When I was younger, around Junior High, I read the slice of life Azumanga Daioh series by Kiyohiko Azuma. It is a series that is comedic and cute. It’s full of an innocence that I feel gets lost from a person when they age. In that series the main characters go to Okinawa and some of the other Ryukyu Islands for their senior trip in high school. It looked like a lot of fun and my young heart wanted to follow in their footsteps and travel as well. It’s not unusual, I think, for fans to travel to locations in the stories they read or the series they watch. I know my friend loves to go to where they film certain scenes in dramas. I think New Zealand definitely has more tourism due to Lord of the Rings. Luckily this past winter in February 2016, I was able to go and fulfill one of my dreams.
My boyfriend and I traveled to Naha, Okinawa（那覇、沖縄）in February. Unbeknownst to us, it was Cherry Blossom season for that region of Japan. When we arrived we were not only surprised by the crystal blue ocean and the warmer winds, but also by the pink and red flowers blooming in the trees. They lined the city streets of Naha and some of the castle ruins we later explored. Even though we went to a nice subtropical island, it was still winter and too cold to go swimming despite the lure of the white sand beaches. Nevertheless, we filled our schedule with many activities and sights that we wanted to see, as well as food that we needed to try.
On our first day, we arrived early in the morning so we had no time to rest. We started off the day by taking the monorail all the way to the old castles of Shurijo (首里城), from the Ryukyuan kingdom dating back to around 1322. In 1945, during the Battle of Okinawa, it was severely damaged and almost completely destroyed. The reconstruction started in 1992 and is still ongoing, but today the castles and gates look amazing and is well worth a visit to anyone interested in history or culture. The main gate I wanted to see was Shureimon, also seen in Azumanga Daioh as Chiyo-Chan mentions it is on the rare 2000yen bill. When I was in Tokyo last year, I had two 2000yen bills that I saved. I kept one for keepsakes and the other I gave to my boyfriend to hold on to, so he better not lose it! In Japan, everyone I showed was amazed because they were only released one year (the year 2000, obviously), so it is incredibly rare. And yes, the bill has Shureimon on it. And yes again, it’s even in the watermark! Seeing the gate was certainly one of the highlights of my trip.
The castle park is full of numerous monuments and structures, next to each is a stamp stand for anyone to stamp their books for memories. At information kiosks around the park anyone can also pick up a booklet which has empty spaces for the stamps on the map, indicating there is a prize if all the stamps have been collected. My boyfriend and I jumped at the chance, turning it into a contest and running from gate to gate, castle to castle, wanting to be the one who gets the honour of stamping the booklet. It was an interesting way to make sure we saw everything the castle park had to offer, and a way to learn about each structure. In the end, with our hearts happy and our booklet full we returned to the main information kiosk to receive our well-earned prize: a children’s colouring book. Although slightly embarrassing, it was a bittersweet prize as we realized the game was for kids. However, it surely it was an enjoyable way to spend our time at Shurijo!
During the night we went to Kokusaidori (or International Street), a busy tourist-friendly street where there are street performers and tons of shops. On weekends during the day, it is also closed off to traffic. We enjoyed exploring the shops selling touristy trinkets and Okinawan specialties like Chinsuko. It was still odd to end up on a Starbucks on a corner, I suppose, but we tried something special for the Hanami season. We each bought a seasonal sakura latte and sat on the patio to watch the people go by for a relaxing evening before heading to a small Izakaya to eat sashimi and pork belly. The pork belly was the best pork I have tasted in my entire life; it literally melted in my mouth.
We spent another day on the main island traveling to different destinations outside of the city of Naha. We went up to Manzamo cape to view the rock formation that looks like an elephant. The beautiful blue sea was raging as the winds were heavy, crashing against the cliff side making the iconic coastal sounds. On the cliff on which we stood, there was an empty field of lush green grass and off in the distance was a small city skyline. The grass is where a past Ryukyuan king once said 10,000 people could sit comfortably, and it certainly did look that way. The grass was surprisingly well-maintained. In Azumanga Daioh, Chiyo-chan is shown peering down from the cliff into the depths of the oceans, stating that it is a long way down. Her friend’s jokingly threaten to toss her over the cliff side to tease her for being the perfect little runt. Luckily I didn’t need to fear being tossed over because my boyfriend is more scared of heights than I am. Other sights around the area included a small rocky area where venomous snakes may hide and live their own lives. After leaving Manzamo, and buying delicious and fluffy sata andagi to eat (one original, one brown sugar), we headed to Churaumi Aquarium and the Ocean Park.
