While visitors to Japan may be overwhelmed by the hectic pace of life of the big Japanese cities Tokyo and Osaka, locals have to cope with that pace, daily. For decades, Japanese have fled from their cosmopolitan cities to the string of islands to the south, collectively known as Okinawa and the Yaeyama islands. Still off-the-radar for most tourists, Okinawa is an eclectic mix of Japanese, Ryuku and Chinese cultures with a little seasoning from the American military personnel stationed there.
Day 1: Your connecting flight from the main islands of Japan has you arriving fairly late, so take the opportunity to relax in your Naha hotel. Or, hit the ground running by visiting one of the numerous izakaya bars and clubs that line Kokusei Dori.
Day 2: Your exploration of Naha starts with a visit to Shurijo Castle. This castle held the throne of the Ryuku Kingdom for many generations before being almost completely destroyed during World War 2. Rebuilt in 1990’s, then inscribed onto UNESCO World Heritage registry in 2000, the castle once again commands a view of Naha. Near Shurijo Castle, find the Zuisen Distillery where Thai rice is transformed into the deceptively strong Okinawan drink, Awamori.
Travel back to Kokusei Dori and grab lunch in the public market. Here you have the opportunity to try some of the local delicacies. Pig’s ear, sweetbreads and other dishes attest to the influence that Mainland China has on Okinawa and the Ryuku Kingdom. Once you’ve had your fill, explore the rest of the covered market before heading to Tsuboya Yachimun Street. Famous for its handmade ceramics, visitors can spend the afternoon shopping to their hearts content.
Before heading back to the hotel, take this opportunity to make your way to one of the local beaches and enjoy some time in the warm afternoon sun. Experience one of the numerous theme restaurants in Naha for dinner.
Day 3: Head out of town and make your way to Murasaki Mura, a Ryuku cultural center. Here you can take in a karate demonstration, learn the traditional Eisa dance, dress up in period costume and spend some time painting your own Shisa figurine to take home.
Head to the village of Ogimi , the longevity capitol of the world for lunch at Emi No Mise. Emi started the restaurant 25 years ago after retiring as a school nutritionist. It’s a thrill to see her out in the gardens across from the restaurant, harvesting the ingredients for her meals. While all her of dishes are healthy and delicious, her famous “Longevity Meal” requires calling the restaurant 24 hours in advance to reserve. Just remember that you are in Okinawa and as Emi says “We work hard, just not too hard.”
This afternoon, you travel way north to see the amazing Chaumauri Aquarium: Showcasing creatures found in the shallows then moving on to the deep, The Chaumauri Aquarium lets guests see many amazing forms of aquatic life. Chuckle to yourself each time you hear a exclaim of “Oishi”, Japanese for delicious. Alternatively, to avoid the long drive north, travel south back to Naha and explore some of the UNESCO sites within easy reach south of the city. After your adventures, your hotel awaits as does another delicious Okinawan dinner.
Day 4: Fly from Naha to Ishiagaki. Grab a quick meal before heading to the port to board a ferry to Iriomote Island. After the short 45 minutes boat ride, it’s time to take a water buffalo across the shallow underwater isthmus that connects Iriomote Island to quaint Yubu Island. You may be surprised at how this ride on a beast of burden will become one of your favorite memories of Okinawa. The gentle sway of the oxcart and the melodious tune that the drivers plays on the shamisen guitar takes you back in time.
Once on Yubu, watch the water buffalo play in the water, take in the butterfly garden or just wander around this little island taking in the natural scenery.
Check into La Teada Nature Lodge and borrow one of their bikes out for a quick pedal around the neighborhood before getting back just in time to capture an amazing sunset over the sea. Dinner at the lodge is an experience not be missed.
This is also one of the best places to view the stars, so make sure to wander down to the beach for a few moments of stargazing before heading to bed.
Day 5: Going to the northern side of Iriomote Island, discover the Urauchi River where you can climb aboard a boat and cruise through the mangroves. Several miles upriver the boat lets passengers off for the hike through jungle to Kanpira waterfalls. Bring their own lunch or purchase one from the tour company to enjoy by the falls.
After a short drive back to Ohara port, board the ferry back to Ishigaki where you transfer to one of Japan’s most picturesque bays: Kabira Bay. Glass bottom boats carry the curious out into the bay to view numerous sea creatures in their native habitat, the open sea.
If you’re feeling party hearty, then venture out into Ishigaki, jumping from izakaya bar to izakaya bar before retiring for the evening.
Day 6: Another short ferry ride transports you from ishigaki to Taketomi Island, a living settlement that appears to have stepped out of a history book. This small inhabited island has wisely held onto its past, passing building restrictions and other laws that keep the village in touch with its roots. A quick water buffalo ride is a great way to get a quick over view of the charming town. Visitors from all over Japan flock to this island to relax, wander and snap photos of the famous shisa.
No trip to Taketomi Island would be complete without a stop at Star Sand Beach. Here young and old scour the beach, placing palm to the ground in hopes of coming up with a fistful of star sand. The sand, actually the skeletal remains of microscopic sea creatures, is said to be lucky to those who find it and use it as a charm.
After spending most of the day at Taketomi, head back to Ishigaki’s new airport to catch a plane to Naha. Once in Naha enjoy your last evening in Okinawa by heading out on the town, perhaps grabbing a great meal and then enjoying one last night in an izakaya.
Day 7: The perfect stay in Okinawa draws to a close but you may still have enough time to grab some sun at one of the local beaches before your flights. After a wonderfully exotic week in the islands, choose to head directly home or maybe consider spending an extra day or two in Tokyo, Osaka or Kyoto exploring the gay scene of these fabulous Japanese cities.
If You Go:
A significant portion of this review’s underlying trip was hosted by the Okinawa Convention & Visitors Bureau. My opinions, however, are my own, and I was not paid to express any bias for or against this product or destination.