During winter vacation, I traded Hyogo’s rice paddies and fallen leaves for the pineapple fields and mangrove forests of Okinawa! Hoping to take advantage of off-season prices and fewer crowds, a fellow ALT and I embarked on a journey of island hopping, ocean kayaking, coral reef snorkeling, and a long list of other exciting activities. Although most people don’t associate the archipelago with winter travel (most of my JTEs were confused when I told them about my plans), visiting Okinawa in the off-season has its benefits as well as a few disadvantages. All things considered, my five-day trip can be summarized as a lovely tour through Japan’s most southern and most unique prefecture.
A little geography: Okinawa prefecture is comprised of the Ryukyu Islands, formerly the home of the Ryukyu Kingdom. Okinawa contains both the most southern and most western points of Japan. The islands are grouped into three major chains: the Okinawa Islands, the Yaeyama Islands, and the Miyako Islands. The prefectural capital, Naha, sits in the southern corner of the main island, Okinawa.
Getting there: Naha International Airport serves all the major Japanese and East
Asian airlines, including our favorite low-cost carriers. Naha, Ishigaki, and Iriomote also have large ferry terminals that connect the smaller islands among the chains. Unfortunately, it is not possible to travel from the Okinawa Islands to the Yaeyama Islands by boat; flight is the only option. In the Yaeyama Islands, Ishigaki Airport also has flights to Osaka KIX.
Eat: Okinawa soba is quite different from its buckwheat counterpart, more closely resembling udon with an egg-like flavor. The proudly purple sweet potato tart, beniimo, dominates the omiyage stands, although local Okinawan sugarcane treats are also popular (I recommend the Blue Seal sugarcane ice cream). Goya, a bitter vegetable recognizable by its bumpy outer skin is present in many dishes. Chanpuru, a kind of stir-fry, can serve as a great vegetarian option if the tofu version is on the menu. Finally, imo-flavored, small round donut holes are available wherever food is sold. Of course, Awamori liquor (distilled, not brewed) is readily available while Orion Beer, originally made popular during the American occupation, dominates the tap.
A little history: The Ryukyuan are the original inhabitants of Okinawa and the culture is still very present in the language, architecture, textiles, and food. The Ryukyu kings ruled autonomously over the islands for hundreds of years before becoming a tributary state of China in the 15th century. This relationship continued until clans from nearby Kagoshima conquered the islands in the early 1600s.
Understand: Due to its past relationship with China, Okinawa developed under very different circumstances and influences than mainland Japan. The prefecture was not officially integrated until after the Meiji Restoration. In modern times, Okinawa played a pivotal role in World War II, including many years of American occupation. The story of the Battle of Okinawa is extremely sobering and post-wartime tensions between Okinawa’s residents and leaders in Tokyo continue to this day.
At times, Okinawa felt like a completely different country instead of an extension of Japan. Its laid-back island atmosphere, seaside colors, and slower pace of life combined with the regional language, food, and architecture were very different from the fast, crowded streets of urban Hyogo. Of course the warmer temperatures also helped to enhance my experience.
My itinerary included visits to four islands scattered among two of the major chains. I spent two nights in one of several hostels available in Naha, but after relocating to the remote island of Ishigaki, hotels were the only option for lodging. The flight from Osaka KIX to Naha was short and sweet, but traveling among the islands themselves can be a bit tricky and does require advanced planning.
Naha, Okinawa: The first stop was Okinawa Island. Getting around Naha was easy with the city’s monorail, the Yuri Rail, which begins at the airport and connects all of the main tourist sites. Fare-saving passes were available for 24-hour and 48 hour periods. Naha is the prefecture’s largest city with an active downtown, intriguing restaurants, and a visible nightlife scene. Tiny canals run through the city while large shopping districts sell everything from luxury brands to artisan crafts. The Tsuboya Pottery district offers a unique stroll through a small neighborhood dedicated to traditional Okinawan pottery and workshops.
The most popular tourist site is probably Shuri Castle, the home of the former Ryukyu kings. The Ryukyuan’s long-term relationship with China greatly influenced the culture of the islands and its impact is most visible in the architectural style of Shuri Castle. Instead of Himeji Castle’s bright white coloring, Shuri is washed in a deep red with extremely ornate and decorative motifs in gold, green, blue, and pink. The castle’s main hall is topped by two fierce dragon heads and the reception room, proudly displaying the Dragon Throne, glows under low lighting and golden artwork. The castle is the last stop on the Yuri Rail and sits in the center of a large park, rising on a hill above the city.
Zamami Island, Kerama Islands: Zamami Island boasts a gorgeous coastline edged by coral reefs sitting just below turquoise waters filled with tropical fish and other ocean creatures. Zamami is the largest island in the Kerama chain (part of the Okinawa Islands) and can be reached by one of two boat companies, varying in speed. Before leaving Hyogo, we scheduled a kayak and snorkeling tour with Kayak Drifters. The timing of the tour required that we take the more expensive express ferry (and also limited our time on the island, as the last ferry leaves before 5:00 pm).
Unfortunately, the weather was quite windy, with rain for most of the day. Despite the overcast skies, the water was warm and the wetsuit was almost unnecessary (keep in mind, I’m from New England). Our guide, while slightly perturbed by our willingness to go swimming in December, happily setup a small lean-to on the deserted beach and cooked our lunch, Okinawa soba, over a portable stove. Our snorkeling adventures included floating with sea turtles, exploring colorful reefs, and meeting the entire cast of Finding Nemo. Our guide spoke minimal English, but excessive conversation wasn’t necessary to express the beauty and splendor of the islands.
