Posts tagged Okinawa
11 Things We Like and Don't Like About Okinawa

Ivan here!

Last month, Jennie and I traveled to Naha, Okinawa for a three-day mini-honeymoon. Here’s a list of things that we liked and didn’t like (in no particular order). 

 1. Okinawan banjo

The sanshin (or “three strings”) is an Okinawan instrument covered in python skin, which makes for its distinctive sound. This music was playing all over the island - at restaurants, convenience stores, and from loud speakers in front of street vendors as we slogged past under the midday sun. It made for a pretty memorable soundtrack. Like being in a fairytale about an island long ago and far away. 

2. Coloring within the lines

One of the quirks about Japanese society is that people are - for lack of a better term - hopelessly square. Ask the average customer service rep to buck company policy and watch them try to process this troubling development. It’s like throwing a rock into a still pond. 

Here’s what must go through their minds: 

  • Good customer service is very important
  • The rules are very important
  • The customer requests that I break the rules in order to provide good customer service 

Like Fermat’s Last Theorem, these three statements do not compute.

Here’s how a Japanese person would get around this: 

  • This customer will experience good service if I break the rules
  • This sets a dangerous precedent that will prevent me from providing good customer service in the future
  • Therefore, for the sake of good customer service, I must defend the rules with my life

3. Okinawa soba 

 
okinawa-soba-724986_1280 copy.jpg
 

I love Okinawa soba. It’s simple, cheap, and unspoiled by commercialism. This means that when you walk into a noodle shop on a random street corner, you can still taste the difference because the people who serve it still give a damn. The lightness of the broth, the chewiness of the noodles, the tenderness and fat content of the pork. It’s a dish that’s still tied to the Okinawan way of life.

4. The Japanese 4-hour workweek

In Japan, lunch is usually served between 11 and 2, and dinner between 5 and 8. Some Okinawan restaurants observe these business hours religiously. This means that for the more popular establishments, you either show up to find out that there’s an hour long wait or it’s completely empty because it’s 3 pm and they closed an hour ago. And since Jennie and I have this rare illness where we'll bleed to death if we’re in line for more than thirty minutes, this severely limited our options. 

5. Returning home

Every five years, Okinawans from all corners of the globe return to the island for a giant celebration call the Uchinanchu festival. A full week of events are scheduled, complete with opening and closing ceremonies. It was fascinating to watch the kids, their small faces pressed against the glass, as they rode the monorail from the airport into the city for the very first time. 

6. Parker's Mood Jazz Club

It makes me sad when I think about Parker’s Mood Jazz Club. We rode the elevator to the fifth floor of a shabby looking residential building and found the place empty. We were the first (and only) customers of the night. This was 9 pm on a Friday night. Inside, there were comfortable fifties style leather seats, candles and iPad menus on every table. Two female bartenders in white dress shirts, black vests, and bow ties were polishing the crystalware behind the counter. The live performance that night consisted of the owner, Kousuke, on jazz guitar and his friend on the piano. As they ran through their set from Charlie Parker to Thelonious Monk for an audience of two, you could tell that they still loved what they did. They just wanted to play for as long as they could. 

7. Okinawan office wear

The kariyushi shirt is a uniform of sorts in Okinawa. Basically, it’s a rip-off of the Hawaiian aloha shirt. It's mandatory attire for salarymen, government office workers, and even newscasters on television. Everyone looked like they were on a mandatory vacation. 

8. Kokusai Dori (International Street)

 
 

A copy and paste job of souvenir shops and overpriced restaurants. The noise and neon signs trick tourists into believing that they're having loads of fun, when what they're really doing is emptying their wallets on crap they don't need. Every major city in the world has a street like this. Nevada has an entire city.

9. Back Alleys of the Makishi Public Market

The further you venture away from Kokusaidori, the shabbier the surroundings. No guidebooks will lead you here. An old lady sells vegetables from a mat, which doubles as her living room. The local seafood bars and family run soba shops here barely get any customers. Walking through these back alleyways, we got a sense of how people actually live, and the income disparity that still exists between Okinawans and Japanese mainlanders. 

10. Former Japanese Navy HQ

This was a sobering reminder of what Okinawa went through during WWII. We walked through underground tunnels that housed Japanese soldiers prior to their surrender. Everything was left in its original condition, even the shrapnel and bullet holes on the walls where officers committed mass suicide. In a note to the Japanese government, the commanding officer asked them to remember the horrors of war and the sacrifices made by the Okinawan people. 

The other day, I overheard a conversation at an L.A. coffee shop about Mel Gibson’s new movie Hacksaw Ridge.  I’ve transcribed their conversation here without comment: 

"What war was that movie based on?” 
“I don’t know. I think it was either the Korean or Vietnam War. They mentioned Okinawa.”
“Okinawa? I’m like 99% sure that was the Korean War.” 

