[JP] A Guide to Okinawa

Okinawa is Japan’s southernmost prefecture, consisting of a few dozen, small islands (Ishigaki island being the most famous one). Surrounding by the emerald blue seas and white beaches, it’s been one of the most popular beach destinations for tourists around the world, especially the asians. The beaches are only open from April to October during the year. However, winter isn’t boring, it was still tons of fun when I went in end of January!

It was once the Ryukyu Kingdom (from the 15th century to the 19th century), and while there are still American armies on the island, Okinawa has a unique culture and history that differs from the mainland Japan. While I was still in Montreal, my family was already planning a trip to Okinawa before the Chinese New Year.

As usual, I was the one who planned the itinerary (eg. sightseeings, where to eat, accommodations…etc). It was a 4-day-3-night trip, and we rented a car to drive around the island (from North to South)!

Here’s an overview of the itinerary (specific links for each stop will follow up):

Day 1: OTS Car Rental  -> Lunch: Te da ko (てだこ浦添麵店 )-> Mihama American Village -> ZHYVAGO coffee works ->水円 Bakery Suien -> Zampa Lighthouse (残波岬灯台) -> Dinner: Kaisen ryori hamanoya (浜の家) 

Upon arrival, there was a representative from OTS waiting for us at the arrival hall, and guided us towards the shuttle bus, which it brought us to the car rental place to pick up the car that we have reserved. Please note that the cars in Japan are right-hand drive, and make sure to translate your driver’s license into Japanese. It was about lunch time, so we went to Te da ko, which is known for Okinawa soba! Not the regular soba that you would expect. I’ve been into ceramics and pottery lately, because I love the warmth of the servewares! Okinawa pottery is quite famous, but I was a bit disappointed that we didn’t get a chance to visit Tsuboya Yachimun Street, where a lot of pottery workshops are. Though I didn’t get to go, but I would recommend if you are searching for some original souvenirs for your family and friends back at home or you can take part in a yachimun pottery class!

Mihama American Village is the spot if you want to have some authentic American, west-coast vibe while in Okinawa. There are malls, small stores, restaurants, bowling alleys, and cinema. When I found out that there’s a specialty coffee shop inside the Mihama American Village, it becomes the highlight of this spot. ZHYVAGO coffee work is the coffee shop with spectacular view. The owner brought Portland’s coffee culture back to Okinawa, using the beans from local roaster Mame Pore Pore Coffee Roasters.

Bakery Suien can be inconvenient for travelers who aren’t driving. It’s located in a very quiet neighborhood in the Yomitan/Zakimi area (near Zakimi castle). Everything is made of wood, which created a very rustic, breezy and earthy ambiance. It’s a vegetarian bakery (yes, no butter and eggs!), using natural yeasts. Sadly, all the breads were sold out by the time we got there in the afternoon, so go early!

Day 2: Breakfast: Hotel -> Cape Manza (萬座毛) -> Bise no warumi (備瀬のワルミ) -> Lunch: Ishinagu (石なぐ)  -> Sakaura-no-Mori Park (八重岳櫻の森公園) -> Kouri Island (古宇利島)  -> Heart Rock (心型石) -> Inno coffee shop -> Dinner: Ufuya (うふやー)

After breakfast in the hotel, we headed further north on day 2.  First stop was the Cape Manza, a spectacular spot to enjoy Okinawa’s beautiful scenery. The sight of the sea and blue skies from the cape is breathtaking. It’s also known for the elephant trunk-shaped rock.

This place, Warumi, is located in the Bise district, where the locals believed it’s the sacred land where the Gods descended. After passing through a deserted thicket, you’ll find yourself standing between the giant rocks and the ocean spreads before you. After a calm moment at Warumi, we went for lunch at Ishinagu (石なぐ), which is a restaurant specializes in “te i sho ku” – a type of Japanese set that I like, because I get a taste of a variety of food in small portions! Though each item comes in bite size, they are quite filling. 

The perk of visiting Okinawa during the winter, especially between mid-January to mid-February, is that you get to see the earliest cherry blossom viewing in Japan! You’ll be able to see it in the northern part of Okinawa, such as Nakijin Castle or Sakaura-no-Mori Park, which is where we went.

