The Adventure Begins – First Stop: Naha, Okinawa

The name Okinawa might be familiar to many Americans for the sole fact that about 35,000 U.S. military personnel are still stationed there to this day. And indeed when you arrive in Naha, the biggest city on the island of Okinawa, you are immediately traumatized greeted by various bits of American cultural influence. A quick drive up the main highways of Okinawa will reveal multiple military bases from the four major branches of the U.S. military.

Shisa - Ryukyuan decoration used to ward of evil spirits and keep in the good ones

However, there is also a very strong Okinawan culture that existed before the arrival of the Americans and is still very strong today. The Okinawan people hold on to their culture very well. Okinawan culture is also more open and relaxed than that of the mainland of Japan. Although I don’t speak much Japanese, I was informed by a friend that basic language exchanges are more informal here than on the mainland. After all, the Japanese language has four levels of politeness used when addressing someone, second only to Korean, which has six or seven levels depending on who you ask. The politeness level used on the islands tends to be much more relaxed. Just make sure you don’t take that attitude back with you to the mainland or you might end up insulting someone without meaning to do so.

One of the very first tasks on my agenda was to try the Okinawan version of Japanese Soba (noodles made from buckwheat and served dry with a dipping sauce).

Okinawa Soba

Buckwheat Soba

Okinawa Soba is served in much different manner than the style in other parts of Japan. When you order this delicious bowl of scrumptiousness, you’ll get a piping hot serving of noodles in a nice broth with slices of Okinawan pork. Next to the normal spices of each restaurant, you’ll also find a very curious looking bottle holding a clear liquid with peppers floating about it. This is awamori (rice liquor) spiced with peppers and it’s used to give your bowl of soba a nice little kick. The locals will warn you not to use too much, but most of them can’t eat anything spicier than a little bit of wasabi so go ahead and dump in a bunch of it. A friend who I met through the traveling site, http://www.couchsurfing.org, would be the first to introduce me to this dish. From then on, I went searching across Naha for the best bowl of soba I could find. A must try if you are ever in the area.

While Naha definitely isn’t the center of culture in Japan, it does have a few worthwhile tourist attractions to check out. Shuri Castle is probably the most well-known. While the date of construction is unknown, it was used as the center of the Ryūkyūan Kingdom for about 450 years starting in the 15th century. There seem to be daily performances exhibiting Okinawan dance and dress.

Shuri Castle

My next stop would be Naha Shikinaen Garden, built in 1799. This particular garden was built with a circular design, common among Japanese gardens. However, it has a villa built with red tile and a bridge over the pond which is distinctly of Chinese style. This peaceful, serene garden is great for a nice stroll or a relaxing place to just sit and imagine the royalty and nobility that have mingled along the many paths and greenery so many years ago.

Naha Shikinaen Garden

Tired of tourist attractions? Take a walk down Kokusai Street and enjoy the many shops, restaurants, and markets that dot this street.

Entrance to Makishi Market

Habu

Along Kokusai you’ll find Makishi Market with over 400 shops dotting the many alleyways. Here you can buy just about anything you’re looking for including oddities not found in other places in Japan. Think tequila with a worm at the bottom is hardcore? Try some Okinawan Habu: Sake with a snake at the bottom. Yes, I’ve tried it. No, it did not taste good. Make sure you stop by Chatan Coffee while you’re roaming around this funky market. While it may only be a little hole in the wall, they boast some wonderful coffee including one of the cheapest (and best for the price) cups of coffee to be found in all of Japan. The staff are mighty wonderful, as well.

Cheap, delicious coffee hidden in Makishi Market

Whatever you fancy, there is plenty to do in Naha. Once you have run out of touristy things to do, you can have a night out with a few locals to sample the local sake, Awamori. Awamori has a very distinct taste to that of the sake most people are used to. You might even end up at bar which has just lost electricity.

“Sorry mate, but we just lost power,” the bartender may offer to you.

“But you still have beer, right?” will come your quick response.

And if you’re lucky enough you just might end the night learning to Salsa dance with a few Japanese women. Just remember that you’re going to need a while to recover after a night of drinking Awamori though, as it is quite lethal. But you’ll most likely sleep well after all that dancing.

Life Behind The Awamori Curtain

Next time on This Is My Travel Blog:  Living And Farming With The Locals –> A WWOOFING Experience

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