Okinawa Prefecture is a chain of four main islands and smaller ‘island groups’ that stretch for over six hundred miles. Okinawa Island is the largest, its natural beauty dominated by the bustling capital Naha and a number of controversial American military bases. A weekend allows you to explore the most basic of tourist attractions, but leaves no opportunity for adventure on the paradises offshore.
Okinawans are known as ‘Ryukyuan’ for the chain of Ryukyu Islands of which they are part. They are quite used to the influx of foreign tourists and famous for being some of the longest-lived people on the planet. Alongside them is the resident United States military, whose presence is keenly felt. The sight of service members and their families is common around the island. Their American-style housing compounds are visible behind chain-link from the highway, and their cars are easy to spot thanks to the distinctive ‘Y’ on the license plate. Even the English-language music station serves both as reminder of home and unintentional source of humor due to its decidedly odd military commercials and public service announcements.
Tip: Stay in a Hostel Hostels in Naha are cheap, centrally located, and generally safe and clean.
It was a hot and muggy November when I arrived. I took a bus from the airport into the city, and spent some time trying to find my hostel. The staff at the Guesthouse Okinawa Monogatari were friendly and welcoming. The dorms had better security than most hostels, and the beds came with privacy curtains.
Naha has a half-tropical feel that many foreigners find incongruous to their preconceived image of Japan. We see the country in films as covered in rice fields and bamboo, mountainous, boasting festivals in summer and cherry blossoms in spring. We’re not taught to expect Naha’s palm trees, beaches, or tropical skirts being sold to tourists along the streets.
Habu-shu or ‘snake liquor’ is sold in shops along the main road. The giant jars of alcohol contain a coiled habu snake - deadly pit vipers native to southern Japanese islands - with its mouth open and fangs out, as if ready to strike. A tempting drink for someone seeking an exotic experience, at least until I learned the somewhat horrifying methods used to create it.
Tip: Rent a Car The bus and monorail system in Naha is clean and safe, but for anyone wanting to explore outside of the main city, renting a cheap car is the easiest - and arguably only - way to properly do so.
The next morning I enjoyed a complimentary pancake breakfast and made friends with a cheerful Japanese guest in the hostel common room.
My travel partner arrived around noon with our rental car, and we settled on a small parking lot near our hostel. The system here was a complicated one; first one parks their car in one of the tightly-packed spaces, then gets the attention of an elderly woman living on the second floor above the parking space. She sends down a bucket on a string, into which you deposit your car keys. When you wish to retrieve your car, the bucket descends again; you give her the money, and get the keys back in return.
Then we set off to explore Okinawa Island properly.
Our first stop that morning was Shuri-jo or Shuri Castle. Built in the 1300’s and a former jewel of the Ryukyu Kingdom, much of it was destroyed during WWII and rebuilt in the 1990’s.
The castle is pretty, if somewhat standard in size. The patterns painted on its walls differ from the usual Japanese castle aesthetic, outlining an unexpected contrast between Japanese and specifically Okinawan culture. We admired it, but decided against paid admission to the central courtyard, which is visible from afar if you take the footpath that circumnavigates the walls.
The castle also hosts frequent demonstrations of traditional and beautiful Okinawan dances.
The beaches of Okinawa Island cannot compare to those of smaller islands like Miyako-jima and Ishigaki, so we simply chose the one most readily accessible.
Araha Beach is not the prettiest or most unique stretch of coastline I have ever visited, but lying on the warm sand was a treat for mid-November, and there was some interesting scenery offshore. It seemed popular with foreign couples and their children - we saw a number of the ‘Y’ plated cars in the parking lot - but was far from swarmed, likely due to the time of year.
Relax (Massage and Hot Spring)
One of the things I most looked forward to in Okinawa was getting a massage, and we decided on the female-run, well-reviewed Secret Garden Aromatherapy Salon. Half an hour from central Naha, it was a clean and tranquil little place, with very skilled service for a very reasonable price. They cater to women and couples only. They worked magic, fixing months of back pain in under an hour. It was a revitalizing experience, and a relaxing end to the day.
We started the next morning at an onsen or Japanese hot spring.
Bathers with tattoos such as myself face something of a challenge, as hot springs generally ban us from using the facilities. This is so they can refuse - without explicitly stating so - to cater to the yakuza, or Japanese mafia. Of course, it is irresponsible to flout a country’s rules as a foreigner, and some hot springs will forcibly eject tattooed persons from the baths. On the other hand, tourists are very obviously not members of the Japanese mafia, and the country is beginning to relax its rules for foreigners, especially since smaller tattoos can be covered by a strategically-placed towel.
We decided on Ryukyu Onsen Senagajima Hotel, slightly pricey but not far from Naha. The morning rush cleared out around 8 AM, and we had the place entirely to ourselves. Though not large, the onsen was almost entirely salt-water - a rare treat. It had a number of fun baths, pools, and enormous clay pots suitable for a single person to soak in. There was also a standing pool, which submerged me up to my ribs and was situated overlooking the ocean. The sea view was gorgeous.
Churaumi Aquarium lies on a peninsula one-and-a-half hours north of Naha. Once the largest aquarium in the world, it boasts a nice collection of aquatic animals and a cute gift shop.
The range of sea life is fascinating, and the whale sharks are especially stunning in their gorgeous main tank. However, while the sea creatures look healthy, their tanks are not large in comparison to their body size. Some tiny creatures in side-exhibits even seem to reside in fish-bowls.
There is also a shark ‘study’ room. Despite the fact that humans slaughter thousands of sharks daily, the room focuses almost entirely on shark dissection rather than preservation. More of the room is devoted to shark meat delicacies than educating visitors on natural shark behavior.
I also must unfortunately give a complete thumbs-down to Cafe Ocean Blue, the aquarium’s only restaurant. Their literal only option for non-meat-eaters was onion rings. The pasta, shrimp rice, and even corn soup (???) included meat. The staff was very kind about trying to assist me, but there was not much they could do. On the plus side, the cafe was directly beside the beautiful main tank. It provided a welcome distraction from my hunger pangs and mediocre onion rings.
Naha has a number of interesting restaurants, bars, and clubs.
Our first night was concluded with a visit to Bacar Okinawa, a lovely pizza parlor. From the counter you can see chefs making and baking some of the best pizza in Japan. The mixed drinks are also delicious, and the service very nice. Go early or make a reservation - they were full except for a few pre-booked seats, and only let us kip there provided we finished eating before the next customers were due.
The next night we spent several hours at Mafali Cafe, close to our hostel. It was a very nice African-themed restaurant and bar with good food and fantastic drinks. I recommend the cheese platter.