Bentenjima & Tsu Hanabi Taikai

Tsu Hanabi Taikai Fireworks Display 2012 津花火大会

Tsu Hanabi Taikai Fireworks Display 2012 津花火大会

The Lost Blogs #35

Festival Dates: Bentenjima Hanabi Taikai (July 7, 2012);
Tsu Hanabi Taikai (July 29, 2012)

Tsu Hanabi Taikai Fireworks Display 2012 津花火大会

One of my favorite pastimes in Japan was attending hanabi taikai, or fireworks festivals. These festivals are typically held in the hot and humid summertime, and they are a great way to just kick back and relax with a cold drink, some snacks and sweets, and the company of good friends.

Bentenjima Hanabi Fireworks Display

Bentenjima Hanabi Fireworks Display 2012

Bentenjima Hanabi Fireworks Display

Last summer, I was able to enjoy not one, but two, fireworks festivals held at local beaches. The first was in my own city of Hamamatsu, in a small town called Bentenjima. My friends and I actually gathered at the beach in the neighboring town of Arai where it was less crowded. Although we weren’t at the main site of the festival, there were still plenty of street vendors, and plenty of people. I actually ran into a few of my students, who were surprised to not only see me outside of school grounds, but wearing a bright pink jinbei (甚平).

Tsu Hanabi Taikai Fireworks Display 2012 津花火大会

Jinbei is a set of clothing traditionally worn by men consisting of a kimono-style top and matching shorts. They are usually worn around the house, like pajamas or casual house wear, but are also worn outside of the home when attending summer festivals. Men can choose to wear these in place of the traditional yukata (casual summer kimono). Lately, it’s become popular for women, teens, and children to wear jinbei to summer festivals. I actually own two sets of yukata and have worn both of them out to festivals, but I actually prefer to wear the jinbei because it is easier to put on, and is much more comfortable to wear…

Bentenjima Hanabi Fireworks Display

Above is a picture of me jumping around freely in my comfortable jinbei and Birkenstock sandals. Weeee! I would not have been able to do that in my yukata!!

Although the yukata is a “summer kimono” and doesn’t require the several layers of robes that a traditional kimono has, many sets still come with an “undergarment” robe or slip which can be worn underneath the yukata. Additionally, there is the koshi-himo or “waist cord” which is used to hold the yukata in place after putting it on properly and adjusting the length by folding it. And then after getting everything into place, you must also put on an “obi”, which is the decorative sash. Many modern yukata sets now come with simpler obi, which you just wrap around and either velcro, snap, or tie into place; and come with a clip-on pre-tied bow. I have one of these, but I also have a traditional obi which requires a lot of practice to tie it properly. It’s really just a lot of work, and without centralized air conditioning, I am usually sweating by the time I manage to get everything on… and since the sleeves and yukata are long in length, I can’t really manage to cool down. This is why I prefer wearing jinbei, because as you can see, the fabric is light and airy, and both the sleeves and bottoms are short. The only downside is that suddenly all your skin is exposed to the hungry mosquitos…

Bentenjima Hanabi Fireworks Display

Bentenjima Hanabi Fireworks Display

Bentenjima Hanabi Fireworks Display

It was so much fun to sit around with the friends I had made over the past two years in Hamamatsu and enjoy the fireworks on the beach with them. So, when we were visiting our friend in the tiny town of Tsu, I was ecstatic when she informed us that there would be a fireworks festival down at the beach in her town, too! Although, looking at the WalkerPlus website for finding hanabi, you would think that Tsu wasn’t so tiny after all.

bentenjimahanabi

In the screenshot above detailing the Bentenjima Hanabi Taikai, it says that there are approximately 2,600 fireworks released and that about 100,000 people are expected to attend based on the previous year’s data.

tsuhanabi

In comparison, the Tsu Hanabi Taikai has approximately 3,000 fireworks and an attendance of 150,000 people! I was really surprised. Though the size of the festivals are roughly the same, I could definitely tell the difference. The firework display in Tsu was so impressive! You could hear people in the crowd ooh-ing and ahh-ing and gasping in surprise and delight. There was plenty of food, but I was really shocked to see…

Tsu Hanabi Taikai Fireworks Display 2012 津花火大会 … REGULAR (by American standards) sized soda cups!! Those Coca Cola cups are gigantic compared to the ones you would normally get at fast food restaurants like McDonald’s.

