May 28-June 1
Compare and contrast. It’s literally a few seconds before we leave Tokyo: we’re on a JAL plane and it’s just pulling out onto the runway. And as we look out of the window, we can see a small collection of JAL staff standing on the tarmac waving us goodbye. Isn’t that lovely?
A couple of hours later, we’ve landed at Naha Airport, on the island of Okinawa. We’re just about ready for something to eat, so we go to the first airport restaurant we see after the arrival gate. We stand at the door waiting to be seated. Eventually someone comes out, points at a less interesting restaurant on the other side of the concourse, and walks away again. I don’t speak the language, but I get the distinct impression that within five minutes of our arrival in Okinawa, we’ve been told to fuck off. This may not be a promising start.
To be fair, it picks up a bit after that. Eventually, anyway. After a basic snack of chips and iced tea from the other restaurant, we take our first trip on Naha’s monorail to our hotel, the Lohas Villa. Here are the rooms. Look nice, don’t they? And they are, sort of. But the website is a tad deceptive. To be honest, alarm bells should have been going off when we clocked the room price, which was half of what we paid for the Sawanoya (and one-quarter of the price of the Dai-Ichi).
Our room has a lovely design (all wood and elephants), a gigantic telly, free wifi, and – obviously – a bed. And that’s where it all stops. Because we’re actually staying in a backpacker hostel that just happens to have a couple of private rooms in it. On our floor, there are two dorms (one male, one female), our double room, and a shower and loo that we all have to share. If you want a washbasin, that’s located on a balcony overlooking the street. The BBG is a little freaked out by this, but it makes me think that I’m in the opening bit of Apocalypse Now. (“Naha. Shit.”)
Still, at least we’ve got aircon, which the dorms don’t appear to – whenever I go out to the washbasin, I have to walk past the open door of a room full of sweaty sleeping girls. The aircon in the private rooms appears to be a new feature, judging from the hints given in the instructions for the meter. Sorry, did you miss that? YOU HAVE TO PAY FOR THE AIRCON. 100 yen for every two hours, which isn’t that bad really, but does make you think long and hard about how much time you’re going to spend in your room.
Don’t get me wrong – if you’re looking to do Naha on the cheap, Lohas Villa is brilliant. But we’d carelessly gone into it expecting something along the lines of a ryokan, and found ourselves stranded without all the little things you’d expect to be provided: towels, nightwear, drinking water, fresh air and so on. Nevertheless, you adapt. One of my rugby shirts is put aside as a communal nightshirt so that we’re not going out to the loo with nothing on in the middle of the night. The Family Mart convenience store round the corner sells us a large bottle of water and a cheap towel, which covers two of the other things we were missing. And that purchase gives us the change we need for a night’s aircon, so we’re sorted. We celebrate by playing my newly-acquired Kyary Pamyu Pamyu DVD on the big telly, which must have confused the girls in the dorm next door.
And you can’t argue with the position of Lohas Villa – a few minutes away from the monorail station and a few seconds away from the main street (with the tourist information office virtually next door to Lohas). Naha, when you look at it closely, is very much a city for foreigners – if the foreigners aren’t tourists, then they’re the American soldiers based here. It means that you’re rarely far from an English menu, but it also means that you’ve got to dig through a lot of stuff that’s aimed specifically at those markets to get at the interesting things.
Everywhere you go, you can hear the distinctive sound of the sanshin, the instrument most closely associated with the island. Amazingly, it turns out that I already know a couple of classic Okinawan tunes, because they were covered by Ryuichi Sakamoto on his album Beauty (Asadoya Yunta and Chinsagu no Hana). However, when you can hear them coming out of every shop doorway, they start to lose their appeal. At one stage, I was considering a sanshin lesson as one of the tourist activities we could try – by the end of our time here, I was almost looking forward to never hearing one again.
But there are plenty of market stalls nearby in a labyrinthine collection of arcades, offering a wide variety of goods, including unexpected things that keep recurring from shopfront to shopfront. The most bizarre sight is the frequent use of packs of toy dogs to display t-shirts. Shisa statues are also popular, the big demons traditionally placed outside buildings to theoretically guard you against fire – but you won’t be able to buy examples as good as the ones on display in the Tsuboya Pottery Museum, a nicely laid-out history of the ceramics industry in the region. Built on the ruins of a former kiln, one of the most astonishing things on display turns out to be a section cut from the ground below it, showing the archeological layers as successive versions of the kiln were destroyed and built on top of each other.
