Firstly let me apologise for the delay in getting this post up…December has been a hectic month!
Our flight to Okinawa ended just how you’d expect, with us arriving at the cargo terminal of Naha Airport…
Now when we got off the plane everything seemed perfect; we were met with the glorious wave of heat and sunshine that accompanies any trip to the tropics and we couldn’t wait to explore the island. This joy was quickly replaced with utter bafflement as we were led, not into the nice shiny arrivals terminal like the other incoming flights, but instead were taken into the cargo bay.
Arriving at the same place as the cargo isn’t that weird an occurrence, many small airports work this way, the difference is that Naha Airport is a huge international airport. Our baggage collection involved two rather moody airport staff, a curtain and lots of flying luggage. As soon as we had our bags we made a hasty escape from the oddity of our ‘terminal’ and boarded the local bus to the north of the island where our AirBnb lay waiting for us.
Okinawa is Asia’s answer to Hawaii. It’s a group of three archipelagos and several smaller islands that dot the ocean south of Japan. These islands are perhaps most famous for their pivotal role in WWII and it is here that the US military still have countless bases, a controversial issue for many Japanese people.
Once we escaped the urban sprawl of Naha City the island really came into its own. Air bases, shopping centres and Pachinko halls gave way to mile after mile of white sandy beaches that backed onto lush jungle covered hills and traditional Ryukyu villages.
About an hour into the bus ride we became aware of just how hot Okinawa can get…about an hour later we arrived, dripping in sweat, in the outskirts of Onna, a picturesque town on the west coast of Okinawa-Honto with countless swanky resorts and miles of pristine beach as far as the eye could see. When we got off the bus we were hot, sticky and in dire need of a cooldown but luckily AirBnb assured us our apartment was only a 5 minute walk away…what they neglected to tell us was that those 5 minutes included climbing a mountain!
By the time we reached the top of the mountain (in hindsight it was basically a mole hill with an over-inflated ego) we had lost what little dignity we began with. We were drenched in sweat, on the verge of tears and had both seriously considered stripping down to our underwear several times during the climb. However all of this was washed away (though sadly not literally) when we walked into our apartment and saw the view. Looking out over the South China Sea we could see for miles in every direction, and we had 2 weeks to take it all in.
The next morning we were greeted with yet more unbelievable weather. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and by 10am it already above 30’C, but because I often forget just how pasty I am I was rather sparing with the sun block. Now the sea breeze and sunglasses meant that it wasn’t until we got back to the flat and I had a shower that I realised my entire body was an aggressive shade of red. Safe to say that night was one of the worst night’s sleep I’ve ever had…
I spent the entirety of the next day lying around the apartment eating crisps and covering myself in aloe vera products of every shape, size, and variety. By the time the sun burn had cleared up it was Halloween and our next stop was the beautiful Moon Beach Hotel for their annual Halloween celebration.
The Moon Beach Hotel is spectacular, with its own private beach and unspoiled views out across the ocean. The night we arrived the whole place was teeming with people from across Okinawa, all coming together to see the annual fireworks display and celebrate traditional Okinawan music and culture. We spent the evening chatting with locals, drinking Kirin and struggling to see the hundreds of fireworks (for some reason they set them off behind a building).
The next day we decided to head back to Moon Beach to spend the day soaking up the glorious sun…safe to say the two cocktail bars overlooking the sea also played a role in our decision-making. The longer we spent in Okinawa the more we realised that it is Japanese only in name, the culture is far more like that of other Pacific islands including their love of peace, serenity and good siesta.
If Japanese people are friendly then Okinawans are something else, every time we met someone new whether they were a waiter, a shopkeeper or even just someone on the street they would want to stop and chat with us.
One of the few recommendations we had been given before arriving in Okinawa was of a local restaurant called Uraniwa, and as luck would have it the place was 2 minutes from our AirBnB. To say this place was incredible would be an understatement. As soon as we walked in we were greeted with the glorious sound of traditional Okinawan music and a chorus of diners all singing along. The atmosphere was amazing but the food was out of this world, the recommendation I would make is the Agu Pork Belly. This local speciality is honestly one of the best things I’ve ever eaten, it melts in your mouth and packs more flavour than any pork I’ve ever had before or since.
The following morning, we woke up to storm clouds, gale force winds and huge waves all along the horizon. Rather than being disappointed and spending the day inside we headed straight for the beach to make the most of the rough sea. By making the most of it what I mean is we spent most of the day singing and dancing along the beach with 80s Disco hits blaring from our phones. Luckily for us the storm meant no one else was around…which is probably for the best.
That night we sat on the balcony staring out at the stormy sea with a bottle of sake and our ‘Nowhere Like Nippon’ playlist blasting in the background. As quickly as the storm had arrived it disappeared completely, leaving absolutely no trace that it had ever even been there; the black clouds were replaced by clear starlight skies and the full moon.
