Arashi’s Ramen (嵐 ラーメン)has vegetarian ramen for a limited time!

Arashis is a well know ramen chain in Japan. While meat easters love their garlic fried rice and porky ramen (both great!) if you want to stick to the vegetarian side you have been limited; however, for a limited time they have vegetarian ramen!

After our trip to the new DMM Kariyushi Aquarium we worked up a hunger; while the mall had lots of options, we had read that Arashis has a limited time vegetarian option and so headed to the one close to the mall. After pulling into the parking lot that was a little too small for easy parking, we went in, ordered from the ticket vending machine (the staff offered us English menu, but we came in knowing what we wanted!) We ordered two vegetable ramens and one vegetable gyoza plate (came with 5 gyozas). Chris ordered a spicy habanero topping (Order the generic topping ticket for ¥120, then tell the staff Habanero when they ask which one, or whichever topping you like!)

After a small wait the food was delivered! The bowls were brimming with veggies and both the noodles and gyoza had a green tint. The green is from spirulina, a type of seaweed that doesn’t have a strong taste.

It’s really good. The noodles are tasty, although they may be a little soft for those that like their noodles al-dente (not sure if this is due to the make up of the noodle, or if ours were a little extra done). The broth was salty and flavorful, just as you’d expect from a ramen broth. The best part: Only 411 calories for the whole bowl! This is about half a regular ramen bowl.

The gyoza were good as well, sadly you can only see the corner of them in the middle picture above, the insides had soy “meat” and veggies. Quite tasty but next time I’d skip them as the ramen was more than enough to fill us up!

We highly recomend it while they have it! If it sells well I’m sure it will return. No doubt this campaign was set up to provide vegetable options to the many expected foreign guests during the Olympics, of course they were postponed due to covid-19 , but we can still enjoy it if you are already in Japan. This is not just in Okinawa, Arashi locations nation wide have these noodles!

Info Box

Place name: Kagetsu Arashi

Location: Nationwide chain, we went to this one in Tomigusuku: https://goo.gl/maps/nMJXg5sxrTeEg8Zk7

Price: Ramen about ¥880, Goyza around ¥350

A Ramen Street in Okinawa ( ラーメン横丁 )

Lanterns in the basement Ramen and Izakaya Floor

In Feb 2020 a new ramen yokocho ( ラーメン横丁 , in English this translates to Ramen Alley, or Ramen Street ) opened in the basement of the old Mitsukoshi building. (The name of the building is Kokusui Norengai 国際通りのれん街 , although most locals still call it by the old Mitsukoshi building) This building has a bit of a rough history, Mitsukoshi closed around 2013, soon afterwards “happiness Okinawa” opened with anime themed shops and food stand. After about 2 years this closed, then a “food hall” opened with some small food stands and a basement cafeteria. Some of the food was good, but it seemed a little thrown together, and it closed after about 1 year.

Now, in Feb 2020, it has reopened as two new floors. They have put a lot of money and time into this endeavour, and I think this time it will stick! The street level floor has many different restaurants that make you think of a crowded city food district. Seafood, steaks, and the like all have their own shops…but for me, the real magic is in the basement, which has been completely redone with wood effect beams, and not one, not two, but six(!) ramen shops, including the Michelin recommended Sora No Iro Ramen, and two of the shop have Vegan ramen options. Here! in Okinawa!

As of this post we’ve eaten at two of the Ramen shops, but we plan to try them all and update as we go. We hit the vegan ramens first, as they are still rare here in Okinawa.

Sora no Iro ( ソラノイロ ) Vegan TanTan Men (坦々麺)

Vegan Tantanmen in Okinawa from Sora no Iro
Vegan Tantanmen in Okinawa from Sora no Iro

Tantan-men is my favorite style of ramen. It has a thick goma (sesame) soup with ramen noodles. It usually has spicy chili oil, and a scoop of spicy meat (like a taco meat) on top. This version is 100% vegan with soy meat on top but all of the deliciousness throughout! In addition to their primary site, they opened up a new collaboration directly to the right of the shop with Okinawa style Soba in a sort of Ramen style. We haven’t tried it yet, but it looked good! You can view their website here: Sora no Iro ( ソラノイロ ).

Shinbusakiya ( 炙り味噌らーめん ) – Hokkaido Ramen – meaty/vegan/Gluten Free options

This was the second shop we tried (on a different day! Ramen is heavy!) We also tried their vegan ramen. As a plus this shop also offers gluten free ramen! It is quite rare to find gluten free or vegan ramen in Japan, let alone Okinawa! We noticed that the gluten free versions are marked vegetarian, and not vegan. I’m guessing the gluten free noodles use egg or milk, but we didn’t ask. We tried the vegan spicy miso flavor, with gluten. The taste was good, but it was more like miso soup than a true ramen. Carolyn and I both liked the Sora no Iro taste better on the vegan side. The ordering is done via a touch screen kiosk. After you have inserted your money & selected your ramen, the machine will give you some tickets. Given the tickets to the folks at the counter and they will give you a “pager” that will beep when your order is ready.

Shinbusakiya ( 炙り味噌らーめん ) vegan & vegetarian Gluten free screen on their kiosk. Use this kiosk to order and pay, then hand the tickets to the counter.
Shinbusakiya ( 炙り味噌らーめん ) vegan & vegetarian Gluten free screen

We did get the fried chicken, well not Carolyn as she is vegetarian, but it was a generous portion of tasty, crispy, fried chicken cutlet. As we ordered one ramen with a side of chicken the cook gave us an extra bowl to split, so kind! The corn was briefly stir fried and and had a pleasant taste. Their website (Japanese only) is located here: Shinbusakiya ( 炙り味噌らーめん )

shinbusakiya miso ramen with a side of chicken
shinbusakiya miso ramen

Other Ramen Shops

There are 3 other ramen shops that we haven’t mentioned. We haven’t tried them yet, so can’t comment on how tasty they might be (although really, I’ve never had a ramen that was truly bad). Please visit the Naha Kokasai Dori Ramen street and try their ramens!

Beer!

There is also a bar on the floor, which is open only at night. They have a wide range of local brews like Wolfbrau, Ukishima, Sango (Coral) , and others. They are a little more expensive than if you buy them directly from the breweries, but if you like beer with your ramen this is the place to go.

Other eats on the floor

Outside of the “ramen zone” there are 3 or 4 other restaurants on the floor, closed during lunch but open at night. We haven’t tried them but they looked mostly like seafood izakaya fare. We will be sure to check them out and report back soon!

Location:

The Location is on Kokasai street. Across the street from the Mega Donki store. About a 5-8 minute walk from the Makishi monorail station depending how you hit the lights.

Google Maps location: https://g.page/kokusaidori-norengai?share

Sans Souci (& Sudachi udon)

Summer in Okinawa can get pretty hot and humid. What better way to refresh than with sudachi udon? Citrusy, salty, and cold.

Sans Souci in Kitanakagusuku is a Ryukyu x Kyoto style cafe. It is no secret… everybody knows about this place! This cafe is listed in all the cafe books and travel guides for a good reason… the food is delicious! There is udon, both hot and cold, as well as a few other dishes, cafe drinks, and several Japanese style sweets options.

During summer time only they also serve sudachi udon, which is exactly what I needed today. The lunch set comes with a drinn, too.

For dessert I of course had the matcha mini parfait. It was so good… tons of matcha flavor layers.

The price is a bit high, 1550円 total, but definitely worth it for the high quality food at this trendy cafe.

address: サンスーシー(sans souci)

〒901-2315 Okinawa, Nakagami-gun, Kitanakagusuku, 字萩道150-3 パークサイド#1822

098-935-1012

https://goo.gl/maps/PMfZucEqn5p9zPZM9

Another Vegan Ramen option in Okinawa: Orange Shokudo

Update: Orange Shokudo has closed in Naha and moved to Kin. Just opened as of Feb 2020 there are two! vegan ramen places in the basement of the old mitsukoshi building on Kokasai in Okinawa’s own Ramen Street

Today started as any normal Sunday. It is the monthly Sunrise Market in Naha, and my husband wanted to go. So we set off and parked our car in the Noren Plaza のうれんプラザ as is our usual spot. The monthly market is quite nice and we always find some ono grinds here. Anyway, after we wandered (and ate) through the market, we walked around Naha for a bit before heading back to the car. When we returned to the Noren Plaza, a restaurant called オレンジ食堂 (Orange Shokudo) on the second floor had a sign with something strange that caught my eye.

“Vegan black sesame ramen”
ビーガンラーメン
辛い黒ゴマ濃厚担々麺

I was surprised, so I stopped and inspected further; while this place had meat options, it also had VEGAN options (black sesame, gold sesame, and a regular sesame broth, as well as spicy, little spicy, and no spice). When I first saw the sign I thought maybe it was a mistake, but for sure, I asked the owner and he seemed pleased to say that Yes, he has vegan options. This was crazy, and despite already eating lunch, well, I just had to try this! So I convinced my husband to split a bowl.

When it came out, he gave as an extra bowl, spoon, and chopsticks. He also brought out vinegar and extra spice, as well as an extra bowl of rich black sesame sauce so we could add more.

Delicious. I rarely get to eat ramen as there is pretty much never a vegetarian or vegan option. And while the Okinawa vegan scene is on the rise, the only places I knew of previously were Stripes (not very good) and Rakurobi Kitchen (doesn’t always have it available). So today I got delicious ramen and another place to bookmark for a visit when I feel like a bowl of ramen!

