Okinawa’s Hedo Point: Go North, Young Man


“Nature always wears the colors of the spirit.”  ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Colors of the Spirit, Found Underwater at Okinawa's Hedo Point

The Colors of the Spirit, Found Underwater at Okinawa’s Hedo Point

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 Annotated; Beach Camping is on the Crescent Sandy Area at Bottom

Cape Hedo Annotated; Beach Camping is on the Crescent Sandy Area at Bottom

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.

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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!

Looking Over Our Beach Towards the Point

Looking Over Our Beach Towards the Point

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!

Paved Access Ends Here

Paved Access Ends Here

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.

Water and Terrain Found at Hedo Point

Water and Terrain Found at Hedo Point

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.

Campfire, Smores, Various Adult Beverages, and Tall Tales!

Campfire, Smores, Various Adult Beverages, and Tall Tales!

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!

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28928401894_f893d3bb29_bCape 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.

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28928373444_00ca8390b2_bOn 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.

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28930706873_a092030870_bWe 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.

Watch Out for Surprisingly Deep Pools, Especially at Night

Watch Out for Surprisingly Deep Pools, Especially at Night

29473209771_ac56798459_bThe 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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….

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Tropical Trek: A Juant to Iriomote Island


“A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent upon arriving.”  ~ Lao Tzu

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“McQeen,” I said as I smiled broadly to the Okinawan rental car agent as I followed him to our rental vehicle.  He was a much older gentleman who spoke no English, and was wearing a shirt which on its back had a cartoonish car and largely printed letters spelling out “McQueen.”

He turned and returned my smile.  I continued, this time with a more inquisitive inflection:  “Steve McQueen?”

Hai!  MAC-keen!” came his replied, his grin widening.

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I’ll take it as a rental!

steve-mcqueen-bullittpapillon mcqueenSteve McQueen?  Really??  What the hell was the connection to rental cars, especially in Japan, particularly on one of the most remote and least populated Japanese island?!  Could it be tied to McQueen’s movie Bullitt?  Sure, that movie starred a really kick-ass car, but still….  Could it be tied to McQueen’s movie Papillion?  I certainly hoped not; repeatedly failed escapes from an island prison was not a way I wanted to characterize our tropical vacation.

Pixar Post - Lightning McQueen - Disney Infinity

What’s in a name, anyway??

Not being a huge animated Disney fan (hey Dana, I really didn’t need to watch Frozen), and with kids long past that phase of childhood, I had no idea of the connection with their movie, Cars.  But the Japanese absolutely adore all-things Disney, and thus, a rental car company is born, probably out of a miscarriage of copyright infringement.

It seems Jody drives "Naked" wherever she goes in Japan!

It seems Jody drives “Naked” wherever she goes in Japan!

It was, however, the ding-dang easiest car rental process, EVER.  Reserving a rental car from the non-English-speaking hotel staff for 4,000 Yennies (about $40), we met Mr. McQueen the next morning, and after staring at my military Japanese “SOFA” driver’s license (no doubt he had no idea what it said; it’s in English!), he gave me the key and motioned for me to follow.  No paperwork.  No signatures.  No legal bullshit, no endless printouts of paper and checkouts of the car.  He passed me a hand-drawn map of the island, pointed out the one of two gas stations depicted there, and motioned where to leave the car the next morning.  And with that, Jody and I were turned loosed on Iriomote…and its ONE major road!  We drove the entire thing.  In one afternoon.  In a couple of hours.

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One…Short…Road. With a really slow speed limit!

Day bed meets gazebo?

Day bed meets gazebo?

4461996It’s that time of year for, yes, you guessed it:  Summer Vacations.  The wife and I departed back on the 24th of May (2014) for a 4-day retreat in the southern most reaches of the Ryukyu Islands, which Okinawa anchors.  We stayed on Iriomotejima (jima means “island” in Japanese), at the rather remote resort “Hoshino Resort Nirakanai Iriomote,” which from what we can tell is only one a just a handful of full-service, 3-star+ hotels located there.  Although Iriomote is the 2nd largest island in the Ryukyu chain and in the Yaeyama island grouping, there live only about 2,000 permanent residents.  But with over 150,000 visitors every year, eco-tourism there rocks!  The island promised kayaking, waterfall trekking, eco-tours, and ox cart taxis to name just a few…along with some serious R&R from the military culture back on Okinawa.

