Paris exhausted me. There were so many things I wanted to see coupled with the strikes that was the one two punch combination that left me a zombie. After Paris I had a week to regroup and repack for my Seollal (Lunar New Year) trip to Okinawa. A week that pre-Paris me had filled with plans like: hiking, hosting, packing, and cleaning. Pre-Paris me made the worst decisions.
So by the time my flight to Okinawa had come around I was a little wary. All I wanted was a peaceful and relaxing vacation. It’d be the last one until I return to the States.
Like Paris and a couple other trips this year I made a pdf guide to try and organize myself. You can check it out here: Okinawa.
So maybe you’re wondering, where is Okinawa? Okinawa is an island off the coast of Southern Japan. It reminds me a bit of Jeju-do, which is off the southern coast of Korea. In both cases they were originally their own country with their own people and cultures until Japan and Korea took them over. (A bit like Hawaii). Okinawa is actually closer to Taiwan than mainland Japan.
Okinawa, once upon a time was the Ryūkyū islands (though not all of the islands) and due to its location the people who lived on the islands frequently traded and interacted with China and Korea and several other countries in the area. The results of which can be found within the foods and traditions.
At one point in the 17th century swords were banned which led to the creation of several Okinawan martial arts, the arguably most famous of which is karate.
In 1879 Japan decided to annex the Ryūkyū islands. Also after the Battle of Okinawa in World War II the island found itself occupied by the United States army from 1945-1972 and there are active American army bases still on the island which adds a controversial USA style residue.
Something else found around the island are Shisa or シーサー. These creatures are a cross between a lion and a dog and can be found throughout the island in pairs. One will have its mouth open while the others will be closed. The one with an open mouth is said to eat evil spirits while the one with the closed is meant to keep good spirits in. They are from the Ryūkyū period and can even be found in cute but silly looking souvenirs. Or in many souvenir/tourist spots you can make your own set to take home.
Another uniquely Okinawan thing you’ll find often, even just by sound is the Sanshin, or 三線. It is a three stringed snake skinned banjo. Classes are offered to learn how to play, the instrument is sold as souvenirs, and you’ll see people just chilling and playing them depending where you are. Many old traditional Okinawan songs are played using this instrument.
Okinawa is also one of the first places within Japan to experience cherry blossoms. This special type of sakura is called Kanhizakura and is a darker color than the cherry blossoms found in the rest of Japan. They start blooming on the northern side of the islands in late January and through early February which is around when Seollal this year was. (January 24th-27th) So I was actually quite excited to see them. I’ve always wanted to attend hanami of some kind but the dates of cherry blossom viewing and my time off never coincided.
My goal was the Nago Cherry Blossom Festival which was due to happen while I was in Okinawa. The cherry blossom festival was scheduled to happen at Nago Central Park (名護城公園) from January 25th-26th. But according to Google maps it was a 2 hour bus ride away from Naha where I was staying and about a 23 minute walk from where the bus would drop me off in Nago city.
Normally I’d do that. I’d get up early, hop on the bus and then just spend the entire day in Nago before catching a bus home. But I just really wasn’t feeling it. I wanted my trip to Okinawa to be an actual vacation and not me running around trying to cram every possible thing I wanted to do into my short time there until I exhausted myself. (see Paris) So I came up with a compromise. I’d check and see where the cherry blossoms generally were popular to visit in Naha and I’d go there. If they weren’t blooming at all then I’d do the bus. If they were blooming even a little I’d take a cooking class.
If you’re curious about other places you can see cherry blossoms in Okinawa during late January/ early February I suggest checking out these posts that I used to decide for myself. Japan also tends to have a cherry blossom forecast you can check. As a general rule the northern side of the island blooms first and then makes its way down south.
The weather in Okinawa is tropical. It’s pretty warm. I was visiting in winter and during the time it gets the coldest. Generally from December through February the lowest it might get is around 9.6°C and with highs of 26.9°C (between 49-80°F). While I was there in late January while the forecast called for low 70°F (21°C) it ended up being more on that high end of nearly 80°F for most of the trip. Meaning I had packed for a warm spring and ended up in summer style weather. It did however rain towards the end of my trip which cooled things off a lot.
