Finding Paradise in Okinawa

“We do not consider ourselves as Japanese,” said a shopkeeper to my friend while we were shopping through the bustling streets of Naha, Okinawa’s capital.  Who could question him when the places, the food, and the people look so un-Japanese.  Maybe this is what makes Okinawa a beautiful destination.

Being burned out from months and months of writing our respective theses, we wanted to go to a place that was very far from Kyoto – something very different.  Sapporo was the alternative, but we thought it would be better to take advantage of  Okinawa’s weather (and cheap tickets).  While booking inside the library, one of our classmates shouted, “Go to Zamami Island!  You can go camping there! It is just a 2-hour ferry ride from Naha and I highly recommend it!”  So we went on Peach, booked our tickets, and found ourselves on the plane a month later.  Our decision to go to Zamami Island led to one of our best experiences ever.  But more on that later.

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Okinawa in all its neon glory (c) mitaru07

Okinawa, particularly Naha, is a 2-hour plane ride from Osaka (from Tokyo, 3 hours), which makes it an ideal final destination for any Japan itinerary.  Transportation from the airport is very easy upon arriving in Naha.  It has the Yui, a 12.8mi monorail that runs through the city center, shuttling people from Naha Airport to Shuri Castle.  We got the 700 yen 1-day pass since we had quite an itinerary that day.  The monorail offers breathtaking views of Naha.  The architecture is different from that of Japan.  Buildings and houses are much lower and older-looking.  I could not help but notice the shortage of temples, too, after practically living with them in Kyoto.  The people looked different and looked more like a hybrid between a Chinese and a Filipino.  Think fair skin and bigger, rounder eyes.  I felt like I was back home!

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The Yui Monorail (c) mitaru07

Energy was running low so we were looking for a place to hit for lunch.  We chanced upon an Okinawa soba specialist and went in.  Okinawan soba was so simple: tofu, kamaboko (fish cake), rafute (pork belly), and beni shouga (ginger).  It was delicious and after a few slurps it was gone.

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Kinchichi’s Okinawan Soba. (c) mitaru07

 

Our first destination was Shuri-jo, which was nothing short of magical.  Admission is 820 yen but if you have a 1-day monorail pass, this gets reduced to just 660 yen.  It is the last station on the Yui monorail and should take about 30 minutes from the city center.  An absolute bargain, although I would have still gladly gone in at full price.  The ticket gets you full access to the history and innards of Shuri-jo.

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Inside Shuri-jo’s majestic walls (c) mitaru07

Shuri-jo or Shuri Castle was the epicenter of the Ryukyu Kingdom, which was an autonomous kingdom governing the Ryukyu Islands.  It was instrumental in international trade across the region, having facilitated trade between China, Korea, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Japan.  Walking through the main pathway, I could not help but notice the dark shade of red that lined the various structures.  This departed from the famous vermillion that covered the torii gates all over Japan.  Throughout its illustrious existence from the 15th century to the middle of the 19th century, the Ryukyu Kingdom was closely held by Japan under the tribute system until it was formally annexed in the 1870’s.

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Making our way through the many gates.  Take note of the red color. (c) mitaru07

The seiden (main hall) resembled that of a 16th-century Chinese court, featuring lavish gold fixtures, exquisite paintings, dragons, and black wood.  We found it really awesome to be able to go through the different halls and rooms of the seiden.  Going around the whole castle took us about 2 hours.

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The facade of the seiden was under construction. (c) mitaru07
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The Ryukyu King’s throne. (c) mitaru07
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A pair of Golden Shīsā, which is like a gargoyle. (c) mitaru07

We were famished.  It was a Sunday (and the last Sunday of the month) and we forgot to check if the Makishi Public Market was open.  After encountering a man that said the the only day the market was closed was during the last Sunday of the month, we went really irate.  We really wanted to try native Okinawan dishes there after watching an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown prior to the trip.  Sadly, this had to wait.  Kokusai-doru, the main shopping street parallel to Makishi Public Market, is a very busy place.  American influences in this place were pretty high as evidenced by the unusually large number of steakhouses and diners.  We were not really keen to try them and opted to visit Ootoya instead inside an Aeon MaxValu supermarket near Makishi station.  It was a good choice since we had to buy supplies for our trip to Zamami Island.

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Kokusai-dori at night.

