By Natalie Oram
Okinawa Prefecture (沖縄県) is Japan’s southernmost prefecture and consists of hundreds of the Ryuuku islands in a chain over 1,000 km long. Okinawa has only been part of Japan since 1972. Naha is the capital city, and the airport is located here. Okinawa can get really hot and humid, and they frequently experience strong typhoons, so be sure to check the best time of year to go. I visited Okinawa at the very end of its rainy season, which lasts from the beginning of May to the end of June.
The first thing I noticed about Okinawa, other than the heat, was how different Okinawa is from the rest of Japan. For starters, the Okinawan people don’t share the mainland population’s apparent penchant for frenzied activity. Our taxi driver taught us the saying “yonna yonna” (よんなぁよんな), which means “it is better if you take it easy and don’t rush.” This comes from the Okinawan language: Uchinā guchi. The Okinawans also speak Japanese and a great many speak at least a little English, which makes ordering in a restaurant a much less painful experience than it can be on the mainland! Wearing their Kariyushi shirts (rather like a Hawaiian shirt), the locals seem to exude a relaxed air; even the businessmen wear them!
Many of my students say that they really dislike Okinawan cuisine. Eating out here doesn’t have to be traditional however; my friends and I really enjoyed the many Mexican-style restaurants we came across, and I hope this trend catches on in Hiroshima! For nostalgic Americans, there is the fast-food chain A&W, where you can drink your weight in root beer floats. If you want to branch out and try some local specialties, I suggest Goya, which looks like a cucumber but is covered in bumps and tastes very, very bitter. I enjoyed it so much that I brought some home with me. However, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. If you’re after something sugary, desserts made from purple sweet potatoes can be found everywhere (and make great omiyage). For a slightly more familiar fix, why not try an Okinawan doughnut?
After wading your way through Okinawa’s many culinary delights, you’ll need something to wash it all down with. This is where Awamori, Okinawa’s specialty alcohol, comes in. It is made from distilling rice and has a very high alcohol content. It’s easy to spot because the large jugs it comes in also contain snakes! If you are more of a beer drinker, Okinawa has its own brand, Orion. Those looking for something a little sweeter can try Okinawa’s own pineapple wine, made from the pineapples which grow all over the islands.
If the wine alone doesn’t satisfy your pineapple cravings, you can visit the Nago Pineapple Park, about two hours away from Naha by bus. This pineapple playground is fully equipped to entertain, even if it’s raining. Your first stop is an automatic cart that takes you on a tour of the whole park whilst telling you its history. It’s narrated in English, so there’s no excuse for not learning while you’re having fun! You are also given the opportunity to try all the pineapple wine, pineapple juice and pineapple products -including cakes, chocolate, and even perfume- you can handle.
Not too far from the Nago Pineapple Park is the world famous Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium. It houses the largest fish tank in the world, home to all kinds of fish and other sea creatures. Don’t miss the feeding of the whale sharks! If you aren’t able to fill a whole day with the aquarium, you can mosey on down to Emerald Beach at the Okinawa Ocean Expo Park. It is truly beautiful and you can rent a deck chair and umbrella for total relaxation.
If chilling out on the beach is your idea of the perfect holiday, I suggest taking a package deal and staying at a fancy hotel on one of the smaller islands. However, if your budget is on the modest side, some of these hotels offer the use of their facilities and beaches to non-customers for a daily fee. Staying at one beach might be easier if you are pressed for time because it’s inconvenient to get around Okinawa without a car. We are spoiled by the efficient train service in Hiroshima, and Okinawa only has one monorail that serves Naha. The buses are pretty expensive, but the taxis are cheaper than on the mainland. The best beaches are off the main island and you can go snorkeling at many places, as well as island hopping. There are lots of islands to choose from, but some are as far away as Taiwan. To the southwest is Ishigaki Island, from where you can take a glass-bottom boat for a view of the Kabira Bay. Ten minutes by ferry from Ishigaki Island is Taketomi Island where you will find the famous star-shaped sand.
Okinawa contains a plethora of exciting places and experiences not found in mainland Japan. I wholly recommend visiting the prefecture. So go exploring!
There are many cheap hotels to choose from in Okinanwa. I recommend surfing
the net for reviews by other people. Two good sites are http://www.hostelworld.com and http://www.asiarooms.com/reviews/japan/okinawa-hotel-reviews.html. Also, if you are going to book a package deal, try to find one that includes a hotel,
since the hotels used tend to be of a good standard.