So enough chit chat, I’ll leave you with some pictures I took of the amazing fireworks display. And if anyone living or visiting Japan this summer is interested in finding a fireworks festival, Surviving in Japan has written an awesome “How To” guide on navigating the Walkerplus website.

Tsu Hanabi Taikai Fireworks Display 2012 津花火大会

Tsu Hanabi Taikai Fireworks Display 2012 津花火大会

Tsu Hanabi Taikai Fireworks Display 2012 津花火大会

Tsu Hanabi Taikai Fireworks Display 2012 津花火大会

Tsu Hanabi Taikai Fireworks Display 2012 津花火大会

Tiny Tsu & Okage Yokocho

The Lost Blogs #34

Travel Dates: July 28 – 29, 2012 (Summer 2012)

My friend lives and works in a tiny town named Tsu, which is located in Mie Prefecture, about an hour away from the city of Nagoya. We decided to spend two nights in Mie because the guest rooms in the center she works at only cost 1,000 yen/person per night + a small cost for electricity. As mentioned in a previous post, our goals for the trip were to visit parts of Japan that we either had not been to, or did not spend enough time in. Our other goal was to make sure overnight accommodation was cheap, because now we were kind of like vagabonds, wandering around Japan without a home or job.

I actually had traveled to Mie Prefecture before with my friend Nat. The two of us took advantage of the Aozora Free Pass which let us travel from Toyohashi Station throughout the Greater Nagoya area on local JR trains unlimited for one day. We visited Ise Jingu and the nearby Oharaimachi, which you can read about here. My husband however still hadn’t been, which is why I decided we should make a trip out together so he could cross it off his list of places to visit.

Aside from Ise Jingu, there isn’t much to see in Mie, as you can see from this travel guide. Most people probably won’t travel out here if they have a short time in Japan because the rest of the prefecture is made up of small, rural towns. However if you have a chance to visit, I recommend even passing through for a day just to see what real daily living in Japan is like. Life seems relaxed and slower paced compared to the busy city life of Tokyo and other cities. People living in Mie looking for shopping and entertainment need to head to Nagoya, which can be as far as an hour away if not longer, depending on the train and distance.

As for the food, which is my top priority when traveling, it was delicious! Local specialties of the region include Matsuzaka Beef Matsuzaka region of Mie, Ise Udon, and Akafuku-gori (green tea shaved ice with mochi covered in sweet red bean paste). Let’s take a look at some of my favorite meals during our two days in tiny Tsu…

Edobashi Tomiya Karaage Restaurant

Above is Chicken Karaage lunch set from Tomiya Karaage Restaurant in Edobashi, Mie. Tomiya Karaage is a small, local restaurant which has been recognized for it’s delicious chicken dishes. You can get karaage pretty much anywhere in Japan, even at the conbini, but if you want good karaage, I recommend you come here. Cheap karaage often has a thick batter, and the meat sometimes has too much fat content. The karaage here are large in size, have a higher meat to fat ratio, and the batter is thin but crispy. The lunch set comes with shredded cabbage, potato salad, a bowl of rice, and miso soup. It’s been a while so I don’t remember the exact prices, but I do recall all of the lunch sets being under 1,000 yen. That’s less than $10 for all that food! I actually couldn’t finish.

Edobashi Tomiya Karaage Restaurant

Tomiya Karaage also offers a unique chicken dish which I hadn’t seen offered before at other restaurants: Chicken Tempura. As with the karaage, the lunch sets include shredded cabbage, potato salad, rice, and miso soup. The chicken is sliced long and thin and lightly coated in tempura batter. Very delicious!

Okage Yokocho

Sandai Wagyuu is a term which means “the three big beefs”. I’m sure you have heard of Kobe beef, but did you know that there are actually three regions which are famous for producing top-quality wagyu beef? The three regions are Kobe, Yonezawa in Yamagata Prefecture, and Matsuzaka from Mie Prefecture. Matsuzaka beef is produced from female black-haired wagyu which are fed fodder, soy pulp, and ground wheat. As with Kobe beef, they receive massages and listen to soothing music on a regular basis. This kind of treatment ensures that the beef will have a good taste and high fat-to-meat ratio.

