Okinawa - the Ryukyu Queen of slippery streets and slimy seaweed

by Moto Japan

Hot summer evokes the craving for beach and nothing but blue sea laid out all the way to the horizon. During the morning commute, I asked Kazuto which travel destination we should write about this time, as we've had quite a few new discoveries lately. His nostalgic response wasn't surprising: Let's write about Okinawa, and then let's go there again!

 A bit over 2 years ago in April, Vanilla Air just launched their new line from Tokyo to Naha, and their 2000 JPY promotional package (upon the opening of the new Terminal 3 at Narita airport) coincided with my birthday. We were in for a total treat! While I was unaware of the comprehensive road surprise Kazuto arranged for me, and we both learned new things that weekend:

  1. Okinawan streets are slippery
  2. Okinawan salarymen wear slightly more relaxed clothes and ride around on scooters
  3. People are extremely chill
  4. Okinawan fish is not the tastiest one
  5. Seaweed is diverse
  6. American army is everywhere you look. Everywhere.
  7. Okinawan sea is freezing in April
  8. It's impossible to close the roof of a convertible car while driving

Slipping over coral sand on Okinawan streets

Knowing I live for road-trips and love driving, Kazuto rented a convertible BMW for the birthday beach trip, so that I can get the tires on the road and enjoy the drive. As we picked up the car, the dealer warned us that Okinawan streets aren't like the ones we're used to in Tokyo, and that we should pay special attention during the rainy weekend ahead (yup, it was raining pretty much the whole time - and we rented a convertible car). On the last day the weather cleared out and just before takeoff, we rented a motorcycle for a short spin around Naha. The streets were indeed slippery, even on a dry day. Generally, road pavements in the Pacific region are largely sourced from coralline or indigenous rocks. In Okinawa, they use a special blend of marine materials that give the bikes an extra swhoosh down the road. We tried to get more information about the roads from the locals, but everyone told us a different story about the use of coral sand/shells and asphalt for paving the roads. What impact on environment that makes? We couldn't get that information either.

Even on the main island in Okinawa, it is easy to escape to remote areas, taking tiny roads by the ocean, soaking in the view and hopefully some subtropical sun. But what we enjoyed the most was finding out way around the port labyrinth filled with freshly loaded containers, that made our journey feel a little bit like that ocean-side bike chase in Manila from the "Bourne Legacy" movie. I taught I was the only one overwhelmed by container action, but Kazuto also refers to this memory as the "mysterious adventure". No one was shot or chased, but a circular ride between the containers on a slippery surface is a job for a daredevil rider.

Birthday surprise part 4: Joyride with the daredevil

Okinawan salarymen wear slightly more relaxed clothes and ride around on scooters

The Kariyushi shirt style originates in Okinawa. Similar to an aloha shirt, it is decorated with characteristic designs found in traditional local  arts, shisā temple guardian designs, and simple floral patterns in muted colors. Salarymen riding their (mainly scooter) bikes from one meeting to another look much friendlier than their Tokyo counterparts. They dress in bright colors and patterns, and smile more. Like the Sakishima Meeting local band, dressed in kariyushi shirt for the Nanten Uraraka shirt promo collaboration:

The kariyushi shirt is a style of dress shirt originating in Okinawa. On the picture, Sakishima Meeting duo wears the contemporary kariyushi design

People are extremely chill

Okinawan people are friendly to the point when you start questioning their intentions. On the first night we met 2 really kind guys at an izakaya, and one of them offered to drive us to the fireworks observation spot by the sea. We were not sure whether the hanami festival was cancelled due to rain that night, but our new friend was eager to drive us to check it out. He was overly kind and determined, therefore I quickly concluded that he's taking us somewhere to kill us, while Kazuto wondered whether he's trying to rape us (I couldn't really follow the conversation in Japanese, but he was apparently a virgin with eagerness to discuss sexual topics).

A picture I sent to friends from the back seat of the car along with license plate numbers. Host of the night was just being kind, but I was doubtful as ever...

