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Sunday, Jan. 23, 2011

Roads less traveled on Okinawa Island


By MANDY BARTOK
Special to The Japan Times

I'm normally intolerant of Sunday drivers, but as our little car winds its way up the two-lane coastal roads of eastern Okinawa Island, I find myself pleasantly inclined to just that kind of unhurried progress. The motorcycle riders who have suddenly appeared in our rearview mirror, however, seem less enamored of our languid pace.

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Nice'n'easy: Pacific rollers break on the coral off a beach in northern Okinawa's Yanbaru district. MANDY BARTOK PHOTOS

"Stop up there and let them pass," I suggest to my companion, Andria, who is behind the wheel, as the posse of bikers swarms behind our vehicle. Obligingly, she chooses a pull-off that just happens to be next to a deserted beach of blindingly white sand. The bikers — ever courteous — flash their hazard lights in thanks as they speed onward to some two-wheelers' locale further up the road. Andria and I smile and wave them on, before congratulating ourselves on the good fortune of finding yet another picture-postcard setting all to ourselves.

We've been traveling north from Naha on Okinawa's eponymous main island for almost an hour, searching out some of the lesser-known local hotspots. Most of the island's visitors stick to the south, with its abundance of cultural theme parks, historical sites and shopping opportunities. Being island residents, however, Andria and I have already ticked off the typical tourist destinations and, as a mini-typhoon dumps rain on the southern portion of our adopted home, we're finally taking the time to properly explore the island's less-populated northerly reaches.

It's slow going, though, and not because of the narrow roads. On an island where idyllic scenes seem to present themselves at every turn, the northern coastline is particularly noteworthy. So much so, indeed, that Andria and I can't help but sink our feet into the sand of beaches that seemingly only the locals normally tread — while snapping endless pictures of Pacific surf crashing onto deserted shores.

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A laid-back cabana at Hiro Coffee Farm.

Around midmorning, we stop for refreshment at Hiro Coffee Farm, a rarity of a cafe that grows its own beans. It owes its existence to Osaka native Hiroshi Adachi, who, 15 years ago, chose the fertile soil of Okinawa's Yanbaru region as the ideal spot to plant 1,000 Brazilian coffee bushes.

Adachi, or "Hiro" as he was known to everyone, had learned about the coffee trade while working on a relative's farm in Kona, Hawaii. The experience motivated him to try replicating the conditions back in his native Japan. After three years, Hiro's plants — and dreams — began to flourish, and they now yield a harvest of around a ton of beans every winter.

Distribution remains quite limited, however, and those looking to assuage a caffeine craving with homegrown beans still have to make the long drive to Yanbaru, the only place where Hiro's brand is sold. Sadly, Hiro himself passed away in late 2009, but his son, Masakazu, and daughter, Tomoko, still carry on the family business.

There are only a few cars in the tiny gravel parking lot when we pull in, and we're promptly greeted with a cheery "Irasshaimase!" by a twentysomething employee decked out in a bandana, T-shirt and jeans.

Hiro's place doesn't sport your typical coffee shop facilities, and we're shown to a saffron-colored private cabana with green trim. Inside, cracked coffee beans litter the wooden floor, their aromatic scent released into the air as they crunch underfoot. Coffee sacks are stapled to the walls, sporting brand names from around the globe.

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Square meal: Okinawan soba at Cafe Ishigufu on the northeastern coast.

We sink back into wicker chairs and barely have time to peruse the menu before our young barista is back, sporting a tray bearing a welcoming plate of tasty cookies and glasses of iced water steeped with coffee leaves and lemongrass. When he returns a second time for our order, we embarrassingly ask for iced chocolate shakes, forgoing one of the coffee-based options for which the farm is known. Thankfully, the chocolate shakes — though certainly flavored from much further afield — are a real treat, and we nurse our drinks to the last drop.

In keeping with the laid-back vibe, the staff at Hiro's don't mind if you wander the property. It's worth checking out the coffee bushes themselves — including a cutting from one of the Brazilian ones that started it all — but you'll soon be distracted by the smell of dried beans roasting in the outside kitchen. Masakazu gives us a smile as we peer intently through the open window; next to us, a Japanese family is buying up several bags of medium-roast beans, perhaps hoping to replicate the intoxicating scent in their own kitchen.

Refueled, we retrace our route back down the coast, pulling off to explore the mangrove swamps of the Gesashi River estuary. Mangroves only flourish in tropical and subtropical climates, meaning that this island and a few of its neighbors are the only places in Japan where it's possible to see species such as shiomaneki (fiddler crabs) as they dance comically across the black-flecked sandbanks.

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Forests are home to as much as 90 percent of terrestrial biodiversity, so it is fitting they get special attention: 2011 has been declared the U.N. International Year of Forests.

A boardwalk trail leads past trees showcasing roots that rise from the estuarine mud and arch outward like crystalized fireworks falling back to earth. It's not a long trail, but it is punctuated with enough viewing platforms to ensure that even a short stroll can take at least an hour.

For better vistas, however, we hike up some steps that take us to the top of a nearby ridge, where we arrive panting and sweating in the oppressive humidity. Looking out from there, we see a small fleet of Crayola-colored kayaks dotting the inlet, and Andria and I briefly contemplate embarking on one of the hourlong (or longer) rentals offered by the Higashi Village Yanbaru Club. But the cookies from Hiro's are no longer tiding us over, and so it's back to our little car to start tracking down some sustenance.

On this island, lunch is practically synonymous with Okinawan soba, a dish comprising a huge steaming bowl of fat noodles heaped with vegetables and thick chunks of agu (native Okinawan pork).

Signs for this specialty are a dime a dozen all over the island, gracing everything from glitzy storefronts in central Naha to somewhat dodgy-looking shacks up here in the provincial north. We motor past a few rather "colorful" joints before a bend in the road brings us to bright and cheery Cafe Ishigufu.

The welcome here is as warm as the restaurant's pumpkin-hued exterior, and we're soon striving to slurp our way through massive portions of the cook's signature soba served in hand-thrown clay bowls.

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Taste buds: Unripe beans at Hiro Coffee Farm in the Yanbaru district, whose 1,000 bushes yield around a ton of beans a year.

Half an hour later, dessert is the furthest thing from our minds, but the proprietor — in typical Okinawan fashion — insists on sending us off with a post-meal pancake treat. Andria asks what the flavor is, and I do my best to comprehend the response, but it's an unfamiliar word and we leave none the wiser. Not to worry: It's a mystery we'll unravel later on down the road.

For now, bigger discoveries await on northern Okinawa Island, and we still have all afternoon to see what we can find . . .

Your own or rented transport is essential for exploring northern Okinawa Island. Allow at least 2 1/2 hours to reach the Yanbaru district from central Naha. Hiro Coffee Farm, which is closed on Wednesdays, is open 10 a.m.-7 p.m. (Apr. to Sept.) and 10 a.m.-6 p.m. otherwise. Drinks average ¥500. Gesashi Mangrove Forest is on the eastern side of the island, roughly a 15-minute drive south of Hiro's. Visitors can kayak either in the estuary (1 hour, ¥4,000; 2 1/2 hours, ¥6,000); on the ocean (1 hour, ¥4,000); or both (4 1/2 hours, ¥9,000). Cafe Ishigufu is open daily from 11 a.m. until sunset or whenever the food runs out.


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