SOMEWHERE NORTH OF NAGO, Okinawa — It was one of those “use it or lose it” vacations. Despite being one of the wettest seasons we have seen during our nine years on Okinawa, we were forced to take a few days off or lose them New Year’s Day.
So, with tunes carefully chosen for the ride ahead and the cooler full, my wife and I headed north for Okinawa’s green jungle mountains and the “Okuni-rindo,” or “mountain road.”
It was time for a “driving meditation,” to get lost in the natural beauty of Okinawa’s far north, away from the bustle of the island’s crowded center — its traffic jams, shopping centers and U.S. military bases.
We traveled with the Zen words of Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hunh guiding our trip:
Before starting the car
I know where I am going
The car and I are one
If the car goes fast, I go fast.
At least that’s how I remember this driving meditation; my wife, Ruth Ellen the Wise, says I have somehow skewed it.
But for me, the fun is not knowing where I am going. It is, instead, to get lost in the road. I like to think of it as becoming one with the “road less traveled.” Ruth Ellen calls it “taking the longest shortcuts known to man.”
The Okuni-rindo tempts with many shortcuts. Sticking to the winding, paved two-lane highway is fun the first few times. But it’s the gravel and dirt side roads that make the trip. Roads to nowhere or somewhere — it’s all in your point of view.
The best way to get there is to hop on the Okinawa Toll Road (paying the fare can save an hour or two driving time) and head for its end at Nago. From there, follow Highway 58 through the city and north, where 58 hugs the western coast toward Hedo Point.
To travel the entire Okuni-rindo, take Highway 58 past the turn-off to the Okuma Military Recreation Area all the way to Highway 2 at Yona. Turn right and head east until you see some colorful signs in Kanji — Japanese writing — directing you to turn right for the start of the mountain highway.
Our preferred route however, is to bypass the northernmost section, turn right off Highway 58 at the Okuma intersection, then travel past the entrance to Hiji Falls park and continue to travel uphill until the road ends in a “T” at the official Okuni-rindo. Then turn left and be prepared for adventure.
During our trip, we chose this route on a rainy fall day. After a quick stop at Okuma for a “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” we started our trek.
“The way to beat the clouds is to drive into them,” I told my wife.
“That’s nice — curvy, barely two-laned mountain roads with a visibility of two or three inches,” she replied. “Should be fun.”
We crossed Highway 58, drove past the turnoff to Hiji Falls and drove up, up, up the snaking mountain road. We followed the twists and turns.
Climbing, we caressed the curves; finessing them with convex mirrors as we drove through the clouds forming in the valleys below. The road carried us past pineapple fields and tangerine orchards to the “T,” the connection to Okuni-rindo, and we turned right.
Mile after mile, and not another soul.
At spots the jungle threatened to reclaim the road, eliminating all trace of the concrete ribbon rising up, up, around and down, and then up again.
A little-traveled trail, a single-laned, potholed path of patchy asphalt and gravel cut through the thick jungle, branched off to our left. I looked at Ruth Ellen.
“Dare we take it?” she asked?
“Dare we not?” I answered.
Suzy, our four-wheel drive Suzuki Escudo, was made for such adventure and easily handled the trail, so unused that at parts vast spider webs — spider condos — blocked our passage.
Rain droplets, like diamonds, hung from the silk.
Ruth Ellen got out of the car and gently brushed them aside with a big stick. It was hard work; the intricate webs were strongly anchored, and she was sprung back a few times before carefully clearing a path.
“I didn’t want to ruin such art,” she said as we rolled onward, ever upward, under the canopy of trees.
Suddenly, bright yellow posts marked the trail’s edge. “USMC,” they were stamped. But not one said “Keep Out” so we continued our climb.
The road narrowed. We inched along past steep drops down the rocky, jungle slopes. At a clearing, we stopped, stood at the edge and eyed a lush carpet of green, mile after mile of mountains, inviting, embracing, nurturing.
We stood and, with upraised arms, shouted: “Top O’ the world, Ma! Top O’ the World!”
A bit further on the trail ended abruptly; an anticlimax at a barbed-wire U.S. Army enclosure. It was a microwave tower — a concrete and steel monstrosity — way out of place up there in heaven.
Reluctantly, we turned around — we often are forced to backtrack on these “shortcuts” — and headed back down the trail of the banana spiders.
At the Okuni-rindo’s end we hung a left at another “T” intersection and drove toward the fabulous Fukuchi Dam. On a rare straight stretch a sign in kanji and English shouted, zen-like: “Speed Down!”
A new meditation poem formed:
There is no incessant voice
from Tokyo, some editor
demanding 10 more inches
of copy in 15 minutes.
There’s no news hole
for the newsies to fill.
Speed down! and smell the —
well, hibiscus and pineapple
will have to substitute
for the fabled roses.
And smell the ocean.
“Speed down!” the sign shouts.
“You’re on vacation.”