A Travellerspoint blog

August 2013

Okinawa - Part 2

One of the most popular tourist spots in Okinawa is 'Churaumi Aquarium' located in the impressive Ocean Expo Park complex. Knowing that the Expo Park would take a good few hours to visit, we set off early intending to pack as much into the day as possible.

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As well as usual suspects seen in any half decent aquarium, Churaumi also boasts an impressive shark tank (with proper big toothy sharks as opposed to the small nurse sharks that English aquariums try to bill as sharks. If you're not afraid of getting bitten by it, it's not a proper shark - fact!).

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The most famous of exhibit thought is the massive main tank (which holds 7,500 cubic metres of water and is made of acrylic glass panels 60cm thick) which houses the giant mantas and whale sharks. These graceful oceanic blimps , which can reportedly reach sizes of up to 14m in length, are a real pleasure to watch. Slow moving, filter feeders, they are the very definition of the gentle giant.

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One of the, several, great points about the Ocean Expo Park is that several attractions are free, even without paying to go into the aquarium you can go down to the performance area and enjoy two different dolphins shows for no cost at all - and both were really good shows! The first was an educational and acrobatic show mixing dolphin facts with high jumps and stunts and some humour (one dolphin was trained to spit out the fish he was given and to hold out for something bigger).

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The second show was in a smaller pool, but you could get closer up, and featured a star turn from a lovely 'False Killer Whale'; just look at the concentration on his face as he carries that box across the pool.

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We also got to meet 'Fuji', a rather cute bottle-nosed dolphin with a perplexing problem. A while back 'Fuji' got some sort of infection in her tail fin that began to spread the only way to stop it was to cut away the infected areas, which unfortunately left her with almost no tail. So they built her a new artificial one. Like this (photo from Reuters)

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She doesn't wear the fin all the time, and when we saw her she was swimming quite well without it (top right, below is the tail stump). She is obviously well aware of her star status as she will come right up to the glass and 'chat' with anybody who comes to see her.

Below that you can see another of the free attractions at the Ocean Expo, a manatee pool with manatees donated to Japan by Mexico.

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Being able to take your time and really explore a place like the expo park is really nice, but it's also good to just hit the road and go exploring too. So having spent quite a bit of time in one place that's what we did next, our vague goal being to take a run out to some of the smaller islands that are connected to Okinawa by a series of impressive water spanning bridges.

Our first stop, still on the main island, was another historical site. Okinawa is littered with the remains of ruined castles on hill tops, now reduced to nothing more than foundations. This is a good example of that phenomenon.

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A little further on we hit the ocean roads and bridges and began our island hopping tour.

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Stopping off at random small beaches around these islands we got so see some of the beauty Okinawa, as well as the clear blue water that it's famous for. It should be noted that we were visiting in the middle of February which is why I'm wearing a sweater, though often I didn't even need that. Actually the weather was wonderful, and a welcome escape from the bitter cold back in Shiga.

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Almost as if to prove how clement it actually is on one beach we found an absolute mass of land hermit crabs hanging out on craggy rock face. I have never seen so many crabs of any kind all together like that. I was sorely tempted to pocket a few to take home and add to my 'crabitat', as my pet crabs were said to have originated from Okinawa they were probably distant relatives anyway! They were so small and cute, but I resisted the urge.

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This also seems like a good time to talk about the Okinawan love of Shisa decorations. The Shisa is a kind of dog-lion hybrid mythical creature, that serves as a kind of guardian spirit to protect Okinawan homes and businesses (the former it does with mystic powers, the latter it does by helping to sell lots of Shisa merchandise). The story of how the Shisa became the protector of the island is quite nice so I'm going to copy it here from wikipedia -

When a Chinese emissary returned from a voyage to the court at Shuri Castle, he brought a gift for the king, a necklace decorated with a figurine of a shisa-dog. The king found it charming and wore it underneath his clothes. At the Naha Port bay, the village of Madanbashi was often terrorized by a sea dragon who ate the villagers and destroyed their property.

One day, the king was visiting the village, and one of these attacks happened; all the people ran and hid. The local noro had been told in a dream to instruct the king when he visited to stand on the beach and lift up his figurine towards the dragon; she sent the boy, Chiga, to tell him the message.

He faced the monster with the figurine held high, and immediately a giant roar sounded all through the village, a roar so deep and powerful that it even shook the dragon. A massive boulder then fell from heaven and crushed the dragon's tail. He couldn't move, and eventually died.

This boulder and the dragon's body became covered with plants and surrounded by trees, and can still be seen today. It is the "Gana-mui Woods" near Naha Ohashi bridge. The townspeople built a large stone shisa to protect it from the dragon's spirit and other threats.

So there you have it, the Shisa, even mighter than dragons!