I had never heard anyone mention this place before, and even on GoogleMaps there was not mention of the vegan options. Perhaps it is a new menu he is trying out, and I hope it stays. I hope the vegans living in and visiting Okinawa can all give Orange Shokudo their business!

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address: https://goo.gl/maps/6SXLreaW2GE2
**Second floor of Noren Plaza Shopping Center

In Kin Town

https://goo.gl/maps/XEUZ3xp9WLndVE1N9

Cafe detox felicidad

This small yet popular cafe is located in Itoman, not too far from the Ashibinaa outlets area. They offer raw food, vegan and gluten-free menu choices. They also have a vegan/gluten-free sweets counter for takeout.

There is a parking lot next to the building, park in the spaces labelled for the cafe. The inside of the cafe is not very big, but there are a few tables. They have a variety of fresh lunch choices, as well as some smoothies and desserts. While the bill is not cheap, this detox cafe offers some delicious and unique choices here in Okinawa, so I still recommend it. Today we tried the raw food lunch set with the veggie norimaki rolls and the curry lunch plate. I also decided to add on a raw food “rainbow cake” for dessert.

Overall, everything was really good, so if you are looking for a healthy option in the southern part of the island, this place will not disappoint.

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address: https://goo.gl/maps/Q9SY6T58kYJ2

Dining Sumirakuen ダイニング炭楽園

We decided to try another izakaya 居酒屋 not too far from where we live. I have passed it dozens of times during the daytime, as it is close to the university. So finally we thought it was time to give it a try.

Dining sumirakuen is located in Nishihara, on the corner of Rt.s 29 and 34. It has a few spaces in front of the restaurant, as well as a huge lot across the street. Inside is nicely decorated with plenty of tables and seating, so we had no problem getting a table with no reservation. You will need to remove your shoes when you enter the establishment and store them on the shoe shelf. As with most establishments, there is a “sitting fee” (called otoshi お通し) and they bring you out some sort of appetizer.

 

They surprisingly have an English menu in addition to the Japanese menu, however, not everything is listed on the English menu, so you may want to check out their specials written in Japanese. One of these is the iburi gakko cheese いぶりがっこチーズ. I ordered this on a whim, since one of the Google reviews said it was awesome; to be honest I was not 100% sure what it was. Anyway, out it came along with our beers… DELICIOUS! Iburi gakko is a smoked and pickled daikon, a specialty of Akita prefecture 秋田県. The slices of smoked pickle were then stuffed with a creamy tasty cheese. It was smoky, creamy, crunchy… a really good combination of flavors that went well with drinking (they recommend nihonshu, a.k.a. “sake” 日本酒, but we were having beer). I definitely recommend coming here in and trying this… it is a very unique dish that I have not seen anywhere else in Okinawa!

We also tried many other small dishes, that were also really good. But the iburi gakko cheese stood out as the most interesting. The beer was cold, the prices reasonable (not super cheap, but reasonably compared to other standard izakaya), and the food was all really ono (oishii). I can’t believe we had not tried this place in the 4 years we have been here… we will definitely return.

The Kurashi Store of Hokkaido (in Okinawa)

北海道くらし百貨店: Hokkaido Kurashi Hyakkaten; basically the name of the shop translates something like “Hokkaido lifestyle and department store”


I heard a rumor that Sapporo Drug (サツドラ “satsudora”) on Kokusai-dori in Naha had Hokkaido craft beers. This sounded a bit odd, but it caught my interest, and honestly alcohol sold in a drugstore is not unusual. So I explored the next time I was in Naha.

Turns out, it is not the Sapporo Drug itself, but if you go inside the Sapporo Drug there is a staircase leading to a bright and clean second floor… this is where the Kurashi store is located!

I was surprised, but up we went to check it out. It is kinda like a big Hokkaido omiyage store! Apparently it is not nearly as big as the one in Hokkaido, but I was still impressed with all the variety it carried. There were lots of Hokkaido foods, drinks, and other goods to choose from. They even had huge frozen crabs! There was also a restaurant serving some various Hokkaido dishes.

What did we end up buying? Well, craft beer, apple cider, some miso ramen, and yogurt. I probably could have spent a lot more though.

If you live in Okinawa, you should definitely check out this store and try some of the great products from Hokkaido.


address: https://goo.gl/maps/J69MLHcYDEm

Wa Cafe Nodoka: 和カフェ和花

和 wa: this has a dual meaning, “harmony” or “Japan/Japanese,” specifically the concept of peaceful unity and conformity within a social group. It is also one of the 4 tenets of Japanese tea ceremony (“wa,” “kei,” “sei,” and “jyaku” meaning harmony, respect, purity, and tranquility).


Wa cafe Nodoka is a rather recent addition to the Minatogawa Stateside town in Urasoe.

As for parking, there are some spots in front of their store, otherwise you may have to go to the pay area. The cafe menu is in both Japanese and English, offering some lunch plates (including their lunch bento of the day) as well as sweets and drinks.

As for me, I chose to get a matcha 抹茶 and a dorayaki どら焼き, the brown sugar-cream cheese-dango flavor (黒糖ちーどら kokutou chii dora). My husband opted for the daily bento with shikwasa juice.

Everything was superb, and beautifully presented. This Japanese-style is not actually as common in Okinawa as you might think, so it was a really nice change of pace.

Afterwards, I enjoyed admiring all of their matcha tea bowls (抹茶碗) with cute Okinawa inspired designs.


address: https://goo.gl/maps/uwkiNNJwbtM2

Mushrooms: きのこ

きのこ (hiragana), キノコ (katakana), as well as possible kanji 茸, 菌, or 蕈: all pronounced KINOKO… means mushroom!


There are many types of mushrooms you can find in the grocery stores and farmers markets of Okinawa… pretty much all of them are delicious. Here is a short list which I will update later with some pictures:

shiitake しいたけ, シイタケ, 椎茸: so versatile, you can use them for anything. I can’t begin to list all the uses.

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maitake まいたけ, マイタケ, 舞茸: “dancing” mushrooms. These are probably my favorite– they make a delicious tempura.

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eryngii えりんぎ, エリンギ: king trumpet, king oyster. These are great grilled, so add them in next time you do yakiniku.

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enoki(take) えのき(たけ), エノキ: these little guys can be used some different ways; soup is popular, but so is sauté. A lot of people wrap in bacon cook for a fancy appetizer.

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shimeji しめじ, シメジ: these are pretty good in stir-fry or sauté.

kikurage キクラゲ, 木耳: wood ear or Jew’s ear. Good in soups, simmered dishes, hotpot.

bunashimeji ぶなしめじ, ブナシメジ: just like shimeji, these are pretty good in stir-fry or sauté.

nameko なめこ, ナメコ: to be honest I don’t eat these guys much, but they are good for soups and nabe.

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mushroom マシュルーム: these are your typical white button mushrooms… notice it is spelled in katakana.

crimini mushroom ブラウンマッシュルーム: similar to above, it is “brown mushroom” in katakana.

matsutake 松茸, マツタケ: you will probably never see these in Okinawa, or only rarely in high-end stores. This is due to the high cost here in Japan.


Recently, I have even seen some “portabello” type mushrooms in the stores, though there are usually just extra large shiitake mushrooms.

Another unusual mushroom that is recently popping up is the matsu-kinoko 松きのこ, a variety from Hiroshima that supposedly as the taste and fragrance of a matsutake but the texture of an eryngii… at a fraction of the cost of matsutake. I have yet to try this one.


Something else of note, here in Okinawa there are some local mushroom cultivators. Sometimes you may see them at the local farmers markets and industry product fairs, so be sure to give them a try. You can even purchase a mushroom block to take home and grow your own mushrooms… my husband did this a few years back.

Book cafe&hall ゆかるひ: Making “oyaki”

oyaki おやき: a style of dumplings from Nagano prefecture


I went to a workshop organized by a company called “Table Watch”— to learn how to make dumplings from an Okinawan obaachan, Yaka-san. Oyaki is a traditional Nagano food.

The Book cafe&hall Yukaruhi is located on the 3rd floor of the Yaka Building in Naha (Yaka-san’s family owns the building, hence the name Yaka Building). There is a big sign in front that says “Vegan OK!” Nice. Inside, it is part crafts workshop, part cafe, part music hall… there are many aspects to this place.

Anyway, I registered with Ayako-san the workshop coordinator for Table Watch, received my name tag and hair net, along with the other attendees (both Japanese and American).

Yaka-san started us off with explaining about oyaki and showing us pictures of different fillings, as well as the more traditional cooking methods in ashes. Then she sang us a special song she wrote about oyaki for the class. It was awesome, and explained the oyaki-making process. She was born and raised in Okinawa, but when she got married moved with her husband to Nagano. She recently returned to open the cafe here in Okinawa.

Then we got to start making our own dough. Just flour, lukewarm water, baking powder, and sugar, mixed and kneaded until the texture was “like a baby’s cheek” (赤ちゃんのほっぺ!). Next the dough has to rest.

For the fillings, we used 3 different types: nozawana (pickled greens) with spicy red pepper added, shiri-shiri kabocha (grated pumpkin sautéed with red miso), and zucchini slices sandwiched with sweet light miso. All 3 were delicious. She taught us the basic techniques for the fillings and let us sample.

