An Okinawan Special – Part II

Back to lovely little Okinawa, my first Japanese travel adventure which really didn’t disappoint in any way. I was there for five days and although two of the days were spent diving beneath sea level, I felt Okinawa is a place I could really get used to, mainly because those remaining three days were filled with plenty of unique and interesting places to explore.  This is the second and final part to my adventures in Okinawa, but if you missed out on the first one, (which includes an excerpt about diving the Kerama Islands) feel free to make a detour read here.

Shurijo Castle Park

A short distance from Naha Centre, Shurijo Castle Park could be reached by taking the Yui Rail and alighting at the last station of Shuri. After an easy stroll, you’ll come to the Castle’s elevated grounds, which will eventually lead you to the main entrance of Shurijo itself. Here stands what once was the political stronghold of the Ryukyu Kingdom, which ruled over what is now Okinawa for about 500 years before its collapse and was eventually annexed to Japan.

It’s quite a standout castle to see unlike the only ones I have previously come across in their gothic or Hapsburg-esque style.The bright vermillion red against the green parklands that surround the castle make a striking contrast and if you didn’t know much about Shurijo like I did, you’d think that it has had a more recent makeover.  If you did, then you and I are on the right track. Shurijo Castle Park was completely devastated in the Battle of Okinawa in 1945 and was restored in 1992. Though Shurijo has seen better days, it is uplifting to know that the small oceanic kingdom of the Ryukyus was proud to stand as a bridging nation between those of Korea, China, Japan and even some Southeast Asian countries. It enjoyed a wealth of unique products and treasures at the height of the regime, so as always…in great attempts it is still glorious to fail.

Shuri Ryusen Coral Art

Now this is a gem of a place that I happened to come across while doing a blind walk in the suburbs surrounding Shurijo Castle. I was hunting for a good place to eat, but found an art studio specialising in dye printing.  What is unique about Shuri Ryusen is that it uses coral fossils to create unique print designs.  I had a great time getting all artsy, albeit hungry for almost an hour creating and printing my own design. If you’re short on time, or making your own art really doesn’t entice you much, then there are plenty of interesting fabrics and products downstairs for you to oggle at.

What made it doubly rewarding for me is that upon finishing my print, I asked the lovely shop ladies to recommend me a place to eat, and what followed was everything a foodie could dream of…

Dining in What Possibly Could be the Best Restaurant Setting in Okinawa – Ryukyu Sabo Ashibiuna (琉球茶房 あしびうなぁ)

I don’t even know for sure if this is the proper English name of this restaurant! Fortunately, armed with the careful instructions of the ladies of Shuri Ryusen and a business card, I walked back towards the direction of Shuri Castle Park to find what was for me, the best dining experience of my short time in Okinawa.

Set in a quiet street, the entrance of the restaurant is adorned with greenery, and a short path led me past a garden and its small water fountains.  Shoes were requested to be taken off, and my first step into the traditional restaurant, already gave me a great sense of calmness.  I walked passed rooms, partitioned by wooden screen doors. Guests were seated on mats in the traditional Japanese seiza style. At this point it was closer to 3pm and all I had were biscuits and tea – I was more than ready to join them. But what caught my eye despite the doors being closed, was the zen garden outside.  Oh nothing makes me more happy than to fill my empty stomach with tasty morsels while overlooking a great view.  I ordered a set of pork trotters soba noodles, served with an extra bowl of mixed-grain rice, pickles and a tumeric tea. I took in the aromas, the sights, the traditional Ryukyuan music playing to the gentle rain and gratefully ate my flavoursome meal. All my senses were alive. My belly was getting full. And all is right with the world.

Churuami Aquarium

Home to the world’s second biggest aquarium, this place is a bit of a hike to get to if you’re based in Naha like I was.  If I didn’t mention it before, I really recommend going around Okinawa by car. The coastal drives are amazing, and it’s just quick and easy to get around if you’re not planning to spend your entire holiday in Naha. I love roadtrips so why I didn’t heed to my own creed, is still something that annoyed me! Next time…

So why make the 3 hour hike (that’s right…each way by bus) from Naha to Churuami?

Need I say more? If you don’t scuba dive, or if you like me have been diving for sometime but a sighting of a whale shark still eludes you, then this is probably the next best place for you to see the world’s biggest fish up close.  They are still pretty darn impressive even in a tank, and though I’m a bit sad that these beautiful giants aren’t in the wild where they truly belong, at least this way more people will learn and appreciate these friendly beasts. Swimming right along side the whale sharks are other sharks of smaller stature, schools of fish, and nearly every ray species I know of. The aquarium grounds, also hosts pools for manatees and has an interesting dark room for visitors to see deep-sea creatures with their natural glow sticks and what have you. Whether by car or by bus, it makes a worthy destination for the commute.

So there you have it! A bit of everything in a couple of days on this island paradise. What is further surprising is the things I got up to outside of what I’ve already explored on this blog. I did not expect to come across the fun and easy-going residents, of those who seem to share the same sense of wanderlust and appreciation to be completely immersed in a different culture. These moments though small, are what I enjoy immensely about my adventures…not just in Okinawa but in all my travels. You just never know who you will meet, who will end up inspiring you to continue what your passionate about, or to just go crazy and enjoy a whole new experience. Certainly for this trip, I didn’t count on finding myself at an air force base with newly acquainted friends, or at a strip club and getting into misadventures (of which won’t be divulged)…

…well I’m certainly not one to say no to anything new.

