Okinawa is a beautiful island, with a humid, warm sub-topical climate, which means that it's the perfect environment for things to grow (I'm specifically thinking plants and flowers, but that does also easily extend to mold and athlete's foot.) It is also, however, a growing part of Japan, and the main island has vast American military bases running throughout, which means that it has been developed beyond itself, with most inhabittable places being inhabitted, and the city of Naha itself being a stretch of concrete blocks with windows and doors. That doesn't mean that there are no beautiful places within the city limits, it just means that they may be small and more difficult to find. In a struggling attempt to make this website even remotely useful, I've decided to document some of the parks and places that my wife and I visit in Okinawa, so that maybe someone who is living here might be able to enjoy a place or two.
I'm starting off with a bang. This is one of my favourite places in the world! Not for what you expect to see, but for what you had no idea existed!
Firstly, a little splash of history. Okinawa was originally not a part of Japan, in fact officially up until 1879 Okinawa was it's own kingdom called The Ryukyu Kingdom, and had it's own royalty. Scattered around the island are ruins of royal castles, ranging in their states of decomposition. Some are little more than a broken wall, and some (as in the case of the Shuri castle) have been rebuilt to their former glory.
The Nakagusuku ruins are kind of in the middle. Although there is a definite form of the once glorious castle that stood there, it is just a glimpse of what it once was. Pirched on the top of a hill, overlooking the sea, however, it is a somewhat breathtaking place where you can soak in the deep vlue skies and imagine the lives of the royalty and servants who once inhabitted it.
But when you have soaked in the atmosphere and walked to the end of the park don't stop there, because at the end of the gusuku park is the begining of something truly random! In true Okinawan style, there was a complete hotel built on this site which lasted about 2 years and now sits as ruins of it's own. Such a remarkable juxtaposition of an ancient royal abode and a decadent waste of money on one site.
This is where the fun begins. Walking through the abandoned hotel is like a nightmare just waiting to happen! Anything of value that could be salvaged has been ripped out. Lighting torn from the ceiling, wires torn from the walls, carpet ripped up, and now it is just a delapedated shell of a once expansive and affluent hotel. This place is huge! A full 3 storey building left to rot and telling tales of it's own.
And if you brave the highest point of the site you will be rewarded with a breathtaking view of the surrounding coastline (but please be careful, it's just a half built shell of a building without any barriers to keep you from falling to your death.)
This place is just fantastic, and well worth a look! It's easy enough to find, and costs only 300yen for entrance to the gusuku. Entrance to the old hotel just means not stopping, just keep walking. If you really want to enjoy your time I suggest taking some sunscreen and a torch, but take care because there are plenty of nasty pieces of jagged concrete or steel to cut yourself on!
Here's a link to google maps: Nakagusuku Castle
The keywords for today are kirei and ketchy. kireai means Beautiful, and ketchy means stingy, tight-fisted, or overly frugal. kirei I am not, but ketchy I am, and therefore we are often looking for the more kirei of places for the most ketchy of prices. In Naha there is a little place called Fukushuen Chinese Gardens which definitely fits this profile.
As mentioned earlier, Okinawa was once an independent kingdom called The Kingdom of the Ryukuus. Due to it's vicinity in relation to Taiwan, Okinawa once enjoyed closer ties to China that it did with Japan, hence now much of Okinawan culture and artwork has sensibilities drawn from ancient China. Thus, a small, elegant, well kept garden with explicit Chinese influence wedged into the middle of a large, concrete jungle, the buildings of which have the prominent 'concrete-box' motif, is a welcome addition to the hustle and bustle of Naha city. What's more it's free to enter.
Walking around this garden one can totally forget that a busy, sprawling city of wires, concrete and ramen lies outside. The walls are high enough to keep that out, and the delightful display of trees, open-mouthed fish, snapping turtles and delicate Chinese buildings are enough to keep one's attention inside. Once or twice when you hazard a look up you see the roofs and balconies with washing drying, but it's not too distracting from the peaceful surroundings of the well-enclosed garden. And did I mention that it's free?
The quickest way to describe getting here is with respect to the Kencho Mae station in Naha. If you catch the monorail to Kencho Mae then turn your back to the station and walk away from the city centre, and towards the coast, then after about 10 minutes on your left you will see the unmistakable walls of the garden and two fierce Shisa standing guard outside the front gate. If you are driving then follow the same directions, but when you see the entrance turn right to the large park opposite, and after 20 metres you can park your car in the park's park. Having parked in the park's park remember your license plate number (including the hiragana at the front (or the Y/A if you are a SOFA status visitor)) because the woman at the entrance will ask for it. Oh yes she will. And believe me, no amount of “I'm not American, and I don't have a Y-plate car, but I can't remember the hiragana from my car” will placate her. It's best just to avoid that whole senario.
Once through the main gates have a stroll and enjoy! Also, the park opposite is well worth a stroll too. It's amazing that these places can be found, squeezed into the tight confines of this packed little city!
(Note: due to the nature of this place, I decided to do a little digital cross-processing on some of these photos to give them a dated look)
Fukushuen Chinese Gardens- in this link it is A
Heading a little further afield now, and this place can be simply described as the perfect place to take your mother-in-law to. Well at least for us it was when Yuki's parents visited for a week earlier this year. The place in question is called Kaguya Hime, and you might see signs on the way advertising “Hana Matsuri” (花まつり.) It might be worth remembering the Japanese there because most of the signs directing us towards it are in Japanese. 'Hana' means flower and 'Matsuri' is festival. Although there are few festival elements to this little park, there are an abundance of flowers! And the first thing that struck me was the remarkable variety of Hibiscus here! I never realized there were so many colours and shapes that could all be bound up under the banner 'Hibiscus,' but that's not where it stops here.
