Sunday, November 28, 2010

Okinawa Options




Okinawa is the resort island of Japan, located about 1,000 miles south of Tokyo, or a 2.5 hour flight from Haneda Airport. The main island, known as Okinawa Island, is where most of the sights are, but there are plenty of smaller islands further south that are used as resorts and are excellent for scuba diving and other water pursuits.

Okinawa was once called Ryukyu and was a completely separate entity from Japan, which allows it to retain some significant differences from the mainland, particularly in terms of food and drink and customs. One of the most prevalent decorations is the shisa, a guard dog that is often displayed in pairs outside a house to prevent evil spirits from entering and to keep good spirits inside. These little guys are everywhere: above is a paper Shisa dressed in Hiroshima Carp garb that was on sale at the car rental place; below is a more traditional shisa atop a roof.


Food can also be quite different, with goya (bitter gourd) and shikuwasa (a sour citrus fruit) being the most obvious examples. There are hundreds of Okinawan restaurants all over Tokyo so you don't have to travel to enjoy the island fare. I was told that the food elsewhere does not compare to that available locally, although I didn't notice a significant difference, it's all good (except the pig's feet).

Awamori is a special type of alcohol that is extremely popular throughout the islands and should be sampled if you are visiting. These days it is often served with fruit juice, although I recommend it with just ice.

Getting There

Most likely you'll be flying to Naha Airport from Tokyo. I usually use Skymark Airlines as it is the cheapest option and the lack of amenities on board is not a problem for such a short flight, but both JAL and ANA have regular service too. Below is the plane after arrival in sunny Okinawa. A bit of bad news though as Skymark no longer sells Orion beer (the Okinawan brand) on board. When I flew to Okinawa before, a full can was only 100 yen but this deal has been replaced by the small Kirin cans for the exorbitant sum of 200 yen. Highly disappointing.


Once in Naha you will need to rent a car if you want to get anywhere. There is a monorail that begins at the airport takes you all around the city but a day or two is all you need to see everything there and the more interesting attractions are well outside the city. Buses are available but are expensive and inconvenient. There are plenty of rental car options right at the airport but you might want to shop around before hand as prices were quite variable.

Naha

Naha is the capital city of Okinawa and is more or less like any other big Japanese city. The same chain restaurants and stores are there, the architecture is rather dull, and you can easily get around by transit. There are several attractions here, I'll mention a couple below.


Located near the last stop of the monorail, Shuri Castle is a modern reconstruction of the old Ryukyu palace that was destroyed in World War II. You can walk through the outer gates and see some of the ground for free (with some English explanations), but it costs 800 yen to get to the main castle. It was under renovation when we visited so we didn't bother to go in, but it is considered to be the highlight of Naha so perhaps I'll return when they've got it all fixed up. Below are a couple of pictures from the outer area.


Kankaimon, the first front gate




Okinawa Prefectural History Museum

Located just a few minutes from the Omoromachi monorail station is a complex that houses the prefectural art and history museums. Separate admission is required and as I was short on time, I only saw the history portion, which was quite impressive and well worth the 400 yen. Having spent a few days on the island beforehand gave me a good understanding of the unique nature of Okinawa, but the museum really elucidates its overall development from the independent Ryukyu Kingdom to a part of Japan to an American occupied territory and finally reversion to Japan in 1972. There are thousands of artifacts, and a great display of Minatogawa Man, which are among the oldest complete skeletons found in East Asia. Definitely worth a visit if you are a history buff, and there is an audio guide as well as plenty of English descriptions.

An example of a crophouse next to the entrance

Minatogawa man chasing a deer

War Memorials

Okinawa was the site of one of the bloodiest battles of WWII and there are numerous sites scattered about that serve as reminders of this oft-forgotten fact. The underground tunnels where the Japanese Army maintained their headquarters are a short drive from Naha and are somewhat interesting, although it is difficult to imagine hundreds of soldiers living there as it is now well-lit and filled with yammering tourists. The picture below shows the entrance, the tunnels are obviously underneath. The most grim sight are the walls filled with pockmarks caused by grenades that were used as suicide weapons.


A more moving display is the Himeyuri Monument and Museum. It tells the story of 227 schoolgirls and 13 of their teachers who were conscripted into the Japanese army near the end of the war. They acted as nurses in medical units hidden in caves on the southern part of the island. As the Japanese realized the futility of their situation, they released the nurses, but they had no place to go as the island was overrun by advancing Americans. Many of them were forced to commit suicide while others were killed as they hid in the caves. Only eleven students and two teachers survived in what is sadly just one of many tales of civilians suffering at the hands of not only the enemy but their own army as well. There is a monument outside the museum which stands above one of the caves where several girls were killed, but the real story is told in great detail inside. A must-see if you are in the area.

Beaches

Okinawa has lots of beaches, as you would expect from an island chain. Below is sunset near Chatan, which is where the U.S. first landed back in 1945. There were a lot of scuba divers here during the day, but it is really rocky and not a true sandy beach; you need to get away from the cities to find something better for relaxation.


American Village

One last "attraction" is the American Village shopping complex in Chatan. Easy to spot with its giant ferris wheel, this may be the tackiest area in all of Japan. Pastel storefronts and a wide open plan must be how the designers pictured the USA, but the only American thing I found here was A&W, an island staple. That's it on the left of this shot, taken from a viewpoint in Urasoe City about 5 miles away.


Sports

There are two teams that play regularly in Okinawa, the Ryukyu Golden Kings of the bj League and FC Ryukyu of the JFL, who I saw on my first day here. There is also a handball team, but they don't play very often or at a regular venue.

The best time to visit Okinawa if you want to see sports is early spring, when several of the NPB teams hold their spring training camps here. I've seen the Dragons and Carp in the past and the Giants will be holding their spring training at the new Onoyama Stadium next year. This venue opened this season and is just a few minutes from Naha's airport. It held a couple of regular season NPB games back in June and will likely hold some more this coming season, so is certainly on my radar for an upcoming road trip.

Finally, Konan High School of Naha won both the spring and summer national tournaments this year. It was the first time an Okinawa school won the summer tourney and it certainly made an impact as I saw commemorative collectibles in several places around the island.

All-in-all, Okinawa is one of Japan's best destinations. The rest of the country can often seem to be all-too-similar in many respects so having a region that actually developed separately really makes for an interesting experience. I've been at least 5 times now and I can't wait to get back.

Best,

Sean

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