My friend “C” and I actually wrote submitted this to a JET publication after our trip. Note that we did NOT give up our teaching carrers to become travel writers
C, who had been a virgin camper, is now an old pro. Decked in plastic, leather, and spandex, we two-wheeled it around the friendliest island in Japan- Okinawa.
Day 1 (Christmas Eve) Flight from Hiroshima to Naha. We assembled our bikes in front of the arrival gate (really, we did). Strapped on our helmets and pedaled it down Route 331 to our 4-star luxury hotel where the valets carefully stored our bikes while we trudged in with helmets, saddle bags, jangling cups and all to check in. One night in a hotel was part of the package deal we purchased in order to get a cheap flight.
Day 2 Naha City. We braved city cycling (if you think city driving in Japan can be hell, try it on a bike with 10 kilograms of gear strapped on). A must see: Shurijo Castle 首里城 (see Lonely Planet). We also hit the Naval Underground Headquarters. This is a good introduction to the war -time history of Okinawa as it gives you lots of accounts of the ‘Battle of Okinawa’ (a recurring theme) in a REALLY interesting setting. There are SUPER youth hostels in Naha (we tried out both). One has a bath that rivals a lot of hot springs.
Day 3 Itoman City. The markets were filled with inquisitive, friendly, and occasionally toothless Okinawan obaachans who gave us our first taste of Okinawa dango (donuts). Itoman is where C lost her virginity on a gently sloping grassy hill (CAMPING virginity, of course). It was a restless night. Since we were on a bit of a slope we frequently had to scoot ourselves back up to the top of the tent before we both ended up in a lump in the “bottom” of the tent.
Day 4 (Happy birthday C!) Gyokusendo Kingdom Village玉泉洞文化村. Checked out the maze of fascinating caves but fear not! You can’t get lost there because you must follow the ‘route’ (the most phallic stalagmite appears on a telephone card in the souvenir shop). Next was the Rykyu Village. The Ryukus were what the Okinawan islands were once called before some series of historical events which we can’t remember happened and changed all of that. We skipped the famed mongoose vs. habu (snake) fight. The mongoose is skittery and the habu looks half-dazed…it’s not really much of a fight. Near the Village, we camped out on a beach in Tamagusuku 玉城, where we met the Kikuzato family. They showed us the best spot on the beach to camp under a huge jungle-like eave of sandstone, told us to use their tap/faucet and invited us to their New Year’s Party. Mind you, this was Dec 27: the Okinawans like to party long and hard.
Day 5 We got a WASH!!! (cyclists and hard-core hikers understand what this really means- stay upwind of us!) at a luxurious mountaintop onsen (we forget the name but it was visible from Sashiki). If you find it and even if you are clean, DON’T pass this chance up. We almost never left that beach; we were fed, watered, and entertained by the Kikuzatos. Then, we carried on to Sashiki Town, where we were ‘hand-delivered’ to the Kikuzato’s friends, the Mejimas. We were again fed, watered and entertained… this time by the Mejimas and their friend Marshall who played us some tunes on his sanshin and later showed us a traditional Okinawan dance with Mrs. Mejima all while Mr. Mejima, a toy maker, showed us his inventions.
Day 6 Nakagusuku Castle Ruins中城城. It has a SUPER view of Okinawa and the surrounding sea…and, not mentioned in the pamphlet, a peek at a royal potty: see if you can find it. There’s an abandoned resort ghost town behind the castle (something we just wandered into). The nearby Okinawa Athletic Park 沖縄総合運動公園is a 5-star campsite. And it’s FREE!
Day 7 Nakamura House. #*&@$*#^ rain! And more !*#&*@^#& RAIN!
It’s a great place for a bit of history, tea and brown sugar blocks. Got on the road and *#&@&^% blow out! The Makeman (Okinawa’s Home Center) man rescued the two soaking damsels in distress. Then, we got directions to the ‘hotel district’, which turned out to be the love hotel capital. Not exactly where we wanted to be spending the night with each other. But a gas station manager kindly transported us plus bikes to a former love hotel- a slightly less cheesy place for two gals to be slumbering together.
Day 8 (New Year’s Eve!) More #*&@$*#^ rain! On to Ishikawa City. My friend took us in and treated us to New Year’s soki soba (yummy slab of pork over Okinawan noodles and broth) and a REAL fireworks display (i.e. NOT little sparklers in the backyard).
Day 9 Ie Jima. 伊江島 Visited our dear departed friend who died during the ‘Battle of Okinawa’ at the Ernie Pyle Memorial (see Lonely Planet and note sarcasm) and spent the night in a quiet seaside spot in the ‘Young Men’s Travel Village Campground’ 少年旅行村 Women can stay there too.