I adore fish, I adore the deep sea. I love the magnificence and the unknown of our world’s oceans so I love going to the Aquarium. It fills me with fear, intrigue, and excitement. Churaumi had many exhibits on different types of fish found in local waters as well as foreign ones. It included an exhibit on venomous sea creatures that I definitely don’t ever want the pleasure (or misfortune) of meeting, such as the box jellyfish or crown-of-thorns starfish. Ouch! Both have venom that can cause severe pain or paralysis, and in some cases are fatal. In other sea creature news, Churaumi is famous because it is the only aquarium to host Whale Sharks which are currently the biggest fish in the world. Standing in front of the glass, I was but a silhouette as I gaped up at the enormous swimming creatures. I enjoyed the feeling of being small, which is not unlike the feeling I have when I look up at the stars. Despite having an enjoyable time at the aquarium, I don’t approve of these institutions that hold intelligent animals (like Sea World keeping Killer Whales). There’s the argument that hosting these majestic creatures is educational but I still believe if they are in zoos and aquariums they need adequate care, proper mental stimulation, and a lot more space to swim. For cases like elephants in zoos where they’ll never be happy, the only solution would be animal reserves.
That same day, after leaving the aquarium and spending a little time wandering around outside in the Ocean Park and the crystal beaches, we went off to our next destination: Nakijinjo (今帰仁城跡). Another historic Ryukyuan castle ruin found on the main island, except this one is much more dilapidated than Shurijo. Yet, the ruins held so much beauty in their derelict state, as castle walls were crumbling all around. It showed me that nothing is forever; every civilization will fall. Even so, the culture and the history remain in pieces, a monument to what once was. The castle walls and the stones used were still noticeable, it was definitely possible to figure out where the outlines of the buildings once were. It was fun to explore, and I wonder if people will explore our current buildings in the future when our time is gone as we did with the Nakijino ruins. There was also a large pathway filled with pink cherry trees blooming against the cloudy grey sky, adding colour to the surroundings. Despite the castle’s obvious mortality, the cherry blossoms still shone as they do every year. Nature lives on even when civilizations die.
The final destination out of Naha city for that day was Nago Pineapple Park. It was a small stop where we learned about the various types of pineapples grown in Okinawa. I honestly had no idea there were so many before this visit, there are over 50 and that’s great for biodiversity! To have a healthy agricultural system in any country, there needs to be variety of species and a variety of a certain type of crop. Regardless, that main purpose was to eat. We got to taste pineapple wine, pineapple cake, pineapple chinsuko, pineapple pie, pineapple cookies, pineapple juice, pineapple kitkats, pineapple overload. So sweet.
At night we wandered through the not-as-busy-as-Tokyo streets of Naha, but still rowdy at night. Walking through Kokusaidori again was another enjoyable affair, looking at the unique shops selling trinkets, candy, snacks, and shirts. I think my favourite part was eating Blue Seal ice cream crepes, and my second favourite part was watching them make each crepe perfectly. I love dessert foods. I love breakfast foods. And I feel like a crepe is a perfect marriage between both! I bought a fruit crepe. My boyfriend bought a beni-imo ice cream crepe, as the sweet potato is an Okinawan specialty. And boy, was it amazing! I still drool thinking about that delicious ice cream mixed along with that scrumptious crepe.
Other foods that we ate while we were on the main Okinawa Island included sukiyaki, an already favourite food between my boyfriend and I. We got the AAA Japanese beef slices as well as Oolong tea to enjoy our hot meal on a not-so-cold winter night. That meal is a bit pricey, so we don’t often indulge. We ate chinsuko every day too because it is only found in Okinawa prefecture, and because we often found free samples. We definitely needed our fill of that fattening snack before we left. We tried numerous flavours such as brown sugar, beni-imo, pineapple, peanut, original, and milk. I’m surprised we didn’t gain at least 5kg each before leaving Okinawa!
Our trip to the Ryukyu Islands didn’t end here, as afterwards we headed to Ishigaki and surrounding islands to fulfill more of my Azumanga Daioh dreams. The girls in the series traveled to the Yaeyama islands too. And to be honest, each day there was more wonderful than the one before it. I’ll write about that part of the trip another time. Thank you!