First-timer Road Trip to Okinawa – Part 2
This blog is a continuation of my earlier Okinawa travelogue (Part 1) which detailed the highlights from my coastal phase of the road trip and marks the transition from the relaxing and laid-back ambience of the northern part of the island to the hustle-bustle of Naha city in the south.
The itineraries flow from the north to south is ideal as the airport is located at Naha in the south. Starting a vacation from the south and ending in the north would mean long drive back to the city on departure day. Certainly not an ideal plan if I might add. Likewise, most of the shopping is done in the city and the items you saw in the north are usually available in the city. So an ideal Okinawa vacation would be to proceed straight to the north upon arrival (if enjoying the lovely seaside is part of your plan) and explore the island in a southerly direction.
A quick family shot before the hordes of local students swarms the place. Can you see the busloads of them at the back?
The floral and fauna of the park is all natural vegetation. It’s a public park with no entry fee. But as the park is a popular venue, I would advise going early about 8-830am to avoid the peak hour tourist traffic at between 10-11am, when many arriving tourist buses can jam up the narrow lanes leading to the park.
Mihama American Village
After about an hour drive from Cape Manzamo, we arrived at the Mihama American Village (Tel: 98-926-5678). The venue is a large entertainment complex located in central Okinawa Honto, where many American military bases are located. The American themed recreational complexes provide a nostalgic venue for residents of the bases as well as an interesting diversion for the locals. You will find it resembles a big American outdoor shopping mall with lots of shops, restaurants, cafes and large parking lots.
The A&W Ebi Burger with full-sized crunchy shrimps inside! You just have to try it. And of course with the Root Beer Float.
This is the spot which I feel best summarises the village – Ferris Wheel and the A&W fast food outlet. We only stay here for about an hour as our mind was more centered on reaching Naha city for the famed Kokusai Street and check into our next hotel.
Something caught my eyes – the frequent American military aircraft in the skies. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma (MCAS Futenma) is a United States Marine Corps base located in Ginowan, 9.3 km northeast of Naha. It is home to about 3,000 Marines of the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing and other units and has been a U.S. military airbase since the defeat of the Japanese Imperial Army in the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. Marine Corps pilots and aircrew are assigned to the base for training and providing air support to other land and sea-based Marines in Okinawa and throughout the Asia-Pacific region.
Community and Spa Naha Central Hotel
Our hotel, Community and Spa Naha Central Hotel (Tel. no: 98-867-3466) was perfect for its proximity to the famous Kokusai Street, at just about 2 minutes walk away. It’s also one of the few hotels in the vicinity that offer the quad-share family room. We were housed in the hotel new wing which has facilities like secured card-access lifts, automated WC with seat warmer, WiFi and even an ionizer in the room. I must admit the hotel name sounded weird at first impression but once we checked in, it feels homely and sufficient for good night rest. Travel time to the airport from this hotel is just 15 minutes by taxi (about 1300¥/S$16).
The hotel room was small as typical of most city hotels. What the room lacks in size, it excel in space planning, like the washbasin which is outside the bathroom. This frees up usage when the bathroom is being used.
The bathroom is very functional and well spaced. I must say I had one of my best rain-shower experience in this self-contained bath cubicle. For onsen session, the hotel annex includes Okinawa’s largest hot spring/public bath Rikkarikkayu, which hotel guest pays a fee of 1000¥ (S$12) each. The public rate is 1400¥ for an adult.
Kokusaidori (literally means “International Road”) is Naha‘s main street, stretching for roughly 1.5 kilometres through downtown Naha. The street takes its name from the former “Ernie Pyle International Theater”, a movie theatre that was built along the road after the war.
Starting around the Naha Bus Terminal and Prefectural Hall, Kokusaidori is lined with numerous restaurants, cafes, bars, hotels, souvenir shops, boutiques and department stores. Many shops open from 9.30 am onwards till 11 pm. This is the venue where shopaholics will go wild. A good starting point would be to venture into the colourful Heiwadori, which is opposite the McDonalds outlet. The shops in the arcade are smaller than those along Kokusaidori and are often made up of just a small booth and a single shop owner. Makishi public market is located in one of the alleyways, which offers unique Okinawa food including pigs face skin, pigs ears, seaweed, sea grapes and fresh seafood.
Sensory overload with hordes of items competing for your eyes and wallet. Many of the shops carry similar products so it’s advisable to check out the prices before buying. Some of the shops have tax-free transaction but you need to bring your original passport to qualify for the sales tax refund.
Get lost in the many turns and alleys? No worries, use the floor directory tiles as orientation guide.
A typical stall at the arcade. Sometimes, I can’t figure out what the stalls are selling as the displays are just so mind blogging. Wish I studied the Japanese language.