11. Blue Seal Ice Cream

 
 

Born on the U.S. military base, Blue Seal Ice Cream soon became an Okinawan staple. Our favorite combinations were Mango with Ube, Okinawa Salt Cookie with Beni Imo, and Okinawa Taro Cheesecake with Sugar Cane. 

Origami Guides: A 3 Day Itinerary Through Okinawa (Without a Car)

Naha, Okinawa
那覇市, 沖縄

Jennie here!

After our wedding reception, Ivan and I went on a three-day honeymoon to Okinawa. Okinawa is like Japan’s younger, more easy-going brother. The language and the traditional Japanese politeness are the same, but Okinawans are also more laid back in attitude with a slower pace of living. For us, the experience was like visiting a completely different country.


Who should use this itinerary?


Solo travelers and couples who are time constrained and prefer to get around by public transportation.


What are the best times in the year to visit? 


We recommend visiting Okinawa in late October/early November to avoid typhoon season, which runs from July to early October in some years. It still feels like summer this time of year, and you avoid the tourists and salarymen who flock to the island in the spring (from March to June). 


How do I get to Okinawa? 


If you want to avoid a 40+ hour ferry ride, your only option is to fly. From Tokyo, it’s a 2.5 hour flight. Most likely, you’re going to begin and end your trip in Naha International Airport. 


Where should I stay in Okinawa? 


For the Budget-conscious:

  • Myplace Guest House - If you’re comfortable staying with shared rooms, then Myplace Guest House is the place to be. And at a hard-to-beat price of ~$24 USD per night, it’s hard to complain. Also, it’s great to keep in mind that these hostels also have fantastic partnerships with diving/snorkeling tour groups and plans that often include island hopping, rental gear, lunch, and transport back to your hostel.

Moderately Budget:

  • Estinate Hotel - For a single standard room, the prices in November ranges between $70 to $79 per night. This being our honeymoon, Ivan and I were looking to take it easy and go a little bit above our normal budget. We booked our stay with Estinate Hotel (through Agoda.com) for three nights in Naha. The total (including taxes) came to $77.80 USD per night. The room was small, clean and had everything we needed.


How do I use this okinawa guide? 


The map is divided into three color-coded areas:

  • Day 1 attractions are in Blue
  • Day 2 attractions are in Pink
  • Day 3 attractions are in Orange
  • The grey markers are for optional sites

For simplicity’s sake, this itinerary assumes that you’ll be based in Naha City.

Note: Feel free to add this map to your own Google Map list. You can also filter out different days of this guide on the map by clicking the top left icon on the map title bar.


Day 1: WWII, Soba, Castles, and Gardens in Naha, Okinawa (BLUE)


Note: Remember to show your Yui Rail Day Passes to get admission discounts for several attractions in Naha. Discounts will vary, but you will save a few dollars at each attraction.

Morning

  • Purchase the Yui Rail One Day (~$6.40). When you arrive at Naha airport, the first thing you should do is follow the signs to the monorail station and purchase your Yui Rail Day Pass from the machines outside. This pass not only gives you 24-hour access to the monorail but also provides discounts to several attractions. There’s also a two-day option for those that are less time constrained.
  • Begin your day early and get to the Former Japanese Navy Underground Headquarters (Tomigusuku) (opens 8:30am - 5:30pm). Out of all the attractions, this was probably our favorite. The only word to describe it is eerie. It’s also not for the faint of heart. You can actually walk through the system of underground bunkers and tunnels where the Japanese made their last stand in WWII. The bullet holes on the walls are from the soldiers who committed suicide. A lot of local Okinawans died here and it’s a disturbing reminder of the horrors of war.
    Note: This place is a bit of a pain to get to because it’s not close to a monorail station. I’d suggest taking a taxi from Onoyama Koen monorail station. 
  • Lunch at Shuri Soba ($4 - $6, opens at 11am - 2pm -- or until they run out; closed on Sundays). Hop on a train and head over to Shurijo (aka Shuri Castle) station to grab a bowl of Okinawa soba at Shuri Soba (首里そば). Okinawa soba is like the best of both worlds between ramen and udon. The broth is light, the noodles chewy, and it’s usually topped with marbled cuts of pork.
  • Stop by Sairaiin Temple (Free). Located right across the street from Shuri Soba. This Buddhist temple is not a tourist attraction so much as a window into the spiritual lives of Okinawan suburbanites.
  • Shurijo (Shuri Castle) (~$7.50; opens 8am–6:30pm) and the Tamaudun Mausoleum (~$3, opens 9am - 6pm). Honestly, we weren’t all that impressed with Shuri Castle. The majority of the castle was completely ‘modernized’ and rebuilt due to the destruction from the war. It’s an obligatory stop more than anything. The Tamaudun Mausoleum (玉陵) on the other hand, which houses the royal family of the Ryukyu Kingdom, is well worth seeing.

