Yesterday we and some very good friends of ours went to Ta-Taki falls, a natural waterfall in northern Okinawa. Once there we walked up a small paved road to the river entrance and proceeded to river trek up the water for about 3/4 of a mile to the falls. The reviews claimed one could make it from the parking lot to the falls in 30 minutes, but with 4 children under the age of 6, our contingent was not that speedy. The river was mostly knee-deep or less with a few deeper spots that could mostly be avoided by climbing over the rocks on either side of the river. Once at the falls the smallest children were a bit chilled as the water was not the warmest on April Fools Day, which allowed the bigger kids and the young-at-heart to play with less concern for small people safety. The little people huddled under dry towels and demolished a bag of veggie straws while the big kids and parents tried out the rope swing and swimming hole at the base of the falls.
When we arrived in Okinawa last year we were told there is world-class scuba diving here. We also were educated about all the aquatic life that could injure us in the waters around Okinawa. It took us a few months to determine the true safety of the water, but once we made it past that, we have been exploring the water ever since. I, Kevin, got scuba certified in September of last year, and Heather followed suit in October. Well, now we have a third diver in the family, Pie. Pie successfully passed her Open Water scuba certification this month!
Heather and I have really been enjoying exploring the many colors of the reef, the fish and other aquatic life that live here, and the adventure of being 60 feet under the waves, an area previously inaccessible to us. We have found fouled anchors that had to be cut free from whatever vessel they previously held, discarded sections of large pipe, a Japan Post mailbox, and even a Tiki man carved into the side of a reef that supports a river channel marker. We knew that if we passed up the opportunity to allow the kids to become certified we, and they, would most likely regret it.
Pie did very well in her class, even showing up her adult classmates in book knowledge and completed her pool and ocean dives successfully. Pie’s instructor was kind and patient and even allowed me to tag along for fun as Pie completed her class ocean dives. I cannot wait to be able to explore the waters with her and see her reactions to the things we find underwater. In the near future, once he finishes with his soccer season, Bug is excited to start his training for scuba diving as well.
When one wonders what to do on rainy dreary day on a sub-tropical island what else comes to mind except…….Ice Skating! OK, well, maybe that is not the FIRST thing that may come to mind, but that is exactly what we did on a rainy Monday holiday. Located in a very well insulated building in Naha is a public full-sized ice rink. While we have ice skated before (in San Diego of all places) it took a bit of time to dust off our skills on the ice. Then we spent the next few hours spinning in circles, playing tag with each other, and helping Miss Kicky Feet who was a little slower to regain her confidence on the ice. Chipmunk was not a huge fan of his ice skates and preferred to be pushed around in a plastic toy car that had been fitted with metal runners and handles for an adult to push around the rink.
Bug, who was wearing a pair of new blue jeans, found that when he fell and slid on the ice his jeans had enough extra dye in them that he would leave blue streaks on the ice. This of course became a game of how long of a blue streak he could leave on the ice.
The only thing that really detracted from the experience was that we all still have to wear masks here on island for COVID mitigation, and after exhaling warm breath into cloth masks for a few hours in a freezing environment our masks became rather full of condensation and increased our work of breathing. However, masks or not we all had a good time and would come back again in the future.
Before we left we found a vending machine in the lobby that offered cans of hot chocolate (well played ice rink, well played) so the kids asked in their sweetest voices if we could please have some. We agreed and proceeded to buy the last 3 cans the machine had to offer.
‘Twas the Saturday before Christmas and the children were restless…..so we jumped in the van and headed out for adventure.
Our first stop was at the Indy Jones Adventure trail, a 1-mile nature trail full of ups and downs through the jungle and rocks of southern Okinawa. There were at least two places we used thick ropes to help climb the jagged rock along the trail. We knew the length going in, but were pleasantly surprised at the amount of climbing we had to do. It was anything but a wide handicapped-accessible path through some greenery. It took us about an hour to navigate the loop trail and check out the Tamagusuku castle ruins that spur off to the south from the Adventure trail. The views were gorgeous as we overlooked the ocean and town below. The foliage was thick and intertwined, but still allowed ample sunlight through. If the description hasn’t won you over already, I would definitely recommend you grab a pair of hiking shoes and try out this trail. It will not disappoint as a family outing.