We were able to taste Matsuzaka beef in two forms while strolling through Okage Yokocho in Oharaimachi (near Ise Jingu). Above is a Matsuzaka beef donburi, which was also served with a small side of Ise udon noodles. We were also able to try the Matsuzaka beef yakitori-style from one of the street vendors.

Okage Yokocho

Ise Udon is another specialty which I talked about in my previous post on Ise Jingu. Thick noodles with a thick sauce made of soy sauce and sake, and served with a light garnish of green onions. The dish is famous for its simplicity.

Okage Yokocho

Akafugu-gori, which I also mentioned  in a previous post. The most famous place to buy this shaved ice dish is from the Akafuku Cafe in Okage Yokocho.

Okage Yokocho

And lastly, because it was a hot summer day, I couldn’t help myself to two desserts to cool myself down. I stopped by a shop in Okage Yokocho which serves tofu soft cream. For 270 yen, you can get a full serving in either a cup or cone; or you can buy a children’s size for 170 yen.

The Beginning of the End

The Lost Blogs #33
Cocktails at ACT City

A view of Hamamatsu City from ACT Tower

This post is the first of several “lost blogs” which detail my summer travels in Japan in 2012. Just like in the previous year, we planned a jam-packed itinerary for just three weeks. Our goal was to see as much of “the rest of Japan we couldn’t see” in as little time as possible, which for us meant spending more time in Kyushu and setting foot on Shikoku, so we could knock off our goal of having visited all four of Japan’s islands + Okinawa.

  • 2 nights in Mie prefecture
  • 1 night in Nagoya
  • Quick stops in Kyoto and Osaka
  • 1 overnight bus from Osaka to Kagoshima (Kyushu)
  • 2 nights in Kagoshima
  • 2 nights in Miyazaki
  • 1 overnight ferry from Kokura to Matsuyama (Shikoku)
  • 3 nights in Okayama (using it as a base to see the Benesse Art Sites)
  • & finally, about a week in Tokyo before we said sayonara to our home for the last two years

Our work contract ended on August 1st, 2012; however, due to having saved a few days of nenkyuu (paid time off), we left our offices a few days early.

My last day of work was technically on July 25th, a Wednesday. I planned it this way because our move-out date and apartment inspection was scheduled for Thursday the 26th. Since I was already done with work, and my husband had taken the day off, we spent the entire day in our apartment doing some last-minute cleaning and rearranging of our packed bags, but mostly just waiting around for each of the utilities to get canceled. Unfortunately, electricity was the first one to go at 9:00 am, leaving us in a hot apartment without internet and air conditioning until our inspection around 4:00 in the afternoon. It was not pleasant!

Aagan

We escaped our apartment for an hour to have lunch at our favorite naan & curry restaurant. Here, I’m having eggplant keema curry with cheese naan.

Another unfortunate thing was that my husband had less nenkyuu than I did, so his last day at work was actually on Friday the 27th. We were technically “homeless” at this point, so we stayed overnight at a friend’s apartment. He went to work that morning, as did my friend, and I spent an embarrassingly long amount of time at the downtown Starbucks. I went in and ordered a large iced tea and a breakfast sandwich, set up my laptop and used their WiFi to finish planning our summer trip. (This is another embarrassing thing I should mention: we had already moved out of our apartment and canceled internet, but had not yet finished booking overnight accommodations through the following three weeks. We hadn’t had enough time, since we were finalizing our departure from the country, preparing to move out of our apartment, and busy selling our belongings and shipping things home.) The lunch crowd at Starbucks came and went, and I still had a few sips of my iced tea left. (I was drinking it really slowly so I could maintain my table!) Once the cafe emptied out, I figured I should leave as well, and ended up wandering around downtown a little bit before settling down on a bench in the station department store.

So in short, I spent my first day of vacation living at Starbucks. -_-;;

That Friday night was not only our last night living in Hamamatsu, but it was for several other ALTs as well. We all spent that last night together at another friend’s apartment, having dinner and drinks, sharing stories, and overall enjoying each other’s company until we all had to go our separate ways in the morning. Bittersweet.

