First-timer Road-Trip to Okinawa
To most travellers, a trip to Japan usually involves the “mainstream” cities like Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto or even the paradisiacal island of Hokkaido. Unlike the mainland cities, Okinawa is admittedly less on the radar of most travellers heading to Japan. It is not known for its developed economy nor is it like Hokkaido and Kyoto which are popular for its unique charm. Nonetheless, the little island of Okinawa still received almost ten million tourists in 2015 alone. Personally, my interest in Okinawa was roused rather by pictures of Whale Sharks at its renowned Churaumi Aquarium. And also being a military enthusiast, the happenings at Kadena Air Base, which is the largest and most active US Air Force base in the Far East.
So it was with the recent resumption of direct flight by Jetstar that sealed my decision to explore this island that many likened as “Japan’s Hawaii”. And to better uncover the beautiful island, we decided that self-drive is the way to go. This travelogue is structured like a trip planner with the telephone number of highlighted places as its needed to be keyed in the rental car GPS system. The travel route is easy for self-drive and the itineraries are suitable for families or couples alike.
A Brief Insight of Okinawa
Okinawa is the southernmost island in Japan, consisting of the main Okinawa Island, Miyako Islands, and Yaeyama Islands. It is closer to Taiwan than it is to the Japan mainland. Also known as “Ryukyu,” Okinawa has a distinctive dialect, architecture and food due to its close relations with China and Southeast Asian countries since ancient times. Local dishes representatives of Okinawa, such as Goya chanpuru, Rafute (Shoyu pork) and Umibudo (Sea Grapes) are a must-try when visiting the island.
After World War II, Okinawa had been governed by the U.S. until the 1970s and it is for this reason that American culture has been deeply rooted here. Through multicultural influences, today’s Okinawa exhibits a natural and unique appeal that differentiates it from mainland Japan. Touring in Okinawa includes sightseeing and shopping at numerous popular spots, particularly in the capital of Naha. These destinations include Shuri Castle, Naminoue Shrine and the bustling Kokusai Street called “Miracle Mile.” (excerpts from Odigo)
Road Trip Route in Okinawa
Our 7D6N road trip totalled about 800km. Part 1 of the blog covers our adventure in the laidback northern part of Okinawa while part 2 details some activities you can enjoy in bustling Naha city. Some driving / rental car insights:-
- Tip #01 – Please retain the receipt when pumping petrol. The rental car company will ask for the latest receipt when you return the car.
- Tip #02 – Driving on Okinawa roads are generally safe as most drivers are law-abiding. Okinawa traffic rules are similar to Singapore and they drive on the left side of the road.
- Tip #03 – You will need an international driving license, which you can apply online with AA Singapore. But you must still bring your local driving license as it will be required for verification by the rental car company.
- Tip #4 – Contact Jetabout Holidays as the agency will get you the best deals in road trip package with the car rental and the best insurance coverage, at prices you can’t possibly secure on your own.
The movement to Okinawa via Jetstar from Changi Airport Terminal 1. One of my fun “photographic ritual” is to get my wife push our daughters on the trolley. I have been doing this since they were little so it’s hilarious seeing them getting bigger by the trips.
Lunch at Nakamura Soba
After a 5.10hrs overnight flight from Singapore to Okinawa and about an hour drive from Naha Airport to our hotel at Manza Beach, we proceeded to have our first meal on the island. And what better introduction to Okinawa food than the fabulous soba at the renowned Nakamura Soba (Telephone no. 098-966-8005), just 3 minutes drive from the hotel. The soba noodles into which asa (sea lettuce) has been kneaded and the signature soki (pork rib) soba are favourites among customers.
The eatery is cosy and has an unobstructed view of the East China Sea. Complimentary water is served with the meal and the price are easy on the wallet. This meal was one of our firm favourites on the entire trip.
After the meal, you can stroll a little at the esplanade along Manza Beach just across the restaurant to enjoy the cooling and strong sea breeze. My family was tickled by how their hair flew in the billowing wind. Definitely a fun start to our coastal phase of the road trip.
Just look at the sea breeze giving my daughter a “hair-raising” moment. Little wonder that there are wind turbine power generation plants on the island.
From Nakamura Soba, you can enjoy Okinawa wide range of local snacks at Okasigoten (Tel:98-982-3388), just 4 min drive away. You might be forgiven if you drove past this venue without stopping (which happened to me) thinking its a shrine. The facade was in fact modelled after the Shuri Castle, an iconic heritage landmark that I will touch on in Part 2 of this blog.