The second stop of the day was at the Ryukyu Glass Village in Itoman. We really lucked out because it just so happened that they were having their Christmas celebration with cultural dance group performances, local food trucks, extra discounts at their outlet store, and vendor tents around the perimeter of their Glass garden. While Chipmunk napped in the stroller we were impressed and entertained by the Suzaku creative dance company as they presented traditional Okinawan dances with drums and weapons.
We explored the shops and vendor tents, and even sampled some steamed squid from one of the vendors, although the kids were not as enthused about that part. Much of the glass that is sold at RGV is hand-blown on site with an open-air viewing area that visitors can watch as artisans create unique pieces from blobs of glowing molten glass before your eyes. We even purchased a few of the pieces from their store. Much to my surprise after getting home, not only is the swirled glass cup that I chose beautiful, it even glows in the dark! How cool is that?
The amount of detail that goes into some of the pieces we found in their store was amazing, however it was a little nerve-wracking guiding 4 children through an entire store of one-of-a-kind fragile things. We did, however, escape unscathed and only purchased that which we chose to bring home.
History of the Castle
Shuri Castle has had a rough history. Between 1429 and 1879, Shuri Castle was the palace of the Ryukyu Kingdom, the prominent power of the era before becoming neglected for over 60 years. Then in 1945, during the Battle of Okinawa, it was almost completely destroyed by the United States’ bombing of the island from the naval fleet. This was in no small part due to the Japanese 32nd Army making the castle a command post and an obvious target for the American military. After the war, the castle was re-purposed as by the University of the Ryukyus as a campus from 1950 until 1975. Beginning in 1992 the castle was renovated and the central citadel and walls were largely reconstructed on the original site based on historical records, photographs, and memory of those still living from its prior grandeur. In 2000, Shuri Castle was designated as a World Heritage Site, as a part of the Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu.
Shuri Castle has been no stranger to fire. It has been recorded that the castle suffered significant fires in 1660 and 1709 in addition to a few smaller fires over the years. Each time the castle was rebuilt to its original form. The latest bout with fire began in the early morning hours of October 31st, 2019 when six of the main courtyard structures of the castle were again destroyed, consuming approximately 45,000 square feet of structure. The fire was not declared out until around 1:30pm that day. This was not only a physical loss for the castle renovation team, but also a psychological blow as the most recent renovation project had just been completed in early 2019. Fire has long been a challenge for the castle buildings due to its wooden structures and interiors made of Japanese cypress, cedar, and red pine. Additionally, due to the Japanese’ commitment to keeping the castle in original form, no visible fire sprinklers or suppression systems appear to have been installed in any of the historic castle structures.
The sections of the castle that still stand were built to the exact standards as the castle of old, even down to the interior spaces. Some areas of the castle are closed to the public, not because they are used for a different purpose, but rather because historians have not been able to determine how the rooms were arranged and without this data they do not want to misrepresent the spaces to visitors. This is the level of detail to which those responsible for restoring the castle hold themselves. After the 2019 fire those affiliated with the castle once again vowed to reconstruct it yet again with a projected start date sometime in 2022 with a goal to complete it by 2026.
While a number of the interior castle buildings are obviously still missing we were able to tour the various courtyards inside the massive limestone walls and see artifacts of the castle both protected inside new temporary structures, but also carefully arranged outside on pallets awaiting reconstruction efforts next year. There were also video documentaries of the castle before, during, and after the 2019 fire that gave a pretty good idea of the castle, even if we didn’t get to see it in its full glory. I was glad we were able to tour the remaining sections of the castle even if we didn’t get the same experience as others who were able to tour it in early 2019. It took us a few hours to get through the entire site, but I wouldn’t recommend anyone allot more than a half day to this location until the reconstruction is complete in a few years from now.
