The winter vocabulary of the majority of Japan residents doesn’t include the color turquoise. Or aquamarine, azure or the somewhat intellectually pompous “cerulean.” This, however, is the palette I attempt to describe with my husband as we turn our tiny rental car onto the bridge leading to Kouri Island, a tiny speck just off the northern coast of Okinawa’s Motobu Peninsula.
Sea foam, teal, cobalt … we mull over more hues of blue as we travel the 2-kilometer bridge, the longest such structure in Okinawa. In a prefecture known for its stunning seascapes, the shifting color scheme in the small channel that separates Motobu’s Yagaji Island from this tiny outpost of a few hundred souls recently became one of the most photographed and fawned over. Coming as we are from the gray concrete of Japan’s capital, the starburst of blue is admittedly mesmerizing.
The bridge drops us straight onto the road that rings the tiny island and we turn left, heading up to the cliffs on the western side. Fields of sugarcane line the byway, their feathery stalks making it hard to see beyond the asphalt. Small breaks in the brush reveal clusters of homes and the occasional cafe. On the north side of the island, narrow lanes lead down to long stretches of pristine sand. Somewhere offshore, the wreck of the USS Emmons, a naval vessel sunk by kamikaze pilots during the waning months of World War II, lies hidden under the glassy surface.
Five minutes later, we’re within sight of the bridge again when signs for the Kouri Ocean Tower encourage us to take a detour. We pull into a spacious parking area that’s overlooked by a rather ostentatious coral mountain. Waterfalls tumble attractively down the landscaped hill but the ticket booth and motorized golf cart track give us pause. Despite the allure of its natural attributes, Okinawa is not immune to the tacky tourist trap.
Luckily, what could have been yet another overpriced attraction of questionable purpose turns out to be rather enjoyable, perhaps due to the undeterred enthusiasm of our 4-year-old. An unnecessary cart ride up a gentle hill becomes a chance to relax in the surroundings of one of the prettiest tropical gardens I’ve yet to encounter in the prefecture. The normally tiresome shell museum that greets passengers as they exit their vehicles is instead a treasure hunt to a fascinated youngster, with new discoveries at every turn.
The literal and figurative apex of the tower is the fourth floor of the observation deck, a few staircases above the shell museum. We’re stuck with a glare from the late-morning sun but the view down to the bridge is impressive nonetheless. The tints ripple and bleed into one another as we pivot slowly to take in the scene. Our descent is occupied by more “colorful” talk. Have we used jade yet? Is periwinkle truly a color, and not a food we’re likely to stumble over on our drive?
Despite the copious samples on offer at the Kouri Ocean Tower gift shop, it’s sustenance we’re aiming for as we navigate back to the Okinawan mainland. My initial choice for lunch takes us to the heights of the Hope Hill neighborhood in the Nakijin district, a self-styled wellness community of dubious zoning regulations that counts the cliffside Cafe Kokuu amongst its tenants. Though the dining room looks cozy and the views are unparalleled, the hand-lettered sign on the door states that no one will be enjoying their popular vegetarian lunches until a scheduled maintenance is completed by week’s end.
Disappointed and with appetites on the rise, we roll up to our next choice 10 minutes later. As soon as we walk in the door, On the Beach Cafe quickly erases any notion of its status being second-best. Large open-sided picture windows frame the strip of sand for which the cafe obviously earns its moniker. Just beyond that, belts of more shades of blue roll out with the waves to the muted horizon.
The lunch menu is limited, but I’m quick to decide on the mushroom and cream sauce pasta with chunks of rafutei. This Okinawan specialty consists of the belly fat of the native agu pig that has been stewed in soy sauce and brown sugar until it melts into your mouth on first bite. I cut through the carb and cheese overload with a helping of sea grapes, another typical island dish, and a tangy hibiscus soda. While my daily quotient of vegetables would have been better suited to a lunch plate at Kokuu, nothing can top stepping out the cafe door and right into the sand.
January is certainly no season for swimming, even in subtropical Japan, but we sink our bare feet into the sand and explore the tide pools along the shore. I keep my eyes peeled for the pods of humpback whales that gather here from January to March to breed in the warmer seas off the Motobu Peninsula. Though I see no telltale gray smudges, I know we’re not the only ones who choose to spend winter in Japan’s southern climes.
A short drive inland leads us to the crumbling walls of Nakijin Gusuku, a castle dating from the 13th century. From the hilltop citadel, rulers of the independent Hokuzan Kingdom governed a realm that stretched from the northern part of Okinawa’s main island to Amami Island off the shores of Kagoshima Prefecture. Court life blossomed in the 13th and 14th centuries, as a thriving trade with China brought increasing prosperity. However, the eventual integration of Okinawa’s three domains into one sole Ryukyu Kingdom spelled doom for the northern stronghold.
The seat of power moved south to Shuri Castle and Nakijin was relegated to second-tier status. When the Satsuma clan stormed onto Okinawa’s shores in the early 1600s, fire gutted what remained of the structure, leaving only the undulating outer walls. Their longevity has garnered the entire site UNESCO World Heritage status, along with several of Okinawa’s other gusuku (the island’s castles and fortresses).
We enter the castle through the square portal of the Heirojo Gate, restored in 1962. A stately stone staircase leads up past a grove of cherry trees — among the first in the nation to herald the start of sakura season — but this pathway is a modern construction. My young explorer takes the rugged round-about path just off to the right, an approach that made it nearly impossible for invaders to gain any foothold on the slippery, uneven terrain.
In the upper courtyard, we weave our way among the remaining traces of Hokuzan history. A series of markers outline the excavated foundations of the main hall, while more imagination is required to call to mind an image of the nearby Umiya Courtyard, where ceremonies were once held. Nearby, an utaki, or sacred site, sits on the spot that once housed the ladies of the long-gone court.
At the edge of the main ward, we take in the extensive view. Unlike its southern counterpart at Shuri, the castle here is not threatened by the encroachment of modernity. Much of the site is surrounded by forests; only a handful of houses pepper the hillside below. Along the perimeter, the 1.5-kilometer-long walls ripple in and out like waves on the ocean. And just beyond, in a haze of what can only be described as simple blue, lies the shimmering surface of the sea.
Getting there: Northern Okinawa is best explored by rental car, and the above itinerary can be easily covered in a day with private transportation. Kouri Ocean Tower is open year-round (¥800). Nakijin Gusuku is open from 8 a.m.-6 p.m. (¥400) year-round and is best enjoyed from the end of January to the beginning of February when the cherry blossoms are in bloom.