In the afternoon, we drove to the Kouri island, which is a remote island in the northern part of the Okinawa mainland. The bridge, Kouri island Ohashi bridge, is one of the main attractions too, connecting Kouri island and Okinawa mainland. The island isn’t big. A tour around the island only take 20 minutes by car, but make sure you stop by Heart Rock (pictured in cover photo) when you’re on the island. We also made a coffee stop at Inno coffee shop before dinner at Ufuya, a 100-year old traditional home that has been converted into a restaurant, serving Okinawan dishes.

Day 3: Breakfast: Hotel -> Katsuren Castle (勝連城跡) -> Lunch: Payao Fish Market (泡瀨漁港 パヤオ直売店) ->  Munakatado Bakery (宗像堂天然酵母パン) -> 港川外人住宅街 -> Cerrado coffee -> oHacorte  -> Ippe coppe Bakery ->  Shuri Castle (首里城) -> Dinner: Kokusai Street Food Village

After a day of exploration in the north, we started to heath south on day 3. As my dad requested to see some historical sites, we went to the ruins of Katsuren Castle. They are Okinawa’s oldest ruins and are registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are quite a few staircase to climb up, but no pains no gain. You’ll be able to enjoy a breathtaking view of the sea on top of the castle. For lunch, we went to the Payao Fish Market, located in Awase. At Payao, the seafood is as fresh as it gets! It is a fish market as well as a canteen, which offers various set menu. You’ll be able to enjoy lobster, sea urchin, tuna…etc.

As we were going into a food coma after lunch, we thought we’d get a cup of coffee to wake ourselves up, so headed towards Mame Pore Pore Coffee Roasters. Unfortunately, they were closed.

Since the coffee shop was closed, we moved to the next stop, where I knew there’s another coffee shop too! Minatogawa Stateside Town is a “town,” which is lined up with foreign houses, which are tenanted for characteristic/artisan shops and restaurants, such as Cerrado coffee, oHacorte, and Ippe coppe bakery. A great spot if you are looking for some handcrafted souvenirs.

Then, we went to the Shuri castle, which is registered as a UNESCO World Heritage site. If you are looking to learn about the Rykyu culture and history, this is the place to go. It served as the administrative center and residence of the Ryukyu kings. It’s an easy access to the history in the middle of a bustling city.

Last evening in Okinawa, we’re back to downtown, and the Kokusai Dori is a 1.6 km long, pedestrian-friendly street lined with souvenir shops. It is easily accessible via monorail stations to and from the airport.

When in Japan, yatai experience is a must, so we went to Kokusai Street Food Village. There are 20 stalls, where you can get a variety of local and original dishes made with Okinawan ingredients in one spot. Perfect for a mini food crawl.

Day 4: Breakfast: Hotel  -> Naminoue Shrine (波上宮) -> Valley of Gangala -> Lunch: Makabe chinaa (茶処真壁ちなー) -> Return car to OTS -> Ashibinaa Outlet -> Airport

Since my brother’s flight was in early afternoon, the main schedule of the morning was the visit to Valley of Gangala. However, we woke up quite early, and was just lingering in hotel, so my brother suggested why not go to Naminoue Shrine. It’s only 5 minutes by car from Naha city. It’s sitting at the top of a bluff above Naminoue beach, so who says that chilling at a beach has to be far?

The last real sightseeing of the trip. You have to make a reservation online for the tour of Valley of Gangala. If you didn’t reserve your spots, you won’t be allowed into the Cave Cafe too. The formation of the Valley of Gangala is by the collapsing of a limestone cave hundreds of thousands of years ago. It was actually very impressive, definitely worth the trip! However, the tour is only given in Japanese, but they have audio and text guides in multiple languages.

I was quite nervous before the trip, because I don’t speak Japanese! Not the first time in Japan, but it was our first time without joining a tour group. Though Japanese uses some Chinese characters, but sometimes the meanings of the character/word are completely different. Trip planning can be time consuming, but with the help of Google maps (not sponsored!), it was a lot easier!

I tried my best to fit as much detail as I can, while trying to keep it concise. If you have questions or more to add, feel free to comment below! 🙂

p.s. Posts of selected individual spots will be updated along the way, so stay tuned!

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