Okinawa is the largest of the Ryukyu chain of islands that stretches southwest of Japan to Taiwan. It is famous for a few things, notably the Battle of Okinawa and the continued presence of American military on the island. It is also one of the places in the world with the most centenarians.

One of the reasons may be the volcanic baths known as ‘onsens’. I had wanted to try one of these since we’d arrived in Japan and finally got the chance at the Ryukyu Onsen Ryujin-no-yu. It was as a unique experience as you might imagine, but unfortunately you’ll have to settle for my memory of it: no cameras are (understandably) allowed inside. Interestingly, you also cannot enter an onsen in Japan if you have a tattoo, apparently for their association with the Yakuza.

The baths are separated into male and female sections, and in order to enter you must first undress and deposit all of your things in a locker, entering the bath area with only a small privacy towel. The experience of being stark naked amongst strangers, even of the same sex, and not speaking a word of the language, was a little weird. But I followed my usual strategy of mirroring others. At first I couldn’t find the main showering area and was about to just use the outdoor shower before a woman, who may have been a centenarian herself, began shouting and gesticulating wildly to show me where it was. There was a dedicated space with a long row of sinks with buckets, shower handles and low wooden stools at which to sit while performing ablutions. Soaps and shampoo were provided. Then you used your little towel to dry off before heading into the baths. Many people put their towels on their heads while in the baths. The water was hot and steamy, salty but not unpleasantly so. There were several different pools, some looking out to sea, and best of all, the ‘flower pot’ baths shown here in the official hotel photo.

This onsen was part of a hotel and if I had it to do again, I might consider staying there. Our plan, however, was to live like locals for a week (or at least like privileged ones).

After landing in the prefecture’s capital Naha, we rented a car. Not only did that mean left-side driving, a switch for us, but also navigating some very narrow streets. I use the royal ‘we’ here but what I really mean is that I was the passenger. Driving is challenging enough for me without having to flip my brain around.

The highways are all well maintained and clearly signed. But, like everywhere in Japan, once we got off the main roads, finding things was a challenge. The car’s built-in GPS wasn’t very helpful, so we once again we relied on Google maps. On a number of occasions, technology told us we had reached our destination. Our eyes told us otherwise.

Arriving at our rental in the Yaese district near Minatogawa fishing port, on the southeast tip of the island, the GPS told us to drive down this ‘street’. An elderly man came out of his house and stood there watching us, shaking his head, so we turned around. Despite the owner’s detailed directions, we ended up parking the car and walking around to confirm the address by comparing it to the photo.

Our sweet rental cottage

We removed our shoes and enjoyed the simple beauty of the traditional living space with its tatami mats, low tables and futons for sleeping. Everything appeared to be handcrafted from wood.

The cottage was located in a residential area, which while not the most beautiful of neighbourhoods, was just a short walk to the sea. We soon realized just how close we were to sea level.

One of the oddest things were the loudspeaker announcements we heard each day at 7:00 a.m. and again in the evening around 6 pm. At first I thought I was dreaming, or that it was just a passing carnival. But after a few days, I googled it and discovered that the local PA system is indeed a ‘thing’ in Okinawa and other remote rural regions in Japan. It is called ‘housou’. The childlike female voice and the Disney music somehow typify my experience of Japanese culture.

Over next few days, we explored the beaches and the peace memorial park, then ventured further afield. We drove to the Forest of Horohoro and walked down steps through vine-covered trees to the beach. It was warm enough that braver souls might have gone swimming, but I settled for just getting my toes into the East China Sea.

One day we drove to Naha and walked through the bustling centre and Makishi public market. It is a busy urban area filled with shops and bright lights, yet like most cities in tropical places everything feels a little ramshackle.

Along the way we stopped for lunch at a most memorable restaurant. After waiting in the queue, you select your food from a little machine that looks like an old-fashioned juke box, then pay for it in advance. Then you area seated, almost like a normal restaurant. Unfortunately the menu items were only in Japanese, and our strategy of guestimating the choices backfired when we discovered we had only ordered toppings without the basic noodle dish which was their specialty. Fortunately, the wait staff were tolerant of our tourist ways and kindly helped us add the missing main course.

Okinawan signature soba noodles served with pork
Orion, the local beer, is light and crisp.

The furthest north we drove was to Onna, where we took in the stunning views of Cape Manzamo with its famous rock.

I was surprised to learn that Okinawa main island, or Okinawa Honto, is not as far south as you can go in Japan. The southernmost border, as I discovered reading the excellent novel, The Finder by Will Ferguson, is called Hateruma. We only ventured as far as the main island but if I ever find myself in that part of the world again, I would love to explore all of these amazing islands.

Cape Manzano