What better way to know Okinawa then through your stomach? This huge snack and local produce shop will definitely set you in the mood. Feel free to do sample tasting without pressure to buy, that is if you can resist the temptation and eye-catching display. But if you have planned to complete your Okinawa vacation in Naha city, then here is one useful tip – there’s a conveniently located Okasigoten branch at Naha’s famed Kokusai Street. So remember what you liked at this outlet, then resume shopping at the outlet at Kokusai Street without having to lug around boxes of snacks on your very 1st day in Okinawa. Tax-free shopping is available to foreign tourists only at this licensed store when making purchases of over 5000¥ on one calendar day. Your passport is required for payment and the staff will not accept handphone camera snapshot of passport.
A staff loading the Okinawan Sweet Potato Tarts mixture into the automated machine.
Automated Okinawan Sweet Potato Tarts dispensing machine. I admit it was quite therapeutic just standing at the glass window watching the production line.
You might be keen to know that Okinawan sweet potatoes were considered a Superfood in 2010 by renowned nutritionists. This vibrantly purple sweet potato is rich in flavour and packed with health benefits. The Okinawan sweet potato is not related to potato but is actually in the morning glory family. It’s native to America and was introduced to Japan between 1492 and 1605. The versatile and hardy plant grew well in Japan and quickly became a mainstay in a variety of local dishes.
ANA Intercontinental Manza Beach Resort
Our 1st hotel of the trip, the superb ANA Intercontinental Manza Beach Resort ( Tel.no: 98-966-1211). One look at the lobby is enough to tell you it is an exceptional resort. A great hotel to come back to after a fun-filled day out always refresh and prepares us for more adventures the next day. Some of the staff here speak competent English which makes the stay more pleasant as it minimises miscommunication and provides an excellent source of local knowledge.
The resort reception. IHG members get to check-in at a separate dedicated counter. Service was brisk with the staff ever so obliging. But English is not universally understood across all staff. There is a daily car parking fee of 1000¥ (S$12/day), which is waived for IHG members. Do research other resorts that you planned to stay and see if they are affiliated with an international chain to save on parking.
Our family room with a view of the East China Sea. Cosy and comfortable with soft luxurious bedlinen, the bathroom has powerful rainshower with Shiseido body care products. And great news for Singaporeans, there is ChannelNewsAsia too! WiFi signal strength is good too.
Service with a difference – Pillow a la carte showed the hotel’s attention to sleep quality. Pillow has negative ions and other beneficial content.
Dinner at Gansomibudohonten (Ganso Sea Grapes)
Our 1st dinner at the Gansomibudohonten (Ganso Sea Grapes – Tel. no: 98-966-2588). Fabulous family run diner with many authentic Okinawan dishes under one roof. There is a spacious parking bay just beside the diner.
The eatery has many compliments from happy diners pasted on the wall. The picture was shot when all the diners have left for privacy consideration. The staff speak only Japanese but you may refer to the menu with pictures, which are also posted on the wall. Google Translate app on your smartphone would be helpful in scanning and translating the characters too.
The sashimi platter, though small in portion, was very fresh and reasonably priced. You may amend the fish combination served subject to the season availability.
Amaebi, or spot prawns, are cold water northern shrimp and well-known and named as such for their sweet taste. They are the only species of shrimp which are best enjoyed raw, as cooking them will rob them of their full sweetness. They are often served on nigiri-zushi, or fingers of sushi rice and often accompanied with their head still attached.
Umibudou literally translates as “Sea Grapes.” It’s a kind of seaweed but instead of leaves, it has little bubbles growing on its stems. Thus the serving looks like small, green grapes. The bubbles break on your tongue and release a slightly salty taste of pure Southern Sea freshness. This breaking of little bubbles is called “puchi-puchi” in Japanese, an expression recreating the sound of bursting small air bubble. Not many foods provide that “puchi-puchi” sensation on the tongue. Thus eating the umibudou is a unique experience.
Chanpurū is an Okinawan stir fry dish. It is considered the representative dish of Okinawan cuisine. Goya chanpuru is a type of chanpuru that is a popular and widely recognized dish in the Okinawan cuisine. It is a stir fry of bitter gourd, tofu, egg and sliced pork or luncheon meat. Oishi!
Lovely waking up to a fabulous view of the East China Sea with cooling 16’C crisp breeze. Lovely climate like this makes Okinawa vacation a pleasant experience.
The restaurant beautifully prepared signature egg and cheese on toast. I always love Japanese chef attention to details and aesthetics.
