A few weeks ago, Peach Airlines had a HUGE sale and round-trip tickets to Okinawa and Sapporo for a few select weekends were less than 120 bucks, including tax. The only problem was one of my best (and longest) friends from back home was coming to visit that weekend. The solution? Have her come with! And so, after a brief poll, our trip to Okinawa began!
Consider this your guide to planning a college budget(ish) trip to Okinawa from mainland Japan for the weekend.
There are two things you need to know before reading this post. First is a little bit of Okinawan history and geography. Japan as we know it, from Hokkaido (the tippy top huge island) to Okinawa is a relatively recent invention. Okinawa Prefecture is the modern name for the Ryukyu Islands, which were conquered by Japan only in 1879! That means there are literally millenia of history that were not influenced by mainland Japan, a little bit of which I will talk about later. Okinawa was also a main site of US occupation post-WWII, and is the site of the main army base that is still in Japan. All of this means that Okinawa has a pretty distinctive culture from the rest of Japan. It also is very different temperature-wise. Okinawa is known for its beaches, snorkeling, parasailing, and general ocean life. Much more like the Caribbean than Tokyo!
The second thing is that this trip was a collection of people, some of whom had met each other, others of whom hadn’t. The only thing the four of us had in common was we were all in Japan and we all went to the most wonderful high school on the planet, Whitney M. Young Magnet High School in Chicago. A.K.A the school Michelle Obama went to #represent.
So it was all shaping up to be a pretty interesting week. However there were two things we did not take into consideration when we bought our tickets, and you DEFINITELY should.
- Okinawa is in the southern pacific so everything comes early – sakura, summer weather, and more importantly 梅雨. That last one being the rainy season. So it was forecasted to rain the ENTIRE WEEKEND. Not exactly good for our snorkeling plans.
- Okinawa is not like the rest of Japan, particularly Tokyo, with its really convenient train system. In between the Airport and Shuri Castle there is a cute monorail that barely cover’s a third of the main island, meaning that renting a car is pretty essential.
Despite all this we had a really great time! In fact, there are so many photos I am splitting the post into two parts – Travel Day 1 and Fun Day 1, then Travel Day 2 and Fun Day 2.
Travel Day 1
3/4ths of our group met up at Tokyo Station and took the express bus for 1000 yen to Narita Airport. The check-in process and security at Japanese airports is SUPER lax. No shoes off, any amount of liquids in carry-on bags, the works. America needs to get on this. The flight itself was a little bumpy thanks to the forecasted rain, but it took about as long as a flight from Chicago to Boston and we were there.
When we landed in Naha airport, it was (to quote my friend) “kind of sheisty.” It turns out we were at the LCC terminal and the main airport was… slightly less sketch. The monorail turned out to be super easy to use, and relatively cheap compared to Tokyo prices. I would highly recommend getting the one or two day pass for the monorail. We ended up getting the one day pass the next day and it more than paid for itself.
We arrived a bit late, but we were in time to check in to our hostel, MyPlace Guesthouse. The hostel was one of the more expensive ones in Naha, but one of the only ones with good reviews and space. I am glad to say that the reviews were well deserved. The room was really comfortable, with our own air conditioning, a television we didn’t use, and good security. For 25 bucks a night per person, that really can’t be beat. They also provided towels and soap and shampoo.
That turned out to be a great thing, because we were exhausted after traveling and none of us had gotten a lot of sleep the night before. So we grabbed all of the pamphlets on the wall and decided to relax and plan our trip after a visit to a public bath. We ate dinner at a local place called Ruby, which was okay, and then visited the bath house.
Have I mentioned how much I love public baths? I love public baths. They are the greatest I swear. This one (Rinka Rinka) was alright, but thanks to the towels it was only about 10 bucks per person, plus the obligatory post-bath milk. Our friend with tattoos only got kicked out as he was leaving, so it went pretty well considering.
This leads me to a cultural note: tattoos are usually associated with yakuza, or the Japanese mafia. They are both scary and scarily well integrated into Japanese society. They are also known for those kick-butt tattoos that cover your entire back. Since public baths can’t just say “no yakuza”, they normally say “no tattoos.” So keep that in mind when you’re thinking of getting ink. Honestly public baths are so worth not getting tatooed… or at least finding a way to hide it for an hour.
That night we decided that it was too much trouble to visit the aquarium on Saturday, especially since the weather looked like it was going to be clear (or at least not rainy), so it made more sense to explore Naha at that time. Thus, because we are busy college students with no sense of prior planning, we stayed up until 2 am planning our day out – castle, kokusai doori, and chilling in the living room, starting at 11 am.
Fun Day 1 – Naha
As it turns out, we were infected by “island time” and all woke up at noon on Saturday… which is when we were supposed to be at the castle. We rushed to get to Shuri Castle, and (most importantly) to eat Okinawan Soba and Goya Champuru. Okinawa’s soba is different from mainland soba in that it is made out of only wheat, rather than buckwheat, so it tastes more like udon – defintely my kind of dish. Goya Champuru is basically stir-fried goya (bitter melon.) Not normally my cup of tea, but I was willing to try it.
We went to a little hole in the wall restaurant that we almost passed over because it looked like it was pitch black. I am SO glad we didn’t because that food was delicious and (most importantly) CHEAP. The whole set you see – tonkatsu, soba, rice, miso, goya, beans – was only 750 yen.
Next was the castle. The castle grounds themselves were free, and we decided to walk around those rather than enter the castle itself, although the fee was only 600 yen. We were all rather tired after walking around, and I was the only historically inclined person there. The castle is really beautiful though, so I highly recommend it.
Then, we went shopping. Today’s Japanese lesson is the word おみやげ. An omiyage is like a souvenir. Japan takes gift giving VERY seriously, and there is etiquette for miyage. My friend went to Hiroshima over break and gave me omiyage, so I had to get her one. Then I needed to get my roommate and other close friend a miyage. I am eating dinner with my host family next week so I had to get THEM a miyage, since I can’t come to dinner empty handed and the trip is bound to come up. On top of that I bought normal souvenirs for my family from study abroad.
Basically a huge chunk of my budget was spent on that one night on Kokusaidoori – International Road, or Kokusai Road depending on your translation.Kokusaidoori is pretty neat, but if you’ve been to Tokyo and Harajuku its not much to write home about. What makes this street really cool is looking at all the Okinawa specific items. Especially the sake. Okinawa has its only special type of 日本酒, which has a preserved snake in it (content warning: snake photo coming up.) My uncle did not get that, but it looked hecka cool.
My friends ended up getting Okinawan salt cookies, which coincidentally was the flavor of the absolutely delicious ice cream we ended up eating earlier in the day. I would have brought it back, but I didn’t have an ice pack with me. It was so good though. I think I will look for some in Tokyo.
We ate at a place called Paikaji (I think,) which boasted adorable Japanese girls in traditional Ryukyu clothing and decently priced foods, along with a live show of traditional Okinawan music. Basically tourist central. The bill was a little high, since they added a 2,000 yen table charge (500 per person), but we got a picture with the hostess and free cookies at the end so it was a’ight.
By the time we got back from sitting and talking, not only was it pouring rain, but it was too late to hang out with people in the living room of MyPlace because the tour we were taking left at 8 am. So we sat down and chillaxed for a bit, before conking out for our second long day.