One souvenir you will see practically everywhere in the market is the Shisa, a traditional cultural artefact decoration often seen in identical pairs resembling a cross between a lion and a dog from Okinawan mythology. Shisa are guards, believed to shield people from some evils. Locals place pairs of shisa on their rooftops or flanking the gates to their houses with the left shisa having closed mouth while the right one with an opened mouth. The opened mouth wards off evil spirits and the closed mouth keeps good spirits in.
Lots of choices and lots of stalls at the Makishi Public Market. Choosing the right stall can be difficult but usually, the brightest and most crowded stall wins. Prices are controlled and fairly even throughout the fish market with clearly marked prices.
Fresh and tempting for seafood lovers. The price is not cheap but not costly either. Okinawa being an island has a long established maritime and fishery history.
At 1000¥ (S$12) for this platter, my wife said it was not really that fresh as we had it late in the afternoon. Perhaps it will be better in the morning? But we visit the market early at 9 am the next day, it was only just starting to commence business. Ideally go from 10 am onwards.
I am not quite a sashimi eater, so it’s pork rib ramen for me. Wide variety on the menu at the eateries.
One of the many eateries on the 2nd floor of the fish market. You can get them to cook your raw seafood purchased from the wet market (about 500¥ for up to three items) or order from their wide range of menu items.
You will see plenty of Kei or K-car (or kei jidōsha “light automobile”) on Okinawa roads. This is a category of small vehicles encompassing passenger cars, micro-vans and pickup trucks (kei trucks or kei-class trucks). They are designed to comply with government tax and insurance regulations and in most rural areas are exempted from the requirement to certify that adequate parking is available for such vehicle.
You will see the Smartphone culture have likewise “taken” over people’s life at Okinawa. It’s a worldwide phenomenon.
At night, the street takes on a new life and ambience. It might not have the vibrance of Tokyo night scene but it’s still nonetheless pretty lively and exciting.
Naha city takes on a new vibe at night. This was shot at the Kokusai Okiei Odori junction (near the Starbucks cafe).
We settled for dinner at Ajinotokeidai Ramen to further our love for local cuisine. There are so many ramen restaurants at Kokusai which are all good as we have not been disappointed by any of those we patronised.
Automated seam-less ramen ordering machine. Select the dish first, make payment, get the receipt, hand it over to the service staff and then sit down for your order to be served. Seems this machine is like an accounting system, order-taker and kitchen-barker all rolled into one.
A shop along Kokusai Street. What are they selling?
The Yukisio outlet along Kokusai (actually quite a few branches along Kokusai Street). There is also the popular Blue Seal Ice Cream. Okinawans certainly love their ice creams!
Yukisio Salty ice cream. The sea salt flavoured ice cream in the cup comes with a bit of corn flakes underneath. If you like milky ice cream, you should try it. They have 10 different flavours of salt for you to choose from, including purple sweet potato, green tea, coconut, yuzu (citrus fruit), etc.
Ashibinaa Outlets Mall
We started day 5 to satiate my wife’s penchant for shopping. And what better way to do it than at Ashibinaa (Tel. no: 98-891-6000). This outlet mall in Okinawa opened in 2002 and it’s very popular for both locals and tourists. It is easily accessed within 15 minutes by car from Naha Airport.
“Ashibinaa” means “Playground” in Okinawa dialect. This outlet mall is also great for families with kids because there are stores and events for kids. It’s especially crowded during weekends and evenings. We arrived at about late morning which saw us having the run of the place.
With more than 100 well-known domestic and international brand stores and lower priced than usual (approximately 30% to 50% off the regular price). Parking is free at the venue and there are also many restaurants and souvenir stores. I would recommend dropping by this venue towards the end of the vacation to avoid carrying loads of parcels.
Planes spotting at Senaga
Just a short 15min drive from the Ashibinaa Mall, I stumbled upon a great plane spotting venue at Senaga, when I saw a JASDF F15J warplane landing. The Naha civilian airport is also home to Naha Air Base of the Japan Air Self-Defense Force. For plane enthusiasts, this is a choice venue to enjoy watching planes as they whizzed close by. For solely military aircraft, the Futenma Air Base is about 45min drive away from Naha Airport.
Commercial airliners taxiing at Naha Airport to prepare for take-off.
A JASDF mid-air refueler – KC767, spotted at the Outlet mall coming in to land at Naha Airport. It was quite an experience to observe military aircraft sharing the same runway with civilian airport.
A Peach Airbus A320-214. Peach is a low-cost airline based in Japan, like Jetstar or Airasia.
From Senaga, it was just an easy 35min drive to Shuri Castle (or 首里城, Shurijō – Tel: 98-886-2020). An iconic landmark that should not be missed. The castle is included as one of the UNESCO World Heritage designated Castles of the Ryukyu Kingdom sites. Shuri Castle was originally built in the late 1300s and played a pivotal role in the political unification of the island. Wars and fires destroyed the castle multiple times over the centuries, most recently in the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. The current buildings are faithful reconstructions dating from 1992.
