Okinawa evokes images of US military bases and bloody scenes of world war II. But did you know that for the longest time this chain of islands was an independent kingdom conducting trade between China, Japan, Korea and other maritime merchants that ventured this far north?
We are to spend nearly a full week here driving nearly 500km up and down along the narrow stretch of an island discovering a side to Japan that does not exist on the main islands further north. From food delights such as beef from Ishigaki to the odd sea ‘grapes’, there is a lot more to do here than we originally thought.
First, some geography. As an island chain, it extends more than 1000km from Taiwan to the southern tip of Kyushu. Aside from the main Okinawa island, all the other islands are rather small. You can imagine the pacific ring of fire, with the two tectonic plates grinding against each other causing an uplift from the ocean fall forming these little gems.
Shark! Wait it’s a whale shark…
We have all heard about these majestic yet gentle giants of the sea. Can’t understand why we do not rename them sometime because the word shark often evokes terror… Some can argue that we should reform our attitudes towards sharks…ok this ends here. Whale shark it is.
We had found this site in Japanese (Suan did) that offered a swim with these gentle creatures, guaranteed. Now we know they do migrate down along the island chain towards the Philippines. But sightings in this part of the world has mainly been difficult to say the least. Most ventures turn up with no sightings. So how is it possible that there would be guaranteed sighting of not one, but two?
About 5 minutes’ boat ride out from Yomitan harbor, we descended into the water for our snorkel adventure.
If you look it up in Trip advisor now, you might get the feeling of animal cruelty. How it is done is this, there are large nets held up with buoys that create a “fenced” up netting in a cylindrical shape extending all the way to the sea floor (12m deep we were told). We cannot recall how large it was, but from the perimeter seemed to extended at least a swimming pool size or more. Two 5-7m whales sharks are in this perimeter of nets. And it seems that there is another set of nets about 3-5m deep in the water that keeps the whale sharks from surfacing.
Now when the divers start releasing shrimps into the water, the two whale sharks come up against this net to feed. Other fishes such as this large Angel have learnt about this “ritual” and turn up for the feeding frenzy! The result is a mesh of fish as they jostled to snap a few bites of the feed. Be careful, an Angel came close to Mel and actually bit him on the back of the thumb! The red patch on the skin remained for nearly the whole week!
We cannot take good photos from this vantage point, as snorkeling means just looking down from the surface. The life jacket prevents you from diving in too! So our guide was kind enough to use our camera to photograph the two juveniles (he told us later) that were swimming along the bottom of the nets, actually we think they were in the open water. Just that the two seems to be coming back here repeatedly. And so we kept at it taking as many photos of these giants as we can…
But this is not all satisfying, as we had determined to see more than the whale sharks in the seas of Okinawa and yearned for some
And Okinawa has its fair share of snorkel and dive sites.
We joined a boat of divers (only two of us snorkel) that were getting out to the Kerama islands. With 2 island stops and 3 dive points, we did the same but snorkeled on the surface. It would be two stops in the morning and one after lunch.
First stop – turtle point. We had a snorkel guide all by ourselves and we made full use of it.
She took us out to where the best views were – and where we could see what the name of the place suggested – turtles. Well not just one, and we came away with not just photos of corals for a place with this name!
Now our guide could only manage in a smattering of English while we spoke no Japanese. So you can imagine how we tried to communicate. However in the water it did not matter and gesturing and sign language worked well!
Lunch was either on your own or you can purchase a bento box. We did, since there was no time to prepare anything driving out since 7am.
Some of the people on the trip were taking the introductory dive while others were advanced deep sea ones. The end of the trip was when we picked up the last of the folks who went deep.
All of us took a shower and changed out of the wet suit before the boat made the hour-long journey back to Naha. On such a beautiful day the views above water are just as good as that under. But clearly it was a tiring day getting into the water three times and all that swimming (diving for the others).
Some had seasickness while others dozed off as our boat cruised in the cool breeze with setting sun on our back.
Now you’d think that adventures in the sea was what’s cool to do here in Okinawa, but fear not land lubbers! You can also see the sea from
An aquarium with a tank so large it looks like a big screen TV!
Churaumi is on the northern part of the island, and is a relatively long drive. We however have done some homework and checked out the previous night and driven all the way to Mahaina to stay for the night. It is just 5 minutes’ drive to the aquarium for us and we were already at the entrance at 8:15am.
You can get a free photo + print out at the main hallway before making way to aquarium entrance. The trick is to be early so as to avoid the long lines later in the day. The aquarium itself costs ¥1,800pp and if you buy the tickets at the hotel, you may get a discount and we got ours at the earlier hotel we stayed for 10% off.
First stop, we had a hand with re-arranging the different colored star fishes together to get a better picture at the Coral reef moat. They come in very different shapes too! If you do not take them out of the water, you are free to touch and move the star fishes, sea cucumbers as you like.
