March 7th was our first real day in Naha. We met with Yuichiro, a friend of someone from our dorm in Tokyo. Together with him we first visited Shuri castle, the palace of the Ryukyu kingdom back when Okinawa was still independent. Like many things in Okinawa, it was almost completely destroyed during the battle of Okinawa in 1945 but was restored. After this we visited the Tama-udun, the royal mausoleum of the Ryukyu dynasty. Next we visited the Shikinaen royal garden, and lastly another garden, Fukushu-en.
On March 8th we first visited an underground naval base, which was one of the last holding points of the Japanese army during the battle of Okinawa. This underground system of tunnels had been carved out of the rock entirely by hand (pick-axes and stuff, no machinery), a sign of how little resources the Japanese army had left by this point.
Afterwards we went to the Gyokusendou cave, the largest limestone cave in Japan. The Japanese have taken the opportunity to build an incredibly touristy theme park called Okinawa World around this cave, which was mostly pointless and consisted mainly of souvenir shops (and of course, in true Japanese style, it was set up so that you had to pass through the shops to get from one part of the park to another). They had some performances (see the second video attached to this post) which, while sort of nice, were presented like they were for a children's TV show. And the girl who was presenting it seemed to be trying to break the world record for how often you can cram the particle "ne" (which loosely translates as "isn't it?") into a sentence. :)
Also at Okinawa World was the Habu Park. Habu are poisonous snakes that live in Okinawa. They had several variety of Habu, a snake show (which we didn't see), and of course a distillery for the famous Habu Sake, which is basically sake with snakes in it. They literally sell bottles of sake with Habu in it, you see them all over the place in Naha. Whether this does anything to the taste or if it's just for aesthetic purposes I don't know.
On March 5th we first went to pay for the ferry we would take the next day. Then we took the ferry to Hateruma, the southernmost island of Japan, where we rented bicycles and cycled around the island. This is as far south as you can get while staying inside Japan. We also visited a beautiful white-sand beach, called "Emerald Beach". A perfect tropical beach, although we didn't do any swimming.
On Match 6th, we got up very early (5 in the morning) to catch the ferry to Okinawa Honto, the main island of Okinawa, which would leave at 6:20h. On this large cruise ferry we even had a cabin (although shared with several other people so we managed to get a little more sleep on board. The trip took 14 hours in total, arriving around 8 at night. We just spent the time reading and hanging around doing nothing. :) I managed to get a nasty sunburn while I was watching the loading and unloading at the one stop in between. I spent only 30 minutes or so on deck but it was enough apparently.
After we arrived in Naha, we took a taxi to the hostel, "Okinawa Guesthouse", with the world's most incompetent taxi driver. Not only did he not know where the guesthouse was, but he was also incapable of taking directions; despite several phonecalls with the hostel he still couldn't find it. Eventually someone from the hostel had to come and pick us up. :S
On March 3rd we had planned our "jungle trip". Although it is possible to walk from one side of the island to another straight through the jungle we weren't really prepared for that, and it would take at least a full day, so a slightly shorter version was in order.
We took a boat trip on the Urauchi river, described by the Lonely Planet as similar to the Amazon. Real jungle here, and mangroves and everything else you'd expect. From where the boat landed we had two hours to hike to two waterfalls, Maiyudo and Kanpire falls, and back.
We also wanted to go to the Pinaisara falls, on another part of the island, but we didn't make that with the time. In the evening, the hostel had a small "party" with Awamori, the local Okinawan liquor. Very strong stuff. But we did get a chance to talk to the other guests at the hotel, including a large group of students who turned out to be from Tokyo (half the people we met in Okinawa were from Tokyo, that was my impression at least :P ).
On March 4th we returned to Ishigaki where we'd stay for two days (this time in Ishigaki itself, not in Kabira) with the goal to explore some of the closer islands. First up was Taketomi, one of the few places where you can still see real traditional Okinawan architecture (pretty much all of the original Okinawan stuff was destroyed during the battle of Okinawa in World War 2, when the Americans invaded Okinawa in preparation for the invasion of Japan itself; Okinawa was literally bombed to hell, very little remained afterwards). We got a map with a very nice walking route which took us around the entire island in a few hours.