The resort offers a good spread of delicious continental and oriental food to start the day right.
Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium
The Churaumi Aquarium (Tel no.: 98-048-2741) is a part of the Ocean Expo Park located in Motobu, Okinawa. The aquarium is made up of four floors, with tanks containing deep sea creatures, sharks, coral and tropical fish. The aquarium is set on 2ha of land, with a total of 77 tanks containing 10,000 m³ of water. Water for the saltwater exhibits is pumped 24 hours daily into the aquarium from a source 350 m offshore. The main tank, called the Kuroshio Sea, was the largest such panel in the world when the aquarium was opened. Whale sharks and manta rays are kept alongside many other fish species in the main tank.The first manta ray birth at the aquarium was in 2007. As of July 2010, there have been a total of four manta rays born in the aquarium. It is one of only a few aquariums worldwide that keeps whale sharks in captivity and is currently trying to breed them.
A video of the Whale Sharks feeding session. Amazing to see the ocean “gigantic vacuum machine” at work, sucking in carefully prepared food. The aquarium displays two whale sharks as part of its effort to achieve the world’s first captive breeding of the largest fish on Earth. Jinta, a male Whale Shark and the two female whale sharks (1 in a sea pen) have grown 1.5 to two times in total length and four to eight times in weight since their sizes were measured at the aquarium when they began to be raised.
The various exhibits along the way to the main aquarium. Crowd numbers typical of a world-class attraction, as if the whole of Okinawa tourists converges here.
To seat at the Ocean Blue Cafe tank side tables, you need to reserve the seat subject to availability on 1st-come-1st serve basis. Duration is limited to 40min per session. Waiting time can take up to 20-30min.
Aquarium staff explaining the feeding session which comes on at 1500 and 1700 hrs daily. After the initial “Hello everybody!” in English, the rest of the talk was in Japanese. For a brief happy moment, I thought he was to speak in English. But it’s all good, you simply enjoy by observation.
A huge gigantic squid specimen on display. Possibility a Humboldt squid?
A small group of big-eyed Travelly scouting their “territory”. The bigeye trevally is a schooling species, known to form huge mass consisting of more than 1500 fish. The species is often seen in these large schools either stationary or slowly moving around the reef complexes they inhabit during the day. At night, these schools dissolve and the species become active, foraging for its prey during the nocturnal period. But I believe the characteristics changed in an aquarium setting.
Whale Shark sucking in the feed, made of carefully prepared shrimps. Whale sharks are actually sharks but like whales, are filter feeders and enjoy a diet of plankton and other small fish, so they are harmless to human beings.
Kouri Island is located north of Yagaji Island in the northern part of Okinawa’s main island. It is a small inhabited island that belongs to Nakijin Island. How small? Really tiny, with an area of 3.13 km² and a circumference of about 8 km, which you can finish in about 10 minutes loop by car. It’s linked to Okinawa mainland by a 2km long Kouri bridge – the longest open-road bridge in Japan.
Most visitors will check out the Kouri Ocean Tower (Tel.no: 98-056-1616), a relatively new attraction opened in November 2013. The highlight of this venue is an automated cart ride paired with an audio-guide in English (or several other languages) to the hilltop lookout point. The ride costs 800¥ (S$9.70) per adult including entry to the tower. You can also choose to walk up the hill for free but the lookout point is limited to paid visitors.
Nice 7-8min drive slow ride up the scenic and landscaped hill on the automated driverless cart.
The souvenir shops at the peak also feature more than 10,000 shells gathered from all over the world. If shells don’t interest you, I am sure you will be enthralled by the scenic panoramic views of the ocean and gorgeous sunset vistas (if you go at the right moment during dusk). The shop within the tower has various specialities like Kouri Sea Salt or Pineapple Cake for you to buy home. Free sampling is available here too.
The sunset can be spectacular from this vantage point at the peak of the lookout tower. Many visitors mark reaching the peak by ringing the bell here.
Dinner at Ufuya-Okinawa old folk house
We were recommended to this restored quaint heritage building that was refurbished traditional Okinawan folk house which was the birthplace of Ufuya’s president.The name ‘Ufuya’ comes from the style of the Asato residence, president’s birthplace, where people would gather from long ago. Today, Ufuya (Tel.no: 98-053-0280) has become a world-class famous restaurant which enjoyed wide coverage by both local and foreign TV shows and magazines.
If you want to enjoy the traditional Okinawan cuisine and the famous Agu pork, this is the place.
