Golden Week in Okinawa pt. 8: Naha Hari Matsuri

The Lost Blogs #32

Travel Dates: Sat, April 28, 2012 – Thu, May 3, 2012

Naha Hari (Dragon Boat) Festival

It was our final day in Okinawa, and we didn’t have much time left, since our flights back to Osaka were scheduled for 3:30 in the afternoon. We said goodbye to our rental car, the onsen, and our hotel, and knew that we wouldn’t be able to get out of Naha. We hoped that this last day in Naha would treat us kindly.

Luckily for us, the weather forecast was promising dry, sunny days. Yes, we were thrilled that finally, we could enjoy a sunny day on the main island, but we were also a little angry that the storm had come during our vacation and we would be leaving just as the weather started to warm up!! Oh well… しょうがない、ね。

We spent some time in Kokusai-dori to do our omiyage shopping for ourselves, students, and co-workers. Then we took the Okinawa Monorail into town, following directions on posters we had seen advertising the Naha Hari Matsuri (那覇ハーリー祭り).

Naha Hari (Dragon Boat) Festival

Hari are dragon boat races, which originate from Chinese culture. The races are held to pray for a bountiful year and for the safety of fisherman. The main event is held at the Naha New Port Wharf in Naha City during the Naha Hari Festival, which spans the last three days of Golden Week, usually from May 3 to May 5.

Naha Hari (Dragon Boat) Festival

Naha Hari (Dragon Boat) Festival

As with all festivals in Japan, and Okinawa is no different, there are other events scheduled during the day in addition to the boat races, and plenty of festival foods.

Naha Hari (Dragon Boat) Festival

Naha Hari (Dragon Boat) Festival

Naha Hari (Dragon Boat) Festival

We were able to find a lot of the usual menu items, like French fries, chicken karaage, takoyaki, yakitori, etc. but we also found plenty of international festival foods as well! Churros, corn dogs, tacos, just to name a few…

Naha Hari (Dragon Boat) Festival

Naha Hari (Dragon Boat) Festival

I got really excited when we found a stall selling Special Jumbo Pies, which were really deep-fried empanadas.

They even had BBQ ribs with pineapple! These looked so tasty, but I was so full already, I wasn’t able to try them!

Naha Hari (Dragon Boat) Festival

But not to full to fulfill the desires of my betsu-bara — my second stomach, devoted to dessert! It was starting to feel hot, like the early days of summer, so I enjoyed a Puffy Snow with Okiniwan salt cookie (chinsuko) topping! Yum, yum, yum… I love chinsuko.

Naha Hari (Dragon Boat) Festival

All in all, a good day in Naha! The festival is definitely worth checking out if you’re on the islands for Golden Week. :)

Flying Skymark

Goodbye Okinawa…! And hello, Kansai. We had a long afternoon of travel, with the flight, then the shinkansen to Hamamatsu, and then the bus back to our home. But it was nice to be back for Golden Week. We had been looking forward to the Hamamatsu Kite Fighting Festival for over a year, since the 2011 event had been canceled after the earthquake.

If you’re curious to read about the Hamamatsu Matsuri, click here to read my blog post!

Golden Week in Okinawa pt. 6: Churaumi Aquarium

The Lost Blogs #29

Travel Dates: Sat, April 28, 2012 – Thu, May 3, 2012

Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium

On our third day in Okinawa, we decided to drive out all the way to Northern Honto. Naha City, where were were staying, was all the way near the southern tip of the island, and it was 1) really boring there, and 2) was getting hit with the worst of the rainy season. We thought if we drive out really far, we might be able to escape it for a bit. And as you can see, while the weather still wasn’t ideal, we did get a break of blue sky!

Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium

The main attraction in Northern Honto is the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium, which is located within the Ocean Expo Commemorative National Government Park. In addition to the aquarium, which costs 1,800 yen to access, there is also a dolphin lagoon, a sea turtle pool, and a manatee pool, all of which are free to access. Three beaches, Emerald Beach, Sunset Square, and Seashore Alameda, are also part of the park grounds. There is also the Oceanic Culture Museum and Native Okinawan Village, both of which we did not visit, but you can find more information at Japan-Guide. The park grounds are quite large, but there are multiple parking lots, and a small shuttle which you can ride for 200-yen.

Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium is said to be the best aquarium in Japan. In the Okinawan dialect, churaumi means “beautiful sea”, and in this aquarium, you can see all that Okinawa’s beautiful sea has to offer. There are several species of tropical fish, many of which you can see inside the Kuroshio Tank, which is one of the largest tanks in the world.

Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium

The aquarium is designed with the building entrance on the third floor, but actually begins on the fourth floor, where you can find statues of whales and manta rays. Visitors make their way down to the entrance in the Coral Lobby on the third floor. Immediately after the entrance, visitors are greeted by the “Life in Inoh” exhibit, which is a large touch pool full of starfish, seashells, and small fish.

Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium

Why, hello there Dory!

The aquarium route is easy to follow and guides you through a number of other exhibits, such as The Coral Sea, tank, which is open to the sky and is lit by natural sunlight. There are a number of other tanks housing tropical fish, coral reefs, and freshwater life.

Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium

This cutie stayed by the glass and posed for our cameras!

Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium

Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium

Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium

Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium

I know that’s not it’s face, but it looks like it’s smiling at me! :)

Tropical fish are so colorful! I love it! You’ll also find other ocean life like sea turtles, manta rays, and seahorses in the exhibits.

But, the most exciting thing was seeing Jinta, the aquarium’s biggest whale shark. There are three whale sharks in the Kuroshio Tank, and Jinta is the largest measuring 8.5 meters in length and weighing an estimated 5.5 tons.

Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium

Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium

We actually spent several hours at Churaumi Aquarium, which is funny because it was our first day on the island where we didn’t experience heavy rain. After eating lunch (taco rice and naan dogs), we ventured out to watch the manatees, turtles, and dolphins for a bit. We happened to catch the dolphins performing as part of a show, but we were most entertained by the manatees.

Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium

Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium

There were two manatees hanging out in the tank. One was kind of lazy, and he did nothing but lay on the ground for a bit before eventually attempting to scratch his armpit for ten minutes. The other was a total showoff! He swam in circles, using one of his forelimbs to push against the walls to gain speed, then when he reached the window, he would perform a very graceful spin in the water, right before our eyes.

Finally, we made it out to Emerald Beach, a sand beach which is divided into three areas: a beach for playing and swimming, a beach for resting, and a beach for viewing. Of course with our luck, the rain found us, so we did some “viewing” and that’s about it.

Emerald Beach

We took a trip to the gift shop before leaving, so on the drive home we were nibbling on shio-chinsuko (Okinawan Salt Cookie). This stuff is so good; I almost bought the big omiyage boxes not to give out as souvenirs but to devour all by myself. But I stopped myself and settled for this tiny bag instead.

Shio Chinsukou!! (Okinawan Salt Cookie)

Back in Naha, we ate at Sam’s By The Sea. Sam’s Restaurant is a somewhat-expensive chain, which had locations just walking distance from our hotel in Kokusai-dori, but we did a little blog-research and decided to take a taxi out to the Sam’s By The Sea location in Awase.

Sam's By The Sea Restaurant

Good to know. Sam’s By The Sea is 1,684 miles away from Tokyo, and 12,570 miles away from San Francisco!

Chain or not, this restaurant is really fun. Typical tiki statues and torches for decor. They have a number of tropical cocktails, some of which come with souvenir cups which you can take home. We all decided to get one, and so now my husband and I are the lucky owners of a JAWS cup and this really awesome SKULL cup. The portions are large and heavy; very American-sized, if you ask me; and come with bread, pineapple butter, soup, and salad. Soup of the day was curry-flavored, and I was surprised to find blue cheese dressing as one of the options.

I chose the crab-stuffed red snapper and stuffed jumbo shrimp. I had absolutely no room for dessert after eating this!

Sam's By The Sea Restaurant

And the boys at our table both ordered the surf and turf: lobster and bacon-wrapped steak. Yum!

Sam's By The Sea Restaurant

There are a lot of good places to eat in Okinawa, as long as you know where to go, and while I normally prefer to eat at local favorites and mom-and-pop’s, a visit to Sam’s By The Sea is A-OK in my book.

Next time in the Golden Week in Okinawa series: Getting Out of Okinawa Honto!! After three days on the main island with mediocre beaches and a downpour of rain, we finally escape!!

Missed the previous posts? Find them here!

Golden Week in Okinawa pt. 4: Okinawa Honto, the Main Island

The Lost Blogs #27

Travel Dates: Sat, April 28, 2012 – Thu, May 3, 2012

OTS Rent-a-Car

After our string of bad luck the previous day, picking up this neon green rental car was probably one of the most exciting parts about our trip! My friend was thrilled to drive a car again, and we were lucky to have GPS to help us navigate around the main island. The weather was still wet and gloomy, so we knew there wasn’t going to be any sun-bathing or swimming, but we still wanted to get our feet on the beach, and Naha’s Naminoue Beach was NOT gonna cut it.

