A continuation from my last post – today, a quick rundown of some of the many things I would love to see and do on Okinawa Island and its small neighboring islands; I hope that some of you might share similar interests, or might, after visiting Okinawa yourself, develop an interest.
(Click map to embiggen.)
I went to Okinawa once before, just for a few days, exploring the capital city of Naha, which has grown to contain the historical capital of Shuri. The city is as modern as any provincial city in Japan, and parts of it in fact feel not all that different. There are apartment buildings, shopping malls, all the things you’d expect to find in a modern city.
The Okinawa Monorail, or Yui Rail, runs from Naha Airport to Shuri, and there are plans underway to extend it further; in my limited experience, I think it should be able to take you to pretty much anywhere in Naha City that you’d want to go.
The main attraction in Shuri, not immediately outside the last stop on the monorail, but a short walk away, is Shuri Castle, the former royal palace of the Ryukyu Kingdom, utterly destroyed in 1945 and rebuilt in the post-war. The famous Shureimon, one of the most famous symbols of Okinawa, is part of the palace complex. Perhaps not as extensive as some Japanese castles, Shuri castle is nevertheless a fairly large set of grounds, with many baileys or sections, as well as several halls you can enter and walk through, plus the Engakuji, Benten-dô, Ryûtan Pond, and a few other historical sites and the like in the immediate vicinity. Tamaudun, the royal mausoleum, is a short walk to the west.
The Kinjô-machi Stone “Tatami” Road is a cobblestone walking path with leads from the area around the castle, through a residential neighborhood with a somewhat more quaint, traditional sort of feeling, down to the Shikina-en Royal Gardens. The gardens were closed the day I went, so watch out for that, but the walk was still quite enjoyable.
In contrast to the historical adventures of Shuri, Kokusai-dôri, the main road running through the center of town, is the chief place for shopping and nightlife. Starting at Kenchômae Station, and walking east, this is where you’ll find aloha shirts and all sorts of other tourist goods (souvenirs), and shimauta (lit. “island songs”) live bars. Kokusai-dôri also connects into the Heiwa-dôri and Makishi Markets, a huge sprawl of alleys and lanes lined with street stalls selling fresh fruits & veges, fish, meat, noodles, etc., as well as saké & awamori, and other goods, along with some noodle shops & other small “luncheonette” style restaurants and the like.
Walk north from Kenchômae Station, and you’ll be moving towards Kume and Naha Port. As you get closer, it’ll start to seem even more and more like a beach town sort of neighborhood. Kume was, historically, the center of Classical Chinese learning in the Ryukyu Kingdom, and the home of the aristocrat-scholar-bureaucrat class from which most government officials came. Today, a beautiful Chinese garden called Fukushûen (built in the 1990s) reminds us of the neighborhood’s historical cultural identity. Keep moving towards the beach, and you’ll find Naminoue (lit. “Above-the-Waves”) Shrine, perched atop a cliff overlooking the only public beach in Naha City. (Maybe it was a bad day, but I was severely underwhelmed by Naminoue Beach.) A small handful of other temples and such can be found in the area here, along with, somewhere, a plaque that I never managed to find, commemorating Commodore Perry’s time in Ryukyu.
Finally, one more neighborhood of Naha worth mentioning is Omoromachi, also known as Shintoshin (lit. “new city center”), an area which has recently come to be developed, with high-class shopping malls, a very nice public park, and most importantly the new prefectural museum which opened in 2007.
I’m sure there is plenty more to see and do in Naha, but I think it’s about time we moved on to talking about the rest of the island, which I myself have yet to visit, but would very much like to.
The main sites in Southern Okinawa seem to be Sefa-Utaki, the most sacred place in the traditional indigenous Ryukyuan religion, and a variety of sites associated with the Battle of Okinawa. You can visit an underground Imperial Japanese Navy Headquarters, as well as several memorials, including the chief Battle of Okinawa Memorial & Peace Park & Memorial Hall. The Navy HQ is apparently only a five-minute taxi ride from the Onoyama-kôen monorail stop; the Peace Park / Memorial Hall, and the Himeyuri Monument & Museum, in Itoman City, are a bit more difficult to get to, but it seems the public buses will get you there. The public buses can also take you to Sefa-Utaki.
Good to know – when I went to Okinawa, I was given the impression (I don’t really remember where, or by whom) that the public buses didn’t really go to most of the sites I’d want to visit, and that really the only way to see Okinawa is by taxi or rental car. Since I don’t drive, it’s good news to read that the buses, in fact, can take you to many of the major sites. Though, considering my more obscure historical interests, I’m sure there’s still plenty I won’t be able to get to so easily.
