At last, the final set of photo's from my trip to Okinawa. :)
March 9th we planned to go to the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium, the world's largest tropical aquarium. Because we've been told regular bus fares to the aquarium are expensive, we took an organised tour which also included several other attractions, lunch, and was still cheaper than a normal bus ticket. The tour first took us to Cape Manza, a very nice cliff. After this we had lunch at a hotel (very fancy lunch, very nice) and then went to the aquarium. The aquarium was very impressive indeed, especially the main tank. They had very large manta rays, more than 2 metres across! They are beautiful animals, and they look almost like birds with the swimming motion they make. This can be seen in the video attached to this post.
After the aquarium we went to some castle ruins nearby, not incredibly impressive, and finally to a pineapple park. I think this was mainly a commercial agreement between the bus company and the park. Anyway, they had pineapple ice cream (very nice, although the nicest ice cream flavour we discovered during this vacation: that title goes to sugar cane ice cream, and sweet potato ice cream is also high on the list), and you could taste (and buy, of course) pineapple wine (also very nice) and eat as much pineapple as you liked.
On March 10th, we went whale watching in the morning. Although we did see plenty of whales (or two of them, very often), they didn't jump out of the water, so it was only backs and tails unfortunately. After this we went to the Sefa Utaki, a holy grove, one of the most sacred places in Okinawa apparently. Unfortunately it started raining pretty hard. The end of the day was spent on Kokusai-dori (international street), a big shopping street where we'd been before but hadn't looked around properly yet. This also gave me the chance to buy some sweets (Okinawan brown sugar of coure, what else) which I could take to the lab (it's a custom in most Japanese work places to bring souvenirs (usually food) if you've been on a trip). I think you could survive in Okinawa purely on the free samples they have on this street. :)
The final day, March 11th, is poorly represented in the photographs because my camera's battery died. We visited the peace park and the associated museum. The museum provided great insight into the Japanese involvement in World War 2, and of course the Battle of Okinawa in particular. Most impressively, the museum was very objective, painting neither side of the conflict as good or bad guys. One of the better war museums I've ever visited, on par with the one in London. It's truely amazing the horrors the Okinawan population went through (at the hands of both American and Japanese soldiers) during that battle, where the Japanese attempted to draw out the battle as long as possible to give the mainland forces more time, and were told to fight to the last man rather than surrender. Some 120,000 Okinawans died during the battle.
After the peace park we visited a nearby memorial dedicated to a group of more than 200 middle school girls who were forced to become nurses for the army. The memorial museum paints a horrible picture of how the lives of these ordinary girls were destroyed by the war. They were forced to nurse the wounded soldiers in horrible conditions until they were suddenly discharged near the end of the battle and sent outside into the crossfire. Many were killed, and many simply pressed a grenade to their chest and blew themselves up. Only a handful survived. Reading their stories and seeing the pictures was a very emotionally powerful experience for me, and it was quite obvious the same was true for most visitors.
Finally, we went to the airport to take our flight home. Because we hadn't realised just how late this flight would arrive in Tokyo we were a bit concerned we might not catch the last train, but everything went very smooth, we got our luggage back in no time and had more than half an hour to spare in the end.
And thus ended a fantastic vacation, my longest tourist trip so far in Japan. I've got a feeling this won't have been the last time I've gone to Okinawa (if not during the rest of my stay in Japan, I will certainly return at some later point in my life).
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).