Okinawa Island is probably to Okinawa Prefecture what the island of Hawaii is to the Hawaiian Islands. That is, an island named after an island chain (or is it the other way around?) solely for the purpose of confusing people.
We spent our first and last days in Okinawa Prefecture on Okinawa Island, primarily in the southern city of Okinawa. Okinawa is much larger and more populated than all of the Yaeyama Islands combined: we could not, for example, drive around the entire island in a matter of hours. We did manage to drive partway up the island on our last full day, though, to visit Okinawa’s world famous aquarium.
We also explored Shuri Castle, a Ryukyu-style castle near downtown Naha, as well as a very vibrant Chinese garden in the city. And, of course, we spent a fair bit of time enjoying the restaurants and exploring the shops along Naha’s main tourist drag, “Kokusai Dori,” or “International Street.”
The vast majority of tourists – both Japanese and international – who visit Okinawa Prefecture primarily visit Okinawa Island. It definitely has a lot to offer, but in terms of the remote island adventures we were seeking, it pales in comparison to the Yaeyamas. That being said, the comfort, convenience and vibrance of Naha City paired with an amazing final adventure to the aquarium made for a good bookend to our Okinawan island-hopping adventures.
Shuri-jo: A Ryukyu Kingdom Castle
Jordan and I arrived in Naha airport in the early afternoon, and were followed about an hour later by our friends flying in from Canada, Mel and Zukii (or “Zelmukii”). We explored a little bit of Kokusai Dori and grabbed dinner before retiring early to store up energy for our Yaeyama-bound trip the following day.
Since we were flying to Ishigaki in the afternoon, and the airport is only a short monorail ride from downtown Naha, we set out to explore Shuri Castle, the Ryukyu Kingdom’s (former) royal palace. Primarily red with colourful decor, it was more reminiscent of traditional buildings I’ve seen in Taiwan than it was of other castles I’ve seen in Japan. After almost four years in Japan, this was a refreshing sight for Jordan and I, but I fear our first-time Canadian visitors will require another trip to Japan in the future if they want to see a typical “Japanese” castle. I’m sure they won’t mind that, though.
Fukushu-en Chinese Gardens
We arrived back in Naha from Ishigaki in the early afternoon, with plenty of time left to explore. Zelmukii, who had been impressively staving off jet-lag in the name of adventure all week, were long overdue for a rest, though. So Jordan and I left them at the hotel and set out to escape Japan for a few hours in the beautiful Fukushu-en Chinese Gardens located walking distance away from our hotel in downtown Naha.
Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium
The aquarium was easily the highlight of Okinawa Island for me, if for no other reason than that they had whale sharks. Giant freaking whale sharks, which are – in case the name isn’t obvious – sharks the size of whales. While that may sound terrifying, there was nothing scary about them, really: they seemed slow and docile, and their giant dopey mouths made them look actually rather adorable. The aquarium also had giant manta rays swimming in the tank – one of the largest aquarium tanks in the world (when it was built it was the largest) – alongside the whale sharks and various other sea life.
Following the aquarium, we returned to Naha for a last supper and souvenir shopping blitz on Kokusai Dori, before heading our separate ways the next morning.
Final Thoughts On A Not-So-Final Adventure
It’s been a while since I started this Okinawa series, when I declared that this would be our last adventure, but if you know me at all you will probably not be surprised to learn that things have changed. Thanks to me finding a job from mid-August and Peach having a flight sale, Jordan and I have decided to go on one LAST last trip before we leave Japan… to Nagasaki. Stay tuned!
Okinawa Island Travel Tips
- A friend recommended we stay in a hotel on Kokusai Dori, which was good advice since it’s a happening place for travellers, but after determining that all the hostels/hotels there were either overpriced or overly scuzzy, or both, I ended up booking a pretty awesome budget hotel about 10 minutes’ walk away. This proved to be a good choice, since it was easily walkable and very close to a monorail station and a ferry terminal, but removed enough that the price was reasonable (and there were no wild drunks or host boys wandering around outside at night).
- You can get from the airport to, and around, the main areas in Naha by monorail, but to go outside of Naha you’ll need a car (or to book a bus trip). Having four people made renting a car far more convenient and cost-efficient than any other option for us, though, so I’d recommend it for groups travelling together. We rented from OTS, which was just a couple of buildings away from our hotel by the ferry terminal (OTS Tomarin Branch).
- Kokusai Dori, while good for a variety of food, souvenirs and nightlife, is undeniably touristy: consider yourself warned.
Okinawa Island Hopping Series
Be sure to check out the other posts in this series, the JWs’ last grand adventure in Japan.