come here not U.S. military but instead they are local technicians who maintain the facility.

It's said that when the military pulled out, they asked the local people what they wanted as a token of appreciation for hosting the U.S. forces. Instead of building a new school or some other form of municipal facility, it's said that the people asked that the road to the top of the mountain be planted "lined" with cherry trees so that they could all enjoy them for many years to come. If all of that is true, then I guess they got what they wanted because Mt. Yaedake is one of the most popular cherry blossom viewing spots on the whole island.
 It had been a couple of weeks since Ryukyu Mike and I had had the opportunity to get out and shoot our cameras. The weather had been rather crappy for a couple of weeks and it seemed that no matter what the forecasters predicted, the exact opposite came true. Today was supposed to be sunny and rather warm, around 20 degrees celcius or 68 degrees farenheit. Given the recent track record, the odds were against us but, because I hadn't been out in a couple of weeks, I had a bad case of cabin fever. Besides, since the local prognosticators can't even agree or get the next day's weather right, I don't buy into the crap about Antropogenic Global Warming (AGW) anyway.
Aparently this happy "new" couple didn't buy the into it either. Though there was some intermittant sunshine, it was rather cool. I was happy to be wearing a sweater as well as a jacket. This poor girl, unless she was from Hokkaido had to be freezing her "you fill in the blank" off in that wedding gown. If they weren't really a happy couple and just models being paid to do this for an ad, I hope to hell they were properly compensated!

Anyway, you can see that at least "She" is lovely and if they really are a couple, rather than just models, I hope the photographers that were accompanying and shooting them did her justice. As you can see from a previous photo, I spotted them as we made our way up the hill from the parking area. When we got up to where they were being shot, I asked if we could take a picture. They smiled and agreed so I got this second shot off just before they made their way down the mountain. Ryukyu Mike was a little slow on the draw and got skunked.

He even spoke some English and politely asked me "How are you doing?" I replied back in the local dialect that I was "Cha-gan-ju!' or very well which got him chuckling. That's when I snapped the second shot.
Even with all the great cameras that the Japanese make, for some reason, people here like to use their "Keitai" or cell phones to take photos with. I'm sure that some of these can do a really good job but, if you really want a good picture, you need a real camera. What is so surprizing here is that's what is hanging from her wrist but, who knows why they insist on using their cell phones.
As I mentioned, Ryukyu Mike came with me on this trip. He's the dude in the photo above that looks more like a civil war general than a professional photographer. After an hour or two near the top of the mountain, we decided to head down to where the local town built a huge park where they have plenty of parking set up as well as a bunch of "Yattai" boothes set up with eats, games of chance for the kids to waist all of mom or dads hard earned money and other stuff to buy.

Mke being the consumate professional photographer is always going for "The Shot" that he hopes one day will land him a big money contract with someone like National Geographic Magazine, even if he has to risk life and limb to get it. So playing in traffic, like he is here, is absolutely nothing to him if it means getting an award winning shot.
Down here at the park, they had all kinds of vendors and although I was getting hungry, Mike mentioned that he hadn't eaten since lunch the day before. We stopped at a food booth just a few meters further on down from the flower sales booth here and had us a heaping helping of unhealthy grease soaked french fried potatoes, mini-tofu sausages and deep fried chicken nuggets that Mike said would have broken his teeth if he had any!

We snapped a few pictures of some plumb blossoms as well as what the vendors were offering before heading over to Nakijin Castle to take a look. Over there, they do night viewings of the blossoms so we wanted to check out the dates. It was packed when we arrived so we kept driving on from there.

Cherry blossom season here in northern Okinawa will last through February 6th. This particular day, January 23rd, the trees were about 25% in bloom. I would expect that "Man-kai" or full bloom should hit us next week. Even if you miss out that week, you'll have at least one more after that to check it out. After the 6th, be sure to start heading to the southern end of the island. The trees there should be in full bloom from mid February to around the first of March. For some silly ass reason, the trees here blossom in the north first and south later.

So if you're here and have the chance, get out and see the blossoms. do yourself a favor and bring a real camera too!