My 5-year old daughter and I recently returned from a 6-week trip through Asia. Our final stay in Japan was a trip to the Island of Okinawa. Okinawa is the southernmost part of Japan, comprised of a few dozen small islands, stretching about a thousand kilometers all the way to Taiwan. The Okinawa Region consists of three major island groups – the Okinawa Islands, the Miyako Islands and the Yaeyama Islands.
My husband was stationed in Okinawa for a couple of years and thought that we would enjoy a visit to the main island. We were fortunate that some friends just recently moved there so we had a place to stay and people to show us the Okinawa island life. You never know where your friends might be moving and keeping in touch on Facebook is a great way to keep track.
We flew from Tokyo (NAR) to Okinawa Naha Airport (OKA) on Jet Star, a low cost airline. There are a couple of them including Vanilla and Peach but be aware that some of those airlines actually depart from another part of the airport. I didn’t like Tokyo Airport, it was a bit difficult to navigate and you had to take a bus to another terminal or walk through long walkways.
The flight to Okinawa took about 3 hours – more than I imagined. Jet Star was just fine. We paid ¥40900 (about $350 RT for two of us) which also included my payment for two 35k bags. It is cheaper if you pay in advance for bags and the ticket in general (we bought tickets last minute). Your carry on can’t be more than 7 pounds – they combined our two and we had no problem. Legroom is very small but the flight attendants were nice and very attentive. Don’t expect any free food or drink – so remember to grab something in the airport. I bought a hot tea for ¥250, not bad.
Naha Airport is very small and manageable. Naha is the capital and largest city in Okinawa. Our friends live about an hour north at one of the US bases and there was a bit of rush hour traffic. It was really easy for me to have access to the base because I have a retired military spouse ID. There are 17 US Military Bases on Okinawa.
We were so used to being cold in Japan but in Okinawa it was in the 60’s (in February)! They say that’s winter weather – in summer it is unbearably hot and humid. The best time to visit Okinawa is Spring and Fall.
Our hosts did a fantastic job of organizing lots of activities on the island. On Friday we drove an hour north to Nago, the second largest city on the island. You can take the expressway (as we did) or the back roads. We stopped for a photo op at the south end of Nago, there is a really nice vista next to the Lawson and Blue Seal.
Ocean Park is a beautiful area with an amazing aboretum including animal topiaries and beautiful flowers everywhere. If that’s not enough there is also a planetarium, an aquarium, an Okinawan Village and Cultural Center.
Our favorite attraction was the Okinawa Aquarium and Dolphin Show. Children under 6 are free, adults are ¥1850, high schoolers pay ¥1250, elementary and junior high students pay ¥610 and there are also free admission days throughout the year. It’s touted as one of the best aquariums in the world – it is definitely worth the visit. The dolphin show is located just outside along the shoreline. It was a fantastic show and even featured a pilot whale. That was the best part of the day!
Some things to note: they had free electric wheelchairs for use that can be taken throughout the vast grounds. Also, there is a cafe where you sit and eat in front of a massive aquarium. If you want to be in the front row, however, you have to reserve a table. The food is ok – you eat there for the scenery. Oh and if you get hot after your day at the aquarium, head down to Emerald Beach. I would recommend planning a very long day at Ocean Park, there is so much for all ages. We got stuck in rush hour leaving – stay off the roads between 4-7 on Friday and Saturday.
Our friends took us to the local mall, the Aeon Okinawa Rycom. On a hot day in Okinawa it’s a great place to be. It has a huge food court with lots of different cuisines at very reasonable prices. We had some local Okinawan food, then on the way out we had a gelato – fantastic. Try the local favorite beni-imo (local purple sweet potato). The mall also a rather large fish tank (mini aquarium), inside near the main entrance.
Our hosts arranged for a day at the Valley of Gangala and Okinawa World. The tour guide gave us individual bottles of iced jasmine tea with straps for our tour (a nice touch). For the first part our guide took us through the Valley of Gangala for a walk through the subtropical forest. Hundreds of thousands of years ago the valley was a limestone cave. There’s a little cafe and you can rent the whole area for cave weddings, parties, concerts, etc.
The Valley of Gangala is very important for historical reasons. They found the oldest remains in Japan here (now called Minotagawa) – who was about 20,000 years old. It represents the very beginning of people living in the Okinawa area. After the remains were found they did excavations to figure where he might have lived. They looked in this cave and the oldest remains in Asia were found here.
There is some walking involved on the tour but less than a kilometer and only a few steps. Be sure to wear good walking shoes as the rocks and wood can be slippery. I wasn’t sure what to expect but my daughter and I both enjoyed the tour. It’s always nice to be out in nature.
After that we were on our own to tour Okinawa World. It’s a cultural center that’s a little bit tourist trap but also a great place to learn about the Okinawa way of life. In the Habu Museum Park you can learn all about some of the creatures found on the island. The Habu snake is a deadly snake that is famous around Okinawa. They have a 20-minute Habu show that is pretty educational and entertaining. We even got our photo taken for free with a large boa constrictor. 😳
We had a bite to eat at the cafe next door – it wasn’t bad – average size pizza for ¥1000. After a walk through the village we opted to do a native art called Bingata. It’s an ancient form of art incorporating the cultures brought in by China and Southeast Asia – with the tropical nature of Okinawa.
There are two primary methods in bingata-making: “Katazome” and “Tsutsugaki”. We used the katazome method and created our own pieces. Ellie made a small bag and I made a tea towel. It’s a very relaxing but lengthy process. We painted our pieces but then took them home protected by newspaper and plastic bags, you have to finish the drying and final part at home.
Our final day we spent at the Southeast Botanical Gardens. I was worried that my daughter would find it boring, but it was quite the opposite. There is a nice little tram that will take you through the park for a couple of dollars. It moves quite slowly so you can even snap some photos and plan where you want to spend time. The gardens are not too large but it is quite hilly for a park.
Our favorite spots were the pond where you could feed the fish and a small “zoo” area. They had a nice petting area where you can get in the caged area with rabbits, guinea pigs and ducks. The coolest part was when we got in the cage with monkeys and a capybara. You can buy animal food and feed them by hand – lots of fun! We were actually in the gardens on the last day of the light festival. Later that night my hosts brought my daughter back that night to see it all lit up, she said it was very cool.
Okinawa is very different from the rest of mainland Japan. It was annexed by Japan in the late 1800’s but it is more historically and culturally related to China and other Southeast Asian counties. This combination creates a unique destination that should be on your bucket list.