All of that’s more or less within walking distance of the Lohas. (As is Sakurazuka Theater, the cosy arts centre where we caught Shinya Tsukamoto's film Kotoko, subsequently reviewed on Mostly Film and released with English subs by Third Window.) The excellent Yui Rail monorail service will get you more or less anywhere else you need to be in Naha, running as it does through the spine of the city. It’s cheap enough to just ride the whole thing for pleasure, or for high-speed sightseeing (see video above). At one end of the line, you have the airport: at the other end, there’s Shuri Castle, one of Naha’s finest attractions. On a hot day like the one when we visited, it’s a long uphill trudge – I dunno, you’d think they deliberately make castles hard to get into – but once you’re there, it’s a fine example of Japanese castle architecture, with a terrific view of the city from the ramparts. The design style is a little haphazard at first glance, showing distinct signs of Chinese influence: but it turns out this is entirely to be expected, as the Okinawan kings did a large amount of trade with the rest of Asia, and this fed into the island culture. If you go, be sure to call in the tearoom for a traditional tea and bickie break.
The traditional Okinawan diet has a reputation for being particularly healthy, leading to a long life expectancy and a high number of Okinawan centenarians. There's even an "Okinawan Diet" supposedly based on it. Even though I don't "do" diets - and the claims of them are invariably unscientific and to be taken with a pinch of low sodium seasoning - I always like to eat the local food when I can.
We got to try some traditional Okinawan - and extremely tasty - food at Akasatana, a lovely little place inside Naha market. Traditional Okinawan ingredients include pork and goya (bitter gourd). Spank had the Okinawa Soba, which focussed on the former, while I had a set lunch which included a Goya Chambaru (a stir-fry of goya, tofu and beansprouts) and a delicious side vegetable dish with a tangy vinegared sauce. A highly recommended lunch location.
Probably my favourite Naha meal was had in Hanasakishuka Ti-da, a rather more sophisticated traditional Okinawan restaurant in the Omoromachi district, which we only happened across because it was advertised in the monorail guide booklet. Greeted at the door by kimono-clad staff, you are taken to a private room in traditional style for a delicious meal of Okinawan cuisine. This time Spank had the Goya Chambaru (which in this version included pork) and a tempura of rakkyo (a type of oriental onion). I ordered a sushi roll of tuna and avocado and some fried sweet potato, another common local ingredient. And we shared a wonderful dish of local fish simmered in sake and lemon. With a local Orion beer each, the bill came to 6,198 yen, one of the most expensive meals we had on the trip, costing more than any we had in Tokyo. But for the food and the atmosphere, it was worth every yen.
It might be nice on a future trip to Okinawa to get to some of the more remote islands. We did make a day trip to the nearby island of Zamami, and while we were there we found a delightful little place for lunch. Kafushi-do is a cute cafe with nice food and friendly staff. For lunch, Spank ordered Taco Rice, a dish commonly found in Okinawa, which takes the basic idea of the Tex-Mex Taco and replaces the tacos with rice. A real mix of modern-day Okinawa's Japanese and American influences. I had a different "tako" - octopus ("tako" in Japanese) served raw, mixed with wasabi and okra. Both were tasty and filling. For background music, they had a tape of Ghibli favourites played on the Sanshin, which Spank got me to enquire about, and later bought online. [See Amazon link below - Spank]
There are plenty of restaurants on the Kokusai Dori main drag in Naha which provide entertainment to accompany your meal. But with Sam's Sailor Inn, the cooking of the meal itself is the entertainment. The food sold at Sam's (and others in the chain) is Teppanyaki - a choice of steak or seafood, so Spank and I were both satisfied - and the chef prepares it in front of your eyes with flair, twirling their cooking implements around like a juggler. The food was pretty good, too. Spank had the tenderloin steak and I had scallops and shrimp. Both were served as full course dinners, with a vegetable soup, salad, potatoes and vegetables (also grilled on the teppanyaki) and rice (bread available as an alternative). The young Japanese women next to us ordered fancy cocktails bedecked with fruit and flowers, but we stuck to beers. Our bill came in at 6,300 yen, making this the single most expensive meal of the holiday. But you are paying for the entertainment, too, and it is a fun place.
