Okinawa was just what I needed. A gruelling two week whirlwind trip of Kansai and Tokyo had worn me out. I was coughing up sputum and dislodging orange-brown blockages from my sinus. The karaoke sessions in Shibuya and Shinjuku had not helped.
Okinawa did help. On arrival & disembarkation the general steam of the Okinawan humidity started to clear me up. And it was hot. A hot, hot humidity. This, it must be noted, is my favourite weather. So I was forgetting my traveller’s illness already on the curb, trying to figure out how to get to a car rental booth when it seemed that even less people spoke english here than in Tokyo. That was surprising, as there are almost one hundred thousand American troops and their families stationed on the island. Which of course, the locals have mixed feelings about, to put it delicately.
The Okinawans are friendly enough, with dark tans and a culture somewhat independent of mainland Japan, even if it is hard to put into words the features that distinguish the difference. I say friendly enough because I barely met any Okinawans, except for those in customer facing roles. Perhaps that is strange, but I guess we were somewhat isolated, as I will elucidate later.
Ahem. The rental car situation. My halting, glaringly incorrect Japanese vocabulary of a handful of phrases and words, together with my slow ability to read hiragana and katakana, was no good for me here. On the curb the attendants pointed us inside. We find a booth and manage to order two cards, for six of us. I prayed for a cubic-style car like those in Tokyo. Ben would have nothing of the sort, believing them to be geographically isolated to the mainland, Honshu. He also thinks they are ugly. Luckily I won and the cubic cars we got were small and weak, but cheap. We spent about ¥6000 ($60AUD roughly) each for two cars for three days. Not bad, we all agreed upon.
The drive from Naha airport to our house that we had booked on Airbnb took about an hour. This distance is about twenty percent of the length of the island, and considerably built up the whole way, with traffic as well. To be honest with you straight up, it is not a pretty place on first look. Only when one is driving on a highway of less densely packed area (like between Naha and Chatan where we were staying, or further up north where civilisation recedes), can one glimpse the spectacular and ancient beauty of Okinawa in the steep volcanic hills.
The island is home to an ancient kingdom; the kingdom of Ryukyu, who throughout much of history resisted mainland Japanese rule. It is also home to ancient flora; the Cycas Revoluta is in abundance wherever one looks. A member of the Cycad family, these slow growing tough plants are as old as the Jurassic period. They are beautiful to behold, but are slowly shrinking in number worldwide, partly due to collecting. I want one.
When we arrived in Chatan, where we were staying, we drove through little back alleyways to find our Airbnb house. The listing was titles “Best Okinawan Relaxution House”. It was located about a ten minute drive from the nearest beach, in a quite residential area with not much going on, which we didn’t mind too much after the onslaught of Harajuku. It was a huge house; three stories including garage, five bedrooms, two bathrooms, and expansive common rooms. I christened it “The Compound,” due to it’s cast concrete cladding. our own Okinawan fortress. I recommend it if you are going to stay in Okinawa. The air conditioning is powerful, which is necessary, and the house is close to “American Village,” also known as Mihama. Just down the road is United States Air Force Base Kadena, which takes up a significant portion of the main island of Okinawa.
As soon as we arrived at our house and dumped our bags, we drove 5 minutes to the nearest beach, Mihama. Reggae music was booming from the beach bar sound system, and I was happy. One delicious Orion (the local brew) later, and we were all quite glad to be there. Our nearby table-neighbours were all beefy American troops. The beach was super low tide and looked like a mud flat. I’m sure it looks better at high tide. The surrounding area looks like Honolulu. Tall apartment buildings, big malls, ferris wheel. Further out across the bay is a Tokyo-like sprawl of buildings and factories with tall stacks poking the heavens. Overhead, periodically, an old bomber plane would fly by low, doing a circuit of the local area. With less frequency, helicopters patrol loudly. Even less frequently, a squadron of U.S fighter jets scream past. This was not a novelty, not a show. This was characteristic of my entire experience of Okinawa.
By now you might be correctly guessing that Okinawa is a slightly strange place. I won’t refute it.
I was considering a few more beers, but I thought better of it when I did some research and saw the harsh, harsh penalties for low range drink driving over 0.03% blood alcohol content. That could possibly be as little as two beers for me, and I didn’t want to spend five years in a Japanese prison for that. That night, exhausted as we were, we ate Thai food in American village on Japanese Okinawa. It had turned out to be a long day, starting with a Keisei Skytrain trip to Narita from Nippori station in Tokyo at 9am.
The next day we visited Zampa beach, which proved to be a better beach than Mihama. The tide was up, it was midday, it was hot. The water was warm, the sand was white and scorching. Brazilian samba and jazz from the 60’s was playing on the public address system (Jorge Ben Jor, Marcos Valle, etc). The PA system I am sure also warns of tsunami when needed.
The drive to Zampa was about half an hour through sparsely occupied hills and cane fields, and I was beginning to see the real Okinawa away from the bases.
