“Nature always wears the colors of the spirit.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson
A drive north along Okinawa’s rugged coastline mimicked by Highway 58 can be quite refreshing, at least once north of Nago, having left behind the hustle and bustle red-lighted, gridlocked traffic of southern Okinawa in the rearview mirror. But sometimes, contrary to the cliché, it’s not really about the journey after all; this long drive north is just a pleasurable expedition to a must-experience destination: Hedo Point. While the view from this Cape may be captivating, it’s the serenity of hearing the rhythmic crashing of the ocean’s waves lapping at the shore from our campsite on the beach that compelled us on this visit.
Cape Hedo (辺戸岬 Hedo-misaki), or Hedo Point, is the northernmost point of Okinawa Island. A narrowing spit of land jutting out north from the island’s tip, it faces the South China Sea on its west flank, and the Pacific Ocean on its east. Hedo is part of Okinawa “Dai Sekirinzan Quasi-National Park,” a prefectural nature preserve first established in 1965. This landside park is worth the travel alone, but that wasn’t the intent of this particular trip. No, this time my friends and I were off to camp and scuba dive at our gentlemanly leisure in this place of known jagged beauty, above and below the waves.
As one of the island’s most prominent landmarks, the area and adjacent park attracts visitors who come to enjoy their sheer beauty and challenging environment. Offering a mixture of luscious green temperate rain forest, craggy cliffs scattered among high hills, and a seemingly ever-present ocean breeze, people arrive to enjoy breathtaking panoramas of Okinawa’s island life. Even Commodore Perry, full of the bravado characteristics of his “gun-boat diplomacy” of the time, couldn’t resist its charms and visited (but recorded it as “Cape Hope”) during his expedition to Japan. For our group, however, it was all about the near-virgin diving found here, and, when not diving, an opportunity to camp on a beach mere meters away from high tide!
Be forewarned: the point doesn’t offer much in the way of amenities, except for maybe the most basic public toilets, a few stalls that sell food on what appears to be a relatively random basis, and, of course, Okinawa’s ubiquitous vending machines. None of which are anywhere near the beach. You can’t even expect a convenience store, which seem to dot every other square kilometer of Okinawa much further to the South. If you plan to spend any time here, come prepared!
Camping here is rather unique and particularly refreshing, since you can camp right on the beach. In fact, you can DRIVE your supplies directly to your campsite, located on a rather expansive crescent-shaped beach, complete with easy-to-get firewood and stones to act as a fire break. HOWEVER, please don’t attempt to drive here unless you have full 4-wheel drive. We watched a tourist drive a smaller type station-wagon onto the sand only to get promptly stuck. Without any tow ropes, we couldn’t offer assistance. Lucky for this couple, the beach sees visitors from time-to-time, and a Japanese-plated 4-wheeler was able to pull their care to the sanctuary of paved road with a proper tow, but only after a good hour or so of being stranded.
One other comment for you brothers and sisters in uniform: I wouldn’t tell “dad” about your plans to camp at Hedo, at least if you are Marine Corps. Two of our dive buddies were forced to get a “motel” (and that term is used only in the very loosest sense in this isolated part of Okinawa) about 20 minutes away since, according to the wisdom of the Corps, camping on anything but an “official” campsite is not legal. Except for and to the Okinawans. Go figure…. It’s ridiculous restrictions like these that make me lovingly hug my DD-214 a little tighter almost every single night.
Access to this beach is easily found on overhead imagery anyone can view on Google; it is a short side-street drive from the point proper. We could find no rules or regulations about camping here, and built fires for the duration with firewood and stones easily collected from within a couple of hundred meters of our site. We were the only over-night guests, and we only saw maybe seven other people (no divers though) during our entire weekend stay!
Cape Hedo offers exhilarating diving as well, but maybe not for novices. Here the Pacific Ocean meets the East China Sea, one of many reasons that makes this area so interesting to scuba divers. From the Cape’s observation point high on the cliffs, the undulating underwater terrain can be spied through the area’s clear waters, at least on a calm day. Which leads to this important tip: do NOT tempt fate here by diving in the wrong conditions. Hedo is generally known only as a summer-time dive spot when gentler winds blow mostly out of the south and east. In contrast, through much of the winter, the northwest winds and seas make this site unsafe to dive. To complicate matters, strong currents are encountered once offshore, and rips can develop in the tunneling recesses found nearer to shore which make this geography so interesting to now explore. Hedo hosts particularly unforgiving seas, so take heed and respect the elements.