Kevin: During the month of August I was able to step away from my military duties and explore a region of mainland Japan. Being the type of person I am I researched potential destinations, researched how we would get from place to place, and made a spreadsheet of things to see. We decided to base ourselves in Osaka, one of the larger cities and then range out for daily explorations from there. So, we purchased plane tickets online, packed our bags, and headed for the airport.
This is where the first interesting thing happened. The airport here does not offer long term parking lots. I did some research and there are two private companies that offer long-term parking in the area, but one of them specifically said they would not take our model of van due to its size. To us it is just a large mini-van, especially compared to our Ford Transit that we left behind in the states, but regardless they thought it was too big. I called the second company and they thankfully said they would take it for the week. Nicer yet, they met us at the airport. We pulled up to the departure drop-off area and the parking company representative was waiting on the sidewalk for us. We unloaded our baggage and he took the keys and the van. It was super easy! To jump ahead in the story, when we returned a week later we called the service and they drove our van back to the airport for us and again met us in the drop-off lane. We loaded our baggage and drove home. The cost for this door-to-door service and parking for a week? $45 total!! We were very happy to pay that much (or little), especially since they made it so convenient with the door-to-door service. I’m sure it would have cost way more in the states.
Continuing with the story at the airport, we made it through baggage check-in and security without issue, and none of us had to remove our shoes. We used a budget airline, so in order to get to our plane we actually boarded a bus from the regular terminal and the bus drove us out on the tarmac to our plane. We got off the bus and climbed a set of stairs to the door of the plane. While we have experienced this method of transfer for military flights, I can’t say I have flown commercial in this way before now.
In any case, we were soon airborne and on our way across the sea. We landed that evening at Kansai airport, which has been built on an artificial island in a bay close to Osaka. While I had seen it on the map before we left, it was a little weird to look out the windows on final approach and see water on both sides of us.
Once on the ground and we had collected our luggage we started our trek to the hotel. It was located approximately 45 minutes away by rail from the airport. That meant we had to figure out the rail system. To obtain rail tickets we had to use touch-screen ticket machines. The ticket machines were multi-lingual, but figuring out which machines went with which train systems and where we needed to go once we had tickets proved to be challenging for the first few attempts. We never ended up somewhere we didn’t intend to go, but we did get on a train, question ourselves, and get back off before it left the station once or twice.
Heather: I was very glad Kevin took over the responsibility of figuring out the train system. During this time I was mostly preoccupied with keeping us all together and making sure everyone was paying attention and not out in la-la land when the train stopped so that nobody was left behind. I was quite stressed by how easy it would be to lose someone in this massive, heavily populated, fast moving city where not very many people seemed to speak our language. Another worry was that some of the train systems had safety barriers to keep people from falling down onto the tracks, but some did not have anything and my children seemed fascinated with getting as close as I would let them to the drop-off that led down to the tracks. Another area of challenge for me was getting through places. I did much of the stroller pushing in the train stations while Kevin was more focused on navigating, but sometimes where we needed to go had a lot of stairs and we would have to backtrack to find an elevator. There were many times where we would go through an area that was narrow (the ticket collector turnstiles) and I would have to figure out which one was meant for the handicapped so that I would fit through with the width of the stroller. Once when Pie was pushing the stroller it had trouble fitting through the door onto the train and I had a moment of panic thinking we were going to get stuck with half of us on the platform and half of us on the train. Thankfully it fit through the doorway with a little bit of wiggling and once we were all inside and the train was moving we were able to fold the stroller down to go through the narrower-still train aisle to find seats. Most of the trains had much wider doors and plenty of room for our stroller.
