Visit: 18th February 2016
Just a week or so before we set off on our big Japan holiday I noticed a banner ad on my web browser that seemed tailor made for me. It was from All Nippon Airways in conjunction with the government of Japan, offering tourists with bookings to Japan a flat rate of £60 for any domestic flight on ANA’s network. Sensing an opportunity, I looked to see how far one could travel domestically in Japan, and saw that the best value for money would probably be a flight to Okinawa: the subtropical island home of 1.3 million Japanese and many thousands of US troops. Located 750 miles south west of Osaka, it would be a two-hour flight for us.
About halfway through our holiday, at this point staying in Osaka, we got up before dawn and headed to the bus stop for the coach service to Itami Airport. Half an hour’s drive later we checked in and got two roomy seats at the back of a Boeing 787-8. I was pretty excited about this, as it was to be my first time on this hi-tech and all-composite airliner – so I was disappointed when I got to the gate only to find a run-of-the-mill Boeing 777 parked there. Fortune smiled, however, because it was soon towed away and replaced by a shiny* new Dreamliner!
(* not actually shiny because it isn’t made of metal)
While waiting for the flight we had a traditional Japanese breakfast of rice, salmon and pickled vegetables with miso soup. Rather different to the usual pain au raisin and a cappuccino…
An interesting feature of the 787 is the replacement of window blinds with a dimming button. The window never goes quite opaque, but it blocks the sun out sufficiently to allow you to sleep. As we took off from this urban airport there was a great view of the sprawling cities of Osaka and Kobe as they woke.
The Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu is a World Heritage Site consisting of nine subcomponents spread over the 466 square mile island of Okinawa. I had made no car hire plans because, fortunately, four of the nine parts are located within Okinawa’s main city of Naha. We had come to Okinawa for only a day trip, giving us nine hours on the ground there. Naha is served by a single monorail line that connects its airport, at one end of the line, to Shuri Castle, at the other.
The Ryukyuan Kingdom ruled much of the Ryukyu island chain from the 15th to 19th centuries. It was a thriving trading centre, acting as a go-between for trade between Japan and mainland Asia (recall that Japan had a habit of sealing itself off from the outside world). The map below shows the trade routes that went via Okinawa.
Shuri Castle was the centre of power in the kingdom, and home to the king. It was completely destroyed in the fierce WWII Battle of Okinawa when the Japanese used it as a defensive position. The castle was rebuilt in the 1990s from historical records, as faithfully as possible. Behind me is the Seiden, or main hall, in which the king went about his courtly business. The inside is another shoe-free zone, but we didn’t get cold feet this time because the weather was a pleasant 20°C+.
Next to the castle is another WHS subcomponent, in the form of a gate protecting a sacred grove of trees. The gate, known as Sonohyan-utaki Ishimon, used to be opened only for the king. There being no Ryukyuan king these days, it is never opened any more. The civilisation had a native Ryukyuan religion distinct from Buddhism or Confucianism, which was characterised by ancestor worship.
Just a few metres down the road is the third subcomponent – a mausoleum called Tamaudan. It consists of two stone-walled enclosures, and was the burial site of Ryukyu kings and queens. It costs a nominal 300 yen to get into, and although there is not much to see the guest centre does have a small information room, where I found the map pictured earlier.
The Okinawans are proud of their WHS status, as evidenced by the granite plaques we found at each subcomponent. The site was inscribed in 2000 (the same year as Kronborg Castle, Historic Centre of Brugge and Blaenavon Industrial Landscape).
The final Ryukyuan site for us was to be the royal garden of Skininaen. Whilst still within Naha city, this necessitated a walk of perhaps 45 minutes across town. Using the free GPS function on Google Maps I was able to navigate us down charming back-streets in Naha’s quiet suburbs, where we came across peaceful temple, blossoming cherry trees and of course ample vending machines.
After a relaxing and unplanned lunch of Okinawan soba (pretty similar to mainland Japanese soba from what I could tell) we continued our walk toward the gardens, only to be offered a lift by a kindly local who was half-Okinawan, half-American. We were grateful for the favour when we saw the gradient of the hill she drove us up!
Shikinaen was the site of the royal family’s second residence, and features a tranquil landscaped garden. It was used to entertain and impress distinguished foreign guests, particularly envoys from the regional superpower China. Like the castle, and much of Okinawa in general, it was blown to bits in WWII, but was carefully restored in the decades since.
We saw turtles basking in the sun and enjoyed walking amongst the trees and seeing the views afforded by the park’s elevated position, before beginning the downhill walk back to the monorail in Naha’s city centre. It is a pleasant enough but unremarkable city, with no decent architecture to speak of (that I saw) -WWII again I should think. We spent some time in a mall, where we ate Okinawan donuts (Sata andagi), before returning to the airport for our flight back to Osaka (this time to the man-made island airport of Kansai, as opposed to the regional Itami airport we had departed from earlier that day). We were flying back on an airline called Peach, which is a Japanese low-cost carrier. Although the service was fine, in other respects it was lower-frills than Ryanair! Peach’s flights depart from a dedicated ‘low-cost terminal’, which consists of a windowless converted hangar in the airport’s cargo area.
The flight was delayed, of course, so I passed the time with some cans of Orion beer. The shopkeeper for some reason took enough pity on me to come over and give me a free bag of crisps to go with them. We came away thinking of the Okinawans as a friendly people, less reserved than their mainland compatriots and happy to make tourists like us feel welcome.