When people dream of moving to an island paradise, rarely do their minds drift beyond the possibilities of the South Pacific or the Caribbean. So here’s another possibility: Okinawa, Japan.
Situated just a three hour flight south of Tokyo (or just over 2 hours from Seoul), Okinawa’s capitol city of Naha is THE place to be during Japan’s hot summers. But if you’re looking to avoid crowds and still be able to enjoy the perks of an island getaway, head into Naha during January or February. There are year-round ferries to the smaller islands off the coast, each of which has its own attractions. But even if you can’t island hop, Naha’s downtown area is relatively quiet and has lots of bars to choose from when you’re looking to go out, or markets to shop in when you’re looking to ball out. Our first moments of 2018 were spent in an American bar on Naha’s Kokusai Dori (Pub Street).
Even though we were jet-lagged, we still got our party poppers.
Despite the American bars lining downtown, there still aren’t many non-Japanese people living on or visiting the island, other than those in the US Military. So expect some strange looks, and maybe a bit of staring when you visit. It’s all in plain curiosity, and much of it is probably from Chinese tourists. But consider yourself warned: you will be an anomaly, especially if you visit at the peak of Japanese tourism from June to August. So allow me to entice you to visit Okinawa in the off-season between October and April, for lower prices and limited crowds. Here’s our basic itinerary, as seen through my new camera.
Welcome to Naha
2 Days: The hub of Okinawa, despite being in the south of the main island, Naha Airport is where all international flights will arrive. Busy markets and short white houses guide the vibe here, while Buddhist temples and gardens fill every space with color.
Our Naha Highlights: Makishi Market, Shuri Castle, and Fukyushu-en Gardens.
Just walking around Naha is a beautiful sight, as very few buildings are taller than 5 stories. Every morning and afternoon we walked from our hotel to the downtown area to catch the metro, and one day we got a big surprise— check out these real-life Mario Cart racers! The catch is, you need an international drivers’ licence before you can go out on the open road in these babies. Also, keep n mind that they drive on the left.
After leaving behind those speed racers, we made it to the Fukyushen Gardens and temple. Ahhh, bliss. Tip: go at sunset, after most everyone has left; they’re open ’til 6.
Chatan: American Village
1 Long Afternoon: Forced to merely pass through American Village after thinking that it was a massive community of Americans largely ignoring Japanese culture, we instantly regretted it. During January, the coastal town of Chatan is like the US’s Cape Cod area in the springtime, so I imagine that the heat hits hard in the summer months. If you rent a car as we did, be sure to stop in at Timeless Chocolate, the island’s first bean-to-bar chocolate maker. Grab a coffee or hot chocolate while looking right out over the ocean. We managed to pass through the area both on our way up the coast, and on our way back down.
Highlights: Timeless Chocolate, the ferris wheel, and sunsets over the pier.
1 Long Morning: This was one of the highlights of our trip in Okinawa, especially since I hadn’t been to an aquarium since I was a kid. The biggest tip I have is to arrive at 8:15 before it opens and walk in right at 8:30 with your ticket in hand. This is how we were able to see all the attractions with maybe a dozen other people, and snag a table next to the whale shark tank for optimal selfies. Kids were oohing and ahhhing all over the place, and sometimes we felt like we were leading a tour group. We always saw massive crowds entering when we left an exhibit, managing to hit anywhere between 30 and 5 minutes before the crowd at each exhibit and the beach. Sometimes it felt like we were inadvertently leading an Asian tour group on a lag. This is exceedingly kid-friendly.
Highlights: whale sharks, bioluminescent jelly fish, and the dolphin show.
Nago & The West Coast
2 Days: As you enjoy the beauty of central Okinawa beyond the enticing Aquarium, stay in Nago if you don’t have a car, or on the west coast if you do. Nago itself doesn’t have a large downtown area, but it does have decent public transportation and a large selection of restaurants. Once you arrive, walk around the area where you’re staying and get acquainted with the quaintness. Pineapple Park would be my first stop on a free afternoon, with its child-sized self-driving pineapples, orchids everywhere, and a bevy of samples. We bought lots of full-sized sweets.
Highlights: Emerald Beach, Nago Pineapple Park, and the Tropical Dream Center Gardens.
Though the beach is so very blue, in the winter it’s still too cold to swim in. There is still scuba diving in the area, but it’s a bit too cold for stand up paddle boarding or snorkeling without a wetsuit. Head over to the Pineapple Park or Fruits Land instead; they’re right next to each other.
The sun does eventually set in paradise, but no fear— she shall rise again.
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Where do you want to go first on your trip to Okinawa?