While the rest of Japan shivers with the start of winter, Okinawa’s still warm and the ocean’s like a bath. Here’s few pictures from a quick snorkel at Motobu I was lucky enough to fit in after work the other day. Few big fish, but the coral at this spot is in fantastic condition unlike most reefs in Okinawa, which are suffering severe bleaching exacerbated by another longer hotter summer with fewer than average typhoons. More on the state of Okinawa’s coral reefs here: Almost 75% of Japan’s biggest coral reef has died from bleaching
The days are cool the northerly winds of winter have set in so it’s high time to share my top three things about winter in Okinawa. And, just in time for the New Years break…
Firstly, it’s really not that cold so it’s a great time to get active and explore. The northern forests of Yanbaru offer some great rivers, waterfalls and walking tracks that are beautiful any time of the year. And, the cooler weather makes exploring the island’s castle ruins, or ‘Gusku‘ (グスク), a really enjoyable and much less sweaty affair than usual.
Another one of my favourite things about winter in Okinawa is the citrus fruit on offer. The delights of local citrus varieties called ‘Shikuwasa‘ (シークヮーサー) and ‘Tankan’ (タンカン) personally offer much more excitement than the often hyped cherry blossoms. Add local winter tomatoes (grown in winter to avoid disease caused by summer humidity) and garlic to the mix and the winter produce rivals the island’s more famous summer offerings.
Despite the northerly winds that tend to kick up during winter, Okinawa’s colder months are perfect for cycling. Again, the remote northern areas of Okinawa are the place to head for scenic quiet (and smooth) roads. And, there’s some pretty good riding on offer too! One of Japan’s main events on the cycling calendar, the Tour de Okinawa, is held every November and attracts many top level riders – including local hero and regular Tour de France entrant Yukiya Arashiro.
Sprinkled amongst the concrete, Fukuoka’s green spaces provide the perfect escape…
Australia-based freelance journalist, Richard Snashall, recently paid Okinawa a visit and has made three fantastic radio/film episodes that showcase the island’s unique culture and artisan industries. Called “The J Stories” the stories have been broadcast on the ABC in Australia.
In his first Okinawa radio/film episode Richard travels to Kijoka in the north west of the main island to visit the Bashofu fabric centre, and meets the remarkable 96 year old woman who revitalised this artisan industry after World War 2. Plus he finds an unexpected Australian connection!
It was great to be involved with Richard’s story and help him tell the remarkable story of Toshiko Taira and Kijoka’s beautiful artisan fabric Bashofu. Richard, thank you for showcasing my second home and also for telling the story of my family! I look forward to working with you again in the future…
In his second Okinawa radio/film story Richard travels out to sea to experience Mozuku harvesting in action and learn about the health benefits of this delicious brown seaweed.
In his third Okinawa radio/film episode Richard meets an esteemed Karate sensei (instructor) and gets a first lesson in the native Okinawan martial art of Karate. Surprising but fortunate for Richard (who cannot speak Japanese) is that this sensei is actually Kevin Chaplin, originally from Dorset in the UK!
Had a great day out at the Yanbaru ‘Kabaasai’ Food Festival today. Over 20 stalls featured foods made with local produce from Okinawa’s Yanbaru region—the forested, less populated northern part of the main island of Okinawa. Music, dancing, SUPing and Sabani boats made the event even more special. The event is organised by Yanbaru Harusaa Project, a collective of 20 local farmers and 44 stores and companies working together to promote local, seasonal foods and the Yanbaru diet—a localised version of the world famous Okinawan diet that many believe is a key part of Okinawa’s world-leading longevity.
Kabaasai isn’t a real word in Japanese, but maybe it should be. The two kanji that make up Kabaasai are the Okinawan language word for ‘aroma’ and Japanese for ‘festival’. Makes a pretty awesome word to describe a food festival don’t you think?
Despite being only an hour and a half ferry ride from Okinawa-honto, Iheya Island (Iheyajima) feels like a world away. Beautiful aquamarine seas, white beaches, green hills and rice paddies, no traffic and only a few Naha-esque concrete jungles make Iheyajima the perfect place to relax and chill-out.
Unfortunately, I was on the Island for work so wasn’t able to get completely into the island-vibe. Nevertheless, I did have ample opportunity to explore on my bike…
Well maintained roads, stunning scenery and very very very few cars make Iheyajima is a fantastic place to ride. It’s about 35kms around the Island and there are added hill climb opportunities so it’s perfect for all levels of experience. There are small stores and a few vending machines scattered around the island, but make sure you stock up if planning to spend a day out and about cycling, swimming, and exploring the sights.
There are many natural and cultural sights to see on Iheyajima. The highlights for me were of course the beautiful beaches and crystal clear waters; an impressive 300 year-old Ryukyu Matsu tree; and the peaceful coral-walled towns scattered with thatched-roofed resting shelters. There are also caves, natural groundwater springs, hiking trails and a few hilltop lookouts to keep you busy. So, you’ll need at least two days to see everything and save just enough time to sit back and enjoy island-time.
