Touring Yambaru: Bicycling around northern Okinawa

West Coast Road (Photos by Shoji Kudaka)
West Coast Road (Photos by Shoji Kudaka)

Touring Yambaru: Bicycling around northern Okinawa

by Shoji Kudaka
Stripes Okinawa

It had been a while since I was on a bicycle, but on a warm winter Monday morning, I made my way to Nago City for a day of road cycling.

I had avoided riding a bicycle as of late, mostly because getting around in a car is more convenient; but also, to avoid the wariness I feel on my bike when sharing the road with bigger vehicles. However, seeing more and more cyclists cruise in Okinawa, I decided to give it another try.

I chose the northern part of the island because I knew there’d be less traffic. The great views of Yambaru, what Okinawans call this northern part, would be an added bonus to this course.

I drove and parked at 21 Seiki-no-mori Park, about an hour away from Camp Foster, and headed to Habucycle Okinawa at Nago Bus Terminal. I reserved a road bike in advance for 3,330 yen (about $23.00). Since this was a road bike with drop handlebars, I was positioned over the bike like cyclists in road races I’ve seen on TV.

I began my Tour de Yambaru by going north on Route 58 around 10:30 a.m. My plan was a 52-kilometer trajectory around Motobu Peninsula, with a stop on Yagaji island on the way back to Nago City. A few minutes after the start, I turned left to Route 449, which led me to the west coast of the peninsula.

I wasn’t sure if it’d be a smooth ride considering how long it had been since I last hopped on a road bike. Fortunately, the road was mostly flat, and my rental bike was lightweight and well balanced.

Soon, I’d reached the coastal road, which remained flat. Cars, trucks, and motorcycles occasionally passed me at tremendous speeds. Despite this, the traffic volume was lower than I expected, and I felt mostly safe.

Forty minutes into my ride, I stopped in at the Gorilla Chop Rock, a well-known point of interest. If this had been over a weekend, I would have seen many snorkelers and divers around. But I saw only a few there on that weekday morning. After having a short photo-op with the rock, I headed to my next stop, Expo Park.

The coastal road to Expo Park presented a better ocean view than before. With Sesoko and Ie Islands in sight, I pedaled on. When I arrived at the Expo Park, almost 1.5 hours had passed, and I had covered about 20 km. At this point, time and distance was starting to weigh on me—and there were 30 kilometers or about four more hours of cycling left to go! In theory, this didn’t sound like a big deal, but the route was starting to lead me toward more uphill slopes, making me a little nervous.

As I reached Nakijin Village on the north side of the peninsula, a feeling of fatigue kicked in. Even a small hill felt like a big challenge. I had to stop several times before getting back on the saddle.

Still, the idyllic views of the village had some soothing effect. Here and there cherry blossoms were in bloom and a stray cat meowed at me from the side of the road as if to cheer me on. The peaceful mood helped me keep going.

By the time I reached the northeastern side of the peninsula, even steeper hills were waiting. It was more hilly Tour de France than easy-going bike ride around the island. Here is where I could only cycle for 20 meters before having to dismount and walk the bike to rest a little.

My uphill struggle finally ended when I found a road that led me to Yagaji Island. Going on a downslope, I appreciated the fact that I didn’t have to pedal or walk to go forward.

By 2 p.m., I’d reached the coast of Yagaji Island, so I took a break and enjoyed shaved ice topped with mango for 700 yen (about $6.67), which I bought from a food truck I saw in  one of the parking lots along the coast. From here, Kouri Island a.k.a. “Island of love,” was in plain sight. If I had had more energy left, I would have crossed another bridge and go there, but getting back to the main island was my priority.

Lucky for me, the next leg was mostly flat. My legs, however, were cramping and I had to stop often. As I waited for my muscles to recover, I looked around and found beautiful beaches of the island. Some had thick mangrove forests giving a curious view that I would’ve stopped to check out anyway.

By the time I reached Okinawa’s main island it was 3 p.m. Yagaji was a distant memory, but I still had 10 km to go and my legs were killing me. I couldn’t speed up and there were still a few hills to conquer, but overall, the road was mostly flat.

Eventually, too exhausted, I stopped worrying about the time and distance. As I approached the bike shop where I started my trek, I felt a sense of relief and accomplishment. I was exhausted, but I was also feeling good letting the bike carry me forward without pedaling hard.

My Tour de Yambaru was a mixed experience of exhilarating rides and agonizing uphill struggles. Given the effort and energy I had to put into the ride, I will not go out for another ride anytime soon. But if you have not tried cycling on the island yet, I would say “Give it a shot” because it will be good exercise. Plus, you will have a chance to see the island from a different perspective. Just make sure to bring the proper gear because it can make all the difference to keeping your ride a smooth one.

HUB CYCLE (Nago Bus Terminal Branch) 
GPS Coordinates: N 26.59648517396366, E 127.9659195270265 (about 10-minute walk from 21 Seiki-no-mori Park) 
Hours: 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. (Closed on Wednesday and Thursday) 
Road bike rental: 3,300 yen for one day

21 Seiki-no-mori Park
GPS Coordinates: N 26.593416, E 127.970159
Hours: 9 a.m. – 10 p.m.
*parking available for free.

Bar Oggi 
GPS Coordinates: N 26.678624636598755, E 128.01252265441192
Hours: noon – 6 p.m. (Closed on weekend) 
Mango Granita (700 yen)

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