We had the incredible opportunity to live on the small island of Okinawa, Japan for four blissful years. That little strip of land holds a very special place in the hearts of all who have stepped foot on it. Okinawa undoubtedly changed me in many ways and sparked my wanderlust fire. From the strong Ryukyu culture to the beachy, laid-back lifestyle, Okinawa is an absolute gem worthy of your exploration.
(If you are moving to or planning to visit Okinawa for the first time, I HIGHLY recommend you peruse THIS SITE.)
I didn’t take as many pictures of the island and its culture as I wish I would have when we lived in Oki. I wasn’t blogging until the last year I was there, and at that time my blog was solely about writing. I also didn’t have a DSLR camera yet (oh, how I wish I had!). But with those I did take and with the help of some of the friends I made there, I want to give you a glimpse into why this little island stole my heart.
No one gives a….
One of my favorite things about living in Okinawa is how secluded it is from the obsessive, materialistic culture that you find in America. No one cares what brand you have on, what your place looks like or what you drive (I’ll get to cars in a sec). I consider it a gift to have been pulled from that culture for four years. It allowed us to see it from a completely different perspective and ultimately changed how our family spent money.
Coco’s Curry House (Ichibanya)
Coco’s was a weekly staple in our diet for four years. I had never had curry before trying it in Japan, and now it is one of my favorite foods! Japanese curry is far different than Indian or Thai curry, mind you. But I love all of them!
All of my friends and I would go to Cocok’s every month and get pedicures together. For $40 you would get an hour and a half pedicure while seated in a plush leather recliner (not those kind with the built-in tubs). They would bring you tea and puff pastries while you waited. And they did intricate art. We’re talking any design you could possibly think of from Hello Kitty to holiday scenes. They had thick books full of designs to choose from. They knew how to do pedicures right! They also did other spa treatments including massages and facials.
We lived right along the west coast of the island along the Mizugama sea wall. The wall and the huge concrete jax were built to break up typhoon waves. The view from our apartment was the East China Sea, and I can’t tell you how much I miss ocean sounds! We would take strolls along the seawall often. My son loved watching the crabs crawl along the steps just north of our apartment. The Sunabi sea wall, which was a little south of us, is home to many popular restaurants and surf shops.
Look at that sweet baby!!
Our apartment building is on the right…
Okinawa has some of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen. I still can’t believe we had a front row seat to this every day.
No filter, y’all. Straight up, 100% real beauty.
Yoshihachi’s, to be exact. You will not find better sushi than Japan. And Yoshi’s is famously known for theirs. (Their chicken teriyaki was pretty much to die for as well.) This place is quite world-renowned for its food and owner, Yoshi Maekawa. Yoshi himself spent many years in America learning what kind of sushi appealed to Americans before moving back to Oki and opening up Yoshihachi in 1992.
Image courtesy of Japanupdate.com
Garlic House (Arin Krin)
(Do you see a trend here???) Garlic House was also a staple for us. It was a little farther south but absolutely worth the drive. They used tons of garlic in their meals and each one was absolutely delicious!
We are famiry!
Probably my favorite restaurant on the island. It is small but has great views of the ocean and absolutely amazing food. Perfect for a lunch out with friends or a romantic night out with your sweetie.
Living in Okinawa completely revamped our love of food. Before moving there our dinners went like: sloppy joes, tacos, chili dogs, repeat. Okinawa has food from all over Asia, and I fell in love with all of it immediately. Jai Thai was one of the first Thai places I ever tried and the first place I ever ate tofu. Today, Thai food is a staple in our house!
This goes without saying. I mean, really.
All things water
Now, this is not actually what I miss because I never got my SCUBA license since I found out I was pregnant right after arriving on the island. But my husband did and we did go snorkeling some. My husband also took his first surfing lesson down in Naha, and we bought two surfboards while living there (and still have one!). If you love the water, Okinawa is perfect for you.
The Japanese are all about playgrounds being a full sensory experience. From the rock paths to the roller slides, they keep the littles occupied for hours. They encourage bare feet and risk. My son loved their playgrounds!
The first time my friend told me to try this stuff I scrunched up my face and yelled out in fear. It looked so gross, but y’all, it is NOT! Basically they put large tapioca balls in a cup and fill it with whatever you want – milkshake, tea, etc. They give you a big straw and you suck up the balls and chew on them! Okay, it sounds gross, but I swear to you, they are tasteless. It’s just fun to chew them. Sounds totally weird, but it is TOTALLY AWESOME.
