June 15, 2011 | Travel | 1 Comment
“What are you doing for Golden Week?” A question frequently heard amongst ALTs as early as January. For some, it’s being planned in their minds almost as soon as they learn what Golden Week is – the appropriately named public holidays spanning over two weeks – meaning you only need two days of nenkyu to enjoy a full 10 days off!
For my Canadian friends and me, our destination was certainly going to be somewhere warm. Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand were discussed, but when it came down to it, we really felt we wanted to explore more of Japan.
We decided on the tropical paradise of Okinawa. We bought our tickets from JAL, paid easily at Seven-Eleven (oh, Japan), and on April 28th we took off from Haneda airport.
As soon as we touched down, we were greeted by innumerable orchids, floral print t-shirts, and warm ocean air! We definitely weren’t in Gunma anymore! We found our bus without much difficulty and enjoyed the sights of turquoise water and palm trees on the way to our car.
If you want to see more of Okinawa than just Naha, and want to see it on your own terms, you have to rent a car. Book more than a week in advance, or else you will get to experience a Okinawa from a Japanese-only tour bus, like we did!
We were able to rent a car, but because we booked late, we only had it for two days. So we made the most of it, doing everything North of Naha that we could.
After dropping our bags at a JET friend’s apartment close to Okinawa city, we headed to American Village in Mihama to try out some original Okinawan cuisine, Taco Rice… everything you’d find in a typical taco dumped onto a plate of sticky rice. If you like tacos and you like sticky rice, you should enjoy this dish as much as we did.
This hybrid of American-Japanese cuisine was a perfect representation of American Village itself, as if we were in America right in the middle of Japan. The shops were run by Japanese, but the patrons were almost entirely American. Being only 3 of maybe 10 gaijin in our town, this was the weirdest feeling ever!
We began the next morning with another cuisine hybrid – SPAM onigiri! That’s right, a typical seaweed and rice triangle, but with egg and SPAM inside; another oddity, but equally as tasty.
The day’s events began with sampling copious amounts of pineapple wine, cakes, cookies and chocolate at Nago Pineapple Park. The entrance fee was a mere 500 yen. If you are into pineapple, like I am, and you get a kick out of driving a remote controlled pineapple shaped car, whilst being quizzed about pineapple facts in Japanese, it is worth it. If not, maybe give it a miss.
Next was the famous Churaumi Aquarium in Northern Okinawa Honto, a must see. The 1,800 yen entrance fee included a ton of tiny aquariums and the main aquarium with manta rays and three giant whale sharks. If you’re lucky, you can grab a table in the café right night next to the glass and stare at these fascinating creatures forever!
Outside the aquarium, for free, you can see a fantastic dolphin show, the manatee and sea turtle aquariums, and some traditional Okinawan huts.
Last on our schedule was some traditional Okinawan singing back in American Village. 1,500 yen for an hour-long show… or two-hour show. We didn’t understand that they would break for 20 minutes and perform the same thing again. Luckily, it was pretty amazing both times and, as I was the birthday girl, I even got up on stage to dance with three Okinawan lovelies. A perfect way to end my Okinawan birthday.
For the remaining days of our trip we had to give up our rental car and settle down in Naha. So, I will give you my “osusume” and things to avoid if only based in Naha…
We stayed at a pretty decent place called Hotel Rasso Airport, which had three great points:
- It was cheap… 3,300/person/night – if booked through Rakuten.
- It was close to the monorail… key to staying in Naha without a car.
- It had an amazing complimentary coffee machine in the lobby!… Best way to start every morning.
Food & Drink
Sammy’s Teppanyaki on Kokusai Dori
If you’ve never experienced teppanyaki (where a chef cooks the entire meal right before your eyes, while doing tricks!), it’s definitely worth the 3,000 yen for the salad, soup, veggies, rice, a ton of meat, and of course, the entertainment!
The exterior of this restaurant is the only cool thing about it. The food was only so-so; the service, worse.
Eager Beaver, just off Kokusai Dori
Not only was the staff super friendly, the décor (hockey flags), games (foosball & darts) and food (poutine!) totally amazing, but you may just run into fellow Canadians! A JET friend of ours who left with us from Vancouver, but now lives in Shizuoka, walked in on the very same night. Amazing.
Japanese tour to see South of Naha
It cost about 5,000 yen and took us to the war tunnels, Peace Memorial, Okinawa World, and included lunch. Although I’m happy I was able to see these places, I wouldn’t recommend seeing them on a tour. You need more than 30 minutes to explore the tunnels and Peace Memorial, and definitely more than an hour to see Okinawa World. If you have a car, do see these places! If not, be wary. For us, especially because we couldn’t understand enough Japanese, the tour wasn’t worth the price.
Shuri Castle, Okinawa Prefectural & Art Museum
These are all destinations that only cost about 400 yen. You don’t need a car because they’re all close enough to the monorail and they’re all worth a visit.
A very long street where all of your omiyage dreams come true.
The hour-long ferry for Zamami leaves from Naha a few times a day and costs about 2,000 yen each way. It is a super-fun top-speed ferry ride through turquoise waters past beautiful tropical islands. We had no real plans for Zamami, but as soon as we arrived, the info lady told us to get on the 300 yen bus to the beach. This day turned out to be my favourite part of the trip because we were able to rent 500 yen snorkel sets and swim amongst tropical fish all day!
Best part of the trip vs. total rip. If you want to go snorkelling, go to Zamami (or another small island) and rent a cheap snorkel set on the beach. You can spend as much time and explore as much as you want. This was in contrast to the day after Zamami when we went on a 5,000 yen snorkelling tour on a boat about 20 minutes from Naha. We got into wetsuits and merely swam around the boat. The amount of fish was much more limited and the boat crew kept hassling us to try other activities (for an additional fee), such as tubing and scuba diving. It was a blatant money-grab and definitely not worth it. Other tours may be better, but be wary.
So, there you have it. Okinawa. I didn’t have many expectations going in, but I was blown away by how much I loved it by the end. What I did not mention was that the rainy season had just begun, so it was cloudy or rained almost every day. I was still so impressed. I think that’s saying something. If you have the chance before you leave Japan, definitely go visit awesome Okinawa!