The soothing sound from a stream (possibly man-made installation) enhances the fine-dining ambience. But the tables were a tad cramp and menu order can be confusing. Average meal about 20,000¥ for a family of four and possibly lower for a couple, depending on the packages inclusive.
Our dinner set and a la carte came meticulously and beautifully prepared. The Agu pork is certainly of high-grade as it melts in your mouth. Just remember not to overcook in the shabu-shabu.
Driving up north along Route 58
Day 3 saw us making our way up to northern tip at Cape Hedo area just about an hour drive from our hotel at Manza. It was lovely having the opportunities to stop wherever we chanced upon a scenic spot. This is the liberating advantage of a self-drive vacation. The drive is along Route 58 is easy and Okinawan drivers are generally law-abiding.
Of special mention are the see-everywhere Lawson convenient stores, which you will make your road trip that much more pleasant. We prefer Lawson over Family Mart as the restrooms are cleaner and their products like onigiri, came clearly marked with a picture. And the staff are friendly too.
The wide range of food and beverages (also hot food) makes convenient stores like Lawson which opens 24/7 a boon for roadtrippers.
Ubitiqtious giant terrapods along some parts of the coastal area protecting Okinawa from tsunami.
Spotted a couple of fishermen sunning and airing their freshly prepared Mahi-Mahi fish in the sunny East China Sea breeze. And they were there keeping vigil to fan off any houseflies that come to the fish.
The Mahi Mahi fish catching the early morning sun. After the sunning session, it will be going to the market soon.
A brush with a local Okinawan fisherman, he’s 63 years old. When we told him we are from Singapore, he went “Banzai Banzai! Singapore!”. Moments like this are what makes a road trip that much more memorable.
Yanbaru Kiuna Lookout Point
The lookout point at Yanbaru Kiuna Lookout Point (Tel no. 98-041-2101). Yanbaru Kuina is a protected endangered flightless that is found in northern Okinawa. This is a very remote spot that even most Okinawans may not know or go. We were brought there by ‘error’ GPS guidance. A very narrow 1-way route that got my daughters nervous.
Dai Sekirinzan Park
Our final activity for day 3 was Dai Sekirinzan (Tel. no: 980-41-8117) A karst, limestone plateau eroded over millions of years by water and estimated by geologists to be the oldest part of the island. Describing Dai Sekirinzan can be quite somewhat difficult -It’s a like a “3-in-1 park” – a geological wonder, nature reserve and great hiking and walking attraction. Part of the cultural site with sacred shrines even purported to have the power to enable infertile women to have babies.
My fave butterfly pic of the journey, a beautiful Ceylon Blue Glassy Tiger Butterfly.
A pair of shield bugs in a rather productive moment. Preparing for next generation indeed.
A customary shot of my family with the karst formation in the background. Do be mindful of the sharp edges of the rocks during trekking.
Pancake prepared with leaves from a plant in the park. The cafe is called Energy Cabin, It offers light meals and drinks made with natural ingredients. Enjoy the scenic view and relax at Ashimui Café in the midst of soothing nature.
Sunset over the East China Sea (Route 58)
On the way back to our hotel, we were blessed to see the gorgeous receding light along Route 58, facing the East China Sea.
Life’s a journey, enjoy the views along the way. Only with a self-drive vacation can you do this.
Dinner at Manza Table
We could not locate a popular eatery on our suggested itinerary. So we proceed to check out a nice looking restaurant named Manza Table (Tel. no. 98-982-3218) just across our hotel entrance and it was fabulous!
The Umi-budo- Okinawa sea grapes on a salad….Oishi !
The beef steak turned out pretty amazingly well that one helping was not enough.
Their deep fried squid was fabulous and I believe will convert non-seafood eaters.
The Manza Table – you can choose dining in private room or the tables outside, either way, it’s a pretty cosy eatery.
Part One – Conclusion
Our first phase to the beautiful and idyllic Okinawa was surprisingly memorable. Spectacular coastline with turquoise blue water, abundant nature and wonderful cuisine, Okinawa proves it can hold its own in the travel landscape. It may not as “scenic” on a ‘surface level’ but it was just our first three days and there are so much more places to uncover. Be it for couples or families, Okinawa has something for anyone and everyone. You might like check out Part 2 of the trip here.
Many sincere thanks for coming along my pixels journey. Should any readers be keen to go on a similar self-drive trip in the future, please feel free to drop me a message or check out Jetabout Holidays package HERE!
Footnote: All pictures used in this travelogue are copyrighted to Jensen Chua Photography and all rights reserved. The opinion expressed is factual, objective and that of the author. The trip is non-sponsored.