Kevin: We made it to our hotel around dinner time and got all checked in. We were restricted to how many people could occupy a single room so we had 2 joined rooms instead. I am glad we did this, because it would have been super tight had we not. The rooms were smaller than American hotel rooms and other than the beds and a small table with 2 stools there was no other furniture. There was a small fridge, if you could even call it that. 3 1-liter water bottles filled the entire fridge. Other things that we weren’t used to were that there were sets of slippers for everyone as well as pajamas that were folded neatly at the foot of each bed. And then there was the bathroom… The toilet had a control panel on the wall. That’s not a joke either. It seriously had a push-button panel on the wall to control the toilet. It had 2 flush buttons, a button that turned the music on and off (it started automatically when one sits down), and controls for the front and back bidets.
Heather: I think the “smart” toilets are a bit much. Miss Kicky Feet was so afraid of the “relaxing music” that played every time you sat down on the toilet that she would not use it unless someone was available to come in with her and push the button to turn off the music, and even after the button was pushed the music would continue until it had faded out while she sat on the toilet with both hands pressed to her ears trying not to cry.
The shower on the other hand was very much enjoyed by all. It had a temperature control that was in degrees Celsius that was separate from where you controlled the water pressure. There was a regular shower head on a hose (so nice for washing kiddos) that could be mounted at two different heights and a rain shower head and a regular bathtub spigot. Miss Kicky Feet and Chipmunk highly enjoyed two bear-shaped sponges that were provided by the hotel. They would soap up the walls of the shower while playing in the water spraying at them from the shower head and it was big fun. It’s the little things, you know?
Osaka is a bustling city with a larger population than New York City. We explored the Osaka Castle which was surrounded by both motes and walls in the middle of the city. The castle was 8 stories high with an observation deck at the top that we were able to walk completely around the exterior of the building. The view from up there was very good. Each floor had different displays detailing the history of the royal family who once lived in the castle and their rise to power. Some of the floors specifically prohibited photography, so many of our photos are from the outside. I really liked the heavy timber construction and ornate carvings inside the castle. The roof of the castle was decorated with golden figures with green and white accents.
We walked through the majority of the 20-block long Dotonbori open air market full of shops and stores. This was a popular spot for locals and visitors alike with everything from high-end jewelry stores to dollar stores, clothing and food to Disney merchandise. The kids were overjoyed when we found a Pokemon store, although we had to enter a store that resembled an upscale Macy’s and use the elevator to the 9th floor to get to the Pokemon store itself. I wanted to take a ride on the 254-foot tall oval farris wheel, but sadly it was closed due to covid restrictions.
The day we went to Kyoto is rained pretty heavily. This was, for the most part, ok with us as we were planning to visit an indoor attraction that day. We rode the train from Osaka to Kyoto and then determined that the local train to the railway museum wouldn’t come for another 35 minutes, so we decided to walk the 1.2 miles instead. Heather discovered during our walk that her rain jacket was not really waterproof at the seams, so at her request we stopped at a FamilyMart convenience store to purchase clear plastic umbrellas for everyone.
The Railway museum had multiple real-life trains varying from steam locomotives, a 1960s diesel passenger train, and even a recently decommissioned electric bullet train. Some cars and engines were accessible for visitors to crawl up inside, while others could be experienced only from the outside. The museum had exhibits detailing how the drive-train systems worked, how the brakes worked, and how trains obtained electricity from suspended overhead wires. On the second floor they had model trains fitted with digital video cameras and “engineer” stations around the display. Visitors could drive the train by controlling the thrust and brakes while watching a screen with the camera view from the front of the model train. Bug really liked driving the model trains. The museum also had two engines, one steam and one diesel electric, that had walk-through pits underneath them so visitors could see the difference in the drive systems from below the train engines.
Adjacent to the two-story museum was an old train roundhouse complete with approximately 15 real steam locomotives. Many had oil drip pans under them which to me meant that there was a high probability they may have still been operational. There were stairs and platforms that visitors could get into the cab of 5 engines to see all the levers, valves, and fireboxes of these engines.