And then on Saturday morning, our fast-paced, jam-packed, crazy summer trip began.

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. 7: All Aboard the Queen Zamami!

The Lost Blogs #31

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

Zamami Island

Our day trip to Miyako Island was probably the highlight of our Okinawa vacation, so it was so hard to board that plane and return to Naha for the night. We knew we had to get out of Naha again for our last full day in the islands, but without any other flights planned, there was only one other option: we needed to island-hop by ferry.

Luckily, a friend of mine had recently taken a trip to Okinawa and had posted pictures from a place called Zamami Island. Even luckier, there is an English teacher on Zamami who put together a very informative website called Zamami English Guide, which made it very easy for us to plan our day trip to the island. Zamami belongs to a group of islands called the Kerama Islands, a group of 22 islands about 20 miles southwest of Okinawa Honto. Only four of the islands are inhabited: Zamami Island, Aka Island, Geruma Island, and Tokashiki Island. The Zamami English Guide website also provides tourist information for Aka and Geruma Islands.

Queen Zamami III Ferry

Zamami Island is located 50-minutes away from Naha by ferry. English ferry information can be found here. From Naha’s Tamari Port, there are two ferries which can take you to Zamami Island: the Queen Zamami III and Ferry Zamami. The Queen Zamami III is a small passenger ferry that runs twice daily regularly, and three times daily during peak seasons like Golden Week. The Ferry Zamami is a larger boat which is cheaper and can take passengers in addition to vehicles. We chose to take the Queen Zamami III and purchased our tickets the same day as our departure.

Queen Zamami III Ferry

And here we are, super excited to get out of rainy Naha and out onto the beach!

I wish we had a picture for what we looked like just a few minutes later. The ride, though short, ended up being extremely rocky. We were making jokes about being on a roller coaster, and then suddenly all of us were holding onto our stomachs, feeling queasy, trying not to vomit. The early rainy season had brought along stormy weather, and with the storm, strong winds, which were causing large waves in the ocean. It didn’t help that there was another passenger boat running alongside us, which also sent waves crashing into our boat.

Zamami Port

50 minutes later, we arrived at Zamami Port. The weather wasn’t anywhere near as nice as we had experienced in Miyako, but at least the rain had stopped. We spent a good half hour inside the lobby waiting for our stomachs to settle and grabbing maps for the area.

Zamami Island

Once everyone was feeling better, we started to make our way on foot to Furuzamami Beach (古座間味ビーチ). It is the most famous beach in the Kerama islands, so many tourists come here. We were expected it to be crowded when we arrived, but we suspect a number of people may have canceled or changed their plans because of the early rainy season, because there weren’t that many people on the island when we arrived.

Zamami Island

Zamami Island

Furuzamami Beach is located about 1 mile east from Zamami Port. English maps are available in the Visitor Information Center in the port. There aren’t many roads on the island either, so you don’t have to worry about getting lost. Though it’s only a mile away, it took us more than 20 minutes to reach the beach because we were enjoying the rural scenery…

Zamami Island

Zamami Island

Also, it was an uphill walk, but it’s a little embarrassing to mention that we struggled with that. ^^;;;

Zamami Island

Furuzamami Beach (Zamami Island)

Yay! We made it!

Furuzamami Beach (Zamami Island)

Furuzamami Beach (Zamami Island)

Furuzamami Beach (Zamami Island)

Furuzamami Beach (Zamami Island)

Upon arriving at the beach, we came across a small building which has two restaurants, rental companies, and shops. The shops carry sunscreen and underwater cameras, and the rental shops provide umbrellas, lounge chairs, and snorkeling equipment. If you rent from them, they’ll provide a free ride back to the port when you’re ready to head back.

Furuzamami Beach (Zamami Island)

Furuzamami Beach (Zamami Island)

We were pretty hungry, so we decided to eat first. The only other places to eat were back in the small town north of the port, and we didn’t want to walk back after coming all the way out here.

