As we had to return our rented car to the rental car company which was located in Naha, we’d decided that it was better to stay a night in Naha and continue our sightseeing in Naha. Naha is a relatively compact town easily accessible by public transport, so it was not a problem getting around Naha.
Day 4: Shuri Castle & Makishi Public Market
Our first stop was Shuri Castle, which was the royal residence of the Ryukyu King and his family. Though it has unfortunately been destroyed by fire recently, I was really blessed to have had the chance to see it up close back in August. The distinctive architectural style of this UNESCO Heritage is a holistic blending of Chinese and Japanese culture, which is very much representative of Okinawa culture.
Indeed, even most of the local food in Okinawa, excluding those influenced by the Americans, were actually very similar to Singaporean Chinese food. Of course, how could we forget the shisha (guardian lion) guarding the homes of Okinawan people?
The bright vermilion colour of the stately building, the intricately carved dragon sculptures, and the resplendent gold running along the structures, almost made me feel like I was in China.
But when we entered the castle, we found that while there was a strong Chinese influence in the castle, there were still tatami rooms and other distinct Japanese features within the castle.
Where: 1-2 Shurikinjocho, Naha City, Okinawa 903-0815
Getting there: 15-20-minute walk to Shureimon from Shuri Station on the Okinawa Monorail.
As Shuri Castle sits atop a hill, the exploration of the site exhausted quite a bit of our energy. Despite the overcast sky, we’d worked up a sweat and needed a place to rest our feet and a nice, cold dessert to perk ourselves up. Kakigori (Shaved ice) is the go-to summer dessert in Japan, so it was what we immediately thought of after the work-out in Shuri Castle.
We went to this shop called 琉球かき氷 氷人｜こおりんちゅ (Kōrinchu), a newly opened shop (They opened on 10 June 2019!) which boasts that they make their own syrup. It would be an impossible shop to find without any online recommendation, as it was located within a shabu-shabu shop, 豚匠那覇店 (Butasyo-Naha). It appears this kind of shop-sharing is pretty common in Japan, when the main restaurant is closed, such as after lunch hours and before dinner, the shop space is rented out to new shops during the period.
Their signatures are Okinawa Black Sugar and Uji Matcha. But we were feeling rather tropical, so we ordered Mango and Beni-imo (purple sweet potato). While the mango kakigori came with big juicy chunks of real mango topped on a huge dollop of whipped cream, the winner was the beni-imo kakigori, the beni-imo sauce drizzled over the fluffy shaved ice was rich and creamy.
豚匠 那覇 (Butasyo-Naha)
Where: Naha, Higashimachi, 6−18 パーム東町5F, Okinawa 900-0034
Opening hours: 1200 ~ 1400 ; 1800 ~ 2300 Daily
Getting there: 2 minutes on foot from Asahihashi Station.
After the dessert break, we headed to 第一牧志公設市場 (Makishi Public Market), which is just a stone throw away from Kokusai Dori, the main street of Naha. When we reached there and walked around the retro shotengai (shopping street), we realised that the fish market had been temporarily moved to a new location nearby as the old location is closed for renovation. It was easy to find the new location with all the signs directing us, and when we reached, I thought that the temporary Makishi Public Market looked a lot sturdier and less temporary than I’d imagined it would be.
The market reminded me of the wet markets in Singapore, albeit cleaner and fresher-smelling. Rows and rows of fresh seafood and raw meat everywhere, food vendors haggling with customers, it was invigorating chaos. The seafood in Okinawa is a lot fancier looking than the usual seafood I am accustomed to, with brilliant blue fish and purple striped lobsters lining the stalls.
Pork parts ranging from trotters to innards to even their heads were sold in stalls, true to the saying that Okinawan people eat every part of a pig except for their squeals. While we had fun poking around the stalls, we didn’t buy any seafood to eat up at the second floor, as we had already planned to head to DH’s favourite izakaya (Japanese bar) in Naha for dinner, and it was already late evening.
Makishi Public Market
Where: 2-10-1, Matsuo, Naha-City, Okinawa, 900-0014
Opening hours: 0800 ~ 2100, Closed on the 4th Sunday of every month (Except for December), New Year, Lunar New Year, Hungry Ghost Festival.
Getting there: About 9 minutes walk from Makishi monorail station. About 10 minutes walk from Miebashi monorail station.
The last night of dinner at りょう次 (Ryouji) was a scrumptious spread. It is a very local izakaya, and the food were all Okinawan specialties. We tried everything from umibudo (sea grapes), beni-imo fries, soba champuru (stir-fry), tofu champuru, fried cheese, smoked pork belly and squid ink yakisoba. Everything went well of course, with a glass of awamori (Okinawan alcoholic beverage) or Orion beer (Okinawan beer).
Umibudo, served with a vinegar dip and a slice of lime, is a kind of seaweed that looks like a cluster of tiny green bubbly grapes which burst and envelop your mouth with the briny flavour of the sea.
The beni-imo fries were served with a pinch of salt for us to pick our desired saltiness level, and though the presentation was rather elegant, the fries were a little too dry for my liking.
The soba champuru (stir-fry in Okinawan dialect) reminded me of our bee hoon (vermicelli rice noodle), stir fried till fragrant, with just the right amount of moisture to keep the noodles bouncy.
Tofu champuru cooked with bean sprouts, scallions and thin slices of pork meat, looked and tasted just like home.
Ok, this isn’t traditional Okinawan food, but I love cheese, and when I saw fried cheese on the menu I knew it was a must-order. And it didn’t disappoint. It was thin and crispy, and tasted like high-quality cheese crisps.
The smoked pork belly was flavourful, tender and succulent, with perfectly charred edges that gave it a delightful crisp in its texture.
We finished off with a squid ink yakisoba (Japanese stir-fry noodles), which also surprisingly tasted like one Singaporean dish, usually served at our Chinese wedding banquets, braised ee-fu noodles. So for Singaporeans who are living in Japan and missing Singapore food, if you are finding it hard to take a longer break to return home, just take a short vacation at Okinawa for the taste of home.
Where: 2 Chome-18-18 Kumoji, Naha, Okinawa 900-0015
Opening Hours: 1700 ~ 0100 Daily
Getting There: 3 minutes on foot from Miebashi monorail station.
Day 5: Kokusai Dori & Raging Typhoon
On the last day, we headed to 国際通り｜Kokusai Dori for breakfast and some souvenir shopping. Kokusai Dori or International Street is a 1.6km long shopping street that stretches through Naha city center. This lively street is flanked with shops selling all kinds of Okinawan delicacies and souvenirs.
We got stranded for the longest time in one of the shops when we were packing boxes of beni-imo tarts into our cart. It was possibly the worst typhoon I had witnessed ever. The howling gale tore through the trees, and the torrential rain poured relentlessly. It was impossible to leave the shop. We were really worried for some time that we might miss our flight, but the rain eventually let up, and we snatched the opportunity to rush back to our hotel and take the train to the airport. We couldn’t afford to spend more time shopping, which was a pity, but despite the unfortunate timing of the typhoon, Okinawa was an idyllic retreat, away from the hustle bustle of city life, and yet, injected with a zest of fun that a cosmopolitan life often lacks. Even with the absence of its symbollic castle in Naha, it is still a wonderful place to visit, with many scenic points and interesting bits of culture and food to learn and try. Please do make it a point to visit it all the more now, so that your money can be put into the rebuilding of their magnificent castle!
Getting there: From Naha Airport, take the Okinawa Monorail to Asahibashi Station.