Thursday, 24 March 2016

Things to see and do in okinawa, Japan

When I told people I was going to Okinawa, most people's reactions were "where's that?" and then "oh yea I've seen Karate Kid". 

Okinawa is a little island off the South Coast of Japan (it is actually closer to Taiwan and China though), visiting my mum's family. Floating in the Pacific Ocean, Okinawa is made up of several islands but I am staying in Naha, on Okinawan Island (the largest of the islands) where my family live.

picture from

When I arranged to come here, my intention really was just to come and chill out so that I could learn the language and my background/culture. I have been learning for a couple of years but it is only when you immerse yourself that you really get to grips with it, so this was my chance to speak to native speakers to practise.

However, since landing here (after a long and arduous 24 hours journey I would like to add), I have been non-stop busy! I didn't realise but there is actually quite a bit to see and do. Of course, I am mega biased. I have come here to practise my Japanese but also to learn about the culture, history, food, customs, what is is like to live here etc, so I have found everything I have done so interesting! It has certainly been a once-in-a-life-time-experience, and one I get to embrace for 5 weeks! 

soba noddles and a bit of study 

Okinawa Prefectural (and art) Museum 
Even if you are not a history geek, this is definitely worth a visit to get an insight into the history of Okinawa. As an Okinawan, even my mum wasn't aware of the in-depth history that has made Okinawa the island it is today. With a unique blend of differing cultures, wars and countries fighting it out to own the island, it has a varied and interesting history.

The Okinawans take pride in their unique cultures and traditions and after visiting here, it is easy to see why. It also made it clear to me as well, that whilst they are Japanese, they also have their own sense of identity separate to the mainland, such as foods, dancing, music and words. 

Shuri-jo (Shuri Castle) 
When I was younger, I don't think I was the biggest fan of castles. Apart from an annual summer trip to Heaver Castle in Kent (England), I don't think my parents subjected me to the whole National Trust castle/church/stately home thing. But then I made friends with a girl called Steph and ten years worth of friendship mean that I seem to now love a little bit of castle-ing.

Shuri-jo was the palace of the Ryukyu kingdom back in the day, where it was the the royal court and administration centre of the King and kingdom. It has been carefully reconstructed to represent what it was like, giving visitors a peek into Okinawan history. For a few quid too, you can also take a traditional tea of "sampincha" (jasmin tea) served with the traditional biscuits that they served a few centuries ago. Totally tasty by the way.

a classic shi-shi dog 
entrance to the castle area  
"afternoon tea" 
classic biscuits from the days of old 

Hyaku yen - the 100 yen shop
In England we have the pound shop but in Japan they have the 100 yen shop (hyaku means 100). But with a rate at the moment of about 150-180 yen to the pound, this is dam cheap!!! But unlike the English pound shop that is full of crap and tat mostly (sorry Poundland), the hyaku yen is full of pretty goodies, useful gadgets and handy utensils. It is all top quality too and most of it is so "kawaii" which means pretty in Japanese. They love a bit of pink, a sticker or two or a cute picture!

I went absolutely mental in the hyaku yen and was a bit worried when we got to the till and it was paying time, but it totalled to less than £25!!! I bought thank-you cards, stationary, oil blotters, snacks, bento boxes, cosmetics and kithen gadgets. They have pretty much everything and anything you want and need!!!

Go to a hyaku yen shop but make sure you also go with an empty suitcase!!!

All this for £25

If you have time, then a trip to "Churaumi" aquarium are worth a visit. I haven't been to an aquarium for ages (since I last went with The Boy and embarrassing him by squealing "look! a nemo") but as aquariums go, this is pretty good! There is plenty to see, and everything has an English narrative to it, so you'll understand the information. There is also a dolphin show outside at regular timings. I do enjoy a good aquarium but there is always a little part of me that wonders if the tanks are too small for them?!