Sunset Beach Japan-Guide, one of my favorite travel websites covering Japan, wrote a very nice guide to Beaches on Okinawa Main Island. I knew I should’ve trusted it when it said that “Okinawa Honto is not considered to have the prefecture’s very beast beaches,” but, regardless, beaches do exist. We drove out to Sunset Beach, which is just next to Mihama American Village.

Sunset Beach

The beach is open from 8:00 am to 10:00 pm and is absolutely free. The weather was cold, and the water even colder, but it was so nice to finally set foot on a beach with clean sand and feel the water running between our toes!

Sunset Beach

We hung out for a bit, but then it looked like the rain was on its way, so we headed over to Mihama American Village to eat lunch.

It’s hard to come from California, where the cuisine is just as diverse as its population. The four of us missed a lot of foods from back home, like Mexican tacos, and real, big, beefy, American burgers (McDonald’s doesn’t count!). Before we came to Okinawa, we had asked some of our friends, students, and co-workers what they thought about the islands, and while everyone had differing opinions, we heard a lot of people say, “Okinawa is great, but the food is terrible!” Some popular local specialties of Okinawa are goya (bitter melon), soba, and Taco rice… Maybe they just sat around eating goya all day. I hate goya. Can’t stand even the sight of the stuff. But taco rice? Yum. So good. Delicious. I could eat it all the time! But what we were really excited for was the other kind of cuisine you can get in Okinawa — American food.

We ate lunch at a burger joint called Captain Kangaroo’s Burgers. It was my husband’s job to do all the foodie-research for our trip, and he did a really good job! Captain Kangaroo’s is famous for making not only big, American-size burgers, but they are made with real beef.

American Village

Captain Kangaroo’s Burger

LOOK AT THAT. Wait. Wait. Let’s compare to a typical, tiny, non-beef, Japanese burger, like Mos Burger…

Mos Burger

Mos Burger

Captain Kangaroo’s served one of the best burgers I have ever eaten in my two years living in Japan. The next best thing would be the more easily-accessible KUA’AINA, which is actually a Hawaiian burger joint with locations in Tokyo and Yokohama. Unfortunately, I discovered today that the Captain Kangaroo’s location at Mihama American Village is now closed as of December 2, 2012. But, there is still a location in Northern Honto which is open, as well as an Osaka location in mainland Japan.

American Village

We were also able to enjoy Chili Fries and Root Beer Floats at A&W. The root beer floats were made with vanilla soft cream rather than ice cream, so not quite what I expected, but still tasty. We actually intended to eat at Ballpark Hot Dogs for American hot dogs and Bacon Ranch Fries, but they had closed!!

Zanpa Beach

After our fattening lunch, we continued driving north up to Zanpa Beach. This place was actually quite scenic and would’ve been a nice beach to hang out at, except that the storm seemed to be following us north, and we ended up having to hide out under shade until the rain stopped.

Zanpa Beach

While we waited for the rain to go away, I snapped a couple of pictures, then went on my phone to tweet about how bummed we were about the weather. That’s when I read some news tweets on Twitter announcing “RAINY SEASON ARRIVES 11 DAYS EARLY IN OKINAWA”

………………………

And we still had had four more days in the Okinawa Islands.

Shuri Castle

We decided to give up on beaches for the day, so we turned the car around back south for Shuri Castle. Shuri is the name of the former capital of the Ryukyu Kingdown, and Shuri Castle served as the residence of the Ryukyu kings for several centuries before the islands became “Okinawa”, a Japanese prefecture, in 1879. Shuri Castle is listed as as UNESCO World Heritage Site and though it was built in the late 1300s, the castle that stands now is a reconstruction dating from 1992. I’ve seen a lot (and I mean a looooooot) of castles in Japan, and after a while, it can feel like “seen one castle, seen them all”, but Shuri Castle is very different, and definitely worth a visit.

Shuri Castle

Our last stop for the evening was a trip out to Ginowan for dinner at Tortilla Factory. We read about Tortilla Factory on a food blog that no longer exists, which described it as a restaurant serving Chipotle-style burritos. I already had my Chipotle fix by eating at the copycat-restaurant Frijoles in Tokyo, but never one to say no to tacos or burritos, I was totally fine with the drive back out of Naha.

