Tag Archives: Japanese culture

Kimono Rental in Tokyo

There are several places for Kimono or Yukata rental around Asakusa (浅草), a district in Tokyo, famous for the Senso-ji, a Buddhist temple dedicated to the bodhisattva Kannon.

Kimono (着物), which literally means a “thing to wear” (ki “wear” and mono “thing”), is a Japanese traditional garment. People tend to associate kimono with the formal robe typically made from silk and worn to formal occasions. Yukata (浴衣), with the same basic construction as kimono, are made from cotton, unlined, and usually worn to summer festivals.

I and my friends got to experience wearing Kimono at Asakusa. We rented Kimono from a shop called Asakusa-Shichihenge. (http://www.asakusa-7henge.com/) English is available on the website. The staffs at the shop also speak English. Therefore, it is easier to communicate and choose the rental packages. In summer, you can rent Yukata. But in winter, you can rent Kimono. I and my friends went to the shop in November so we could experience wearing Kimono.

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There are several rental packages from basic Kimono to Furisode Kimono. We chose the basic package. It is only 3,500 Yen (tax included) per person but if you go with a group of 2 or more members, the price is down to 2,500 Yen (tax included). If you do not have Japanese socks to wear with Kimono, you will have to buy the socks for 300 Yen. The package includes Kimono and Japanese shoes for all day (from 10:00-16:00). It takes around 15 minutes to dress 1 person. The shop also provides hairdo services but you have to pay 100 Yen for hairpin rental. (Please make a reservation in advance.)

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Do not worry about the size. There are many sizes of Kimono. And you can choose the pattern of the Kimono by yourself. If you cannot decide, the staffs will help you choose and match the color for you. Because we went in Winter, we could also rent the outerwear for Kimono.

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We went to the shop on the rainy day but it was really fun. We wore Kimono and walked around Asakusa area. We even went to the Japanese restaurant. It was pretty cool, wearing Kimono and eating Japanese traditional clothes. After having lunch, we went to the temple, took Omiguji, and took some pictures around Asakusa.

Untitled3If you come to Japan, I recommend you to experience wearing Kimono. It was really interesting and fun!


Written by Nanpun
Beautiful pictures by Rein Van

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Sagicho Festival at Oiso, Kanagawa

We were going to Oiso on January 11th 2015 to see a Sagicho Festival 左義長 or Dondo Yaki どんど焼き  (a kind of bonfire festival) that was held on Oiso Beach in Kanagawa. We met at Shinagawa station and went by the 3pm train to Oiso Station. The beach weren’t so far from the station (about 15 minutes walk) and nearby the beach entrance, we were greeted by locals with some soup and snacks to warm up our bodies. As it was near the beach, it was really windy and cold for most of us! According to the locals, this is the first time they have seen foreigners at this event! They were just as surprised to see us, as we were to visit this secret festival! We felt really honoured to be there!

At 6pm, we started to heard to the beach. There were many pyramid-like structures made from grass and decorated with lucky charms from the past year. The locals will bring their old charms from the previous year and decorate it here over the new year. We waited there until they lit the fire to the structures. We were given mochi (rice cakes) to on long bamboo sticks which we can use to BBQ the mochi around the fire. Just imagine, instead of marshmallows, we were BBQ-ing mochi. It was the first time for most of us and it was fun!  It seemed like a pretty small-scale festival, and there were not many food stalls unlike the other big festivals. There were only 3 yatai (food stalls) but it was the locals’ hospitality and warmth that completed the festive mood!

The real fun began when the festival started. With the fire, it became pretty warm (of course) and there were so many people gathering around to pray and to join in the festival. After the fire was kindled, some men wearing only the traditional loin cloth went into the water to do pull some kind of rope, which I think was attached to the mikoshi (portable shrines that are common in traditional religious festival). When they are done, they head back to the shore, singing and drinking sake. It was a pretty interesting sight to behold! I cannot imagine how they actually withstand the cold weather and water!

That’s pretty much what happened in the festival. It was hard for us to really understand the background and history since all the information are only in Japanese and the locals couldn’t speak English. Nevertheless, it was one of those times when experience transcends the language barrier. Just being there, experiencing the festival, interacting with the locals and taking it all in was really fun!
Here are some photos of our journey ☺

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By Marco TJ.