This place is more or less just a sprawling landscape of interconnected flower beds all arrayed with the vast colours and shapes of hibiscus, roses sunflowers, lavender, but for me the one that really captured my imagination was the field of cosmos. I'm sorry, I don't know what you might call it in English but in Japanese it is コスモス, and it's a field of little pink, purple, blue and yellow heads above a grass-like bed.
At this point I realize how crap I am at describing flowers.
Look, it's a big place, it's really pretty, it's full of flowers, and it's only about 500yen to get in. Ok? Have I sold it enough there? Fine. Here's the website.
Finally, if you visit this place (and you have enough energy) it might be worth saving a little time to explore the mangrove swamps that are at the bottom of the road leading up to Hana Matsuri, and most likely you pass them as you drive there. As you walk over the wooden bridges surrounding the mangroves, stop and have a good look down because you can see a fantastic variety of animals, crabs, salamander and insects that make up the habitants of this swampy mangrove bed. It's really cool.
And now I realize my limits in describing fauna also. Look, it's late, we are in the middle of a typhoon, and words aren't coming to me easily right now, OK?!?. Someone buy me a thesaurus!
Look at a picture and click the link, get in your car and drive out there and have a nice day. Done!
Seriously, if I am waiting to have the time to make a serious and well thought out entry then the places listed here are going to be few and far between! To that extent I have decided to make a short entry about a place that I really can't say enough good things about. This place is a tropical reserve and Orchid farm called Bios.
Going to this place was the first time that I really felt like I was in a sub-tropical island. I guess because I live in the middle of the city, this is an unusual feeling for me, and this was welcome. Although the place was a little smaller that my description may lead you to think, it was surprisingly big! Confused? Well, Bios seems to use the land space that it has to a great extent, and you can feel like you truly are lost in a tropical paradise. Then you see the goats. Yep, you can pat, feed and even lead goats around a park. You can see a turtle with a long nose in a fish tank (if you find it, you will know what I'm talking about) and you can ride a water buffalo drawn carriage. Sound romantic? It shouldn't do. If you stretch your entrance fee a tad then you can include a tropical cruise which is too expensive and short, but very enjoyable, and if you are desiring to finally feel like you are immersed in the tropics, like I so wanted to feel, then it's worth the money. Also, there is a Kid's Quiz that you can follow around the park, which is entirely in Japanese. Sound pointless? Well, there is a stamp attached to each question (I'm sure by now you have experienced the Japanese fascination with stamps) so bring your notebook and take home a bit of a souvenir.
When you've finished your visit you can head out through the Orchid shop where you can take home a cheap orchid or two, or even get the doctor fish treatment. You know Doctor Fish, those nasty little mini piranhas who nibble all the dead skin off your tootsies. Yup, just another example of the exotic, exquisite, traditional japanese cutlure available in abundance on this elegant little island. Ahem.
I can't say enough about this place. The down side is that it's ever so slightly on the expensive especially if you're with a family, but it was certainly surprisingly captivating. Definitely check this place out I reckon.
For those of us who live in the city centre we can sometimes forget that we are living on a beautiful island. We don't have the option of running across the road to the beach after work, or sitting on a hillside and watching the sun setting over the horizon each night. In order to beat the 'just another day after the next' feeling, and remember that there are nice places out there in which to relax, we need to look a little closer. So here are a few of the lovely places around Naha where I go to relax. (In no particular order)
1. Fukushuen Chinese Gardens (above)
Located a 10 minute walk from the downtown Kencho Mae station, this lovely little place is a diamond in the rough, and directly opposite is a nice park for a little sports, or even just a walk. Oh! It's free!
Fukushuen Chinese Gardens
2. Onoyama Park
Not only does is have a shrine rinsing out of the middle, and a river running along side, but it's also the home to the Naha Matsuri every year. Good place for a jog 0n a lovely spring evening.
3. Shikinaen Royal Gardens
Originally housing the king's little gettaway house, this little place gives you the atmosphere and the history of a sub-tropical Asian royal hideaway. There are a number of buildings which let you see and roam around in the life of the Ryukyu kingdom. You do have to pay, but my wife and I thought it was worth it.
4. Shuri Jo
If you really want to take the old Ryukyu atmosphere to the limit (and pay handsomely for the privilege) then the fully restored Ryukyu castle sitting high above Shuri is the place you want to be. The surrounding area is free to stroll around, but the central castle is a tad expensive for entry. This should be visited at least once in your time here, however, and should you do so you will see the clear connection between the Ryukyu kingdom and Chinese history in the way it clearly resembles a smaller version of Tianamen square. If you visit at the right time of yeart you can see a reenactment of the coronation of the Ryukyu king, but expect to see it with MANY others.
5. Yogi Park
I just heard from a colleague that the cherry blossoms are out in a park in Naha, so if you can't make it up north to Nago or Mount Yaedake the here's the park for you, but remember you can only see Sakura (cherry blossoms) for a couple of weeks in February around here. Yogi park is on the 330 in Naha, just down from Makishi station.
That's it for now, but there's plenty more. Back soon.