June 27, 2013
Laid-back Okinawa: The Birthplace of Karate
Years ago, a kingdom called вЂњRyukyuвЂќ prospered in this land. Today, the remnants of that ancient time still echoes in the traditional exotic culture and unique customs of Okinawa that have been passed down through the generations. There is plenty to explore and enjoy in this region; its sandy beaches and breathtaking coral reefs offer a both relaxing and lazy vacation and thrilling adventurous aquatic sports.
|The birthplace of karate, home to rich culture and traditions and magnificent architecture, Okinawa 1,539 km South-West of Tokyo, consists of a 1000 kilometers long chain of hundreds of the Ryukyu Islands. In fact, the name Okinawa can be translated as вЂњrope in the open seaвЂќ, a reference to the distinctive appearance of the islands as a long chain. |
Out of the 160 islands, only 40 some are inhabited. The largest, Okinawa Honto is home to Naha, capital of Okinawa Prefecture and gateway to the rest of the islands by sea and by air. After visiting Okinawa IslandвЂ™s many attractions, you might wish to fly or take a ferry onward to one or more of the other islands, like Kume Island, renowned for its beaches, sugar cane fields, and historic sites relating to the Ryukyu Kingdom, and Iriomote, famous for its vast pristine wilderness and for scuba diving.
You may also enjoy visiting the many untrammeled islands of Okinawa. These islands, which number about fifteen, are uninhabited and covered with wild vegetation. Adventurers may enjoy exploring these wildernesses, which are otherwise rarities in Japan. Boat trips can be arranged at any seaside town. Camping in these wilderness areas is also a popular activity.
Okinawa is often chosen for tourism and vacations due to its location and sunny climate. As it is far to the south of the main islands of Japan, its climate is more temperate than the other Japanese prefectures. It is mild enough that swimming in the winter months is pleasant. Avoid Okinawa during the typhoon months of September and October, however.
|Fast Facts for planning a trip|
Getting there: From Tokyo, JAL flies regularly from Haneda Airport to Naha Airport (capital of Okinawa).
Currency: Japanese Yen (JPY)
Getting Around: Taxies have a standard fare of ?480 for the first 2 kilometers, after that, incremental charges are based on time and distance.
STAYING IN OKINAWA
There is a variety of Okinawa hotels you could select from with luxurious and exotic ambiences. To narrow down your search here is a list of the most prominent Okinawa hotels.
Hyakunagaran is located about 35 minutes from Naha Airport by car. Changing from the urban loudness, it is standing at the tip of the cape where the sea and the mountains spread. The mansion aimed at a fusion with nature, is built with Japanese-Ryukyu mixed style. It is as such a luxury hotel scented with rich emotion rather than a resort.
In the breathtaking 220 degree view, you can enjoy the sunrise and sunset at the same location. Inside the mansion is a huge banyan-grown courtyard and a cave with a 7 metre high stone Buddist sculpture. On the rooftop, there are 6 hermitages established each with open-air bath. In addition, there is a reception hall which can host wedding ceremonies, banquets and various other events.
Image Credit: www.hyakunagaran.com
The Busena Terrace Beach Resort
Located on the northern tip of Okinawa Island and surrounded by three waterfronts, this resort with an elegant yet tropical atmosphere is the ultimate getaway. In addition to many on-site facilities, including a spa and indoor and outdoor pools, Busena Beach and Busena Marine Park are just a short walk or free shuttle ride away. The resort also offers a wide range of activities, from a kidsвЂ™ club to sunset cruising and fishing, along with rentals for beach umbrellas and sea kayaks. Rooms range from standard ones facing inland toward a distant cape to more expensive rooms facing the ocean with balconies; but for true luxury there are вЂњcottageвЂќ suites with huge balconies and views from both bedroom and living room. Restaurants also take advantage of the beautiful views, making this a good choice for a romantic retreat.
