Bus to Kumamoto airport for a lunchtime flight to Okinawa. My kind of airport – very small, only a handful of gates so no massive long walks.
Airport duty free had an ‘interesting’ local delicacy – Karashi Renkon (Renkon = lotus root), where the holes of the lotus roots are filled with a mixture of miso paste, mustard and honey (which also coats the surface). Unsurprisingly, I passed on this opportunity…
A 1hr 40min flight brought me to the capital, Naha. The monorail from the airport, busy but very efficient, drops me a couple of minutes walk from Tokyu REI Hotel, my home for the next 3 nights.
The hotel was very central, at one end of 2km long shopping street called Kokusaidori, ‘International Street’. Crazy vibe to the place – like a seaside resort, hundreds of shops in the main street and side arcades, mostly selling tourist tat. Bustling, and very few western faces – mostly Japanese, with some Chinese. It’s a popular tourist destination, as well as being home of an American air base, a hangover from the second world war when American forces occupied Japan.
Dined on local sausages and garlic breadsticks at Helios brewery, very good locally brewed beers. They also had snakes in jars of Habushu – their Habu (local venomous snake) liqueur, bit like the worm in a bottle of tequila but way more heavy metal! Apparently the alcohol helps the venom to dissolve and become non poisonous – I felt disinclined to test this theory.
First sighting of American military types, technician chatting to a newcomer further down the bar. Didn’t introduce myself – quickly got the sense he probably would have talked my ear off. Settled for a book instead.
I booked myself onto the 10:40am tour of the Gangala valley, then headed over to walk through the Gyokusendae cave. A 900m walk through the most amazing set of stalactites and stalagmites that I’ve ever seen – so good that after doing the Gangala valley walk I went and walked through again. Apparently there are another 2 km of caves that aren’t accessible to the public – I wonder if I could arrange a proper caving visit? It even had an escalator at the end to bring you back above ground.
The Gangala valley tour starts in the Cave Cafe, where umbrellas are needed for the diners to protect from water dropping off the cave roof. This is a collapsed limestone cave that opens up into a beautiful subtropical valley, with stands of bamboo and banyan trees.
We visit a couple more caves, one of which (Ikiga-do, or ‘Male Cave’) was thought to be occupied by a male deity – I wonder why? Local women have been coming here for centuries to pray for good fertility. There is also Inagu-do (Female Cave) with rock formations of a more curvy nature – however this is inaccesible due to unstable rocks.
This is also the site of the discovery of one of the 4 examples of Minatogawa Man, his remains were found in a rock fissure and are dated between 16,000 and 14,000 BCE. These are among the oldest hominid skeletons found in Japan.
Rounded off the trip with a beer or two at the Okinawa Sango Brewery, based at the attraction. Beers brewed with coral filtered spring water – tasty! They also had some tanks where they were maturing habushu – not one for ophiophobia sufferers.
On arriving back in Naha, rode the monorail to the far end of the line and took a walk up to the reconstructed Shuri Castle. In 1945, during the Battle of Okinawa, the castle was almost completely destroyed, leaving only foundation stones – some of the approaches bear the craters of Allied bullets. A beautiful rebuild job, based on historical records, photographs and memory.
On leaving the castle and walking back down the hill toward the monorail station, a rather odd looking car pulled up at the traffic lights ahead. Clearly the owner was an ecological enthusiast, as it appeared he had a mat of sacking or similar material containing soil tied to the roof, which supported a rather natty roof garden of ferns etc. Only in Japan…
Took a ferry from Naha to Tokashiki island for the day. Seriously underestimated the strength of the sun, so ended up looking like ‘The Vision’ or maybe Hellboy. Belatedly thought to wrap my towel around my head, alas too late…
Beautiful coral beaches, where it’s often possible to swim with sea turtles – must try that if I get a chance to come back again.
Hiked 3km or so to Tokashiku beach, explored and cooled my feet at the waters edge. Found an interesting cave carved into the cliffside, an information panel informed me that it was a suicide boat cave – speedboats packed full of explosives would be hidden here, then brought out under cover of darkness to be sailed across the water and rammed into American ships.
Then walked up and over to Aharen beach, allegedly 2.2km, but the winding road and 200m ascent to the viewpoint made it a lot further. Spectacular views, and it was about at this point I decided I should cover my big forehead…
Bus back to the ferry port, bought aloe vera gel there from a very friendly local – much needed! She didn’t speak much English but one look at me and she knew exactly what to sell me. That evening sitting in Helios bar, people must have been thinking ‘who is that angry looking Westerner?’