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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.