Next we divided out the dough, and learned how to make the shape… it is kinda like when you stretch out a pizza dough except you want to keep the center part fat and make it thin around the edges. Add the filling and then wrap the edges up (similar technique to making nikuman or other Chinese dumplings). From here they were flipped over (so pinched side on the bottom), put onto a small square of parchment paper, and steamed for about 10-15 minutes. You can also fry and then steam or just bake if you so desire.

Once we were finished, we got to relax and eat our oyaki with some black bean tea and sobagaki. Sobagaki is another regional dish made form soba flour mixed with hot water and stirred in a bowl, until it becomes a mashed-potato-like dough ball. The dough is then torn into bite-sized pieces and dipped in a sauce, like shoyu or spicy pepper dressing. It kinda reminded me a little of poi, a little sticky and chewy. Everything was delicious and I really enjoyed myself. Yaka-san was so cute and friendly.

Anyway, the cafe is open during the day Thursday through Monday, so be sure to stop in for a delicious oyaki snack sometime! She also serves some meat things and cafe drinks as well as the vegan oyaki. I also recommend trying a workshop organized by the Table Watch company!


pictures on imgur: https://imgur.com/a/KKzT6


address for cafe, open Thurs-Mon 11am-7pm: https://goo.gl/maps/Rgx4vu8bpL72


Oyaki recipe: this is mostly just for the skin, the filling is sort of up to you but I include some ideas!

Makes 10 oyaki skins:

-300 g of Chuurikiko 中力粉: medium strength flour used for udon making (about 9% protein strength)

-1 teaspoon baking powder

-2.5 teaspoon granulated sugar

-180 cc warm water

Mix together the ingredients with chopsticks until it becomes more dough-like then knead like bread, with a little extra flour to keep from sticking, until springy (Japanese like to say “until it is the texture of a baby cheek”). Let it rest for awhile, at least 30 minutes so it gets elasticity.

Prepare your filling, whatever you want (seriously anything), just can’t be too wet as excess water causes the oyaki skin to crack as it cooks!

In our workshop we had 3 different fillings: 1) nozawana 野沢菜, a type of pickled greens from Nagano which is easy to find in Japan grocery stores… spinach or something could also be good, just be sure to squeeze the water before filling the dumpling skin with the cooked spinach. 2) We also used shredded kabocha sautéed with red miso. 3) zucchini cut in 2cm round, then sliced not quite in a half, stuffed with sweet light miso like a sandwich. **Basically, anything goes, just nothing with too much water.

Divide the dough into pieces, then shape into a ball shape. Stretch it out slowly from the sides kinda like when making a pizza dough, keeping the middle a little fat (keeps the skin from breaking while steaming), and thinner on the sides. In the middle add your filling and then wrap the sides up like a little package, pinching in the middle to close it. Yaka-san said don’t worry too much about the shape of the oyaki, if it is rounder or flatter– it shows your personality, apparently. Put them onto a small piece of parchment paper in a steamer basket (if you are steaming them).

Steam 10-15 minutes. OR pan-fry for 3 minutes each side and then steam OR just bake them. In the workshop we steamed them, and this would be the healthiest option.

New Year’s Foods in Okinawa

osechi-ryouri 御節料理: New Year’s cuisine


Previously I posted some basic info about New Year’s celebrations in Okinawa. But this is all about the food, so let’s talk food.

The grocery aisles are lined with various important foods on display, many of which may not be too familiar to foreigners.

In this modern day you will see stores bustling with pre-orders, as not many people have so much time to prepare all these foods! Again, it usually falls on the wife of the oldest son to prepare these things, so as you can imagine ordering a platter with all the required items from a restaurant or grocery store is much easier than making everything yourself.

There are a some traditional foods necessary for Okinawan osechi-ryouri, and it is typically the same items you see in usanmi (feast boxes), so click on the post to learn a little more about these foods. Honestly in the stores, the fried foods and Okinawa hors d’oeuvres plates (オードブル) were flying off the shelves while the mainland-style foods were left somewhat untouched.


Some items in the aisles are traditional Japanese, while others are traditional Okinawan; here are a few of the things you may see: (I have more to add to this list, but here it is for now).

Oranges/mikan みかん (also called daidai 橙): you will see bags and bags of oranges for sale, these are an important symbol for New Year, meaning “generation to generation.” These are put on the altar, eaten, even attached to a shimenawa (rope wreath made from rice straw).

Beans 豆: I wrote a post on beans already… basically beans are good luck, ward of evil… all sorts of things really. Often the store sell different types of sweetened beans (particularly kuromame, black beans 黒豆), ready made in the refrigerator section for eating.

kuri kinton 栗きんとん: sweet chestnut mash with sweet potato. It symbolizes fortune and wealth.

kamaboko (fishcake) かまぼこ: usually seen in kouhaku 紅白 (red/pink and white colors), as well as fancy designs, or even shaped like Mt Fuji. Traditionally, slices of kamaboko are in rows or arranged in a pattern. The color and shape are reminiscent of Japan rising sun, and have a celebratory, festive meaning.

konbu 昆布: a kind of seaweed, usually tied in knots. It is associated with the word yorokobu, meaning “joy.”

datemaki (伊達巻): cooked sweet egg and hanpen (fishcake) rolled into an omelet; it has a ribbed outer surface  like the sun. In Okinawa, something called castella kamaboko カステラかまぼこ, fishcake “cake” is also very popular. It is similar to “datemaki,” though datemaki is usually a more rolled shape where you can see layers. This is yellow with minced fish and eggs, resembling more of a castella sponge cake.

sardines/tazukuri (田作り): dried sardines cooked in shoyu; the fish were used historically to fertilize rice fields. It symbolizes an abundant harvest.

ebi 海老 (shrimp): hunched like an elder, so it represents a long life.

mochi/wagashi sweets: often you will see sweets in fortuitous shapes or in the shape of the upcoming year’s zodiac.

 

 

 

Another “favorite” here in Okinawa is nakamijiru 中身汁, intestines soup (pork). This is a very traditional dish for Okinawan people, but younger generations are (for perhaps obvious reasons) less inclined to eat it these days. Bags of pre-made soup (just heat and serve) and large bags of “chitlins” (pieces of intestines, pardon the American slang) are easily found in the center aisles of the store this time of year.

As mentioned before about toshikoshi soba 年越しそば (year-end soba, or year-crossing soba), buckwheat noodles are not very common in Okinawa. Rather, many people may eat Okinawa soba instead. So you may also see many rows of Okinawa soba noodles, broth, and pork prominently displayed in aisles under New Year signs.

Christmas Tea Ceremony: クリスマス茶会

茶会 chakai: a tea “gathering,” a more informal tea ceremony.

クリスマス kurisumasu: Christmas


Recently I had the good fortune to attend a chaikai 茶会 here in Okinawa. The location was at Shoufuuen 松風苑 in Haebaru 南風原 (southern part of the island), the birthplace of Ultraman ウルトラマン (hometown of Tetsuo Kinjo, scriptwriter)! The theme of the chakai was Christmas, and of course, with a little Ultraman thrown in the mix.

Anyway, I dressed myself in kimono and met up with some fellow foreigners at the event venue. Of course, as a foreigner who dressed themselves in kimono and speaks some Japanese, many people found their way to talking to me. I don’t think it is so impressive for me to do these things, but Japanese people are often overly kind and complimentary regarding these things. It was a little embarrassing for me as I did not actually have time to do my hair and make-up properly due to oversleeping, so I had rushed to get ready.

The venue consists of some beautiful buildings and gardens set away from the main road; it is one of the few places here in Okinawa where I felt more of the Japanese atmosphere (rather than Ryukyu or Chanpuru cultures).

In general, a chakai is a little less formal than a proper tea gathering ceremony, called a chaji 茶事. This particular event was a 3-part event (lasting a little less than 3 hours total): tea ceremony outside, light meal, and an indoor tea ceremony. For the first tea we were seated at a table outside and served tea with 2 types of wagashi. Afterwards met with a famous potter here in Okinawa; he made the giant shisa that sit on either side of Kokusai-dori area in Naha. He also made the small pottery cups that were used (and we got to take home) during our light meal.

The light meal was held inside the banquet area. It was tatami seating, so properly one should sit seiza 正座, but as a foreigner that is a bit difficult for long periods of time so… I did not, despite the awkwardness of sitting in kimono. The little pottery cup we received as a souvenir has a design for the New Year… the year of the dog! This made me very happy as coming new year, the year of the dog 戌年 (inudoshi) is my zodiac year. The meal was beautifully and carefully prepared, as well as quite filling. I cannot remember everything in it, but the only meat was the chicken (which I did not eat); there was of course fish/seafood, which I ate on this occasion (though admittedly I am not a huge fan of fish in general).

Anyway, next was the last tea ceremony held in one of the more formal tea ceremony rooms. It was beautifully decorated. Again, this time we sat seiza for the whole time and admittedly I need practice as my feet became a bit painful. But overall I enjoyed the entire thing.

After the last ceremony, we found ourselves going up to the small “museum” dedicated to Ultraman. It is only 2 small rooms, but very cute and interesting. When not used as an event space, Shoufuuen is also a restaurant… I definitely recommend trying it sometime for a nice kaiseki (traditional multi-course Japanese/Okinawan meal) experience!

