Weekend Trip to Okinawa
About Okinawa:
Okinawa Island is the largest of the Ryukyu Islands, which are a chain of more than 150 volcanic Islands (49 of which are inhabited) stretched out along over a thousand kilometers from the Southern tip of the Japanese mainland all the way to the East Coast of Taiwan. The Okinawa prefecture has a population of 1.4 million, the majority of which live on Okinawa Island.  
The Ryukyu Islands served as a cultural and economic link between South East Asia, China, Japan and Korea for many centuries. The Ryukyuan Kingdom emerged in the 12th century, but wasn’t united into a single kingdom until the early 15th century. Although the Ryukyu Islands were conquered by Japan in 1609, the Ryukyuan monarchy was retained as the local administration until its final abolishment in 1879, when the Islands were fully incorporated into Japan as the Okinawa Prefecture. 
The Islands also witnessed very heavy fighting and bombardment (with enormous damage to historical sites) during the World War II, which killed 120,000 Okinawans. Following the war, Okinawa remained under US occupation until 1972. There are several large US military bases on the Island, which contribute a significant amount to the local economy. 

Friday, Nov 14th
We land in Naha, the capital of Okinawa, at about 11am and then pick up our car. The car rental place is a bit outside of the airport, and it took us a while to figure out how to get there on a bus, but people were as usual in Japan very helpful although not particularly proficient in English. Since we are only here for two days, have very little luggage and drive around in beautiful weather, I thought it would be a good idea to rent a speedy little convertible roadster. So we got a Mazda MX5, which looked like a little kid’s toy when I stood next to it, but it was fast and lots of fun to drive.

One minor problem was that not even two small carry-on bags fit into the trunk of that car. So Jen had to keep one of the bags between her legs on the way to the hotel. The drive to the hotel, which is near Nago in the Northern part of the Island, took about an hour and a half on the expressway. We stopped along the way for some noodles and a vending machine coffee (one of my favorite things in Japan). We were staying in the spectacularly beautiful Ritz Carlton Hotel Okinawa in a room overlooking the Kisa Country Club golf course and Nago Bay in the distance.

Following a nice afternoon nap, we have dinner nearby in a Shabu Shabu restaurant. Food was delicious, despite the fact that the restaurant wasn’t much more than a little shack by the side of the road, but I guess when your guests cook their own food on the table, you don’t need much space for a kitchen.  
Saturday, Nov 15th
We don’t have an alarm set and sleep in so late that we nearly miss the very good breakfast buffet. Our plan today is to drive around the Northern part of the Island in our little roadster. The weather is perfect for putting the roof down. We start out driving along the coast of Nago Bay and around the Motobu Peninsula, which sticks out like a big nose on the Western Side of Okinawa. We cross over a bridge to Sesoko Island and stop at a beautiful perfectly white sand beach, with great views of the ocean and the Island of Iejima in the distance. It’s a gorgeous sunny day today, but at this time of the year already a bit too cold to go swimming even though the turquoise water looks very inviting. 

We drive back to the Peninsula and find the famous Bise Fukugi Tree Streets, which are narrow streets so densely lined with Fukugi trees, that the trees provide a complete cover overhead and create these beautiful narrow tunnels:

Fukugi trees, which were initially brought over from the Philippines, are quite short and strong, and have very dense foliage. Thus they provide very good protection to the houses from the fairly frequent typhoons that hit Okinawa during the summer and autumn months. My attempt to try to drive through a narrow section of the tree road fails miserably when the road suddenly gets too narrow for even the tiny roadster, and we have to back out through the trees with some difficulty, which caused a few puzzled and amused looks from the locals.

Our next stop on the northern side of the Peninsula are the Nakijin Castle Ruins, which are strategically located on a hill site a couple of hundred meters above the coast:

Nakijin Castle was constructed between the late 13th and early 15th century. It became the seat of the Ryukyuan kingdom governor. The castle is surrounded by very impressive thick walls, which are curved and angled. The walls are much thicker at the bottom and don’t appear to be held together by mortar.  There are no buildings left inside the site. We walk around through several large court yards and enjoy the fantastic views over the peninsula and the ocean. We also briefly check out the castle museum, but that does not turn out to be very interesting for us since the descriptions are only in Japanese.

Unesco World Heritage Site:  The castle is part of a range of sites, which in 2000 received the Unesco World Heritage designation (Unesco Ref 972: “Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu”).  

Next we crossed what we are told is the longest toll free bridge in Japan to Kouri Island. We drive around the perimeter of the whole Island (which takes about 10 min. It’s a small Island), and then stop at the large sightseeing tower. We are driven up to the tower in a little driverless golf cart, and then take the elevator up to the top floor of the tower for some great views of the bridge and coast on the other side. There is a large tourist shop at the bottom.

We then drive a bit further North and cross over to the East Coast of the Island near the town of Higashi. We drive along a very windy road, stop at a large reservoir damn (the Fukichi Damn). We watch a beautiful sunset across from some large pineapple fields, which look to have been harvested quite recently.

By the time we turn back South it’s already dark, and we follow the road along the East coast for about an hour before getting back to our hotel in Nago, where we finish our day with a spectacularly good Teppanyaki dinner at the hotel restaurant.

Sunday, Nov 16th:
After breakfast we check out of the hotel, and start driving south. Our flight back to Hong Kong isn’t until later in the afternoon, so we still have half a day for more sightseeing. We take the scenic road along the coast rather than the expressway. Our first stop is Cape Manza, which is famous for the Elephant rock, which is a natural arch cliff that looks like an elephant trunk. There is bit of a traffic jam to get into the visitor car park, so it must be quite a popular tourist spot.

We drive a little further south and stop at another cape, called Cape Maeda, for more great views from the cliffs above the ocean. This seems to be a popular snorkeling and diving spot. We pass a large diving centre on the way in and see lots of boats and divers out on the water just off the side of the cliffs.


Our last sightseeing stop are the well-preserved ruins of Zakimi Castle, which is another part of the Unesco World Heritage site. Zakimi Castle is a bit newer, it was built in the early 15th century. And now it seems to be a popular destination for Japanese tourists dressed up in traditional kimonos:

The last part of the drive to the airport goes along the huge Kadena US Air Force base. Some parts of the drive near Naha look like we are in a US strip mall lined with McDonalds, KFCs and Starbucks.

We manage to find the car rental place without problems and returning the car is quick and easy, so we get to the airport with plenty of time to spare for our short flight back to Hong Kong. It was a very relaxing, beautiful and interesting little trip to Okinawa, which is a great place to visit any time of the year, and we are likely to come back here again in the near future.
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