[From June Issue 2010]
Okinawa Prefecture is located in the southernmost part of Japan, and is reachable via direct flights from major cities such as Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka. As the only subtropical region in Japan, Okinawa is warm all year round, boasting an annual average temperature of about 22℃, and a winter temperature never falling below 10℃. All this strong sunshine makes the native hibiscus plants, and the sparkling emerald ocean, look even more lush and beautiful.
Although now a popular tourist destination attracting some 5 million visitors annually, Okinawa was once an independent state called the Ryukyu Kingdom. Over time it has developed a number of historic, World Heritage Sites, as well as other fascinating cultural elements including performing arts, craftwork and local cuisine. While you can travel by bus or taxi when visiting tourist spots within Naha City, traveling to the outskirts is easier done by taxi or rental car.
The northern part of Okinawa’s main island is just a few hours’ drive from Naha Airport and remains a precious part of the main island, preserving its rich natural environment. The area’s most popular tourist spot is the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium, one of the world’s largest, located within the Ocean Expo Park in Motobu-cho. Featuring “The Kuroshio (Black Current) Sea,” and “The Coral Sea” tanks, which allow for direct interaction with creatures that live in the shallows, the aquarium introduces the waters of Okinawa from every angle, providing plenty of things to see.
The captive breeding of several whale sharks and manta rays, along with the large scale exhibit of living coral sustained in an “open system” (in which water pumped directly from the sea flows into the tank and then directly back out again) are the first such attempts at this in the world. Through one of the world’s largest acrylic windows, you can peer across the huge Kuroshio Sea tank’s massive 7,500 cubic meter size, and see whale sharks and manta rays swim vigorously. While just outside you can further enjoy a dazzling dolphin show at the open-air Okichan Theater.
Five minutes by car from the Ocean Expo Park is Bise Village, offering streets lined with fukugi trees (Garcinia subelliptica), some of them 300 years old. They were originally planted across Okinawa long ago to protect village houses from typhoons and sea winds.
The northern part of Okinawa’s main island is also the first place in Japan where people can enjoy viewing the yearly cherry blossoms. Hikan cherry trees, which have bell-shaped blossoms in deep pink, bloom in the area in late January, with later blooms happening further down south. At the popular viewing spots such as Yaedake (Motobu-cho) and near the Nago Castle Ruins (Nago City), various festivals are held while the cherry blossoms are in bloom. Furthermore, throughout Okinawa, cherry trees are planted along slopes so people can enjoy the seasonal ritual while taking long walks through the rows of blooming trees.
Heading South on national route 58, which runs along the island’s west coast, you can see the breathtakingly beautiful emerald ocean stretching out before your very eyes. In this area there are a number of side-by-side resort hotels and beautiful beaches where vacationers can enjoy swimming.
In Okinawa, the swimming season lasts from May through October, during which time you can also enjoy other aquatic activities such as riding banana boats and jet skiing. Okinawa is also known as a mecca for scuba diving, which can be enjoyed all year round.
In Naha City, the center of Okinawa, popular tourists spots including the busy Kokusai Street, and Shuri Castle can be found. Naha City also boasts a number of cultural assets, including the ruins of “gusuku” (meaning “castle” or “fortress” in Okinawa) that dates back to the Ryukyu Kingdom era. Of the prefecture’s nine designated World Heritage Sites, four are located in Naha City, with the Ruins of Shuri Castle, the king’s royal residence, playing an important role as the center of politics, where most official ceremonies took place.
The Shuri Castle Festival, held annually in early November, is a big event that celebrates the Ryukyu Kingdom era through traditional dance and a gorgeous procession of people dressed in the costumes of the royalty, and nobility of that period. Around Shuri Castle there are many spots where strolling can be enjoyed, including the stone-paved road in Kinjo-cho, where Bingata (Okinawa’s traditional dyed cloth) studios are also located.
During the Ryukyu Dynasty, the chefs of Shuri Castle developed some excellent cuisine, having been sent to China to learn how to cook. Since then, typical Okinawan pork dishes are said to use every part of the pig, except for its squeal, and are staples for most of the locals. Rafute, braised pork belly, and Ashi Tibitchi, stewed pig’s feet, are still served at dinner tables across Okinawa, and are indispensable for special occasions.
Naha City’s Makishi Public Market, a.k.a. “Okinawa’s Stomach,” offers a huge variety of local food, but what immediately catches your eye upon entering the building, is the fresh fish corner displaying such vividly colored catch as irabucha (parrot fish). In the meat corner, every part of the pig is sold, from chunks of meat to feet and chiraga (skin from the head). There is even a restaurant on the second floor where you can have food you purchased on the first floor cooked for you right then and there.
Okinawa’s main street is the 1.6 kilometer long Kokusai Street that’s lined with souvenir shops, boutiques and many restaurants, and is usually festively crowded until late at night. Every Sunday from noon to 6 p.m., the street turns into a “transit mall” (“for pedestrians only”), remaining vehicle-free so that people can enjoy the lively street performances and open-air cafes.
Yachimun (Okinawan for “pottery”) Street in Tsuboya, located near the Makishi Public Market, is known as a pottery street, and is lined with dozens of pottery studios and retail shops. Many visitors to Okinawa keep returning, fascinated by its beautiful, natural surrounding, the unique culture and rich history. In Okinawa, there is always something intriguing to learn about!
Text: SATO Kumiko