Sometimes you forget how many lives you’ve lived, & then one day, a co-worker tells you they’re planning an upcoming trip to Japan & all of the memories of exploring an island in the Pacific suddenly come flooding back. You remember once more how a long time ago before you were climbing the corporate ladder in the West, you were a military kid living in South East Asia. You remember leaving school to lay on the sand under palm trees with apple tea and onigiri from the local Lawsons, playing soccer in the ‘black flag’ weather with 90% humidity, driving your first little blue car (which you bought for only $500 off a PCS-ing Marine) around the island and seeing rice fields fly past. The images of this far-off land are as clear as day, and you know if you were to go back tomorrow, most everything would still be the same. ‘Island time’ is what they call it.
My family and I were fortunate enough to be stationed in Japan 4 times (Dad was stationed in Okinawa before he married Mom, as a family, we were stationed in Iwakuni and Okinawa, and my parents are currently stationed in Yokota). Although I don’t remember much of mainland Japan (I was 6 when we moved back to the U.S.), some of my fondest memories are from my high school days living on OKI. Of course, as a teenager, you’re basically looking for ways to rebel, but the 466 sq. miles of Okinawa shrouded in military laws don’t exactly give you too much room to do so, which let’s admit it, is probably a good thing. My friends and I had some naughty adventures in the red light district (*cough* banana show, love hotels *cough, cough*), but mostly kept it PG while exploring all OKI had to offer. Thank goodness for that — how many kids are fortunate to claim they grew up playing on an island in the sun (cue Weezer)?
If you’re planning a trip abroad, I highly recommend you check out this long-kept ‘secret’ island, fondly referred to by some as Japan’s ‘poor Hawaii’. This gorgeous destination is the perfect place to hop over to for 2–3 days while on your Pacific trip (you can catch a 2 hour and 35-minute flight from Tokyo for less than $100 dollars). Those who journey out will not be disappointed by the rich history of Okinawa or of the noticeable difference between the culture of those living on island time and their mainland counterparts. Okinawa is certainly not to be overlooked or overshadowed by the rest of the former Ryukyu kingdom. I feel truly fortunate to have called it ‘home’ for 3 years at a time in my life when I was able to fully appreciate the beauty of the land and the culture of the people.
Here are a few of my favorite things to do in Okinawa, Japan:
Treat yourself with a lavish pedicure from Cocok’s Nails by the Sea for less than $40.00. After selecting nail art from one of the many example books the salon keeps, you’ll be escorted to an ottoman overlooking the Pacific ocean, and draped with a blanket for your cozy pedicure. This adorable salon is a favorite of many Americans so be sure to book far in advance.
There are multiple Karaoke Bars on Okinawa where you can rent private rooms by the hour for karaoke sessions. Each room has its own karaoke machine and multiple mics. A server will take your food and drink orders to ensure you’re never parched or too weak to belt out “Don’t Stop Believing” at the top of your lungs. I can’t tell you how many great nights my friends and I had at the Okinawa karaoke bars — there were certainly too many to count.
I love Coco’s curry so much so that my parent’s routinely sent me boxes of their dry mix (there are a few Coco’s in the U.S., but sadly, they are located in California and Hawaii). When you go, I recommend ordering mild curry with cheese and naan. Trust me, you won’t regret it.
Japanese convenience stores (a much cleaner, friendlier, and yummier version of America’s 7–11). These yummy spots are perfect for grabbing snacks, drinks, magazines, and even, alcohol. Be adventurous and try a bit of everything over your stay, but most of all, be sure to grab a few of my favorites: apple tea, milk coffee, bento boxes, fried chicken, onigiri, and chuhai (alcoholic).
If you hate garlic (or are on a romantic date), this is not the spot for you. If you’re a foodie, you may have to make the trip to OKI solely to try out this spot.
A fun, family theme park built to celebrate the yellow fruit. Strange? Yes. Fun and interesting? Of course.
This area is popular with the American locals (minutes from the Marine Corps Base, Camp Foster). As teenagers, we enjoyed shopping at the mall (laughing too hard at the stores with Japanese clothing printed with random English words on it), eating at the gourmet Sushi go-round Ichiba Mihama, riding the ferris wheel, and sitting on the seawall over-looking Sunset Beach with the goodies we’d picked up from Family Mart. My friends and I also loved going to the bath house: Terme Villa Chula-U. The best part about this spa is the fact that you can walk onto the beach if you tire of the pools. Another cute restaurant in this area was the Double DeckerMihama branch. And of course, we couldn’t make a trip to American Village without picking up benimo (purple sweet potato) ice cream at Blue Seal.
In tenth grade, my honors class journeyed to Okinawa Peace Memorial Park. While there we learned about those who fought and perished during the invasion of Okinawa, and more specifically, the Battle of Okinawa: an 80 day battle which resulted in the largest casualties in the Pacific during WWII at over 100,000 Japanese and 50,000 Allies. As a child I’d always been interested in the history of World War II, but hadn’t fully understood the Axis power in the Pacific’s role until this field trip. While touring the battle site, we learned of the brutal battle and of wartime atrocities committed to Okinawans by the Japanese throughout this time. We were also fortunate enough to hear first-hand from two elderly Okinawan woman who had survived the attacks by hiding in the caves and surrendering to U.S. troops. I’ll never forget watching their faces while they told us their harrowing tale.
As a senior in high school, my boyfriend and I skipped school to day-trip around OKI quite a bit (sorry, Mom). One time we did so solely so we could visit this restaurant before we graduated and left the island. We’d heard the view was spectacular and the food was incredible. Both were true. Order the guava juice. And most importantly, don’t lock your keys in your car like we did…
Okinawa’s Churaumi Aquarium is the second largest aquarium in the world. It’s got a large array of beautiful animals. Great place to take the whole family.
If you’re military and you’ve got your orders for OKI, you probably already know you’ve got Okuma to look forward to. This military beach resort is perfect for those looking to have a little bit of fun on their time off. Camp, rent a cabin or vie for one of the coveted cottages — whatever your style, Okuma’s got you covered. Spend your days hiking or biking the resort, playing tennis or basketball on the courts, or rent jet skis to explore the East China Sea. My friends and I always loved going out on the banana boats and competing on who could hold on longest while we yelled at the driver to go faster.
Another fond memory I have: when my high school boyfriend surprised me with a trip to swim with dolphins for my eighteenth birthday! It was something I’d always wanted to do and am so glad I had the opportunity to experience. The wetsuits are included and the dolphins are well taken care of.
I never went snorkeling or scuba diving at Cape Maeda, but I’m told it’s the best on the island. Pack a picnic and enjoy the scenic views even if you don’t want to jump into the crystal-clear water. I especially love walking the paths through the jungle near the Cape to see all of the exotic flowers.
Turn your Mario Kart dreams into a reality by dressing up in costume and speeding through the streets of Naha on a go-cart. This fun place opened after I’d already moved off the island (boo!), so if you go you’ll have to let me know how it is. Tip: plan ahead by ensuring you obtain an international license before you go.
It’s been over 8 years and I can still taste these amazing bagels found outside the gate near Camp Hansen. Quite a drive if you live near Plaza, but my goodness, they are worth it. My favorite was the avocado and cream cheese with the guava juice.
Please let me know if you would like any further suggestions on things to do while in Japan or if you’d like to discuss cultural expectations, ways to get around, etc. I hope you have a wonderful trip and hope to hear all about it when you return.