Our next stop on our tour around Okinawa was Chatan, the so-called American Village. Anywhere with a large expat population is bound to have an area of out-of-place shops and restaurants to make people feel a bit closer to home. Chatan however was something else.
The only way I can describe Chatan is, a low-budget Disney world without the characters, rides or smiles. The whole area is made up of dense blocks of shops connected by a warren of covered walkways and facades that have been made to look like everything from medieval towns to open countryside. The fact that ‘Red Lobster’ is probably the highlight of Chatan tells you everything you need to know…
Despite the oddity that is Chatan Village and the mixed reception that many Americans receive from the locals, there are a lot of great things about the high number of Americans on Okinawa. Namely we met a marine who took us on a tour of the island and showed us Blue Seal Ice Cream…a must for anyone visiting Okinawa.
If you are visiting Okinawa there are 3 highlights that I would say are a must see: Churaumi Aquarium, Tiger Beach Ocean Club, and Manza Beach.
Churaumi Aquarium is one of the best aquariums and ocean conservation centres in the world, second only to places like Monterrey Bay. We started our visit with the 3 hour bus journey to the north of Okinawa-Honto where the Ocean Expo Park is situated. As soon as we arrived we were overwhelmed with the scale of the place. Alongside the beautiful aquarium are several parks, botanical gardens, and museums all dedicated to Okinawa’s natural beauty and the local governments immense conservation efforts.
The whole aquarium is fantastic, but the highlight is the ‘Open Ocean Tank’. This huge expanse of water is famous for its three gargantuan Whale Sharks. I’d never seen a whale shark up close, in fact I’d never seen any animal this big up close…it was like someone had put a RV in the tank and attached fins to it. Right beneath this exhibit is the aquarium’s restaurant where you can basically share a table with the world’s largest fish (there’s one off the bucket list).
The other highlight of Churaumi must be the ‘Shark Lab’ an interactive exhibit focussing on the many species of shark toothed denizens of the deep that inhabit the oceans around Japan. This exhibit includes a terrifying tank full of some of the world’s most dangerous animals including Tiger Sharks and Bull Sharks.
I understand that for many an aquarium sounds like a great way to entertain the kids…and little else, but I would implore anyone visiting Okinawa to go to Churaumi because it really is spectacular.
Tiger Beach, luckily for us, was right in front of our AirBnb and what a glorious beach it is. At one end of the beach sits the Monterrey Spa Resort and Beach Club, a place that was far too swanky for us considering our history of falling over, breaking things and being overly loud at the worst possible times. However, Monterrey Spa Resort offers day membership of their Beach Club for just £15! This included access to all of their classes and all of their toys.
Being the tranquil people that we are, we began our day with a private yoga class on the beach, very nice I know. Except for the fact that the moment we stepped onto our mats an entire school streamed out of the hotel and onto the beach around us. Not only did we have to keep up with an unnaturally flexible little woman leading our class but we had to do it all while trying our hardest not to be ‘those weird white people’ doing yoga.
I would love to say that the rest of the day went better…sadly I cannot. Our next activity after a few hours of soaking up the sun was Paddleboard Yoga. The 45 minutes that followed were some of the funniest, most embarrassing, and least dignified of my life. The only positives to draw from it were that Yianna almost fell in more times than me (small wins).
Now I have a terrible fear of deep water; to the point that I turn into a whimpering mess if confronted with it without warning. However, in the interest of friendship I agreed to go tubing with Yianna. Despite the sea water rendering me temporarily blind and swallowing half the ocean it was brilliant! A personal favourite was Big Bertha (not sure that was the actual name) which involved us being tugged behind a jet ski at the speed of light while trying to do ‘no hands’ for as long as possible. The whole package, if you paid full price would be more than £80, so to get it for £15 was amazing, and so worth it.
Our final few days in Onna were spent at Manza Beach. This place was dream-like, the crystal clear waters were teeming with fish and the sand was softer and more golden than anything I have ever seen. Like Tiger Beach, Manza Beach offers day by day memberships of their beach club that allow you to use all their facilities. Since we had mastered the art of paddle boarding in our time at Tiger Beach we decided it would be a good idea to rent a couple of boards and have another go.
We surprised ourselves with how much fun we had, and with how few times we fell in. By the time we came back into shore we had paddled around most the bay looking at the coral reefs and all while standing up (something that was much harder than we thought). The only real downside to all that exercise was that the next day I literally couldn’t move my hips.
However, the only way to do Manza Beach justice is with the pictures so here you go:
Our two weeks in Onna were incredible and we had fallen deeply in love with Okinawa and its people. We had one final stop in Okinawa, the capital city of Naha, a place of sharp rocks, spooky fish and lots of alcohol!
See you soon,