So thanks Okinawa, it’s been a real treat!

An Okinawan Special – Part I

Part 1

During Spring break, I decided to make the most of the week-off by heading to a different country and chose Okinawa purely on the whim that it’s somewhere I’d never been before, and that I didn’t have to travel too far.  With not much plans other than scuba diving, I boarded a Peach Aviation flight and made the 1.5 hour journey from Taipei to Okinawa’s centre of Naha.

When in Japan…Visit a Cat Cafe

Funnily enough this was pretty much the first thing I did when I arrived into Naha. Only because I came across 猫カフェにゃんそ〜れ (literally translated to Cat Cafe) while walking to my hostel and decided ‘oh what the hell’.  At 800 yen per hour, you will have more than enough time to let the kitties entertain you.  More of a dog person myself, I found it a little overwhelming at first as it wasn’t just a few cats…there were fifteen or more in one room, most of them frantically running after each other. Still it was fun to play with the ones that were calm enough, and by the end of it all I was a little smitten with the kittens. Since I don’t know their Japanese names, I named my favourite Shachihata Ink (shortened to Shachi).

Kokasai Dori & the Public Markets (国際通り)

Kokasai Dori or International Street is probably Naha’s biggest tourist hub.  Shops, bars and restaurants line the 2km street and this is the destination if you’re after typical Okinawan and Japanese gift fare.  You can expect shop owners and restaurant staff to try and welcome you into their premises by handing out flyers or calling out to you (though rather politely because this is still Japan afterall!). I’m not a big fan of tourist-central but still think it’s worth a stroll or two as there are still remnants of the Ryukyu Kingdom which Okinawa was under from the 15th century before being annexed to Japan in 1879. Many restaurants offer live traditional sanshin (a 3-stringed instrument) performances and once you hit the smaller streets and public markets that run off the main road of Kokasai, the area becomes pleasantly modest.

Heiwa Dori, Mutsumi Dori and Ichiba Hon Dori are all arcade streets which branch off midway Kokasai Dori that house markets or smaller stores.  My favourite is the Makishi Public Market (牧志公設市場) that shows an impressive array of fresh seafood, and though packed with tourists, houses some decent eats!

Tsuboya Yachimun Pottery Street (壷屋やちむん通り)

As the name gives it away, this little street holds a sweet collection of handmade pottery and other craft pieces that any art appreciator, seasoned or not, would enjoy. I spent a good hour and a half gallivanting through each pottery shop that starts from the end of Heiwa Dori, which as mentioned above, is a street easily accessible from Kokasai Dori. As you exit Heiwa’s covered arcade, you will be met with open streets laid with pottery tiles and mythical lion statues, to show that you’re going towards the right direction. From there it is one straight road down to the pottery ‘village’, and the cute little shop fronts themselves are already a treat to the eye.  I wanted to buy everything while I was in some of these boutiques, and I don’t think I am even that much of a pottery enthusiast!

And finally, I saved the best for last…

Diving the Kerama Islands (慶良間諸島)

What is it about the ocean that always draws us close? I was born and raised on an island, moved to another island only to go holidaying on yet another island to do some diving at some more islands. The fact that I happen to choose destinations with an abundance of sea life is not purely a coincidence. And maybe it is because there are few scenes in the world that could make me feel completely relaxed yet exhilarated at the same time. The Kerama Islands were definitely one of those places where I got to do the things I love, be with my own thoughts without distraction, and all at once feel excited enough that I squeal bubbles.

Kerama is a group of islands located approximately an hour away from Naha by boat, and oh where to start with the beauty of them!  I’m not sure about other beaches in Okinawa, but Kerama was picture-perfect on the two days I was blessed with sunny weather for the dives.  The green islands seem to be untouched, and turquoise water practically crystal clear that when you look down to the water from the boat, you could easily see 20 metres beyond the surface…arriving at our first dive point, I was more than ready to jump in!

Eh? Not too shabby on the surface! But it’s underwater where the dazzle lies, and I have never seen so many marine life I did not recognise in one place before. The number of turtles spotted in one dive was also ridiculous! Water temperature is a balmy 24 degrees (centigrade of course) and you don’t have to go too deep to enjoy what these waters have to offer. Other sites visited worth mentioning is Komoshima Twin Rocks where we found white tip sharks, maguro (genus of tuna) and Okinawa’s favourite fish, gurukun. Chiibishi is good for drift diving, currents were rather strong when we were there and I only found out later that this is where sea turtles lay their eggs, hence why we saw so many turtles in this area!

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Special mention has to be given to Natsuki Komai of ダイビング Ant for Diving Life for taking these photos for me! The  interesting name itself was enough for me to contact the company in first place, but this dive service well exceeded my expectations. You could read my review of them on their Facebook Page (look for the only review in English at this stage, written on 30 May 2015) and if you would like to know further details of my personal account of the dives using this service, feel free to contact me.

That’s all for now, phew! Stay tuned for Part II where I venture outside Naha, feast on the island’s offerings and get acquainted with unexpected experiences!