Five reasons why Okinawa should be the next place you visit in Japan

I’m chewing on some Okinawan sugar cane and enjoying the warm afternoon breeze as I am writing this, reminiscence of my short-lived holiday in sunny Okinawa.

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Just kicking it back and watching the waves come rolling in on Minami Daito Island.
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The sugarcane fields of Okinawa.

Having lived in Japan for a couple of years, I’ve travelled and visited most parts of Japan. However, it has never crossed my mind to visit Okinawa. Perhaps it is because my idea of Okinawa consists mainly of beaches, sunny weather and a culture and cuisine largely similar to back home. I also heard that it is dominated by the Americans and the Filipinos, which made me think; “If I were to go to a sunny beach destination with an international culture, there’s plenty of cheaper options in Southeast Asia.” Perhaps, that explains why I have never visited Okinawa in my years of travelling Japan.

Thanks to Follow Me Japan and the Okinawa Convention & Visitors Bureau, I had the opportunity to visit Okinawa and experience a different side of Japan. There are no tall buildings or departmental stores; no sickeningly cute maid cafes or noisy pachinko parlours; no overcrowded sushi restaurants or trains filled with drunk salarymen.

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Mensoure! Welcome to Okinawa!

What there is, is the warm hospitality of the Okinawan people, their sunny disposition matching that of the climate, the rustic charm of the island villages, a slower pace of life in the islands of longevity, and a strong Ryukyu culture that reflects its key position in maritime trade with Southeast and east Asia, especially China.

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Say cheese and immerse in some Ryukyu culture!

My 5-day trip to Okinawa was barely the tip of the iceberg, and now I can’t wait to get back and explore more of the Okinawa islands. And here are five reasons why Okinawa should also be your next place to visit in Japan.

 1. Sun. Sand. Sea.

Does it need more explaining? The image of a picture-perfect beach destination is almost synonymous with the word vacation. Even though Japan has never really been known as a beach destination, you just need to google images of Okinawa and you will realize what you’ve been missing out. Apart from the beautiful clear blue sea and soft white sand, the Okinawa islands also have some of the world’s most abundant coral reefs. There is a wide array of water activities to choose from, snorkeling, sea-kayaking, fishing, diving or even just being fascinated by the whale sharks and manta rays in Churaumi Aquarium.

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Contemplating a dive into the rock pool…
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Whale-watching in Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium

2. Think you know Japan? Think again. Okinawa has a culture and history so rich and unique from the rest of Japan.

Never been a history buff myself, I was surprised to find myself intrigued by the history of Okinawa and the Ryukyu Kingdom. Unlike the rest of Japan, which prides itself on the homogeneity of the people, Okinawan culture resembles a mix of its early maritime trading partners, from China, Japan and Southeast Asia.

Even the modern-day Okinawa has its influences from the presence of the U.S. military bases. Walking down the streets, it is pretty common to see Japanese-Western couples, as well as military-related shops and western shops like A&W, something I have never seen elsewhere in Japan.

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Enjoying a traditional Eisa dance at the Ryukyu Mura
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Seems like army fatigue is the fashion in Okinawa!

3. Learn the secret to longevity!

Also known as the islands of longevity, Okinawa people have one of the highest life expectancy in the world. In addition, Okinawa also boasts a population with the highest proportion of people living beyond 100 years old. The secret to this? The Okinawan diet. It consists of a large amount of vegetables, tofu, konbu seaweed and local produce like the Okinawan purple sweet potatoes and bitter melon, Goya.

Of course, being an archipelago, Okinawa also has abundant seafood. In fact, the Okinawan people eat only the freshest sashimi. Don’t be surprised if your sashimi does not come served on ice because ice is not even needed! And unlike the rest of Japan where sushi is only made by a sushi chef, sushi in Okinawa is made by housewives and eaten at home.

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Goya Champuru – rich in vitamins and minerals and eaten to battle the summer heat
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No trip to Japan is complete without some sashimi.