Tortilla Factory

Calling it “Chipotle-style” is a bit of a stretch. It’s not like Frijoles, which copied not just the food and serving style, but also the packaging and decor. The burritos and tacos are made fresh-to-order, and they offer tacos, burritos, and bowls, but the similarities pretty much end there. The owner/manager speaks great English and said that Chipotle did serve as the inspiration for his otherwise unique restaurant.

Tortilla Factory

Here’s what they have to offer:

  • Okinawan Taco Rice — these are basically “burrito bowls”, but come in flavors like Asian-Beef Steak, Meat & Beans, Honey Chicken, Carnitas, Original Taco Beef, and Black Beans Vegetarian.
  • Burritos, in the same meat offerings as above.
  • Tacos — crispy beef tacos, shrimp soft tacos, and fish soft tacos!
  • Various toppings like cilantro, cheese, pico de gallo, sour cream, jalapenos, etc.
  • Chips! Corona! Mojitos!
Tortilla Factory

Carnitas burrito at Tortilla Factory

Tortilla Factory

Fish tacos at Tortilla Factory

Check back again for Part 5 in the Okinawa travel series!

Golden Week in Okinawa pt. 3: Exploring Naha

The Lost Blogs #26

Travel Dates: Sat, April 28, 2012 – Thu, May 3, 2012

Walking through Naha

As mentioned in the first post of the series, I spent six days in Okinawa with my husband and two of our friends. Here’s a summary of our itinerary:

Day 1 (4/28): Travel from our hometown to Osaka, then the two-hour flight to Naha. Explore Naha City.
Day 2 (4/29) ~Showa Day~: Explore Okinawa Honto (Main Island)
Day 3 (4/30): Explore Okinawa Honto (Main Island)
Day 4 (5/1): Day-trip to Miyako Island by plane
Day 5 (5/2): Day-trip to Zamami Island by ferry
Day 6 (5/3) ~Constitutional Memorial Day~: Explore Okinawa Honto (Main Island), then travel back to mainland Japan

Note: We decide to cut our trip short in the middle of Golden Week, even though there were still two more holiday dates (Greenery Day on 5/4, and Children’s Day on 5/5) because of the Hamamatsu Matsuri in our hometown. Our friends traveled back with us to Hamamatsu City to tour our town and attend the Hamamatsu Kite-Fighting Festival.

Naha Airport and the city of Naha are located on Okinawa Honto, or the Main Island. The main island is divided into four areas: Naha, Northern Honto, Central Honto, and Southern Honto. Public transportation is limited to buses and the Okinawa Monorail, which only runs through central Naha. Research on various travel sites and blogs basically state that finding the right connections to get to where you want by bus is complicated, and the service is also infrequent on some lines, making the bus very unreliable for travel. It is highly recommended to get a rental car for the days that you will be staying on the main island.

There are a few things I should mention about renting a car in Japan:

  1. The minimum driving age is 18.
  2. You must have a Japanese driver’s license or an International Driving Permit (IDP).
  3. IDPs are not issued in Japan. You obtain them in your home country in advance before traveling to Japan. In the U.S., you can get them from AAA for $15. You will need to bring our valid U.S. driver’s license and two original passport-type photos, plus fill out the application. The permit from AAA is only valid for one year from the effective date printed on the permit.

Out of the group I was traveling with, both my husband, myself, and one of my friends had moved to Japan in August 2010. We all had IDPs issued before we left, effective on the date of our arrival in Japan. So, by the time we traveled to Okinawa, our IDPs were several months expired, and neither of us held a Japanese driver’s license. That left the fourth member of our group, who luckily arrived in Japan one year after us, and was still in possession of a valid IDP! (Yay!)

Getting a rental car actually proved to be quite difficult. What we should have done was make the arrangements in advance, but we figured that we could just pick one up at the airport upon arrival. It may have been because it was Golden Week, so perhaps visiting during non-peak dates may produce different results. Our flight arrived on Saturday at 2:25 p.m. and as soon as we collected our bags, we went straight to the car rental information booth. We were told that they did not make the car rental arrangements at the airport, but they provided brochures for companies on the main island who we could contact about renting a car. Surprisingly, there were no English brochures available, so we just took a few and decided to try our luck once we got to the hotel. We made some calls, but basically each company said, “Sorry. We have no cars available.” We talked to the hotel staff about our dilemma, and they gave us some maps so we could plan an afternoon of exploring Naha without a car. Bummer!