The main attractions in Central Okinawa, judging from the Tourist Bureau pamphlets, seem to be the gusuku. Gusuku are Okinawa’s distinctive form of castle or fortress; the only one in any state close to being intact is the rebuilt Shuri Castle I mentioned above; all that remains of the rest, so far as I know, is the winding stone walls, although given that these castles would have been built in wood, with tile roofs, and given the extent of the shelling and battle on Okinawa in 1945, this comes as no surprise. Three of the more famous/major gusuku sites – Nakagusuku, Katsuren, and Zakimi – can be found in Central Okinawa. The latter two seem to be accessible by bus, but the pamphlet suggests taking a taxi to Nakagusuku from the bus stop. The Nakamura House, a traditional 18th century nobleman’s house (seemingly intact, having survived 1945?) is quite near to Nakagusuku castle.
The other Central Okinawan site highlighted in the pamphlet is Ryukyumura, a sort of theme park of traditional Ryukyu culture. Could be pretty cool, especially if you don’t have the time or money to visit the other islands, but I wonder if the experience at Ryukyumura isn’t something that can be had on some of the more remote Sakishima Islands. I’d be interested to check this out, for sure, if I happen to be in that part of the island; but I think I’d be more inclined to visit a historical theme park in mainland Japan, where I think it’s valid to make the blanket statement that there are likely extremely few neighborhoods or towns that are really as traditional as the experience of the theme park; by contrast, while I’m sure that even the most remote of the Ryukyuan Islands have modernized to an extent, I imagine that a relatively “authentic” “traditional” experience can still be had.
Northern Okinawa has the Churaumi Aquarium – one of the largest aquariums (aquaria?) in the world, and a definite must-see. The pamphlet doesn’t list it, but Nakijin gusuku is up here in the north, too. It was once the “capital”, so to speak, of the kingdom of Hokuzan, before the central Okinawan kingdom of Chûzan conquered it. Which reminds me, somewhere further south, maybe just north of Naha, in the city of Urasoe, is Urasoe yodore, a site where several Ryukyuan kings (prior to the construction of the mausoleum at Tamaudun) are buried. Northern Okinawa is also the home to America-mura, a USA-themed theme park, which I’d love to check out just for yuks.
I’d be remiss if I did like the pamphlets and just ignored the US military bases which occupy something like 20% of the land area of the island. Having only stayed in Naha during my one visit, I have no experience with how difficult it is to get around the bases in traveling to other parts of the island, or how much certain neighborhoods may be really dominated by the military (or anti-military) atmosphere… In my three days in Naha, I didn’t run into any of it. But, it’s something to be aware of when visiting. I really hate the idea of equating Okinawa with the military, as I am sure so many do, and I really want to push the idea that there is so much else to Okinawa other than the US military presence – namely, the local contemporary and traditional Okinawan culture – but, it does have to be acknowledged. Can’t just ignore it and pretend it doesn’t exist. I’m sure the Okinawans have tried that already, and it didn’t make the bases go away.
The Outer Islands immediately surrounding Okinawa Island have plenty to see as well. Izena and Iheya, in particular, two small islands off the northwest coast of Okinawa, are the birthplaces of the founders of Ryukyuan dynasties, and feature statues or steles, at the very least, which I’d love to see.
Iejima, or Ie Island, boasts the tallest mountain in the prefecture, though it’s not much taller, I’m sure, than most of the most humble mountains in mainland Japan. Because of its geological origins as coral (limestone) islands, the Ryukyus are, on average, far closer to sea level than Taiwan or Japan, which boast actual mountains born of tectonic activity. Iejima also features a memorial to Ernie Pyle, the famous American wartime journalist who died there.
Aguni Island, 2hrs by boat from Naha, and one of the more distant islands in the “Okinawa Islands” vicinity, was the filming location for “Nabbie no koi“, a very touching Okinawan film directed by Nakae Yuji.
Tonaki Island, a similar distance from Naha, is known for its traditional architecture, according to the pamphlet. Makes me wonder what kind of architecture we would find on Aguni or Iejima or any of these other remote islands, or the extent to which those islands are more “traditional” or not, if this one is selected out as being especially known for this.
And that is that for the pamphlets. As I come across references to other historical sites, or other places of interest, in the islands, if I remember, I may come back here and edit these entries to turn them into more complete compilations of what to see in each area / each island.