After living in Japan for almost three years, I had the opportunity to visit many cities around the country and experience a lot of the culture. The delicious sushi, ornate temples, endless scuba diving, bizarre food selection in the markets, Chu-hais, cherry blossoms, street markets, etc.made me incredibly grateful for having had the chance to live there. Although I did not become one of the Marines who became completely engrossed in the culture (I still have too much 'Murica coursing through my veins), I definitely tried to take advantage of every opportunity to experience the country I was living in. That made my time living in Okinawa quite memorable and being stationed there gave me the opportunity to travel around much of South East Asia very cheaply. Below are some of my highlights from living on the little tropical island.
Okinawa is surrounded by many smaller islands which make for perfect day excursions or weekend adventures. Some are accessible by road and the rest by ferries. The Keramas are one of the most popular islands because they are only about an hour away by boat away and it is possible to bring a car over on the large ferry. The island offers nearly deserted pristine beaches with stunning shades of aqua and turquoise water. While it is possible to camp and drink out on the beaches we ended opted for a little hotel on the water front when the weather dropped more than expected. In the traditional Japanese style, our hotel only had small mats on the floor in a nearly bare room but it did include direct access to its own private beach. The next day Kristi and I spent an afternoon driving around and exploring the different view points on the island which is mostly uninhabited except for the small port.
Unsurprisingly, scuba diving is one of the most popular pastimes on island. There are numerous easily accessible spots with an incredible variety of fish and coral to explore in the clear warm water. There are also plenty of deeper and more technical dives including a shipwreck and several cliff drop offs on the northern side. Since there is an abundance of other divers filling the local dive shops, it is easy to jump on trips with people almost every weekend. Since the water stays fairly warm year round, only a 5mm wetsuit required at the coldest time of year. Dive shops are located on base and all over island many of which also coordinate dives ranging from basic open water courses to more advanced night diving. While I was in Okinawa I completed nearly 70 dives of all types because it was too good of an opportunity to not take advantage of the consistently good diving conditions!
Several places around Okinawa and on the surrounding islands it is possible to pitch a tent and make a bonfire on the beach. Kouri island in the far north and several popular diving spots from Onna Point up that have more remote access points are the best places to avoid any other passerby.
One of my friends used to coordinate last minute group camping trips to the beach throughout summer. He would pick up the camping equipment and we would all bring the food, drinks, tanks, and dive gear. Usually everyone would get a quick dive in on Friday night before mixing drinks and watching the stars fill the sky. The next morning as the sun was rising, we would typically do another quick dive before eating massive amounts of chorizo and eggs for breakfast.
Kouri is an island further to the north accessible by road which has a few tiny beach cafes and fewer residents. It is another great dive location though and with the lack of locals, it was super easy to throw a sleeping bag down directly on the beach and eat smores off the fire while already tucked in for the night.
One of my favorite parts about Japanese culture was their consistent rotation of festivals throughout the year. The festivities typically start in the spring with the notorious and always impressive Cherry Blossom festival, ran through summer with the Dragon Boat Racing, and of course the World’s Largest Tug ‘o War Event in Naha. However, some of the better ones seemed to be the random ones that popped up in parking lots sporadically throughout the year. They also involved a lot of Orion beers (even though we were not always allowed to partake in the drinking festivities) and a massive spread of mouthwatering local dishes being fried up and served!
Waterfalls and cliff jumping
The northern part of Okinawa has several good waterfalls that make for a perfect afternoon of hiking. Anytime we needed a change in weekend activities or there someone new arrived on island, we would drive up and hike out to one of the falls. Aha and Tataki were the two most accessible and most scenic to visit.
Tataki is approximately a two mile hike up stream mostly wading through the creek until it opens up to a massive fall into a small deep pool. On weekends there were lots of others with the same idea of getting outside and frequently there were people hauling grills out to the area for picnicking. These falls have a steep trail that goes all the way to the top and rocks at the top of the falls at the edge that is perfect to sit on and peer down below. Aha falls is further north, much smaller, and more difficult to hike down to, but offers two sets of falls and a much larger swimming area. The lower falls overlook a very deep pool and we went cliff jumping there several times. However, getting back up requires either clawing up the dirt hills and grabbing the trees on the side of the steep hill or climbing up the wet rock face to return to the jumping point. There are several other waterfalls around island that are tucked away down back country roads but are also worth checking out including Hiji, Fukugawa, and Todoroki Falls.