We booked a five-night stay at the Naha Central Hotel (那覇セントラルホテル), which is located next to Kokusai-dori (“International Road”). Since our island-hopping trips were just day-trips, we figured it would best to stay stationed in one convenient place and not have to worry about traveling with our belongings. Kokusai-dori can be accessed on the Okinawa Monorail directly from the airport. It is a 2-km street which stretches through Downtown Naha and is home to several shops and restaurants. So, we decided to check out what Kokusai-dori had to offer, and maybe see if there were any beaches or other local attractions to check out.

Jango Jango

First stop: a late lunch! We were so hungry! We stumbled upon a place called Jango Jango, run by this sweet couple pictured above. We had tacos, soup, and guava juice. Our next stop was the Blue Seal ice cream shop, where we ate double-scoops and did a little Googling about where to go in Naha on our phones.

Jango Jango

Did I mention that the weather was super-gloomy when we arrived? This trip was not going as we had initially planned. The weather was actually quite nice in mainland Japan — warm, sunny, not yet hot or humid. We were expecting to arrive in Okinawa and experience an early summer. We were going to eat ice cream all day and soak in the sun. I had come wearing my only pair of capri pants, and only packed a couple pairs of shorts and short-sleeve shirts.

Regardless, we decided we would see if there were any beaches easily accessible on foot in Naha. There was only one that came up in our searches, and that was Naminoue Beach (波の上ビーチ). I’ll just say right now: Don’t go to Naminoue Beach. I can think of so many words to describe it, and none of which I want to publish on my blog. It was gross. It was disgusting. It was a huge disappointment. Here. I’ll just show you.

Naminoue Beach: The Worst Beach Ever

That, my dear readers, is Naminoue Beach. The Worst Beach Ever. I mean, first of all, there isn’t even really any surface area. Second, it’s right next to an overpass, and there is a highway running through it. Third, we couldn’t even figure out how to get down there.

My friend, always the optimist, suggested we walk closer to it to check it out. Maybe it wasn’t that bad. Maybe we were just at a bad angle.

Naminoue Beach: The Worst Beach Ever

We got closer. It was not looking good.

Naminoue Beach: The Worst Beach Ever

In fact, it was filthy. Yuck yuck yuck. There was litter, everywhere! In Japan! I was outraged! Whoever decided to call this place a beach obviously did not know what the word beach meant.

We decided to just turn around and head back. There wasn’t much to see or do, especially without a car to get us around, and we were getting really bummed out by the weather. Back at Kokusai-dori, we stopped in a restaurant that served both Agu Pork, a traditional breed of Ryukyuan pig, and Awamori, an alcoholic beverage indigenous to Okinawa. Awamori is made from rice, but unlike sake, it is a product of distillation, making it similar to shochu.

Agu Pork Tofu

This day was just full of mishaps. I ordered the Agu Pork Tofu dish, which you see in the bottom of the above photo. Do you see pork in that dish? Because I sure didn’t. If there was pork, it was very small, and I ate it without knowing. We assumed that the pork slices on that blue plate in center of the table was part of my dish, because the server brought the two plate together. But my friend waited, and waited, and waited, for his pork dish to come and it never came. Or so we thought. It turns out we accidentally ate his pork dish, and all he ended up eating at the restaurant was two bowls of rice.

Two Cups of Rice

I am so, so sorry for eating your food. To this day. I feel so bad.

So after finishing my tofu, my friend’s pork, and all our drinks, we made our way to another pub for some American fare — beer and onion rings — and then decided to call it a night.

Back at Naha Central Hotel, things took a turn for the better! (Seriously, they really do. I know the trip sounds like a total bummer so far!) It’s really unusual, because it’s not something Okinawa is famous for, but there is a natural onsen and our hotel was connected to the facility! The onsen establishment is called Rikka-Rikka-Yu and we had daily access to use the baths as part of our stay. The facilities were actually very nice, and they switched the two baths between genders each day, so you could experience all that the bath house had to offer. There were various baths available, including a fountain bath, a dry sauna, a wet sauana, a salt sauna, rock baths, whirlpool massage jets, and — the weirdest one — an electric onsen, which has electric currents basically zap you in the bath. The electric bath was weird. But overall, the bath house was pretty nice and relaxing.

To top it off, a very kind hotel staff member chased us to the elevator before we went back up to our rooms to turn in for the night. He had a brochure for a car rental location in the city. It turns out he was so worried about us that he had spent some time calling around and he managed to find a place that had a car available for us! They were expecting our call, and we would be able to pick up a car the next morning.

YAY YAY YAY!

Check back next time for Golden Week in Okinawa Part 4! I’ll tell you about our second day on the main island, where we finally got to GET OUT of boring Naha with our rental car. Woo woo!

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