The final leg of my three-part-trip was a destination that far less resembled the ceaseless spiritual sites I experienced on both Hiroshima and Izumo. With roughly 24 hours on the clock, I was more than ready to soak up the Okinawan sunshine and experience a different side of the Japanese archipelago on one of the southernmost islands reminiscent of Southeast Asia or Hawaii—the colorful Okinawa capital of Naha.
It was hard to contain my excitement as my flight was preparing to touchdown and the view from my window seat revealed a lush island paradise surrounded by endless stretches of pristine, almost transparent blue water. Although I had embarked from Haneda on a chilly spring morning, in less than three hours I managed to seamlessly arrive at the welcomingly warm Naha Airport.
For budget-conscious travellers wanting to fly without sparing much comfort, I would recommend venturing on JAL’s Japan Explorer Pass—an airfare (one-way ￥10,800) that allows foreign visitors to fly to popular domestic travel destinations that even the Japanese regard as exotically foreign.
From there, I took the public transport link from Naha Airport to the city center by riding the Yui Monorail, which also offers visitors reasonably priced tickets (￥200 to ￥330 depending on the distance). Having prearranged a “shisa”—ubiquitous, almost gargoyle-like, lion-dog statuettes—course in Naha’s Tsuboya Pottery Street (壺屋やちむん通り), I took my suitcase in tow to Makishi Station (牧志駅). With some time to spare before delving into the timeless tradition of Ryukyuan pottery, I opted to try some unique eats that could only be found on Japan’s subtropical alter ego.
A concrete boulevard lined with colorful storefronts and palm trees, Kokusai Dori (国際通り) is the literal embodiment of its name that translates to “International Street.” While you won’t find quintessential Japanese dishes in this bustling tourist district, you’ll definitely be tempted by a waylay of mouth-watering aromas arising from a myriad of hodgepodge culinary establishments.
From “taco rice” (a Japanese-Mexican mix of taco filling and tomato-accented rice) to Okinawa soba (a pork broth noodle soup that could rival ramen with its meaty toppings), you can noticeably see and taste the cross-cultural interaction of flavors and ingredients unlike anywhere else in Japan. After a brief decision-making bout, I opted for the Japanese rendition of “tacos” at Tacos-ya (タコス屋) which proved to be a hit for this San Franciscan, who has been raised off of this South of the Border fare.
After satiating my hunger, I meandered through a “machiguwa” (まちぐゎー), the local word for marketplace, until I reached a coral-and-limestone-paved street decorated with beautiful pieces of pottery—or as they would say in the Okinawan dialect, “yachimun” (やちむん). I had finally arrived at Tsuboya Pottery Street, a historic Naha neighborhood that has been the center of ceramic production for more than 330 years—firing up traditional kilns since 1682.
At Ikutouen (育陶園), the atelier where I would create my very own lion-dog (“shisa”), I learned that “yachimun” is unique not only stylistically, but also in terms of the Okinawan soil used in the production of earthenware clay. Producing a one-of-a-kind souvenir that preserves the traditional crafts of Ryukyu culture was well-worth the time and money—an hour from start-to-finish at a cost of ￥3,000—and the definitive highlight of my trip.
Still yearning to learn more about the local culture, I deciphered through much tourism hype and decided to frequent an inconspicuous neighborhood eatery located on a side street off Kokusai Dori. At “Yunangi” (ゆうなんぎい), I was confident I would be able to connect food with culture, especially since this local establishment had the words “kyodo ryori” (郷土料理) and “awamori” (泡盛)—“local specialities” and an indigenous alcoholic drink distilled from long-grain rice—written in the restaurant’s name.
Although there was a short wait, once the “B-Dinner Set” (also known as “teishoku,” 定食) arrived at my countertop-seat, it was absolutely amazing and unlike any Japanese cuisine I’ve tasted on the mainland. This generously-portioned sampler set came with “jimami tofu,” ジーマーミドーフ (a snow-white “peanut tofu” with a smooth, soft texture), “kuubuirichi,” クーブイリチー (a braised kelp and pork dish), “mimiga,” ミミガー (thinly sliced pig’s ear boiled and seasoned with ponzu), “rafute,” ラフテー (a succulent slab of pork belly stewed in soy sauce and brown sugar), “fu chanpuru,” フーチャンプルー (“fu” meaning wheat gluten that is stir-fried with eggs, vegetables, and meat), and a side of white rice and “inamuruchi,” いなむるち (Okinawa-style pork miso soup). Sharing the love with locals and fellow tourists over a glass of awamori had never been so much fun!
The following morning, I took the Yui Monorail to Shuri Station (首里駅) where the eye-catching, crimson-colored Shuri Castle (首里城) was a scenic 20-minute walk away. Once the residence of the Ryukyu Kingdom, stemming from the 14th century until its annexation by Japan in the late 1880s, I could immediately recognize architectural influences from China. From the powerful red accented walls to decorative dragons embellished on pillars and curved rooftops, the Shuri Castle was yet another example of Okinawa’s unique appropriation of foreign influences. Although it was demolished during the Battle of Okinawa (1945), both the historical point of view and the view from uphill make this reconstructed castle a must-see archeological site!
With my time on this island paradise inching to an end, I managed to squeeze in a little shopping and another round of “taco rice” at Sengajima’s Umikaji Terrace—a charming seaside terrace located 15 minutes by car from Naha Airport. As I passed a cluster of eateries and chic boutiques offering island-inspired apparel and jewelry, I delighted in the simple pleasures of a sea breeze and a superb ocean view overlooking the same pristine waters I initially saw from the airplane window. While my return back to the main island was inevitable, it was apparent that, in a mere 24 hours, I had fallen deeply in love—in love with the beautiful ocean, the skyline, the sunset, the distinct dishes, the colorful culture, and the thrill of new adventures and travel connections forged on this earthly paradise. And this is only the beginning of my budding romance with Okinawa—an island oasis away from home, only a plane ride away!