We just took a short weekend trip to Miyako-jima, one of the southern islands in Okinawa prefecture. You must fly (cannot take a ferry to Miyako-jima), but luckily it is a short 50 minute flight. When you get there, it is highly recommended that you rent a car, or at least a scooter, since the island is decently big (compared to some of the others in Okinawa).
There are a few things to “sight-see” on Miyako-jima, but really it is all about the diving, swimming, and snorkeling. Beautiful beaches are plentiful, and many of them have snorkeling spots (although these are mostly for novices, avid snorkelers will want to take a boat tour to some of the more spectacular reefs).
We stayed at a quiet AirBnB on Kurima-jima, which is connected to Miyako-jima by a bridge. There are other islands also connected to Miyako-jima by bridge: Ikema-jima and Irabu-jima/Shimoji-jima.
Miyako-jima is known for mango– so of course I indulged at every opportunity! We had mango smoothies from some cafes, fresh mango juice from a farm, and anything else mango I could find.
We ate dinner the first night at a great Italian spot near the main city area. It was called ADish. We had pizza, pasta, salad, crostini, and wine. We sat at the counter, but reservations are recommended for this place. We were too busy eating to take photos unfortunately. When we returned, we bought some cans of Orion and sat outside, gazing at the milky way and millions of stars, listening to the insects.
The second night, we decided to try the local place by the AirBnB house. So we walked down the road to Hanafuu 花風, which is some shipping containers converted into a small restaurant. The menu was written on fans on the wall; we started with some Orion draft beers. The owner was happy to see us, and we chatted a bit in Japanese. She gave us some yakiimo (baked sweet potato) that was grown in Miyako-jima and a hair tie with bingata print on it. We ordered another round, as well as goya chanpuru and salt yakisoba. At this point, a few more customers started to arrive (most of them it seemed like this place was their second home). So we ended up also chatting with some of them. She ended up giving us a few extra side dishes for free, and everything we tasted was amazing. After a few more rounds of beer, the owner was convinced to break out her sanshin to play and sing for us. In this small place, we were truly able to feel the kindness and vivacity of the Miyako-jima people. Finally we were tired, settled the bill, said our goodbyes and headed out. We were greeted with the millions of stars in the dark sky, surrounded by rustling sugarcane fields.
Overall, it was a fabulous trip, with great food, friendly people, nice beaches and gorgeous views.
Shisa (or shiisaa) シーサー are the guardian lion dogs in Okinawa and Ryukyu culture. They always come in pairs (a male with open mouth on the right, a female with closed mouth on the left); the open mouth wards off evil spirits, and the closed mouth keeps good spirits in. A second mythology is reversed, saying that the male has his mouth closed to keep evil out of the home and the open-mouthed female is to share goodness with others.
There are many, many styles that you will see around… and they are everywhere, from rooftops, gates, schools, houses, stores.
A famous shisa statue in Okinawa is located in Yaese (south), the Tomori Stone Shisa. It has significance in Okinawa history, and has even survived with visible scarring the Battle of Okinawa.
April 3rd is Shisa-no-hi シーサーの日, Shisa day. “Shi” is 4 in Japanese, and “san” is 3, together sounds similar to the word “shisa.” Tsuboya yachimun (pottery) district in Naha has some small events on this day.
I have an assortment of pictures of shisa from around the islands:
スタンプラリー Stamp rally. This is probably what it sounds like…
As a visitor, you may notice in some places (especially tourist sites) there are large stamps and ink pads. They sometimes have intricate designs, representative of the town or historic site. Sometimes they are just cartoon characters. But whichever they are, they usually serve a purpose: as a step in a “stamp rally.”
What does a stamp rally mean exactly? Well, typically this is geared towards children. You pick up an official paper grid with blank spaces at a central location, such as the information desk or a ticket office. Then you go around the site and look for the stamp stations, each with different designs. The goal is to find all of them and stamp each piece of your grid with every design. Once you finish, there is sometimes a small “prize.” It is basically a game to keep children entertained while touring places.
These are some examples (I will upload more later):
While I do not normally participate in these, sometimes I still enjoy adding a stamp to one of my travel books as a reminder of my visit. It’s kinda cute. It has even started to get high-tech as some big tourist sites will have an app and you scan QR codes at various locations to “collect stamps.”
