Having spent 4 days on vacation there with my family and friends, I was in awe of all the things that Okinawa has to offer. There were beautiful beaches, great weather, an abundance of recreational water sports, a wide variety of cuisine, and the comforts of American bases for cheaper accommodations, just to name a few.
My first impression of Okinawa was, “this does not feel like mainland Japan.” It has the feel of an assimilated Japanese/Chinese/Taiwanese/Polynesian culture that is completely unique. Before 1868, Okinawa was a kingdom on its own, separate from mainland Japan -- Ryukyu Kingdom. It was a prosperous trading nation since the islands are centrically located in the East China Sea relatively close to mainland Japan, China and South-East Asia. It had a tributary relationship with the Chinese empire and Satsuma clan (Japan). In 1879, Okinawa became a prefecture of Japan. At the end of World War II, Okinawa was under United States's administration for 27 years, during which time many military bases were established.
Okinawa is one of Japan's southern prefectures and consists of islands 1,000 kilometers long. The average temperature in Okinawa is 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit) throughout most of the year. Interestingly, Okinawans have the longest life expectancy in the world at 82 years, compared to 77 in the United States. They attribute the longevity to low-fat/salt diet and a low stress lifestyle.
We visited Okinawa Senseki Quasi-National Park. Located in Mabuni, the park is located along the cliffs that overlook the sea in the southern tip of the island. The most significant segment of the park was the Cornerstone of Peace monument. It was erected in 1995 to remember those who died in the Battle of Okinawa. Regardless of Japanese or foreigners, civilians or military, the names of everyone who died during the battle were engraved on these stone statues. As of June 2008, it contains over 240,000 names. This was a battle that claimed many lives and destroyed almost all of the architecture in Okinawa. We left this park with a heavy heart, humbled and reminded at the ugliness associated with war.
One of the must-see places in Okinawa is Churaumi Aquarium. It is the world's second largest aquarium behind the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta. The highlight of this aquarium is the main tank called Kuroshio Sea. It features the world’s second largest acrylic glass panel measuring 8.2 meters by 22.5 meters with a thickness of 60 centimeters. This large tank is home to whale sharks, manta rays, yellow-fin tunas and bonito. One might feel small and insignificant compared to the vast “ocean” in front of your eyes. There's a tunnel beneath the tank where you can walk “with” the fish, it truly feels like you might be in the ocean with the fish. The aquarium is part of the Ocean Expo Park where there are many other stuff to do. After a walk through the aquarium, take a lunch/snack break while watching the outdoor dolphin show. There's also the Manatee House, where visitors can see the “sea cow” close up and learn their way of life. This park also offers a white-sand beach named Emerald Beach. With clear waters, white sand and corals in the ocean, this might be a good place to relax your tired feet after all the walking. Right in the middle of the park, there's also a huge outdoor “jungle gym” for your little ones to spend their energy!
Seems like every place we go in Japan, a visit to the fish market is a must. So we set out to find a fish market. After a long ride and many stops to ask for directions, we found what we are looking for: the Makishi public market. This market used to be a black market after the war. With that in mind, it is pretty well hidden in the lanes. The fish market is really not what we had in mind (Hachinohe fish market & Tokyo Tsukiji market). Its probably half the size of the Hachinohe fish market and it is not strictly a fish market. On one side of the market is dedicated to meat -- pig's feet, ribs, and the skins of pig's heads are hung in front of the stores. The other side of the market has colorful seafood on display -- lobsters, bright colored tropical fish, and giant crabs. The second floor of the building is a food court where they will cook the fresh seafood you just bought downstairs for a small fee. Feeling adventurous we bought lobsters, huge crabs and a bright blue fish. It was the most fantastic meal we had in Okinawa. On the search for the market, we found many small local stores. One can find a myriad of merchandises ran in the small stores, ranging from items like local produce and dried foods to t-shirts, bags, and souvenirs.
Food in Okinawa is quite different from the food in Northern Japan. Even the ramen there was unique with thick wheat noodle that has its origins from China, broth similar to that of ramen. A definite must try! Another local dish that caught my attention was Goya Champaru -- bitter melon stir fry with spam and tofu. It has a very distinctive flavor that no words can describe, so give it a try if you feel adventurous. Spam is very popular in Okinawa. Stop by any convenience store and you can find seaweed spam rolls with different toppings! Okinawa also offers a wide variety of international cuisine. For those who miss American food, there's a Chili's on Kadena Air Base and Macaroni Grill in Camp Foster. American Village (near Kadena Air Base) also offers a wide variety of both Japanese, American and International cuisine.
There were many more things to do there that we didn't manage to squeeze in during our four-day trip. I would highly recommend Okinawa as a vacation location in Japan! There are no direct flights to Okinawa; you will have to connect through Haneda Airport. Round trip ticket can cost from 65,000 to 80,000 yen, depending on time of flight and how far in advance you purchase the tickets.
Travel Tip of the Day: A 1,000 yen will give you an upgrade from economy seats to business on Japan Airlines. For those with spare time, you can try the economical method by taking the Patriot Express which stops over at Yokota Air Base before proceeding down to Okinawa. To get around town, renting a car is the most practical way. Cab rides around will costs quite a bit.
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