The second place of interest for us in Kyoto was the Thousand Torii Gate site at Fushimi Inari Shrine. This Shinto shrine is among the top tourist spots in mainland Japan. There is one mammoth torii gate in front of the shrine, but on the hill behind the shrine is a walkway with 10,000 torii gates positioned over the path. Along portions of the path the gates were positioned so closely together one could only slide their hand between them. It was quite a site to see, however the pouring rain during our visit lessened the time we spent there before returning to the cover of the nearest train station.
We spent a half day in Nara, a smaller town known for its wandering bowing deer population. In Japan bowing is a large part of their culture. Instead of shaking hands upon greeting someone, the Japanese bow. This has translated over to the deer as well. When the deer want fed they will approach you, bow, and then wait to be fed. Vendors along the sidewalks sell special deer “cookies” so visitors don’t feed the deer junk food. The deer roam throughout the town around grassy or tree-shaded areas. We saw one grazing along a resident’s front walk without much of a care in the world. They will walk right up to you, however some have better manners than others. One deer that we encountered had a full rack of antlers. He bowed very carefully as to not hit us with his antlers. Others are not as well behaved and were nipping at visitors’ shirts or nudging them with their heads/antlers in search of some “deer cookies”.
Nara had an open air downtown market, although it was nowhere close to the size of the one in Osaka that we had previously explored. We walked the 2-block length of the market and then picked from which ramen shop we wanted to have lunch. Even if the market was smaller, the ramen was still on point.
A few months back one of our neighbors mentioned wanting to go to Legoland. While the kids agreed that it would be fun they knew that Legoland was back in California; a trip we had not completed prior to leaving the continental United States. What they didn’t know was that there is also a Legoland in Japan. So as we planned our mainland trip we secretly made sure to add Legoland in Nagoya to the trip itinerary. Nagoya is 4.5 hours from Osaka by car, but only 1 hour by bullet train. I had wanted to experience the bullet train anyways, and since we didn’t have a rental car, this satisfied two desires/needs at once. The bullet trains in Japan travel faster than trains in America by traveling at a speed of 200 miles per hour, so even with making several stops along the route, we made it in just under an hour. Our train still used conventional track however the track is welded together instead of simply bolted together to make for a much smoother experience for the rider. The newest bullet trains don’t even touch the track, but rather hover a few millimeters above it through the use of electromagnets fitted to the underside of the train.
As we arrived at Legoland we had a backpack full of snacks for the day, but we quickly found out at the bag check station that outside food was prohibited. Oops! I guess we should have paid more attention to the pre-trip information our friends had sent us. It was around 11:45am and we didn’t want to be wasteful and just throw all our snacks away so we ate a lunch of chips, gummy snacks, granola bars, and mixed nuts before entering the park. It may not have been the healthiest meal, but hey, better than throwing it all away, right? Just before getting to the bag check we had also been intrigued by a local food stand just outside the gate so we purchased one portion of Takoyaki. We had no idea what this dish was, but I was feeling adventurous. For those not familiar with them either takoyaki is a ball-shaped savory pancake with pieces of octopus in the middle. These balls were then topped with mayo, sweet soy sauce, and edible seaweed flakes. I thought they were good, the kids thought they were weird and “interesting”, and Heather said she successfully choked one down but turned down having a second one.
Once inside the gates of the park (with lighter backpacks) we were pleased to find very little in the way of lines or crowds. The park was separated into “lands” that corresponded to different product lines of Legos such as Duplo, Ninjago, City, Knights Kingdom, Pirate Shores, Mini, and Adventure. Each area had themed rides and attractions. The mini section featured some very impressive mini Lego models of real structures from around Japan including the Thousand Torii gates, multiple castles, the Osaka train station, and the Tokyo skyline to name a few.