A nicely adorned hotel room.

A nicely adorned hotel room.

Iriomote Okinawa 2014, Urauchi River, boat trip Kevin smilesIriomote Okinawa Vacation 2014, welcome to sub-tropical (almost tropical!) Iriomote Island WMThe vast majority (90%+) of the island is covered by dense jungle, low mountains and mangroves, and the vast majority of that is protected as government-owned or administered lands.  A full third of the island serves as the Japanese Iriomote National Park.  The island’s Urauchi River is the largest river in Okinawa Prefecture, and it is home to Pinaisara Falls, the largest waterfall in Okinawa Prefecture.  Although mighty close to the Tropic of Cancer, the island doesn’t quite cross that magical latitude.  However, the island’s climate is considered tropical rainforest, and for very good reason.  In other words, it’s hot and humid there, exactly what one would expect from a tropical Pacific isle.

Iriomote Okinawa Vacation 2014, Urauchi River Jungle Trek, Jody and Kevin happy in the heat

Iriomote Okinawa 2014, Urauchi River, Jody and our guide wooden uphill jungle trek WMIriomote Okinawa 2014, Urauchi River, making inset friends WMWe ended up doing a combined boat-safari/rain-forest-nature-walk/waterfall-bento-box-picnic along the Urauchi River, which we both highly recommend.  For such a densely wooded and wet area, we encounter little if any biting insets or bugs…even though our quasi English-speaking Japanese guide caught every creepy-crawly he could find, proclaiming them proudly as “my friend!”  It’s been a long, long time since I’ve seen a Daddy Long-Legs or a Walking Stick!!

Iriomote Okinawa 2014, Urauchi River, our guide making insect friends on our jungle trek WM

Iriomote Okinawa Vacation 2014, watch out for attack of the Iriomote cat!!Iriomote Okinawa 2014, Urauchi River, Iriomote cat (billboard) sightingOne thing we didn’t see was the island’s fame carnivorous hunter-killer mammalThe Iriomote Cat, “discovered” only in 1965, is celebrated throughout the entire Yaeyama islands, but is exclusive to Iriomote Island.  A critically endangered leopard-cat, they live in the smallest habitat of any wild cat in the world.  Numbering only about 100 cats, in Japanese it is called Iriomote-Yamaneko (西表山猫, Iriomote mountain cat), but in local dialects it is known as “the cat in the mountain,” “that which shines on the mountain,” or “that which has flashing eyes,” owing to the cat’s distinctive and highly reflective amber irises.  These cats are similar in size to the more familiar domestics, weighing in at up to 10 pounds and reaching lengths of 35 inches.  Its coat is dusky brown with fairly long hair, patterned with dark (leopard) spots in rows and bands.  Their bodies are elongated but with short legs and tail, while the ears are rounded and adorned with white spots on their reverse sides.  Nocturnal and twilight hunters, their prey includes rats, flying foxes, wild boar and a wide range of birds, reptiles and insects.  Terrestrial in general, they sometimes swim and dive to catch water birds, fish, and freshwater prawns, rather uncommon behaviors for any cat in the wild.  Destruction of habitat, predation by dogs, traffic accidents, and traps set for wild boar all have contributed greatly to their decline.  The cat otherwise has no natural predator….

Cat Cartoons Adorn All!  Even our hotel bus.

Cat Cartoons Adorn All! Even our hotel bus.

Iriomote Okinawa 2014, Urauchi River, Kevin and Jody deep in the island's tropical rain forestIriomote Okinawa 2014, Urauchi River, trekking with our guide through the dense dark rain forestOur rain-forest guide did find us a famed habu snake (Sakishima habu) though during lunch.  Excitedly calling us over, I eagerly brought the camera, having never seen one of these pit-vipers in the wild.  Sure enough, tucked between layers of eroded rock, was a sleepy snake, much lighter brown and smaller than expected.  Our guide was poking near the beast with a long stick, waking the serpent and no doubt pissing it off.  As I maneuvered my Cybershot for a good photo, our guide became visibly nervous, and in his most serious tone of the day, he commented flatly, “Please be careful.”  Sorry, no photo; they were not worth keeping…and I wasn’t willing to get my hand any closer!

