“Why didn’t I consider visiting Okinawa before?” I thought to myself, after finishing the ‘Ku Tinggalkan Cinta Di Okinawa‘ drama series marathon starring the sweet Hanis Zalikha, witty Sharnaaz Ahmad and a handsome Okinawan actor, Shogen Itokazu. This southernmost prefecture of Japan is certainly beautiful, and comes with a unique culture that is entirely distinct from the rest of the country. I have to admit that the images of Okinawa in the show have won me over, leaving me feeling determined to see the show’s trail with my own eyes. Fortunately, when the Okinawa government via Mabui Stone Corporation invited Gaya Travel Magazine on a trip to discover the prefecture, I jumped right on it.

Arriving & Departing

Naha Airport is only 90 minutes away from Taipei, and two hours and a half from either Shanghai or Seoul by plane. While there is no direct flight from Malaysia to Okinawa at the moment, travellers can still reach the destination using Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines, ANA, China Airlines and China Eastern, among others.

 My Travel Essentials

  1. Samurai pocket Wi-Fi by Visondata Malaysia (visondata.com.my). For RM35 per day, travellers get a 4G connection with unlimited data throughout Japan.
  2. Yomiwa app, a life-saver because it helps people like me who do not understand Kanji. All you need to do is just point your smart phone camera at the Kanji signs and the app will translate them right away.
  3. A universal plug (Japanese electrical plugs have two, non-polarised pins).

Okinawa at a Glance

  1. Karate – the form of martial arts said to promote not only fighting prowess, but also good health and longevity – originated from Okinawa.
  2. Numerous studies show that Okinawans generally enjoy longer lifespan than the average life expectancy at other places due to their unique island lifestyle. They have a strong sense of community and typically avoid unnecessary stress in their lives.
  3. Although Standard Japanese is widely spoken here, the original Okinawan language called Uchinaguchior Hogen can be entirely foreign to native Japanese. Today, it is spoken mainly by the elderly.
  4. Contrary to the general belief regarding Japanese punctuality, Okinawans are less concerned about arriving late and have a far more relaxed attitude towards timekeeping.
  5. Muslim travellers should be mindful that the local dishes here are mostly made up of pork such as rafute, Okinawan soba and tonkatsu. But they can refer to www.halalinjapan.com for halal alternatives throughout the region. Also, do not forget to try the popular goya (bitter gourd) ice cream, which is scientifically proven to be good for your memory!
  6. Okinawans prefer cars as their mode of transport, but there are also multiple bus companies operating for travellers’ convenience such as Toyo Bus, Ryukyu Bus Kotsu, Naha Bus and Okinawa Bus. Monorail is also available, starting from Naha Airport and ending at Shuri Castle Station.
  7. There are a total of 32 U.S. military bases located on Okinawa Island, occupying almost 25% of the island’s area. The presence of Americans eventually led to some interesting twists on local cultures and dishes.
  8. Best times to visit: July-August and February-April. Avoid visiting in late August to September due to typhoon season, including the first week of May (Golden Week) when the prefecture will be flooded with tourists from the other parts of Japan.
  9. The climate is subtropical, with an average annual temperature of 22°C. Summer is hot and humid, while temperatures during winter are never below springtime levels in Tokyo and Osaka.

 Explore & Enjoy

The strong Chinese influence can be seen on Shurijo Castle's exterior

The strong Chinese influence can be seen on Shurijo Castle’s exterior

Shurijo Castle Park

The Okinawan people have a wonderful rich history. It was once part of an independent kingdom called Ryukyu that acted as a key player in the maritime trade networks that reached medieval East and Southeast Asia like Malacca, Pattani, Palembang, Siam and Sumatra. Its political capital was the Shurijo Castle, an important building in Okinawa since the 14th century up till today, also recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The original structure was almost completely destroyed during one of the bloodiest battles in history, Battle of Okinawa, but later reconstructed based on records and memory.