We made our way through the different lands and took a guided tour of the Lego Japan factory that explained how Legos are produced. At the end of the tour we each got a lego block with “LegoLand Japan Factory” printed on the side of it. It was certainly a day enjoyed by all, even Heather and I. After visiting the souvenir shop and heading back to the center of town via the local train we ventured out into downtown Nagoya for a stroll and some dinner from a phenomenal Indian restaurant. After dinner we boarded the bullet train bound for our hotel in Osaka.
On our last day in mainland Japan before heading to the Kobe airport, the second airport that services the greater Osaka area, we made a stop at the Maiko Marine Promenade. The promenade consists of an enclosed viewing area, a small restaurant, an open-air catwalk, and glass-bottom walkway located 150’ in the air on the underside of what is claimed to be the longest suspension bridge in the world. The kids had fun walking across the glass panels and looking straight down at the water below them.
Difference between Mainland and Okinawa
As we traveled around the central region of mainland Japan we couldn’t help but notice the differences between our “home” island of Okinawa and the mainland. In Okinawa the overall strength of the economy is less and it shows. Buildings in Okinawa are frequently tightly packed together, have bare concrete walls, and generally lack color other than concrete gray. There is also a general surface rust that seems to cover any exposed metal. However, on the mainland houses are spaced just a little farther apart and there is almost no bare concrete. Houses are painted in various colors and generally appear nicer than those on the island. One can just kind of tell the median income must be higher on the mainland versus Okinawa. Back in the World War 2 era the Okinawans were looked down on by mainland residents as a lower class of people versus mainland citizens. This was very evident when the Japanese rulers during World War 2 preferred to send the Okinawans into battle first, even against terrible odds, in order to save mainlanders from certain death, so it isn’t surprising that some of that social class difference continues to manifest itself to this day even if it’s only economically.
As with many vacation trips, ours came to an end too soon, but we had a wonderful trip and made lasting memories for our family during our stay on the mainland. With ever-changing Covid restrictions we were very glad to be able to actually go on the trip at all! We would love to explore some more areas of the mainland as well as some neighboring countries in our time on this side of the globe, but it will all depend on how the Covid pandemic plays during our tour of duty in Japan. Until next time…. The Ready Rovers
The island of Okinawa has many small caves and caverns all across the island. It is one of the geographical aspects that made it so hard for the Americans to win the battle of Okinawa during the 2nd World War.Cave Okinawa is a decent-sized natural cave in the central region of the island that extends some distance under the surrounding topography. It has 2 non-descript entrances and a steel support structure with wooden planks for visitors to tour the cave. The electric lighting is adequate, albeit rudimentary by American standards as it is a two-wire system with no grounding and the connections are a little crude (the things I notice…). There is a fast-moving stream inside the cave, so being able to walk above the water was welcomed. However, we did note the difference between what the Japanese considers safe versus what the United States would consider safe for tourist use. I do not think the rails and planks in the cave would have passed OSHA inspection. The cave was about 4 feet wide in some places, yet opened up to a great room of maybe 20 feet tall and 30 feet wide at its widest point. As with most caves, the cool damp climate of the cave was a welcome change to the heavy heat outside. The tour only took us about 30 minutes to complete, but everyone agreed it was worth the stop.
Kouri Island & Tower
Kouri island is connected to northern Okinawa by bridge. As we traversed the two lane bridge we marveled at just how clear-blue the water was. We could see down through the water to the reefs below the surface. Once on the island we stopped at a beach which offered swimming and snorkeling, but we decided we would move on and come back to the beach later as there were other things we wanted to see. Our next stop was the Kouri Shrimp Wagon. It used to be a food truck offering garlic shrimp and marinated chicken dishes but has grown in popularity to the point that they expanded and moved into their own restaurant. Let me tell you, there is a reason they are popular. It was delicious! Even Heather, who is normally not a seafood person, really liked it.