Image Credit: www.terrace.co.jp
The Ritz-Carlton, Okinawa is known as вЂњGusukuвЂќ which means вЂњCastleвЂќ in the local dialect. To soften the word, the local people refer to The Ritz-Carlton as вЂњguest houseвЂќ, thereby, welcoming guests to the guest house during their stay. The Ritz-Carlton embodies and expresses in both landscape and architecture, the genuine peaceful, caring and friendship spirit - вЂњKeionвЂќ - of the Okinawan people. The Shurijo motif is symbolic of Okinawa with its traditional and distinctive red clay tile roofs, white walls and holy water pond. Situated within the premises of the Kise Country Club and surrounded on three sides by its 18-hole golf course overlooking the ocean. Experience the picturesque setting and location from one of the impeccable guest rooms with spectacular views over the golf course, and down towards the East China Sea, the Motobu Peninsula and island beyond.
Image Credit: www.ritzcarlton.com
The center of the former Ryukyu Kingdom, Okinawa Island (Okinawa Honto) is by far the largest and most populous island in the Okinawa prefecture, and the regional transportation hub. The prefectural capital Naha is in Okinawa Honto. While much of the central part of Okinawa Honto is urbanized, the southern tip of the island is less densely populated, and the northernmost Yambaru area remains mainly covered by forested hills and small fishing and farming villages.
This stunning castle was used as a palace by the Ryukyu Kingdom but was completely destroyed during the World War II Battle of Okinawa. In 1992 however, the palace was reconstructed using original photographs and historical records of what it had once looked like. This site is a huge tourist attraction in Okinawa and is crowded with visitors all year-round.
Image Credit: Shurijo Castle Park
This is another castle in Okinawa and is still in ruins. Constructed by SakinakagusukuAji in the mid-14th Century, it was expanded by Gosamaru in the early 15th Century. The castle consists of 6 baileys, each being on a different elevation. The castle also has six courtyards which were historically used as forts for protection.
Image Credit: World Heritage Nakagusuku Castle Ruins of Okinawa
Built in the end of the 17th century, Shikinaen Garden was the second residence of the Ryukyu royalty. The garden has mesmerizing sights; simple, wooden palace buildings constructed in the Okinawan style, and surrounded by Japanese style gardens. You can view this stunning garden by walking its circular path. The garden also has a pond and a bridge.
The Okinawa Prefectural Museum is a great place to learn more about OkinawaвЂ™s unique history and culture. The museum was previously located near Shuri Castle, but was relocated and reopened in a modern building in 2007. It consists of two separate museums: a history museum and an art museum.
The history museum covers the entire history of Okinawa from before the time of the Ryukyu Kingdom to modern times. The scope of the museum is wide and includes natural history, folklore, crafts and archaeology. There is a great deal of well-presented information about Okinawan culture and history which visitors can spend a few enjoyable hours exploring.
The art museum is a bit smaller than the history museum and features a variety of art forms in multiple galleries, including sculptures, paintings, sketches and videos. The museumвЂ™s collection focuses on local artists and themes, and the works on display are generally modern or contemporary.
The Tamaudun Mausoleum was built around the beginning of the 16th century as the mausoleum for the royal family of the Ryukyu Kingdom. It was restored after suffering extensive damage during the war. The mausoleum is located only a short walk from Shuri Castle.
The mausoleum consists of three closed chambers: the left one for kings and queens, the right one for princes and princesses, and the central one for storing recently deceased bodies before undergoing a ritual of bone cleaning a few years later. The mausoleum follows the Okinawan burial tradition of constructing large stone tombs, but it was built in a particularly grand style to exalt the royal family.
Image Credit: www.japan-guide.com
Okinawa World is a touristic theme park about Okinawan culture. The parkвЂ™s main attractions are a massive natural cave, a craft village and a snake museum.
Image Credit: www.japan-guide.com
With a total length of five kilometers, Gyokusendo cave is the longest of the many caves in the south of Okinawa Island and the second longest cave in the entire country. 850 metres of the cave are open to the public and feature spectacular stalactites and stalagmites. The inside of the cave is well maintained and the walking paths are comfortable and well lit.