Zampa beach was a sterile, carefully controlled environment, which is strange to an Australian. It was very nice though; wide open blue ocean, hot sun, greenery all around the cliffs, rusted old giant wind turbine and brutalist imposing hotel building behind. Oh, don’t forget the place. They are everywhere.
I had been in Okinawa less than a day but already my sickness was practically gone. After getting thoroughly sunkissed, we packed up and left, relaxed, for the nearby Ryukyu kingdom ruins of Zakimi Castle. Zakimi Castle itself is long gone. The walls surrounding it will be there for thousands more years. Made of huge coral stones put together with such precision and finesse, the ruins left us all in awe. That or the heatstroke. I believe for dinner we made our own version of the Okinawan specialty Taco Rice in our own kitchen after shopping at the nearby grocery store, and planned to retire early. However, around 9pm we were greeted by a troupe of local high school students practising a traditional song, drumming and dancing in the park adjacent to our compound. The song went for at least an hour. It was eerily beautiful, and still haunts me. Turns out, they did this nightly, whilst we sat outside in the humidity drinking cans of Orion.
Cape Maeda was up next, the next day. Renowned for it’s diving and snorkelling, though I had my doubts. This was the East China Sea, after all. I had decided not to dive the night before. I did not want to risk it with my recent sinus troubles, although they were but a memory by now. I regretted that decision when I arrived at Cape Maeda and saw the water. Crystal clear, turquoise and aqua blue, colourful coral. All next to dagger-like cliffs of ancient coral, covered in dense tropical flora. It was too late in the afternoon to join a dive when we arrived, so I settled on snorkelling with Dan, Matt and Ivan.
My second regret was forgetting to pack my GoPro. Cape Maeda was the most impressive snorkelling I have seen in my life. Fish of all colours and sizes were absolutely everywhere, as were beautiful corals and anemones. The shelf that one snorkels on is between one and five metres deep, before dropping off vertically to the blue murky depths. The rental man (who was impressed by my Japanese I must say) said it was 50 – 100m deep just beyond the shelf.
To access the shelf, we walked down a set of stairs wedged in between giant sharp cliffs. Open expanse of sea ahead of us, with a volcano silhouette on the horizon. This part of Okinawa was better still than all we had seen so far. Embedded in the cliffs are tsunami warning speakers, and above your snorkelling there are of course bomber and helicopter patrols.
The four of us snorkelers left our lifejackets near the steps – how can one dive in a lifejacket? The law sayds you need to hire, but you don’t need to wear, so we assured the man at Take Dive that we would wear them as we handed over (each!) the day’s gear rental of ¥4000 ($40 AUD).
On entering the very warm water we were all amazed. We swam through the blue cave, which going in is pitch black, but going out is cerulean blue, silhouetting the abundant schools of fish inside the cave with the light filtering in from outside the cave. In this cave, at the end, is a rocky outcrop that leads to a hole in the cave wall to the outside wall. Those brave enough to mount the rocks to the outside of the cave on the cliff face (as we were) are given a spectacular view of the surrounding ocean and reef.
I could not tell you how many thousands of fish I saw. The most in my life. Go to Cape Maeda and snorkel (or better yet dive), if you go to Okinawa.
After a few hours of snorkelling, we packed up and ventured to nearby Nirai Beach. This is a better beach than Mihama and Zampa both. A huge resort rises from the wilderness, complete with two wedding chapels facing the sea, looking quite out of place. We watched the sunset here with Orion, of course. For dinner we ate at a sushi restaurant in Mihama American Village called Ichibantei, which I can highly recommend for quality of sushi.
On our final day in Okinawa, we split into two groups. One group saw the Okinawa Aquarium which was apparently amazing. I don’t like the idea of whale sharks in tanks though, so Ivan, Matt and I ventured as far north on the island as we dared, where the wilderness takes over. We headed to Uruma Beach. Along the amazing two hour drive we saw countless pristine beaches, many tiny towns. We passed through one called Ogimi, known for having the highest concentration of the oldest people, anywhere. Didn’t see anyone though, in this tiny town.
When we arrived at Uruma Beach, it was practically deserted, even though it was hot summer. There were perhaps twenty other people at the resort (all the beaches seem to be resorts). In keeping with the theme, this beach blew all the others out of the proverbial water. Picturesque comes close. Uruma is a coral & sand beach. Swimming & relaxing here on the sunbeds, reading Monocle was idyllic. The Uruma resort also has a nice little pool as well, which we made use of but were disappointed by the lack of a swim-up bar. If I was to return to Okinawa on some kind of romantic trip, I would stay at the resort at Uruma.
We spent a few hours there before heading to nearby Hiji falls. Unfortunately it was already 5pm and they were closed. The two hour trip back to Chatan made up for it though. Caked in sea salt, humid air rushing past, the late afternoon haze coming off the water. Sheer cliffs on one side, densely packed with tropical jungle, gently crashing waves on the other. What a way to end a day, what a way to end a trip.
Okinawa, a strange and wonderful place.
Next up, when i get around to it; Osaka!
By the way, you can buy some of my photos if you like on 500px.
By the way, you can buy some of my photos on 500px.