Let’s talk about a part of Japan that not many people think of heading to; Okinawa. This lovely chain of islands to the south of the country are a little bit harder and expensive to access than some of the bigger cities like Tokyo and Kyoto. But they are most definitely worth it! Some of Okinawa’s islands are geographically closer to Taiwan than the main islands of Japan, so it made sense to take a scenic cruise to Okinawa from Taipei in Taiwan.
I took this cruise several years ago with my father. We started our trip in Taiwan, where we boarded the Superstar Aquarius for a four day scenic cruise to Okinawa and back.
Boarding the Ship for a Scenic Cruise to Okinawa
After waiting in the Keelung Port terminal building for what seemed like forever, staggered boarding started, based on allocated decks. My father and I were on a deck with windows, so we got to board relatively quickly. We showed our passports to the customer service agent to gain entry into the secured area, where we ran into a snag. The agent looked at our passports then asked us to wait a minute. What could’ve possibly been going on?
A few minutes later an excited staff member from the ship walked quickly toward us. She was the onboard Guest Services Co-ordinator. She asked us if we would like to sit at the captain’s table for the Captain’s Dinner to be held on the second night aboard the Superstar Aquarius. We were relieved that there wasn’t a problem and indicated that we would like that.
Once we’d passed through immigration, we were greeted by a band on the gangway to the ship, playing some welcoming tropical music.
Our departure day was actually quite dull and hazy, which was a bit of bummer. I had this idea in my head that pulling out of a port on a cruise should be done under a blazing tropical sun with people dancing on the deck. I was half right.
Despite the haze, the view on departure was still kind of nice. There seems to be a few islands on the way out that look like mountains jutting straight out of the sea. This one is now called Casa de Kez. True story.
Once we lost sight of land, the sun started setting on the sea.
Getting to Know the Crew
We settled in then explored the ship a bit. I went to the customer service desk to ask a question for my dad and the Customer Services Co-ordinator I had met earlier was there. She told me that she was so happy to have English speakers on the ship. Obviously, as the cruise was leaving from Taiwan, most of the guests on board were from Taiwan or mainland China. That meant most didn’t speak English. Samantha, the Customer Service Co-ordinator, was Korean and didn’t speak any Mandarin. She was happy to have someone to talk to.
Samantha was in charge of finding people to sit at the captain’s table for each sailing. The captain and crew were all Swedish and didn’t speak Mandarin, so obviously they preferred to have English speakers at the table with them. This is why Samantha had asked us about sitting at the captain’s table during check in.
Eating Onboard A Scenic Cruise to Okinawa
After talking to Samantha for a while, it was dinner time so I headed to one of the onboard dining rooms. It was quite impressive and even had fruit with flowers carved into it.
Every meal was set out in a buffet style. We soon learnt that you needed to get there at the right time to be able to avoid the queue but still be able to get fresh food. That time definitely wasn’t at the beginning of the dinner service! We also had to make sure that we only got hungry during their meal service hours as meals outside those hours were not included in the cruise price.
Ishigaki – A Little Island With a Big Heart
We docked in the port of Ishigaki the next day and Japanese immigration officials completed their immigration checks onboard the ship. We were lucky to be in the first batch of people processed and excitedly made our way to shore.
I was excited to finally be back in Japan after 20 years. Okinawa was concurrently the Japan I remembered, whilst also being completely different. The narrow streets and multiple storey buildings I remembered from living in Kagoshima didn’t seem to be too prevalent in Okinawa. The vending machines on every street definitely were though.
We made our way to a cute little cafe kind of place. Once inside, I slowly spluttered out a grammatically dubious, “Do you speak English?”, in super rusty Japanese. The smiley, kind lady that had rushed to serve us indicated that she didn’t. Oh no, that meant I had to subject her to my Japanese. A language that I once spoke almost fluently, but hadn’t used in 20 years.
I could hear myself slaughtering the language with almost every sentence that I spoke. Still, the kind lady told me that my Japanese was great. Even when I accidentally threw Cantonese words into the mix. She was also surprised that I could read the Japanese menu. The more I spoke, the more I remembered and got back into the flow of the language. It was at this point that the lady started throwing in a few English words here and there. It turns out that she did know a little bit of English, she just hadn’t been confident enough to use it in the beginning.