My husband ordered the loco moco, which is actually a Hawaiian dish consisting of a hamburger patty with gravy and an egg over rice. I went for taco rice and a bottle of sanpin-cha (さんぴん茶). Sanpin-cha is the Okinawan name for Jasmine tea. On mainland Japan, Jasmine tea is just called “jasmine-cha” (ジャスミン茶). In Okinawa, Jasmine tea is actually more popular than traditional Japanese green tea (“o-cha” お茶) or oolong tea (“oolong-cha” ウーロン茶).

Furuzamami Beach (Zamami Island)

After lunch, we got set up on the beach. There wasn’t any sun out, but we got the umbrella anyway. Our plan for the day was to simply lounge around and enjoy the cloudy, but dry, day. Eat some snacks, read some books, listen to islandy music on our iPods, snorkel… you know, just chill. :)

I ended up not renting any snorkeling gear because the water was already deep close to shore (at least, deep to me, in comparison to Yoshino Beach). I mentioned before in one of my earlier posts, but I can’t swim. So, when I snorkel, I usually have to wear the full gear with a puffy life jacket, and I need my husband near me so I don’t panic and get an anxiety attack in the water. The boys both went snorkeling though, and they said there were plenty of fish to see! I was a little envious. But even if you don’t go into the water, it’s a pretty cool beach to explore…

Furuzamami Beach (Zamami Island)

Furuzamami Beach (Zamami Island)

Furuzamami Beach (Zamami Island)

Furuzamami Beach (Zamami Island)

Furuzamami Beach (Zamami Island)

Furuzamami Beach (Zamami Island)

So that was pretty much our day on Zamami Island. There’s another nearby beach, Ama Beach, located west of Zamami Port. We skipped out on this one because it’s not known for snorkeling, although there is supposedly a strong chance of seeing sea turtles here.

We took the free ride from the rental shop back to the port, then walked a few minutes north and into the cute, tiny little town.

Mango Cafe

In town, we came across Mango Cafe, which sells shaved-ice (“kakigori” かき氷) sweets. In case you don’t make it out to Zamami Island, Mango Cafe also has a small booth at Tomari Port in Naha City.

Mango Cafe

Above, you can see I enjoyed a very delicious Mango Kakigori topped with condensed milk, brown sugar, and mango, and coconut. Yum! Let’s have a closer look…

Mango Cafe

SERIOUSLY. YUM!!!

Mango Cafe also serves Okinawa-zenzai (ぜんざい), which is shaved ice with red bean jam and mochi, and mango-zenzai which has red bean jam and mochi served over a delicious mango kakigori like you see above.

Cafe Kafu-shi (Zamami Island)

Cafe Kafu-shi (Zamami Island)

We also stumbled into Cafe Kafu-shi which walking around. We were drawn in by a cute, lazy cat and decided to try it out since they served various flavors of sata-andagi, another Okinawan specialty which we had yet to try. Sata-andagi is a deep-fried bun, similar to Portugese malasadas which are popular in Hawaii. Made of flour, sugar, and eggs, the batter is formed into a ball and deep-fried.

Cafe Kafu-shi (Zamami Island)

Cafe Kafu-shi (Zamami Island)

They carried the following flavors:

  • sugar (plain)
  • brown sugar
  • banana
  • mango
  • “shio” salt
  • “beni-imo” crimson potato

Cafe Kafu-shi (Zamami Island)

We wanted to try them all, but we settled for salt (above), mango, and crimson potato flavors. Everything was tasty! These would go great with a cup of coffee or milk tea.

I enjoyed sata-andagi so much that I ended up taking home a cute sata-pandagi tote bag home as my souvenir. :)

Zamami Island

lazy cats :)

In the late afternoon, the Queen Zamami III came back to pick us up. We were really dreading this ride back, partially because of how rocky the ride had been coming to Zamami, and partially because it would bring us back to Naha. But luckily, the rain had stopped, and we were able to make reservations at GeN, an Okinawan Yakiniku Restaurant that we hadn’t been able to eat at earlier in the week.

GeN - Okinawan Yakiniku Restaurant

Agu pork and wagyu beef for Okinawan yakiniku! Yum!

Check back in a few days for the final post in the Okinawa series!