Posted below are a few pictures from the event; I could add so many more, but tried to choose some of the better and more relevant ones. Hopefully everyone who spends time in Okinawa or Japan will take the opportunity to attend a chakai!


address: https://goo.gl/maps/8wKb1rhbLBx

Miso 味噌 in Okinawa, part II

Previously I made a post about a special type of miso found in Okinawa, called andansu. But this is not the only miso you will find, as you can find all the regular Japanese varieties of miso as well. Sometimes you can find locally produced miso, and other brands will be big nation-wide corporate brands (not necessarily a bad thing). So let’s take a look at some of the things you should know about finding the right miso for you in Okinawa.


To start, things to look for on the label:

White miso 白みそ: this is a “light” or mild miso.

Blended Miso (Awase miso) 合わせみそ: this is usually pretty versatile and the one I typically keep in my fridge.

Red Miso 赤みそ: this is usually dark and salty, but so good. My husband prefers this darker, saltier miso but it can be pungent if you are not used to it.

dashi (fish broth) added だし入り: you probably don’t want this. It is so much easier to add your own dashi (and you can make it vegan by using konbu/seaweed dashi) and adjust it to your tastes.

organic 有機

additive-free 無添加

reduced salt 減塩


Special Notes:

*for non-GMO, if you look at the ingredient list, and the soybeans 大豆 are from Japan 国産 then you know it is non-GMO. Otherwise, it probably will not say.

*for gluten-free, check to see if 麦 (barley) or 小麦 (wheat) are listed in the ingredients.

*for soy-free (I know… sounds crazy right?), read this previous post I made about finding soy-free foods in the grocery store.


Now, where do I get miso? Well, any grocery store has an entire aisle dedicated to it. The choices are, frankly, overwhelming. It might take a few tries until you find one perfect to your tastes and uses. Look for ones that say 沖縄県産 for brands local to Okinawa; some examples you can find easily in stores are Kumejima miso 久米島みそ, Shuri miso 首里みそ, and Shimagome miso 島米みそ. Other big brands like Marusan, Marukome, TopValu, Maruman, etc. are also commonly found in stores here. I usually don’t go for these, but out of all the big brands, I think Hikari 光 is probably one of the best in my opinion (I don’t have a picture, but it comes in many varieties depending on your preference and says HIKARI on the tubs).

There is a lovely place I went to in the southern part of the island, you can read about it here: Miso chiffon cake, Yume Koubou: 菊みそ加工所夢工房. I bought some of their miso and it was really good, and while not the cheapest, reasonably priced I thought.

There is also a specialty store in the Aeon Rycom Mall, called Kuze Fuku, and they often have many varieties of higher-end miso and specialty miso from different areas of Japan. I recommend checking here if you are looking for something “special.”

Sometimes farmers markets will have bags of homemade miso, usually pretty cheap.

Below are some examples of miso you can find in Okinawa stores:


This is just some info focusing on Okinawa. For a much more comprehensive and explanatory look at miso, as well as some ways to cook with it, I highly recommend reading JustHungry website’s Miso Primer. It is such an excellent resource, I always recommend it to anyone who is first starting out with miso.

Prefectural Product Fairs

Often times there are prefecture or area product fairs that travel to Okinawa. One of the best locations to host these is the Ryubo department Palette Kumoji store in Naha, though often times you can find smaller scale fairs set up in the Aeon and SanA malls.

Kyoto and Hokkaido seem to be the most common, but they come from all over (previously I posted about a tea and sweets set from a pop-up cafe at the Mie products fair). One of my favorites is the Italian fair that comes through about once a year at the Ryubo… so many amazing Italian wines, cheeses, and more. We often buy the wine set (usually 3 -6 bottles per box), of assorted wines selected by a sommelier.

Recently I visited the Kyoto fair at Ryubo that comes through at least once a year. There was even a geisha and maiko traditional Kyoto dance show. There were tons of samples of nihonshu (sake), tea, candies, snacks, pickles, etc. There was a pop-up specialty cafe, as well as several special Kyoto-style bento sellers for the event. I made a few food purchases of items not easily found in Okinawa. And of course, I indulged in buying a mini wagashi set for later to have with tea; I simply could not resist the beautiful designs.

If you live in Okinawa, I highly recommend not missing these special events when they come to the area. You can indulge in samples and purchase all sorts of quality products that the regular stores don’t usually carry.

 

Vegan Ramen in Okinawa

UPDATE March 2020: Only a few short years ago Vegan ramen was rare, now there are several! : Sora No Ira & A Hokkaido ramen, both in the Noren Plaza Ramen street! Also Orange Shokodu in Kin town.

There is a place called Stripe Noodles in Chatan, Okinawa (outside of the American Village area) that serves a type of vegan ramen (in addition to several meaty ramen types, predominantly know for their “steak ramen”).

This place is very Americanized and a significant majority of the customers are foreigners, especially American. It becomes obvious when you are eating your noodles and NO ONE is slurping, not even a tiny bit! I found it eerie to be honest, and made me wonder if I was even in a ramen shop… Later it occurred to me that the other Americans may have been horrified at my slurping manners, just the same as I was horrified at their complete lack of slurping manners.

Anyway, during the month of October, they serve pumpkin (kabocha かぼちゃ) “ramen” and year-round they serve a tomato-based ramen (also vegan). Since vegan/vegetarian ramen is extremely rare in Okinawa and Japan, it is good for people with dietary restrictions.

I have only tried the pumpkin “ramen.” I put it in quotes because… well, it wasn’t really like ramen. It tastes pretty decent, but I feel it is a stretch to really consider it ramen. The “broth” was really thick and sweet like a typical kabocha soup; I thought maybe it would be better if it was a little thinner it would feel more like a ramen. It was also lacking something to sort of balance out the sweetness. Though the noodles were surprisingly fairly good– chewy consistence and not overcooked or bloated like I feared they might be going into an Americanized place.

Overall, it was okay. Not amazing, but the taste was okay, and the price not unreasonable (though perhaps a bit high for typical ramen). Mostly, I would say it was the atmosphere that was lacking. But maybe that makes me like a crotchety old man, who just prefers the darker interior noodle shops with din of clanking and slurping and ramen chefs continuously calling out.

I haven’t tried the tomato version yet… maybe I will try to go back sometime and try. But first I will need to muster up the courage to return to a noodle shop where there is no slurping.

The ticket machine menu is extremely English-friendly and there is parking in front of the store.

If you are still looking for another vegan ramen, then check out Rakurobi kitchen, macrobiotic cafe:楽ロビkitchen; they have a version of vegan ramen on their menu. They are not ramen specialists, but rather a macrobiotic and healthy food cafe. **New: Check out Orange Shokudo for vegan ramen: Another Vegan Ramen option in Okinawa: Orange Shokudo


address: https://goo.gl/maps/Quj4SzMsRc12


**BONUS: While out shopping I found vegan ramen to make at home at my local SanA grocery store. I was surprised, as occasionally I see instant vegan ramen at HappyMore or Pals farmer market stores, but it is not commonly seen here in Okinawa.

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Street food… in Okinawa?

Hmmm… street food in Okinawa? To be honest, this is not really much of a thing outside of matsuri (festivals); matsuri are the best times to find all these foods. There are no big street food markets or night markets like some other areas of Asia. But, there are still things I would consider street food, even if they are not all jammed into a large marketplace in one particular area of the island.

Probably the easiest place to check out for “street foods” is in the surrounding neighborhoods of Kokusai-dori (International Street) 国際通り. There are several snack and light meal options, Makishi market, and other small street vendors around. Again, nothing like Taipei, or other places with large street food markets, but some good foods to try while you explore Naha.


Here is a list of some “street foods” to keep an eye out for here in Okinawa:

Yakitori 焼き鳥 (grilled chicken skewers): Yakitori stalls are ALL over the island. Usually they do not open up until ~3pm or so, mostly for the evenings. You can find them alongside many backroads or next to farmers markets, smoke billowing out of their ramshackle stalls. This is not especially Okinawan, but it is a popular Japanese street food.

Pork Tamago Onigiri ポークたまごおにぎり: This is definitely island-style, and I think most Hawaii folks would appreciate this one. I wrote a post on this already, so click the link to check it out. Basically this street stand sells (a fancy version of) spam musubi!

Yatai-mura 屋台村: The literal translation of this place is “street stall village.” This place was set up to replicate Japanese yatai-style dining (again, not really very Okinawan). Anyway, I also wrote a post on this place before, so be sure to click the link to read about it.

Tenpura 天ぷら: Actually, quite a few markets have tempura stalls, where they simply sell individual piece of tempura. Often times you find fish or fishcake, but sometimes there is potato or squid, etc. You will also most likely see mozuku tempura… this is unique to Okinawa, and worth a try.

Nikuman 肉まん (Chinese bun stuffed with meat), Croquettes コロッケ, oden おでん (stewed skewers in broth): You can mostly just find these in the convenience stores. I know, not the same I guess. But, these are types of Japanese street food that you can try in Okinawa. There are occasionally some places that might carry these, but it it is not common to see these along the streets of Okinawa.

Takoyaki たこ焼き (octopus balls) and Taiyaki たい焼き (fish-shaped pastry): The most common place to find these is at Gindaco in the malls. Otherwise you may get lucky and occasionally run into a small shop that sells these Japanese goodies.

