Exploring Okinawa: Head to Yaese Town for trail trekking, goats and more

Photos by Shoji Kudaka
Photos by Shoji Kudaka

Exploring Okinawa: Head to Yaese Town for trail trekking, goats and more

by Shoji Kudaka
Stripes Okinawa

On a sunny late-autumn day, I headed to Horohoro no Mori in Yaese Town on Okinawa’s southern coast. Horohoro no Mori’s name describes it as a forest of Cinnamomum, fragrant trees you’ll find plenty of here.

Traveling from the mid-section of the island to Horohoro no Mori was about a 1-hour drive. Seeking an adventure among the greenery and flowers along the southern coast, it wasn’t a problem to make the drive.

Since I wasn’t sure about the parking situation near the forest trail, I decided to park at a nearby roadside station and take a 5-minute walk to the entrance. By the time I reached my parking spot, it was lunchtime, so I decided to head in for a bite prior to my trek.

Yaese Town is known for its heejaa, or goats in Okinawan dialect. Goat meat is a delicacy served on the island for celebrations and is valued due to its rich nutrition in protein and iron.

Goat meat does have a strong scent and a distinct flavor, so for many it is a cut of meat you either love or hate. In my case, I normally avoid it, but visiting Yaese Town without having heejaa is like visiting Kobe on the mainland and not trying wagyu beef. So, I decided to give it a try.

Little Alice, a pizza joint inside the Minami no Eki Yaese roadstation, serves not only classic pies but also a special goat pizza. I ordered the special pizza (2,300 yen, or $17) not knowing what to expect. When the piping hot dish arrived, it looked like a normal pizza. The sauce was a dark color which the owner Mr. Uechi said was made using heejaa jiru (goat broth) as a base. On my first bite, the meat was tender, the pizza crust soft and I enjoyed my meal.

According to Uechi, the goat meat is simmered with vegetables and then wine is added providing some depth to the flavors. For the pizza, Uechi said only lean meat is used and thanks to his creativity, the pizza was delicious and was perfect for someone like me who only eats goat meat on occasion.

With a full belly, I was on my way to the fragrant Cinnamomum forest. At the entrance, a map illustrated the winding 600-meter route I had ahead. The first portion of the hike included many steep ups and downs, but the wooden steps made this part easier to manage.

Dimly lit by sunlight breaking through the thick foliage, the trail felt cool and relaxing. At times, I came to open areas without any tall trees. There, grasses on the ground were shining bright in the sunlight, making it feel like being in a natural garden.

Some portions of the route were blocked by trees growing sideways. I had to either duck or take a detour to get around. The more obstacles the trail threw at me, the more I began to feel like a video game character. It was challenging, but the scenery wasn’t bad. 
Deep in the forest, I encountered taro trees with unusually large leaves, banyan trees and akou (Ficus superba) tangled with rocks like creatures in motion. At some spots, bloodberries were shining in vibrant red, like hidden treasures. Later, I learned that the forest is home to about 100 kinds of fauna and flora.

After hiking for about 420 meters, the route split into two— one way leading toward the coast and the other toward a tenboudai observatory. I chose the observatory route because it sounded more interesting to me at the time. This path led me to a hill with huge rocks sitting on top like a gate. Passing through the natural gate, I was expecting to have a nice view of the ocean, but what I found instead was a downslope that took me out of the forest.

If I had wanted to cut my trekking short, this would have been the right choice, but I was intent on getting the full experience, so I crossed back to the intersection and took the other route to continue my journey.

The last portion of the promenade was mostly a downslope running toward the coast. Through gaps of flowers and leaves, I could see the ocean shining under the strong sunlight. Sometimes I had to go on a dark slope, but the wooden steps were there to help. About 10 minutes later, I hit a road that ran parallel to the coast. At the intersection, there was a concrete structure, which I learned later was the remains of a disposal site of the Imperial Japanese Armed Forces.

Going left on the coastal road for several minutes, I arrived at Gushichan-hama Beach, known for its many reef lagoons and large rocks dotting the coastline. Although its sandy shore may not be wide, the beach still dazzles tourists and locals with its unique landscape. I had heard that some enjoy bouldering there by climbing on those huge rocks.

The beach was empty during my visit, and the fatigue from the 1-hour trek was starting to set in, so I didn’t add bouldering to my itinerary. Instead, I let the mesmerizing beauty of this area make the fatigue and time melt away briefly.

Before ending my day, I made sure to make a couple of stops at some of the other attractions in the area, including a limestone bridge and castle ruins. Hanandaa is near the entrance of Horohoro no Mori. The limestone bridge is about 29 meters long , 10 meters wide and about 10 meters high.

About 5 minutes by car from the road station, Gushichan castle ruins sit on a hill overlooking the Gushichan-hama beach. The castle, which is believed to have been built in the mid-14th century, doesn’t have any major remains left to be seen today, but the view from here is worth it. This spot also has monuments to commemorate the victims of the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, attesting to the history of the location as a battleground.

Another point of interest, the “Tomori no Ishibori Ufujishi (Tomori’s stone lion),” is also about a 5-minute drive away from the roadside station. This is the location of a famous historical photo of American GIs taking cover behind the stone lion back in 1945.

Yaese Town has many activities, local foods to try and historically-significant spots perfect for everyone in your group. Although it may take a little longer of a drive than usual from many of the military installations on Okinawa, this area definitely makes for a great day trip. Get ready for your own adventure!

Minami no Eki Yaese (Roadside station)
GPS Coordinates: N 26.121901, E 127.742794
Hours: 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. (Nov – Mar); 10 a.m. – 7 p.m. (Apr – Oct)
*Parking space is available for free.

Horohoro no Mori (forest)
GPS Coordinates: N 26.118886, E 127.744157

Gushichan-hama (beach)
GPS Coordinates: N 26.118876, E 127.747665
*Parking space available for free.

Hanandaa (limestone bridge)
GPS Coordinates: N 26.120663, E 127.744036

Gushichan Castle Ruins
GPS Coordinates: N 26.121393, E 127.749998
Parking space is available for free.

Tomori Stone Lion
GPS Coordinates: N 26.133643, E 127.724238
Parking space is available for free.

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