Traditional Okinawan dance performance at Shurijo Castle

Traditional Okinawan dance performance at Shurijo Castle

The castle’s magnificent architecture is accentuated by a genius blend of Chinese and Japanese influences that can be seen at its main hall (seiden), Central Plaza (Una), Shurei Gate (Shurei Mon) and its high and imposing ishigaki stone walls. My personal favourites were the throne rooms, located within the main hall; one on the first floor and another on the second floor overlooking a huge courtyard, said to be the place where the king sat during official ceremonies. Most parts of the castle are covered with intricate woodcarvings and golden dragons painted with rich red lacquer, making the structure stands out even on a gloomy day. Do visit on Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday to witness a traditional Okinawan dance performance held at the outdoor stage.

 Entrance fee ¥820 per adult and ¥310 per child

Opens from 8:30 a.m. until 7:00 p.m. every day. Closed on the first Wednesday and Thursday of July every year.

Katsuren Castle Ruins

The ruins of Katsuren Castle

The ruins of Katsuren Castle

Another gusuku (castle in Okinawan language) listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in Okinawa is the Katsuren Castle ruins, which had its “Golden Age” in the mid-15th century under the command of the powerful Lord Amawari. Through maritime trade, he gained wealth and power and married Momotofumi Agari, the daughter of the Ryukyuan King Sho Taikyu, based at Shuri Castle. However, due to his anxiety towards Amawari’s growing power, King Sho Taikyu later arranged for a new castle to be built at Nakagusuku under the control of Lord Gosamaru. Awamari then deceived the king by claiming that Gosamaru was the bigger threat and gained support from the royal armies to attack Nakagusuku, which ended in Gosamaru’s suicide. Overpowered by greed, Amawari attempted to overthrow the king himself, but his plan was discovered by his wife and as a result Katsuren Castle was attacked and defeated by the royal armies.

From what I learned from the guide, the restoration process of the castle was complicated since all record and documentation were destroyed during the attack. Today, there is a wooden staircase that leads to the upper three levels of the ruin, which opens to the beautiful view of the Pacific Ocean at the top. Remember to wear comfortable and sturdy shoes when exploring because some areas are jagged and slippery when wet.

Entrance fee: Free, but there is a charge to be paid should you need a guide.

Opens 24 hours.

 Murasaki Mura

The red houses at Murasaki Mura

The red houses at Murasaki Mura

About one hour drive away from Naha city stands Murasaki Mura, a traditional village reviving the glory of Ryukyu period back in the 15th to the 19th century. Built in 1992, the village initially acted as a film set for a popular local TV drama “Ryukyu No Kaze” that featured life of the said period. It received overwhelming response from both local and international audiences. When the series ended, the set was left untouched until the local government decided that it would be a perfect tourism product for travellers to have a glimpse on the lifestyle of Ryukyu people.

Similar to Shuri castle, the village characterises strong Chinese influence on its architecture for instance the distinctive red-tiled roofs due to Ryukyu being a tributary of Imperial China in the past. The houses today are now used as workshops for producing traditional Okinawa handicrafts that travellers can join for a fee such as Ryukyu glass blowing (¥1,800), Yachimun pottery making (¥1,500 – ¥2,000), indigo dyeing (¥1,200), Hanaori and Minsaori weaving (¥700 – ¥1,500), Bingata (¥500), candle art (¥1,000) and Okinawan cooking (from ¥800).

Entrance fee: ¥500 per adult, ¥300 per child.

Opens from 9:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.

Churaumi Aquarium

Kuroshio Sea in Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium features more than 70 species of marine life

Kuroshio Sea in Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium features more than 70 species of marine life

Do you know that an exposure to underwater settings could actually have a positive impact on people’s well-being? Besides improving one’s mood, it is also said that it can reduce people’s heart rates and blood pressure. So when in Okinawa, be sure to spend a day at one of the biggest aquariums in the world, Churaumi Aquarium, which holds 7.5 million litres of water and features an acrylic glass panel measuring 8.2 by 22.5 metres (27 by 74 feet) with a thickness of 60 centimetres (24 inches), used to be the largest such panel in the world when the aquarium was opened in 2002. It is located within the beautifully landscaped Ocean Expo Park in Kunigami district, about one hour and a half drive away from Naha city.