On the third day on Ishigaki (March 1st), Danny would go diving again but I wouldn't. Although I considered going again but the high cost and the fact that I'd hurt my foot on the boat the day before persuaded me otherwise. Instead I went to Ishigaki town. There wasn't much to see there but I managed to pass the time with the museum, a temple, and the many shops (I think Ishigaki has more souvenir shops than inhabitants). I also bought some manga because I hadn't realised how much time to read I'd have in the evenings here.
The next day we said goodbye to Kabira, but not before taking some more pictures of the area since the sun was finally showing. Masako from Umicoza gave us a lift to the harbour, where we took the ferry to Iriomote (about one hour). Iriomote is probably the most untouched nature Japan has: the island is almost entirely covered by jungle. After checking in at the hostel (Irumote-so) we wanted to go to the island Yubu, which is separated from Iriomote only by a very shallow bit of water, and the way to get there is by waterbuffalo cart. You could probably also walk, but the carts are more fun. It was however not close to our hotel and there are very few buses on the island so we had to hitchhike. On the island itself is a small park and zoo, not spectacular but nice and the waterbuffalos were the main attraction anyway. :)
After Yubu we went to Iriomote Onsen, a very nice "Rotenburo" (open air hot spring) and then went back to the hostel and walked around there a bit before dinner. Iriomote really is extraordinarily beautiful and I have to say it's the favourite of all the islands we've visited (although they all have their own charm).
In the evening the people from the hostel organised an (apparently daily) event of firefly watching. We were taken to a very quiet stretch of road with no lighting at all where a lot of other people were also watching. Hundreds of fireflies were flying around the bushes, really an amazing sight that unfortunately proved impossible to photograph (with my equipment anyway).
Well, I'm back from Okinawa. It was a great vacation but tomorrow it's back to work. Of course, I've got many pictures to show you all. In total I took over 500 pictures so as I said earlier it will take some time to sort it all out.
I plan to do it much the same way as my earlier pictures of Nikko, with multiple posts. Each post will span one or more days, depending on the number of pictures for each day.
On the first day, we left in the morning for Tokyo International Airport (Haneda). Haneda is an incredibly busy airport. It ranks among the busiest airports in the world (in 2006 it was number four, much busier even than Schiphol) despite the fact that nearly all the flights there are domestic flights. We went there by monorail, which was slightly more expensive than the alternative (Keikyu line) but a very scenic route. We were easily in time, and the flight departed 13:35, twenty minutes later than planned.
After arrival on Ishigaki island we were picked up by Masako from the Umicoza diving club who took us to the small town Kabira where the club is located (about 30 minutes drive from Ishigaki city). We met with Satoki and Aki at Umicoza and discussed the diving plans for the day after. Then we went to our hotel (a minshuku, Japanese style inn), "Koen Chaya". We had dinner there and spent the evening reading, not much else to do in Kabira at night. :)
The next morning we got up early and walked to Umicoza. They took us to their boat, and then we went to the first diving point, Yonehara East. Because I have no diving experience whatsoever I briefly snorkeled so I could get used to the fins etc. (Danny has a license so he didn't do this). After that we split up into two teams, Satoki and Danny in one team and Aki and me in the other. We dove to a depth of five metres to view the coral. It was a bit disorienting at first and I especially had trouble getting my legs to go where I wanted, but it was incredible. Aki had an underwater camera so you can see some pictures of that as well.
We dove for about 30 minutes and then got out and went to the second diving point, the manta ray point, with the obvious intention that we might see manta rays. This spot was too deep for me so I only snorkeled, while Danny dove. Either way, there were no manta rays, but it was still a beautiful spot.
After getting back to the diving club we had lunch there, and spent the remainder of the afternoon exploring the surroundings of Kabira.