Okinawa: The Big Island

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.

Making Yakiniku (Korean BBQ)

Welcome to Japan! Mel and Zukii’s first meal in the country was (fittingly?) Okinawan-style Korean BBQ Viking (smorgasbord).

Snake liquor

Snake-infused liquor, one of the many interesting products Kokusai Dori had to offer. Poor snakes… unless they were alcoholics, in which case they probably died happy.

River of fish outside restaurant

Very creatively arranged fish outside a restaurant on Kokusai Dori. Unfortunately for these fish, their icy river only leads to one place…

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.

Shuri Castle main building

First tourist stop: Shuri Castle. Not your typical Japanese castle, as it’s Ryukyu style, but very cool in its own right!

Shuri Castle entrance

The front entrance to Shuri Castle’s main keep. Us lowly tourists had to go in the side entrance, though.

Throne room

The throne room. It might not seem like that exciting of a chair – until you remember that everyone else had to sit on the floor.

Shuri Castle ducks on the grounds

Ducks on the grounds of Shuri Castle. Royal ducks?

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.

Jordan in the garden

Into Fukushu-en Garden

Garden path

Similar to Japanese gardens, this Chinese garden had a main route with multiple paths, all of which are undoubtedly laden with symbolism.

Jordan in the garden tower

Jordan is dwarfed by this garden tower.

Janelle walking in the garden.

Apparently I was being spied on (Jordan took this shot).

Kanpai with a statue

This guy was obviously needing someone to share a toast with. Kanpai!

Chinese garden scene

This gazebo atop a waterfall was a defining feature of the garden.

Jordan emerging from the cave

The hill beneath the gazebo had several choices of paths on which to explore. I spotted a Jordan!

Looking through the waterfall.

I am behind the waterfall, taking this photo. Isn’t there supposed to be treasure or a dragon or something back here?

Janelle feeding the fish

Finally, we rested our feet and fed the fish and turtles before leaving the peaceful embrace of the garden.

Fish food box fish

Pretty sure I found the exact fish pictured on the food box! Dude, can I have your autograph?

Chinese garden gazebo

If you’re ever in need of a gazebo, go to a Chinese garden – they are everywhere!

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.

This giant flower whale shark greeted us in the park on the way into the aquarium. I'm not sure if it's to scale, but if not it's gotta be pretty close.

Welcome to the aquarium! This giant flower whale shark greeted us in the park on the way in. I’m not sure if it’s to scale, but if not it’s gotta be pretty close.

Nemo fish

I’m sure there is an official name for this fish in English and Japanese: but everyone, regardless of their native language, just called them “Nemo!”

Octopus camouflaged as a rock

“Rocks” under the ocean… look closely… One of them is only pretending to be a rock!

Boxfish and sea urchin

A sea urchin and the most adorable fish ever: The boxfish! It was difficult to get him in focus because he was doing a little dance or something for me.

Mini sea snakes

Speaking of cute, these little sea snakes (worms?) were pretty cool too.

Giant Manta Ray

…Okay, but we’re not here to look at little things. Here is a Giant Manta Ray!

Giant Lobster

…and a Giant Lobster!

Giant Whale Shark swimming by

…and a GIANT Whale Shark!

Whale shark swimming past

What does the whale shark say?

Whale shark and giant manta ray tank

At the time of construction in 2002, this was the largest aquarium window in the world.

Group shot in whale shark area.

We all got matching whale shark shirts to wear on our trip to meet the whale sharks. Jordan would usually never consent to matching but we outvoted him 3-0 (he wasn’t there to vote).

Tiny shark brain by large dolphin brain

So whale sharks are pretty cool, but intelligence may not be a defining feature for them. Dolphins, on the other hand…

Dolphin jumping to target

Dolphin show: target reached!

Dolphins jumping

…it almost looks like they’re jumping out to sea.

Dolphins waving goodbye

So long, farewell, and thanks for all the fish!

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!

Peach plane on the tarmac

Guess we’ll be seeing each other yet again, Peach!

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

Okinawa header - Taketomi Iriomote Ishigaki Okinawa

Be sure to check out the other posts in this series, the JWs’ last grand adventure in Japan.

The Last Adventure: Island Hopping in Okinawa (Introduction)

Taketomi: The Little Village Island

Iriomote: The Jungle Island

Ishigaki: Island Road Tripping 

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One thought on “Okinawa: The Big Island

  1. Thanks For Your Great Blogs!!!!! I feel like I have been to Japan again…four times for John & Me! Love Cuzzie Cathy Mark

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