Okinawa

Our Last Day in Okinawa

On our last day in Okinawa Prefecture, we said goodbye to our resort in Ishigaki and flew back to Okinawa Island. We had most of the day before we had to be back at the airport for our flight to Tokyo so we had time for at least one more sightseeing spot around Naha. Since my husband is really interested in modern Japanese history, we headed to the Former Japanese Navy Underground Headquarters.  (more…)

Day Trip to Iriomote Island

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On our last full day at Ishigaki, we decided to take a day trip to nearby Iriomote Island. Though the second largest Okinawan island, Iriomote is largely undeveloped and covered by jungle and mangrove forests. Our goal for the outing: to explore the mangrove forests lining Nakama River.

Nakama River Cruise

After a 40 minute ferry ride from Ishigaki to Iriomote’s Ohara Port, we signed up for a Nakama River cruise and were soon on our way! Our boat driver and tour guide was a resident of Iriomote and pointed out the area where he lived as we passed by the private resident dock. Strangely enough, he said he never used that dock to go out in a small boat because he gets sea sick! The cruise itself didn’t seem to bother him though and he described various interesting points about the river and mangrove forest, calling the area the “Amazon of Japan.”

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The mangrove forest is part of the Iriomote National Park, so the trees are mostly left untouched by residents and visitors. Our guide pointed out damage that had been caused several years prior during a typhoon. Years later, the damaged trees were still there and you could clearly see swaths of the forest that took the most damage.

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A species of palm called the Satake Palm can be found on Iriomote Island. We saw a large swath of them growing on the side of the mountain and we saw several fruits on palms lining the river but, according to our guide, they are not good for eating.

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Our boat cruise made one stop before turning back down the river. We all hopped off the boat to follow a short path to the Sakishimasuou tree, a 400 year old mangrove tree with some of the most amazing roots!

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On our way back down the river, our guide pointed out two rock outcroppings that are said to look like two cats. I really didn’t see the shape of cats in the rock but maybe if you just keep staring at it…

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Our guide also passed around a giant clam shell he’d found in the river. He said these are the same kind you often find in miso soup, although those are much, much smaller. Apparently these large ones are not so tasty but if you look through the little hole in the side, you’ll see the future. So what did I see? Well, there was nothing inside but it was very bright with the shell catching and reflecting the light. So, rather than thinking the future is empty, I’ll say it’s going to be very bright. ^_~

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Once we were back at the port, we decided we’d just not had enough yet. Most of the tours went on to various stops along the island before going to activities like water buffalo cart rides that we’d already done so we decided to take a walk and see if we could rent a canoe to explore the river on our own.

Walking Around Iriomote

Remember how I said Iriomote is mostly undeveloped? Our walk from the port to the canoe rental shop was probably about half an hour but we saw very few people in that time. We passed a gas station and a couple souvenir shops but other than the staff waiting for customers, no one seemed to be out and about. Of course maybe that was because it was a rather hot, humid day and everyone else was inside with AC somewhere. We picked up some water bottles from a vending machine and then crossed the bridge over Nakama River. We found two cat statues guarding the bridge.

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When we finally reached the rental shop, we chose a two person canoe for our little river adventure. After going over the safety information and a map showing some of the hidden underwater hazards we’d need to avoid, we were given life jackets and sent on our way. I think the person helping us out thought we were a little crazy because I’d never been in a canoe before and we both had cameras and phones, etc. that we had to store in the canoe. In our defense, we assumed there would be little lockers for our valuables because they appear all over Japan and are always so handy. But I guess Iriomote is not the kind of place people go walking around so most people lock valuables in their car…which we obviously didn’t have. Silly us. ^_^;

Exploring Nakama River By Canoe

Two of the big advantages to exploring the river on our own was that we could go at our own pace and since we were in a canoe, we weren’t restricted to staying in the middle of the river where it was deepest. It was so much fun to check out narrow breaks in the forest!

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Since we were in what seemed like the perfect environment for mosquitoes, I used lots of bug spray AND I wore an insect repellent wristband. Mosquitoes really seem to love me (I get bitten when no one else around me does) so I was hoping the citronella oil on the wristband would provide a double layer of defense. Plus I couldn’t resist wearing something with Rilakkuma on it!

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Being able to get so close to the mangrove trees was really a great experience. I’m glad we did the river cruise because we got a lot of information from the guide but  exploring on our own was definitely a lot more fun for me. With the sunlight streaming through the trees, it felt like we were in some kind of mystical place.

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But I will admit that sometimes it felt a bit eerie when the forest began closing back up on our chosen course, especially since there was no one else around and it was just so quiet.

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Our map showed a spot where you could pull the canoe up against the rocks and take a trail up to an observation point and we made that our goal. We were going against the tide so it was definitely work to paddle up the river that far. A guide from a river boat that passed us along the way shouted, “Ganbatte!” It’s an expression used to encourage someone to try hard or do their best. We definitely worked hard but we did finally make it to the small dock and began trekking through the forest. The start of the trail was fine but further up it was not well maintained and we were constantly on the lookout for any venomous Habu snakes that might cross our path. We didn’t see any snakes but we did come to one point on the trail where the side of the path had become a beehive and there were lots of bees buzzing around. Rather than try to walk through/by them or go off trail through possibly snake infested forest, we decided to play it safe and turn back.

