Source: Croatian Traveller
It seems that to be happy it is sufficient to place two Shisa creatures on the roof of your house, like people do in Okinawa. Shisa is a creature resembling a cross between a lion and a dog. One has its mouth open to catch happiness, and the other one, with its mouth closed, prevents this happiness from slipping away. And indeed, in this southernmost Japanese region that is actually an archipelago with more than 160 islands spreading over more than 1,000 kilometers, the sculptures of these guards are a must. You can find them in houses and restaurants, in stores, hotels and airports...
People in Okinawa are friendly, very friendly to the tourists. They like to sing and eat long into the night. They like to wash their food down with the local alcoholic beverages, and one of the favorite ones is the one made of snakes. They like to wear colorful shirts and laugh a lot, and they don’t like to wake up early. They also don’t like to open their markets before 9 or 10 in the morning. Who goes to the market early anyway? And yes, Okinawa is known for the longevity of its people. Do Shisa creatures have anything to do with it? They probably do – otherwise they wouldn’t be placed where they are.
Okinawa is also known to all as the birthplace of karate. In popular culture, it is known for the famous swords forged by Hattori Hanzo in Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies. However, it is famous for the numerous monuments to the pinnacle of human stupidity – war. The island is full of memorials to the victims of one of the most brutal battles in the Pacific, the Battle of Okinawa, or as the Japanese call it, Tetsu no ame – the Typhoon of Steel. Along with some 150,000 thousand soldiers, the Japanese lost also as many civilians. The memorial you need to visit is the one to the students of Himeyuri School. Some three hundred high school girls served as nurses in inhumane conditions. Hiding in the subterranean hospital during the last days of the battle, more than 80 percent of them lost their life, killed by American weapons, or by their own hand. There is a plaque over the entrance to the cave that was the last home on this earth of the innocent girls, so it is worth it to pay a dozen kuna for a bouquet of flowers and symbolically pay tribute to all the victims of human cruelty and stupidity.
If you don’t mean to swim there, the best way to arrive to Okinawa is by plane. The airport in the capital of Naha is a typical representative of tropical airports: everything is full of orchids, an even the staff is dressed in Hawaiian shirts – they are a part of the national identity on Okinawa. The transport to the center of the city by monorail takes less than 20 minutes –and then you should be prepared to see a somewhat different Japan.
A mixture of cultures in this place that once was the independent kingdom of Ryūkyū, is more than obvious. The traditional Okinawa culture, together with the Japanese one, with the strong influence of China and Taiwan, and recently from the US, makes the capital of Nahu a truly special place. All of this blends into a unique whole. For the more traditional parts, visit the former seat of the Okinawa royalty – Shuri a monument from UNESCO’s World Heritage list, although it is only a replica.
The castle was built in the local style. With some American assistance, it was completely wiped off of the face of the earth during the Battle of Okinawa. Only a few walls up to dozen centimeters tall were left standing. The reconstruction took place in late 1950s. Recently, it was home to the most powerful people on the planet on the G8 group summit. Since this region was the seat of Okinawa culture and power throughout several centuries, the surrounding area is also rich with many monuments worth exploring.
Public transportation will do just fine for your exploration of the city, but for the sites around the chief island, it is much more interesting and significantly cheaper to use a rental car. For some 150 kuna for the first day and 50 kuna for every subsequent day, you will enjoy days and days of fun. We recommend you rent a motorcycle. We also recommend you wear long sleeves, no matter how hot it is. Or at least apply sun screen with high protection factor onto the parts of skin exposed to the sun. Your stay on the island will be much more comfortable because of that.
Driving along the coast and watching the plantations of tropical fruits on one side, and turquoise sea on the other with reefs and cliffs, can be an experience in itself. The road will take you to the commercialized ethno village called Okinawa world, whose biggest attraction is the several kilometer long cave full of stalactites and stalagmites. Also impressive is the hall with thirty thousand spikes hanging for the ceiling that will touch the ground in twenty thousand years or so. Above the cave is the village where you can get to meet the life of inhabitants. For a small fee, they will introduce you to the ancient crafts like pottery, fabric dying, toy making, making black sugar from sugar cane or something newer – glasswork, so you can take home a very original souvenir.
