a small island girl takes on the world… one trip at a time
Twice in one month? Well you know what they say in Trinidad… if it nice, do it twice! So off to Okinawa we went, again, but this time for five glorious days. As luck would have it, it just happened to be the time of year for two very exciting annual events in Okinawa: whale watching and cherry blossoms. The whale watching season lasts from January to March as the humpys head to the warm seas around Okinawa, all the way from the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. At the same time, Okinawa, being the most southern area of Japan, experiences the warmest temperatures, and the cherry blossom trees bloom in a riot of pink.
First up was the whale watching. The boat ride out to the Kerama islands was punctuated by two very distinct noises — one was the soft, airy sound of humpback whales coming to the surface to breathe, and the other was the gurgle of two dozen well dressed middle aged Japanese tourists quietly and discreetly vomiting into tiny black plastic bags. A good hour’s boat ride from shore, we were deep deep in the blue seas off of Okinawa and even this island girl felt a bit queasy. The guides did everything they could to keep people focusing on something other than the rolling waves — word games, chit chat, taking pictures, everything. But by the time we got far out enough to spot the whales, half of the group was sick to their stomachs.
Anyway, it was surprisingly hard to get good pictures of the whales, because they only come to the surface very briefly and then sink back down again. The guide told us that it is quite rare to see whales jumping out of the water, so forget about ever getting a picture of the entire whale’s body. Also, since the whales are pretty much just cruising along the surface, they aren’t taking huge gulps of air and diving deep, which means you also don’t get to see their iconic tail. But hey, I was just happy to see the big magnificent beasts in the wild.
Next up, we drove north to try to find the Hiji Waterfall. It was an easy hike through a beautiful, lush forest on a very well maintained trail. In fact, a bit too well maintained if you ask me. One of the goals of hiking (for me, at least) is to get off the concrete road and follow the dirt footpaths made by the constant, repetitive footsteps of those who have gone before, winding through the mountains, following the rivers. But unfortunately, as is so common in Japan, nature has been tamed, restricted, paved over and controlled. My husband often laments this fact of life in his country — rivers get big reinforced walls built into their sides, mountains get ploughed through to make way for a tunnel, hillsides get retaining walls, and beaches get groins and fake sand and nets. Don’t get me wrong; the hike was gorgeous and it was a beautiful day. But perhaps as a Trini I just do not get the concept of telling people not to jump in a waterfall! That is what waterfalls are made for, right? It was a nice hot bright day, I could have jumped in that water real easy, rules be damned. Or should I say, dammed.
On our way back from the waterfall, we stumbled onto the Nago Cherry Blossom Festival, sponsored by local Okinawan beer Orion (extremely tasty beer it is too). It was chock full of people — mostly military, much to my surprise. I’ve never seen so many foreigners in one place in Japan, but with Okinawa having seven large US military bases, I suppose events like a cherry blossom festival bring out all the troops and their families. Okinawa must be the very best place to be stationed as a military family: safe, clean, beautiful, amazing food, beaches, nice people, cheap beer. Yup, after serving a tour of duty in Afghanistan, I bet they are ecstatic to get stationed in Okinawa.
Between the whale watching, waterfall hiking and festival attending, we did also manage to squeeze in some amazing meals of traditional Okinawan food, drink some cold ones in the local watering holes, and enjoy some quiet time by one of the many, many amazingly beautiful beaches in Okinawa.
Planning a trip to Okinawa? Here are a few travel tips:
Hotels we’ve stayed at in
Tokyo Dai-Ichi Grand Mer, Okinawa City (central Okinawa): Lovely hotel, traditional Japanese room with tatami and futon, friendly staff who spoke good English, good breakfast buffet. Easy drive from Naha (about 30 mins). Nice view of the sea, but not by the beach.
Rizzan Sea Park Resort, Nago (northern part of Okinawa): A disgustingly HUGE hotel. I’m talking like 1,000 rooms. Takes forever just to get to the damn elevator. Far too many people there. On the beach, very pretty location. Big public bath and lots of swimming pools. But personally, just too damn big of a hotel. Oh yeah, and it was pretty old and not in the best condition.
Vessel Campana, Chatan (central Okinawa): Nice hotel, new, clean rooms, right on the beach (of course, a fake beach), beautiful sea view. But right by American Village which, as the name implies, is super westernised. You won’t find any good Japanese food within walking distance. But not a problem if you have a car.
Southern Beach Hotel, Itoman (South Okinawa): So far my favorite place to stay, despite the location. The hotel is built on a beautiful bay and is right by Bibi Beach, but there is nothing else around in that area of Itoman since it is a warehouse zone. Room was nice, food was really good. Also next to a park, so good for staying with kids.
Websites to book hotels
Okinawa Hai! — a website mainly written by military people, but a wealth of information about things to do on Okinawa, in English. This was the website which led us to Hiji Waterfall.