After lunch we traveled a mile or so up the road to Kouri tower. After purchasing tickets at a pretty reasonable fee we boarded an automated golf cart. Yes, you read that correctly. The golf carts drove themselves. It drove us up the side of the large hill zigzagging along plant-lined paths. There was an English audio narration that talked about the island, the view, and the heritage of the island. At the top we disembarked and entered the actual tower. The first area we came to was a seashell museum. Pie absolutely loved this! There were so many beautiful shells and color variations and they were creatively displayed. Most were inside glass cases, but some were not, so we had to make sure what little hands were touching so we didn’t break anything. The tower, some 4 stories tall, was perched atop the tallest hill on the island so it seemed like we were much higher. From the observation deck on the top level one could see all around the island and over the bridge connecting Kouri island to Okinawa. Once we had our fill of the scenery we walked through their shop that had local wares and pumpkin cookies that are made on site. Each person got one free cookie as we entered the store, and their free samples paid off because we liked them well enough to buy a box of 20 to take home with us. There was also a decent amount of merchandise from nearby Nago Pineapple Park including locally produced and bottled pineapple wine.
Nago Pineapple Park
After leaving Kouri island we stopped at the Nago Pineapple Park. This park was a mash-up of educational, entertainment, and an agricultural site all in one. We again boarded automated golf carts that led us past small fields of various-sized pineapples. Some were as small as my thumb while others were as large as a football. Like Kouri tower, the audio narration told us all about how pineapples grow and from where the name pineapple came. At the end of the driving tour we walked through a 2-story greenhouse complete with elevated walkways so they could maximize their space. At the end of the greenhouse section they had a dinosaur display with animatronic dinosaurs that moved and made noises. While I am not sure how dinosaurs related to pineapple production, it was a fun experience. We then munched on some fresh pineapple skewered with chop sticks before exploring their retail shop. We noticed that the pineapple park and Kouri tower must be in a business relationship because we saw many of the same items in each shop including the cookies we had purchased from the tower. The final stop before leaving the park was a video detailing how pineapples are made into wine. As we exited the park we could look through large glass windows at the machinery used to prepare the pineapple for wine production. Finally, as we were headed for the van an employee beckoned us over and motioned for us to board a kiddy train powered by a large lawnmower-type tractor. He pulled us around the parking lot and through a winding path with more animatronic dinosaurs before returning to the front of the park. While I still don’t get the correlation between dinosaurs and pineapple, it was fun nonetheless.
Okinawa Salt Factory
Okinawa does not have a raging economy due to its limited ability to manufacture and export large quantities of goods like other areas of the world. However, that is not to say that Okinawans have nothing. They grow sugarcane, blow glass, sculpt pottery, and make salt to name a few businesses on the island. We ventured out to the Nuchi Masu salt factory to see whether it was “worth its salt” as they say. The factory is perched atop a rock face on Miyagi island, a small island connected by bridge to Okinawa. The factory pulls seawater from the Pacific Ocean into the factory and sprays it through a special fan system. The water dries in mid-air and the remaining salt falls to the floor like snow. Unlike common salt which is simply NaCl, The makers of Okinawa sea salt claim many health benefits due to its 21 minerals and elevated concentration of magnesium and potassium. According to the lab analysis printed in their brochure only 73.3 grams of a 100 gram sample is NaCl, which has led them, according to their brochure, to winning multiple awards and prizes for their salt including a spot in the Guinness World Record book. While there, we could look into the salt drying room that appears to be covered with “snow” as well as the ability to peer through skylights into their lab and packaging rooms. It was a pretty short tour, but worth the stop while we were out exploring the small islands connected to Okinawa by bridge.
4th of July
In celebration of Uncle Sam’s birthday, the Marine Corps held a two-day festival open to all US military on the island. This was a welcome relief as we start to emerge from Corona virus restrictions of the past year. We tried some Japanese yakisoba noodles, had the traditional American burgers and hot dogs, snow cones, and even had some barbeque brisket to round out our culinary samplings. They were all delicious! The kids got to ride, bounce, swing, and jump through kiddy land rides and we met up with some neighborhood friends for a while as we walked through the festival. While we were there it came time for retreat to be played and the American flag to be lowered for the evening. While I have been in the military now for over three years, this is our first time living on base and spending so much time on base. Pie, our oldest child, was stunned when the bustling crowd of a few thousand people came to a complete halt and all faced the trumpet music with patriotic reverence. While retreat is played nightly on base, to see an entire festival come to a complete standstill within mere seconds was impressive.