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Once back in the canoe, we decided we should probably start heading back and explore the opposite side of the river as we went. One of the really interesting things I learned about mangroves is how they survive and thrive in inundated areas. The trees are often propped out of the water somewhat by their root system that acts like stilts to keep the main trunk above the waterline.

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The trees also have lots of roots that stick back up out of the water like little breathing tubes and this helps them to take in more air. All those little pieces that look like they could be small, broken trunks are actually roots that have grown back up to reach the air.

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The trees also have a clever way of dealing with all that extra salt from the seawater. Their root system does a fantastic job of filtering out extra salt and according to our guide, the trees get rid of any remaining excess by sacrificing certain leaves. You can see that most of the leaves are a healthy green but a couple are yellow. These yellow leaves are supposed to have that excess salt stored in them, allowing the remaining leaves to stay healthy.

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As we headed back to the rental shop, the tide was going out and we encountered several sandbanks that had become impassable. As we worked our way around these and back to deeper water, we saw several egrets making an appearance. Perhaps low tide means dinnertime for them!

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When we returned the canoe, we discovered we’d been out and about for 3-4 hours. No wonder my arms felt like they were going to fall off! It was a lot of fun to go exploring on our own but I will admit, I was exhausted. And I was very grateful when the staff offered to drive us back to the port so we didn’t have to walk another half hour in the heat!

Port Distractions

Back at Ohara Port, we had just enough time before the next ferry to look around the gift shop and buy some souvenirs. I also got distracted watching the jellyfish and what appeared to be some type of puffer fish swimming around the shop’s small aquarium.

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One thing I would have liked to have seen but knew I probably wouldn’t was an Iriomote yamaneko (西表山猫, “Iriomote mountain cat”). This cat is found only on Iriomote Island but a sighting is very rare since they are not only nocturnal but also since so few remain that they are considered critically endangered. The closest I got to seeing one was this information board.

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Dinner at Fusaki Resort Village

After such an exhausting outing, we headed back to the resort and relaxed until dinner. We’d enjoyed the resort’s Japanese Restaurant Yuntaku so much the previous night that we decided to go back again for our last dinner there. We ordered more of the tasty Okinawan leeks served tempura style and the delicious beef sushi we couldn’t get enough of. This time around we went with the charcoal grilled beef as the main course and it was just so good. We really don’t eat beef very often at home so we definitely splurged in a big way on our trip and it was delicious!

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After all that paddling, I definitely felt like I earned every bite of dinner that night. With all the exploring, learning interesting new things, and eating delicious foods, it was quite a satisfying day!

Day Trip to Taketomi Island

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One thing I loved about our stay in Ishigaki was that we could easily hop a ferry to visit one of the other nearby islands for a day or afternoon. On our third day, we took a day trip to Taketomi Island, a small island southwest of Ishigaki. It’s the location of a traditional Ryukyu village that has been beautifully preserved. Just a 20 minute ferry ride from Ishigaki, it’s well worth a day trip to explore the village and enjoy the beautiful scenery and beaches. (more…)

Relaxing in Ishigaki: Fusaki Resort Village & Beach

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During our trip to Okinawa, we decided to treat ourselves and stay at a resort since it was our anniversary. We stayed at the Fusaki Resort Village on the west coast of Ishigaki and were completely impressed with the quality of the resort, wonderful service, and beautiful beach-side location. Oh, and let’s not forget the delicious food! (more…)

Exploring Ishigaki Island’s Kabira Bay

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I know it’s been a while since the last post about my travels in Okinawa but I’ve just been super busy playing tour guide for our visitor. But I have not forgotten! I’m still working through all the photos but here are some from our first day at Ishigaki. We went to Kabira Bay, which is perhaps the most popular observation point for the island and understandably so. With its white sands and turquoise waters, it’s a beautiful spot for photography and just kicking back to enjoy the scenery.  (more…)

Okinawa Travels: Shurijo Castle Park

Last week my husband and I traveled to Okinawa for our anniversary and we had such a wonderful time! I’m still working my way through all the photos from the trip and we have a visitor arriving today to stay with us but I’ll be posting about various activities and sights in Okinawa as I can.

On our first day, we flew into Naha, which is the capital city on Okinawa Island, the largest of the islands in Okinawa Prefecture. Our goal for the day was to just make it to Okinawa and explore Shuri Castle. We were a bit worried about the weather because the rainy season has arrived and we found about what we expected: a constant drizzle. But we certainly didn’t let a little rain stop us!

