This post is originally from an article submitted to "The Okinawan" Magazine and printed in their Fall 2008 issue.
The siren call of Okinawa grabbed a hold of me a long time ago. The fantastic scenery as well as the diversity of wildlife are something to behold and cherished. Learning more about and documenting the rich history, culture and the traditions of people of Okinawa has become a passion for me. One of the ways I do this is with my camera. The other is by writing about the things I see and hear as I travel around this island paradise.
The people of Okinawa are a lively lot. Not only do they live extremely long lives, they are extremely rich and satisfying lives. The kindness of the Okinawan people is legendary and their hospitality seems to know no bounds. They are a festive bunch and as such, I really enjoy going to exciting places like festivals and tourist attractions to document traditional activities and shoot people photos of daily activities.
My friend Mike, on the other hand, loves to shoot wildlife. Like a child with a brand new toy, he is out virtually every day with his camera as he daily walks his dogs along the shore near his home. He routinely emails me with his latest capture of a heron skimming the shoreline or an osprey diving into the surf and coming out with huge fish clutched in its talons.
One passion we do share is scenic photography. Together, we’ve been able to capture some fabulous landscapes, awe inspiring sunrises as well as spectacular sunsets. We’ve developed a particular fondness for shooting the full moon. Moon viewings are a tradition in Okinawa during the fall months. This is particularly true of the “August moon” (where have I heard that before?) or eighth moon of the Chinese calendar, which usually falls in September.
We’re also somewhat enamored with traditional Okinawan lifestyle. We both have a fondness for the traditional style houses and daily activities in the older and more rural communities. As mike likes to say, that’s the “Real Okinawa!” We always make it a point to get together and get out at least once a week to shoot photos. Mike really has the artist’s eye. To say I’m jealous of his ability, let alone his camera capabilities would be an understatement.
The challenge for the two of us is now to find a place to shoot photos that satisfies as many of our genre interests as possible. There are many places across the island that meets at least one or more of our requirements. The rule of thumb has been, if you want to shoot and document culture and history, head south. If you want to shoot and document culture, scenic beauty and wildlife, head north.
There is one place here that, in my opinion, stands alone for its natural beauty and abundant wildlife. It’s a remote location and also a well known tourist attraction in its own right. Kunigami village is located at the far northern end of Okinawa Honto. More specifically, for this trip we wanted to make a trip and shoot photos out at Hedo Misaki. To my own surprise, we not only saw some fantastic scenery, we discovered a little bit of history on our journey too.
Hedo Misaki was for many years the end of the world for the people of Okinawa. During the years the island fell under American administration, one needed a passport to leave the island to go beyond this point. A huge stone obelisk erected at the cape stands as a reminder of a time when the country was separated.
On clear days from this vantage point, one can see Yoron island in the distance. Today Yoron is part of Kagoshima Prefecture but prior to 1609, it too was a part of the Ryukyu Kingdom, as Okinawa was then known. For many years after the war, once a year the residents of Yoron, along with residents of Kunigami village would climb into small boats and meet at the latitude that marked the border between the two. After the reversion, in addition to the stone obelisk, a small but somewhat odd looking statue was erected to commemorate the long standing friendship and historical ties between the villagers of Kunigami and Yoron.
What is perhaps most striking about the vistas one sees in Hedo are the rock formations. Most people seem to think that Okinawa Honto is made up almost entirely of fossilized coral. The truth be known, that only applies to the southern third of the island. The northern two-thirds of the island are made up of primarily sandstone, mudstone and metamorphic rock that have been thrust up by the subduction of the Philippine plate under the Asian plate. A plaque at Chibana “Gusuku” or “castle” in Okinawa City marks the spot where the geological transformation takes place.
This is what gives the northern Okinawa coastline its rugged beauty as well as its higher elevations. Because the rocks are very old and as a result of the weathering effect of time and the elements, the formations here are extremely jagged, all the more picturesque and at the same time, all the more dangerous. Though rock slides are rare, they are still quite possible because the old rock formations are so fragile. Even still, it’s not uncommon to see visitors at the cape going beyond the barriers and out to the far edges of the cliffs for photo opportunities as well as to take a peek down to the coral reefs below.
In addition to the vistas at Hedo, from this vantage point looking back toward the village of Hedo, there is a rather unique looking observation tower that resembles a giant Yonbaru Kuina. The Kuina, also called the “Okinawa Rail” is a flightless bird unique to the far northern extremes of Okinawa and an endangered species. They are extremely shy and opportunities for photos of these birds in the wild are exceptionally rare. As such, many opt for a trip to this unique observation point for a quick photo op.
The cliffs at Hedo are majestic in their own right but looking south from the tip of the island one cannot help but notice the majesty of the escarpment known as Kongou Sekirinzan. This rugged outcropping of rocks sitting high above the cape has become an attraction in its own right. The property was purchased some years ago by the same organization that runs the “Okinawa World” tourist attraction which is home to the famous Gokusendo Cave.
A controversy arose when the new ownership group decided to improve the facility to enhance tourism. Locals fought against the plans as the hills held great religious significance. The park is home to several “Utaki” or “holy places” where the locals would worship and perform rituals according to the traditions of the indigenous Okinawa religion. The region is also believed to have at one time been home to “Holy person(s)” or mountain priests known in the Japanese language as “Yamabushi.”
There is a modest fee to see this eco-park that boasts five hiking trails, one of which is barrier free. The jagged rock formations are spectacular. To access the park, one has to stop at the entrance center and after paying the price of admission, take a bone jarring bus ride to visitor’s center near the top of the escarpment. When your hiking fix has been fully satisfied, visitors have the option to ride the bus back down the hill or walk the last trail that winds down the mountain and past several old and majestic “Gajimaru” or “Banyan” trees.
Along at least one of the hiking trails, visitors will pass right by worship altars that are still in use to this day. There are many majestic rock formations. One particularly jagged formation is said to resemble a flash of lightning and yet another known as “Picasso rock” resembles two lovers embracing for a kiss. One trail takes visitors near the very top and offers a fantastic view of the cape as well as the surrounding islands of Yoron, Izena and Iheya.
There is bus service available way out here but, anyone who wants to make a trip to this remote region will probably prefer to drive. But before returning to civilization, I would recommend one more stop. Just a two minute drive from Kongou Sekirinzan is a fantastic overlook point called Kayauchibanta. The name, when translated from the original “Hogen” or “Okinawa dialect,” means that if you scatter straw to the winds it will scatter everywhere. I know, not real original or inspiring but then again don’t blame me, I didn’t make it up!
This is another outstanding scenic point that sits high on the cliffs above the East China Sea side and overlooks the sleepy little fishing village of Ginama. If you want to take a spectacular photo of a sunset, this is the place for it. This spot is most often missed by people because the tunnel shortcut that now takes people from Ginama up to Hedo Misaki passes directly underneath it.
Hedo Misaki is also a popular destination for young people during the New Year celebration. Not only is it the most northern point on Okinawa, it is also one of the more eastern points too. As such, it is a popular place to gather and celebrate or just camp out and see the first sun rise of the year.
Photographers interested in visiting should plan on spending the whole day. In addition to its spectacular sunrises and sunsets, the early morning or late afternoon light, as a result of the lower angle of the sun, cuts down on glare as well as makes the colors of your photographs much more vivid. If a visit to Okinawa is in your plans anytime soon, I’d strongly recommend a visit to the Hedo region. It has it all for a variety of appetites and deserves to be explored.
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