I highly suggest making sure you take care of yourself and prepare for the heat. In the summer it gets a lot hotter. If you’re curious to read more about the monthly weather, what you should wear or how much rain and typhoons they get on average I suggest checking out this website here.
As you can tell, since I went in winter and it was in the upper 70’s it gets hot in Okinawa. I was expecting from the weather reports I saw before I left for it to be spring like in weather and so I packed accordingly…which wasn’t right. I should’ve packed for summer. Clothing wise this is what I wish I’d packed. If you want to print it you can print a copy of my okinawa packing list by clicking on the link.
I suggest packing for warmer weather that might cool off with a breeze or some rain. The jeans I packed were too hot until it started to rain towards the end of my trip. At which point it was nice and cool. Also definitely take a fan. While for most of my trip I was good.
I, and a lot of people, while leaving Okinawa at the airport were dying while in line to go through security. There were only 4 doors and a lot of people trying to get through and the airport didn’t have any air conditioning on, at least that was noticeable. I whipped out a wooden fan I got in Malaysia and I’m pretty sure it’s the only reason I didn’t pass out. It also let me bond with a family whose grandma had a similar fan and whose grand-kid got excited every time they spotted me with my fan.
Also a side note for people with allergies. Due to the climate there are a lot of flowers in bloom and they’re everywhere.
The connecting platform from the airplane to the actual airport was filled with orchids. There were orchids everywhere in the airport. (It’s lovely) There are also a large amount of well loved stray cats.
I saw many people halting their daily business to stop and check on the cats or feed them and a lot of the cats seemed friendly. However if you have allergies and are extremely sensitive to cats or flowers make sure to pack your most trusty allergy medicine.
Something to note in Okinawa is that the usual transit passes you use in the rest of Japan do not work. There’s are lot of different passes for different regions of Japan. I have two. I have a Pasmo and a Icoca which usually covers where I tend to want to travel. Neither work in Okinawa. Other IC passes also don’t work.
The first thing you should do is decide what you want to do while in Okinawa. I wanted a super chill vacation so I wanted to stay in Naha as much as possible. Especially after seeing that the cherry blossom festival was a two hour bus ride away and there weren’t tours available that I could find in English. I had already booked my hotel in Naha for the entire time I was going to in Okinawa. So I suggest even before booking your hotel decide what you want to do and where you want to go. Then try and figure out logistics. If you want to travel around beyond Naha (the city nearest the airport) then one way to do that is to get an Okinawa bus pass. A 1 day pass is 2,500 yen, a 3 day pass is 5,000 yen. It is 500 yen more to add on the Yui rail. It does not however “include buses that pass the highway such as limousine buses, line No. 111 and No.117, and regular sightseeing buses.” You can pick up or buy the pass in the International arrival terminal at Naha airport. (These tickets are also available at other locations if you want to buy them later in your trip. You can check out the locations here.)
I had planned to get this ticket because it’s what everyone suggested getting online for getting around while in Okinawa. But because I was mostly staying in Naha it wasn’t worth it for me. Instead they suggested I go to the Domestic arrivals terminal and get the Naha bus pass. (660 yen per day just for the bus. If you want to add the monorail it’s 1,000 yen) After some back and forth in my limited Japanese and the staffs limited English I finally understood why they weren’t selling me a 3 day transit pass. Let alone why they weren’t wanting to sell me any bus pass. The Naha bus pass works for that day. Meaning if you start using it at 5pm it will only work until the last bus of that day. It’s a bit expensive to even do this. My hotel which was the only goal for that day other than eating and going to a nearby park was accessible via the monorail. It was more financially responsible to just go to the monorail and buy a one way pass to my nearest station and walk the ten minutes to my hotel. Due to my hotels location I was also near a ton of popular things to do including a lot of restaurants. And it turned out most of what I wanted to do was arguably within walking distance.
So I bought a one way ticket via the monorail (Yui Rail) and spent the rest of my vacation walking around the neighborhood my hotel was in.
I’m really grateful that neither bus shop sold me tickets. I’m glad that both booths knew that it wasn’t financially worth it for me to buy a pass with them. Because I’d never been to Naha before and the number 1 suggested way to get around is via a car. So I had assumed everything would be too far away for me to walk. But because I had planned to stay in Naha it was better for me to just walk. Or buy tickets at the station for the monorail. You can get a one day or two day monorail pass if that will be better for you financially. These run 800 yen for a day pass and 1,400 yen for two days.
