Okinawa - Gold Coast, Great Barrier Reef, Japan
Sat 31 Aug 2013
I imagine that I am like most people who would be surprised to find out that there is a coral reef destination in Japan. Indeed, Okinawa is exactly that. A group of small islands created by tectonic plate movement that has upthrust ancient coral reef structures and was subsequently surrounded by fringe coral reef systems. Located some 1500km south of Tokyo, the climate is sub-tropical with summer days hot and humid above 30 degrees in summer. Nights are not a great deal cooler, dipping to the high 20s.
Okinawa has a great deal to offer tourists as enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of Japanese tourists each year. It seems we in the west are oblivious - there are precious few visible in the mass, save a smattering of US service personnel from the bases there.
The tourist experience is very good and there is lots of infrastructure with the exception of a desperately needed train network.
Lets check out the experience
Arriving by air
The Naha airport at the Southern end of the airport is serviced by JAL, ANA and recently opened up by Jetstar, Peach, Air Asia and other discount carriers.
The airport has a modern appearance, is full of helpful people and beside the sea, for a resort style experience including fresh potted flowers.
You will likely find yourself on a Shuttle "Limousine" bus to your accommodation. There is a mono rail that goes to the top of the city in Naha too, but only good for in-city connections. Taxis are expensive by comparison.
WARNING. Japanese rental cars can not be hired without an International Drivers Permit issued by the relevant authority in your country and they are non negotiable on this. The Police will also raise hell it they catch you driving without one.
A rental car is otherwise very handy as you will otherwise be on the tourist buses again, slow local buses or stuck at your resort. Be prepared for stop - starts and the road network has lots of intersections with lights and is typically congested. There is also a freeway North South that is quite expensive at USD 6 (600 Yen) for half its length. Its very worth it for transits.
There are many beach front resorts ranging in price and offering, so just pick one that suits your thoughts on location and budget. You will find them all to have a quality offering, staffed by friendly locals and the occasional westerner.
We stayed at the Rizzan Sea Park. Moderately priced, the service was excellent in this family oriented resort near Onna on the mid West coast. There was a great pool area loaded with children, a waterfall, adjacent to a sandy private beach with umbrellas. The ocean swimming is in a net enclosure. A whole section of the sea enclosure is dedicated to huge inflated toys and trampolines. Outside the enclosure the motorised watersports were pulling kids about on bananas and things.
There is also another pool indoors which was very popular with the children and watched over by a number of life guards.
Indoors was a couple of dining options. Light meals for 500 Yen, or the buffet for 1500 Yen.
Okinawa has lots on offer for attractions. There a number of castles and visit opportunities. They have been rebuilt since the war, so you have to overlook the authenticity issue.
The highlight for most people would be the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium. Located at the NW of the island beside the sea, this large facility has a lot of value to offer. For 1800 Yen (cheaper purchased beforehand at a convenience store) there is a lot to see. The major tour opportunity is descending the side of the hill underground, stopping by glass tank walls to look at various reef fish tanks. A large one first for a reef experience looking through the glass that is quite real (from someone who knows). A touch tank gives you the chance to handle starfish and sponges. Further down is a individual small tanks, with exotic species, eels, REAL box jelly fish, a sit down presentation room (Japanese) for hourly talks.... and then the finale, a 10 metre high tank wall that gradually reveals itself filled with schooling species, manta rays, Dolphins, some harmless shark species and ( get it ) three whale sharks. It very very amazing (save some concerns about welfare)
There is even a cafe to eat cake and watch... which is what you will definitely do for half a hour or more.
The tour continues into the darkness and some deep water species. See through fish and fish glowing from bio luminance ...
Just when you think you have seen too much, you step into a bone room, and then outdoors to Manatee, turtles and prancing dolphins.
Snorkelling and Diving are popular with the Japanese. Not renowned for their ability to swim, you might find yourself at the "Blue Cave" alongside 100 or more nervous first time divers being hand held into the water. Get around them and take off the Blue Cave. Its a cool experience to swim into an underwater cave.
Elsewhere, the resort beaches offer ocean swimming, snorkeling, and powered watersports.
Okinawa could use a sailing tour industry it would seem - one is not very apparent.
History and Culture
Its a little hard to dig under the covers of the culture. Outside the rebuilt castles and structures, there is a war museum. Given the death of 100000+ Japanese servicemen and 100000+ locals when the Allied forces arrived in 1945 (some at their own hand) you find yourself a little nervous about digging in. Suffice, parts of the islands were more or less flattened by naval bombardment, and a gritty allied advance.
A distinct highlight for culturally correct food was with the food. A group of friends had lunch at Garamanjyaku, where the renowned local vegetarian chef uses Okinawan produce (often from her own garden) to produce some of the tastiest diverse foods you will ever eat. Its extremely hard to find and small. So good luck to you if you can find it. Its spectacular and well worth the island search.
During our stay time did not allow a full exploration of the island's wildlife. In the hills there is even a bear population.
A large portion of the north part of the island remains bushland, despite the population.
If you are looking for a reef experience with first class accommodations, quality of service, honest people in a tropical island reef setting, then you have a winner. Better still be one of the few westeners in the population so you are singled out for even more polite service. There is wide range of accommodation available,
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John Nayler is a long time visitor to the Whitsundays and Airlie Beach and former resident.
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