And now, the most epic part of our whole Okinawa trip: Zamami Island.  From Naha, it is an ideal day trip.  If people see that the weather is nice, they’d head to Tomari Port immediately and buy tickets.  If you’re going in the off-season (like us), you can buy the tickets on the day itself.  There are 2 ferries jetting between Naha and Zamami – one is cheaper and the other more expensive.  The only difference (and you might have guessed it) is that the more expensive one takes an hour less.  Being broke students, we opted for the cheaper 4,400 yen roundtrip ticket (the other costs 5,970 yen roundtrip).  For the cheap ferry, there is only 1 trip/day and that one leaves at 10am.  If you are going during the summertime, you can book tickets on this website (http://www.vill.zamami.okinawa.jp.e.gz.hp.transer.com/ship/).  The ferry is quite huge and well-equipped.  It has plush seats, air-conditioning, and wifi.  There are also seats on deck for those who want the al fresco experience.  I usually get dizzy on ships due to the cradling motion.  But since Japanese technology is awesome, the engineers managed to fit stabilizers on this ferry to minimize the cradling.  Sugoi!

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Aboard the Zamami-3 docked in Tomari port. (c) mitaru07

The ferry goes through the 2 main islands of the Kerama archipelago: Aka and Zamami.  The two are just 30 mins. apart.  Aka is a much smaller island compared to Zamami.  Upon arriving in Zamami port, we could not help but gaze at the clarity and color of the seawater.  It was sparkling turquoise in the shallows and navy blue in the deeper parts.  Zamami is a small village.

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Best seats in the ferry. (c) mitaru07
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Part of the Kerama archipelago

According to a 2011 census, the population was estimated to be at around 580~ people.  There was a tourist-friendly information center right at the Zamami port where you can get maps in various languages.  The people can also speak english and are very courteous.  We learned that there are 2 convenience stores and a supermarket at the town center, which was a 5-min walk from the port.  It is possible to rent bicycles, motorcycles, and cars for those who would want to circumnavigate the 24km-island.  We do not recommend bicycles since the island is full of crests and hills.  Walking or taking the bus are better and cheaper options.

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Fascinating to see something so different from the rest of Japan.

The campsite was located in the western part of the island, just a stone’s throw from Ama beach.  There is an hourly bus that goes through the different beaches but this costs 300 yen.  It was an enjoyable 20-min walk going to the campsite where we happily paid 600 yen/person for 2 nights of camping.  People can rent almost everything from the campsite office (open 10am to 5pm): tents, sleeping bags, hot showers, toiletries, grills, etc.  It comes with cold showers, comfort rooms, kitchen, several charging stations, and a wifi hotspot.   What they don’t have is food so you’d have to bring it from Naha or buy from the town center near Zamami port.

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This store was where we got most of our food.  5 mins. north of the Zamami port.

We were very lucky that the weather was nice.  After pitching our tents and wolfing down our lunches, we headed to Ama beach (a popular breeding ground for turtles).  It was the afternoon already and the tide was very low.  This meant that the corals were on the sand, making it painful to walk especially if you don’t have beach shoes.  This turned us off in the beginning but as soon as we started to snorkel, all of that disappointment disappeared.  Ama beach had a good amount of marine life in it, especially if you go further.  The water was so clear that you could see corals and fish from 10-15 feet away.  The sand was white and soft and made for great naps.  What we liked about Ama beach was that there was nothing on the beach.  No noisy dive bars, hotels, and shops.  It was about experiencing the island life in its purest form.  For people who are worried about security, there is a lifeguard present from 10am to 5pm.

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Home for 2 nights! (c) mitaru07

After getting our snorkeling fix, we hiked up the Ama observation deck to catch the sunset.  The observation deck offers breathtaking views of the western part of the island, including the nearby islands.  Since we were getting hungry, we figured to go to the town center for dinner and to refill our food stocks.

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Sun and sand.  (c) mitaru07
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The crew at Ama observation deck.
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The Okinawan sunset.

We had dinner at an Asian-Okinawan fusion restaurant called Amulet, which was owned by a cool Chinese guy who could speak a variety of languages.  They had good food, big servings, great ambiance, and a stocked bar.  We had green curry, pizza, and sandwiches.  To cap it all off, we brushed the food down with some Okinawan sake.  Only the town center had electricity at night which meant that going back to the campsite was going to be a dark journey, in the literal sense.  For those who are sensitive to bugs and insects, make sure to bring insect-repelling clothes and lotions.   We said our goodnights and hit the sack.

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Ama beach! (c) mitaru07
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At Amulet for food and drinks!

It was a night to remember, especially for the women in our group.  Insects and the lack of overall creature comforts were the main complaints.  But other than those, it was a quiet night.  There were no wild animals roaming around (apart from a cat and some crows) and there were no eerie noises.  We had breakfast on Ama beach.  Some of us made sandcastles, one continued his sleep on the beach, some stayed in the tents, while I skipped rope.

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The dog, Marilyn, who swam to the island across to meet her dog boyfriend, Shiro, who had his own statue there.  The story almost made us cry.

Next on our itinerary was Furuzamami beach which was popular for its white sand and vast snorkeling areas.  It was on the eastern part of the island.  We trekked to the town center, bought lunch, and then walked east.  Though the road was quite steep, getting to Furuzamami beach was an enjoyable  20-min. walk from the town center.