4. Go island-hopping and enjoy island life!

ALOHA! Don’t be surprised to see this word commonly used in the shops, for Okinawa does give off the same laid-back vibe as Hawaii. The archipelago consists of more than 160 tropical islands, so have your pick! Whether it is diving in Ishigaki island, hiking in the tropical forests of Iriomote island, visiting the traditional Ryukyu villages on Taketomi island, relaxing on the beautiiful beaches of Miyako Island, or even shopping on Kokusai Street in the main island, I’m sure you’d be able to find out to suit your preference. Time to escape the big city, kick back and relax with a glass of awamori, the local distilled liquor made from Thai rice.

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Exploring the underground limestone caves in Minami Daito Island.
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Embracing the rustic charm of the island villages.

5.    If you think the Japanese are polite and kind, then the Okinawan people are super friendly.

Perhaps it is because of Okinawa’s history and interaction with its trading partners, or perhaps it is just the island lifestyle… The people of Okinawa seem to be more open and friendly to visitors. Everywhere we went, we were greeted by the warm and bright smiles of the locals, with their cheerful greetings.

I had the opportunity to visit Minami Daito island, a small island village known for its sugar cane plantations and I was simply blown away by the locals’ hospitality and warmth toward this group of foreigners. They shared their food and culture with us, and even went out of the way to catch some bonito fish to make fresh sashimi for us!

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During our trip, we’ve been asked several times to join in the local dance! Who cares about my two left feet, I had fun!
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Goodbye Okinawa! I hope to be back soon!

I hope I have whet your appetite about visiting the beautiful Okinawa islands. To find out more about where to go and what to do in Okianwa, keep a lookout for our upcoming blog posts!

This trip has been made possible by Follow Me Japan and Okinawa Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Lost in the Rustic Charm of Minami Daito Island (Part 1)

Ojariyae! “Konnichiwa” in Minami Daito’s local dialect.

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The quiet streets of this remote island village.
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Sugar plantations of the island.

Literally located in the middle of nowhere, this small island is probably one of the most remote places, yet also the most unforgettable trips I’ve been on in Japan. Well, geographically it is located 400km east of Okinawa island, but in the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. Perhaps this explains its nickname, “The Island in the Endless Sea”. This remote island is made out of corals and given its geographical formation of sharp cliffs all around the coast, the only way to get there is through a short flight from Okinawa main island, or a ferry, with a “special” transit system to get passengers on shore.

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The sharp cliffs all along the coast prevents any ship from docking near the coast. Instead, passengers and cargo are transported to land using the fork lift!

You should also know that the cultural background of this island is quite unlike any of the other Okinawan islands. The first inhabitants of this island were from Izu Hachijo island, near Tokyo, and not Okinawa. As such, the local culture is a mix between Okinawan and Izu culture. In addition, it was the Russians who first discovered this island in 1820, naming it South Borojino island. Truly, this unique cultural blend can only be found this “Island in the endless sea”.

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A performance of the traditional folk songs by the local talent group, Borodino Musume.

Our small propeller plane landed on the runway with greenery on both sides, and we stepped out into the blistering heat of the island. We were greeted by the warm welcomes of the locals as soon as we arrived at the airport. As our van pulled out of the airport, we could only see sugarcane plantations and the occasional building. The circumference of the island is only 21.3km2, barely half of a marathon! The guide happily pointed out the buildings – the only supermarket, the big sugar factory, the local post office… and 10 minutes later, we arrived in the “community center” where we attended a cooking class conducted by the local residents.

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Landing in Minami Daito Island
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The small building that looks more like a town hall rather than an airport!
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Our 4-storey hotel is the tallest building on the island! (Other than the chimneys of the sugar factory…)

We were introduced to Daito-sushi, sushi commonly eaten in the Daito islands. Daito-sushi is made from sawara, Spanish Mackerel, which can be caught all year round in the Daito Islands, unlike in the rest of Japan. The main difference of the sushi is that the sashimi was thinly sliced and soaked in soy sauce before being placed on the rice. Like the rest of Okinawa, it is not unusual for the people of Daito to make and eat sushi at home, so we too, were taught to make our own sushi, from slicing the fish (apparently the most difficult step!), marinating it, and shaping the rice. Then, we enjoyed a typical local lunch of Daito-sushi, goya (bitter melon) seasoned with soy sauce, and winter melon broth.

