Where is Okinawa?
Okinawa is located between China, Taiwan, and Kyushu, Japan, an autonomous island county. It is made up of the island of Okinawa and its outlying islands. The island is centered around Naha City and the other islands are centered around Yaeyama Islands. Okinawa is a combination of Ryukyu culture + Japanese culture + American culture + Chinese culture and is also known as "Hawaii in Japan."
Okinawa is a subtropical island. The annual average temperature is 16-degree Celsius and the coldest in January, but the temperature will not fall below 13-degrees Celsius. Winter is affected by the monsoon, where it can get pretty windy, it is best to wear long-sleeved plus a windproof lightweight down jacket and long pants.
What to do in Winter/Spring?
No.1 Cherry Blossoms Festival!
In addition to the usual sightseeing itinerary, Okinawa winter's largest tourist attraction is none other than cherry blossoms. Japan's traditional cherry-blossom season lasts from late March to mid-April, but due to the high temperature in Okinawa, the northern part of the island began to enter the Sakura season in late January and is where the earliest cherry blossoms bloom in Japan! Instead of the usual Somei-Yoshino species of Sakura in light pink in Mainland Japan, the Sakura here is a hotter shade of pink, which is the Campanula species.
When are the best times to see the Sakura?
The blossoming of Sakura requires a specific low temperature, so the Sakuras in Northern Okinawa highlands will start to bloom first and then followed by those in the South.
Locals enjoy the cherry blossoms by holding cherry blossoms festivals all over the place, where you sit, enjoy the view of the flowers and drink Awamori (their local equivalent to Sake) and experience the atmosphere of spring!
Here are some places to experience the Sakura Festival.
Yaeyama Cherry Blossom Festival at Yaeyama Mountain (Northern part of Japan)
Nakijin Inari Cherry Blossom Festival at Nakijin Castle Ruins (Northern Area)*
Nago City Cherry Blossom Festival at Cherry Blossom Park, Nago City Central Park (Northern part of Japan)
Rikkyo Sakura Festival
Yaeyama Park Sakura Festival: Yaesu Park (South Region)*
Each place has a different duration and timing of bloom, and it will be forecasted by the Tourism Board beforehand so you can plan your itinerary better to fit this must-do item in.
No.2 Unique sea salt Onsen!
Ryukyu Onsen Senagajima Hotel
The best Onsen hotel in Okinawa. And what’s more, the Onsens here contain sea salt. It is twenty minutes from Naha Airport and offers an unprecedented view of the sunset and the ocean while you soak in the Onsen. There is indoor and outdoor Onsen available as well. The Onsen experience is a must when one is in Japan, where you soak in the hot springs full naked and walk around the place uninhibited as well. It is nothing short of liberating, where you wash away the fatigue of your soul and take a timeout from regular pace of life. (I suspect that another reason the Onsens are so popular not just because it is a place to relax but also one of the only places where women feel the most liberated in the patriarchal society, one where you can be entirely yourself and no one gives a damn.)
It is secluded, private and also one of the best places for food in Okinawa - Senakajima Umikaji Terrace, where shops are lined up right by the pier in kinda Grecian style. Just a tip for fellow travelers: print discount coupons at the hotel lobby, where you will be entitled to 300 Yen or so discount for purchases at selected shops at Umikaji Terrace.
Special note for those with tattoos, please cover up your tattoos with the tattoo plasters. Tattoos have been associated with Yakuzas in Japan for the longest time and are still a taboo to be seen in public with them.
No.3 Whale Watching Tour!
From late December to early April of the following year, Humpback Whales make Okinawa waters their home for as long as 4 months as they play and rest and gave birth to babies! There is no better time than Winter to witness these magnificent creatures frolicking around and breaching in the waters. There is nothing more amazing than seeing them right in front of your eyes, even if it’s just a splash of water! (Lol)
Chances of sightings are really high according to past statistics. There is a chance of up to 95% in the early stage and the chance of sightings increase to 98% from late January to early March.
No.4 Spend time with Mother Nature
The subtropical climate makes trekking and kayaking possible whole year round in Okinawa. To do that, however, requires one to take a domestic flight to one of the nearby islands at Iriomote-Jima. The journey to see the tallest waterfall (55m) in Okinawa is best approached by kayak. You will first take a guided hike through the subtropical rainforest for twenty minutes or so followed by a leisure kayak through the mangrove swamps, where Pinaisaara Falls, the tallest waterfall of Okinawa awaits you. The whole experience takes half a day or so, the best part is, it is manageable even for those who have not spent a single second in the gym ever!
No. 5 Must-try Food Places
No travel is complete without food. If there are only two places that you can visit during your stay in Naha city, you have to go to these two places. I’ll let the pictures do the talking.
Ah yes, the famous Ishigaki Beef. I am not a real beef connoisseur to really comment in detail, except for the fact that the beef is really good. I mean, there are many technicalities about how much fat content it has, how marbled they are et cetera et cetera, all I have to say is, if you are here, you have nothing to lose by having a meal of Ishigaki Beef.
Pizza in the Sky (ピザ喫茶 花人逢)
Also known as Kajinhou, this is a must-visit place when you are on the way to Churaumi Aquarium. The menu here is clear-cut and simple. Yes, you must be wondering, firstly, pizza in Japan (question marks??), and secondly, what do you mean by in the sky? This place is situated right on the hilltop, overlooking the East China Sea on the horizon and the Okinawa landscape.
There is only two type of pizzas available (cheese or mixed). Yet, I thought it was ingenious; where you only focus on making the best out of what you offer. Order an Acerola Juice to go along with it, you will love the whole entire experience. “Life cannot get any better than this” That’s the conclusion.
Chokotto Sushi (蝦夷前ちょこっと寿司 立ち食い寿司)
The overflowing Ikura-Don
This is one of the must-try when you are here, Salmon Roe Rice Bowl, fresh and juicy, coupled with the signature exclamations of “Oi-sa!” as they are served. (Apparently, that is what the fishermen say when they are fishing!)
When you sink your teeth in the Ikura, oh my, I think this is what heaven feels like. It is a taste that is pure and honest; explosive in a way that is also contained. I tasted the ocean at the tip of my tongue, people.
I shan’t drone on too much about the Sushi and Sashimi here. Each and every piece is simply amazing, full of the chef’s love and one can truly taste and feel the amount of respect he has for his craft. You taste authenticity, sincerity in every mouth.
This is a local Izakaya operated by the second-generation but don’t let the plain-looking exterior fool you. Kazusan took over the business from his father after a 14 year long stint in Tokyo’s food scene. Food is more than just food, it is a valued craft. The kind of pride that they take in their creation of each and every dish is telling in every single dish served. (We were told that Kazusan was forbidden into the kitchen when he first started working in the Izakaya by the father despite his experience back at Tokyo!)
All photos' credit goes to @evonnz
Blue Seal Ice-cream
Hmmmmm. This is the cherry on the top. Blue Seal is a must-try. It is light in texture and smooth on your palate. There are thirty over flavors available and some flavors that you cannot find anywhere else! My favorite and must-try are the Okinawan salt cookies! Some of more “local” flavors will be the Shiiquasa Sherbet, Beni-imo, and Sugarcane! Super exotic! There is a flagship store in American Village that you have to visit!
In all, Okinawa is a great eclectic mix of culture because of her unique position in history and culture. The craftsmen spirit is well and alive here and that is just such a comforting thought to know. In Okinawa, you will experience a blend of culture but the spirit of the nation dubbed “The Chrysanthemum and The Sword”, you will experience nothing less than what you’ve ever known about service and hospitality!