Uncovering Okinawa Island, Japan | Part 1

Ramen, Whales and Ancient Castles.

For those seeking to explore the allure of Japan, the islands that surround the country’s mainland are rarely what first comes to mind. Okinawa is the largest of Japan’s Ryukyu and Okinawa Islands and sits at the southwest of Japan. During our five-day stay, we stay in the Island’s capital Naha, uncover Okinawa’s rich history, meet it’s unbelievably hospitable locals, and do some island hopping by visiting some of the smaller (and stunning) surrounding Ryukyu destinations. We did quite a lot during our stay there so I split my retelling of this journey into two posts. To read about the second part of and for a breakdown of the entire trip click here. Otherwise, scroll down for more.


Good Ramen

We arrive in Naha in the evening, having flown in from Hong Kong to Naha airport. Our AirBnB host Aiko had provided us with an intricately detailed guide of how to get to our accommodation, including photographs that helped us identify whether or not we were heading in the right direction. When we make it to Aiko’s home we’re struck with surprise at the outstanding effort she has gone to in order to make us feel at home. On a brick wall that sits adjacent to her home is a printed sign reading “welcome Jasmine and Gregory!” and the messages continue inside, with framed notes thanking us for choosing to visit Okinawa and hand written messages under our pillows, in both English and Greg’s native tongue of French.

Our accommodation isn’t inside Aiko’s home but in a separate apartment two floors above her and her family. With wooden shutters, low tables and a shikibuton, the space is as authentically Japanese as we could wish for.

Hungry from our flight, train and bus ride, we seek out somewhere to eat. Luckily for us, Aiko had created a custom map detailing the best local food spots near where we stayed. On our search for a restaurant named Tondou Ramen we become unsure that we were following the map in the right direction we ask two school children to help us out, and without a second thought they walked us part-way and pointed us in the correct direction.

Our entrance is greeted with a chorus of ‘irasshaimase!’, meaning ‘welcome!’, from the establishments staff, and shortly after selecting and paying for our bowls with a small vending-like ordering machine, we’re presented with two mouthwatering bowls of noodles, egg, pork, broth and various other delicious toppings.

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Whale Watching

The next morning, we wake early enough to see the city’s skyline while the clouds are a candy-floss pink, with the sun yet to have fully risen. We hail a taxi to take us to Sea Sir, who operate scuba diving, water sport, and whale watching services. We didn’t book places on the morning’s whale watching expedition in advance, so took a risk in just showing up, however, we were fortunate that there was enough space left for us to join.

When the boat sets out, the sea is choppy and the brisk wind is chilling, however, the excitement of one witnessing one of nature’s greatest species eradicates the discomfort. The group leaders inform us of the terminology used to point out where a spotted whale is in relativity to the boat. As we edge closer we’re surrounded by other boats with tourists seeking the same sight.

I feel somewhat uneasy, as, in a way, the activity of whale-watching is basically hunting. While the whale isn’t being poached, the boats are effectively tracking the creatures down and coaxing them into a position that will give us the best view.

After some minutes of patience, a wave of excitement breaks over the surrounding boats and our own. A whale has been spotted. The boats rev and optimize their position to offer the passengers the best opportunity to spot it. We watch in amazement as the unfathomably sized mammal graces us with its presence. We’re teased by flashes of a tail, a fin, and sprays of water from its blowhole. As the excitement begins to reach a lull, the water breaks. Out-from-under appears the mammoth whale in its entirety, gliding into the air and diving back into the sea with a grace that would only be expected from something a fraction of its size. What only lasts a few seconds etches into our minds for eternity.

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A workers lunch

With our whale-spotting appetites satiated, but our stomachs growling, we look for lunch. The roads in Okinawa are considerably quiet in comparison to Hong Kong, or in fact, any city I have visited. We walk past a number of industrial complexes before spotting a line of laborers queuing for their lunch. Taking the popularity of a food outlet to be an adequate measure of the quality of its food as a rule-of-thumb, we join the queue and are served up two plastic containers packed full of energy-fuelling-foods.

As we hadn’t arrived with all our spending money in hand, we were in desperate need of an ATM. After frequent rejections at numerous banks, we came to the realization that traveling in Okinawa with a foreign bank card is not an easy thing to do. Greg and I tried French, Hong Kong, and British bank cards and were unable to withdraw at numerous machines. Finally, we were directed to a machine in a store on Kokusai Street, Naha that allows us to take out some Yen.

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Kokusai Street

Kokusai street (or Kokosaidori) is a relatively new addition to the Naha scene, with much of the city destroyed during the battle of Okinawa during World War II. Here we find countless stores, restaurants, and bars offering local delicacies and novelty gifts, and take up the opportunity to try a dangerously strong snake-infused sake. Along the street are a number of intersecting alleyways that make a pathway to Makishi Market where there are vendors selling fresh fish, meat, vegetables, herbs, and spices, as well as sweet pastries and confectionaries and vintage Japanese comic books and Pokemon cards!
As the evening approaches, we decide to eat on Kokusai and choose a teppanyaki restaurant named Sam’s Maui that attracts us with its fun-looking atmosphere and tourist-packed seating area. After being seated and capped with mock sailor hats, we happen to enter a conversation with an amusing and eccentric man who we realize is the restaurant’s owner. The hospitality is unfaultable, the food is highly disappointing and it quickly becomes clear that Sam’s is somewhat of a tourist trap and solidifies my rule of eating where the locals do.


Shuri Castle

Setting out in the morning, we make our way to Shuri castle, hailing a taxi on the main road nearby our AirBnB. The castle was originally built in the 14th century as the palace of the Ryukyu Kingdom but was almost completely destroyed during the battle of Okinawa in WWII. With plans based on photographs, historical records, and memory, the castle was rebuilt on the original site in 1992. We arrive early and explore the peaceful interior of the castle in our socks, respecting traditional Japanese etiquette.

 Wait, it gets better!

This journey is split into two parts. To read the second part and to see a breakdown of everything, click here.

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