One of our first adventures on the island of Okinawa was to Shuri Castle. Although it is unknown exactly when the castle was constructed, the castle was in use from 1322-1429 when it housed King Sho Hashi. The castle was burned down several times, captured by foreign Satsuma armies in 1609, and was subject to three days of shelling from the USS Mississippi during WWII before finally being captured by U.S. forces. After the war, the castle housed a university until 1975. Finally, in 1992 the main building was reconstructed and the entire area dedicated as Shuri Castle Park. In 2000, the site was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Sounded like an interesting place to visit on our first big adventure in Okinawa.
We were able to rent a car thanks to my International Driver’s Permit, but actually driving and getting to the castle was an adventure in itself. Driving on the wrong side of the road, on the wrong side of the car, with mediocre maps, and GPS system and signage in primarily Japanese, we struggled a bit. Every time we approached a toll booth, anime characters would dance and scream a song over the GPS and scare the bejeezus out of everyone.
Although it was less than 20 miles to the castle from Kadena AFB, by the time we got to the park, my nerves were a little rattled and I pulled into the first parking lot I saw. I pressed the button for a ticket, the gate lifted and I parked the car.
Finally on foot again, we explored the beautiful grounds and Shuri Castle. The main building housed an art exhibit with pieces dating back thousands of years. Rooms in the castle had been reconstructed based on written histories and photos to help visitors imagine what life was like when the castle served as a home to the king.
After our visit, we happened upon a little restaurant and experimented our way though dinner— purple yam donuts, Okinawa rice porridge, pork and taro donuts, and some kind of really tasty noodles. The staff didn’t speak English, so we were thankful that the menu had a bit of English and pictures!
After dinner, we returned to the car and found that we needed Japanese cash in order to exit. Up to this point in the day, we had relied solely on our Visa card. The highway toll booths, park, and restaurant all accepted Visa. But not the parking lot. We headed to the nearest convenience store to get some cash, but the ATM did not work with our card. We tried buying a small treat at a grocery store so we could get cash back, but that did not work either. We started asking people on the street if they spoke English so we could get help, but we couldn’t find anyone. It was getting late and dark and no one wanted to talk to the desperate tourists.
And then a school girl happened along who could speak a bit of broken English. She gave us directions to a nearby bank where we could find another ATM. We thought we were saved. We walked to the bank, closed by this time, and tried the ATM, but it did not work with our bank cards either. You know those little symbols on the back of your credit cards that indicate what systems they work with? I didn’t either until this adventure.
Ultimately we ended up back at the convenience store near the parking lot where I downloaded the Japanese language pack and used Google Translate to say that we were stuck in the parking lot because we didn’t have any cash. The app translates into Japanese characters so I had to give the clerk my phone so he could decipher the message. With a little better understanding, he followed us to the lot and used his own money to get us out. We thanked him profusely, but I don’t think he had a clue what we were saying. We left him with a $20 bill, more than twice the parking fee, but well worth the price!
The GPS led us back to our hotel without incident. From that point on we made sure we had local currency on all our adventures. We also downloaded language packs in Google Translate for the countries that we were visiting right away just in case we had to rely on technology to get us out of another jam.