With Okinawa's unique geographical positioning, it has a wealth of exotic marine life for you to enjoy and be mesmerised by. My personal fav were the huge manta rays and whale sharks in the main tank.

the large main tank at the aquarium

Public bath
This is one for the brave, curious or general nudist!
The Japanese love their public baths and yes, it does mean getting your kit off! I am not a prude but then again I am not accustomed to randomers seeing me stark bollock naked! I went to one attached to a hotel I was staying and seeing as it was free as a hotel guest, I thought why the heck not!

After stripping down, you take yourself to a 'station' to shower (shampoo and that is provided) to give yourself a good scrubbing. After that, you get into the hot bath for a relaxing soak. For me as a Westerner, it was a bit odd, essentially having a bath with naked strangers, but that's my cultural difference. The settings of these are always really nice, with jacuzzi like bubbles, hot rising steam (which also helps with hiding the nakedness) and a pretty setting of rocks and plants.

I went with my mum and being ridiculously short sighted I was totally blind when I took my glasses off. Note to future self - wear contacts or don't go with other people!!! Cos after I took my glasses off I couldn't see a bloody thing and when I lost my mum, I couldn't find her as the Japanese all looked the same without glasses on (she is always easy to spot in England!)... cue embarrassment as I went up to each woman sitting at the shower station, "inspecting" her to see if she was my mum!!! Being the only "gaijin" aka "foreigner" in there, they must have been pretty freaked out when this big (yea I am pretty big here) white girl came up to them, staring within two inches of their naked bodies, eyeing them up to see if they were my mum.

Ryukyu buyo - Okinawan Classic Dancing
One thing that I have leant since being here is that Okinawan culture is slightly different to Japan, and it has its own blend of culture and traditions, including a traditional dance. The classic style of dancing is my mums favourite, and the combination of dancing, drums and sanshin (like a little banjo) really makes her feel a sense of national pride.

One night we went to the local theatre/hall to see this. I must admit, for a Westerner, I didn't really get it and found it completely different to anything I had heard before, but as a cultural learning point, it was definitely worth seeing. It's quite high pitched and the dancing is slow and controlled, but the costumes are so pretty and the way everyone is in time is impressive.

loved these kimonos!!!

Sefu - Utaki 
we actually went here just to fill time whilst waiting for a ferry, but this world heritage site was worth the visit. Peaceful, calm and quite tranquil, it is an important sacred site in Okinawa. 

Reflecting the strong connection between the royal family and the religion, the sites for prayers at Sefa Utaki were named after important places in Shuri Castle. This place is particularly special as it appears in legends about the beginning of the Ryukyu. 

It doesn't take long to see but I found it fascinating to get a glimpse into history. 

Coming from London, I often find places abroad affordable, so with a really exchange rate at the moment (about 150 yen to the pound), I found Okinawa ok, however it was 180 yen to the pound last year! 
Japan is known for being expensive so I was expecting things to cost more, but then this is a little island, rather than the main island. A coffee will set you back about 300 yen, a noddle dinner for about 800 yen. Vegetables seem to be ridiculously expensive though (300 yen for a small punnet of cherry tomatoes) but if you are here and eating out, you probably won't notice that. 

I was staying with family so didn't use hotels or B&Bs. 

Getting Around 
Getting around isn't the easiest in Okinawa as there is only a monorail running up the spine of the island, and a few buses. Most people drive in Okinawa so if you don't drive, taxis are your next option or renting a car which seems to be very popular. Renting a car abroad is not something I am too familiar with (I have only rented a car in South Africa and Croatia) but is something I can recommend. Turo is a car rental  network that allows you to hire cars at the courtesy of local car hires, which sounds ideal I think. They seem the company that love an adventure! 

I love walking around a new place, so me and mum often relied on our legs to get us round, much to the surprise of locals! The island is very safe though, so I felt no dramas with this. There is a monorail too, which runs up the spine of Okinawa. They are frequent and easy to use but are limited to about 15 stops. 

X x X 

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