If you want to the local IC card (similar to the Pasmo or Icoca) which is what I was looking for, it is called OKICA pass and can be purchased at the ticket machines. To get the card you must load up in increments of 1,000 yen and you will loose 500 yen as a card deposit when you first get the card. The purchase amounts for the card are 1,000, ￥2,000, ￥3,000, ￥4,000, ￥5,000 and ￥10,000. If you would like to take the bus and trains around Naha often then I suggest getting this card because it will make your commute around Naha faster than buying a ticket one way. The ticket machines have an English option so follow the instructions to get your card.
I did not get one of these cards since I took public transportation a grand total of twice. Once from the airport and again back to the airport. But if you want to explore more of Naha and be able to easily jump between bus and monorail I suggest getting this card. (For me to get to and from the airport those two times I spent a grand total of 600 yen which is why it was not worth it for me, even in retrospect.)
The regular paper pass work via scanning a QR code. Scan when entering the monorail and when leaving. When you’re done with your ticket there is a bucket you can drop it in or you can keep your ticket.
One of my favorite things to do when travel is try the local specialties. It’s become even more of a thing since living in Korea and whenever I mention traveling, even just to a different part of Korea, my coworkers want to know above all else if I ate the foods of the region and if it was good. Food is also a huge part of Okinawan culture, they believe that food is medicine and the proof is in the pudding as they have the longest life spans.
I didn’t manage to try everything they’re famous for but I tried a lot. I’m going to make a quick list for you and then in upcoming posts go more into detail on which places I went to try the foods.
Super special local ingredients!
- Goya ( ゴーヤー)– Goya or Momordica charantia is a super healthy food and looks a bit like a bumpy cucumber. It is chock full of vitamin c and is considered the perfect thing to eat when it’s hot out to protect your stomach from the heat. Usually when it gets too hot out the appetite decreases. It’s believed the Goya keeps that from happening.
- umi-budō (海ぶどう) – Umi Budo or Caulerpa lentillifera is known as a couple of different things, green caviar and sea grapes are the top two. Umi budo is neither a fruit or an egg but instead a satisfying to eat type of seaweed. Rather than leaves sprouting from the main stem there are a whole bunch of tiny orbs. If you like salty and popping boba in your tea then I suggest giving these a try. They’re a lot of fun, almost an edible equivalent to popping bubble wrap. It’s usually served covered in vinegar at room temperature.
- Shiiquasa (シークヮーサー ) – This citrus fruit has various spellings and names in English. Among which include shiikuwasha, shiiquwasa, or shequasar or the scientific term: the Citrus depressa. It’s is a very sour fruit similar to a lemon or lime and sometimes confused with a calamansi (though it is similar). It can be found in various types of juices on the island as well as as a chip flavoring and in ice creams.
- Benni Imo 沖縄の紅芋 – This is a relative to the sweet potato, taro, ube, or yam. However it is dark on the outside and bright purple on the inside. It gets used a lot in Okinawa for various fun desserts with no artificial coloring due to the natural dark purple color.
- Maasu 真潮 – Massu or Masshu is very simply salt. There are about 150 types of salt uniquely made in Okinawa. And you’ll find a lot of things have salt to them. Some of these are quite fun like salt ice cream and cookies. As a person who grew up in the United States where salt is arguably over used, living for the last 5 years in South Korea where sugar is grabbed in almost all instances I would have use salt, meant my savory salt taste bud was in absolute heaven in Okinawa.
- Aguu あぐー豚 – Aguu is Okinawan pork. Aguu is used commonly in many dishes so if you do not eat pork or meat make sure to double check with the restaurants that this is not used. It is a local special ingredient and every bit of the pig is used in some part of Okinawan cuisine. If you’re sensitive please take care when walking around in Okinawa as pig heads are commonly on display as a showcase to their importance within the culture or as part of souvenirs. I usually did not get too close to see if some of the ones on display were real or fake. Aguu itself is considered a very special type of pork and has become rarer than it use to be. Due to this the pork you eat in Okinawa might not automatically be aguu, and if you do find aguu it will be expensive.