Golden Week in Okinawa pt. 7: Miyako Island

The Lost Blogs #30

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

Miyako-jima

For our fourth day in Okinawa, we planned a day-trip to Miyako Island via air. Originally, we had thought about doing our island-hopping by ferry, but we read on several travel sites that most of the ferry services between islands had been discontinued. It all worked out anyway, because had we been able to take a ferry, it would’ve been at least a 3-hour trip from Okinawa Honto to the Miyako Islands.

Miyako is known for having some of Japan’s (and Okinawa’s) best beaches and is a great destination for snorkeling and diving in the coral reefs. The weather stays pleasant year round, and we hoped to escape the “early rainy season” which had come to haunt us the past three days on the main island. It is the fourth largest island in Okinawa Prefecture, and the terrain is mostly flat and covered with sugar cane fields. Compared to Okinawa Honto, which is home to the capital city Naha and other developed towns, Miyako is very rural and maintains that laid-back, chill, island vibe.

Miyako Airport

Shisa statues at Miyako Airport. Shisa are traditional Ryukyuan decoration: half-dog, half-lion wards from Okinawan mythology said to protect from evil.

As mentioned in the first post of the series, we booked our round-trip flights using discount airlines SKYMARK. We departed from Naha Airport at 8:15 am and arrived at Miyako Airport less than an hour later at 9:05 am. Our plan at Miyako Airport was the same as when we had first arrived in Naha: rent a car upon arrival at the airport. Miyako Airport is a very small airport. There were a couple of information kiosks, but I recall only two of them being for rental companies, and one was unattended. We waited in line to speak with the attendant and after a bit of a wait, we were told that there were no rental cars available at the moment. Again. There were a couple of motorbikes available, which was out of the question because (as mentioned in the Naha post) only one of us met the requirements for renting a vehicle. There were only two other options: a very large van which was out of our budget, and a car that would become available for pick-up at the airport around 12:30 pm. Our return flight back to Naha City was scheduled for 8:30 pm, so we decided to go ahead and make arrangements to pick up the car around noon. Perfect for our plans in the afternoon, but it was only 9:30 am and we were still stranded at the airport with no way of getting around for three hours.

We decided to split on a taxi to take us to the nearest beach, Maehama Beach, also known as Yonaha-Maehama Beach. We read online that it is a white sand beach which ranks very high as one of Japan’s best beaches. Having never been to any remote, tropical destinations before, I was extremely delighted and surprised to discover that it was truly a white sand beach, with an ocean of different shades of blue. Even better, the rainy season storms had not come anywhere near the Miyako Islands. There wasn’t a single dark cloud in sight!

Maehama Beach

Since we still had to pick up the rental car at the airport, we made arrangements with the cab driver to come back around noon and bring us back, and also kept one of his business cards with a phone number in case he forgot to come back around. But until noon, we could lounge on the beach and relax!

Maehama Beach

Maehama Beach

At noon, we headed back to the airport to pick up the car. We didn’t want to waste any time heading into the town for food, so we decided just to swing by a COOP supermarket on the way to our next beach destination and pick up musubi, drinks, and snacks.

Miyako-jima

Driving around Miyako was pleasant and easy. The roads were sometimes narrow, but there was nobody else on the road. Sugar canes made up most of the scenery. We headed straight across the island heading south-east to Yoshino Beach, also referred to as Yoshino Kaigan. It is the best beach on Miyako for snorkeling because swarms of colorful fish surround you as soon as you enter the water. Just a few steps into the ocean and you’re surrounded by a large coral reef maze full of marine life. You don’t have to go out very far to see the fish, which is great for people like me who really can’t swim.

Yoshino Beach

Upon arriving at Yoshino Beach, you’ll find that there is only one rental shop which is next to the parking lot. The people who run the shop are very friendly, though they don’t speak much English. For a flat fee, you can rent a full set of snorkeling gear: masks, fins, water shoes, snorkels, and snorkeling vests. A free shuttle van will take you down the winding road from the parking lot to the actual beach. The shuttle drops off next to another small shop that sells food and drinks. One of the dishes they sell is a local specialty, Miyako Soba. In case you forgot to rent snorkeling gear by the parking lot, a limited amount of snorkeling gear is also available for rent down by the beach.

