For those of us living in Singapore, Japan is almost a 7 hour plane ride away but for those of us living in Hong Kong, a trip to the Southern most part of Japan – to Okinawa is only 2 hours and 15 minutes via Dragon Air (a Cathay Pacific carrier) or Hong Kong Air on a daily departure.
So on my hubby’s and daughter’s recent birthday (both a week from each other) I packed us off on a 4 day 3 night break to this lovely coastal Japanese town which offers all things Japanese and yet looks and makes you feel more like you have been transported to chilled out Hawaii. Yes – swaying palm trees, pristine blue waters and uncombed beaches, pineapples and coconuts – you will find them all here. It is also home to the US’ Naval troops here in Asia which accounts for its heavy American influence and yet the city has retained its own charming local Okinawan culture, food and heritage which has produced most of the world’s centenarians (people who have lived past 100 years) mainly credited to the food that these islanders eat and their general healthy lifestyles.
For tourists, Okinawa offers both beach and city options to explore. If its a summer holiday getaway I would recommend the beach option but if you are heading there for the up and coming Easter school break (for Hong Kongers) or anytime nearer the winter months (where Okinawa gets to its coolest about 13 to 15 degrees) then choose the city option. There are plenty of things to do in downtown Naha and its immediate vicinity. A small tip if you love to drive – bring along your International Driving License. Car rentals are aplenty and cheap about JPY4000 a day compared to taxis and tours which are relatively expensive.
It being March and just past the coldest month in Okinawa (February), I went with my travel agents recommendation of spending a few days at the Double Tree Hilton in Naha. It turned out to be a great choice as it was connected by a monorail right in front of the Hotel which could bring you to almost all of Naha’s choice attractions.
DAY ONE: SHOPPING AND EATS AT KOKUSAI-DORI
If like us, you arrive at midday then save this day to explore Kokusai-Dori street. This long and colorful street located in the heart of Naha is the city’s main shopping belt and choc-a-block full of interesting restaurants, ice cream stores, countless snack and gift shops, stores selling tee shirts for pet and pet owners as well as shops selling sake and snake wine. In between the small off-shoot lanes, parallel to the main thoroughfare are a pot pourri of small bars, body and foot massage parlours.
Mid-way through this street is a wet and dry market called Makeshi Public Market where aside from the bric-brac stores selling tourist souvenirs, tee-shirts and local bakery items we also checked out the local seafood which you can order and have them sashimi or cook for you at any of the restaurants on the second floor of the market. Here in the wet market, we also sampled their famous Black Boar or Pig which the Japanese brew into a thick, delicious caramel style gravy that tastes and looks a lot like Singapore’s Tau Yu Bak.
As far as department store shopping goes, there is a modest Mitsukoushi Shopping Mall with a super market and food hall below (where you can do a bit of sampling) and another small fashion Mall called Opa to explore.
A meal is a must along Kokusai-Dori. You should check into any of the Isakaya or Yakiniku restaurants which serve skewered food, usually grilled or presented for you to cook the way you like it on a hot plate. Here besides Beef, you can also order their Black Pork which is on all the restaurant menus.
If you want to eat local, then walk into any of the restaurant’s that sell Okinawan cuisine which offer their famous handmade soba noodles served with slices of black boar sliced or prepared in spare rib style, their delicious ‘Yushi Dofu’ served with a sweet or vinagrette sauce and ‘Goya’, their bitter gourd either served with seaweed and veggies (raw) or fried with Tofu and mixed veggies which they call ‘Goya Champuru’.
Finally there is Teppanyaki. We decided to give Trip Advisor’s #1 recommendation, Sam’s Place a try. Sam apparently has more than one place and he in fact has Sam’s Anchor Inn, Sam’s Grill, Sam’s Sailor Inn and Sam’s Maui Grill, all Polynesian style teppan restaurants with staff in sailor costumes, polynesian music and talented Teppanyaki chefs who can juggle their pepper and salt shakers whilst wielding the samurai style blades in the process of cooking your dinner. Best part is the fact that the restaurants are child-friendly and decently priced!