I asked the lady about the best way to get to Banna Park at the centre of the island. She told me that we could get a taxi and ask the driver to wait for us and bring us back down. I wasn’t confident in my ability to remember everything she had said, so she graciously wrote it down for me!
If you know anything about Japanese writing, you can see that she went to the trouble of writing the base writing form, Hiragana, above the Kanji, just in case I couldn’t read them. As if writing the note in the first place wasn’t sweet enough, she had to go one level sweeter. This is one of the things I love about Japan!
Taxi Driver Turned Tour Guide
Our taxi driver was a lovely man who was enamored with the fact that he had a chance to speak Japanese with a non-Japanese speaker. He asked many questions on the way to the park. When we got to the car park near the park’s lookout, the taxi driver surprised us. He turned off his meter, got out of his taxi and became our guide!
When we got to the lookout, he pointed out some islands and gave me a bit of a history lesson about things that had happened in that particular part of the sea.
Dad was a bit in the dark about what was going on but when I told him what was being said, he exclaimed, “This guy is great!”. He was right. Mr Taxi man had gone above and beyond, as most Japanese people do. My dad was starting to see why I loved Japan so much and beginning to love it himself.
A Dog With An Invitation on A Scenic Cruise to Okinawa
When we got back to our cabin, we found this little guy with our invitation to dine with the captain.
My dad was quite stoked about the idea of dining with the captain. We were two of four people invited to dine at the captain’s table. The other two were a mother and daughter from Singapore. They were also chosen for being from an English speaking country.
Dining With the Captain and First Officer on A Scenic Cruise to Okinawa
The dinner was quite delicious and the atmosphere was very jovial. At one point, the ship staff were dancing around the buffet while catchy music played. My dad and the captain got talking and realised that they both shared a love for classic cars. It was pretty hard to shut them up after that.
Both the captain and the first officer told us that we were some of the better guests they’d had at the table, because normally there’s no conversation due to the language barrier. They did indicate that on most sailings they have to sit through uncomfortable silences because it’s ship policy that the crew dine with passengers.
The captain mentioned that they also do an exclusive bridge tour, by invitation only. Dad indicated his eagerness to see the control centre for the ship and the captain advised that he would see what he can do.
Nature in Naha
The ship had docked in the Naha port very early in the morning. Due to the fact that we had cleared Japanese immigration the day before, we were able to just walk right off the ship with no waiting. We made our way to Elephant Rock. You can guess how it got that name, right?
We then climbed to the top of the rock for another view.
Next, we hopped in a glass-bottomed boat to see what was going on under the crystal blue water. As you would expect, there were many fish.
Mihama American Village in Naha
The interesting thing about Naha is that it is home to an American naval base. Which makes it possibly the least Japanese place in Japan.
All of the buildings were built in the American style. It really didn’t feel like we were in Japan anymore. This also made things a bit easier for dad, who was actually able to order his own snack because many people at the stores spoke English.
There was even a Sunset Beach.
Another Day, Another Animal With An Invitation on A Scenic Cruise to Okinawa
Upon returning to our cabin from our day exploring Naha, there was an elephant on one of the beds. We wondered if this was a slight nod to the Elephant Rock that we had seen earlier in the day. This elephant came with an invitation for a bridge tour the next day.
We had figured that we would be with a group of people, but we soon found out that this was a very personal invitation, just for us! After our tour, the captain invited us into his private office. An office with a view of the whole bridge and much of the sea outside from its balcony. Dad and the captain chatted about their cars again and exchanged email addresses at the end. The captain made it clear that he wanted us to stay longer, but unfortunately he had to go back to work.
Is a Cruise Worth It?
This cruise was a great first time experience for both me and my father. It’s not really my preferred way to travel, but dad enjoyed it so much that he declared that he needed to cruise more often. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to cruise again. But I am glad that I got to take him to a few new places before he passed.
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