It turned out to be a false alarm of overcautious city people, as the guy just wanted to share some honest conversations and display hospitality to visitors. We were grateful for it, but still ditched him at the first stop sign. Throughout the following days, we realized that Okinawans in general don't mind going an extra mile to make another person feel comfortable, and they aren't hesitant discussing their private lives - as uncommon as that is in Tokyo.

Okinawan locals are extremely friendly and giving. They aren't shy sharing their thoughts, and they are always willing to share their sea with visitors ~ (Photo by Biel Morro on Unsplash)

Okinawan fish is not the tastiest one - but it wins the beauty pageant

For most delicious sushi head towards colder waters - like Hokkaido. Okinawan waters are filled with colorful pretty sea creatures, but delicious seafood in the region is rather vegetarian.

Picture from the Makishi Public Market in Naha. You pick your seafood, and they will prepare it in one of the restaurants on the higher floor of the building.

Seaweed binge

Variety of seaweed blew us away. Over 2 years later, we sometimes wake up on the weekends craving the vegetarian buffet lunch we treated ourselves to at Karakara restaurant, trying diverse types of seaweed, from umi budo ("sea grape") to commonly offered mozuku. Karakara is not a vegetarian restaurant, as they offer diverse types of local delicacies, including meat, but with all seaweed options, we got stuffed with it to the point that we had to take a nap in the restaurant (cause in Japan... sleep anywhere you want to...) just to be able to move our full bellies out of that place.

Kazuto falling asleep after seafood binge at Karakara restaurant. Uploading this image I just noticed how he hugged the table with his leg. I was too stuffed to notice it that time.
Mozuku, my newly discovered soul food

American army is everywhere you look. Everywhere.

Approximately 62% of U.S. bases in Japan are in Okinawa and many of the bases, such as Yokota Air Base, Naval Air Facility Atsugi and Kadena Air Base, are located in the vicinity of residential districts. Staying in Naha, you are always reminded of the American military presence by the aircraft noise as a start. Our Naha pictures were photo-bombed with jet planes, including the commemoration of the rented Suzuki GSR.

American Army photobomb of the Suzuki GSR picture

 As with every similar US Military Base town, the army leaves a great mark on Naha nightlife. The clubs we visited were filled with soldiers (and military girlfriends) that come out to vent out and play. Till date, Naha had the worst club atmosphere we experienced in Japan, but we had great fun nevertheless. After many habushu shots (snake wine - awamori-based liqueur) chased by Orion (local beer), one can easily reach a threshold of not caring too much about the testosterone exploding around the dance floor.

Returning from a club filled with military personnel, we found Okinawan taxis appropriately decorated. Instead of lace seat covers found in other Japanese cities, Naha goes for Meisai (camouflage) patterns.

Okinawan sea is freezing in April

Mid April temperatures are comfortable for running around in shorts and a T-shirt, but it's no swimming season yet. We knew there won't be a new opportunity to come here in years, and we were happy to negotiate a boat ride to a nearby tiny island that was supposed to be ideal for a swim. The boat dropped us off and we dived into freezing waters. It was victorious, exciting and super fun, but waiting 2 hours for the boat pickup in cold wind tested our endurance. Luckily our bodies were stronger than our brain. And Kazuto brought extra hairdryer (for his then long hair) that helped dry wet shoes later on.

It's impossible to close the roof of a convertible car while driving

As mentioned, Kazuto rented a BMW Z4 for 4-wheel gliding on the slippery Okinawan streets. We rolled down the roof and of course, when there was no way to stop, it started downpouring. We got wet in the car as well, and realized we just have to embrace the rain that weekend.

Kazuto was not happy checking the forecast for the rest of the day. We had to keep the roof closed later, but clear skies made a greater deal for our bike riding day.

Sightseeing was nice despite the weather. We had to cherish the rain that made all the greenery possible.

3 days are not enough in Okinawa

Due to limited time, we didn't experience the wonders outside the main island. With so many affordable flight options and perfect bike rental services, we need to make it our travel destination again soon.

Not a photobomb. We waited to take a picture of a plane that will hopefully bring us back to Okinawa soon.

During writing of this blog, we enjoyed the music from Sakishima Meeting band that made us long for relaxing Okinawan evenings even more:

Moto Japan