Kakigouri かき氷 (shave ice) and Okinawa zenzai ぜんざい (shave ice with red beans): This is all over Okinawa in the warmer months. You can find it on the streets, lunch shops, the mall, pretty much everywhere.

Sata-andagi サーターアンダーギー: Okinawa fried donuts. These can be found in some of the farmers markets or tourist markets.


Just an additional list of some popular Japanese “street foods”: many of these are found at matsuri or other food festival booths in Okinawa, though some may be not be so common outside of that.

Yakisoba 焼きそば: fried noodles.
Ika-yaki いか焼き: I like to call this one grilled squid-on-a-stick.
Yaki-toumorokoshi 焼きとうもろこし: grilled corn.
Okonomiyaki お好み焼き: Japanese savoury pancake.
Ringo-ameりんご飴: candy apple.
Wata-ame わたあめ: cotton candy.
Choco banana チョコバナナ: banana, dipped in chocolate.
Crepe クレープ: Japanese-style crepes.
Frankfurt フランクフルト: hot dog.
American dog アメリカンドッグ: corn dog.

Okinawa All-island Eisa and Orion Beer Festival

One of the most popular natsu matsuri (summer festival) 夏祭り is the All-island Okinawa Eisa and Orion beer festival held the weekend following obon— at least with Americans that is. Held at the Koza Sports Park, I have seen more Americans at this festival than any other. It is actually 2 festivals, coinciding with each other: the eisa festival itself and the Orion Beer Festival.

*In 2018, this will August 31-September 2.

To reach the festival, there are free shuttle buses, as there is no parking at the venue. You can park at Aeon Rycom Mall, as well as some other areas to catch the free shuttle buses. Otherwise, there are some paid parking areas near Koza.

On Friday evening, in the Koza area, there is the Eisa parade. The parade is actually pretty nice; bring a leisure sheet to sit on and some dinner to relax and watch. Next to us, there was a family with a kid (who could not have been more than 3 or so) and he played his pint size drum, dancing around in his eisa outfit as the groups played on the street. He was quite entertaining.

On Saturday and Sunday, is the actual eisa festival and beer festival; the festivals, though both are at the Koza Sports Park, is divided into 2 sections. On one side is the Orion Beer festival, with outdoor tables and chairs, music stage entertainment, Orion Beer girls, tents selling nothing but Orion draft beer, and of course, loud drunk Americans (well, and locals too, if we are being honest). When you enter, they give you a wristband if you are of drinking age and you MUST have it to buy alcohol. I usually don’t spend more than about 5 minutes there, as it really isn’t my scene. But I think the beer is usually cheaper on this side than the eisa festival side, so…

The other side where the eisa festival is, however, more family friendly. There are pay seats in the bleachers, but for free you can just bring a sheet and sit in the field to watch. It is all eisa performances, so it can get a bit repetitive, but can be a fun evening out, especially if you have never been to a natsu matsuri before. You will likely see many girls (both local and foreign) wearing summer yukata or jinbei.

Of course, lining the entire area is typical summer festival food tents. A lot of these are what I refer to as generic “yellow tent” food (due to a majority of them using a basic yellow tent), a company that comes in and sells mediocre food in large volume.. often times it is not really hot when you get it. I try to find the more local vendors, who are usually hawking piping-hot fresh food. Over here, you can still buy beer and are away from the drunk scene.

At the end of the night, there are fireworks to finish off the evening. While it is not my favorite festival on island it can still be fun, especially for new-comers, and you can experience a lot of eisa all in one place. Plus, I have to admit, all the lanterns strung up with happy festival goers in yukata, drums and fireworks gives a nice ambience on a hot summer evening.


address: Koza Sports Park, https://goo.gl/maps/qXA6QUxsdyT2

official festival website: https://www.zentoeisa.com/

Kusatsu onsen: Food

While on a trip to Kusatsu onsen, I encountered quite a few tasty foods, so here is a look below at a few of the things I ate, in no particular order.

ぬれおかき nureokaki: The best way to describe this is a grilled rice cracker skewer, with some seasonings/toppings. My husband got the spicy one and I got one with black pepper and mayo. They were really good, but the spicy one was way too spicy. My husband likes spicy food but even he said the spice was too overpowering.

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饅頭 manjuu: like any good onsen town, there is a ton of manjuu around. I enjoyed the karintou manjuu (crunchy manjuu) the best, but there are a few types to try out here. The outside of the manjuu is a little crispy and the inside is smooth bean paste.

揚げまんじゅう age-manjuu: so this is manjuu… deep-fried. Oh my. The taste was good, but definitely felt a bit unhealthy! I would limit how many of these you eat, but definitely try at least one.

温泉卵 onsen tamago: eggs soft-boiled in onsen water. When you crack it open into a bowl, the are soft and creamy, cooked to perfection. Usually they have a little shoyu or sauce to add to it, and you just eat it with a spoon. My husband is addicted to these.

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温泉卵ソフト onsen egg soft-serve ice cream: okay, so this sounds kinda gross… egg flavored ice cream? But it really means like a creamy egg-y custard-pudding flavor, not boiled eggs flavor. It was really tasty, and I was really surprised at how good it was. I was initially a little apprehensive of the flavor name.

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蕎麦 soba: When in mainland Japan, I pretty much always eat soba. Especially whenever I am in mountainous or onsen areas. Soba here was pretty good, so I was not disappointed. We specifically ate at Mikuni-ya 三國家, which had a long line, but it was worth it. So if you want to eat here during the busy season, be sure to arrive early! They had a special plate of soba for 2-3 servings, then you can order your dipping soup and tempura separately. This is probably good for families or very hungry couples, but we each ended up ordering our own individual servings since we knew we would not be able to finish that much food. Plus for 2 people it is probably a bit cheaper to just order individually anyway.

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舞茸天ぷら maitake tenpura: maitake is a type of mushroom, the name actual means “dancing mushroom” and is supposed to be pretty healthy for you. Made into tempura it is delicious (but probably not as healthy). I ate it with my soba.

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せんべい senbei: some fancy rice crackers were sold; this one was shoyu-negi flavor (soy sauce and green onion). It was a large cracker with a rather sweet chewy outside.

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甘納豆 Amanatto: a kind of sweetened beans, which does not bear fruit below 700 meters above sea level. First the beans are dried, then put into water and finally they are cooked in sugar.


Let’s not forget the beer and drinks.

Cider, two types: 湯けむりサイダー Yu-kemuri (not pictured) and 大滝乃湯サイダー Otaki-no-yu (pictured): Awful. Also remember cider in Japan refers to soda pop, not apples or alcohol. I do not recommend unless you really like sweet sugary drinks. It is made with natural water form the onsen area or something.

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軽井沢ビール Karuizawa beer: Turns out this area is close to Kusatsu, so many of the beers were available. I have seen 1 or 2 of these in Okinawa, but here I saw so many different types.

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草津温泉物語 Kusatsu onsen monogatari beer: We saw 3 different types with this label. We tried them all and enjoyed each one. The price for them was also not too unreasonable, ~500yen.


Special mention: While in Ueno, I could not resist getting a donut from Shiretoko donuts. It is a “wasshoi” festival panda. “Wasshoi” ワッショイ is chant used in Japanese festivals.

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Kusatsu Onsen 草津温泉

Kusatsu onsen 草津温泉 in Gunma prefecture 群馬県 is one of the three famous ancient hot springs in Japan (called 三名泉 “sanmeisen,” in addition to Arima Onsen in Hyogo and Gero onsen in Gifu). These hot springs are renown for healing properties, supposedly to cure a wide array of ailments.

Because I am an onsen junkie, I decided to head to Kusatsu onsen for the long weekend (Mountain Day public holiday, 山の日). In retrospect, this was not the most brilliant idea as: a) Japanese schools are on summer vacation, b) Japanese holiday weekend, and c) Obon in parts of the mainland began the same weekend. So… travel was busy. Very, very busy. I don’t really recommend traveling in Japan during this time if you can avoid it.

Anyway I did make it to my destination with almost no issues, and ended up having a fantastic time even though it was a little crowded everywhere.

We flew from Okinawa into Haneda airport on Friday afternoon; we stayed the night in Hamamatsu-cho 浜松町 with plans to leave for Kusatsu early the next morning. In Hamamatsu-cho, we returned to the restaurant we discovered last time, DevilCraft (this time with reservations!) and enjoyed Chicago-style pizza with craft brews.

There are a few ways to make your way to Kusatsu onsen; we chose to take the limited express from Ueno Station to Naganohara- kusatsuguchi station (~2.5 hours) followed by the JR bus to Kusatsu onsen (~20 minutes). Since we also got a reserved seat on the green car (it has more room), the total travel cost was about 6500yen one-way, from Hamamatsu-cho all the way to Kusatsu onsen. If you are willing to forgo the green car, your costs will probably be about 4500yen one-way.

On Saturday morning we hustled from the hotel to the train station for the 9am train. We arrived early enough to get tickets and breakfast, as well as some snacks and drinks for the train. The train ride itself was rather uneventful, and passed peacefully enough. Arriving at Naganohara-kusatsuguchi station, though, was a bit crazy. Luckily JR had prepared extra buses for the crowd this weekend. The bus went direct to Kusatsu onsen bus terminal so overall the trip out there was very easy.

