As the end of the year beckons, you might already be thinking about where to go for your vacation next year.
If you are planning a trip for the first few months of the year, Okinawa might just be the place for you. Its cool weather, pristine beaches with the bluest of waters, delicious, authentic Japanese food, and gorgeous sakura make it a great destination to kick-start your year.
Due to its sub-tropical climate, Okinawa’s sakura typically bloom from late-January to mid-February — slightly earlier than the rest of the country. So, you will be among the first few to experience this special moment if you are in the right place at the right time.
While they are many spots in Okinawa where you can experience hanami, or the traditional Japanese custom of flower-viewing, here are three must-visit sites if you are pressed for time.
Sakura atop Mount Yaedake
Imagine driving up a winding road with endless views of bright, pink hues. That is what you will be treated to at next year’s 41st Sakura Festival during late January or early February when about 7,000 Ryukyu kanhizakura, commonly known as Taiwan cherry trees, line the road in full bloom at Mount Yaedake, also known as Yae-Take.
Located in Motobu, north of Okinawa Island, it is especially popular during the cherry blossom season and the first day of the New Year as people gather to watch the sunrise.
During the Sakura Festival, locals and tourists drive about 4km up Mount Yaedake to marvel at the beauty of the sakura, feast on snacks from the food stalls set up at the summit, and partake in activities such as the Okinawan Folk Song Contest and Miss Sakura Beauty Pageant.
Other forms of entertainment, including a tug-of-war competition and a traditional taiko drumming performance, are available for adults and children. It can get chilly because you are at the peak of a mountain, so be sure to bring extra scarves to keep yourself warm.
Where: Ookayou Motobu-cho Kunigami-gun Okinawa Prefecture
Picnicking under sakura at Yogi Park
Yogi Park is located in the heart of Naha City, a 15-minute walk from the bustling Kokusai street. The park is to Naha City what the Botanic Gardens or Hyde Park are to Singapore and London respectively.
It makes a lovely spot for an afternoon picnic as it has plenty of stone benches and space, so bring along some snacks and hot tea as you picnic under the blooming sakura.
The Naha Cherry Blossom Festival is usually held every February and March, when about 400 cherry blossom trees bloom along the river and walkway.
The ambience is enhanced by performances such as minyo folk singing and hula dancing, as well as a plethora of food stalls selling dishes such as the signature Okinawa soba noodles.
Where: 1-1 Yorimiya Naha City Okinawa Prefecture
Enchanting sakura night at Nakijin Castle
Nakijin Castle, a Unesco World Heritage Site that dates back about 800 years, is a must-visit when you are in Okinawa.
Apart from learning about the ancient Ryukyu Kingdom that ruled Okinawa during ancient times, you will be treated to a spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean when you reach the top of the ruins. The waters turn from the lightest turquoise to the deepest azure.
Usually held from late January to early February, the Nakijin Gusuku Cherry Blossom Festival at the Nakijin Castle ruins is an equally amazing experience.
You will be mesmerised by the sight of thousands of illuminated Gusuku Hanazakari trees, a type of sakura, which are lit by candles so visitors can navigate the walkways and steps easily.
To be able to experience the stunning sight of sakura on such historical grounds is a special adventure to be had once in your lifetime.
Where: 5101 Imadomari Nakijinson Kunigami-gun, Okinawa Prefecture
The writer’s trip was organised by Dynasty Travel.
- I flew directly from Singapore to Okinawa on Jetstar, which offers three flights a week to the Japanese prefecture.
- Keep warm. Temperatures usually rise to 27 deg C and dip to about 15 deg C in winter. But when I was in Naha, the temperature fell to 10 deg C — the lowest Okinawa has ever experienced.
- Hanami etiquette: Hanami means “admire the cherry blossoms”, so refrain from touching the cherry trees, shaking or breaking branches, walking on the roots, picking the flowers or causing any harm to the trunks. Any damage to the fragile cherry trees stunts the growth of the flowers and could lead to a higher risk of disease, and potential death.
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