Refreshing winter road trip in the Ryukyu Kingdom
Okinawa used to be an independent kingdom that ruled most of the Ryukyu Islands from the 15th to the 19th century. Despite its small size, the Ryukyu Kingdom played a central role in the maritime trade networks of medieval East and Southeast Asia. Many Chinese moved to Ryukyu to serve the government or to engage in business during this period. The Empire of Japan forced the annexation of the archipelago in 1879.
Naha is one of the most cosmopolitan cities of Japan, especially Kokusai Dori (international street), a 1.6 kilometre long stretch of stores, restaurants and bars. Perfect for buying souvenirs and dining out. In the same area, don't miss the pottery district, Heiwa-dori Shopping Arcade and Makishi Public Market, a massive shotengai filled with fresh fish, meat, vegetables...
Okinawans pride themselves on being different from the mainland. The unique nature of their culture is especially obvious in their language and music, but it can also be seen and tasted in their distinctive cuisine. They also have distinctive "guardian dogs" called shisa and used as a talisman against evil spirits. Shisas are everywhere on the island.
Since the end of WWII, Okinawa has the heaviest concentration of U.S. military bases in the Pacific. As a result, some places look like an odd mix of Japanese and American cultures. The American Village near Kadena Air Base is a good example of this situation. There are also several war memorials to visit such as the Cornerstone of Peace and the Himeyuri Monument.
Okinawa's architecture incorporates multiple Asian styles in rather distinctive local forms. Red-orange earthenware roof tiles and the white Okinawan limestone used in walls are among the most recognizable features. In the gardens of Shikina-en, which has been acclaimed as "uniquely Ryukyuan" by UNESCO, the Chinese influence is obvious.
The whole park is a playground for photographers. It is situated along the coastline on the northern end of the island and has an extraordinary view. The Churaumi Aquarium is the main attraction of the park. It is made up of four floors, with tanks containing deep sea creatures, sharks, coral and tropical fish. It was the largest aquarium in the world until 2005.
Buy a 1-day pass for ¥700 and use the monorail as many times as you want for a 24 hour period.
Spend at least one day in Naha before starting the road trip, and rent a car from there.
The Mercure Hotel is good value for money and its location is very convenient compare to others.
Avoid Sam's restaurants around Kokusai Dori. Small parallel streets offer much better options.
In Okinawa, many restaurants don't have coffee. Look for Starbucks if you want an expresso after diner.
Make sure you have some drinks and enough gas before you go to Cape Hedo. Shops are rare in this area..