Getting to Iheyajima:
Ferries run from Unten port in Nakijin twice a day and cost around 4500yen. To take your bike you’ll need to pay an extra 2000yen.
There are about 4 or 5 minshuku (bed and breakfasts) on Iheyajima and all charge around 5000yen a night including dinner and breakfast. There is also a beautifully located campground at the southern end of the island that has fantastic facilities. Unfortunately, due to the sandy soil and regular typhoons there aren’t many trees so so the lack of shade makes mid-summer camping a very hot experience.
Sitting pretty on a limestone outcrop surrounded on all sides by the turquoise waters of the Pacific Ocean it’s easy to see why Katsuren Gusuku (勝連グスク) is nicknamed the Ocean Castle. Back in the mid-15th century the castle is said to have been a magnificent structure and testament to the wealth generated through trade with Japan, China and other parts of east and southeast Asia. Today, it’s magnificence remains thanks to the partly restored limestone walls and ramparts and imposing stance overlooking the surrounding villages and islands. Katsuren Gusuku is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the nine Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu.
While up in Ogimi last weekend I was lucky enough to catch the Ogimi Hari. Hari (ハーリー) are dragon boat races that happen Okinawa-wide, which were adopted from China more than 500 years ago when during the time of the Ryukyu Kingdom. Hari are held to pray for fishermen’s safety and big catches. The Ogimi Hari is one of the smallest in Okinawa but is one of the nicest. It’s held towards the end of May every year.
There’s a lot to learn from beach rubbish. We learn, first-hand, the impacts of the millions of tonnes of rubbish that pollute our oceans year year, having terrible impacts on our marine and coastal ecosystems. Add to this those terrible little microplastics that are delivering toxins into the food chain and it’s clear that we have a huge problem on our hands—none the least that humans are a pretty grubby species.
But, being an optimist, I reckon that there’s also some really interesting science we can learn from studying the rubbish that washes up on our beaches.
Some recent finds on my local beach in Okinawa, Japan made me start thinking about ocean currents and the amazing connectivity of the natural world.
Unfortunately, due to its westerly aspect and proximity to mainland Asia, my local beach receives quite a lot of rubbish from China, Taiwan and even as far away as Vietnam. There are two regional ocean currents mainly responsible* for the delivery of this rubbish on my local beach: 1) the Taiwan Warm Current (TWC); and 2) the Kuroshio Current.
Much of the rubbish from China, Vietnam and the west coast of Taiwan is thought to travel northwards to Okinawa on the TWC. Whilst rubbish washed into the ocean from the eastern side or Taiwan and the Philippines makes its way north on the Kuroshio Current that flows north-eastwards between the Ryukyu Islands and mainland China.
Simple enough, but then the other day I found a golf ball on the beach. Finding a golf ball probably isn’t that strange in golf loving Asia, but the fact that it was stamped with Pebble Creek Golf Links—a famous golf course in California USA—was very surprising indeed. I knew that golf balls float in saltwater so I began thinking about whether or not the ball could have floated over 10,000 kms across the ocean to end up on this beach…
The Kuroshio current forms part of the ‘North Pacific Gyre’—the major circulation in the northern Pacific Ocean—and it’s more than likely that the golf ball I found travelled down the east coast of USA, then floated west past Hawaii, took a right turn near the Philippines and ended up in Okinawa. It would have also avoided getting stuck in one of the Pacific’s garbage patches—no mean feat considering their size.
The fact that a golf ball from someone’s stray tee shot can end up over 10,000 kms away on my local beach is the perfect example of the interconnectivity of the world. Our actions not only impact our local environment but also the environment in places we least expect—the butterfly effect. But the worst thing this that what’s happening on my local beach is literally a drop in the ocean when you realise how how rubbish accumulates in our seas and the effects it has on our ecosystems—the same ecosystems that provide us with services such as food, medicine, carbon fixation and many more. It’s probably a bit about education, a bit about reducing consumption, a bit about regulation, but a lot about simply thinking about someone and something other than yourself that will help improve this global problem.
Here are just a few links to just some of the many positive things we can do to help reverse this global problem:
- Read more about this issue in this fantastic article by Coastal Care;
- Beat the Bead – an international campaign against microplastics;
- Sign this change.org petition against the micobead and this one against general ocean waste;
- Join an ocean conservation organisation like Surfrider Foundation or the Australian Marine Conservation Society.
- If you’re in Okinawa, join me on one of my regular beach clean-ups!
*Whilst there are a number of other ocean currents involved in this process—including the south moving cold coastal currents of China and the currents of the Japan Sea—for the purpose of illustration I have chosen to focus on the two main currents.
What better way to spend Golden Week—a bunch of public holidays in a row here in Japan—with a few days of stand up paddling in the beautiful waters of northern Okinawa. My seven-year-old nephew—seen in most of the pictures—is a natural and much better than me! Most of the pictures were taken at Kijoka beach in Ogimi.