We flew from Ishigaki Island to Okinawa Island. It took only an hour. The view out the window was spectacular. The colour of the subtropical islands, the corals and the water were all so gorgeous and blue.
I grew up in Canada with neighbours who were from Okinawa. Over the years, my brother and I spent a lot of time playing with our neighbours, two sisters who went to the same school as we did. I envied my friend’s miniature Japanese toys. At Christmas, our households would exchange food. I remember the first time I saw the tray of Japanese food: there was sushi and vegetables I’d never seen before. Japanese remains one of my favourite cuisines.
Naha is the capital of the Okinawa Prefecture, which includes more than 160 islands and 1.44 million people. Okinawa Island has a population of 800,000 with 230,000 of them calling Naha home. Some of you may know that Okinawans live longer than almost anyone else on the planet – there are more centenarians here than anywhere on Earth. This has been attributed to the traditional local diet, which consists of vegetables, soy products and seafood including seaweed.
Arcade and market
Tsuboya Pottery Street
Naha has been the centre of ceramic production since 1682, during the time of the Ryuku kingdom. You will find pottery of all sorts and shapes including shiisā (lion-dog guardians that you see at the door or on the roof of just about every Okinawan home, shop and workplace), containers for awamori (rice liquor), vases and kitchenware.
I wanted to buy so many things! You see, there is a con with having to travel light. Gabi, I thought of you as we went through Pottery Street 🙂
Road trip around Okinawa Island
We rented a car for a day and drove around this beautiful island. We had a good map and the car’s built-in GPS also made it easy to navigate the roads, which weren’t too busy. Driving around was pretty stress-free.
The bridge (above) connecting Yagiji Island to Kouri Island is nearly 2km long and toll-free (surprising for Japan). I believe it is the longest bridge in the country.
We’re posing in front of “Heart Rock” – apparently doing so guarantees happiness. There were many Japanese tourists here. We thought Heart Rock looked more like whale tail rock.
About 90km north of Naha is the village of Bise. Three hundred years ago, trees were planted here to use as windbreakers from the ocean breezes. Nowadays, the archway of 20,000 of these trees provide serene walkways. You can also bicycle through the sandy alleyways. It felt so peaceful walking through the tree-line paths and then to the ocean.
American Village, is located just 15km north of Naha. “Many American military bases are located in the area, and the entertainment complex’s theme of Americana provides a nostalgic pleasure for residents of the bases as well as an interesting diversion for the locals. The Mihama American Village resembles a big American outdoor shopping mall with lots of shops, restaurants, cafes and a large parking lot.” (From Japan Guide)
Okinawa is home to about 27,000 US military personnel, plus their families. There are several US bases here including one just north of Naha. The American military occupied Japan from the end of World War II in 1945 until 1952, and didn’t give up control of Okinawa and the Ryukyu Islands until 1972.
Although Okinawa prefecture is now under Japanese control, the bases are still here. There has been a lot of controversy and many residents want the US bases gone. We found that many Okinawans speak English quite well (as opposed to those living in Honshu), most likely because of the American presence.
“Shuri is the name of the former capital of the Ryukyu Kingdom. Shuri Castle (首里城, Shurijō) served as the administrative center and residence of the Ryukyu kings for several centuries until Okinawa became a Japanese prefecture in 1879. The castle is included as one of the UNESCO World Heritage designated Castles of the Ryukyu Kingdom sites.” From JapanGuide.com
The castle walls are made of interlocking coral limestone, stretching a total length of 1,080 metres. The walls are 6-15 metres high and 3 metres wide.
At the tea room at Shuri Castle, we were served jasmine tea. Interestingly, Okinawans favour jasmine tea, which is a popular Chinese tea. On Honshu, most residents favour green tea.
After walking around Shuri Castle on a very warm day, we walked into town for some lunch. Paul had read about this restaurant and found it.
This stunning flower (above) with the unearthly blue tone is called jade or emerald vine (strongylodon macrobotrys L.) and was growing in the garden at the entrance to the restaurant. Their description of this flora reads: “… a native of the Phillipines, with stems that can reach up to 20m in length. The claw-shaped flowers are carried in pendant trusses or psuedo racemes of 75 or more flowers and can reach as much as 3m long.”
In Naha, we stayed at Hotel Urbansea, which was walking distance to town and to the ferry for Zamami Island (more on that further down). A common accomodation option in Japan is a room with a kitchenette (stove, sink, fridge, microwave) and a washing machine. Ideal for travellers!
And now I explain Japanese bathrooms to you…
First, the toilet. Toilets in Japan are amazing. There is a console on the side of the toilet that consist of buttons. After a Number 2, you press a button to wash your bum. You can adjust the strength of the spray and also how cold or hot the water is. Women also have the option of washing after a Number 1.With the buttons, you can also adjust the nozzle so it’s in the correct position. Some of them even have bum dryers. The washing wand self-cleans after each use. There is also a sink at the top of the toilet where you can wash your hands. After the bum guns of South East Asia, we much preferred Japanese toilets and hope we can install one at home once we’re back in Australia. We like the fact it uses less toilet paper.
The Japanese also enjoy bathing and onsens and their bathrooms reflect this tradition. In many bathrooms, plastic stools are provided and there is always a mirror. You sit on the stool and use the shower to wash yourself. Once you’re clean, you can then get into the bath and luxuriate in its warmth. A Canadian guy, who lives with his family in Japan, produced this fantastic video explaining Japanese bathrooms, including the fact it doubles as a place to dry your clothes.
Zamami Island is a little paradise – all 16.74 square kilometres of it. Yes it’s tiny. And it’s not populous; there are less than 1,000 residents. We took the ferry from Naha to Zamami Island, which takes about two hours, or an hour by fast ferry. We were here for five days.
There are three villages on the island: Zamami, Ama and Asa. Everything is walking distance, although there is one bus that can take you to the main beaches and villages.
There were tsunami sea level signs everywhere. The red triangular sign is a stop sign.
You have to wear water shoes or sandals on this part of the beach because it was full of chunks of coral that hurt and could cut bare feet.
We’d never seen such big shells! And the hermit crabs were big too, about the size of an Oreo cookie. We wished we could take the shells with us!
On the way to Ama Beach is a statue of Marilyn, who is looking out towards Aka Island where there is a statue of Shiro who is looking out towards Zamami Island. The story goes that Shiro used to live on Zamami and fell in love with Marilyn, but Shiro and his owner moved to Aka Island. Villagers noticed that a dog, Shiro, would swim across the inlet almost every day to visit another dog, Marilyn. Isn’t love sweet…
Elina spotted the sea turtle twice – once in the morning and once later in the afternoon. She was very lucky to spot it as other snorklers went out and didn’t see any turtles.
We loved Okinawa and Zamami Islands and had such a wonderful time here. It was great to chill out in subtropical Japan before we hit Honshu and the busyness of Tokyo.