It was only noon, so though it was too early for check-in, the hotel held our luggage for us so we could go explore the area. Our hotel for Saturday night was right outside the famous Yubatake 湯畑 (steamy hot water fields, provides the main source of hot spring water for the town), called Yubatake Souan 湯畑草菴. We wandered the touristy streets and shops, while enjoying the foot baths and the scenery. Not only this, but the weather was quite pleasant and not too hot or muggy since it is located in the mountains. Some people may complain about the smell of these hot spring towns, but personally I don’t mind it.

As it neared dinner time, we went to the hotel and soaked in the hotel onsen for a bit before changing into yukata for a night-time stroll around the town. The hotel provided basic bathing yukata but I had decided to bring my own (cuter) yukata for strolling. As a note, if you do not own a yukata, you can either use the hotel bathing yukata for walking around or you can even rent a cute yukata at one of the shops in town. One of the reasons I chose this onsen was because it was listed as one of the top onsen towns to walk around in while wearing yukata. I have been to many onsen towns before, and sometimes you may see people strolling wearing yukata in the town, but it is not always very common. Kusatsu is a well-known for being a beautiful location (especially at night) to relax and enjoy wearing yukata.

Anyway, so as we strolled around at night, the Yubatake was lit up and the steaming field created quite a nice atmosphere. We walked around in our yukata, ate some snacks and drank some local beers (Karuizawa 軽井沢 is nearby, as well as some other beer branded for Kusatsu onsen). There was some sort of candle light up near the Kosenji (temple) 光泉寺 and a live music show. Overall, the evenings in Kusatsu were pretty magical!

The next morning, we woke up fairly early, this time changing into our bathing yukata provided by the hotel to walk around the town in. Surprisingly, many people were up and about, even though it was about 6am or so. My husband and I went to the 7-11 to get iced cafe lattes to enjoy while using the foot bath. Since the hotel breakfast was not until 8am (so late!), we decided to wander around for a bit. **As a side note: surprisingly, the Souan hotel provided yukata that was actually big enough for my husband (194cm)!

First, I tried out the Shirahata onsen 白旗の湯, which is one of the FREE public onsen that the town keeps up. Warning: it is hot! But I was able to tolerate it for a short time anyway, so I think it is very much worth a visit. Also I should note, at many of the free bath houses in town, you do not use soap to rinse off because the water is so acidic! Simply undress, splash some water on you using the bucket or ladle and rinse all over your body, then enter the bath. Just look around you when you enter– if there is no shower station, then don’t worry about soap just rinse with the onsen water, but if there are shower stations with soap then be sure to clean your body well before entering the bath.

Next we wandered down to Jizo-no-yu onsen 地蔵の湯, another free public onsen, though it was not open for the day yet; but there is a foot bath there that is always open. What was interesting was that we heard them performing the traditional singing and paddling to cool the water inside! So while we did not get to watch, we got to hear it.

Finally, it was time for the yumomi show 湯もみ at Netsu-no-yu 熱乃湯, one of the things Kusatsu is famous for. Yumomi is the traditional way of cooling down water with large wooden paddles; the town character, named Yumomi-chan, is bathhouse lady dressed in yukata with one of the large wooden paddles. The water needs to be cooled down since it comes out between 50-70 degrees Celsius, much too hot to bathe in.

I got in line to get tickets for the earliest show; it is 600 yen, but discounted to 550yen if you just show the coupon on your phone or print it out from the webpage. We sat in the front row on the side. There is a second level which may have some better photo-ops, it depends on what you prefer. It started with some dance, then the emcee and ladies with paddles came out to perform. Partway through you can try experience for yourself; it is surprisingly difficult to maneuver those paddles. Then they finish the show with a final dance and lots of impressive splashes. It was quite fun.

From here, I made my way to Sainokawara onsen 西の河原 in the park. Again, I received discount ticket, this time from the lady in the visitors center, so stop by there first! This onsen is a large outdoor bath. It was very relaxing… bathing in nature is the best.

While I was finishing my bath at the park, my husband got in line at a popular soba restaurant, Mikuni-ya 三國家. It opens at 10:30 for lunch. Luckily, we were seated around 11:15. I ordered the Maitake (mushroom) tenpura soba 舞茸天蕎麦 and my husband ordered the regular tenpura soba 天ぷら蕎麦. It was indeed very delicious and worth the wait.

After lunch we got on a bus for Mt Shirane 白根山 (active volcano) and Yugama lake 湯釜. We took the bus straight to the trail area and visitor center; to see the beautiful emerald lake in the crater you will need to walk up a rather steep path of about 800m. Also, it is chilly up here, so you may want a long-sleeve even in summer. To return to Kusatsu, we decided to walk down to the top of the ropeway, ride the gondola down to the bottom station, and catch the bus. This was not a fantastic idea. Why? Well, first the pathway down to the ropeway is not really great for walking, though it is only 800m. Not only this, the buses do not frequent the ropeway station… we ended up missing the bus by 2 minutes and then waiting an hour for the next one. Which might not have been too bad, but there is really NOTHING at the ropeway station. It looked like the restaurant may be open for ski season but not during summer, so we couldn’t sit and enjoy a coffee or anything. We spent a rather boring hour waiting around for the bus to arrive. By the time we reached town again, we decided to head to the hotel, relax, and change.

Due to not booking early enough for the crazy holiday weekend, we ended up staying at a different hotel on Sunday night. Futabaya was not quite as nice or close as Souan, but it was a fine room and we did not really have any complaints.

After changing into my own yukata, it was time to hit the town again for some evening strolling. First we tried Jizo-no-yu onsen (where we heard the paddling and singing in the morning) as it was free… it was truly scalding hot! Be careful. I did not last long. Next we went to Goza-no-yu onsen 御座之湯, which had an entry fee. It was a much more reasonable temperature, so I took my time and enjoyed it.

Finally refreshed, we walked around town, just taking in the atmosphere. Again, we had beer and snacks until we decided to crash for the evening. Kusatsu really is a romantic and relaxing place.

On the last day, we checked out and stored all of our luggage in a locker at the bus station (500yen), then walked through the zoo, which had a baby capybara (it was so adorable) and then tried out the Otaki-no-yu 大滝乃湯, famous for its increasingly hot bathing. Otaki-no-yu has a fee, which I found a little steep (900yen) but since it is quite well-known I wanted to try. Now, if I was smarter, I would have purchased the discount pass for 1600yen that included all 3 of the famous onsen (Sainokawara, Goza-no-yu, and Otaki-noyu) instead of paying the individual fees (600yen/600yen/900yen, though with other discount tickets you can get 50 or 100yen off). I guess I didn’t know if I was going to go to all 3, so I didn’t want to buy the ticket in case it went to waste, especially since there were quite a few free ones maintained by the community. My husband only went to 2 of the 3, so he wouldn’t have saved any money. So my advice… plan wisely!

Otaki-no-yu was very nice: there were some indoor baths, a waterfall bath, an outside bath, and then on course, the 4-tiers (5-tiers on the men’s side) of increasing temperature baths called 合わせ湯. Challenge time! I started at the bottom, a mild 41 degrees C; the lady came in to measure and record temps on the white board while I was there. Next I moved up a tier to 42.5 degrees C; again, not too bad. Tier 3 was 45 degrees C… this was hot. I cold tolerate it, but it was very, very hot. I started to dread what the 4th tier, 47 degrees C, would be like. I watched as 2 or 3 other ladies tried the water and immediately jumped out. I carefully tested the water with my hand, then foot. Holy s***. Well, time to buck up. So I reluctantly lowered all the way in… only to jump right back out. I think I lasted about 2 seconds. Out of everyone, I only saw one lady who seemed to be capable of challenging this 4th tier bath. So I guess I did pretty well. After my challenging bath, I drank a cold coffee milk from a glass bottle, and it felt so refreshing.

Finally it was time to purchase omiyage before heading to the bus station. The bus to the train station left at 12pm, and the train back to Tokyo was scheduled for 1pm, with our return flight to Okinawa scheduled at 5:20pm. Just as a word of warning: both the bus station in Kusatsu and the train station in Naganohara-kusatsuguchi had almost nothing for snacks and bento… I definitely recommend getting something at one of the shops in town or even just from 7-11 before walking up the hill to the station to catch the bus! If you don’t happen to stock up before leaving town, there is a snack/drink trolley on the train, though. After all, I think it is almost impossible to go on a long train ride without snacks, bento, or even a beer.

Overall, Kusatsu onsen is a great destination to hit up while in Japan, with good food, beer, hot spring baths, culture, and atmosphere. Pictures coming soon!


I will make a separate post specific to the food of Kusatsu onsen next!

Shark?! サメ in Okinawa

Recently, my hula kumu (sensei/teacher) brought in shark meat and skins from a fishing tour she took here in the southern part of Okinawa main island. Now, admittedly, I paled a bit… killing/eating sharks can be a bit taboo in Hawaiian culture (since some people believe it may be a god or guardian spirit or ancestor), so this was a bit of a shock to me. Now, it depends, as some people do catch and eat shark in Hawaii (only the cutting and eating of fins is illegal), but I would say overall it is somewhat uncommon.

Now, I have seen shark (サメ pronounced sah-meh) for sale in some of the Okinawa grocery stores with fancier fresh fish sections before, so I knew it was not unusual for Japanese people, per se. But it was still a shock, and not just to me but some of my Okinawan hula friends as well since it is not a commonly eaten food.