On a clear day Yoron Island, the next major land-mass in the Ryukyu Island chain, can be seen on the horizon to the north. Yoron used to be the symbolic demarcation point between Japan and Okinawa during the days of American Occupation of the latter (the former reverted to Japanese sovereignty shortly after the end of WWII). Reversion activists frequently gathered at Cape Hedo to set watch fires, answered in turn by similarly minded people on Yoron. A fact to which most Americans remain complete unaware (even those stationed here in the Military), control of Okinawa reverted to Japan only in 1972. A monument, erected in 1976, to this the reinstatement of Okinawa’s sovereignty now stands tall overlooking the sea to the north.
We camped in the fall, hoping to avoid the oppressive heat and humidity of high summer. Even though temperatures were moderated by a fast-approaching tropical storm, It never really cooled off at night. I had assumed that between the breeze and temps in the low 80s, we would sleep well. I assumed wrong. What I didn’t factor was having to close up my tent due to rain. Without that ventilating breeze blowing through my temporary domicile, I sweated way too much to sleep well through most of the night. Between that and laying on undulating beach sand (should’ve leveled it more carefully!) without the benefit of any type of bedroll or padding all made for a very rough night of sleep indeed. Luckily, we were planning a dive just after sunrise, with breakfast to follow.
The inlet formed by the inward-bending crescent of the beach is chock full of crevasses, providing the opportunity to explore some unique underwater terrain. There are huge, labyrinth-like landscapes here found almost immediately after dropping under the waves. A note of caution about entries; there are some very deep and narrow crevasses that are quite masked by what appears to be a relatively flat, stable and shallow shelf. Falling into one unprepared can be quite a shock at best, and potentially dangerous at worst. Watch your footing, and watch the wave breaks, especially at night. Trek the reef here with a BCD inflated to comfortably support you and your kit should you be surprised. Moving to the “center” of the beach were a wash from the shoreline can be seen offers the earliest and perhaps the easiest entry, but a long walk at low tide. And like all areas with such washes, this is also prime areas where rips can occur.
We camped for two nights, which provided us 1.5 days to dive. We elected to bring six tanks each, and arriving late afternoon on the first day we spent our time setting up camp, cooking dinner, and drinking by the fire until the rain chased us off. The next day saw four dives in almost perfect sea conditions, while we only dove twice in the morning of our departure day.
One of the funniest things to happen while we were there was the unexpected growth and quick approach of a tropical depression, which made a run at Okinawa from the south. We had checked the weather prior to departure, but once on-site, our weather became a simple matter of looking at the ocean, 20 meters away. Although we did note that the winds had increased, and rain showers started here and there, we thought little of it because the seas in our crescent bay were completely protected from the somewhat gusty southerly winds. In fact, on our last day, with the winds picking up even more, the seas actually got calmer since the wind was, in effect, countering what little waves were coming in from the north.
On our surface interval on our last day, one of our buddies, a retired Army pilot and contractor here on Okinawa, got a call from a coworker asking what we were doing up there diving in “Danger”. Of course hearing only a one-sided conversation, all I heard was Ben replying, “What are you talking about Danger, it’s beautiful here!” There wasn’t much more to the phone call, and I think most of us dismissed that comment as a jealous someone trying to ruin our fun with a rather low-brow prank.
Well, he wasn’t pulling our leg after all! We had expected to enjoy one of Okinawa’s gorgeous sun-sets over the East China sea during our drive home south along Highway 58. But that was not to be. As we excited the protected northern-facing bowl that our campsite sat in and crossed over the slight ridge to get back to the coastal highway, we were met with angry skies, gusting winds, and growing seas. During the roughly three-hour drive home, the weather became downright nasty. The storm hit us that evening.
So, having been deprived of that sunset, I’ll have to plan this trip all over again. Except this time I’ll bring a bedroll, more scuba tanks, and perhaps check the weather a little bit more closely….