Image Credit: www.japan-guide.com
Hedo Misaki is also known as Cape Hedo and is situated within Kunigami Village. The area is barely populated, hilly and mostly covered with trees. From here you can get marvelous views of the main island as well as the area surrounding it. This Cape faces the South China Sea on the west, and the Pacific Ocean on the east.
Ocean Expo Park (Kaiyohaku Kinen Koen)
This expansive park on the northwestern coast, site of the 1975 International Ocean Expo, contains several attractions, most important of which is the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium which concentrates on the oceans and currents surrounding the Ryukyu Islands, from coral reef habitats to the deep sea. Highlights include huge whale sharks and manta rays, dolphin shows, a touch pond for kids, a movie theater, and a close look at the colorful tropical fish that call the surrounding waters home.
Image Credit: http://oki-churaumi.jp
Hiji Waterfall is located in the northern Yambaru area. The waterfall can be accessed via an attractive and easy hike along a nature trail through the forest. The trailhead is about two kilometres inland from the main road along the islandвЂ™s western coast. At the trailhead there is a gate where an entrance fee is required. From there, the distance to the waterfall is about 1.5 kilometres, and the hike takes about 40 minutes one way. The trail is well maintained, and there are quite a few steep sections with stairs along the way. One of the highlights of the walk is crossing a suspension bridge that spans a valley 17 metres below.
RESTAURANTS AND DINNING
The Okinawan diet is very sparse on calories. Well-known specialties include the Okinawa вЂњSobaвЂќ (buckwheat noodles), mango, a bitter version of a melon called Goya, black sugar, sea grapes, and much more.Okinawa Soba has an amazing history that dates back over five hundred years and this dish was only eaten by the royal members of the Ryukyu Kingdom. Okinawans eat a small amount of fish as well. However, the tastes you experience are quite different from what you would get in typical Japanese food. Good bets include Makishi Public Market where food vendors sell local specialties on the second floor, and Ino Ocean View Restaurant in the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium, offering a buffet of Okinawan specialties along with panoramic views.
Kokusaidori (International Road) is NahaвЂ™s main street, stretching for roughly two kilometres through downtown Naha. The street takes its name from the former Ernie Pyle International Theater, a movie theater that was built along the road after the war. Starting around the Naha Bus Terminal and Prefectural Hall, Kokusaidori is lined by restaurants, cafes, bars, souvenir shops, boutiques and department stores. If you are looking for even more shopping opportunities, you are encouraged to venture into the colorful Heiwadori, Mutsumidori and IchibaHondori arcades, which branch off Kokusaidori around the intersection with Okieidori, halfway along the street.
Okinawa is famous for a variety of crafts, including pottery, lacquerware, glassware and Kariyushi shirts (the Okinawan version of the Hawaiian Aloha shirts).
When visiting Okinawa, you have to know that there are some nightclubs that do not welcome foreigners. There usually are signs posted at the entrance, so thereвЂ™s not much chance of unwittingly wandering into a Japanese-only club. The most frequent reason is that the staff and patrons do not speak English, so tourists who can speak some Japanese or are accompanied by local friends can talk their way into these clubs.
Many nightclubs in Okinawa city are specially designed with American clientele in mind, due to the proximity of the Kadena Military Base. The so-called rock-houses have great live music and a somewhat nostalgic atmosphere reminiscent of the 80вЂ™s and 90вЂ™s.
Regular Okinawan discos and nightclubs are usually large and elaborate, and some of them are famous even in Japan. During the summer months, the Nakano Machi district in Okinawa City is swarming with Japanese tourists from nearby mainland cities. Other popular places are SmugglerвЂ™s Irish Pub and Rehab in Naha. Whichever nightclub you choose, we recommend that you try Awamori, JapanвЂ™s oldest distilled liquor, introduced to the Ryukyu Kingdom from Siam (present-day Thailand) in the early 15th century and distilled from rice, itвЂ™s very strong but tastes amazing.
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