Anyway, it was certainly unique to hear and see video/pictures of the experience, as well as see the meat and skins in person. We helped clean the skins (皮 kawa) to be used to make drums later. My kumu gave away the meat to anyone who was willing; I am sorry to announce I simply was not up to the challenge so I cannot give any personal story here. My kumu recommended frying in butter and garlic; some of my friends made like a bread-crumb crusted bake as well. Most claimed “oishii,” though some of my friends like myself declined the shark meat challenge. After all, it was not the most pleasant of odors… though maybe I missed out on something delicious. I am still uncertain about how I feel regarding shark meat.

So, if you are in Okinawa, and would like to experience eating shark, it is very possible to do. I am not sure I comfortably recommend it, but it is definitely possible. I don’t know that I have ever seen it on a restaurant menu though so you may need to buy it from the grocery store and prepare it yourself. Perhaps I need to add this to the bizarre foods of Okinawa post I made earlier…

 

Summer Festival Food: 夏祭りの屋台

夏祭り natsu matsuri means summer festival (I wrote a little about this before).

Of course, no summer matsuri is complete without the food tents, called 屋台 yatai. Most popular are probably the fried and grilled foods; some of the more “traditional” ones that I have seen in Okinawa are listed below. Just be careful not to stain your yukata…

**I will try and add some more pictures of all the foods as I have time.

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Yakisoba 焼きそば : fried noodles. Usually at summer matsuri, I see Japanese sauce yakisoba rather than Okinawan salt yakisoba, but it depends on the festival.

Takoyaki たこ焼き: fried octopus balls. Round dough balls with bits of octopus mixed in and fried, then topped with sauce and usually katsuobushi.

Okonomiyaki お好み焼き: cabbage “pancakes,” topped with sauce, as well as usually mayo, nori, and katsuobushi.

Pote ポテ: potato fries.

Yakitori 焼き鳥: grilled chicken skewers.

Ika yaki イカ焼き: literally, squid grilled on a skewer. Squid-on-a-stick.

Jaga bataa じゃがバター: baked potato with butter.

(Yaki) toumorokoshi (焼き)とうもろこし: corn; in this case it will be grilled and slathered with butter.


Recently we went to a matsuri in Nago and split a mega-combo メガコンボ, which came with a mix of potato fries, yakisoba, takoyaki, and yakitori. It was a popular food tent, and everything was cooked piping hot on the spot. It was nice because it came with a small(ish) serving of a bunch of different foods for variety, and a good compromise for my husband and I to split.

Some food tents are starting to offer some more western choices, like “meat pies” which I think are kinda like empanadas. Often you also see アメリカンドッグ  “American dog,” which just means a corn dog.

You might also see some “local specialties,” which in Okinawa typically means soba. Each festival has its own wide array of foods to try, and we enjoy trying as many as possible. On the mainland I have seen way more variety of matsuri food, and some really interesting looking ones. So keep in mind since this list is mostly applicable to Okinawa, I have only included the ones most common in Okinawa.

And of course, there is more than just savory foods… plenty of sweets as well.


Wataame わたあめ: cotton candy.

Choco banana チョコバナナ: chocolate covered banana on a stick.

Taiyaki たい焼き: fish-shaped bean pastry.

Dorayaki どら焼き: round pancake-like bean pastry.

Sata andagi サーターアンダギー: Okinawan fried “donuts.”

Kaki-gouri かき氷: Shave ice!


In Okinawa, the drink selection is typically some canned soft drinks (though don’t expect much variety beyond water, green tea, and coke), draft Orion beer, and of course, the local booze, awamori.

 

Miyama Shabu-shabu: 美山しゃぶしゃぶ

My husband wanted to try a shabu-shabu place for lunch. It is a chain from the mainland called Miyama Shabu-shabu. There is only 1 in Okinawa, located in the Haebaru Aeon Mall (southern part of the island).

They offer a cheap lunch course for 1000-something yen, though the menu has various combinations with varying degrees of price (things like beef, or all-you-can-eat meat). The cheap lunch course though, comes with 2 trays of (imported) pork, thinly sliced with 8 slices per tray; since I don’t eat pork this means my husband will get 4 trays. The lunch course comes with all-you-eat eat vegetables, noodles, rice, pickles, etc. For one half of the pot you also choose 1 of the 4 types of soup for cooking (the other half you get a default basic water with konbu in it); we went with the Korean-style “spicy” which was not really that spicy at all. For an additional 250yen you can also get the soft drink bar. As a fair warning, the menu is all in Japanese but there are some pictures which might help.

Anyway, we got seated and ordered without any difficulty. Luckily we were seated in a back corner so no one could stare at my husband while he ate all the meat and I just stuck the veggies. At the table were ponzu ポン酢 (shoyu+citrus) and goma-dare ごまだれ (sesame dipping sauce). We were also given extra peppers and spicy sauce since we ordered the Korean-style broth. The veggies, noodle, rice, salad, etc. were all self-serve. It was all quite good, and I enjoyed a variety of noodles and veggies with my shabu-shabu. There were Okinawa soba noodles, udon noodles, cellophane (bean thread) noodles, and somen.

Even just eating veggies, noodles, salad, rice, and pickles I felt I got a decent deal. My husband said that 3 boxes would have been perfect and 4 was a little too many, but he ate (and enjoyed) it all anyway. So we both left happy, even though one of us doesn’t eat meat.


address: https://goo.gl/maps/VahHmS42mbC2

Beer Gardens in Okinawa: ビアガーデン

ビアガーデン bia gaaden: beer garden

Summer in Japan would not be complete with beer gardens. In Okinawa, there are a few around this time of year. They typically have nomihoudai 飲み放題 and tabehoudai 食べ放題 (all-you-can-drink/eat) plans. Some of these beer gardens are very popular, so it is important to get a reservation.

This year, my husband and I decided to go to the beer garden held by ANA Harborview Hotel in Naha for our wedding anniversary. The bonus to this beer garden: wear yukata or jinbei and receive a significant discount! We also booked a room for the night, so we could just crash after our 2.5 hours of drinking and eating.

So, of course, I dressed myself and my husband in summer yukata to save money and to make it a special experience. It was my husband’s first time wearing yukata in public; he received many high-5s and “kakkoii.” It is somewhat rare to see a foreign male wearing yukata unless he has a Japanese girlfriend or wife (so some people were surprised to learn that, yes, I dressed us both by myself). A few people even took our picture; we were the only ones dressed in yukata that evening as most the others were there for after-work gatherings.

Anyway, when we arrived at the outdoor beer garden at our allotted time, it was decorated with string lights. It was a little warm out, but as the sun was going down, the temperature was dropping a bit. The food was set up buffet style (it is themed for every month, this month was “Spanish”), and even the drinks were self-serve. They had 3 beers on tap: Asahi super dry, Asahi black, and Orion. Additionally wine and highballs were available. Probably awamori and whiskey, too, but I did not much notice.

The food and drinks were pretty good, and we had a really nice time. Part way through the evening, the staff came out with a special cake dessert and sparkling peach wine for us since I had mentioned it was our wedding anniversary in the reservation. The service was really above and beyond, so it was a great way to spend a special occasion. Since we got a discounted price, I thought it was a good value… if I paid full price, I may not have felt quite the same. Full price was 4500yen, discounted price for wearing yukata… 3000yen.

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Tanabata 七夕 & Somen そうめん

七夕 Tanabata: Japanese Star festival on July 7th (read more here).

そうめん (素麺) somen: a type of noodles made of wheat flour so they are white and very thin. It is a very popular dish during summer.


I wrote previously about Tanabata and how it is not really celebrated the same in Okinawa. But with ever-changing populations, you see a little more each year.

A traditional food for Tanabata is… somen! Not only is it perfect as a summer dish, but the noodles represent the Milky way and Orihime’s threads (she was a weaver).

This type of somen dish is served chilled with a a tsuyu つゆ dipping sauce (mix of shoyu and dashi). If you want to be fancy, you can slice up okra and serve on top (they look like cute little stars). Or you could cut other veggies into star shapes, but that sounds like too much work for me, although there are many Japanese kitchen gadgets used for bento to aid with this. Perhaps you could even find those cucumbers grown into star shapes here in Japan.

Some places in Okinawa will have a nagashi-somen 流しそうめん event (translation: flowing noodles) around this time of year. A bamboo “slide” is set up and you grab them as they go buy with your hashi 箸 (chopsticks). It’s a lot of fun, so I recommend trying it.

(photos coming soon).

Otsumami: おつまみ

Otsumami おつまみ: snacks, usually to go with drinking alcohol or soft drinks.

You will see these types of snacks many places, usually by the alcohol section of the grocery or convenience store.

It comes from the word tsumamu つまむ, which means “to pinch” but can also mean “to pick up with fingers or chopsticks.”

It really is not anything specific, just sort anything easy to eat while drinking (beer, alcohol, or even just soft drinks) can be considered otsumami. You could include any kinds of appetizers, finger foods, light snacks, and tapas as “otsumami.” I usually think of things like arare or senbei, but many other things like cheeses, dried squid, edamame, tsukemono, and all manner of appetizers are described by the word “otsumami.”

Often on the airplane, I am given a small bag labelled otsumami, usually some sort of arare, dried peas, or kaki-no-tane. So I don’t always associate otsumami with drinking alcohol necessarily, rather I think of it as a salty snack food.