Afternoon

  • Stroll through Fukushu-en Garden (Free; opens 9am to 6pm, closed Wednesdays). Hop back onto the monorail and head towards Kencho-Mae Station (県庁前駅) and take a five-minute walk to the garden. It’s nice to get away from the hustle and bustle and you won’t come across many other tourists.

Evening

  • Stroll around Makishi Market (Free, unless you buy stuff; opens 8am–9pm). For anyone interested in checking out souvenirs, I’d check out this market. But I’d definitely urge anyone to beeline straight to the Fish Market. You can check out vendors and fresh seafood; you can also buy seafood and have it made right in the building! I actually saw the largest lobster that I’d ever seen in my life in one of those tanks.
  • Dinner at Yunangi (opens 12–3pm, 5:30–10:30pm, closed on Sundays). If you’re up for trying anything, you should order the dinner set menu for about $27. You’ll get everything including: chanpuru, pig ears, tofu, grilled fish, braised pork, miso soup, and rice. It’s very filling and is a perfect amount for two people.  Get there early, it gets crowded early and often.
  • Get a Single or Double Scoop of Blue Seal ice cream (hours vary by location). The quintessential Okinawan ice cream chain. A daily of our visit. Our favorite combination was Okinawan salted cookie and beni imo.
  • Check out Parker's Mood (opens 10pm - 1:30am). A jazz club hidden on the 5th floor of an apartment complex. There’s usually live music between 9:00pm and 12:30am, but I think the owner, who’s an amazing jazz guitarist, just plays whenever he feels like it. We love jazz so we sat and listened for a few hours and chatted about our lives together while enjoying a local Orion beer and ume-shu (plum wine).

Day 2: Going Outside of Naha - Aquarium, Aimless Wandering, and Simple Meals (PINK)


Morning

  • Take the Yanbaru express to Northern Okinawa (~$18 one-way).  The two hour bus ride will go from Night Takahashi (Tomari Port Tomarin) at (departing at 6:56am) to Churaumi Aquarium (arriving at 8:58am).
    Note: If you miss the scheduled bus, there won’t be another one for about two hours. Check the bus schedule here. And the last departing bus headed back to the Naha area is around 4 - 5pm.
  • Arrive at Churaumi Aquarium (~$17 admission; opens 8:30am–5:30pm) Get there early to check out the main highlight of this aquarium: The Kuroshio Sea Tank. It’s Japan’s largest aquarium and is full of diverse marine life.

Afternoon

After staring deeply into one of the world’s largest marine tanks, try wandering around the area and villages outside of the aquarium.

  • Grab a quick lunch at Coco Shokudo (コッコ食堂 ) (~$10; opens 11am - 5pm, limited hours on the weekend). The humble family-owned restaurant serves dishes centered around eggs.
  • Walk along Emerald Beach and take in the ocean scenery (Free).
  • Enjoy the gorgeous gardens at the Tropical Dream Center (~$6.30 and ~$3.30 if you visited the aquarium; opens 8:30am - 5:30pm).
  • Bise is a small village by the Aquarium and known for is its little alleyway that is flanked by Fukugi trees (Free)
  • Take a 20-minute walk to Bise no Warumi to experience a private beach where the Gods first descended. (Free)

Evening

  • Head back to Naha via the Yanbaru Express bus (~$18 one-way). Leave around 4:30 to 5pm and get back into the city around 7pm.
  • Grab a simple dinner at Mikasa near the hotel (less than $10). Huge portions and the restaurant is open relatively late; finish up and get ready for an early day tomorrow morning.

Day 3: Beautiful Beaches, Relaxation, and More Okinawa Soba  (ORANGE)


Morning

Early Afternoon

  • Pick an island and go snorkeling. If it’s still warm enough to swim, I’d suggest checking out one of the Kerama Islands for some snorkelling or diving. The islands are so beautiful and the water is super blue and clear. Choose any of the islands to settle into and you should be able to rent snorkeling gear for about less than $10 USD. Ivan and I spent $80 USD for an umbrella, chairs, and snorkeling gear.
  • Relax for a few hours. It’s vacation after all. Swim, snorkel, and soak in the beautiful son, clear waters, and likely a sparse/tourist free beach.

Evening

  • Take a ferry back to Naha and walk towards Makishi Market for a bonus Okinawa soba round (~$3.60, opens 11am - 5 or 6pm, depends on the mood of the owner). Soki Soba (aka Country Side Public Market on TripAdvisor). The place is small and seats about 10 people. A bowl of soba is super cheap! The broth is light and fragrant and the pork meat practically melts away in your mouth.
    Note: If Soki Soba is closed, head over to our alternative soba restaurant here: Gabusoka Shokudo Miebashi Ekimae
  • And to finish off the evening -- do whatever floats your boat after swimming and travelling for several hours. In our case, we grabbed some more delicious Blue Seal ice cream. Yes, it’s that good. And a perfect ending to our Okinawa trip.

We hoped this was helpful! If you liked this post, be sure to check out a related Okinawa post we published titled "11 Things We Like and Dislike About Okinawa"