Little M’s first holiday. The trouble with taking a lovely break is after returning you feel even worse than before you left because you wished you didn’t have to return to reality.
Okinawa – Jan 2014, a set on Flickr.
Snaps of a long weekend on the wonderful island of Okinawa. Taken with the iPhone 5c and the Fuji x100s.
The next day, the weather wasn’t as kind. I guess I lucked out on the first day, because prior to my arrival I’d checked the forecast for Okinawa and sunshine wasn’t really on the cards for the weekend. So I guess I expected overcast skies, but what I didn’t expect was cold rain that lasted for hours. Fortunately, I’d set out for Aharen Park quite early and managed to get in a few dry hours before getting soaked on the return trip home.
Aharen Park is easy to get to: there’s only one road in and out, Maetake Road. I don’t regret getting out there at all, despite the conditions, because the geological features were just utterly amazing. Pristine untouched capes and beaches, rocky outcrops, spectacular viewpoints… it’s a tiny area but I spent a couple of hours just exploring every nook and cranny.
No hike would be complete without having a picnic; the spot of choice for this one was atop a cliff looking out to Aharen Lighthouse on Cape Aharenzachi on Un Island. I thought there might be a path connecting Tokashiki to Un – it’s really just separated by a few metres of sea – but alas there wasn’t a way across, and so I had to admire the cape from afar.
At about 12.30pm, the skies finally opened. Fortunately I always carry my Gore-Tex running jacket with me, and so I was dry. But I was still pretty cold from the strong gusty winds. I sought shelter for a few minutes, and as soon as the rain died down to a drizzle, I ran for home. It was perfect timing; almost as soon as I reached back, got a hot shower and snuggled under the sheets, it started pouring even heavier than before. This lasted almost till sunset, washing away my hopes of another day of tanning. Still, it was a fulfilling and fun day.
At about 5pm the rain stopped, and I went for a walk on the beach. No brilliant sunset on this day, but the complete silence broken by tiny lapping waves was soothing for the soul.
I awoke this morning – my final morning in Tokashiki and Okinawa – to similar overcast skies. Lacing up my running shoes, I headed out for a short pre-breakfast jog and discovered a route to the adjacent deserted beach. I wish I had gotten up even earlier because the beach was fascinating, with lots of geological formations, seashells and corals.
At 10am I left Tokashiki for Naha, and now I board the plane back to Hong Kong. It’s been a really refreshing and unforgettable weekend. Check out the hike stats and map here if you’re interested.
Ferry sailings between Tokashiki and Naha vary throughout the year depending on the season, but during winter there are two fast ferry sailings per day, taking off at Tomarin Port in Naha at 9am and 4pm, and returning from Tokashiki Port at 10am and 5pm. A round-trip ticket costs 4,720 yen for adults and 2,420 yen for children.
So after a rather urban experience in Naha, I boarded a morning fast ferry at Tomarin Port to Tokashiki, an island 35 minutes west of Naha. Tokashiki actually consists of 10 islands, of which only two – Tokashiki and Maejima – are inhabited. The Tokashiki group of islands is part of the bigger Kerama Islands group, one of four major island groups in Okinawa Prefecture. The others are Ie-ijma, Kume and Okinawa Island, where Naha is.
I knew I wanted to island hop while in Okinawa. After doing some research – and there’s not really much out there on the Internet – Tokashiki was the outright choice for sun, beach, hikes, and convenience. Ishigaki, part of the Yaeyama Islands, would have been great too, but it requires a rather pricey domestic flight to get there. Maybe next time.
Tokashiki is tiny. In fact, the Tokashiki Marathon takes place there this weekend, and I wonder how they’d manage to accumulate 42.195km along the very few village roads. The island itself is just 9.6km long and 1.6km across, and there’s really only one main road that kinda forms a figure of eight around the island. The course will definitely be hard on the legs though – there’s hardly any flat road on the island, just long climbs (or descents, if you’re going in the opposite direction) that reach up to about 200 metres. The highest point on the island is Mount Akama at a paltry 227 metres, but the island is dotted with peaks, and that’s why it will be an undulating and challenging course.
There are a few accommodation choices on Tokashiki, and via TripAdvisor I found Seafriend, a cosy little lodge at Aharen Beach. For about 13,000 yen for two nights, I got a comfy twin room, daily buffet breakfast and daily scrumptious dinner of local catch, produce and meats. With the beach just about 100 metres away, Seafriend is a great based from which to enjoy Tokashiki. They also provide free shuttle service during your arrival and departure, which is a big plus because there really isn’t any other way to get around on the island unless you rent a bike or a car, or walk.
Stretching about 800 metres, Aharen Beach is the No. 1 attraction on Tokashiki, according to TripAdvisor. It’s pristine; clear blue water and a relatively deep white sandy beach. It is known as the Mecca of snorkeling and diving among other marine sports. Unfortunately I don’t dive, but if you do, I think you’ll be spoiled for choice all over the island. In fact, tourism – driven by diving – has overtaken farming and fishing as the island’s main income.
An overcast sky greeted me upon my arrival at Tokashiki port, but by the time I got to Seafriend, the sky had cleared and the sun shone brightly. It was warm – warm enough to finally dust off that bikini and restore my summer tan. Without a planned route in mind, I set off to explore the island with some food, drink and extra clothing in a running knapsack. I headed north towards the neighbouring Tokashiku Beach, along the way passing through Shinrin Kouen (Forest Park), a big family camping ground. In the middle of the park is Mount Teruyama, with a viewpoint at its peak that offers a splendid view of many capes and beaches to the right and left.
Tokashiku Beach had flat blue waters and was more sheltered than Aharen Beach. It also seemed a bit cleaner, given Aharen Beach had the Aharen Fishing Port adjacent to it. There’s only one hotel on Tokashiku, however, and no shops nor restaurants, so it’s a lot more inconvenient than Aharen. The beach itself is also coarser, covered with lots of small corals, rocks and shells. But I was there and it was warm, so I stripped down to my bikini and enjoyed the beach – entirely to myself. It’s low season in Okinawa at the moment, and Tokashiki, usually a hotspot for sun-and-sea-seekers, was totally quiet. I was the only one on either beach on both days.
After a little picnic at Tokashiku, I headed back up to the main road and onto a forest road that winds its way through the eastern coast. There are capes and deserted beaches here, but none with any developments or inhabitants. I also couldn’t find a way to get down to the sea, so for most part the main reasons why you’d be on this road is to be among thick greenery and to look out to sea. If you’re a runner or cyclist, it’s a perfect road. There wasn’t a single car that passed me for over an hour.
The forest road finally spits you out at a T-junction, where left would take you to Aharen Park, the southernmost tip of the island, and right would return you to Aharen Beach. With nearly 14 kilometres in my legs, I decided to take the right and call it a day, watching a beautiful sunset on Aharen Beach.
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…