Exploring Downtown Naha and Shuri Castle at Okinawa, Japan, Part 1

Coming to Okinawa, we didn’t really have a set plan of course. As opposed to our future vacations in Southeast Asia where we would tour the local spots extensively, we came to Okinawa primarily to see our friends. When I first decided to come to South Korea, going to Japan immediately became a priority for me. Having not seen two of my best friends for years, I figured entering the same time zone would be the perfect opportunity. As such, our first two days in Japan gave us a relaxed tour of Naha, Okinawa prefecture’s capital, and its main cultural attraction, Shuri Castle.

Deciding on Okinawa

I’ve always wanted to travel to Japan. The culture and traditions are interesting to me. Plus, as a fan of anime, I love the mythology that goes along with all of it. In the future, I plan on returning to travel the more cultural spots of Kyoto and Osaka. Moreover, I’d love to hike Mount Fuji! But on this occasion, we had a much simpler goal: to catch up with some great friends. A few years ago now, one of my best friends who’s in the marines moved with his wife to Okinawa. I’d only seen them three or so times in about four years.

Seriously, they’ve been on this side of the planet for that much time, and then I arrive just to see them return to the States without a chance to meet up? That ain’t going to happen. It was time.

When everything was set for our coming to Korea, I went to nail this trip down quickly, and thankfully, everything worked out. Eric said that we’d fly by the seat of our pants, but the planner I am, I researched a few attractions and passed them along as suggestions. Finally, the end of October came and we were packed and ready. We had four days off and we were so excited to be in subtropical Okinawa. We woke up early on Friday the 28th and boarded the subway for the ride to the airport.

The flight was pretty short. Once the flight landed, Eric and Alex picked us up quickly. After a quick introduction between them two and Danny, we were off. It was such a giddy feeling to see them both again and to be in this new place. The weather was a steamy 80 degrees and promising to get hotter, a nice change from Seoul’s 50-60 degree average when we left.

Exploring Naha’s Downtown

I was entirely glad to just hang out with my friends at their cozy apartment. But Naha had so much to see before we left the area. The first thing we did was hit up the streets and visit some shops to see if we wanted to pick up any food or souvenirs. A lot of the shops in Naha were neat. Some sold jewelry or other accessories made from bone or mother of pearl; others were incredibly raunchy (or at least irreverent) and had all sorts of condom- or sexual-themed toys or snacks. And remember, we’re in a regular shop, nothing adult here. Other shops in Naha had sake with preserved snakes floating inside and other strange and exotic gifts. We really were in another world.

We ended up eating a few donuts that were deliciously dense from a bakery in one of the markets. These markets were much different than what you’d see in Korea. The market was mostly covered, and you had room to move about. The atmosphere was less urgent too. People just seemed more relaxed.

I should also mention that we were terrified the entire way there because Danny and I kept feeling like we were driving into traffic. See, in Japan, they drive on the other side of the road. Plus, it had been months since we’d been in a car. It was nerve-racking.

Oh Yeah, We Also Went to a Jimmy Buffett Concert

Before we came to Okinawa, Eric had mentioned that Jimmy Buffett would actually be performing at a local base. Danny’s a big fan, so we decided, why not drop in? We went to listen to a few songs and have a few drinks. Now, it was blazing hot; we were melting. Half an hour had passed, and we were “melting like snow-cones in Phoenix!” (If you get the reference, let me know!)

We didn’t stay exceptionally long. But damn, that mojito we drank was great.

Surprise! Korean Barbecue and Chill Night

While Naha is on the west side of Okinawa, my friends live on the eastern side. We drove back to their place, and they gave us a quick tour of their apartment. We decided to relax for a little bit before heading out to dinner at a local Korean barbecue place. It was a touch of Seoul with a Japanese twist and it was delicious paired with pitchers of Japanese beer. Eric was our courteous grill-master, and the flow of food was relentless.

We walked back to their apartment and had a great night playing Mario Kart and talking about everything. After a few hours, we dragged ourselves to bed to get ready for a full day.

Danny and Alex playing Mario Kart

Best Place to Go Around Naha: Shuri Castle

Saturday proved to be a fun day heading over to Shuri Castle as they were having a festival weekend. (As a side note, parking was terrible since it was a festival weekend.) When we finally found parking and got to the castle, Eric and Alex informed us there were stamps to collect which could get us a special prize at the end. Challenge accepted.

Overall, the castle was beautiful. To give you some background, Shuri castle was the cultural heart and administrative center for the Ryukyu Kingdom for about 450 years, beginning in 1429, though it had been built at least a hundred years previous. Okinawa was the largest of the Ryukyu Islands, an area that served as a tributary/vassal nation first to several Chinese dynasties, and then to the Japanese before they were conquered in the 1800s by Japan. During the medieval age, it held an important role in sea-trade, facilitating much of that economy between nations. So interesting! Because of the contributions this site makes to our understanding of Southeast Asia during much of history, the castle has been named a UNESCO World Heritage site, so Danny and I got to add that to our collection.

Due to the festival, we actually missed one of the stamps. A huge crowd watching the ending of a performance sidetracked us upon our entrance. Even so, the stamps all really look so much alike!… So if I used another and then accidentally smudged it, no one would know it wasn’t the correct stamp… Happily, I received the commemorative stamp for completing the pamphlet. I even got a nifty children’s book that helped explain the area. And it came with stickers!

While in Japan, Eat Sushi

We went to grab lunch at a sushi place next, and it was to die for. I’ve had and liked sushi, but this stuff was on another level, even though it was a common place in Japan. We ate many plates, to say the least, and Eric and Alex were both helpful in guiding some of our decisions.

Getting Shoes, Dinner, and Chill Night #2

At some point that day, my friends discovered that I had a dire need of new shoes since, as an earlier entry attested, Korea doesn’t carry my size. I suppose I should have realized that the military would have my needs met! The Exchange, an American brand store on base, had just what I needed! Fortunately, they also needed to stop there, so we got some passes to enter the area and dropped by. We watched a guy making some amazing spray paint art outside the building. Inside, we were able to pick up some awesome souvenirs (such as some Shisas and a flag) and I WAS FINALLY ABLE TO BUY SHOES. Suffice it to say, we celebrated that night by having a great dinner, playing board games, drinking wine, and eating the incredible cupcakes that Eric had decided to make for our coming.

Ordering machines at a restaurant on Okinawa, Japan
We found this machine at a place called Kitchen Magee’s. What was interesting was that you found what meal(s) you wanted on the side board, tabbed them in on the machine, and it would spit out tickets for you once you paid the machine. I think it’s fun to see how other cultures do food and takeout.

Though we stayed up late that night, we got up early the next day to continue our adventure. Our first two days in Japan were already a blast and I couldn’t wait for our activities the next day.

What About You?

Have you ever attended Shuri Castle near Naha in Okinawa? What are your best memories of traveling Japan, or what would you like to see if you ever went? Are you surprised by anything we saw? Let me know in the comments below! And make sure to subscribe!

 

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