In Okinawa, a popular otsumami is mimigaa ミミガー (dried and shredded pig ears); to be honest it does not look creepily like pig ears, so if you don’t read Japanese or are unfamiliar with Okinawan words, you probably would not realize exactly what you are eating. I like an otsumami made by Orion labelled “beer nuts”: ビアナッツ. They even sell it as a small omiyage. When you are in Okinawa, you should try some of these Okinawan otsumami.


   

 

Konnyaku (konjac): こんにゃく

Konnyaku こんにゃく is also called konjac or devil’s tongue in English.

It is kind of a weird thing, I guess. You can find it in all shapes and sizes; from cubes to noodles. It is becoming more popular with westerners because of the “zero calorie” and high in fiber.

I feel like the taste and texture do not really stand out as odd or strong to me. It is kinda chewy, so maybe some people would not like it, but I don’t feel it is overly rubbery or anything. Basically I will eat it if it is served but I don’t usually go out and buy it much. It is nice to have in nabe 鍋 (hotpot) dishes.

The first time I went to izakaya 居酒屋 with my sensei and classmates a few years ago they ordered konnyaku as a side dish; they were so surprised when I said “Oh, it is konnyaku” and ate it with no problems. I think they wanted to shock the new “gaikokujin,” but little did they know that I did not think this was a weird food at all. I inadvertently took away their fun. I think after that they realized that I was fairly familiar with Japanese foods since living in Hawai’i and visiting Japan on a number of occasions before moving to Okinawa.

In the Okinawa grocery stores, just head to the refrigerated section near the vegetables to find the konnyaku. It is usually in with the stuff like prepackaged veggies, tofu, pickles. If you want the noodle versions, usually it says shirataki しらたき on the package, though sometimes it just says 糸こんにゃく (“thread” konnyaku). The block konnyaku is usually a speckled brown-gray in color, and the noodles range from white to gray to brown color. If you have not tried it yet, give it a go. My only real recommendation is to rinse it before cooking, since sometimes they use like a seaweed powder or something and the liquid can smell a little funky.

Paikaji: ぱいかじ

I mentioned this izakaya 居酒屋 in a previous post. But Paikaji ぱいかじ is really a great place for eating and drinking, probably one of my favorites. Since it is a local chain, it has a few locations, mostly in Naha area. Luckily there is one not too far from RyuDai. By the way, the name Paikaji means “wind that blows from the south” in the Okinawan language from the Yaeyama islands.

I recommend reservations since they get really busy. Even my husband can call and get reservations, so you don’t need too much Japanese. Though I don’t think anyone has ever spoken English to me at this particular location… perhaps the ones in Naha might since they are closer to the tourist areas.

When you enter, take off your shoes and store them in the shoe lockers. Warning: my husbands enormous shoes don’t really fit too well in these… so it may not close and lock if you have really large feet. Anyway, from here they will show you to your private room; there are different rooms depending on the size of your group. Since it is often just me and the husband, they give us a small room. Luckily, no worry about sitting on tatami, the floors are cut out so you can swing you legs under comfortably (though some of the other rooms might be regular tatami style or even western tables, it depends on the branch you go to!). The rooms are decorated with Ryukyu themes, and some of the host staff wear Ryukyu-style kimono. There is also someone who plays sanshin– s/he will even come around to your room and play just for you! Some locations might do more live shows with music and singing, but I have only been to the branch in Ginowan.

From open until pm, draft beers are only 100yen. So cheap. And they come in nice frosty mugs. They also have daily specials, cocktails, awamori, etc. I always just get beer though.

The food menu is varied– from local dishes to Japanese dishes to “western” food. Not to exaggerate but everything I have ever ordered here has been awesome (and I don’t think that is just the cheap beer talking!). Goya pickles, rakkyou tempura, age-doufu, chanpuru, garlic potato, hirayachi, yakisoba, etc… it has just always been tasty. There are even some “pizzas” on the menu. While most the menu is in Japanese, there are pictures, so I think you shouldn’t be too lost if your Japanese reading skills are not so great.

Ordering is very easy since you have “bing bong” at your table. Just push the button and moments later someone will come by to take your order. They allow smoking in here after a certain time (~8pm and later), but since the rooms are divided I have never been affected by cigarette smoke.

After you are done eating/drinking and pay your bill, just have one of the staff call a DAIKO or taxi service for you. There is a large parking lot here, so you can drive and DAIKO back to your home if you drink.

I should take more pictures of this place, but I am always busy eating and drinking so I often forget…


address, located across from Okinawa International University: https://goo.gl/maps/WENLCncDRJQ2

Here is there website where you can make web reservations a few days in advance, as well as check the menu and other locations! http://paikaji.jp/

 

干し梅: Hoshi ume

干しhoshi: dried

梅 (うめ) ume: Japanese plum (supposedly more like an apricot than an actual plum)


梅干し umeboshi: plums that are dried then pickled, sometimes known as “salt plums” or just “pickled/preserved plums.” It is a type of tsukemono 漬物, pickled side dish. These are in a “wet” state usually.

干し梅 hoshi ume: dried umeboshi… so yes, plum that has been dried, then pickled, then dried again, so there is very little moisture. The difference may seem confusing, but this is more of a candy version for snacking, rather than a side dish for a meal.


In Hawai’i, li hing mui is popular (“li hing” is a sweet/salty/umami powder and mui is “plum”). It is similar to hoshiume, as they are both dried preserved plums with salt and sugar, but they are covered in li hing powder which is super ono. But I think it is also a more intense flavor than just regular hoshi ume.

Anyway, I am no stranger to these types of dried salted plum snacks. In Okinawa, there is a brand of umeboshi snacks called Suppaiman スッパイマン. “Suppai” means “sour” so it is sort of a play on words. They are a nice treat and impart a sort of salty/sour flavor with a little bit of sweet. I highly recommend when you are in Okinawa to try them… or anywhere in Japan that sells this brand, I heard some people in mainland like these. Suppaiman also has other types of umeboshi candy, too. There was even a Blue Seal collaboration where it was a featured ice cream (sherbet) flavor of the month! Hopefully it will return… I find the the sour flavors so refreshing.

Right now in stores, you will see green ume 青梅, along with white liquor, rock sugar, and various containers all in the same area. It is that time of year when people make their own plum wine and umeboshi. Some people in Okinawa use awamori to make the plum wine instead of clear liquor. It will take quite awhile until they are ready for eating/drinking, so patience is key if you want to make your own. I have none of this patience, so I tend to buy mine rather than make at home.

Yakisoba Bread: 焼きそばパン

パン pan: bread

焼きそば yakisoba: Japanese fried noodles

I have previously posted about yakisoba. However, if you have gone to a convenience store in Japan, you may have noticed an interesting item called yakisoba pan (bread). Yes, I mean the hotdog bun filled with fried noodles and topped with benishouga (red pickled ginger) and nori (dried seaweed flakes). Sometimes it will have small slices of meat or hot dog in it, or will be topped with mayonnaise. It is (was?) a popular snack for school-age kids (not sure if it still is).

I cannot explain this, really, but there is something sort of tasty about fried noodles in a hotdog roll. It sounds kinda odd, but you might be surprised by the unique taste so nonetheless I recommend trying it while you are in Japan. You can eat it cold or have the conbini heat it up for you in the microwave (I think it tastes better hot personally). By no means is this some high-quality or fancy item– just a simple, cheap snack food.

I have never seen it at a matsuri (festival), then again since I live in Okinawa it may not be a thing here. It is easy to find at both Lawson and FamilyMart convenience stores, though.

Kushikatsu in Okinawa: 串カツ

串カツ kushikatsu: fried skewers.

I wrote previously about kushi-ya 串屋 establishments in general. Skewers of all types are fairly popular izakaya food. But Okinawa does have a few specific kushikatsu restaurants. Kushikatsu is actually considered a Kansai region food.

I will introduce 2 well-known kushikatsu restaurants in Okinawa; there are some more, smaller establishments about if you happen upon them.

First is Tanaka 田中, a chain from Osaka. It is located in Urasoe (P’s Square), with plenty of parking. They have a lot of my favorites, including garlic, shishito (small green peppers), benishouga (pickled ginger), shiitake, lotus root… plus meats for the meat eaters. The skewer prices are not too bad, but the drinks seem a bit high (though they do have nomihoudai 飲み放題 plans if you plan to drink a lot). And to be honest, I can’t imagine eating kushikatsu without beer to wash it down. They even have a a super-spicy tonkatsu-like sauce on the tables… it specifically says not for children on the label! By the way, you can order this sauce on Amazon Japan.

Next up is Monogatari 串家物語. This one is all-you-can-eat (tabehoudai 食べ放題), located on the 5th floor of Rycom Mall in Kitanakagusuku. The price is pretty cheap considering it is AYCE, and the quality is pretty good overall. Not only is it tabehoudai, you also fry them at your table. Every table has a built in fryer, and you go up to the bar to choose your items for frying, as well sauces for dipping. You also get a bowl with batter and one with breadcrumbs. It is fun to fry at your table; just don’t wear nice clothes because the smell will cling to them! Besides fried food, there is also a chocolate fountain, soft serve, and some other side items. We first ate at this chain in Kobe before it opened in Okinawa. When it opened in Okinawa, my husband immediately wanted to go there for his birthday lunch.