The Tako family is currently traveling around Japan for the month of October, and we’re blogging about our travels. In earlier posts from this series I covered where we’re staying, a mini-trip to Wakayama, how to eat affordably in Japan, and visit to Taketori Park.
In this episode we put back on our adventure shoes, don our backpacks and head further afield to the tropical island of Okinawa!
While still part of Japan, Okinawa is in the southernmost part of Japan. It’s very close to Taiwan and China. The island has it’s own distinct culture, food, and history — all slightly different from that of Japan, or China.
Mrs. Tako and I have always wanted to visit Okinawa, and our financial independence finally brought this bucket-list worthy location to fruition!
Surprisingly, it really wasn’t all that expensive!
A Cheap Trip
Initially, when planning our mega trip to Japan, Mrs. Tako and I scratched-off going to Okinawa. It seemed too far away and too difficult to be one of our “mini-trips” around Japan.
Then, fortune changed our course — One of our relatives who lives in Japan found an excellent package deal to Okinawa. We suddenly found ourselves on a flight heading south to the Ryukyu island chain — the tropical part of Japan.
This package deal included 3 nights in 3 different hotels (at different locations around the island), a rental car, 2 nights of included buffet dinners and 3 buffet breakfasts (typical for Japanese hotels) — all for 60,000 yen (about $535 USD).
This seemed like a pretty good deal, considering discount flights from the Osaka area start at $100, and a rental car costs about $130 for that same time period.
Unlike other parts of Japan, driving is almost required on the island Okinawa. While Naha does have a monorail, the island lacks the extensive rail network found in other parts of Japan. You need to drive to see stuff on Okinawa!
Our rental car was this spiffy Toyota Allion.
The car was equipped with a start-stop system which stopped the engine every time we stopped at a traffic light, and restarted the engine when I took my foot off the brake.
This sort of system is very common in Japan, and it makes for a very efficient vehicle. We drove all over the island and spent only $30 in gas during our stay, so this was a pretty cheap way to get around.
Initially I was freaked-out about the prospect of driving on the other side of the road, but after about a day I was no longer turning on windshield wipers when I tried to use the turn signal.
To rent a car in Okinawa, an international drivers permit is required. We picked ours up for $22 from the local AAA office before we left home.
Let’s start by talking about Okinawa’s climate. Unlike the rest of Japan, Okinawa is warm. Really warm.
When we arrived on the island I could literally feel the humidity as I stepped off the plane. It was like a wave of moisture. It’s way more humid than Hawaii, and lacks the tradewinds that keep the Hawaiian islands cool. Okinawa really feels like a tropical hot-spot.
We visited in mid-October when the temperatures were still in the mid-80’s with the humidity at around 70%. (We’re from the Pacific Northwest, so that’s damn hot!)
As a result, the island is green — really green! Plant life absolutely flourishes in Okinawa.
Palm trees and flowers are literally everywhere…
Did I say everywhere? Yep, I meant it! Everywhere we looked there was flowers, fruit, and tropical green stuff growing.
Unfortunately that same wonderful tropical climate that makes everything lush and beautiful has the exact opposite effect on Okinawa’s architecture — frequent typhoons, and tropical rain storms mean most modern buildings are made from concrete. This is often covered in grime and peeling paint.
It looks a little ugly. The city of Naha looks a little nicer than the rest of the island, but outside the city things look a little shabby.
It’s completely understandable of course, Okinawa is a tropical island! The heat and water eventually take their toll on all manmade structures of any significant age. It would be unfair to expect every building to look spiffy and clean.
If you can get past that general sense of “it’s a little shabby”, we found Okinawa to be a fascinating place — Not quite like the rest of Japan, but with elements of Japan, China, and the United States all blended together into this ultra weird fusion of all three countries.
For the first two nights of our stay in Okinawa, our hotels were at beach-side resorts…and OMG the beaches of Okinawa are spectacular!
Do clear turquoise water and fine white sand sound nice? I shot this photo one early morning from our hotel room and you can easily see to the bottom.
It was like that nearly everywhere around the island. Yes, it’s safe to say Okinawa has really beautiful beaches.
The beaches were easily on-par with those you’d find at other tropical resort locations (like Hawaii), but here’s the best part — The beaches were basically devoid of tourists!
Wow! I don’t know if it was just the time of year we were visiting, but there were hardly any tourists on the beaches. This is totally different from the madness of places like Waikiki, where there’s barely room to walk.
Did I mention how beautiful the water was? It was absolutely f*king gorgeous!
During our stay on Okinawa we kept comparing it to Hawaii, over and over again. For good reason too — Okinawa is basically Japan’s version of Hawaii.
As a whole, it feels way less touristy than what I’ve seen from Hawaii in recent years (we went on a trip to Hawaii last year), and the prices are generally quite reasonable.
Before Okinawa became part of Japan, it once was once a separate kingdom, called the Ryukyu Kingdom.
The Ryukyu kingdom was wealthy due to frequent trade with China, Korea, and Japan — and huge castles were built all over the island (as a result of that great wealth). At one point, there was a reported 220 castles on the island! Many of the ruins are still around today.
Five of these castles are UNESCO World Heritage sites, and many of them charge a small fee to visit the ruins.
I’m not big on tourist fees, so during our short visit to Okinawa we opted to visit two castles — Zakimi castle (which doesn’t charge admission), and the main event — Shuri Castle, which charges 820 yen per person ($7.32).