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Learning to make Daito-sushi from the local residents
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One well-done Daito-sushi!
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The end-product. 8 sushi for one serving! Time to dig in!
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This may not look much.. but these goya sure are bitter! >_<

After satisfying the growling stomachs, we set off to see what this beautiful little gem has got to offer! First stop, Kaigunbo Pool by the coast. As mentioned earlier, the geographical formation of this island meant that instead of sandy beaches, cliffs surround the coastline. In fact, there are no beaches for swimming on this island! As such, the villagers made Kaigunbo Pool, a reef pool for children to swim safely. In the summer, this place is filled with local families swimming, fishing and catching crabs and shellfish! From the cliff, you can also get an unobstructed view of the majestic Pacific Ocean.

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Looking out, you see nothing but the deep blue ocean. This “Island in the Endless Sea” is so remote that you can even catch tuna from the coast!
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Kaigunbo Pool, filled naturally with sea water, is a popular place for the locals to visit during summer!
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The glistening blue sea of Minami Daito island.

Apart from the beautiful coastline, you’ll be surprised to find some pretty spectacular underground limestone caves on the island. We visited the Hoshino Limestone Caves, where we can observe the stalactites and stalagmites of the pink rock cave. Of course, no touching!

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The pink rock cave at Hoshino Limestone caves. Stairs and handrails have been installed for the safety of the visitors.
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Marvel at the amazing limestone formations in this underground cave!

The other natural wonder of the island is the inland black mangrove of the island. As you may know, mangroves are formed when fresh water meets sea-water. However, on this island, the black mangroves are landlocked, isolated from the open sea! The locals have discovered that the surface of this water body is fresh water whereas the bottom is saltwater!

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Even on this tiny island, the inland black mangrove is a rare occurrence in the world!

This island is simply filled with so much treasures and the simple lifestyle of the villages had kept the natural beauty pretty much intact. With limited telecommunications reception, and limited shops and modern-day entertainment, this is definitely the island to go to to “escape” it all!

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Have a wander through the quiet streets of the village center!

More about Minami Daito on our next blog post

This trip has been made possible by Follow Me Japan and Okinawa Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Lost in the Rustic Charm of Minami Daito Island (Part 2)

Although Minami Daito is known as the Island in the Endless Sea, another name for it is the Island of Sugarcane, for obvious reasons.

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Looking out, you can only see sugar cane plantations all over the island.
Enjoying the warm hospitality of the local villagers.
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The old and simple buildings that has withstood many typhoons on the island.

The first inhabitants from Izu Hachijo island use the island to grow sugarcane. Today, there are only 1,400 inhabitants on the island, but 90% of the population is working on the sugar-cane plantations all over the island. The island may be small, but 100 ton of sugar is processed every harvest to produce crystallised sugar for mainland Japan. With sugar production being the main form of revenue, almost everyone we came across is either working on the plantations, or in the sugar factory. In fact, the average income on this island is higher than elsewhere in Okinawa main island because farmers own large plots of land! Even our driver owns 13ha of land for his own sugarcane plantation!

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Until 25 years ago, sugar railway was used to send sugar cane from the fields to the factory. Today, we can still see the railway tracks on some of the roads.

We visited the Hinomaru Observatory, a short viewing tower on a slightly elevated ground that offers a panorama view of the island. From here, you can see that the island is mostly covered by sugar plantation, save for the few buildings in the village center. It also shows you, how small the island actually is, when you can actually see beyond the land and into the never-ending deep blue.

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A panorama view of the island.

Not surprisingly, there is also a rum factory on the island. The local brand, Cor Cor (short for Crown of the Coral, named after the shape of the island) is a big hit throughout Okinawa. The green label is made directly from sugar cane juice and only 600 bottles are produced every month! You may want to buy some of these Cor Cor home as souvenirs from this little remote island as it is much more expensive to get them on the main islands. Interestingly, the old airport is being used as the rum factory so don’t be surprised to see the boarding gate signs!

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Shopfront of the Cor Cor rum factory.
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Inside the factory, you can still see the signage for the old airport.
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The former boarding gate of the old airport. Signage reads “Only 1 carry-on luggage per passenger.”

