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The Steps at Nakagusuku Park

(Easy) The wooden-plank walkway through the forest in Nakagusuku park offers a fun trek up the hillside that can be enjoyed without going too far out of your way.

Did you know that there is a long, tall staircase that takes you on a forest walk right in the heart of Nakagusuku township? I didn’t, until I overheard someone talking about it in Japanese. I wasn’t a participant in the conversation and I didn’t want to be rude, so I didn’t barge in to ask questions about the staircase. Instead, I decided to take an afternoon, go to the park on my own and find this staircase myself.

A Humble Urban Park at First Glance

If you were to drive into Nakagusuku Park not knowing what you’d find there, chances are you wouldn’t think much of it. You’d see some open grassy areas, some playgrounds for kids, public washrooms, vending machines and a little pond. That is, nothing special enough to make a drive through urban traffic worthwhile.

But if you were to look around a little more you’d see a tall staircase on the west side of the park. This must be the staircase the people were talking about, I thought to myself. Even if it wasn’t, it hardly mattered to me. I had to climb it just to see what was at the top of it. Often, my curiosity is rewarded because Okinawa is full of tall staircases that sometimes lead to cultural wonders like small local shrines or, more often to graveyards.  Occasionally random staircases lead to well-maintained paths that meander through dense forests, and this staircase led to one such path.

The path looks like it stretches on forever...

Unfortunately, as beautiful as this path was, the experience was underwhelming. The winding path took no more than a couple of minutes to navigate and at the end of it, I found nothing more than another staircase going down. The adventure was worth the climb for sure, but it was not by any means worth a dedicated trip to the park.

Where is the long staircase?

So, what about this staircase long staircase through the forest the Japanese people were talking about? Surely that couldn’t have been it. I was looking forward to writing this article and I was beginning to fear I’d wasted a trip.

In reality, I had nothing to worry about. Walking the perimeter of the park, I came upon this wooden staircase. I had no idea where it led, but I took a gamble that this would be the staircase that would take me through the forest to the top of the big hill. I was right.

The entrance to the steps

Ascending the first steps, I came to a straightaway, then a turn, then some ups and downs, then, lots and lots of ups. With thick vegetation growing on either side, this was truly a forest walk. For most of the journey, you’ll be out of the sun unless it’s mid-day and the sun is right overhead. This is a good thing in the summer. In winter, it might be a good idea to bring a coat you can take off if you start to sweat on the way up, and put back on if you get cold on the way back down.

Being up on the wooden planks was reassuring from the standpoint of avoiding habu snakes, which are always a concern in Okinawa, but it pays to always keep an eye on what’s in front of you. Snakes have been found in the most unlikely places and a wooden staircase through the jungle is anything but an unlikely place. The railings were clean and well-maintained, but it doesn’t take long for spiders to spin webs and I noticed a bunch of them along the sides of the walkway. Obviously, spiders are not trying to trap humans, but their instincts do not guide them well when it comes to where they do what they do best, I so it might pay to have a stick to brush aside webs you find blocking your way.

After not too long a walk, I came upon a paved road that went in two directions, namely up the hill and down the hill. Hoping to find something interesting, I chose to continue my journey up the steep hill. This was a good idea because I found that the wooden staircase started again not too far up the road.

As I ascended the many flights and navigated the numerous bends, I found myself wondering if the stairs led to Nakagusuku Dam, The valley in which the dam is located is directly adjacent to Nakagusuku Castle, which is on the other side. You can look down into the valley from the castle, but having found no good viewing point from the other side, I was hoping I’d be in luck.

As it turns out, the wooden walkway doesn’t go to the dam, or even a place that overlooks the valley. Instead, it culminates in a dead end with a sign that says “entry forbidden” in Japanese.

Of course, when I come to a “no entry” sign, I never disobey it. Never ever, hope to die, stick a needle in… you know the rest.

Anyway, the ropes that cordon off the end of the path are not difficult to navigate and, as far as I know, are not intended to be an absolute barrier to the path that lay beyond. They are a an inexpensive way to limit the liability of whoever maintains the path. So, I read the sign as saying “We’re not responsible if you get hurt,” and applied due caution on my journey into the unknown.

There was clearly a path that continued beyond the end of the walkway. It split in two, one way going up and, you guessed it, the other going down. First, I investigated the downward path, which soon broke into a grassy straightaway. The grass was neither tall nor dense, but it was easily enough to conceal a habu, so I proceeded with great care. When I saw that the path broke left and led down a steep hill, I decided to turn back. Without my snake-resistant shoes and pants, I didn’t want to tempt fate.

The path through the forest where the steps end

On the return, I passed the end of the path and went up the hill. This was a very well-worn path with no grass at all. I still kept my eyes open for snakes and fortunately didn’t see any on the path (if I did I would certainly have featured the photo here). The path led down to a hydro tower, the ground about which was imprinted with recent evidence of large dogs, and a road that ended at the top of the hill. 

Realizing that I’d never taken a photo of a hydro tower from directly underneath, I took the opportunity to nail a few shots of the abstract patterns above my head. I doubt I’ll win any photography awards for my work, but who cares? I also took a few minutes to gaze at the view from the top of the hill, which admittedly is far from the best view from Nakagusuku, but worth enjoying since I was already there. Then, I meandered back down the hill.

The view fron under the tower

Who should walk this path?

This is the sort of path a person who is not a hard-core train enthusiast would enjoy. Because of proximity to washrooms, it’s ideal for people who don’t like to pee in the woods and it is so easily navigable that it’s basically impossible to get lost. Kids and older people can do this no sweat and, if you need to, you can always take a rest somewhere on the steps.

This walkway is a nice little jaunt that makes for a perfect way to get your steps in while enjoying the fresh air and taking in some lush greenery. It’s worth the trip on its own if you live close by. If you have to come from a distance, you could easily combine it with a visit to Nakagusuku Castle, a short exploration of some interesting sights in Kitanakagusuku or, if you like walking up steps, a sojourn to the old Japanese WW2 lookout not too far from there.

A Panoramic View Nearby

There are no great views from Nakagusuku Park, but if you like taking photos of scenic vistas, a really great place, which is not far from Nakagusuku Park, is the Onishi Terrace Golf Course at the top of the hill. This spot overlooks the east coast (you can see the west coast from the park) and if you squint (or brin binoculars) you can see Katsuren Castle at the top of the peninsula in the distance. 

You’re not really supposed to park at the golf course, but if you’re quick about it, you can probably get a few shots before somebody chases you away. I parked up the road and walked back. I was taking this shot the photo with the sun at my back, which most landscape photographers will tell you is not ideal, but even so I still managed to grab a half-decent panorama. Maybe no National Geographic awards, perhaps, but worth getting out of the car for.

Panorama from Onishi Terrace Golf Course

For those who are into photography, this is a three-shot panorama (shot horizontally) of about 140 degrees. A really good time to shoot from here would be in the early morning when the sun is coming up over the ocean.

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