There is also a special museum dedicated to the local venomous snake, Habu. This creature can grow up to two and a half meters in length, and it is known to be able to swallow a cat. The locals consider it a remarkably beautiful animal, especially in the form of a wallet, belt, bracelet or some other fashion accessory. Also popular is habushu, snake brandy. It is supposedly good for your health and libido, but it is most definitely very sweet, with a pleasant herb and honey aroma, and smooth to drink. Still, you should drink it responsibly. Probably in the lack of real danger, the locals like to weave their stories around this snake, which according to them is only a little bit less dangerous than the beast St. George fought. According to their tales, there are so many of these snakes around that they will attack you jumping from trees, out of fridges, or trying to surprise you jumping out of the can when you pop it open. The truth is somewhat different – apart from the fact that you can usually see them in the form of wallets and various talismans, the imported mongoose also contributed to the demise of the snake population. And it is not even that poisonous, which does not mean that you should ignore the possible snakebite – just keep it to yourself, don’t go explaining it to the local population.
As you drive from Naha to the north, you might think that you are in some movie celebrating American subculture and provincial life. Family life, diners, car and tire dealerships, signs in English and American flags appear in regular cycles, so you will need a couple of moments to realize that you are not in Kerouac’s autobiographical novel On the Road, and that you have not mistakenly taken peyote. This is because of the 30,000 US military personnel present in the bases on the island. And as you pass on your motorcycle by the motorized patrols of Marine Corps Military Police and think whether you consumed peyote accidentally or on purpose, you will arrive to the nice town of Nago that, apart from manufacturing the omnipresent beer Orion, also has a park dedicated to pineapple. A ticket for the theme park costs around 15 kuna, but you will learn everything about this plant for this money. And no, it’s not boring. Another great thing is that you can try products made from the locally grown pineapple. And it’s not just a sliced up fruit – you can eat cake, various snacks, desserts or even main courses with pineapple. You want to season your salad with pineapple vinegar? No problem, it’s right there. You’re thirsty? Leave the juice to the kids. Help yourself to some wine, pineapple wine, of course. Again, take care not to go overboard with the free stuff because you have more driving to do.
Relatively easy you can reach one of the biggest island attractions – the world famous Okinawa aquarium. Aquarium, or as the locals call it, Churaumi (beautiful sea), is a huge complex whose biggest water tank contains 7.500 cubic meters of water, quite enough for three whale sharks, manta rays and other species inhabiting the warm waters around Okinawa.
Of course, you can interrupt the drive by stopping on numerous beaches all over the island. The sea temperature is very high, and never goes below 21 degrees Celsius. The beaches are nice, soft, roofed over by coconut trees and framed by bright red hibiscus. It is possible to explore underwater life, because waters around Okinawa contain coral reefs where life is simply blooming. The most diverse forms of sea life in all colors of the rainbow are yours to enjoy. BE sure to keep your fingers to yourself, because you don’t want to be snapped at by the brown sea snake erabu. It is not like the Habu snake; its poison in is ten times stronger than that of a cobra. It allegedly does not attack if it’s not in danger or looking for food (how are you supposed to know whether a snake is hungry?). It’s not pretty enough to be made into wallets, but the soup made of it is delicious.
They eat almost anything in Okinawa – from sea snakes to various sea herbs. Still, the favorite ingredient on the island is pork, probably thanks to the influence of the Chinese and Taiwanese. No matter if it is boiled, roasted, legs in soups or ears in salads, this pork is simply delicious –something you should not miss while staying on the island. You can skip going to the beach or diving, you can even skip going to the aquarium, but the pork, especially in a small family restaurant, is something you should not miss. And yes, you can use your fingers to eat those delicious legs. Especially washed down with some snake brandy. Don’t consider it unusual if you afterwards find yourself singing local songs with the friendly hosts. If you can play, they will offer you sanshin, a local musical instrument with three strings, very similar to banjo.
Of course, Okinawa is not only for bike rides, sunbathing and sampling of local delicacies. There’s also shopping. For some reason, this is a duty free region, so a visit to one of the stores on the island is a must. Kokusai Street is Naha’s high street. On several kilometers there is an empire of stores, souvenir shops, restaurants and bars, attractive to all visitors regardless of gender, age, race, faith or sexual orientation. Behind that street is the entrance to the Makishi market where you can enjoy salt ice cream, pancakes in miso sauce, or various delicacies made with black sugar – in other words, everything you cannot find in the rest of Japan (or world).
You can sleep for cheap on Okinawa: the prices start at 30 kuna per night. Of course, price equals quality, but the offer is abundant. The only problem here is leaving the island.