Cruising in the Far East with Holland America Line: Japan’s Distant Isles

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Special by Dennis Cox

ABOARD the WESTERDAM The last two of our Japan stops are in Okinawa province with the first of the two at the port city of Naha. One of the Ryukyu Islands, Okinawa lies at the same latitude as Florida. It is located as far from Tokyo as Iceland is from London and it differs significantly from the uniformity inherent in Japanese society. The local dialect, folk culture, contemporary attitudes, and historical traditions are all unique to Japan. A claim to international fame is that karate originated here.

Okinawa was occupied by the United States military after the Second World War as part of the effort to demilitarize Japan. In the late 60s a few years of nationalistic sentiment, mainly expressed by student protests and exacerbated by U.S. involvement in Vietnam, led to Okinawa being returned to Japan in 1972, although a controversial U.S. military presence remains. A Peace Memorial Park on the site of the Battle of Okinawa, a Peace Memorial Museum established in 2000, and the former Japanese Navy Headquarters can be visited to learn the historic role Okinawa played as the largest-scale campaign of World War II.

To reach Naha city from the Naha New Port is a twenty-minute walk. Shuttles to downtown are also usually available that drop off passengers near a monorail. If the arrival port is at Tomari instead, it is about a ten-minute walk to the Kenchomae monorail station.

From central Naha city (Kokusaidori), it is convenient to take Bus No. 1 (it costs 230-yen for the 20 minute one-way ride) to Shurijo Castle Park, the rebuilt walled palace of the Ryukyu Kingdom and one of several remaining Ryukyuan fortresses on Okinawa from the Gusuku period. It features the ornate red tiled Shureimon gate, pictured on Japan’s 2000-yen bill, that reflects strong Chinese influence as well as indigenous religious traditions.


Our visit was concurrent with the first exhibition of Ryukyuan artifacts including priceless paintings, lacquerware, pottery, and other treasures from a dynasty spanning the reigns of ten Ryukyuan kings from the early 15th century through 1879.


Another site of interest, and very near the port, is the Fukushuen Garden. A traditional Chinese garden in the Kume area of Naha, the garden was constructed in 1992, in celebration of the tenth anniversary of the establishment of the sister city relationship between Naha and Fuzhou in China.

Asia’s largest cave, two-mile long Gyokusendo, can be visited to see it’s 900,000 stalagmites and stalactites. The Okinawa Prefectural Museum has Exhibitions on Okinawa’s natural and cultural heritage. And a collection of fine art can be seen at the Okinawa Prefectural Museum. Shops, an old market, pottery street, and restaurants lining Kokusai Street, while a bit tacky, are also attractions that may be of interest to cruisers.

The southernmost Japanese island on the program, and an overnight cruise from Naha, is Ishigaki with a population of just 50,000 residents. Known as the Hawaii of Japan, it is according to many Japanese the most beautiful place in Japan. It has a laid-back feeling of isolation that attracts Japanese seeking an escape from urban life, if only temporarily. A tropical wonderland of nature and third largest of the Okinawa islands, Ishigaki is revered for its unspoiled beaches, coral reefs in dazzlingly transparent waters ideal for snorkeling and diving, black pearls, gourmet quality beef, and sugar cane and pineapple plantations, not ordinarily associated with Japan.

At Maetake, located on the northwestern part of Ishigaki Island, a rainforest features the rare, beautiful Ishigaki palm trees. Walking trails there line the face of the mountain and allow easy enough hiking for even leisurely walkers.

The island’s Iriomote-Ishigaki National Park features the rare coral of the Shiraho Reef, while the mountainous interior boasts Mt. Omoto, the tallest in Okinawa province, and other peaks.

Emerald blue Kabira Bay, with 14 resorts including a Club Med surrounding it, is a nationally designated “Place of Scenic Beauty.” Colorful sea life can be viewed in the bay in glass bottom boats.

At odds with the surrounding area, the port city of Ishigaki is decidedly unattractive; therefore excursions inland or by ferry to nearby islands are recommended.

Photos © Dennis Cox / WorldViews, All Rights Reserved

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