While I was away in Japan, my school in the U.S. embarked on a One Book, One School program. The entire school community, including parents, kids, teachers, administrators, and staff, read a book together and engaged in discussions and activities around the story. The book the school chose was The Seven Wonders of Sassafras Springs by Betty G. Birney. The main character, Eben, is bored with small-town life and longs to leave Sassafras Springs behind him as he travels the world in search of adventure and excitement. His dad presents him with a challenge: If Eben can find seven Wonders within the confines of his home town, his dad will allow him to take a train to visit relatives in a big city. This book really touched me, since my own desire for an entirely new and unfamiliar place led me to the JET Programme and eventually here to Okinawa. I decided to follow Eben’s example and search out the astonishing, amazing, and unforgettable Seven Wonders of Okinawa (in no particular order; they’re all equally awesome).
Fukushu-En, a Chinese garden built to commemorate the sister city relationship between Naha and Fuzhou, China, is a well-kept secret. You won’t find it in all the “Naha Sites” pamphlets, and I can’t imagine why. It’s designed as a traditional Chinese garden and is lovely just to stroll through and view, but the little details are what make it so amazing to me! I love the little cave behind the waterfall and the animals of the Chinese zodiac as bridge ornaments. The “attack koi” that you can feed are also lots of fun. These fish have some serious energy when it comes to food.
Ocean Expo Park
No list of the Wonders of Okinawa would be complete without Ocean Expo Park in Motobu. Not only is the aquarium world famous for very good reason, but the other attractions in the park are absolutely amazing and (I believe) underrated. I think the Tropical Dream Center is the single greatest garden/arboretum/botanical-type place I’ve ever visited. The traditional Ryukyu village is fascinating and has outstanding audio you can listen to at each building in English, Japanese, and Chinese. The Oceanic Culture Museum is arranged so beautifully and includes many interesting artifacts and tons of cultural information. Basically, the whole place is wonderful and would be worth a trip to Okinawa in itself.
Southeast Botanical Gardens
These stunning and well-kept gardens in Okinawa City seem almost like a secret treasure. They’re not in all the guidebooks or on the tourism posters, but they seriously should be.
BBQ House An-An
We have totally fallen in love with yakiniku, grilled meat that you prepare by yourself at your own table. One of our favorite places to enjoy this heavenly food is at Barbecue House An-An in Hamby Town. It’s a good value for the money, and the meat, veggies, and sauce are delish.
A-Danny Asian Dining Bar
We love A-Danny in Hamby Town! Delicious Indian food and lovely atmosphere. Their naan alone makes them a Wonder of Okinawa.
This is a subtropical island. I think I've said enough.
Driving Down the East Coast
Okinawa has some beautiful drives, including the approach to Nago from the south and around the cliffs of Nanjo. But the drive that really takes your breath away is the cruise along the eastern coast. After visiting Hedo Point, the northernmost point in Okinawa, take the time to drive along the east coast, and you will be amazed!
Tiny, beautiful Taketomi Island, off the cost of Ishigaki in the Yaeyama Islands, is a little gem. A 10-minute ferry ride brings you to lovely beaches, an interesting museum/historical center, and excellently preserved traditional Ryukyu houses and buildings (plus water buffalo rides and an amazing restaurant).
Yohena Hydrangea Garden
While searching for the name of a flower I’d seen around Okinawa, I stumbled across an article about this lovely place in Motobu. A 96-year-old woman started this garden many years ago, and she still reigns over it today. We missed the peak blooming season of the hydrangeas (my favorite flower, BTW), but even coming in at the end, this garden was a sight to see. Hydrangeas and many other beautiful plants grow all around the steep peaks and walkways nestled in a green valley.
Heiwasozo no Mori
This is a lovely park in Itoman, near Heiwakinen Peace Park. (I couldn't find any direct English-language links to it, unfortunately.) There's lots of room for walking and enjoying a picnic, plus soccer fields and children's play areas. We even saw kids sledding on a hill with actual sleds!! (Remember: This is a tropical island. There's no snow. Get it??) You can also see some sobering reminders of the Battle of Okinawa, like the caves in which people hid to save their lives and which were later taken over by the Japanese army. It's a beautiful spot, perfect for reflection, conversation, photography, or anything else you care to enjoy outside.