I call this a tourist excursion this time because I took the normal tourist route of a packaged tour to a traditional tourist destination. While I normally don’t go for the package trip, due to the fact that the nature of the travel industry in Japan makes it costly to DIY by purchasing the bits separately, and we found an unbeatable deal for two at 80,000 Yen for 4 days and 3 nights it was the way to go.
This trip was from April 8 to April 11, a perfect time just as the warm season is starting, and just before the Golden Week rush. As always, timing is critical to get the best deal and also to avoid the maddening crowds that often happen at the popular destinations.
We also decided to make this an easy trip – not to adventurous but the get reacquainted with the Ryukyu islands. While I had in the past travelled extensively through the smaller islands like Ishigaki, Kume and Miyako, this trip would be confined to Naha and the main island.
One of the observations that I made during this trip was the composition of the tourists. According the JNTO data, in 2017 the top five foreign tourists were from Korean at 28%, followed by Taiwan at 24%, China at 22%, Hong Kong at 12% and the USA at 5%. I would venture that the USA number is probably overstated as with 25,000 active troops in Okinawa, some of the data of official visits may get mulled into the overall number. So, in walking around, if you saw a foreigner, chances are they were either from Korea or Greater China, or a US serviceman (or woman) and their families.
A comment about the flood of Chinese tourists. Although they often have a bad image about their behavior, I could not help but think that without them, the economy here would be so much different. The flood of Asian tourists here does seem to keep the tourism industry afloat. In fact, it seemed active and growing as I noticed a lot of new development going on. Outside of the support that goes to the vast military infrastructure, Okinawa has few natural resources, not much industry and a very small agricultural sector.
Okinawa also has very little public transport infrastructure, so unless you are on a guided tour, a rental car is essential to get around. Luckily, our package included a rental car for the duration.
The first stop was the American Village / American Depot in Chatan. This is right near the main American base and it is considered one of the top tourist draws in Okinawa. At first, I was hesitant to go to such a place (as an American the last thing I want to see is some fake recreation of home), but when I got there, I was pleasantly surprised.
First of all, the place is truly massive. It is a hodge-podge of eclectic facades like you would find like somewhere in Las Vegas. While it was indeed touristy, but not the sense that it was a bunch shops selling tacky goods only a tourist would buy (yes they did have those), but there was also some unique shops and a huge variety of attractive dining options that while had a slight premium on the price, but were in fact decent places to dine, including nice views of the ocean.
Okinawa Soba is unique and a famous dish from the islands and I was dying to try it, so I made it for my first lunch. One of the shops in the American Depot had a really authentic place that was reasonably priced. Okinawa pork is excellent, and on this variety, it is cooked so long that the bones become softened you can eat them. See in the photo above.
We checked into our hotel that was right at the American Village. The Vessel Hotel Campana. It was a very nice mid-range hotel along the lines of a Four-Points Sheraton. It was super clean and perfect for families, convenient and with great views of the ocean.
So after lunch, we got in the car to drive around and explore. Driving in Okinawa is pretty easy in the sense that the drivers are used to foreigners and are very patient and gentle. Okinawa has a good toll road infrastructure.
The first destination was a slow drive up North to the Motobo Peninsula through Nago and Kouri Island to the Heart Rock. It is a pretty famous place and there were a lot of people there, so I had to take some time to find a good chance to take a photo without any people there. The water was really clear and the weather pretty mild at about 28c.
The next stop was the The Ocean Expo Park (海洋博公園, Kaiyōhakukōen). It is a large park on the tip of the Motobu Peninsula. I which was built in 1976 to commemorate the Okinawa International Ocean Expo held there a year earlier. The park’s main attraction is the Churaumi Aquarium, Japan’s best aquarium.
The park is really massive – about three long kilometers along the coast. What is amazing is that this facility has been repurposed into this huge park. The grounds are meticulously maintained. I have been to similar repurposed facilities, but I have never seen one that has been so well preserved as this. You can literally spend a who day there. While we did not got to the aquarium, there were many exhibits which were totally free – including a dolphin performance, and a sea turtle and dugong exhibit. It was really worth the stop.
The next stop was the Nakagasuku castle remains site. With a lot of curves and arches, the architecture is very different from mainland castles. The rear gate faces northeast. The arch prompted Commodore Perry on his visit to compare it to an elaborate ancient Egyptian architecture.
Before this trip, I had a very basic understanding of the Ryukyu Kingdom, when I got home, this visit inspired me to learn more, so I am currently studying up on it with this book, which seems to be the standard:
Just adjacent the entrance of the castle is this eerie abandoned hotel. Evidently it is considered one of the most haunted places in Japan, and it attracts urban explorers from all over. I recently read that the city finally permission to demolish it this year.
After that, the next stop was back to Naha to visit Kokusai Dori (International street. It is a long shopping street, and at the center of it all is a traditional wet market – Makishi Market. This was really the highlight of it all. Some really amazing collection of seafood, with the largest rainbow lobster I have ever seen. On the second floor, there were a lot small restaurants that prepared the fresh fish. It was very popular with tourists from Taiwan that are very fond of seafood.
The main shopping street was an eclectic mix of tourist shops and traditional local shops. It is worth some time to walk around and visit some of the sidel alleys.
We were so happy with the first taste of Okinawa soba, that we had another taste of it in a small shop on the main street. It sold only soba, and was run by a middle age couple. Very inexpensive at 550 yen. The taste of the local pork is truly unique.
The final stop was to another island just near the airport – Sengajima. It is accessible by a bridge. Nothing there other than a resort hotel and a nice group of trendy restaurants called Umikaji Terrace. If you are an aviation fan, there was a very nice view of the planes taking off from the airport.
This trip was really not my traditional blog at all, so I was not really in the mode to take a lot of pictures, so my apologies as there was a lot more that I saw that I did not cover.
Anyway, I really liked what I saw on this short trip. Okinawa is a very good value for a beach getaway from Tokyo. There are a lot of fights that service Naha and the fares are very reasonable. I like it much better than Hawaii, which has become way too much of a tourism machine, lacking any sort of authenticity.
With this trip as a primer, I plan to do a little more research and return to the smaller islands.