* Update – 11 Nov 2019. The Shuri Castle was destroyed in massive fire on 31 Oct 2019. The Shuri Castle Park partially reopened on the 5th Nov with restricted access.
The castle main hall is currently undergoing lacquer re-coating work, which lasts from April 2017 to late 2018 and is partially covered by scaffolding. As such, we chose not to pay the 820¥ (S$10) entry fee as there is already plenty to see around the castle free area.
View of surrounding area of the city from the castle vantage point. The castle’s hilltop location allows for nice views over Naha.
The castle perimeter courtyard. Imagine soldiers training and marching in the open space during the warring period.
A castle staff in traditional Ryukyu costume waiting to pose for pictures with visitors, for a fee. Costumes are also provided for visitors to look like royalty.
Nightlife @ Kokusaidori
When staying at Naha, one of the highlights is the street scene at Kokusai Street, particularly after dark when the street gets livelier. It’s interesting to observe both human and vehicular traffic. And I must say this is a very law-abiding society making travel to this city a safe affair.
At late evening, I was still able to see a “Sararīman” (salaried man in Japanese. It refers to a man whose income is salary based, particularly those working for corporations. It has gradually become accepted in English-speaking countries as a noun for a Japanese white-collar worker or businessman. Definitely pushing late hours here.
Peak hours traffic at Kokusaidori. Despite heavy traffic, the jam clears in a brisk manner and I don’t recall hearing any car sound their horn.
You may come across the Street Go-Kart Tour “Real Life SuperHero Go-Karting” when strolling along the main street. It is a fun way to see Okinawa and feel like a celebrity as many eyes will be on you. Certainly, an interesting activity if you want to spice up your Okinawa holiday fun factor.
Yes, your eyes are not playing a trick on you. This a Tuk-Tuk imported from Bangkok. Okinawa Tuk Tuk Co., Ltd has 17 units for rental by locals or foreign tourists at 3,758¥ for 1-hour rental.
Beef & Agu Pork @ Kaimana Rooftop Bar and Grill
As our vacation was drawing to an end, we decided to pamper ourselves with renowned local Ishigaki Beef and Agu Pork at the Kaimana Rooftop Bar and Grill (Tel.no-098-866-6788), having seen their advertisement at the street level. Just a short stroll from our hotel and we are in meat heaven, yakiniku-style.
Ishigaki beef – a finely marbled and tender type of Okinawan beef. Excellent texture and pleasant aftertaste. Ishigaki beef is of Wagyu category. There is about 139 Wagyu variety across Japan (concentrated in southern Japan). Wagyu means Japanese beef. Wa=Japan and Gyu=beef. Definition of Wagyu is pedigree cows which are 100% born and raised in Japan.
The Agu Pork, excellent local-grown pork. Okinawa has one of the highest consumption of pork. There are many brands of pork but this native black pig of Okinawa is the most popular. People call this pork “phantom pork” because there is so few Agu pork exist which received the quality guarantee. The texture of the meat is tender, rich and has a perfect balance of meat and fat. There are many dishes with Agu pork and they are served all over Okinawa.
Our final day of vacation before departing on the early flight the following day, saw us visiting Okinawa World (Tel.no: 98-949-7421). I am not quite a theme park person but having visited this venue, I must admit I did enjoy the experience. The park is about Okinawan culture with its main attractions being a massive natural cave, a craft village and a snake museum. But we only chose to visit the natural cave and craft village.
A ‘customary’ shot at the park entrance to prove we were there. Just for keepsake memories.
The limestone caves were spectacular. I have visited caves at Halong Bay in Vietnam and Kelly’s and Jenolan Caves in Australia but this cave holds its own. With a total length of 5 km, Gyokusendo Cave is the longest of the many caves in the south of Okinawa Island and the second longest cave in the entire country. 850 meters of the cave is open to the public and feature spectacular stalactites and stalagmites. The cave interior is warm and humid at 21° C, well lit and maintained and with easy non-slip walking paths.
The theme park was a cool and balmy 15’C but once inside the cave, spectacles or camera lenses fogged up in the humid warm 21’C. It took about 6-7 mins before the glasses acclimatized. You will love the amazing “blue” stream, which is crystal clear stream lighted by blue lights installed under water.
Spotted an eel, one of several, in the crystal clear stream. There’s also indigenous shrimps and fish. Wonder how they get there in the 1st place?
My ‘kokuto kori zenzai’ being prepared. It is a dessert with shaved ice topped with red beans, mochi and dusted with brown sugar shavings. At 350¥ (S$4.20), you feel like a tourist indeed.
‘Kokuto kori zenzai’ shaved ice with brown sugar, sweet beans and syrup. At 350¥ (S$4.20), it’s tourist-oriented price. In the city, it’s about 300¥ for the same thing.