All this aside, I have another theory as to why stamp rallies exist, but first some background. Personal stamps/seals, called “hanko” 判子 or “inkan” 印鑑, are important in daily life as an adult… it is necessary for bank accounts, receiving packages, school registration, legal transactions… etc! Even as a foreigner, I have a small hanko that I use for just these purposes. Honestly, these seals really are surprisingly used every day; my graduation certificate and school ID have imprints of the university and president’s seal, many documents need to have my advisor’s or sensei’s seal on them, during the university physical exam I need to “pass” each section to get each individual doctor or nurse’s seals, I even personally have to use my seal to log in my research assistance hours. I have taken to using my seal instead of my signature for whenever the delivery driver drops off packages ordered from the internet. Basically, it is like a personal signature. So… my point is, I believe that stamp rallies are just practice for small children to gather or collect stamps as they will need to in adulthood! Seriously, it is like preparation for life. Get your papers stamped because in order to get through life in Japan, you need people to stamp your papers so you can move forward or gain accomplishments (as an adult, these are our “prizes”).
Next time I get my university physical exam, I will take a photo of my own personal stamp rally I must complete in order to prove my health. It is literally a stamp card that I take to various stations where certain aspects of my health are evaluated. Each section of the card gets filled out with details and each doctor/nurse stamps the section to prove that I “passed.” The first time I had to do this, all I could think about were the children I saw at Shuri-jo racing around and filling out their stamp rally so they could get their sticker prize at the end.
There are a fair number of temples (tera 寺) and shrines (jinja 神社) in Okinawa, however, most of them are maybe not as historic or grand as you might see on the mainland.
成田山福泉寺 Naritasan Fukusenji is the temple in my town. It sits upon the hill facing the ocean. I visit there during important yearly events, such as New Years and Setsubun.
Omamori お守り are amulets or protective charms you can purchase from the temple. They come in many forms, colors, types; some are for safe driving, some for success in school, some are for health, some for love… There are some traditions around these, which some people do not necessarily observe. After a year (usually, but I will not lie, I often keep mine longer than that), you should take back to a temple to have them perform a ritual and burn it, and then obviously purchase a new one. I usually only keep my New Years omamori for a year and then return them during the next New Year; others, especially ones from places I have visited, such as Kyoto, I tend to keep until they look a bit worn.
Wood prayer boards, called ema 絵馬, are often sold as well (more common at shrines, but temples nowadays often sell these as well). You write messages of prayer, such as wishes for happiness, health, success in school, love/marriage, safety, etc, and hang them up by the shrine (so the gods, or “kami” 神, can receive them). The ema have pictures representing the temple, or perhaps the zodiac year, on the back; usually there are a few designs you can choose from. There are no real rules as to what or how to write on an ema, so just have fun.
How to pray at a Shinto Shrine (temples are less rigid, although some of the procedure can be the same):
purify oneself at the water pavilion: using your right hand, take a ladle, and scoop water. Pour a little over you left hand, then switch an pour over your right hand, then in your left hand take some water from the ladle and rinse your mouth, and finally empty the remaining water (on the ground, not back into the water basin). You should only scoop water once. When you finish, use your hand towel to dry you hands. You will notice many people in Japan carry around small personal towels in their bags, and if you visit, I highly recommend also having one for instances such as these.
toss a coin gently into the offering box (preferably with hole in it, 5円 or 50 円)
ring the bell (if there is one)
And done! Pretty easy. All being said, sometimes procedure can switch up depending on where you are, so just follow what locals do when you feel uncertain.
Lastly, let’s cover drawing fortunes, known as omikuji おみくじ. There will be a box or a coin slot machine labeled おみくじ. Some places will have English fortunes, some only Japanese. It is usually 100円, although it can be more if it comes with a small charm of some sort (if it is a small frog charm, put it in your wallet, it is said to “attract” money). Fortunes will have a category, ranging in different types of luck, from very good to very bad:
Great blessing (dai-kichi, 大吉)
Middle blessing (chuu-kichi, 中吉)
Small blessing (shou-kichi, 小吉)
Blessing (kichi, 吉)
Half-blessing (han-kichi, 半吉)
Ending blessing (sue-kichi, 末吉)
Ending small blessing (sue-shou-kichi, 末小吉)
Curse (kyou, 凶)
Small curse (shou-kyou, 小凶)
Half-curse (han-kyou, 半凶)
Ending curse (sue-kyou, 末凶)
Great curse (dai-kyou, 大凶)
On the rest of the paper, it describes your luck or fortune in various aspects of your life. Most of the Japanese used is fairly complicated, so it is good if you can have someone fluent explain it to you. Once you read your fortune, if it is bad, you tie it to a tree branch at the shrine or temple, to stave off the curse; if it is good, you keep it close to you (in your wallet or purse perhaps). That being said, I have also heard if it is good you tie it to a tree branch in order for it to come true! So, I think sometimes, there are no “right” or “wrong” ways. Just have fun.