Next stop was the first large tank – where we saw puffers, schools of butterfly fishes, grouper fish etc… reminds me of the restaurants in China… We saw light rays as if it was natural sunlight shining through. Aside from the Clown fish and Dory (with nice close up), the other interesting marine creature we saw was the small “garden eels”. These are not worms or snakes, but little eels that live in the sandy bottom.
But the real highlight for today is the 7,500m³ tank housing three whale sharks.
With a volume of water roughly equal to three 50x25m Olympic swimming pools, there are said to be 70 species of marine creatures and around 16,000 fishes in this tank. The largest whale shark can measure up to 14m long. Doesn’t it look like a big screen TV to you from afar?
There are also a large number of “Alfred” Manta rays and quite a few spotted Eagle and “Coach whip” rays cruising around the tank – as if they were flying in the sky. At the bottom of the tank are the Zebra and lemon sharks…lying motionless until… While the whale sharks gets all the attention, schools of Mackerel, Tuna and Trevally move around the tank as if they were in the sea and are no less amazing.
The whole experience is as if you are walking in the depth of the sea looking at these creatures in their natural habitat. Yes, we know you can also have the same experience in quite a few other places (no less Singapore has one too but no whale sharks).
We finished our first of several rounds of walking in the aquarium. Get a stamp on the way out and you can get back in later, which we did I recalled 3 times?
Next stop – Manatee station. It was feeding time and we got to see how these creatures use their front flippers like hands to hold on to their food (remember the same we saw in Singapore’s river safari here?). Then there is the dolphin show that takes place 4 times in the day.
The interesting dolphin is the “fake killer whale” – with teeth that looks like an orca. The other interesting thing is – the show is free and you wouldn’t have needed a ticket. That was just for the aquarium!
Well, so is the diver show (above tiled picture of diver with dolphin). Unfortunately the show is in Japanese, and they explain about the ecology of dolphins.
Next to the dolphin station is the Turtle pool. There are hawksbill turtles, loggerhead turtles, green sea turtle as well as Kemp’s Ridley turtles and black turtles! Above the pool is a sand area for the turtles to lay their eggs! They seem to have thought of it all. You can also view the turtles swimming on the water surface, or watch them swimming from the underground observation room.
Ok now back to the aquarium and One of the best places to sit and watch the marine inhabitants is at the “Ocean Blue” cafe on the first floor. We ate lunch and drank beer while watching the mantas and whale sharks cruise by! No need for expensive dinners… but know that many are also vying for the same experience and the queue to get a seat can take time. Get there early or have you meals later than usual.
Every day at 3pm and 5pm, the whale sharks are fed. During this time, the whale sharks will “suspend” in and gorge in large volume of water to filter feed the mix of plankton that the keepers put into the tank. It’s a real feeding frenzy!
The foods that are unique
You know we are foodies. So it will not be a surprise to find writings here about us seeking out good places to eat, unique dishes to try etc. So here goes.
When we first arrived, it was a late lunch. We had driven to a small local restaurant that Suan looked up before and tried the local Okinawan noodles, said to be made with seaweed mixed into the flour. Not bad indeed. Definitely something to try.
And talking about seaweed, there is this specialty “grape seaweed” that we tried on this journey. Uniquely available only in the deep waters off Okinawa (as the restaurant owner claims), the seaweed has grape-like structures filled with a saltish fluid. Eaten with rice and other garnish, it was a taste you cannot find elsewhere!
One of the traditional Okinawan food is actually pig’s trotters. It is served with a generous quantity of soft cartilage and collagen – something very hard to find in Singapore! And it was well priced too! At ¥1,200 (~S$19) for the set, you can eat and have a skin treatment at the same time!
And when you are here, make sure you visit at least one of the outlets of Okashigoten (御菓子御殿), otherwise the famous maker of Okinawa purple sweet potato confectionery and pastries. It was very hard to resist buying some of the beautiful cakes for dessert and also snacking on sweet potato ice-cream in the car! And yet another must try is fried bitter melon (also called bittergourd).
Finally, head to the tea house. Not only good food, but ambience too. And try out Ishigaki pork and beef too! You don’t need to fly to the island to get a taste. You can do it here on too.
Okinawa boasts of a unique culture, one that is not quite Japanese nor Chinese. You may think the headgear used in the folk dances to be cumbersome, but then they dance rather slowly…to compensate perhaps…
And then there is all the coves and capes all along the coast of the island. It also boasts of Japan’s longest toll free bridge connecting Kouri island to Yagaji island. So let’s recap, we were at: Cape Zanpa, Cape Manzamo and Cape Bise. To be brutally honest, this journey wasn’t about the scenery. Seen enough of that already on other road trips. But just to share how some of the more unique photos captured as we merrily sang and drove our way up and down the island:
If you ever needed shopping, Ashibinaa near the airport is like an outlet mall.
You know this journey came about because of a challenge from Mel to Suan. “Don’t go back to the same place every time, do something different“. So the challenge was for Suan to produce an itinerary that takes us to a different part of Japan each time after her procurement in Tokyo.
It was a great journey. Wouldn’t have done it any other way.