I knew I wanted a short weekend getaway with the following criteria: a pristine beach with clear blue waters and warm sunny weather to match; green mountains and ideally hiking trails; a good dose of culture and history; awesome food; somewhere I haven’t been before; is convenient to get to; isn’t full of tourists; and is relatively easy on the pocket. Okinawa quickly ended up the undisputed choice for this weekend’s sojourn.
Under two hours by plane from Hong Kong, the direct flight (return) on Hong Kong Airlines was a steal at under HK$2,000. It arrived at Naha Airport on Okinawa island, which is only about 5km from Naha’s city centre and popular spots such as Kokusai-dori Street – Naha’s 2km-long main street of restaurants, cafes, bars, shops, hotels, etc – and Makishi Public Market. The Yui Monorail makes getting around Naha a breeze; from airport to downtown costs only a couple of hundred yen and takes just 15 minutes. From end-to-end — Naha Airport to Shuri, where the famous Shurijo Castle is located — the journey takes just 30 minutes and trains run about every 10 minutes.
Accommodation in Okinawa is plenty, ranging from cheap as chips hostels to the usual five-star fare. I decided to spend two days exploring Naha, and two more days on Tokashiki, a sweet little lush island west of Naha city reachable in 35 minutes by a fast ferry. The former would fulfill my criteria for culture and history, and the latter for pristine beaches and mountains. Both locations, of course, boast awesome food. In Naha, I chose to stay away from the bright lights of downtown and in a quaint B&B called Nakahara Hotel in Shuri, just a few hundred metres away from Shurijo Castle. In Tokashiki, I put up at Sea Friend, one of the many diving-oriented B&Bs on Aharen Beach.
Naha is a small place and I’m glad I dedicated only two days to exploring it. I’m also glad I picked to stay in Shuri, the former royal capital of the Ryukyu Kingdom, because for someone who has to have a morning run, downtown Naha was certainly too busy with too many traffic lights and cars.
Running through Shurijo Castle Park was a great way to start the day and also check out Naha’s main attraction. The castle, built in the 14th century – though has undergone several reconstructions due to damage from war and fire – is a designated Unesco World Heritage site. It was quite surreal to gaze towards modern life from within the ancient castle walls. There’s a certain calm and peace that enfolds you as you roam the sprawling grounds.
Kokusai-dori Street (get off at Makishi Station) is just another tourism pothole. If you, like me, are not into bright Vegas-like lights, shopping or being hustled by menu-wielding waiters outside restaurants, you might not enjoy Kokusai-dori too. Its saving grace, however, is the Makishi Public Market, which entrance is a few hundred metres along the street from Makishi Station. The indoor market is full of traditional Okinawan grub and food-related goods, and on the second floor there are plenty of restaurants selling affordable, authentic and Okinawan fare.
Some must-trys: Goya Chanpuru (bittergourd stir-fried with tofu, egg and pork), Umibudo (literally “sea grapes”, a refreshing caviar-ish seaweed), Okinawa soba noodles with pork (not your usual noodles!), Sata Andagi (sweet fried dough balls) and Okinawa tofu.
A short stroll from the market is Yachimun Street, home to the Tsuboya pottery district. If you’re looking for any form of pottery, you’ll be spoilt for choice here as there are about 40 shops selling similar looking things!
Another place I visited in Naha was Omoromachi, a seriously boring district of big shopping malls. But it does also house the Okinawa Prefectural and Arts Museum, which I didn’t visit but read good things about. Adjacent to the museum is Shintoshin Park, where I lay on the huge field one evening after a long day of walking, enjoying the sunset and observing Okinawan children (and some adults) at play. I actually liked that much more than the entire Kokusai-dori Street!
My Okinawan adventure continues in my next post, where I’ll take you to the paradise that is Tokashiki Island…