Friday, December 31, 2010

Visit to Okinawa

When planning this trip to Japan, I wanted to try to see some places I hadn't had a chance to when I lived here previously. One of these places was Okinawa, which many of my former students had raved about, so I decided to make it my last stop on my way back home.

I couldn't find much information on Naha, the main city in Okinawa-honto, and none of the guide books had very large sections on the whole of Okinawa at all (although Rough Guide had the largest, which is partly why I went with it). There's a good reason why: there's not very much for most tourists to do in Okinawa, unless you have a car and you are traveling at the high tourist season. I am doing neither. :(

On the other hand, the food here is fabulous. I have had several food 'moments' akin to my lunch at Ume no Hana. Given what I've written about with regard to Japanese food tastings on TV, I think I know why my students love Okinawa so much. Also, if you are into water sports and visit at a less wintry time, there is a lot of excellent diving and snorkelling here.

Unfortunately, it is too cold right now to even go to the beach; as NHK English news puts it, it is 'unseasonably cold' for Okinawa. It's roughly 8C here, and incredibly windy (so probably much colder with wind chill). I am wearing my winter wool coat and CBC scarf. I haven't resorted to my monkey toque yet, but may have to if this continues! So much for 'sub-tropical'!

I've decided to make the best of it, though, and so far have had some good experiences:
  • chatting with Japanese tourists from Osaka who were very friendly
  • chatting with a lovely old woman selling pottery in Tsuboya Pottery Village
  • eating jiimamii dofu (peanut tofu), my most favorite Okinawan food so far!
  • watching Okinawan New Year's Day celebrations at Shuri-jo Castle, and getting a free ride and Japanese narrative tour of Shikinaen Royal Gardens from a very nice taxi driver, Ota-san

This is despite the initial impression I got when I first arrived in Naha. I visited Kokusai-dori, which is a recommended sightseeing spot, but really didn't like the tacky souvenir shops and tourist-trap feeling I got there. Also, many people answered me in English and wouldn't interact in Japanese with me, and I didn't feel the same friendliness I did in similar tourist shops in mainland Japan. I think the key is to get away from those super-touristy areas, try to visit places most foreign tourists don't, and make a big effort to interact with locals. Once you do so, you will find this impression fades and traveling here can be a rewarding, if different, experience to traveling in mainland Japan.

One such place I visited was Ryukyu -mura, which I visited on the bus. There are many Japanese tourists here but very few foreign tourists. Unfortunately, it is extremely time-consuming and expensive to visit on the local buses! Thus I've booked two Japanese tours, one for tomorrow and one for the day after next, which include lunches, transportation, and most of the entrance costs to the sites we'll visit. In fact this is about the same cost or cheaper than going it alone, and I hope I'll get to see more of the island this way. Updates (and photos) to come!

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