The spas in Japan are amazing. They have community bath houses, massages, stone saunas where you lay down on slabs of hot stone to help rid your body of toxins through extreme sweat (it is no joke), and you can even get the dead skin eaten off your feet by little fish!
Everyone who visits or moves to Oki MUST go to Okinawa World. It is a huge park in the southern part of the island with underground caves, an area representing ancient Ryukyu culture, Eisa performances, glass blowing, sake wine factory and animals of the island. It is a wonderful way to learn about the culture here. Find out more here.
Churnami is the 2nd largest salt-water aquarium in the world. It’s pretty impressive!
As stated earlier, no one gives a crap about what you drive in Okinawa. The salt water is going to ruin it anyway, so everyone just gets beaters and that’s that. This was my Japanese toy car. I think I changed four tires on this car (three being during one deployment, of course). It would dump water out into the passenger area when I turned right, and I am pretty sure it would fall over if the wind was strong enough. But it was mine, and I loved driving it. And somehow we all survived driving the island with no GPS. There are NO street signs, save for the major numbered roads. So everything is done by landmark. Driving to someone’s house for the first time went something like this, “Turn left at the first stoplight. Go all the way down the hill until you seen a green pachinko place and turn right. Take a left and then a fast right at the purple house and then its the third place on the left.”
This was our first car…the Land Cruiser. It was so much fun driving this all over the island with Third Eye Blind blaring from our speakers and the salty ocean air blowing through our hair. It was huge, though….not quite the right size for tiny Japanese alleyways! But we sure did love that hunk of metal.
100 Yen Stores
The Dollar Tree has nothing on 100 Yen Stores. These places are full of just about everything from dried seaweed snacks to curtains, all for very cheap. I got TONS of organizational bins and document holders for work here and still use them 10 years later. I hear they are finally starting to come to the states too!
Photo from Little Okinawa Blog
I think we took a field trip here every year with my class! It’s a beautiful place to stroll. In the winter they light the entire place up and fill it with craft vendors!
Kitakaisen is a restaurant next to a bowling alley in Chatan-Cho. I loved this place so much because of its HUGE menu with everything in colored photos (a huge plus when trying to order at a Japanese restaurant!)! I spent many-a-meal eating at this place, including my farewell dinner before leaving the island. Sad face.
Like I said previously, you will not find a kinder people than the Japanese. They are peaceful, incredibly hard-working and so so friendly. They take pride in all they do, whether it is working as a cashier at McDonald’s (you will find them wearing skirts and hats…no shirt tails sticking out here!) or a CEO of a business. And gosh, they love children! I could not go out without some little Japanese ladies stopping to swoon over my son’s big blue eyes.
Everywhere you turned is a photo op. I am still kicking myself for not taking more photos when we were there. You just can’t take enough pictures here.
Breakfast at Rose Garden is an absolute must AT LEAST once a month. They have the best coffee and their dishes are wonderful (the ham and roasted potatoes is the best!). They serve Italian in the evenings (which I never tried), but I swear by their breakfast!
You haven’t karaoke’d unless you’ve Japanese karaoke’d! You get your own room for your group, which means no getting up in front of a bunch of strangers to sing (although you can do that too). You can order food and drinks via a phone in your room (or just sneak some in your purse…but I’m not one to know, of course) and sing the night away.
American Village is a large area down near Sunabi that is a popular weekend hangout for locals and the military community alike. It has a movie theater, arcade, tons of restaurants, a Starbucks, a variety of stores and a mall. Lots of evenings were spent at this intersection!
And Finally, the Culture
There are so many unique things about Japanese culture. There are even more unique things about Okinawan culture. I am forever grateful for the opportunity we had to experience it for a short while. A little piece of my heart will forever remain on this little island.
Sumo wrestlers came to the school I taught at. HOW COOL IS THAT?!
I had many friends participate in the Dragon Boat races! So much dedication and practice go into racing them.
We got to experience a Japanese dinner theater, which was really neat!
Shisa (shi-shi) dogs are lion-dogs that serve as guardians of households or businesses. They are said to protect them from evil buildings, and you can find them on rooftops or entrances.
If you ever get a chance to visit this small island, do it. Hey, there are even talks of a Disney resort coming there, so you never know. Just go ahead and add it to that bucket list of yours. You can thank me later.