You can find pictures from our trip here.
Since we both wrapped up our school terms at the end of March, I was looking for some kind of trip to really create a border between the past term and the next one. At first we looked into the usual culinary meccas of Hong Kong and Taiwan, but for some reason the plane ticket prices were much higher than normal. Perhaps we weren’t the only ones feeling like we needed a change of scenery.
As it turned out, Okinawa was a reasonable alternative. As illogical as it sounds, Japanese domestic trips (by plane) on the weekends tend to be more expensive than international ones. Since we were taking a few days off in the middle of the week it was cheaper than the international destinations, so we went with it. Kuniko found us a hotel and a rental car, and we flew out of Kobe for a two hour shot into Naha.
The flight was easy, although it felt a little strange to leave the passports at home. Once we arrived in Naha we could immediately feel the warmer temperature, and I had to pack away my top two layers of clothing and go in just a T-shirt.
Transportation from the airport into the city was simple based on a monorail system. One end of the line was the airport, and on the other end was Shuri Castle, the big cutural sightseeing draw in Naha. The price was pretty reasonable for the monorail, and it only took about 20 minutes or so to get to the castle.
We were in Okinawa for three days, and the weather was very clear and sunny during the first half of our stay, and cloudy with occasional sprinkles during the second half. That reallly worked out for us because we did all the sightseeing we wanted to do during the first half of the visit anyway,
Besides the castle in Naha, there were some dark alleys, hidden shops and lively markets to explore. The backstreets led us to some great food, interesting pictures, and strange people. We found our favorite restaurant of the trip somewhere back there, and everything was so jumbled and temporary feeling that I couldn’t find the name of the place written anywhere. We’d walk through an abandoned warehouse converted into smaller shop spaces, and then it would open up into a small open bar with patrons downing awamori and laughing loudly on the road to drunken oblivion. We tried to take the opportunity to join them.
As you could probably guess, we were really focused on activities gastronomical during this trip, so we tried to eat as many different kinds of local foods as we could. There are a lot of delicious and unique foods in Okinawa, and until this trip I have been limited to sampling them in Okinawan restaurants around Kansai. We ate almost exclusively Okinawan foods while we were there in a bid to try new things and also to avoid stuff that is easy enough for us to get around our neighborhood. One unexpected difficulty was ordering – even Japanese people from other islands didn’t know the names of the dishes and what they contained, so we often had to ask our servers and cooks for information. Everyone was happy to explain things to us, though.
The big draw in Okinawa is pork. There are pork dishes everywhere and the specific kind of pork, called “Agu”, is apparently special to the island. The Agu pork is smaller and supposedly “sweeter” and I can at least attest to the great flavor. We had many braised pork dishes, including Soki soba, Soki on its own, also salt pork, and Agu sausage. We even had some spam – I hope that it was pork. The dish I really liked was fu-champu, which is the lighter-than-air fu stir fried into vegetables and served hot and flavorful. We often eat goya-champu but this was a pleasant variation that was also on the healthier side. We ate well during the trip, and I have the photos to prove it.
Despite all the delicious traditional foods we ate, we did notice a lot of steakhouses, which may have been an influence from America. It seemed like every block had a steakhouse on it, and judging from the prices on the menus we saw outside I thought they were seriously overpriced.
Our trip was not limited to the city of Naha. On the second day we rented a car and drove north to the Churaumi Aquarium, located on the west edge of the north part of Okinawa island. It was an easy 90-minute drive along the expressway. The car rental for the day was only about 3500 yen, and Kuniko handled the little kei-car well enough, despite the tiny engine under the hood.
Churaumi Aquarium sits on a huge piece of oceanfront land, and it took a long time to walk from the parking area to the aquarium itself. I have been spoiled for aquariums in my life, but I have to say that Churaumi is right up there with the Monterey Bay Aquarium in terms of quality and diversity. We really enjoyed the exhibit with the whale sharks, a scary looking shark take full of hungry inmates, and the smaller tanks with more colorful (and equally dangerous) occupants. Outside we saw the sea turtles swimming in lazy circles in their tank, and we could walk down to the beach and enjoy the sand and surf for a while.
I had heard that the water in Okinawa was clear, and it certainly was. You could see a good distance down into the water and it would be ideal for scuba and snorkeling if you had the time and equipment. The sand was also gorgeous – like pale beige sugar – and there was a minimum of kelp and other undesirables mucking up the beaches.
After the aquarium we drove through Yagaji island to get to Kouri island. We stopped at a cheesy tourist trap sightseeing tower, but quickly left and finished a drive around the island to see Heart Rock and some other coastal scenery. From there we made a slow journey back south, stopping for a view of the cliffs at Manza Cape, and then finally returning our rental car in Naha in the early afternoon.
Our last day was spent eating, shopping, staying under the umbrella now and then, and really just trying to squeeze the last bit of enjoyment out of the trip. Our souvenir hunt turned into Mission Impossible at one point – we had seen something we wanted but finding it again among the sea of similar-looking souvenir shops was an ordeal.
I think we really enjoyed the weekend, but I’m not sure if we’ll be frequent visitors to Okinawa in the future. I would really like to come again and visit some of the more remote islands to the south, and maybe enjoy some water sports and privacy, but we’ll wait a while and see how that goes.
All in all a great little weekend getaway, and I think we’ll be in great mental condition going into the new term.