Shuri Castle, Naha Street, ice skating, baseball, and the big treehouse, are all main attractions for those living on island. They are easy to find and usually some of the first tourist spots that people check out. The Main Street is chaotic in the most Asian way possible with bright lit signs and bizarre offerings in every store window. From bottles of Habu Sake with the snakes inside to novelty pig masks, anything Japanese that tourists could possibly want can be found on this one long stretch. Naha has TONS of small restaurants and stores that are tucked away in its windy streets though that are far more indicative of the local culture. Many of its bars are single rooms with only enough seats for three or four guests, but their hospitality is outstanding. Despite a few 'No Gaijikn' or no foreigner signs in some of the bar and restaurant windows, usually we were warmly greeted and offered some local dish as a snack with my drink.
Similar to mainland, there are a lot of speciality cafe and restaurants in Naha in the south and Nago in the north. There is a penguin bar where you can feed live penguins swimming around or visit a 50's dance lounge where the performers swing dance and sing their hearts out while you sip cocktails. Even though I never found the sword maker from Kill Bill, and of course I tried, Okinawa's streets are filled with surprising stores for those willing to go looking.
Shopping at the Local Fish Markets
While there is an abundance of fantastic sushi joints all over the island, from hole in the wall to big sushi go-rounds, sometimes it was more rewarding to go buy some of fresh fish at the market and grill it up or make homemade sushi. At the local markets I purchased a little wooden rolling mat, the seaweed wraps, a small rice cooker and the veggies before grabbing fresh tuna and salmon from the local fish market. After watching several YouTube videos and experimenting with the rice several times, finally I made my own roll. It wasn't the prettiest to look at, but by god I made the whole thing from scratch and was extremely proud. Another good reason for visiting the fish markets is because on weekends they usually had some type of mini festival where they had a few vendors set up cooking, lots of picnic tables, and live music.
Beach Rock Village
As my time in Okinawa started to wind down and I had visited the numerous UNESCO sights, the spots listed on every tourist website I could find, and simply driven around island searching for new discoveries, I was excited to hear about a "hippie village" in the north. A self-sustaining small farm with limited access to the public, Beach Rock Village offers tree houses and yurts to visitors from its mountain perch. Complete with a huge wooden swing over the valley and a treehouse bar, this was quite an exciting find! I went up with friends and we explored the grounds and facilities which were quite primitive, but in a fun Robinson Curuso family type of way.
Deep Sea Fishing
The abundance of fish in the waters only enhances a day of boating and drinking. Each time we did a deep sea fishing trip, we came back with loads of skipjack, Mahi Mahi, Wahoo, and Yellow Fin that filled everyone’s freezers. The local fisherman are more than willing to share some of their traditions and ensured everyone had a great day on the water. One of my most exciting moments on one of these trips was when one of the guys showed me how to find and remove the beating fish heart, which they promptly demanded that I eat for good luck. Looking back this was one of my more barbaric moments but I did not hesitate to eat the whole thing. On subsequent boating trips I quickly realized that not everyone was willing to participate in such a savage tradition and some were more than a little concerned when I demonstrated this newly acquired skill.
Explore Restaurants and Beach Cafes
While the sushi restaurants were definitely my favorite, there were a multitude of small cafes on the edge of the ocean that were always great finds. Many of these cafes and restaurants only means of advertising were small signs on the side of the road with an arrow pointing down a dirt path. While some of the more popular spots like the Treehouse in Naha or Pizza in the Sky in north had a good selection of local choices and had fantastic views, I still think that the random places with only their small signs were often the better choice!
Other activities worth checking out in Oki is mangrove kayaking, visiting some of the abandoned haunted sites, spear fishing, the UNESCO sights (mostly castles) all over, Neo Park in the north where you can play with little wallabies, and the Churaumi Aquarium with several massive whale sharks.