This is Habu sake. Habu (波布) is a Japanese name used to refer to certain venomous snakes. The snake is said to be able to survive with only water for more than 100 days. The habu snake is carefully treated and the extract is stored and aged for a long time in 59% alcohol and then combined with 13 fragrant herbal liquors. Prices of the infusion vary depending on the size. The most expensive pick at around 130,000 ¥ (S$1854). Cheaper choices are priced about S$100 onwards depending on the content volume and concentration.
A couple of musical instrument artisans enjoying some free time at the park. They play the Sanshin – Okinawan three-stringed lute when paid by visitors.
Master glass artist at work. The story of glass craft is a story of war, hardship and rebirth. The island and its manufacturing were largely destroyed during World War II. Most Okinawans were either displaced or killed in the fighting. The craftspeople who returned to rebuild often found little more than rubble and were forced to make use of whatever materials were available. As the stories go, Okinawans started collecting the bottles discarded by occupying U.S. troops. Some say it was Coca-Cola bottles tossed from ships though it’s just as likely the island’s large number of military bases also produced a constant stream of discarded glass containers. The bottles were melted down and re-blown into a unique type of recycled glassware. Locally made glass caught on quickly with U.S. service members, who bought them as shipboard storage containers or souvenirs which in turn cultivated a base for the new industry. Through the ages, it has been refined and blossomed into one of the island’s proudest traditions. The local craft is now a magnet for visitors worldwide.
Feel the heat from the furnace. Volcano hot? The melting point of glass is 1350-1700’C. Really, really hot!
Genuine pearl for accessories. The park offers authentic cultured pearl extraction for customizing into accessories like hand-phone lanyard, earring, etc.
Stall artisan crafting our accessories order.
Having fun with the stilts and balancing clogs. Looks deceptively easy but is really difficult.
Eisa dancer at the end of vibrant and heroic traditional performance. Eisa is traditionally performed during Obon in Okinawa and surrounding islands. This scheduled Eisa performing art show is a must-see attraction. We were treated to various traditional performances of Okinawa, including Shishimai lion dance, Angama, Yotsudake. But NO video or pic-taking was allowed during the dance.
Visitors are invited to do the Bon Odori dance after the performance. Nice way to wrap up the occasion.
Cafe Yuu Yuura San
After exiting Okinawa World and rather than dining at the park touristy food outlets, we took a 5 min drive to Cafe Yu Yuura San (Tel.no: 98-948-4058). A cosy little cafe run by a couple. Good food at reasonable cost.
The cosy interior of the cafe is ideal for ‘instagrammable” pictures. The eatery overlooks a big sugarcane plantation.
The stir-fried Agu pork dish was spot-on. Just 800¥ (S$9.70) and includes rice and soup.
My order of fusion bento box was pretty too. 800¥ (S$9.70) It was certainly a great price for such a meal.
Teppanyaki dinner at Sam’s Sailor
Our last meal in the evening at Kokusai Street, teppan-yaki at Sam’s Sailor Inn (Tel. no:98-918-0808), along Kokusaidori, near the Starbucks cafe. I believe that’s the restaurant owner Sam himself. He even speaks a bit of Hokkien! The chain of restaurants are designed with a ship theme and came highly rated for their dining experience.
Our Okinawa Beef session coming soon. Diners are provided with bibs to minimise the oil splatter on their clothing. One of the highlights of this restaurant is the chef’s performance during cooking as they flip and throw their cooking utensils as they prepare your dishes.
Always a nice feeling to see your food being prepared right in front of you. The “volcano” fried rice is an interesting option to have in the menu packages.
This blog concludes my 2-parts Okinawa self-drive travelogue. Having enjoyed this Japan’s equivalent of Hawaii truly reminded me not to succumb to the preconceived impression of places which may not be accurate. The beautiful island of Okinawa certainly warrants future visits as there many other gorgeous islands waiting to be discovered. For readers on self-drive and with departure flight at a later date), please note that the car rental company provides complimentary shuttle to the airport, which is linked to the city monorail. From there, it’s about a 20min ride (300¥ /1 way) to the hotels at Naha city (alight at Makishi station).
*Important Blog Update (1 Nov 2019) – Any readers enquiring on the trip with Jetabout Holidays, that their staff – David Chua, has had his employment with Jetabout Holidays terminated effective 31 Oct 2019, for inappropriate conduct and business dealings. The case has been reported to the authority and currently under investigation.
Many sincere thanks for coming along my pixels journey. Should any readers be keen to go on a similar self-drive trip in the future, please feel free to drop me a message or check out Jetabout Holidays package HERE!
Footnote: All pictures used in this travelogue are copyrighted to Jensen Chua Photography and all rights reserved. The opinion expressed is factual, objective and that of the author. The trip is non-sponsored.