Bye Bye to Okinawa

This past week saw us wrap up our six-week stay in Okinawa, the first ‘Blue Zone’ we’ve now lived in on the Lifelong Journey. We spent almost two months there and visited four of the Okinawa’s many islands.

A key learning for us early on in our travels was that we wanted to find a way to engage with local people and contribute something of ourselves in the process. While there is a place and time for being a tourist and/or simply relaxing when visiting a new country or location, we knew we wanted to experience something more while on this adventure. Finding WWOOF, a site dedicated to work-stay volunteer opportunities on farms, allowed us to accomplish this goal, and for over half our stay in Okinawa we lived with local hosts, each of whom we found through WWOOF.

From Naha to Ishigaki

The last 12 days of our journey were spent on Okinawa’s southernmost islands of Ishigaki and Iriomote, an hour-long flight from Okinawa’s main island and capital city Naha. In Ishigaki we stayed with an 85 year-old widower, Masako Nakada, who lives alone on a farm she has built up over the past 35 years. The farm is dedicated to plants, with her main product being henna (sold to hair salons as a natural hair dye). But she also grows a number of other plants which she sells to the likes of hotel developers for landscaping. During our stay we did a lot of weeding and clean-up work, harvested bananas and aloe-vera, and planted a row of cinnamon trees.

Last minute harvest before typhoon hits.

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Our third typhoon

Much of the clean-up work we did was after a typhoon hit the island. We had already experienced two “small” typhoons in our previous locations (Okinawa gets hit by up to 10 typhoons a year), but this one was big enough to be named (Maria), and would have qualified as a category 4 hurricane in the Western hemisphere. So beforehand, there was a full day of preparation which included boarding up windows and moving or covering up much of the plant inventory.

Houses and infrastructure in Okinawa are built well, and, fortunately, the typhoon came and went over about 24 hours, causing little real damage. While there was a sense of concern and preparation as the typhoon approached, life was back to normal pretty much the following day.

Meeting Masako

Our host was a real joy to spend time with. She was born and raised on Okinawa’s main island and was 10 years old when the war came. She has vivid memories of the war, which impacted her family directly. Her father fought in the war (he survived), but her 15 year-old brother was a civilian casualty. She didn’t speak much about the experiences during that time, but she got visully emotional when she spoke of seeing “a lot of death”. After the war, she went on study English and work as a typist on the American military base, before moving to Ishigaki 35 years ago.

Here’s an excerpt of an interview I did with Masako, where I ask her about how it felt to work for the Americans:

Masako had many stories about her long life and family. She has 5 daughters, one son (the youngest child – a son was deemed necessary for social status) and was married to a man who apparently loved sake (Japanese rice spirit) and other distractions more than her. He died 10 years ago and since he died, “I’ve been happy”, Maskako told me. He racked up debts which she paid off in order to protect her name and the name of her children. In spite of her struggles, she manages to keep a dry and witty sense of humor. She doesn’t visit him at the ancestoral tomb, however, “because he’ll just ask me for sake, and I don’t want to give him any!”

A lesson on time

The key personal learning for me with Masako was about time. Weeding was surprisingly meditative. After my Bobcat-driving experience at the previous farm, and feeling the responsibility and satisfaction of feeding animals there, I have to admit that I felt I’d been a bit demoted when our first assignment was to simply pull up weeds all afternoon. But when I turned it into an exercise of being present and focusing on each weed I picked instead of thinking about how much was left or what time it was, everything changed. I felt content and even joyful at simply being right where I was.

The other difference between Masako’s farm and our dairy farm experience was the routine, or more specifically, the lack thereof.  With animals, especially milking cows, there were specific times things had to be done every day. Plants are not nearly as demanding as animals so it made the flow of a day much different. I came to Ishigaki ready to get into another work routine and after the first day of weeding I asked Masako, “so what’s the work plan for tomorrow?” Her reply was simply “tomorrow is tomorrow”. Accomplishing tasks within a given timeframe, or worrying about the future, was simply not a concern to her, at least now that she’s 85.

It’s almost a paradox to be relaxed and unconcerned about the future (i.e., being fully present) while at the same time having ambitions to get things done, make money, etc. But somehow Masako manages to get quite a lot done, make a living for herself (see another video interview where she speaks about this), and still have time for friends and her family (some of our 17 grandchildren visit her every Sunday morning).

How to take and apply this kind of wisdom, which so often comes later in life, to my life today?

Our next ‘Blue Zone’

As we continue our Lifelong Journey and leave Okinawa, we will travel to Texas, a kind of personal ‘Blue Zone’ for me. My father is now 95 and has lived a full and long life. And while I’m not sure how much longer he will be with us, we have a new addition coming to our family as soon as this week – our third grandchild! So we will be spending the next six weeks in Texas, helping to get my Father ready to move on, and helping our daughter welcome a new life. The circle of life continues… From Texas, we will travel south to Nicoya, Costa Rica, an official ‘Blue Zone’.

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