Alright! Next up, the southern-most prefecture in Japan, Okinawa!
In March, I took a week off in between school years (new school year begins in April) and headed to the warm (not hot) Okinawa islands. :) So let’s get to it!
Okinawa is a series of islands south of Japan’s main islands, and to the east of Taiwan. I kind of see it like the Hawaii of Japan. It’s affordable to get to from mainland Japan, and offers a break from everyday life in many different ways.
Okinawa consists of a few groups of islands, the biggest of which is the Okinawa Main Island, where you find Naha, the capital city, the main peace memorials, the famous Okinawan aquarium, and some US bases. Many people just go to this island and have a great time, as it is connected via ferries to smaller islands that surround it.
One hour flight south of the main island is the southern most group of islands called the Yaeyama Islands, which is where two islands called Ishigaki and Iriomote (known for it’s mangrove jungles) are located.
Many people head to Okinawa in the summer months, when it is popular for it’s water sports and nature activities. Popular activities include scuba diving, kayaking, swimming, and banana boating (Google it hahaha).
What many people might not know, is that Okinawa was originally an independent kingdom called the Ryukyu Kingdom, which unified in the 1300s. The kingdom was organized into three regions and ruled by their respective kings. This region had it’s own languages, it’s own native religion, clothing, culture, etc. The kingdom rose to prominence as a major player in the sea trade between the 1400s and 1600s, and trade with China can be seen to have influenced things like architecture and pottery.
In the 1600s, the kingdom was invaded by Japan, triggering a long series of events that led to it being taken over and turned into Okinawa Prefecture in 1879. Things got progressively more severe during the end of WWII, when the major battles in Japan were fought on Okinawan soil. Natives of Okinawa had been forced to give up their traditions, clothing, and languages in favor of Japanese customs and language, and were expected to support the Japanese war effort during the last days of WWII. Today, peace memorials and museums stand as a tribute to those lives lost, both Okinawan and Japanese.
We decided to spend about a week in Okinawa, visiting not only the main island which holds the capital, but also one of the smaller, more remote islands.
Day 1 – Arrive in Ishigaki Island
Day 2 – Ishigaki
Day 3 – Ferry over to Iriomote Island, and stay the night
Day 4 – Ferry back to Ishigaki, and fly to Naha City
Days 5, 6, 7 – Naha and Okinawa Island
Day 8 – Leave from Naha
To be honest, this felt like an OK amount of time for me. There were things I missed, and there were things I could have done without. I went into this vacation wanting to have a relaxing time, but ended up with sore feet and a headache at the end of every other day because there was so much to do. I do think if we had had access to a car, it would have been a bit better. :P
Getting around the Okinawa Islands
Getting TO Okinawa seemed to have been easier than getting AROUND Okinawa… without a car at least. My International Driver’s Permit expired almost a year ago and without that, I was left to depend on public transportation. Everywhere you look online, people highly recommend renting a car when visiting Okinawa, but what can you do!
To start with, Okinawa has a very limited train system. So limited, that it in fact only has the following monorail (Yui Rail), which runs through the city of Naha:
For your reference, the peace memorials are south of the monorail, down near Itoman, and the famous aquarium is way up north, on the little peninsula on the left, near Nago.
To get to those areas, you need to either drive, or take some kind of bus. The public buses don’t register in Google maps, so the only option is navigating paper or online maps and timetables. Taxis are an option, but only if you really want to burn cash. :P Japanese taxi rates are comparable to US taxi rates (albeit nicer, with automatically opening doors, and white lacy covers on the headrests).
However, I do want to say that getting around without a car IS possible, and if you make your peace with it, you can still have an enjoyable trip. It might not be as efficient, and you might need to get creative, especially with planning and working around having somewhat limited mobility.
I managed to get around using the following combo:
- To get around Ishigaki island, we rented our hostel’s bikes, used buses, and walked around the rest.
- On Iriomote Island, we depended on our tour guide, and hotel for transportation to and from the ferry port, and other destinations.
- As for Naha and the Okinawa Main Island, we used Yui Rail and the Okinawa Bus Tour company to get around.
In Ishigaki, we stayed in a hostel called Guest House Chura Cucule, not to be confused with Hotel Cucule (same host company, different buildings/locations in Ishigaki). :D
It was really beautiful! It seemed recently renovated, with lots of wooden accents all throughout the hostel. The common area was chill for hanging out (they had a really comfy tatami area, these somewhat uncomfortable stool things, and a kitchen table where you could eat, or hang out with the other hostel folk). The sleeping areas were divided into male and female dorms, dimly lit, and split up into different sized wooden cubbies with lock boxes inside. I had the smallest cubby type but I was perfectly comfortable! I had enough room for my luggage and all. The air was also on (or there was some kind of white noise), which helped muffled sound. Really nice! An easy 15-20 minute or so walk from the port, but not bad. :)
On Iriomote, we stayed in a “pension” (budget B&B kind of accommodation) called Irumoteso. :)
This place was so sweet! It was tucked away on Iriomote, which is an island covered by mangrove forests. We were only here for one night, but it was a wonderful one!
First off, the people (I believe it’s a family?) who run this place are very sweet. It feels very… home-grown and comfortable. They feel more like friends inviting you into their home, curious about you and your well being, rather than hotel staff. :) The hostel also has an open front yard, from which you can see the port and the ocean really nicely. Plus, you have the option of ordering dinner or breakfast at the hostel for a small fee! Breakfast was delicious. <3 Home-made with love! It made me wish we had ordered dinner as well!
The building itself felt kind of out-dated, as if you were stepping into somebody’s large country home, but it was perfectly comfortable. We had fluffy futons to sleep on, and our room had an ocean view! So beautiful! <3 It makes me want to stay at a place like this for a lazy weekend. :)
Finally, in Naha, we stayed in an Airbnb that had been converted from a bar.
This was an interesting one… There was a pink gorilla and a face-less mannequin head that were creeping us out because we felt were looking at us at night. D: The place also had lots of One Piece posters and memorabilia, which was cool! The bathroom had like, 7 toilet papers hahahaha. It was REALLY close to International Street, so a great location, but a bit loud at night. We heard people throwing up and partying and yelling outside on the street from time to time, and had to use our fans as white noise. Other than that, it was interesting!
And that’s it for the overview! Coming up, I will have some posts on Ishigaki, Iriomote, Naha, and other parts of the Okinawa Main Island. :) Slow and steady, hahaha!