Anyway, as we walked around some of the residential areas of the islands there were some lovely unique examples of real Shisa sitting guard on fence posts or rooftops (one family who were repairing their roof tiles even let me climb the ladder to get a closer look at their Shisa).

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Gradually, we were winding out way, island by island, out to the end of the road. Until at last we came to the furthest island we could reach, a small mostly agricultural place with the remains of a small (almost unmarked) stone age village in the middle of one of the fields. There was no museum, or visitors centre, just a few information boards and and of the huts had been reconstructed - a very random find indeed.

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Having gone as far as we could we had very little choice but to turn around and head back to the main land. By now it was starting to get late, and there was another sunset view spot we wanted to visit, but first it was time to try an odd Okinawan food; taco-rice!

Tacos were one of the foods that the US army introduced to Japan, but the Japanese decided that what it really needed was less of those taco shells and a bit more rice adding. So, yes, taco rice is basically just taco filling slapped on top of a pile of rice, still the place we ate it in had a certain ambiance that was kind of cool.

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After eating we headed down to the coast again, this time to a spot with a white lighthouse sitting on top of a cliff. As we walked along the path towards it, the wind was whipping the waves against the cliff and sending white spray cresting up in to the air.

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Unlike the white sand beaches we had been walking on earlier the coast here was all hard rock, and pools fringed with sea weed. The geology of the place was fascinating though, just what kind of rock this was I don't know, but it had eroded in very precise geometric lines. At first I thought it looked like a series of old man-made building foundations. I almost couldn't believe it was natural, it seemed so straight and regular.

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Exploring this expanse of square rock pools and discovering starfish, crabs and sea cucumbers was really fun for me. I could have spent much longer there poking around this aquatic playground, but by now the sun was really starting to go down. So we got to close another day with another spectacular Okinawan sunset.

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Posted by DKJM74 18:33 Comments (0)

Okinawa - Part 1

If you want to travel within Japan, Okinawa is just about as far as you can go. Although Okinawa prefecture is actually comprised of a chain of small islands that stretch out over almost 1'000km, most people think of the biggest and titular 'Okinawa Island' when they say Okinawa. Located in the East China Sea, almost equal distant between the Japanese mainland and Taiwan, it takes about two hours to fly there from Osaka Itami Airport.

The airport itself is quite interesting as it was originally built as an air-force base and was later re-purposed as a commercial airport. However, urban sprawl has totally surrounded the site now, making it impossible to expand further. As a result Itami is mainly used for short haul and domestic flights while the newer Kansai international Airport is used for longer flights. Still, having an airport in such an urban location is a little strange; when you take off or land you can really see just how close the houses really are.

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Once we arrived around mid-day, we picked up the rental car and began driving across the island. The difference in the weather was amazing, back on the mainland it was still the cold tail-end of winter, but here it was like glorious Summer already. As we drove there was also a reminder of another thing that distinguished Okinawa from the main land, the presence of American troops. Specifically, we saw one of the controversial Ospreys flying far overhead.

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Due to their complexity a number of them have been involved in accidents, and their presence in Okinawa is considered dangerous and a further slight in a long historty of uses and abuses at the hands of domestic and foriegn politicians that began almost 70 years ago in WW2. Last year there was a wave of big anti-osprey protests all across Japan, with as many as 100'000 people gathering outside the Diet in Tokyo.

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However, we are here to enjoy a relaxing holiday and to do some sightseeing, not to embroil ourselves in the knotty socio-political issues between Tokyo, Washington and Okinawa, and with that in mind our first port of call is Sefa-utaki. A heritage site tied to the very ealiest periods of recorded Okinawa history. None of the buildings that were once here are standing anymore, but the vestiges of a shrine can still be seen worked into the caves, overhangs and rocks of the area.

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One of the main reasons for choosing this as our first place to visit was simple logistics, we only had half a day after the flight and Sefa-utaki was on route between the airport and our hotel. Following the same logic we also planned to make one more stop on the way to the hotel, at a cliff top view spot well known for its sunset vistas.

We arrived a little ahead of time and followed the stream of people all heading down to the cliff edge like Disney's apocryphal lemmings, and soon the sky began to shift from a deep blue to range of rich and fiery oranges and reds. I'm tempted to use some and simile here and say it was like something fanciful and amazing, but the truth is (like all the best things) it was simply what it was - pure and authentic enough to make Jean-Paul Sartre cry - a beautiful sunset.

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So, that was the end of our first half day in Okinawa, just time to go back to the hotel and eat, which meant another slice of (not quite so beautiful) authenticity... Yes, that's a real pigs head.

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So that concludes our first day in Okinawa, more next time.

Posted by DKJM74 18:23 Comments (0)

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