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Orion, Okinawa’s local brew.

Upon descending the winding roads, we found ourselves awed at the 2km.-stretch of white sand that greeted us.  Furuzamami had more activities that Ama.  It had 2 restaurants, rentable beach seats, parasols, kayaks, jet skis, banana boats, and snorkeling equipment.  Diving could also be arranged.  Upon settling our stuff on a huge rock, we immediately set off for the water.  The guidebook could not have said it better.  Furuzamami was a snorkeling paradise that made us forget about Ama beach.  It was teeming with colorful corals and fish of all sizes and colors.  We must have spent hours snorkeling around.  The remarkable part is that we did not have to go far to see the marine life.  It was about 5 feet from the shore!

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Furuzamami beach.  (c) mitaru07
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Posing frenzy at one of Furuzamami’s rock formations.  (c) mitaru07
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Getting toasted in the sun.  (c) mitaru07

Here are some shots from my friend’s GoPro:

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Blue fish! (c) tranthientri
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Zebra fish! (c) tranthientri

For our last night, we wanted to grill some vegetables, fish and meat to complete the camping experience.  We went to the only supermarket in the island, 105, and got some chicken thighs and fish.  Sundown was fast approaching so we decided to leave the stuff we got near our tent and headed to Kaminohama observatory.  It was a steep 20-min. walk from the campsite but the trip was worth it.  It was even better than the Ama beach observatory.  The clouds seem to have gone with us and covered most of the sunset.  Even so, we took our time here taking photos of the rest of the Kerama archipelago.  Upon reaching the campsite, we found out that the crows had feasted upon the fish that we bought.  Luckily, we still had the chicken,  For 1000 yen, we rented a grill that came with charcoal and some cutlery.  The group came together in prepping the meat and the vegetables.  We had barbecued chicken, zucchini, eggplant, onions, and carrots.  We even had some soy and chili sauces to serve as dips.  It was the perfect island meal.

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Grilling time! (c) mitaru07
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Eating time! (c) mitaru07
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Lighting up some sparklers at Ama beach.  (c) mitaru07

The next day, it poured.  Heavily.  We packed up in the pouring rain and took the noon bus back to Zamami port.  I could tell everyone was sad to leave the paradise that served as our home for the last 2 nights.  But the day had to come.

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At the Kaminohama observation deck.  It was getting really cloudy.

Surprisingly, it was sunny back in Naha, and we set off for our last night out.  We immediately hit Kokusai-dori to have dinner at Makishi Public Market.  The market was air-conditioned and very clean.  It had the biggest live seafood selection I had ever seen.  Mountains of king crabs, lobsters, oysters, and fish greeted us as we passed by.  For a fee (500 yen at the least), buyers could have their loot cooked upstairs in one of the 2nd-floor restaurants.  We chose Dotonbori for their extensive menu of native Okinawan dishes.  Some of us ordered the local fish, gurukun (banana fish), some ordered the maguro set and a sashimi platter, while I had goya champuru rafute.  Everything was so delicious.  Goya is an Okinawan bitter melon which is similar to ampalaya in the Philippines.  Champuru is a stir-fry of sorts that includes egg, tofu, fish, and…SPAM!  Rafute is simmered pork belly in sugar and soy sauce which reminded me of the Philippines’ asado.  At first, I didn’t think it would work but this cacophony of ingredients made perfect sense once eaten.

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Goya champuru rafute in all its healthy, fatty goodness.

 For dessert, we made sure we tried the local Blue Seal ice cream and the beni-imo tarts (sweet potato, like ube).

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“Born in America.  Made in Okinawa”  This one is shikwasa (tangerine).

For our nightcap, we headed on to Dojo Bar which was shown in the Parts Unknown documentary we’d watched before.  The bar looked and felt like a real dojo, but with a bar.  It was dim and the ambiance was good.  The cool bartender, Jun, spoke perfect english and told us stories about the bar and Okinawa.  Okinawa is considered to be the birthplace of karate and there were about 500 dojos scattered across Naha.  Even some of the bartenders were students of the bar owner, an English karate master, who came to Okinawa just to learn the martial art.  Judging from the thousands of testimonials on the wall, Dojo Bar was a mecca for karate practitioners all over the world.  No one in our group knew the martial art, but we were more than welcome in the bar.  They even asked us to write in one of their walls!  It was a story tale ending to our wonderful Okinawa trip.

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Inside Heiwa Dori.  (c) mitaru07
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Our very own corner at Dojo Bar!  (c) mitaru07

Okinawa truly is a unique destination.  It does not look, feel, taste, or smell anything like the Japan I know.  The shopkeeper at the beginning could not have said it better.

Okinawa is Japan, but only on paper.

Special thanks to  mitaru07 and tranthientri for the photos!  You guys made our whole trip a memorable one.