A few weeks ago, we visited the Cup Noodles Museum and Ramen Musuem in Yokohama. To get there, it is just a short 30 minutes train ride from Tokyo city to Minato Mirai Station, followed by a short walk through neighboring attractions such as the World Porters Shopping center and Cosmoworld.
First stop, Nissin Cup Noodles Museum! Nissin is a famous household brand, not only in Japan but also in many Asian countries! Over the years, Nissin has come up with many different flavours, including Tom Yam, Clam Chowder, Cheese Curry, Chicken Gratin.. and the list just gets whackier!
Though small, the Cup Noodles Museum was a fun and slightly inspirational. The museum explains founder Momofuku Ando’s experiences and troubles before the success of the cup noodles. And as we all know, the revolutionary 3-minute cup noodles is a part and parcel of everyone’s lives – as a late-night supper, post-drinking snack, a quick lunch, or just a comfort food that reminds us of the typical Asian noodle soup!
Of course, making our own personalized cup noodles was the best part of the trip. It costs an additional 500 yen, but we could make our own cup noodle from scratch, design the “cup” and take it home… to eat (although it seems like such a shame to eat this truly only-one-in-the-world ramen >_<)! There’s also a food court on the fourth floor, with yummy noodles from all over Asia.
Next, we headed over to the Ramen Museum in Shinyokohama. The interior is made to look like Japan during the Showa period. It provides pretty interesting information about the history of ramen and how different ramen originates from different areas in Japan! At the end, there are about 7 shops where you can try the different kinds of ramen!
A little over an hour away from Tokyo, the town of Misaki and neighboring Jogashima Island offers an excellent day trip out of the city. For this trip, I highly recommend that you purchase the Misaki Maguro Pass, as we did for this trip.
Misakiko, a major tuna port, hosts a fish market similar to the likes of Tsukiji. Unfortunately, we decided to meet up an hour later, so we when we arrived to market at 9, the vendors were already packing up.
But there is still much to do around the area. We took a quick stroll around the Urari Seafood Market, which sold fresh fish to the public, as well as interesting treats such as tuna and red bean bun and tuna madelines, neither of which I was brave enough to try.
From there, on our way to the Kainan Shrine, we took a quick stroll through the town shopping districts, Shitamachi Shotengai and Misaki Ginza, which had a retro charming atmosphere of the Showa period.
Luckily, the Kainan Shrine was hosting a Shichi-go-san ceremony, a coming of age celebration for children, so we were lucky enough to see Japanese children dressed in traditional kimono. The shrine is also home to an 800-year-old ginko tree.
Next, we took the bus towards Jogashima Island. One of the benefits of the Misaki Maguro Pass is that it includes unlimited transportation around the Misaki area. After exploring the shoreline for a bit, we had lunch at Shibuki-tei. The Misaki Maguro Pass includes a meal coupon at 21 different restaurants around the area, and often offers meal options as well. When we mentioned to our waitress that one of us couldn’t eat raw fish, she was very accommodating and brought out Tuna Katsu don. The rest of us had the option of Tuna sashimi don or a Tuna and squid combo don. Both came with an assortment of side dishes, as well as a jar of the restaurant’s specialty tuna miso, made only in Misaki.
After a hearty lunch, we decided to walk along the rocky beach towards the one of the main attractions, the Jogashima Lighthouse. About a 30 minutes walk away, the Uma-no Sedomon, the famous rock arch formation is another popular attraction. Jogashima offered spectacular sights. When the sky is clear, you have a great view of Mount Fuji.
The Misaki Maguro pass also offers admission to a hot springs facility, the aquarium, or a glass boat ride.
We chose the aquarium, which was a bit small, but still enjoyable. The highlight of that excursion was seeing the sunset from an observatory.
Nikko is famous for its UNESCO World Heritage Sites and the lavishly-decorated Toshogu Shrine. Come autumn and Nikko is also a popular spot for viewing the beautiful autumn leaves. Thanks to Nikko’s geography (it’s spread over a mountainous region), it has one of the longest season for autumn leaves viewing in Kanto region. The season began in early October, starting from the Oku-nikko region in the mountains. Come November and visitors can enjoy the beautiful colours in the lower region of Nikko town.
Last weekend, we visited Nikko to see for ourselves, the glorious autumn colors. We bought the All Nikko Pass, which costs 4,520yen and includes
A round trip from Asakusa, Tokyo to Nikko on Tobu Railways,
Unlimited rides on buses in the area,
Discount to admission to some of the temples & shrines, and
Discount at some of the restaurants & shops.
It was a long journey, vying for seats on the 2-hour-odd train ride, standing on the bus on a back-breaking journey as it wound round and round the Irohazaka slopes, but it was well worth the journey.
As reported by the autumn-leaves forecast online (yes, there are forecasts for autumn leaves and also cherry blossoms, a very quintessentially Japanese thing!), the season has already ended in the upper regions of Oku-Nikko and we were greeted by brown and yellow leaves and bald trees. Despite the colours, we were able to see the impressive Kegon Waterfalls, and that was worth the trip up the mountains!
Seeing that the weather was turning bad, we decided to have lunch in a local yuba restaurant. Yuba, tofu skin, is the local product in Nikko. Due to the large number of temples and monks visiting, the area is famous for vegetarian food and Yuba is one of the local’s delicacies!
Having filled our tummies, we caught the bus back towards Nikko town. We alighted near the Shinkyo Bridge, and made our way towards the famous Toshogu Shrine through a short but beautiful and quiet path in the “forest” (park?).
It was a shame we didn’t have more time to walk around the shrines and temples. Most of them have closed by the time we got there. However, we did not miss the thing we went to Nikko for!
At around 4pm, the gates of Shoyo-en, a Japanese garden near Toshogu Shrine, were opened! It is the annual illumination even for the autumn leaves. Due to the arrangement in the garden, it is said that this is one of the best place in Nikko to appreciate the leaves! We were able to catch the scenery before and after sunset, each with its own beauty. In fact, it was so pretty that we had a hard time gathering everyone to leave the place!
Finally after a long day, we caught the last train back to Tokyo. I don’t think we have had enough of the autumn leaves, though. This is merely the beginning!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
Ojariyae! “Konnichiwa” in Minami Daito’s local dialect.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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!
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!
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!
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.
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).
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.
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 sataandagi (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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.