Most people come to the Yomitan Peninsula on Okinawa’s main island for the sand and the scuba opportunities. I, however, am one of those island residents on whom paradise is wasted — I like neither a sweltering day at the beach nor an afternoon spent exploring the intimidating world beneath the waves. I’m more of a mountain lover, and while Okinawa is a bit short on elevation, recent explorations of my island home had me steering my car to the highest hill I could find in the area.
It’s not the hill that attracted me, but rather the structure that sits in majestic ruins on its crown. It’s impossible to see the fortifications of Zakimi Castle until you are almost beneath them, a feature that I wonder might have held true in the days when the peninsula was less populated and Zakimi dominated the skyline. But what remains of this castle, built in the 15th century by dynamic warlord Gosamaru to protect the interests of the ruler, Sho Hashi (installed at Shuri Castle), is impressive nonetheless.
Unlike the reconstructed and embellished Shuri Castle down south, this rough-around-the-edges UNESCO sight lures its few visitors with more understated architectural appeal. The massive walls of large-cut stone are several meters thick — legend has it that each boulder was carted from a now untraceable castle site in central Okinawa to construct the fortress of Zakimi. Regardless of their origin, these stones that were once used to protect the structure from invading armies now serve only as an effective barrier against the typhoon winds that regularly batter the island.
Inside, it takes imagination — and a helpful pamphlet — to envision how the ruins must have once looked. On the day I visit, a Japanese tour group is just being shepherded back to its bus and I am free to walk the grounds in silence. There’s admittedly very little to see beyond the imposing walls, but even on this humid summer’s day, the views across the Yomitan Peninsula to the East China Sea are crystal clear. In the late winter, the view is second only to the dozens of cherry trees that blossom within the castle grounds.
Descending from the heights, I make sure to detour into the unassuming building next to the castle parking lot that houses the Yomitan Village History and Folklore Museum. While I find the display on weaving and Okinawa’s native bashofu (banana-fiber kimono) worth the minimal entrance fee, it’s the life-size replica of a turtle-shell-shaped Okinawan tomb (kamekaoubaka) that steals the show. Unlike the mainland, Japan’s southernmost prefecture is littered with massive monuments to the dead, veritable concrete fortresses that protect the bones of ancestors long gone. The plaster-cast sepulchre that the museum has constructed offers a fascinating glimpse of the rarely seen interior and, after two years of commuting past heaps of tombs on a daily basis, my curiosity as to their layout has been satisfied.
The museum staff are helpful in recommending another of the peninsula’s worthwhile tourist diversions, and I direct the car just a few miles down the road to Yachimun no Sato, also known as the Yomitan Pottery Village, an enclave of ceramic studios set amidst the tropical scrub. Okinawa’s first pottery arrived on trading ships from around the Pacific during the kingdom’s many decades as a Chinese tributary state. However, Okinawa didn’t start producing its own ceramics (known as yachimun in the local dialect) until the 17th century, when Korean master craftsmen were invited to the island to introduce their techniques.
The tiny neighborhood of Tsuboya, swallowed up now by present-day Naha, became and has remained a potter’s enclave, but after World War II, residents of the prefectural capital grew tired of the old-fashioned kilns and their billowing smoky clouds. Potters began migrating to Yomitan’s lush back-roads and the result has been the formation of an artistic oasis.
Parking around the village is ample, and a gravel road leads visitors around the keyhole-shaped community to the nearly four-dozen studios and shops. Large jugs of unglazed earthenware — typical examples of the Tsuboya arayachi (unglazed) style — are scattered along the route, acting as haphazard way-markers. In other circumstances, these mud-colored vessels would be used to store awamori, the fiery liquor that is the lifeblood of Okinawa.
In the middle of the village, a shop called Maranata beckons customers with its outdoor shisa (Okinawan lion-dog) display and attached coffee shop (don’t miss the excellent Okinawan donuts!). Inside, 63-year-old Miyeko Tamaki presides over a collection of wares from around the Ryukyu Archipelago.
“This shop represents 72 different artists,” she says proudly, and easily answers any questions we pepper her with regarding the products. Fish are the most popular design on the shop’s many bowls and mugs, a motif popularized by the famous potter Jiro Kinjo, a Living National Treasure and resident of the Yomitan Peninsula until his death in 2004.
Though Maranata caters more to the casual traveler’s budget, the village exhibits a wide range of pottery, from the simplest chopstick rests to massive, museum-quality vases and urns. One shop named Gallery Yamada, hidden deep amongst the thicket of sugarcane, boasts such delicate — and expensive — creations, I tiptoe through it with my knapsack clutched tightly to my chest lest a careless turn shatter a priceless work of art.
A few meters down from Maranata stands the artists’ community kiln, a red-tile-roofed structure that sprawls along the incline of a small slope. Created in the traditional noborigama (climbing) style, its multiple chambers are shared by several of Yachimun no Sato’s potters and used several times a year to fire joyachi, the glazed pieces that comprise the bulk of the village’s sales. Nearby, I catch glimpses of private kilns, but ropes and “No visitors” signs limit my access, and I can only observe from a distance.
With a newly purchased pair of shisa clinking happily in my bag, I turn my attention from retail therapy to the business of lunch. There are more than enough restaurants dotting the Yomitan Peninsula, catering to resort clientele and the weekend scuba set, but I have my sights set on something slightly more memorable. To that end, I cross the island on narrow lanes, passing through sugarcane fields and skirting the ubiquitous large tombs of village families. In a seaside hamlet just outside Ginoza, I climb the metal stairs to the second floor restaurant of Tenpusu.
Whether by accident or design, the rural back-roads of Northern Okinawa hold an impressive array of gourmet eateries. Tenpusu rightfully belongs in that category; while it moonlights as an upscale izakaya (Japanese-style pub) after work hours, its lunch menu offers a simple but wholesome array of set meals where the ingredients are quite literally from just down the street.
As my waitress proudly attests while I peruse my options, not only is everything on the menu grown on the island, most of it comes from the northern area farms. My plate of Yanbaru chicken — cooked to perfection on the open grill behind the bar — is delicately dressed with a sauce of local mushrooms, and I can almost smell the nearby field that supplied the greens for my side salad. It’s the kind of farm-to-table freshness that any restaurant would kill for, and I lap up the meal to the very last bite (seasoned agu pork with bonito flakes, in case you’re curious).
On my way back to the expressway to head south for home, I pass by the entrance to Kanna Thalasso, a spa and bathhouse overlooking the sea. I hesitate, visions of responsibilities flitting through my head, before turning the car into the parking lot. Real life can wait — I’m on island time now.
The Yomitan Peninsula is an hour’s drive north of Naha Airport. Follow Route 58 out of the city and bear left on either Route 6 or Route 12. Zakimi Castle (free of charge, open from dawn to dusk), the Yomitan Village History and Folklore Museum (¥200, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., closed Mon.) and Yachimun no Sato (free of charge, parking available) are all within a few kilometers of each other. Tenpusu Restaurant is located off of Exit 9 (Ginoza) of the Okinawa Expressway, a half hour north of Yomitan, and serves farm-fresh lunches every day except Sun. (set meals ¥650-800, www.tenpusu.jp).