Easily the best castle on the island, and probably the most visited tourist attraction on Okinawa, is Shuri Castle. Despite being mostly destroyed in World War II, the castle and it’s grounds have been lovingly restored.
We were lucky enough to visit when the front of the castle was being re-lacquered (yes, it’s all lacquered wood on the outside). The perfect time to visit!
This is a very rare sight not seen by most tourists… at least that’s what I keep telling myself! 😀
The castle itself is quite large, and contains many gates, courtyards and entrances to explore (not all of which are currently open to the public)
Unlike the exteriors of Shuri castle (which looked vaguely Chinese), the interiors looked more like an ancient Japanese castle.
The castle itself is located in the heart of downtown Naha. We caught some great views of the city from those castle walls.
Over the years we’ve visited many castles in Japan, and Shuri castle was easily in our top 3.
Some Japanese castles might look nice on the outside, but they’re just like office buildings on the inside…a really fake feeling. Shuri castle is different. Even though it’s been rebuilt, the castle feels so much older and more “real” than some I’ve seen in Japan.
It really gave the place a sense of history.
If Okinawa has a mascot, it has to be the Shisa. These stone figures were once used as a kind of gargoyle. Traditionally shisa were placed on rooftops and doorways to ward off evil spirits… but now they’ve become something more to the island.
They’re embedded into the local culture in a way I’ve never seen before. The best way to describe shisa is a kind of mascot, but that still doesn’t capture how pervasive these figures are on the island.
From the delightfully cheesy gift-shop variety…
To stoic versions found at Shuri castle…
Shisa can be found everywhere on the island! Hell, even Coke was into the whole Shisa culture thing.
Interestingly enough, the figures always come in pairs — one with the mouth open and the other with a closed mouth. Supposedly one of these dog-lion hybrids keep out evil spirits, and the other keeps in good spirits.
It was entertaining (to say the least) to look for shisa all over the island.
OK, so you’ve probably heard that Okinawans are some of the longest lived people in the world. Much of that longevity is often attributed to their unique diet, which allows many Okinawans to live past the age of 100.
What’s that diet look like? I’d like to tell you it looks like this…
But I’d be totally lying! This breakfast spread was meant to cater to Japanese tourists rather than someone looking for traditional Okinawan cuisine.
A traditional Okinawan meal looks a lot more like this:
Looks pretty bland huh? Stir-fried vegetables (usually involving carrot or cabbage) and tofu are extremely common, and frequently include bitter melon as an ingredient.
The traditional Okinawan diet (from my perspective) is heavy in vegetables, and seaweed. There’s plenty of tofu, but very little meat.
One of the more common seaweed dishes we had during our trip was called Mozuku, which is this brown seaweed in a light vinegar sauce.
There are other kinds of seaweed commonly eaten on Okinawa too — this one was called “Umibudo” or “sea grapes”. It had an extremely delicate flavor, and was ever-so-slightly salty.
While it’s said that Okinawans eat a lot of pork and spam, this was surprisingly rare during our visit. I expected there to be pork in everything from the accounts I’d heard, but it wasn’t actually that common. I think we only ate two dishes with spam, and only one instance of Rafute.
One of my favorite Okinawan dishes had to be this “Soki Soba“, which is soba in a pork broth.
Soki soba was excellent! From the descriptions I read, I expected it to be a fatty mess but the flavor was delightfully hearty.
Fish is actually more rare in the Okinawan diet than the rest of Japan. They don’t eat sushi or sashimi in traditional Okinawan cuisine. In fact, “small fish” seemed to be more commonly prepared.
This little fried anchovy-guy tasted terrible.
If there was a common theme we saw to traditional Okinawan cuisine, it would have to be a lot of vegetables, tofu for protein, and seaweed. We had those 3 components in every single meal.
Modern Okinawan cuisine is much more Westernized due to the large U.S. Military influence. There’s fast food shops all over the place, and this probably has a lot to do with why Okinawan longevity rates are dropping.
Just for kicks, we stopped in at the newly opened Aeon Mall to get a taste of the “new” Okinawa. This was a really weird experience — this mall was just like walking into a mall in the United States.
The place was absolutely HUGE… nothing like the shopping malls I’ve come to expect in Japan. Not only that, but roughly 50% of the stores were Western brands.
While we were at the mall, we had to try some of that modern Okinawan cuisine — “Taco Rice” is easily the most iconic dish. Finding some wasn’t hard.
The chips on top (I believe) are crushed Nacho Cheese Doritos. Weird, yes… but it tasted pretty darn good too!
It’s basically all the elements of an American taco, on top of rice. Usually salsa, or tabasco sauce are used for heat. Being able to find tabasco, and habanero sauce as toppings in Japan threw me for a loop…Japanese food usually isn’t spicy!
Taco rice is a good place to end this post because the dish sums up Okinawa in a magnificent way — The island is a fusion of so many different things. From the beautiful beaches to the ancient castles, the healthy traditional meals and tasty junk food, Okinawa takes fusion to a whole new level.
While some travelers might find this disconcerting, we found it charmingly weird. If anything, Okinawa was constantly surprising us. Just when we thought we understood Japan, Okinawa showed us a whole new side to this island nation.
I really wish we could have stayed longer and explored some of the other islands, but unfortunately our stay was limited by the package deal.
I have a sneaking suspicion we’ll return again someday.