Waterfall Bento Box Picnic

Waterfall Bento Box Picnic

Iriomote Okinawa 2014, Jody touching the longitudinal meridian 123456789Iriomote Okinawa Vacation 2014, Jody visiting the 123456789 meridian line of longitude WMWe also found, quite by accident, that one of the most special meridians passes through Iriomote.  This line of longitude, at 123 degrees east, 45 minutes, and 6.789 seconds (there are only two of these in the world!) runs through the island at a few points, where some rather cool monuments have been erected.  One of them used to project a laser line up in the sky to mark the meridian’s position, but apparently got in trouble for using such high-powered, dangerous lights without the right permission.  When we visited all the wiring for the lights was simply cut.  In another village, the meridian’s track is marked with a large, operable sun-dial.  It seems we also had just missed their local dragon boat races!  Dang.

Iriomote Okinawa Vacation 2014, village flying fish wooden dragon boat

Iriomote Vacaton 2014, Night Kayaking, Jody smiles in the mangrovesIriomote Okinawa Vacation 2014, Yubu Island, happy old-man sanshin player! WMWe decided to try night star-gazing kayaking, especially since the same Japanese guide was available during our stay.  Given that we were some of the very few non-Asian people staying at the hotel, and probably the only Americans, all the guided tours we booked were, in essence, “private.”  Although the skies remained cloudy, the heavens did finally open just as twilight set in.

Sunset from our mangrove-positioned kayak

Sunset from our mangrove-positioned kayak

Iriomote Okinawa Vacation 2014, Yubu Island, ox cart crossing entertainment (B&W impact) WMIriomote Okinawa Vacation 2014, Yubu Island, Ox Carts WMIn the southeast of the island can be found Yubu Island, which, although with its charms, turned out to be the one and only tourist trap we came across during our holiday.  The ox-drawn cart ride across the mud-strewn tidal flats is probably one of the most photographed and promoted “things to do” on IriomoteYubu Island itself has been turned into an eclectic collection of botanical displays and animal exhibits.  A restaurant, one of the few we ever saw, can be found here, along with cold drinks and desserts, perfect after fighting the tour-bus loads of Japanese that you’ll unfortunately encounter here.

Iriomote Okinawa Vacation 2014, Yubu Island, lonely ox cart crossing WM

Star_sand_Iriomote_300x199star-sand-beach-okinawa-japan-woe3-690x447The most disappointing thing about the touted highlights of Iriomote was our visit to “Star Sand” (Hoshizuna-no-hama) beach.  Marketed as a beach covered in star-shaped grains of sand, the actual stellar forms are hard to find, and much smaller than you might think.  The shapes result from abraded calcium-carbonate bodies of foraminifers, akin to plankton and amoeboids, which are deposited upon the beach after their demise.  More convenient than searching the shoreline is to hit up the Japanese man at the entrance to the beach who peddles small bottles of purified stars!

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10084627204_b211c83338_zIriomote Okinawa 2014, dinner at the Hoshino Resort Nirakanai IriomoteAnd perhaps the funniest thing that happened to us we owe to the island’s large, block crows.  During a foray in the water, we watched as a crow flew in and grabbed a half-eaten contained of chips.  While this was funny, that very afternoon we were planning to split a freshly baked maple and brown-sugar muffin on our pool-view balcony, and while in the room fixing drinks, we watched in horror was the hooligan bird swept in for yet another snack.  Jody, rushing to the door, spooked the feathered interloper, who, just as quickly as it regained its composure, picked up the muffin and flew away…AGAIN.  Of course, we both cried, “Fowl!”

Take you Tats to the Waterfalls!

Take your Tats to the Waterfalls!

PS – BTW, even though the hotel’s paperwork states very clearly that no tattoos are allowed at their outdoor pool, I (and another guy with an arm tat) used the pool without issue.  Well, I strategically kept my back away from the pool and hotel staff in large part.  The Japanese are very strange about how they view – and treat those with ink.  See my blog on that interesting subject here:  Tainted by Tats