Lastly, we had to have one meal in one of the restaurants providing traditional Sanshin performances to accompany your meal. Walking down Kokusai Dori, you will be accosted by many restaurants claiming they have the best musicians, or their prices are best, or they have no mark-up for the music. I think part of why we settled on Okinawa Dining Ryutan is that they didn't actually have anyone doing that, at least when we were there. The menu at most of these restaurants gets familiar quite quickly. Between us we had a fair selection of the traditional Okinawan dishes on sale: umukuji andagi (a sweet potato dish), rafuti (a belly-pork dish), Gurukun aasa fry (a dish made with the Okinawan prefectural fish), hirayachi (an Okinawan okonomiyaki), ika yakisoba (squid and black squid-ink noodles), tofu yo (intensely strong fermented bean-curd, eaten in tiny amounts at a time). Washed down with a couple of Orion beers, the bill came in at 5,250yen, which included any mark-up they may have had for the music. The entertainment consisted of a woman singing and playing the sanshin and a man on guitar, playing Okinawan folk songs, several of which were familiar from the piped music to be heard on Kokusai Dori. Not being an expert I can't say whether they were any better or worse than any of the other restaurants' musicians, but it seemed good enough to me, and made an enjoyable accompaniment to the meal.
As noted by our food correspondent above, we only made one day trip off the main island of Okinawa during our week there. We'd always intended to visit Zamami (a couple of hours away from Naha ferry port), inspired by one thing and one thing only: the legend of Shiro and Marilyn. Shiro was a dog, living with his master on Aka island, and the pair of them would regularly travel over to Zamami. Marilyn was another dog, living on Zamami. Shiro became so smitten with Marilyn that he ended up swimming the 3km between the two islands to be with her. Yes, it’s a cheesy story, and yes of course they made a film about it (that's the TV ad for it on the right), and yes of course there are commemorative statues of the dogs on their respective islands. That was enough for us, really.
The one concern we had was that the weather had been a bit iffy in the days leading up to our planned day trip, and there was every possibility we could turn up at 10am only to find the ferry was cancelled. Or, even worse, that the ferry back would be cancelled and we’d have to do a Shiro to get back home. But everything worked out climate-wise, and we had a pleasant enough trip across. The first thing you should do if you fancy replicating our daytrip is head straight from the boat into the tourist office located in the bay, and pick up one of their handy maps. You’ll quickly realise that, as we’d planned, a couple of hours is enough to see everything worth seeing and get lunch as well. In fact, most of our trip was spent either trying to choose where to go for lunch, finding the post office, or tracking down the Marilyn statue. (It’s small, but worth the effort.)
Back on the main island, if you’re looking for historical information about Okinawa, the castle isn’t the only place to go. If you’ve bought a monorail pass, you’ll find it gives you a 20% discount on the entrance fee to the Okinawa Prefectural Museum. The museum shares a building with the city’s art gallery, so there’s potentially a whole day’s worth of exhibits to explore – which makes it all the more disgraceful that thanks to our packed schedule, we could only spend an hour there. We focussed on the main hall, which gives a brilliantly clear overview of the history of the island: the rise of the Ryukyu kings (as depicted in the castle), their open trading relations with other nations at a time of Japanese isolation, their eventual downfall, and the whole awkwardness of the Americans a) moving in after the war and b) moving out again in 1972 just as the Okinawans were getting used to the money they were bringing in.
For a less rigorous view of Okinawan history, go to the bus station, pick up one of their gigantic free timetable books, grab a packed lunch from the nearby branch of Coco (the island’s own convenience store chain), and head off to the Okinawa World theme park: the sort of tourist experience where you don’t just exit through the gift shop, you have to enter through one too. Once again, thanks to a packed schedule we only had two hours to explore what’s basically a day’s worth of activities, so we limited ourselves to three, not including a quick glance at the Kingdom Garden on the way out.
The Super Eisa traditional dance show is fun and noisy, with lots of photo opportunities, tempered by a couple of members of staff permanently standing by to prevent you from taking pictures. The Habu snake show is scary but entertaining, displaying some of the larger and more poisonous varieties to be found in Okinawa. (One of the highlights is a swimming race between a sea snake and a mongoose: the English language leaflet claims that the show used to climax in a fight between the two, until people complained for some reason.) And the Gyokusendo Cave walk is astonishing, around a kilometre’s worth of underground, dimly-lit, stalactitey goodness. (Leave yourself an hour for that one, and try not to think too much about the possibility of them closing up the park while you’re still in there.)
The bus to Okinawa World is cheap and reliable - as are all the buses in Naha, if not all the buses on Okinawa. Which is just as well, because buses are the only method you’ve got of travelling anywhere on the island. Which is the cue for the final part of our journey…
[next: June 1-4]