The highlight of the trip has to be the heartfelt performance of the local folk music by a group of girls called “Borodino Musume” (Daughters of Borodino). The background of this performance is the bitter-sweet story of the children of the Daito islands. As there is no high school on the islands, all children of the islands have to leave their families and move to Okinawa main island at the age of 15. The folk music is a farewell dance to their loved ones and also serves reminds them of their identity and the beauty of their hometown. Although I do not understand the lyrics of the songs, the heartwarming story of the girls resonated with me.

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A wonderful performance of the local folk music, with traditional instruments such as the Okinawan sanshin.
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We were also treated to a dinner of local sashimi and marinated bonito fish.
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After the performance, we were invited to join in the local dance with the local residents!
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Having fun and playing with the girls, despite not speaking the same language. 
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And when the village has gone to sleep, have a glass of awamori (Okinawan sake) at the local pub.

My 2-day stay on this island is pretty short-lived, but the interactions with the villagers, and the rustic charm of this island village made it hard for me to leave. I wish I had more time just to wander the streets, have a dip in the reef pool, chat with the local grannies and enjoy the local folk music. Minami Daito island may be far out in the middle of nowhere, but it is definitely worth going the distance for.

This trip has been made possible by Follow Me Japan and Okinawa Convention and Visitors Bureau.

5 Things to do on Okinawa main island

We left behind the bustling streets of Naha City and travelled northward towards Motobu Peninsula, where the world-renowned Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium is located. With so many activities to choose from, here are some of our recommendations!

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Driving up to Motobu Peninsula
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Travelling on the wide roads of Motobu Peninsula, you’ll only see the beautiful coast and the greenery.

1.    Marvel at the marine life at Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium.

Did you know that “Chura” means “beautiful” in the Okinawan dialect, and “Umi” means “sea, or ocean” in Japanese? Hence, Churaumi, beautiful sea, is a name that aptly sums up what you are about to see in the aquarium. Don’t miss out on the Kuroshio Tank, a huge world-class tank where you can marvel at the majesty of the whale sharks, manta rays, dolphins, and other beautiful marine creatures. You should also know that the aquarium have started a world-first initiative to breed corals for eventual release into the sea!

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Admire the beautiful marine creatures at the world-class Kuroshio Tank.

2.    Get your hands dirty at the local crafts studios or bakery!

Ryukyu glass is one of the famous crafts of Okinawa. In Motobu, you can experience glass-blowing and make your own original Ryukyu glass at one of the local studios! Did you know that the Ryukyu glassware industry has a pretty interesting background? It all started after the war, when locals collected coke bottles from the military bases. At the same time, American soldiers returning home requested the local craftsmen to create original crafts representative of the islands. As such, Ryukyu glassware with beautiful gradient colors resembling the ocean is born.

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Try your hands at glass-blowing and make your own Ryukyu glass under the instructions of the master glassblowers!
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The vibrant colours that is characteristic of Ryukyu glassware.

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Or learn how to bake some bread using wild yeast and home-grown ingredients 

3.    Appreciate the culture of ancient Okinawa at the Ryukyu Mura

Set in the olden days of Ryukyu Kingdom, this cultural village/theme park is a great way to experience the Ryukyu traditions and the former ways of lives. You will also get a chance to watch, and even join in some of the traditional performances, such as Shishimai (Lion dance, very similar to the one in Chinese culture), Yotsudake (a kind of elegant court dance), Karate (as we all know it), and Eisa (the folk dance with Okinawan drums).

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Experience the old way of life at Ryukyu Mura – a demonstration of how water buffaloes were used at the sugarcane mill to get sugar juice, which is then boiled to make brown sugar.
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Traditional Eisa dance
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The Yotsudake court dance

4.    Admire the natural beauty of the East China Sea

Travelling along the coast, you will see plenty of attractive beaches, with the clear blue waters beckoning to you. Spend a day at the beach and enjoy sea sports with your friends and family, or kick back and relax at one of the ocean-view cafes. Also, don’t miss out the iconic scenic spot at Cape Manzamo, Onna village. The lush green grass atop the cliff is set against a beautiful backdrop of the glistening blue sea. It makes a great place to sit on the cliffs to enjoy the spectacular coastline.

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Manzamo can be said to be one of the most magnificent view of the East China Sea in Okinawa.
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It is also often referred to as The Elephant’s Nose due to the formation of the cliff!
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Take time to enjoy the sunset over the East China Sea at the end of a day of sight-seeing.

