Contrary to popular belief, the largest Buddha is not located in Kamakura or Nara, but in Chiba.
After meeting at the train station at 8am, we headed over to Kurihama station, which took about an hour. From there, we took a ferry across the Tokyo Bay, which took us to the Boso peninsula. We opted to take the ropeway up and down the mountain, rather than to risk getting lost.
Traveling in a tiny cable car was exhilarating and kind of scary! We were stuffed in a box but the views were worth it. We were up that mountain in a matter of minutes.
Even with the cable car, the path was mostly uphill, with more stairs than I cared for. But we stopped by the visitor center to grab a traditional Japanese meal and set off. The first path took us to a 30m high wall carving of Kannon, named Hyakushyaku. We got a nice tourist take a group picture, but unfortunately the head of the statue got cut off in the shot.
Next, we made our way towards Nokogiriyama, or Saw Mountain, named after its profile that protrudes out of the mountain.
Though a bit cloudy to see Mount Fuji, this area did allow us to view panoramic views of the bay.
On the way to the Daibutsu, we came across hundreds of hand carved arhats. Surprisingly, many had different poses and facial expressions.
Finally! We reached the Daihbutsu.
Japan’s largest pre-modern Buddha, nearly double the size of large Buddhas in Nara and Kamakura
A bunch of us also bought charms and darumasan at a nearby vendor.
On our way back, we wandered around the beach.
All in all, visiting Nokogiriyama was a nice getaway from the city. Though a bit confusing to explore, good company and the spectacular views made it a wonderful adventure.
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!
Although Minami Daito is known as the Island in the Endless Sea, another name for it is the Island of Sugarcane, for obvious reasons.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Early in the morning, all of us met up at Sapporo station and picked up our rental car from the Toyota Rental Car shop nearby. Then it was a 2 hours drive to Obihiro City, stopping at a supermarket to stock up on snacks and drinks for the road. At Obihiro, we popped into the visitors’ center at the station and got information for the day.
At Obihiro, we had the famous Buta-don (“pork bowl”, roast sliced pork on rice). It was.. mouth-watering!!! And then we bought the 500yen sweets-coupon which allowed us to visit 5 confectionaries of our choice in the area. It was a mad rush for the sweets – soft-served ice cream, sweet potato pies, waffles, cheese cake…
Satisfied with the gourmet run, we continued our journey down into the southern area of Tokachi. First stop, the former Aikoku (愛国 – “Land of Love”) station, followed by the famous Kofuku (幸福 – “Happiness”) station. As you’d have expected, these two stations are famous because of their meaning, travelling from the Land of Love into Happiness!
For the night, we rented out a log cabin near a dairy farm. It was huge, and smelled of the fragrance of wood. Since it was dark and rainy outside, with nothing for miles, we stayed in and made our own hot pot for dinner.
I often get asked what is the best season to visit Hokkaido. Most people would say it is during the winter, where you can visit numerous large-scale snow festivals and also enjoy the famous powder snow if you are a skiier or snow-boarder.
For me, I’d say the best season to visit is in summer, when the weather is comfortably warm (unlike the rest of Japan where it is humid and blazing hot), the days are long, and the flowers are blooming. That is why I organised a road-trip around Eastern Hokkaido.
Together with 4 other people I’ve never met before this trip, we covered 1,200km in 10 days, visiting
Hiroo & Urahoro
Kushiro City & Kushiro Marshland NP
Lake Akan & Lake Onneto, Akan NP
Lake Mashu & Lake Kussharo, Akan NP
Utoro & Shiretoko NP
Abashiri & Koshimizu Lily park & Cheese Factory
Asahidake, Daisetsuzan National Park
Hokuryu Sunflower Park
Here is a map of our tracks:
It’s been a long journey and we enjoyed driving cross-country, stopping at the farms, beaches, national parks and anywhere else that caught our interest. It was late July when we went and we had a few rainy days but other than that, the weather was great!
It’s hard to say what was the highlight of the trip, but if I have to choose, it would be the last day, when it was bright and clear after two days of pouring rain. We were driving down from Asahidake towards Biei and the view of the mountain ranges right in front of us was simply breathtaking. It was like watching a IMAX movie, if you get what I mean.
In any case, the trip had some of the most scenic drives I ever had in Japan, as well as some of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been in rural Japan. And as the locals said, even though Hokkaido is cold, the hearts of the locals are warm! We were very fortunate to have stayed with some of very friendly and kind guesthouse / farmstay owners.
And although I had my own reservations about travelling on such a unconventional trip with people I do not know, I must say, those worries are unwarranted! Turns out that everyone was really chill and laid back… Afterall, we just wanted an amazing holiday in Hokkaido and guess what? We got what we wanted.