We had it all planned out, ending our month-long tour of Japan with some well-deserved days off on the tropical island of Iriomote. Then our phone rang: Booking.com told us that our tropical bungalow had just cancelled because of on incoming tropical Cyclone. At the airport, this sad news was confirmed as our connecting flight was cancelled.
So, there we were, no JR rail pass left, a flight back to Tokyo in three days’ time from Naha, the capital of Okinawa and an incoming tropical cyclone. Our preferred way of travelling is to be always on the move so we board our plane to Naha and start looking for things to do while we’re crossing the East China Sea at 900 km/h.
When we land we’re told that the waves are more than 7 metres high and no ferry will leave the harbour for the next couple of days. With the sea and island hopping off limits, we focus our attention to Okinawa. Stupidly we forgot to get an international drivers licence, so we are limited to public transport to go to places. As the dark clouds were racing above our heads, we were trying hard to find a little ray of sunshine.
First day | history
On our first day of exploring, we wanted to learn more about Okinawa’s history and especially the dark episode of the American invasion. This three-month battle destroyed much of the southern part of the island and killed almost 150.000 Japanese civilians, half of the original population of the island.
Among the cultural casualties of this battle was the Shuri castle, the palace of the Ryukyu Kingdom, which served as a Japanese military HQ during the battle and was shelled for 3 days after which it burnt to the ground. In 1992, it was decided to rebuild the complex, so we could explore this great site and learn about the Ryukyu kingdom and Okinawan culture and the bridge it formed between China and Japan from the 15th until the 19th century. As we were drinking our tea and enjoying local sweets in Sasunoma, originally the waiting room for princes, the wind was rattling the screen doors.
After this insight into the local history of the island, it was time to explore the more recent darker history. For this we had to make our way to the southern tip of the island, where we can find the Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum and The Cornerstone of Peace. To get here we had to change buses at Itoman bus terminal which was abandoned. But we found a sign with our connecting bus and at the described time a bus driver appeared from nowhere and we continued our trip through a mixture of rural and suburban landscapes.
Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial
Almost two hours after we departed from the palace, we arrived at the peace memorial park. As we checked the time for our next bus we found out that we had only one hour before we had to take the next bus to make it to our last stop before closing time.
As we walked towards the memorial centre we were greeted by solemn rows of memorial granite stelai that make up the Cornerstone of Peace, remembering the more than 240,000 people from both sides who lost their lives during the battle for Okinawa. The monument lies on top of a cliff overlooking the ocean, even though we had almost blue skies, the wind was blowing fiercely and meters high waves were crashing against the cliffs drowning out all other noises. Another part of the site houses the memorial museum which tells the story of the events leading up to the war, the battle itself and the suffering it caused.
Underground Headquarters of the Japanese Imperial Navy
Out of time we hastily returned to the bus stop to bring us to the former Underground Headquarters of the Japanese Imperial Navy. Here 5.000 soldiers under the command of Rear Admiral Minoru Ota made their last stand. Many of them committed suicide when the battle was lost. Much of the bunker complex is still intact and it vividly tells the story of the grim battle fought here. On top of the bunker is a viewpoint which gives you a 360 degrees view of Naha and the surrounding area and the sea.
Second day | nature
Although we had a very interesting and educational first day, we were still missing the tropical island feeling. To remedy this, we booked a bus to the Ocean Expo Park, two hours to the north. The first hour was more of the same, sprawling suburban and industrial zones. But then the constant stream of traffic slowed and with it the landscape. The highway was closed in by all kind of trees and we had the occasional ocean view. The final part took us along the coastal road for some nice views of the sea.
Ocean Expo Park
The Ocean Expo Park has a couple of different attractions but the main attraction is the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium. The aquarium houses many different tanks with a broad range of sea creatures from different habitats. The main tank is huge and houses a couple of whale sharks in it, the largest fish in the world. These are magnificent big animals and it’s a unique opportunity to see them up close, although it’s in captivity. Two other tanks worth mentioning are the shark tank, with many different species of sharks and the deep-sea water tank, which replicates the deep sea surrounding Okinawa.
After all this time in the darkness, it was finally time for us to explore Emerald beach. The sand was bounty white, the palm trees fill the background and summer music is playing in the background. This is the feeling we came for and when we dive into the sea, it’s clear to us that it’s not too bad at all to be stranded on a tropical island..