Visitors taking the opportunity to touch the starfish and sea cucumber at the 'Life in Inoh' area, Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium

Visitors taking the opportunity to touch the starfish and sea cucumber at the ‘Life in Inoh’ area, Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium

A visit to Churaumi Aquarium is not only educational as it offers the opportunity to learn about the world beneath the ocean, but also awe-inspiring since it allows visitors – especially those who have never dived before – witness the marine life up close. It starts from the fourth floor then proceeds downwards with a walk through the evolution of the seas. I suggest that travellers take a couple of minutes to watch every tank carefully as each holds its own wonder. From the colourful to the pulsating jelly, be sure to make a quick stop at the ‘Life in Inoh’ area where one is allowed to touch the starfish and sea cucumber. Of course, the main highlight here is the Kuroshio Sea (featuring the aforementioned large glass panel) where visitors can watch groups of whale sharks and manta rays swimming in the ocean along with other fishes. But more interestingly, Churaumi Aquarium is a roofless aquarium, thus, visitors are bound to see natural light illuminating the underwater setting, akin to what scuba divers would normally see. Pamphlets are available in multiple languages including English and Malay.

Entrance fee: ¥1,850 per adult, ¥610 per child.

Opens from 8:30 a.m. – 6:30 p.m. (Oct-Feb) or 8:30 a.m. – 8:00 p.m. (Mar-Sept). Closed on first Wednesday and Thursday of December, every year.

Senagajima Umikaji Terrace

A bird's-eye view of Senagajima Umikaji Terrace

A bird’s-eye view of Senagajima Umikaji Terrace

Located on Senaga Island near the Naha Airport, Senagajima Umikaji Terrace is perfectly positioned to appreciate beautiful sunset and watch planes take off and land with good food and refreshing drink in hand. Its whitewashed buildings are inspired from the typical architecture from southern Italy or Greece, complete with small restaurants, bars, sundry stores and boutiques focussing mainly on local offerings. There is also a flight simulator available here for visitors to experience flying an aircraft. If the weather permits, live music and dance shows are performed on an outdoor stage every day. Locals usually crowd this place during summer for barbecue session with loved ones.

Opens from 10:00 a.m. – 10:00 p.m. every day.

Giant Tug of War Festival

A portion of the giant rope used during the annual Giant Tug of War Festival, Okinawa, held every second Sunday in October

A portion of the giant rope used during the annual Giant Tug of War Festival, Okinawa, held every second Sunday in October

The city of Naha gets boisterous on every second Sunday in October, when Okinawans celebrate the annual Giant Tug of War competition on Route 58. The competition dates back to the 1600s when it was held to pray for rain and prosperity. The ropes used in the competition are typically 180-200 metre long in length and weigh 43-45 tons, therefore requiring over 15,000 participants each year to pull the rope from both sides. The game lasts for 30 minutes each time and the team that manages to move the rope 5 metres to their direction within the time limit will crown as the winners. Almost everyone can participate in the competition, but needs to be at the venue well in advance due to the crowd. In 1997 the event was first logged in the Guinness Book of World Records as being the largest tug-of-war event in the world. At the end of the ceremony, participants will bring home a piece of the giant rope as a lucky charm.

The festival sees over 15,000 participants each year pulling the giant rope from both sides

The festival sees over 15,000 participants each year pulling the giant rope from both sides

Rest & Recharge

Pacific Hotel Okinawa

This 389-room hotel is strategically located in Naha city, with efficient facilities such as swimming pool, a business centre, a souvenir shop and several restaurants. Muslim-friendly meals can be provided through advance bookings.

Part II of this story continues in Issue 11.4.

Gaya Travel Magazine extends our heartfelt gratitude to Okinawa local government and Mabui Stone Corporation for making our trip to Okinawa a reality.

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