Love & Life Voices

Alone in Okinawa: An Indian Woman Sets Off for a Surreal 60th Birthday

After journeying to 32 countries, avid solo traveller Versha Khanna decided to spend her 60th birthday in Okinawa, a small Japanese town in the middle of the ocean.

By Versha Khanna

It was my 60th birthday and I wanted to do something special by myself. I’ve travelled all across the world – to over 32 countries, besides all across India – and being a single woman has never been a concern. I travel several times a year, whether or not any of my family or friends join me (they often do).

I went through various destination options online, and then a friend sent me a link to the most beautiful places to visit on earth. One of them was Okinawa, home to the longest living people on earth: more than 200 people above the age of 100 live there, in a population of just over 1 million. Some of them are over 120 years old! They have been the subject of various studies and books, including the latest bestseller, Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life by Hector Garcia and Francesc Miralles.

And from what I could see in the photos, it appeared to be heaven on earth.

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Okinawa: a picture I saw in an online article

I already had a visa for Japan in my passport as it is my favourite destination. So on January 4 this year, I set off from Delhi to Okinawa via Hong Kong. I had booked myself for nine days in Okinawa and a couple of nights in Hong Kong on the way back.

For the first four nights, I was scheduled to stay at a sea-facing resort. Within a few minutes of the limousine bus starting off from the airport, I was struck by a strange sense of “Where have I come?” There were only plants and shrubs to be seen all around, hardly a person in sight. But after one hour, the view opened up and I could see as far as the beach. Suddenly things seemed better.

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At Tokashiki Island

Those first few days were almost a culture shock for a person from a hot, crowded, busy metro city like Delhi. The view was exquisite, of course. And I did all the touristy things: tried one of the hot communal baths (a first for me); went to the beach several times; took a tourist coach and went sightseeing.

Wherever I went, I told people I was from India. “From Indo?” they’d ask, amazed. Most of them had never met an Indian before, let alone a single woman traveller from India. They were always friendly and happy to chat.

I also took a boat ride out to the stunning Tokashiki Island, where a TV crewman was making a video of the place. He was so excited to meet a solo Indian woman traveller that he interviewed me for local television.

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L-R: The only one at the bus stop; the Mihama American Village at night

It was a surreal few days. There was hardly anyone around. I would walk down to the local bus stop — where I was the only person — and take a bus to nearby places. I was usually the only person on the beach too. On one of the days, I visited the Mihama American Village, an entertainment complex built with an American theme with shops, restaurants and joyrides, including a Ferris wheel.

The area also serves as an American military base and the sentiment I gauged is that the local Okinawans aren’t too happy about it. But since the base serves the Japanese government’s larger interests, residents here have to just put up with it.

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Table for one

I then visited an observatory where one could view marine life from up close. Though I’d been vegetarian for a long time, I’ve recently started eating fish, so I didn’t have much of a problem eating out in Okinawa. There was all kinds of seafood to try.

On my 60th birthday (January 9), I visited the local Soka Gakkai Buddhist cultural centre, an extension of the Buddhism practice I follow myself. My fellow practitioners – whom I had never met before – gave me a hero’s welcome for having come from so far. I was the first Indian person to ever visit the place. One of the young boys gave me a gift given to him personally by our mentor, and I was deeply touched.

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L-R: Holding a traditional Japanese shamisen; at the Soka Gakkai peace centre

I also visited some of the local shops and chatted up with the people there. I met an 85-year-old well-dressed woman at one place. When I complimented her clothing, she said she was headed to her granddaughter’s wedding and invited me along (but I wasn’t dressed as fabulously as she was for the occasion, so I politely declined).

We got talking and she explained that she works as a real-estate consultant; in fact, she tried to convince me to buy a property in the area and live to a ripe old age like all of them. I was mightily impressed and told her I’d advertise her services back home in India. (She runs Win Property, in case you plan to buy real estate in Okinawa.)

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At Naha city, Okinawa

For the next four days, I stayed in Naha, which had a very Japanese-city feel to it, something I was more familiar with. The city is well-connected by mono-rail, and it was easy to get around. I visited Shuri Castle, one of the oldest of the area on a hilltop, from where I could see the whole city. There were a few more people to chat with, too.

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Shuri Castle, Naha, Okinawa

Despite the ‘acclimatization’ to city life, I got a terrible shock when my nine-day Okinawa holiday ended and I landed at Hong Kong for the remaining three days of my journey. The moment I stepped out of my hotel, the noise and chaos assaulted my senses so violently that tears stung my eyes and I had to rush back to the silence of my own room. It took a while for me to step out again and adjust in mind and body from a serene seaside town to a large metropolitan city.

Twelve days later, I was back in my hometown, the very polluted, crowded, busy Delhi. Interestingly, despite the objections of airport staff, I had somehow managed to make the entire journey (four different flights in all) with the wrong spelling of my name on my air ticket.

I guess I was destined to turn 60 in Okinawa.

Versha Khanna is a Delhi-based businesswoman and travel junkie. Follow her on Facebook.

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