Yoshino Beach Snorkeling

We rented an umbrella and lounge chairs and left our things there so we could all go out into the water. The water is so clear and the area reminded me a little bit of Hanauma Bay in Hawaii, except much less crowded, and with a lot more fish. I wasn’t very good at taking pictures underwater (I was a little nervous about being in the water because I can’t swim!), but my husband was able to snap a few pictures of the tropical fish. :)

Yoshino Beach Snorkeling

Yoshino Beach Snorkeling

Yoshino Beach Snorkeling

After spending some time in the water, we went back to our lounge chairs to relax. Shortly after returning to the beach, we were approached by a friendly old man who I had read about online…

Photograph courtesy of non-profit organization Okinawa O.C.E.A.N.

The man you see above Take-san, also known as Yoshino no Ojisan, or Yoshino’s Uncle. He is a self-proclaimed care-taker of Yoshino Beach and can often be found walking around the beach greeting visitors. He speaks great English and is very pleasant to chat with. He makes necklaces out of coral and string while talking to visitors about the beach and the work he does out there. He told us WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms), which is a world wide network of organizations linking volunteers with organic farmers. For an annual fee of 5,500 yen, WWOOFers (volunteers) can choose from any number of farmers worldwide through the network, including over 400 hosts in Japan. In return for the volunteer work, the WWOOF hosts provide food, accommodation, and opportunities to learn about organic lifestyles.

Take-san is one of these WWOOF hosts, though the work volunteers do for him actually has nothing to do with organic farming. Instead, volunteers basically help out with keeping Yoshino Beach clean. You can learn more about Take-san and WWOOF in the Japan Times article “You don’t need to be bbarking to wwoof“, or… you could just fly out to Miyako and listen to Take-san tell you about his life himself. ;)

Take-san also gave us a “small gift” of Miyako sand to take home. Most people may not notice, but a lot of the sand on Miyako Island is star-shaped! I forgot to take a picture, but here’s a good example showing a close-up of the Okinawa’s star-shaped sand which I found on Flickr.

All in all, it was a good day!! We came to Okinawa to swim, snorkel, and soak in the sun, and after three days in Okinawa Honto, we were finally able to get all of that, and meet some of the locals too, who are all really nice! Unfortunately, we had only planned our stay in Miyako as a day-trip, so we had to eventually return the car and get back on a plane to Naha, which we were actually dreading a little bit, knowing that the rainy season would be waiting for us back there…

Soki soba

We had our dinner at one of the restaurants in the airport. My husband ordered the dish above, which is called Sōki Soba. Sōki (ソーキ) are stewed pork spare ribs, usually boneless, with the cartilage still attached. First it is boiled to remove excess fat, then stewed in a mixture of awamori (Okinawan alcoholic beverage), soy sauce, and vinegar for a few hours. This meat is then served on top of Okinawa Soba. Okinawa Soba noodles are different than the traditional buckwheat noodles of mainland Japan. The noodles more closely resemble udon noodles, while the broth is more similar to that of ramen.

Miyako soba

Not wanting to order the same thing, I chose the Miyako Soba instead. It’s actually very similar to standard Okinawa soba, and unlike the sōki soba above, Miyako soba is served using sanmai-niku (pork belly). The broth tasted light and savory, with flavors that reminded me of Chinese noodle soup I used to eat when I was a child. This is in contrast to Japanese udon and soba broths, which usually taste sweet. (Actually, I don’t really know what the difference is between Miyako Soba and Okinawa Soba. I tried to read a little about it in Japanese, and my conclusion is it has something to do with the way the toppings are arranged, though I don’t know if there are any flavor differences as I didn’t try Okinawa Soba during my visit.)

Yuki-shio Omiyage Shop

Lastly, before going to our gate, I made sure to buy some omiyage for my co-workers, since I had taken a few days off during Golden Week to come out here, while the rest of them stayed to teach classes. I bought several pieces of yuki-shio-chinsuko (Okinawan salt cookie) to give as gifts, because it was the best Okinawan snack I had eaten.

I may have also bought several pieces of chinsuko for myself, too… ^-^;;;

Check back next time for Golden Week in Okinawa Part 8! We spent our fifth day in Okinawa doing more island-hopping!

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