Save space also for the local ice cream. There were many local brands to sample, all soft creamy not super sweet so you feel like you could easily have a second scoop. We spent almost every evening at Blue Seal.
DAY TWO: CHURAUMI AQUARIUM, THE NAGO PINEAPPLE PARK AND THE CHATAN AMERICAN VILLAGE
Book a tour to the Churaumi aquarium which is a world-class facility that houses the most spectacular Whale Sharks and Manta Rays in captivity. The Oceanarium is part of a larger Park known as the Ocean Expo Park which houses the Oceanic Culture Museum, a native Okinawan Village, the Tropical Dream Centre which is like a local botanical garden, the Emerald Beach where you can take a dip in the open Ocean and a Tropical and Sub-Tropical Arboretum where you can learn all about plantlife.
We decided to keep our Tour option simple and booked the Naha Bus Tour (rainbow coloured bus) at about JPY4700 per adult and JPY2300 per child to the main Oceanarium with a side trip to the Nago Pineapple Park. The bus leaves at 8am sharp (beware the Japanese are sticklers for punctuality) and this 2.5 hour ride on board a comfy air conditioned tour bus allows you some shut eye as you head along the scenic coastal beach to the Aquarium.
We were wowed not only by the whale sharks and manta rays but also the interesting variety of marine life that the aquarium houses including a separate Manatee pool, Sea Turtle Pool, Dolphin Lagoon and a Theatre where there is a daily dolphin show.
NAGO PINEAPPLE PARK
Enroute back to the City is a stopover at the Nago Pineapple Park, another reminder of the similarity between Okinawa and Hawaii in terms of tropical weather and local produce and farming.
Your point of embarkation being the huge gift shop that sells every thing pineapple flavored from cakes, biscuits and chocolate to vinegars and wines. Definitely a well thought through tourist trap but excellent if you are not shy about digging in to the free nibbles.
CHATAN: AMERICAN VILLAGE
We got back to the Hotel, rested our feet and then decided to go explore the American Village in Chatan. In terms of all-things American, there are two areas to head to – Chatan or Kadena. The former has an American style village as its near the US Naval base and the latter is a bar town filled with teeming night life and restaurants. We decided that with 8 year old in tow, the Village where the famous landmark, its Ferris wheel stands would be a better bet.
Both are fairly far off – almost an hour’s ride on the local Bus from the Bus Terminal near to us but it was worth it as there, we rediscovered Red Lobster (fondly remember from my visits to the US ages ago)! Also spotted A&W’s a brand that I have not seen like forever in Asia since it closed its doors early in the 90s in Singapore.
DAY THREE: SHUJIRO CASTLE
A visit to an Okinawan castle was on the list on Day 3. It turned out to be a lovely windy day to visit the ruins where Okinawan royalty and the Ryukyu Dynasty used to reside in the 14th and 15th century.
There are several gates, shrines, lakes and bridges within the castle surrounds to explore. The site has been beautifully restored after the Battle of Okinawa in World War 2 almost completely reduced it to ashes. Modelled to look like a replica of the Forbidden City, the Castle engages young and old visitors through a map of the ruins which has different stop points where you can collect a stamp. This ensures that you walk the entire castle tour and not miss out any of the interesting stops.
Things to see include the Castle Sundial, Bankoku Bell, Throne Room, Stone Shrine and Hokuden Parade area where royalty was crowned and visitors formally received. Just below the castle in the road leading up to the grounds, make sure you stop by Ryuku-Sabo Ashibiuna for the best Okinawan handmade noodles: http://www.ryoji-family.co.jp/ryukyusabo.html. Located on the former site of the Misato Palace, the mansion used by the Sanshikan (prime minister) during the Ryukyu Dynasty, the restaurant has earned a solid reputation for its fantastic meals and dining room overlooking an elegant garden. You can sometimes listen to live music put on by students from the nearby Okinawa Prefectural University of Arts.