Ie Jima. We cycled around the nice, quiet, scenic island that smelled of cow manure. We hiked up Ie Jima’s lookout point the Ie Jima Mountain伊江島城山where you do get a wonderful view of the colors of the surrounding farms and sea. We made a mad dash back to the mainland (we were running late for the ferry). That night, we retired to our humble accommodation on the steps of an elementary school (Really, we did!).
Day 11 Onward ho. Like the compass, we pointed north all the way to Cape Hedo辺戸岬 .
They say that on a clear day you get a marvelous view all the way out to Yoron Island but due to the clouds and all the cycling we didn’t look past the restaurant. We checked out the funky statues scattered around the craggy cape then boogied back down south to Okuma Beach 奥間 taking in Hiji Falls比地滝 on the way. This waterfall is well worth the hike in but don’t camp there unless you’re ready to pay the 2000-yen fee. Just down the road a few kilometers you’ll find a nice beach where you can camp for free like we did.
Route 58 (the return to Naha). My advice for cyclists “Stay on the road where it’s safe” C’s advice: try to watch the road more than the low-flying military jets in Kadena. To us, it was a big high to cycle all that way in one day AND take in a few sights on the way. We had our very own summit in the same hall where the big guys were this summer (G8) and saw the HUGE expanse of U.S. military terrain that even all of our charm couldn’t get us into (must’ve been the helmets that scared ’em).
Day 13 Naha City and the Kokusaidori 国際通り(the Omiyage heart of Okinawa). Found a great little fast food joint, Tacos-ya. Excellent tacos and taco- rice, an Okinawan specialty.
Day 14 Naha City. Disassembled the bikes in front of the departure gate and bade our silent farewells to the island and the islanders who had been so kind to us during our two- week stay.
Disclaimer: We had an absolutely fabulous experience in Okinawa and we attributed this to various factors. Being on a bike affords you more kindness than the usual rent-a-car tourist and backpacker. I have considerable cycle- camping experience and have been to Okinawa before. We both have Japanese language skills and C’s Japanese looks and heritage was a magnet for curious locals. Then there was the BIG PLUS… we are female and everyone seemed willing to help the fair damsels on “charinkos”.
You may not have the same combination of luck, but the overall word in Okinawa is the people are friendly. Other travelers were not quite as fortunate as us but they all had great tales of their trip.
A Few Tips
A good map. If you plan to cycle it, the Touring Mapple is best because it tells you more route numbers than any other map in Japan. Big towns are written in romaji. Have the locals read the kanji for you. If you’re asking for directions, show them the kanji; even if you think you can read it, you may not be reading it Okinawan style. Mainland Japanese often have this problem too.
Check with a travel agent. There’s a ferry to get there (24 hour one way) from various locations．It’s one cheap way to go, but we got a deal from ANA including that 4 star hotel for one night and return airfare for 36000￥(it would have been cheaper but we returned in peak season). The ferry would have been about 24000￥. You choose. You can stay in other accommodations for the rest of the trip.
Bring a good appetite. If you’ve missed western food, your chance to get it is here. There are more McDonald’s, A&Ws, yummy chocolate and Western snacks than you can shake a stick at. Do try the taco rice that abounds, and when you’ve had your fill of Western try the “jushi” (‘juicy’?) a filling bowl of rice and veggies and ‘sauce’/broth.
Bring your swimwear (or swim at night). We were there in the dead of winter, but for all but about 3- 4 months of the year you can swim in those emerald waters. Scuba courses are available as well but we don’t have any info on that.
If you don’t speak the language remember your best portable dictionary and phrasebook. Who wants to miss out on a chance for a little chitchat with the locals (even if it’s a point and answer session from a phrasebook).
If you do speak Japanese, don’t worry about Okinawan dialect. Mainland Japanese will unduly warn you that it is difficult to understand, but that is because they all stay at resort hotels and go to dinner shows where people are paid to talk like that for the tourists. When these actors get off work the majority speak standard Japanese.
There is a fair bit of English literature available at the airport and there are often English pamphlets at various sightseeing spots. A fair number of Americans are around to ask advice and directions (though they’re more often lost than you).
Exercise just a wee little bit of caution. Do remember that there have been a few stupid military boys who have ruined the reputation of the majority. If you look like a marine there is a small chance you may run into some trouble, but your chances of being hit by a truck on route 58 are far greater.
MOST OF ALL, bring your free spirit. Go with the flow. Okinawa is not the kind of place to follow a strict itinerary. They jokingly say “Okinawan time” to mean ‘it’ll start when it starts.’ It’s a refreshing change from our timed- to- the- minute schedules here. If you get an invitation, accept it gracefully. They are a warm- hearted sociable people who’ll treat you like the Ryuku Osama (the king of Okinawa).