We elected to make a strategic exit prior to the fireworks because we knew we could see them from our own base, and by leaving before the fireworks we would avoid all the traffic congestion after fireworks. The weekend was dry, but hot. We all got a bit pink from the sun (a welcome change from the near-constant rain over the past few weeks), but nobody really burned. We watched the 20 minute fireworks show from our lawn chairs at the top of a hill overlooking the military housing community in which we live. Being stationed overseas it is also interesting to see the divergence of Americans from the Japanese. For the Americans it is a major federal holiday. For the Japanese, it is just another weekend. The people-watcher in me noted the difference in activities between these two groups.
On Sunday of the long weekend we attended a backyard cookout hosted by another family in our neighborhood. We enjoyed a mix of American and Filipino food and some good company. The night was topped off by the kids swimming in inflatable pools, playing with squirt guns, waving sparklers, and watching an outdoor movie projected on the side of a house. We were treated to a second night of fireworks, this time from a different military base in the area. Heather and I concluded that we really did pick our housing option pretty well for this tour as we love our military housing community.
Over the Fathers Day weekend and newly minted Juneteenth federal holiday we were able to get out and explore the island some more. We took a drive around Senaga Island, a very small island accessible from Okinawa by bridge from Naha, one of the larger cities on the island’s south end. One can drive around the perimeter of Senaga Island in less than 5 minutes. Covid is still very much a thing here on Okinawa, so many of the shops and eateries on the island were closed. However, it has some nice beaches and a crab-themed park that the kids enjoyed.
In the central region of the island we visited the location where the U.S. Marines and Navy made their initial landfall on April 1, 1945 to start the battle of Okinawa during World War II. This small memorial marker overlooks the beachhead and river wash where the amphibious vessels delivered their soldiers and loaded casualties to be returned to the ships off the coast for treatment.
Heading north on the island we found the Cape Zanpa lighthouse, some pretty impressive cliffs along the ocean, and the self-proclaimed largest Shisa on the island. A Shisa is a traditional Ryukyuan decoration which is a cross between a lion and a dog and is supposed to ward off and protect from evil. They can be found on the rooftops or flanking the entrances to homes and businesses all across the island. Even the military commissary has a pair of Shisa out front. Typically the one with an open mouth is on the right while the closed-mouth creature is on the left. While I am not so sure about their protective powers, I did purchase a set to place above my desk as a decoration and keepsake from the island.
Speaking of these Shisa figures, I found my set at a local pottery village. This grouping of pottery shops and storefronts feature handmade dishes, tea sets, Shisa figures, and other items for sale. We liked that they are all locally-made and not commercially manufactured. We spent about 2 hours looking through all the shops. Along the way we also found a steel-roofed shelter where we found local glass tradesmen at work. We watched them start by extracting molten glass from a blast furnace and then shaping, blowing in the end of the metal rod to expand the center of the glass bulb, and re-firing and re-working the hot glass for almost 30 minutes until they had completed a multi-colored glass vase. The final step was to place it in a special kiln for annealing over an extended timeframe. The kids (and adults) were entertained and impressed by the skill of the tradesmen in the shop. While it may not be on the tourist bucket list, we were very happy we got the opportunity to watch them work.
Our last stop along our journey for the weekend was to visit the Zakimi castle ruins. This green space and park contains the ruins of castle walls which was once a great castle. It was impressive to see how tightly the stones of the wall were fitted together, even without the use of mortar to form a tight, flat wall to protect the castle. The view from atop the castle walls was equally impressive and the breeze was a welcome change to the hot and humid weather of the day.