Okuni-rindo: A roundabout way to see Okinawa

From the Okuni-rindo, Okinawa’s mountain road, the jungle wilderness is a carpet of green. Ron Roman/Special to S&S
From Stripes.com
From the Okuni-rindo, Okinawa’s mountain road, the jungle wilderness is a carpet of green. Ron Roman/Special to S&S

Okuni-rindo: A roundabout way to see Okinawa

by: Ron Roman | .
Special to Stars and Stripes | .
published: April 24, 2017

KUNIGAMI, Okinawa — If you’re looking for an up-and-downhill zigzag adventure, check out Okinawa’s “Okuni-rindo.”

The word means “mountain road through Okuni.”

The route is sure to test even the most experienced driver’s maneuvering skills as it twists and turns in sharp curves up and down northern Okinawa’s wilderness.

It can be scary, especially where the jungle creeps back across the asphalt, narrowing a downhill S-curve into a one-lane prayer that no one’s coming from the opposite direction.

It’s 22 miles of breathtaking semitropical mountain forest and is one of Okinawa’s best-kept secrets. Tourists who come just for the beaches miss the island’s other scenic attraction.

Okuni-rindo can be approached two ways. Some people favor driving along Okinawa’s eastern coast from Camp Schwab, heading north along Highway 331 past Futami Village. It’s a delightful scenic route that weaves along the jagged eastern coastline.

Others prefer approaching from the west coast, snaking along Highway 58, which hugs the coast from Nago.

Either route offers lush, year-round mountain scenery on one side of the road and on the other, the ocean, ranging from aquamarine and turquoise to deep sea blue. Both roads also lead to Highway 2, which leads to the Okuni-rindo entrance.

Once you’ve entered Okuni-rindo, be prepared for a roller-coaster ride of a road. It takes you from claustrophobic tunnels of tropical trees that open into panoramic vistas of mountain grandeur, green velvet valleys and the East China Sea.

Okinawans have eased drivers’ worries a bit by placing convex mirrors at strategic spots, so you can see what’s coming toward you before you crash into it. But be careful and watch your speed. Some places are at a 12-degree grade, and there’s no telling what’s on the other side of the bend.

Traffic is very light year-round, but you can suddenly encounter a throng of people at a mountain stream runoff, dozens of plastic jugs in hand to collect the pure spring water.

And watch where you park when the urge to explore on foot overtakes you. Concrete culverts on the road’s left side are just wide enough to wedge a tire. Want a tow truck to pull your car out? Good luck.

Along the way, though, you may glimpse the rare Noguchi-gera, a woodpecker, and the Yanbaru-kuina, or flightless rail. Both birds are designated “National Natural Treasures.”

Estimates are that only a hundred or so of the distinctive brown woodpeckers may be left. You’re more likely to hear the “rat-a-tat-tat” of their home-building than to see them. Ditto the flightless brown Yanbaru rails, which live in trees two or three yards above the ground; they seldom hop down to earth to scavenge for earthworms, snails and small lizards.

Other rare species inhabiting the jungle forest are the Ishikawa frog, Ryukyu long-tailed rat, Ibo-imori salamander and Amami woodcock. The Ryukyu rat can be more than a foot long but is very shy and rarely seen in the open. The Ishikawa frog is rather large, about five inches long. Its mottled green and black color has led many to call it the most beautiful amphibian in Japan.

One animal to watch out for is the poisonous habu snake, but it’s nocturnal, and isn’t easily stirred in daytime.

However, the animal you most likely will encounter is what looks like an elongated squirrel scampering across the road. That’s the mongoose, the reason why so many of Okinawa’s wildlife species are endangered.

The mongoose was imported from Southeast Asia early in the last century to control the habu population, but the mongoose is a daytime creature and finds other species easier prey. Its spread to Okinawa’s virgin north has caused great alarm among environmentalists.

The road goes on.

Several small scenic rest areas allow breaks. There are no public restrooms, but a few rest areas offer picnic tables and wooden lookout posts. Also, several wide spots in the road are made for stopping, leaving the car and walking to the ridge to take in vistas above and below.

Sometimes, when no one else is around, you can hear the wind and the “hin ru ru” call of the Ryukyu robin.

One great place to stop is the entrance to a hiking trail to Mount Yonaha, Okinawa’s highest point at 1,650 feet. The entrance is about six miles south of Highway 2. Signs direct you to the trail head to the left of the Okuni-rindo.

It’s best to hike under the thick canopy of Ryukyu pine and sapanwood trees in the less-humid fall and winter. After a 45-minute hike, the wide dirt road narrows to a trail marking the beginning of a steep 15-minute climb to the mountaintop.

At the summit, you can climb two aluminum ladders that lean against trees, allowing a stunning panoramic view of northern Okinawa.

There’s also a small stone Buddha. Tradition has it that a few coins tossed into the plate at its base guarantees the hiker a safe downhill trip.

Once back on the Okuni-rindo, still more treats are in store, from bridges that take you over plunging jungle gorges to hidden streams and waterfalls.

If you’re too tired to press on for the full course, several side roads on the right will take you to Highway 58 and the quick route back to central Okinawa.

About four miles from the Mount Yonaha trail head is a narrow paved road marked by a green flag. This will take you down the mountain to Okuma. Cross Highway 58 and you’ll soon come to the Okuma Military Recreation Area, which offers good food and clean toilets. Plan ahead and rent a cabin for a few days’ frolic in the sun and sandy. (Fees for cabin rental are $15 to $20. For reservations, call 632-4386.)

Many jeep trails also lead off the Okuni-rindo, but challenging any of them with anything other than a four-wheel-drive vehicle can be hazardous.

At the Okuni-rindo’s end is a road leading east and west. Turn right and you head to Highway 58; to the left, the Fukuchi Dam and Highway 331.

If you’re up for the adventure, the Okuni-rindo is the place to go — but be sure to gas up first and pack food and drink. No gas stations, fast-food joints or sushi bars are along the way.

There’s nothing up there, in fact, but curves, hills, the sounds of the wind and, perhaps, the call of a robin or the “rat-a-tat-tat” of woodpecker somewhere far away.

Staff writer David Allen contributed to this report.