- kokuto 黒糖 – Kokuto is a local type of brown sugar made from a very sturdier type of sugar cane on the island that can withstand typhoons. It’s considered one of the world’s healthiest brown sugars.
- peanut tofu– most tofu found in the world is made out of soybeans, but in Okinawa you can buy and try tofu made out of peanuts. Note peanuts is a popular ingredient, if you have allergies make sure to double check before eating things in Okinawa.
- pineapple and mango- Pretty sure most people know what these are.
Alcohol and spirits
- Awamori– local very strong rice liquor, it has no added sugars and is low in calories. If you want to enjoy it it is highly suggested to add at least ice or water (hot or cold). If you want all the calories then have it in a cocktail. Popular cocktails according to an Okinawan guide are: Mango Harusa (local mango, orange and shiiquasa), Awamori twice (milk and chocolate liquor), and Ryuku tonic (lychee).
- Orion– the local beer. If you like this beer then you’re in luck. You will find souvenirs for it everywhere.
- wine– due to the large amounts of fruit grown on the island you can try all sorts of fruity wines like pineapple, mango, guava, and shiiquasa.
- Goya Champuru – you might recognize that first word. Goya is bitter melon and Champuru essentially breaks down to stir fry. Goya Champuru is a great way to try bitter melon. Common ingredients include goya, tofu, egg, pork belly and/or Spam.
- Rafute– this dish is a sweet meat. It’s made from pork belly cooked in Awamori and a local type of miso. Depending on who makes it it may be sweet or salty but it will be melt in your mouth soft. For some people that is a textural no-no with meat.
- Okinawa soba– Usually soba is quite thin and dark looking, however the Okinawan style looks a bit more like udon with its paler 100% wheat made chewy noodles. It usually comes with some sort of pork. Commonly pork belly or spare ribs.
- Taco rice– It’s exactly what it sounds like. Instead of a taco shell either soft or hard you’ve got a taco salad essentially on a bowl of rice. Not everyone’s cup of tea but I loved it.
- Mimiga– I didn’t manage to give this a try but it is boiled and steamed pork ears. Note that if you have peanut allergies make sure to let them know because it’s usually covered in a peanut dressing.
- Santa Andagi– nicknamed Okinawan brown sugar donuts these are not what most would consider a donut. They are instead balls of fried dough. They aren’t super sweet and tend to be very crunchy on the outside. They’re fun to try and they come in other flavors but the traditional old school flavor is brown sugar.
- Salt ice cream– exactly as it sounds. Also depending on location you can try flavored salts on top of your ice cream.
- Okinawan salt cookies
Chinsuko– a cookie similar to a short bread cookie that comes in a lot of different flavors. They’re quite good. When it comes to souvenirs though you may notice that they’re being sold in joke boxes because Chinsuko is similar to a slang word for penis, “chinko”.
Beni Imo Tart– a bright purple sweet potato tart which can be found at almost any souvenir shop. You should also be able to sample these at many of the shops to see if you like it.
- Beni imo soft serve– if the tart isn’t up your alley you can also try beni imo in the form of bright purple ice cream in many locations.
This of course isn’t everything that is exclusive to Okinawa or all they have to offer but this is a lot of the main ones I ran into and ran into often.
While Japanese is spoken in Okinawa and they’ll understand you if you say the basics, Okinawa has its own language that predates even the Ryūkyū Kingdom.
Languages are confusing and I am no expert. I only learned two phrases, one on a tour and the other at a show, but I figure if I share them so you’ll pleasantly surprise those you meet.
First up is hello. But as a note the language is gendered. So from my understanding what you say depending on the gender you identify as.
Since I identify as female I would say Haitai はいたい as a greeting to the people around me.
For those who identify as male you say Haisai はいさい .
Thank you is nifee deebiru 御拝でーびーる. It is not a gendered phrase.
If you want to memorize hello in Okinawan there is a song that is played practically everywhere, even if it’s just a little jingle on the Yui rail or at the airport called Haisai ojisan (ハイサイおじさん). If you want to hear the song a version of it can be heard here. If you go to any traditional performance there’s a good chance this song will be played accompanied by the sanshin.