Friday 30 July 2010

Okinawan Summer, July 2010

In the far south of Japan Islands, lies a paradise known as Okinawa. Life as we know it here in mainland  Japan, does not exist. Many people have escaped the rat-race that is known as Tokyo, to become forever imbedded into the relaxed Okinawan society.

Okinawa and the Ryukyu Islands stretch in a chain of islands over 1000km long, and are home to many unique flora and fauna. Not to mention warm tropical weather. Did I mention the weather?

In July of 2010, after a long winter, and continuing cool temperatures, this Australian girl decided to break free and treat herself to an Okinawan holiday birthday present. Most probably the best present I could have given myself.

The only way to explore the Ryukyu Islands is of course, with Islander company! So myself and 3 lovely Jamaicans headed off to bask in the glorious warmth of the south.

Pure Excitement

This was my first experience with SKYMARK airlines. A great little budget airline, that runs out of Kobe Airport. Cheap tickets disappear fast, so it's best to be sitting online at 9:30 sharp, 2 months before the day you want to fly. I managed to get return flights for under 20,000 yen.

We flew out, all very amped, on the 15th of July. A friend of one of our party members worked on base, so he kindly picked us up and took us to our accommodation along the main stretch, Kokusai dori.

Our accommodation for the main island part of our trip was a small, but very clean and modern domitory called Okinawa Monogatari. The staff were very friendly and helpful, and also spoke a fair amount of English. Access is super easy and convenient, being a very short walk from Makishi Monorail station. We stayed in a room that was set out with 2 bunk beds, a small dressing table, mirror and the all important air-conditioner.

Kokusai Dori

Naha dusk
After driving out to Chatan for a mexican dinner, we then headed back to Naha and down to kokusai dori and found a great little outdoor bar, with cheap drinks, attached to a soccer jersey store. Later on they let us inside and turned on the Karaoke machine, and we did our best to dredge up the best of the worst 90's tunes.
A much needed sleep in followed.

On out first full day in Okinawa, we grabbed a quick conbini breakfast before sussing out the bus routes to head towards Shuri Castle. Most people take the monorail to the castle, but it is a long uphill walk from the station. Bus is by far the better option. Castles in Okinawa are very different in style and material than that of the main land. The influence of Chinese design is obvious, and limestone blocks have been used to build the castle walls and gates.

On Day 3 we head off to Zamami Island. We decided to spent that little bit of extra money to reach the island much faster and much more comfortably aboard the Queen Zamami III

Our accommodation here was Summer House Yuu Yuu A very cute little guest house run by a family (like most of the accommodation on the island). As we were travelling over a long weekend, in peak season, we ended up sharing a room (around 5 tatami size) between the 4 of us. It was a little cozy, but since we only were in our room to sleep, it was not an issue. Asthmatics should be warned that the owner smokes in the common area sometimes. However, this does not affect the rooms at all, which are sectioned off from the rest of the house.

We arrived late in the afternoon, and after settling down I decided that I couldn't wait til the next day to hit the beach, and dragged my pals down for a walk to the beach. The sun had already gone down, and the moon provided very little light. Still we walked all the way down to the beach. The beach was covered in small crabs (and some not so small) as we walked across the coral covered sands. Although we made a valant attempt to paddle our feet, the knowledge other less friendly creatures in the sea kept us from diving in, until the next day.

Finally! The long awaited beach day. After a simple supermarket breakfast, and stocking up for lunch also, our kind hostel owner drove us down to the beach. We were also able to borrow snorkels for free. The sun was very hot that day. Being a sea lover, I dived straight in... and proceeded to snorkel for an hour. Armed with my new Olympus Tough camera, I swam around the coral finding many new fishy friends including parrot fish, angel fish, clown fish... and blow fish! After hopping out of the water I discovered that Japanese sunscreen just does not cut it. The sunburn on my back was so severe, my friend Shellie was telling me she wouldn't let me swim the next day.

Sorry Shellie, but no one stands between me and the sea!

Before I turned red...

Meeting the locals
The next day we made an attempt to see the sea turtles, without any luck. I swam around in my sport shorts and T-shirt so stop myself from burning further, before we got a water taxi to Gahi Island, one of the unmanned islands in the Kerama island group. We had been warned than a squall may come in in the afternoon. We were in for a treat.

A great dark cloud descended over the bay and brought a downpour of rain, and thunder. With nowhere to shelter, we sheepishly hid under beach umbrella, afraid that it would be struck by lightning at any moment. We were lucky, and after cowering under the umbrella for what seemed like an eternity, our water taxi returned and we returned to the safety of the island, and our accommodation to clean up and finish packing before heading back to Naha on the afternoon ferry. This ride back was an interesting one. Never having been particularly good with motion sickness, I quickly turned green. The high speed ferry skipped over the water and waves for the better part of the 50 minute ride. I managed to hold what I had in my stomach, thanks to the fanning skills of Adrian.

I did not edit this photo.... crazy natural colours eh? 

Sheltering from the squall

Safely back on land, we head back once again to Okinawa Monogatari, and went out for a stroll to purchase wares for our friends, and ourselves.

The next day was off to a fairly late start. We had planned to visit Nagannu Island, but due to high waves the ferries stopped operation. Instead we decided that we would try and check what was on offer up north and attempted to head to the ruins and old cultural village in the northern part of the island.

We ended up getting off the bus in a small random area... where we continued to walk to the castle ruins of Zakimi Castle. As 2 of our party members were heading back to Kobe on a flight that evening, we were a little worried about making time. However a nice family put us in the back of the van when they had finished, and took us to the nearby bus station, with regular departures. After making it back to Naha, Adrian and Suen did some last minute souvenir grabbing, and jumped on the monorail to the airport. Shellie and I carried on our happy little way, did some clothes shopping, ate some fairly normal Japanese set meals for dinner, before heading back to our little bar for a relaxing drink.

Zakimi Castle ruins

Our random transport
On our final day we decided that we might try for Nagannu Island again, but a rather sluggish start meant that in the end this was not an option. We ended up heading to American Village to do some shopping, and to have a swim at Sunset and Araha beaches, which are located 20 minutes walk from each other. Our last day was rather relaxed and got our final shopping needs finished. 

Sunset Beach

This little dude was very excited by the 'waves'

American Village

Our farewell was a beautiful sunset (which I wasn't quite able to catch on camera). On our return, summer in Kansai was finally showing it face.

Advise for travel in Okinawa

  •  If you can, bring your own Australian standard sunscreen. I found that the Japanese counterpart was useless, especially for snorkeling. 
  • Be aware that tropical weather may mean you need to change your plans. Have a back up plan just in case. No one wants to waste a day. 
  • Information centres aren't as easy to find as one would think. Grab plently of pamplets on your way out of the Airport. 
  • There is a lot to see up north. If you plan to head up that way, hire a car as it will probably end up being cheaper than busing back and forth if you have 2 people or more. (International drivers licence is required for those without a Japanese licence)
  • Take a towel with you everywhere. The weather is very humid, so you will need it to wipe away the sweat.