5.    Eat eat eat!

Not forgetting one of the most important aspects of travel, you may want to stop by Kyoda Road Station (apparently rated #1 in the nation by travelers) to try some of the local snacks like soft-served ice cream (with local flavours like black sugar, Okinawan calamansi, and even sea-salt & sesame!), Okinawan kamaboko (minced fish cake), and sata andagi (Okinawan doughnut)! You can also buy fresh local produce (fruits and vegetables) and other souvenirs!

And one of the highlights of Motobu Peninsula, is the Motobu Beef, Japanese black beef! Try it at the local yakiniku BBQ restaurant and I assure you you will not forget the taste of the meaty goodness melting in your mouth.

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Kyoda Road Station, rated number 1 out of 1030 stations in the nation!
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Famous andagi, Okinawa doughnut!

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Treat yourself to some top-class Motobu Beef.

This trip has been made possible by Follow Me Japan and Okinawa Convention and Visitors Bureau.

One day in Naha City

We flew into the swanky new international terminal at Naha Airport and were greeted by the clear blue skies and beautiful ladies clad in the traditional Okinawa kimono.

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Mensoure! Welcome to Naha City! 
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Me and a beauitful Okinawan lady in the traditional Okinawa kimono!

Located on the Okinawa main island, Naha city is the capital as well as political and economic hub. If you are looking for departmental stores, fancy restaurants, or anything slightly resembling the cities of mainland Japan, this is the most likely place to find it.

If you’re like us with only have a few hours to spare in Naha City, here are some of the places you should hit up!

1. Buy your souvenirs at Kokusai Street

Looking for a restaurant with traditional Okinawan music? Or a souvenir shop selling the shisa ornament or some local sea-salt? How about some Hawaiian-style accessories? You’ll definitely find it all on the vibrant Kokusai Street, probably the busiest street in Naha City. This main street stretches for 1.6km, with plenty of brightly lit shops and restaurants on both sides of the street. To my surprise, the shops were opened and bustling with activities even at 10pm, so no worries for late night shopping!

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The vibrant shops and busy shoppers on Kokusai Street.
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You’ll find plenty of shops selling Shisa, the mystical lion-dog creature which the locals believe will help to protect them from evil spirits.
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Sampling of sea-salt from all over Japan and the world.

2.    Savour local delicacies at Makishi Public Market

This is the place to go to for the local fare. On the first floor, you’ll find butchers, fishmongers, and green grocers selling local delicacies, from smoked pork’s face (yes, you read it right, pork’s face) to turquoise parrotfish, and safer options such as pickles and local produce like bittermelon and sugar cane. After you’re done picking your fresh ingredients, bring them upstairs and have the food stall cook it for you.

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No, these are not face masks. Smoked pork face, a local delicacy.
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How about the catch of the day?
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Or try other local cuisine in one of the restaurants on the second floor.

3. Enjoy the artistic charm of Tsuboya Yachimun Street

After a filling meal at the Makishi Public Market, take a stroll along Tsuboya Yachimun Street, a small street known for local ceramics craft and pottery. If you like, try your hands at pottery at one of the studios. Or perhaps, just sip on a cup of coffee at one of the small cafes, enjoying the quiet charm of this back street, which is a stark contrast to the busy Kokusai Street.

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One of the traditional pottery studios on Tsuboya Yachimun Street.
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Came across this odd vintage shop selling some very classic pots and toys from my childhood days.

4.    Take in the prowess of Ryukyu Kingdom at Shurijo Castle

For something more cultural, visit Shurijo Castle located in Naha. This is the castle where the kings of Ryukyu kingdom lived. If you have been to other castles in mainland Japan, you may notice a difference in the architecture. Indeed, the architecture of Shurijo is a combination of Chinese, Japanese and indigenous Ryukyu construction techniques. This technique is unique to Okinawa, and is a result of influences from Ryukyu’s maritime trading partners. Step into the castle grounds and relive the glorious days of the Ryukyu kings.

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Step inside and admire the grandeur of Shurijo Castle. (Photo from JNTO)
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The night illumination of Shurijo Castle makes it seem like a forbidden castle.

This trip has been made possible by Follow Me Japan and Okinawa Convention and Visitors Bureau.