December 28, 2009 – January 1, 2010
I took a course about Japanese Economics when I was in university. It was one of those three-week course offered in the summer semester where the course thesis is due two weeks after orientation. Like many of my classmates, I wrote about Japan’s last decades after its bubble burst in the late eighties and how the inadequacy of the Japanese government had compounded the country’s economic woes. Japan, to the rest of the world, has become a cautionary tale, especially in the midst of a severe global recession.
Indeed, my eighth visit to Japan was at a time when the country was mired in a deep slump. The country faced relentlessly depressing news coverage about its sagging export data, economic deflation and political instability. When compared to the continued rise of its neighbours in China and South Korea, Japan appeared trapped in a downward spiral.
Once I stepped foot on its ground, however, Okinawa shared the same top notch infrastructure as just about everywhere else in Japan. Getting from the airport to downtown Naha was a breeze – it took only half an hour on the city’s monorail to get to our destination.
Although there wasn’t any moment of our trip that was particularly memorable, we didn’t experience any letdown either. Even if we couldn’t get into the ocean because of the low temperature, Okinawa’s food and the ease to travel around made up for the lack of things to do. That’s the thing about traveling to Japan – no matter how many times you have been to the country, it rarely disappoints.
It was a pleasure to have taken this quality holiday during which everything met our expectation, but I don’t think I will want to visit Okinawa again, at least not to the main island itself.
Some Photos of the trip:
We stayed close to Kokusai Dori (国際通), a major avenue in Naha where tourists tended to cluster. Compared to the amazingly poor quality of the stuff sold in Honolulu, the offerings available at Kokusai Dori’s shops were of much better quality. Already on our first night in Okinawa, we knew the quality of goods and service offered on this Japanese resort island would maintain a reasonable standard.
We had dinner on the first night at ゆうなんぎい, a popular Okinawa style izakaya near our hotel. There were two dishes that would become a constant staple in our meals in Okinawa: they were sea grapes and bitter melon. Sea grape is a kind of algae off the coast of Okinawa that is served as appetizer. Bitter melon is another local specialty that is usually served as a stirred fried dish.
Before we left Naha, we made a stop at Shuri Castle (首里城跡), a World Heritage Site. A royal palace of the Ryukyu monarch, the castle was rebuilt after being completely destroyed during WWII. The castle exterior was built in Chinese style, especially the throne hall; however the interior had more of a Japanese influence.
Given Naha’s lack of attraction, a visit to the Shuri Castle is a must, no matter how underwhelming it might be.
After visiting Shuri Castle, we had lunch at a nearby restaurant called Sui-Dunchi (首里殿内). This Okinawan restaurant had an interior of winding wooden corridors and tatami rooms situated along a beautiful zen garden. I ordered the Squid Ink Soup Lunch Combo, which turned out to be the second best meal I had in Okinawa.
It was a longer than expected drive from Shuri (a suburb of Naha) to the Sun Marina Beach Hotel where we would spend two nights. There was a little bit of tension in our car as we were continuously misled by our GPS. We ended up arriving at 5:30, and the dramatic sunset swept all of displeasure away.
The weather was cloudy throughout the day, rendering the ocean into a dull shades of blue. As we approached Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium, the sun shone through for a brief moment, and we quickly made a detour to a nearby beach to take advantage of the sunshine. After a few minutes at Mission Beach, the overcast sky returned.
Close to Mission Beach is a small town called Motobu where the renowned soba shop Kishimoto Shokudo (きしもと食堂) is located. This eatery’s specialty was Okinawa soba, which was quite different from the buckwheat soba I am accustomed to. This type of soba was made of wheat and resembled a type of noodle in northern China.
I am always a big fan of this type of small restaurant that is run by the same family for generations. Eating at Kishimoto Shokudo was as much about its soba (which I thought was ok) as having a glimpse of the island’s tradition.
Different people have different interests. I know some people who like to visit aquariums and zoos whenever they have the chance, but I never find watching animals in captivity to be a good use of my holiday time.
But as there weren’t much alternatives, we spent most of our afternoon at Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium (沖縄美ら海水族館), the premier attraction on Okinawa Island. Of course, if the water wasn’t too cold to swim in, I would much rather be outdoor and be at the beach.
Hands down, we had our best meal in Okinawa Island at Tsukinohama (月乃浜), a shabu-shabu restaurant in Onna Village, a 15-minute drive from Sun Marina Beach Hotel. Instead of beef, Tsukinohama revolved its menu around the high quality local pork. We had pork sausage and tofu salad for appetizers, a tofu hotpot and a shabu-shabu main course of pork, minced chicken and vegetable.
After the meal, we were led to the upper floor of the two-storied building, which was a bar with a twenty-foot high domed ceiling. The bar gave out a resort-like vibe and made me felt like I had traveled to somewhere in Southeast Asia. We didn’t order any drinks; we had the complimentary almond tofu for dessert, and like the rest of the meal, it was delectable.
Day 4 (New Year’s Eve)
We almost couldn’t walk straight in the fierce wind, but we still lingered for half an hour because we were mesmerized by the constant waves brought by the wind to the dark azure ocean below us.
We had lunch at a small roadside place that was famous for its uni-don, but its uni ran out of stock. I had a bitter melon stirred fried combo that was the worst meal I had on this trip.
At around three we reached Nakagusuku Castle Site (中城城跡) at the central part of Okinawa Island. Like Shuri Castle, Nakagusuku Castle, a World Heritage Site, is a reminder of the Ryukyu civilization that originally inhabited Okinawa. This compound was razed to the ground more than 500 years ago. I enjoyed roaming around the minimally restored site. There was a tiny sense of adventure as we had to manage our every step on the castle’s unpaved paths.
Before returning our car in Naha, we drove to Kaichu Road (海中道路) on the east coast to watch the sunset. This 4.75 km long road connects Yokatsu Peninusla to the Henza Island on shallow water. The spectacular sunset didn’t materialize because of heavy clouds, but we did catch some windsurfers at the ocean.
Day 5 (New Year’s Day)
The first morning of 2010 was calm and sunny in Naha. Given a choice between joining a half-day whale watching tour or walking around town aimlessly, my group passionately voted for the latter.
Walking along a river, we came across Naha Shinto Shrine (護國神社), where many locals attended Hatsumōde (初詣; first shrine visit of the New Year). On both sides of the pathway to the shrine were food and kitsch booths, selling things like takoyaki (octopus balls) and plastic toys.
Instead of wearing kimono, people wore trendy casual clothing. Some kids played with plastic guns but didn’t pick up any omikuji. The overall atmosphere felt more like a festival than the typical Hatsumōde shown on TV, but it was a fun way to conclude our trip in Okinawa.