Shuri Castle Buildings and Gates

Shuri Castle (首里所, Shuri-jō) was the palace of the Ryukyu Kingdom, an independent kingdom that united most of the Ryukyu Islands around the 15th century. The kingdom became a sort of tributary state to both China and Japan before eventually becoming incorporated into Japan as the Okinawan Prefecture in the 19th century. The castle was destroyed during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945 but was reconstructed in the 1990’s. It is now a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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Kankaimon Gate

There are several gates leading up to the main building. This stone gate is the front gate to the castle and is appropriately named Kankaimon Gate since kankai (歓会) means “welcome.” You can see two shisa (シーサー) on either side of the gate. Shisa are from Okinawan mythology and look like a cross between a lion and a dog. I saw many of these guys in front of buildings and on rooftops throughout Okinawa. They are often in pairs with one having a closed mouth and the other an open mouth.

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Closed mouth shisa

This shisa has a closed mouth and is supposed to keep good spirits in.

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Open mouth shisa

The other shisa has an open mouth to ward off evil spirits. I loved seeing these guys (and gals…some say each pair has one female and one male shisa) everywhere!

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As we continued up toward the main hall, we came to an overlook where you could get a good look at the outer wall and see a little of the city beyond. Unfortunately the rainy day did not make for the best view.

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Supposedly this is what it looks like on a clear day…maybe I’ll just have to go back someday and verify the accuracy of this photo. ^_~

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Nichiei-dai

This sundial was used to keep the time in the kingdom from 1739 to 1879.

Bankoku Shinryo-no Kane

Bankoku Shinryo-no Kane

This is a replica of the Bankoku Shinryo-no Kane (万国津梁の鐘, Bridge of Nations bell), which was hung in the main hall in 1458. The bell’s inscription describes the prosperity of the Ryukyu Kingdom built upon the spirit of trade and friendship with other states in Southeast Asia.

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I have no idea what type of bird this little guy was but I found him watching us as we examined the bell.

Houshinmon Gate

Houshinmon Gate

The Houshinmon Gate is the final gate leading up to the main building. This one gate has three entrances. The center entrance way was traditionally reserved for the king and nobles but, as you can see, tourists get to use it now.

Seiden

Seiden

After stepping through the Houshinmon Gate, we finally got a look at the Seiden, or main hall, of Shuri Castle. It was quite an impressive sight even through the rain.

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It was even more interesting up close where you could see the details of the decorations. The dragons look fierce!

Castle Exhibits

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After admiring the exterior of the main hall, we were able to go take a look at some of the interior exhibits. This shows how the walls were made with a wooden frame, bamboo, and three layers of plaster.

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Here is the throne as it would have looked when used by the king of the Ryukyu Islands. Fancy.

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I love models! This model shows the framework for the Seiden.

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Another model! This shows how the court officials and ministers would have assembled by rank in front of the king for ceremonies.

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Ceremonial umbrellas like this one were used to shade the king and nobles during parades and were probably more about showing wealth than providing protection from the elements. Even if it isn’t so functional…I kind of liked it!

Tea and Sweets with a Garden View

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Since it was so rainy, it was the perfect time to take advantage of a tea service available in the castle. We were served Jasmine tea along with some delicious Ryukyu era sweets.

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One of the best parts of our tea break was viewing the garden just outside the room.

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This window framed part of the garden nicely. Exposed rock and pine were some of the main elements in this garden.

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This room with a tatami mat floor is where guests would have been served tea and entertained.

Around the Castle

Uekimon

Uekimon

As we were leaving the main hall, I found this red gate framing the path back down the hill. There were several beautiful paths and flowers to be found all around the castle.

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Okinawan Dance

Just before we left, we were lucky enough to catch a demonstration of several traditional Okinawan dances, each of which told a story. And once again a friendly older Japanese gentleman came over to explain to us what each of the dances was about.

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The first used costumes to signify to the audience the rank and position of each character in the dance.

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The second dance told the story of a warrior waving his command flag to signal his troops to march.

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In the third demonstration, the dancer tells the story of a woman viewing the moon and missing her husband.

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The fourth was definitely the liveliest of the bunch and probably my favorite. It told a simple story of a couple dancing by a river. At first the woman is washing her hair but when her significant other joins her, he gives her a gift of a red sash and they begin playing around by the river, dancing and laughing.

Heading to Ishigaki

As the day came to a close, we headed back to the airport at Naha to catch our flight to Ishigaki, another island in the Okinawa Prefecture. We’d decided we wanted to spend most of our trip somewhere a little more out-of-the-way while still being convenient for public transportation and Ishigaki looked like our best bet.

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While we waited for our flight, we grabbed dinner at one of the airport restaurants. I had chanpuru, a kind of Okinawan stir fry. It was a very simple dish with pork, cabbage, and several vegetables all cooked together with a light sauce. It was filling without being heavy and just what I needed at the end of the day.

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My husband’s dish (in order, counterclockwise from the upper left)  consisted of beef tongue, pickled chicken skin, and fish paste cakes with cabbage. His meal also came with awamori, an Okinawan alcohol made from long grain rice. We quickly discovered that awamori is rather strong but it’s also usually served with water and ice so you can add as much water as you’d like to get the right strength for you. Let’s just say someone was really relaxed for the flight to Ishigaki.

The sun was setting just as our flight left. It was a great way to end our day in Naha.

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