Ishigaki Island, Yeyama Islands: After two nights in Naha we boarded a plane bound for Ishigaki Island, the largest island in the Yaeyama chain. The one-hour flight brought us to the small airport in the north of the island and an easy-to-locate public bus took us down the sparsely populated coastline to the city of Ishigaki. There are many fancy hotels in Ishigaki, although we chose to stay in a budget-friendly Toyoko Inn that was quite far from the center of the city. Ishigaki was well suited for tourists and even advertised an information center at the main ferry terminal with multiple English-speaking staff members. Information on buses, ferries, restaurants, and package deals was available at the ferry terminal.
A helpful staff member suggested a local izakaya offering live traditional sanshin music every evening. It was a treat to enjoy local food while watching the crowd enthusiastically engage with the upbeat band. When you visit Okinawa you will quickly become familiar with popular tunes like “Shima Uta”, and you’ll even learn when to chime in for the chorus!
Ishigaki offers plenty of opportunity for outdoor adventures including river kayaking and glass-bottom boat cruises. However, rough tides, high winds, and general winter weather forced some tours to close unexpectedly during our trip, and reduced bus schedules made logistics difficult to manage at times. Despite these limitations, we used the reasonably priced taxi service to visit Ishigaki’s main attractions: Yaima Mura and Kabira Bay.
Yaima Mura is a small traditional Okinawan village with preserved buildings, including an old samurai residence. The park offers music and dance demonstrations as well as the option to taste handmade Okinawan sugarcane sweets. There is also a small mangrove forest and a fenced-in monkey park with a troop of free-range monkeys that are extremely cute and exceedingly devious. Monkey food is available for a cheap price and should you choose to decline the purchase these little critters will gladly inspect your pockets and bags for other treats.
Kabira Bay is by far the most colorful body of water I’ve ever dipped my toes in. The short beach opens into a pool of underwater coral reefs dotted with tiny islands and short rock formations before emptying into the ocean. The glass-bottom boats were all anchored, due to rough winter tides, but we were still able to enjoy a stroll along the beach as the sun made occasional appearances through the dense cloud cover. In addition to its beautiful colors and coastline, Kabira Bay is also famous for its black pearl cultivation – an expensive souvenir if you are so inclined. Surprisingly, public transportation from Ishigaki City to Kabira Bay (a 40 minute bus ride) is very infrequent. The same bus runs from Ishigaki to Yaima Mura and Kabira Bay.
Taketomi Island: Taketomi Island is the perfect place for a short day trip from Ishigaki. Taketomi offers extremely rural sightseeing and small country roads lined with traditional homes and structures. Of course, the best way to view these sights is with the help of the island’s water buffalo population. These taciturn creatures spend their days pulling wooden carts of tourists through the small winding streets. Our guide described the scenery and played the sanshin while the buffalo plodded along the trail by memory, requiring no directions or signals.
We were able to buy a combined round-trip ferry ticket and buffalo cart ride from the Ishigaki tourist center. The buffalo cart company picked us up at the Taketomi ferry port and drove us to the stables where we could enjoy shelter from the slightly chilly winds while waiting for our buffalo to be hitched up.
Iriomote Island: The final hop on our tour of the islands was Iriomote, the largest island in the Yaeyama chain. Iriomote is revered for its jungle-like interior full of optimal hiking trails, waterfalls, and brackish rivers. The island is also home to a recently discovered species of wildcat – Iriomote Yamaneko, the mountain cat. This cute little creature looks like a typical housecat only patterned like a leopard. Its popularity explains the large of number of service people wearing tiny cat ears.
We filled our time in Iriomote with a kayaking and hiking tour, organized by Iriomote Osanpo. The tour began with an hour-long kayaking trip through a dense mangrove forest. Paddling between the tightly knitted mangroves under a beautiful blue sky (finally, sunlight!) was my favorite experience of the trip. Our journey began during low tide, when the twisted maze of mangrove roots is visible above the low water line. From our vantage point, we could see the cascade of Pinaisara Waterfall, the destination of our tour. After securing the kayaks, we began our hike up the small mountain to the top of Pinaisara Waterfall. The journey upward included walking among trees said to be over two hundred years old and climbing cliff faces with the aid of a knotted rope.
Once we reached the summit, we waded through the shallow river to the mouth of the waterfall. It was an incredible view, looking out over the river and mangrove forest we had just kayaked through, which opened up into the shining blue ocean. In addition to being a beautiful photo opportunity, the mouth of the waterfall was a great place to grab a rock and eat lunch, typically provided by the tour guide. Before returning to the kayaks, we also hiked along the riverbed to the bottom of the waterfall, looking up at where we once stood. I suspect the large pool is a prime swimming hole during the summer months.
Benefits of off-season travel: Spending Christmas in Okinawa was the perfect way to escape holiday tourists and end-of-year crowds. Although we ended up with a private tour of Zamami Island and were joined by only two people on the hike to Pinaisara Falls, booking during the off-season did not result in any significant discounts on tours, lodging, or transportation. Cloudy skies, rain, and wind combined to limit the availability of various outdoor activities and the consistent lack of sunlight added a slightly gray tinge to the landscapes. While the temperature was definitely warmer when compared to Hyogo, I felt that a jacket and long pants were still required. Reduced bus and ferry schedules, a result of the off-season but also exacerbated by the poor weather, made logistics a bit trickier than expected.
In general, I would say if your main goal is avoiding crowds, Okinawa is the place to be for Christmas and New Year. However, if you’re hoping to view the tropical islands in the best light possible while frolicking in your finest summer styles, plan your trip for early spring when the weather warms and the seas calm. Regardless of the season, Okinawa will be a special and exotic treat full of unique and unforgettable opportunities!