The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.” – G.K. Chesterton

Friday, 20 March 2009

Okinawa Part I: Naha

As I mentioned previously, we recently went on a short holiday to Okinawa, the southernmost (and warmest) prefecture of Japan. We stayed one night in the capital Naha and two nights on Ishigaki Island. It's the first time travelling with our 5 month old baby, and the first time in more than a year travelling domestically. In planning our travels, I usually pack in a lot of things to see, do and eat, but this time I went with a far more flexible and easy itinerary because I knew that travelling with a baby is unpredictable and time-consuming. The poor little man did not nap much during the day on our holiday (even though he was being pushed in a pram or carried around in the carrier), so he got quite grumpy. There's a hidden blessing to having a cranky overtired baby during the day: he slept much longer hours at night, even giving me a nice 8-hour long uninterrupted sleep on the final night of our trip - first time in exactly five months!

After dealing with a delayed flight, and then choosing to catch the Yui Rail and walking the 5-10 minute walk to our hotel with the baby and our luggage (seemed a lot longer than that!), we were quite tired by the time we checked in late afternoon. However, we were only in Naha for one day - we had the city to explore, and we also planned to see Shuri-jo (Shuri Castle) before we departed from Naha the next afternoon, so it was no rest for us (or the poor bub). We headed out with Zak strapped in the stroller that the hotel lent us, and spent the rest of the evening exploring Kokusai-dori which is the city's main street with a stretch of more than one kilometre length of restaurants, shops and izakaya (Japanese bars).

Crossing the intersection on Kokusai-dori to head into the strip of shops, restaurants and bars

Habu (a venomous snake) alcohol - would you drink it?; and one of the shotengai (shopping arcade) that branches off from Kokusai-dori:

The first thing I noticed was the huge amount of attention that Zak got. Not only from the usual suspects (ladies and the high school-aged girls) but also from middle-aged men! Women would talk and coo to Zak (even requesting to hold him!), and girls in their groups would exclaim "kawaii!" (cute) as they walk past. And Zak would also elicit interest and smiles from salarymen. The second thing I noticed was the lack of babies in the city's demographic. Plenty of school-aged kids and plenty of middle-aged people, but there's a gap in the child-bearing and marrying age group which explained the rarity of babies and toddlers in the city. We inferred that this was because once kids reach college age, they move to much bigger cities (like Tokyo). Anyway, we solved the mystery why Zak was the recipient of so much attention. The third thing I observed was the different fashion worn by the young people in the city. I mention this to Rob, and his reply was "Yeah, the fashion is more slutty here" - his words, not mine (that term did not even cross my mind when I made that comment). I just thought the warmer climate called for less clothing, and I'm sure Rob was comparing by Japanese standards because there's definitely more skin shown in western cultures. Besides, the handful we encountered is probably not representative of the whole city's fashion sense.

After walking for more than an hour, we were tired and wanted an early night in, so we dropped in on one of the izakayas for some Okinawan cuisine. It was still too early for the drinking crowd, so we had the place to ourselves and privacy for me to feed Zak. We enjoyed dinner where we took the opportunity to try some of the Okinawan dishes I've heard of.

Inside the izakaya we went to for dinner:

The next day, we checked out of our hotel at 10am, an hour later than planned (like I said, things take longer with a baby), and we weren't sure if we had time to do Shuri Castle before our early afternoon flight. Always up for a challenge, we decided to just go anyway and do what we can in the short amount of time. We surprised ourselves by not only completing the trip to the castle, but also arriving at the airport an hour before our flight. However, we had to separate on a couple of occasions which we had not planned on doing (I fed Zak while Rob completed the castle course, and Rob going to the hotel to grab our luggage while we waited at the station).

On the monorail to Shuri station which is a 15 minute walk from the castle:

On the road to the castle:

One of the many, many gates on the castle grounds - I lost count and track after the first one. One of a pair of shisa guarding one of the gates. A shisa is a lion-dog stone structure decoration used everywhere in Okinawa

A panoramic view in front of the red gate shown above (click on image for larger view):

There was a stage set up and a performance happening when we entered the red gate. We didn't stay long to watch because we were short on time, but it looked like a sort of slow dance (walking very slowly) accompanied by the unusual tune of Okinawan folk music. The toilet tap head was in the form of a shisa:

Rob took this shot of Seiden (main hall) of Shuri-jo (I was busy feeding Zak); and on our way out of the castle grounds to the station (can you spot Rob?):

We quite enjoyed our short stay in Naha, much to the surprise of one of my friends who disliked Naha with quite a strong passion. The success of a trip for us strongly depends on our food experiences, and now with a baby, on Zak's wellbeing. So for those who value the aesthetics of a place, Naha may not be the best place to visit. Aesthetics rate quite low on what I value on my travels (I loved Hong Kong and New York, and it sure wasn't for their aesthetics!). I recommend the Crowne Plaza Hotel - room was quite nice, the service was wonderful, and you don't have to worry about language barrier here if you can't speak Japanese.


  1. Well actually I *secretly* thought for some reason that you and Rob might be the kind of people who like Naha!!
    I'm really glad you had were happy with Naha!!!
    I think Naha is definitely interesting historically and culturally. In theory. In reality, you can not tell me you didn't think the main Kokusai street was not extremely touristy and tacky and the shopping arcade was not home of the scariest shop assistants in the world! The young folk were about 50yo and Rob's right, it did feel sleazy! I got many unwanted stares.
    Of course, we liked the castle in Naha and had fun exploring the city, and Busena Terrace was a beautiful break from work for Leigh and I love swimming and jogging near the beach on a holiday!
    Maybe once we have a baby we will also rank how stimulating and lovely a place is lower on the list and adopt a more "the baby is happy=great holiday destination" kind of attitude towards travel but I sure hope not!
    Happy long weekend! Any big plans? :) We're off to Kamakura, one of our favourite day trips out of Tokyo!
    Have a good Friday!!!! Shan xo

  2. Hehe, yeah Kokusai dori was touristy, but hey, that's what we were right? Tourists. Lots of omiyage shops to look through, samples of sweets and cakes to try-before-you-buy, and it was enough entertainment for the one night we were there. More than 1 night and I would have been bored.. To tell you the truth, it was almost dinner time by the time we got to the first shopping arcade, so we only had a brief walk down half its length and didn't encounter any scary shop ladies.. We saw plenty of high school kids milling around, and also the middle aged 50s group (nothing in between though). And any looks we got were reserved for the baby :)
    Not long weekend for us because Rob has to work today. We must one day check out Kamakura!