Every fiber of my being was grouchy about our plane ride last summer. We were heading to Okinawa, Japan’s tropical paradise. Land of shisa dogs, soba noodles and coral beaches.
Except I did not want to go. Okinawa wasn’t even on our wish list. However, in typical military fashion, the career planner went off-book and sent us here anyway.
It would have been easy to wallow and sink into despair. Instead, I decided to find ways to enjoy my time here.
7 Ways to Fall in Love with Okinawa
Meet a Local
My first clue that I would, eventually, love Okinawa happened in our first 48 hours. Our friend is married to a lovely Okinawan. She could have easily laughed at my jet-legged attempts to maneuver chopsticks. Instead, she took us on a tour of grocery stores and helped me find non-dairy foods.
Everywhere we go, my children are cooed at and loved on by almost everyone. Men and women stroke their chubby arms or legs, exclaim over their tiny smiles and offer (wrapped) candies to my preschooler. I once had a very lovely gentleman purchase a pack of nuts at Starbucks and give them to me. He told me to eat “for the baby.”
And while there is some tension, it’s understandable. The United States defeated Japan in World War II and Okinawa survived a horrific battle that claimed many lives. However, helpfulness and generosity are what I’ve experienced most often on this island.
Local ladies took the time to show me how to properly sift bean sprouts. Wait staff have gone out of their way to help me find dairy-free options at restaurants. People sing out “Ohayo gozaimasu!” as I run past.
One of my very first favorite things to do here was to go grocery shopping at local stores and farmers markets. It’s a whole new world, filled with cute logos and bright colors.
In Okinawa, almost every packaged food item has a cute character or logo. Every label is a riot of color and the bigger grocery stores are filled with upbeat music.
It is so much fun to purchase local foods and then figure out how to cook with them. Okinawa sweet potatoes and okonomiyaki, or egg/meat/cabbage omelets, are becoming a major staple in our house!
Discover the Daiso
My favorite thing at the mall is the Daiso. It’s basically like an American dollar store, but better. Everything is about $1 and each store carries items from food to gardening supplies. I can find almost anything I need at the Daiso. Plus, all the items are high quality.
Quick! Do a Google image search for Okinawa. Want to know what pops up?
It’s beaches! White coral sand beaches with turquoise blue waters and a reef just off shore.
When I’m feeling down and out about living here, I head to the beach. A few hours of relaxing in the sun with my toes in the sand or hunting for pretty shells usually sets me right.
Or I can go beneath the waves with my snorkel gear to check out the colorful fish and coral. If I were more adventurous, I would get SCUBA certified and dive with the whale sharks.
Okinawa is part of Japan now, but it was its own kingdom for thousands of years. The traditions of the Ryukyu Kingdom are still present today across the island.
Every summer, Eisa dancers drum and sing to celebrate Obon. It’s a celebration that begs for audience participation and enthusiasm. The beat is infectious! Theme parks celebrating Okinawan culture have troupes of Eisa dancers that perform year-round.
The island is dotted with the ruins of ancient castles from the Ryukyu period. Most are open and accessible to the public, usually for free or a small fee. I love to tour the reconstructed Shuri Castle, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s so powerful to walk in the footsteps of kings!
Sushi, Soba and Sake
I was a sushi lover before I moved here, but it’s reached a whole new level in Okinawa. My main reason: sushi-go-round. It’s exactly what it sounds like. A conveyer belt carries delicious raw fish delicacies to my table. And instead of overstuffed fancy rolls, I get simply prepared fish on plain rice dressed up with soy sauce or wasabi. Yum!
Japan is a land of noodles and I plan on eating all of them. From ramen to udon to soba, I am a noodle fanatic. Okinawa has a local variant of soba with different noodles made entirely of wheat. The broth is rich and full of flavor from the pork ribs.
Sake is one of the best known beverages of Japan. In Oki, they make awamori. It’s a local variant of the traditional alcoholic beverage. All over Okinawa there are izakayas or pubs, that offer endless varieties of sake and awamori, plus local beer and plum wine.
Book a Flight
Okinawa is the perfect location for traveling around Asia. It’s under 3 hours by air to mainland Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong. It’s just a little farther to China, Thailand, Singapore, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Flights are pretty cheap if you fly the discounted airlines. It’s possible to explore all of Asia on a budget. I plan to see as many places as I can!
If you had told me a year ago that I would like Okinawa, even a little bit, I would have laughed. Instead, here I am, firmly in love with my little island.