22 October 2016

Okinawa: Top 10 Sights

Somehow my last month in Okinawa disappeared in the blink of an eye, and I'm now back in Hokkaido ready for another ski season. On the day I arrived back on the island it was snowing, proving a brutal awakening for someone who's just spent 4 months in 33 degrees and 80% humidity without a jumper or a pair of long trousers in sight. As soon as I got back I immediately rummaged through the bag of winter clothes I'd left here in a desperate attempt to find as many warm and wooly items as I could to ward off the cold.

On my journey up from the far south to the far north of the country, I travelled with my parents for a few weeks, including doing a walking tour through the scenic Nakasendo Way with Walk Japan. I also spent a few days in Kyoto, where I returned to some old faviroutes, such as Arashiyama and Fushimi Inari, as well as discovering new places like the stunning Golden Pavillion, Kinkaku-ji. I then spent an amazing 5 days in Tokyo with my friend Hannah, who was celebrating her 30th birthday with a trip to Japan and South Korea. We spent her birthday at Disney Sea resort, a wonderful reminder that refusing to grow up is so much more fun than acting like an adult.

I still have so many posts to write about all the things I've done during my first year in Japan. Now that I'm back in civilisation (ie. have wifi at home) I hope to catch up on all this over the next few months. For now though, I'm going to start with a look back at the summer I spent in tropical Okinawa, with this post on my top 10 highlights. These are scattered all over the island (and one is on a nearby island), so it wouldn't be possible to do all of these in a short trip to Okinawa (unless you're extremely dedicated and willing to drive around a lot!). However, whatever your interests, I hope there are a couple of things on the list that you would add to your itinerary when visiting Okinawa. So without further ado, my favourite sights in Okinawa are (in no particular order):

1. Churaumi Aquarium

The marine life around Okinawa is famously diverse, rivalling that of Australia's Great Barrier Reef. The aquarium is a great place to get up close and personal with a huge range of the species. You even have the opportunity to stroke sea cucumbers and starfish if you dare! The star of the aquarium is undoubtedly the huge whale shark in the main tank.

2. Ocean Expo Park

Although Churaumi Aquarium is the main attraction of Ocean Expo Park, the park is deserving of a mention as a destination in and of itself. Its name comes from the fact that it was the venue for an international Ocean Exposition in 1975. Today it has many places worth visiting, including the Oceanic Culture Museum, a traditional Okinawa Village, and the Tropical Dream Centre (an incredible park full of orchids and other plants). Ocean Expo Park even has its own beach, Emerald Beach, so remember to bring your swimmers!

3. Cape Manza

This particularly scenic part of the coast, towards the middle of the island, gets its name from the fact that it resembles an elephant's trunk. It's one of the most popular pictures for postcards in Okinawa, and when you go there you can see why. A lovely viewpoint on a sunny day. 

4. Nago Pineapple Park & Okinawa Fruits Land

These two different fruit-themed parks are located right next to each other, so you may as well visit both! The tropical climate in Okinawa means that there's not much that you can't grow, at any time of the year. At the pineapple park you drive through the park in a pineapple cart, and then can sample all kinds of pineapple goods (everything from pineapple wine to pineapple cake, and of course fresh pineapple) in the amazing gift shop at the end. Okinawa Fruits Land takes the form of a treasure hunt, where you wander through the park collecting stamps as you learn different facts about various fruit trees growing there. Did you know that avocados are know as 'butter of the forest'?

5. Aha & Hiji Falls

These two waterfalls are found in the northern part of the island. Hiji falls charges for entry (500 JPY) and you have to hike up a trail (which takes around 45 minutes to an hour at a leisurely pace) to access it. Aha falls is free entry but altogether more difficult to find... and it has a rather tricky albeit short descent down to the water. Both are beautiful, although I think Aha is more impressive due to its relative seclusion and the beautiful pool in front of the falls themselves.

6. Shuri Castle

Since landing in Japan a year ago, I have seen so many castles. These days I feel like I've seen them all and it takes quite a lot to impress me. Shuri Castle however is really unique and different to the castles on mainland Japan, due to the strong Chinese influence on its design. So it's still worth visiting even if you've been to some of Japan's other castles. If you only have time to visit one thing in Naha, the island's capital, I recommend Shuri Castle.

7. Zamami Island

I spent a couple of days on Zamami island, part of the Kerama islands, which are located a couple of hours' ferry ride from Naha's Tomari port. It was definitely a highlight of my time in Okinawa. The island's Furuzamami beach is an incredible snorkelling spot, where you can see an amazing variety of fish in the coral reef just metres away from the shore. Ama beach is a spot where you can swim with the sea turtles when they come in at high tide. This was a truly breath-taking experience for me. If you love the sea and marine life a trip to the Kerama islands is not to be missed.

8. Okinawa Prefectural Museum

This museum is surprisingly good, and deals with many elements of Okinawa, ranging from its wildlife to its folk culture, and of course the US invasion and its continued military presence on the island. A thought-prevoking and informative place to spend half a day. The building also houses an art museum.

9. Orion Happy Park

Orion is Okinawa's premier beer, and they offer a tour of their brewery in Nago. Of course the tour is followed by a sampling session! This isn't a park as the name suggests, but you will certainly leave happy and with a belly full of freshly brewed beer.

10. Ryukyu Mura

I've already sung the praises of Ryukyu Mura in this blog post, and the culture park certainly deserves its spot in rounding out my Okinawa Top 10.

If you visited Okinawa, which of these places would be at the top of your list?