While there are many small shrines scattered around, here are the addresses for the “larger” temples and shrines worth visiting in Okinawa:
Onsen are fairly common throughout Japan, but unfortunately there are no really “true” Japanese onsen experiences in Okinawa like you would get in the mainland of Japan. There are some places that qualify as onsen in Okinawa, but to get the real feel of onsen, one must travel to the mainland since onsen are not as large a part of Ryukyuan culture. In Okinawa, while most of the places that qualify as onsen are fairly nice, they are more like sento, “public baths”; none of them have that true Japanese feeling of onsen. That being said, I will introduce some nice places to try if you visit Okinawa and do not have a chance to visit the mainland. Later maybe I will make part II and introduce my favorite spots on the mainland to visit onsen.
温泉 onsen: hot springs
銭湯 sento: public bath
スパ supa: spa
*Special Note: although many onsen and sento are lightening up rules regarding tattoos, some still have strict no tattoo policies, so it is best to check in advance if this will be an issue. In Okinawa, currently NONE of the onsen or sento I have visited allow tattoo in the public bath, however some will allow you to book the private baths (usually used for couples or families), such as Senaga-jima, AJ Resort, and Yuinchi onsens (address listed at the bottom of the page).
Very recently, I noticed that the EM Wellness Resort has a sign saying if you can cover your tattoo with the tape/seal that they sell (you can also buy these at DonQ, or from Amazon), then you can use the onsen. I am not sure if other onsen on island have the same policy if you don’t have large tattoos if you cover them up before you go they probably won’t complain, but it may be worth asking if this is a possible option for you.
All this being said, I have on occasion seen very small “fashion” tattoo in the onsen… while many people may not say anything if they see you with a small tattoo, I cannot however encourage you to try to enter the onsen with a tattoo even if you try to cover it with a bandage. It is very possible there will be that one person who does complain and management will ask you to leave. Or people may notice, give you stink-eye and say nothing, instead giving “foreigners” 外国人 a bad reputation for lack of manners and ignoring the rules (and seriously, most Japanese are not rule-breakers, it simply is not how things are done here). If you have a lot of tattoo and want to try onsen either try booking the private bath at the aforementioned places or better yet, head up to some of the rural areas in the mainland which may allow tattoo. For instance, I know for certain that the Dogo onsen in Matsuyama (Ehime Prefecture), Arima onsen in Kobe, and some places in Hokkaido and Nagano that do allow tattoo. Plus, these places will quite honestly be a more authentic experience than what you will find in Okinawa. Just something to keep in mind.
My favorite place to visit is in Ginowan behind the DonQ, at the Enagic Natural Onsen Aroma エナジック天然温泉アロマ. This is the closest to a mainland Japanese onsen experience that you can get in Okinawa. It has several baths (including 1 outside that overlooks a Japanese-esque garden, hinoki bath, waterfall bath, and some jetted baths), a dry sauna, a salt sauna, relaxation rooms, and a restaurant. It also has many services such as scrubs, facials, and massages; I highly recommend trying the scrub and massage, you will come out feeling like a new person. The best part for me is that there is a significant student discount; if you are not a student, they have point cards and various specials. For instance couples’ day is a discount day if you bring a friend/husband/significant other. It is open from 6 am -midnight. Adult entrance fee (no discounts) is 1500円, high school/university 1000円, while elementary & middle school children are half price, and younger are free.
There are some more upscale type places, such as Senaga-jima Spa (near the Naha airport, indoor/outdoor onsen overlooking the ocean), Yuinchi Hotel Spa (a.k.a. Bathing Ape or Apeman Spa, in Nanjo with only indoor Ryukyu clay onsen), and EM Wellness Costa Vista Resort (Kitanakagusuku, indoor onsen); I list the exact addresses and additional descriptions for these at the bottom of the post should you decide to check them out. These places are a bit more expensive and the baths are overall nice, but I prefer the atmosphere of Onsen Aroma better. The main reason to visit these places is that they offer some upscale treatments which are fabulous (and the prices reflects that!), just not something I can afford so often. These places also offer tasty lunch buffets in their restaurants. Many of the other resorts/hotels on island also offer an onsen (or some just a sento), but the ones listed are the bigger (and nicer) ones that I am familiar with and have reasonably priced entrance fees.
Loisir Hotelin Naha also offers public onsen access, I recently visited, but don’t particularly recommend due to the very expensive entry fee (they have 2 options available, 1 high end, 1 low end). Most entrance fees are between 1000-1500yen here in Okinawa; the Loisir is 3000-4000yen… yikes. Same with Okinawa Spa Resort EXES; a visitor pass (non-overnight guest) for the spa bathes is 3500yen… and it is technically not an onsen, just public bath (sento). Hotel Orion Motobu Resort & Spa has their Jurassic Onsen Churaumi-no-yu ジュラ紀温泉美ら海の湯; a visitor pass is 2150yen, so while still costly it is not outrageous. The Okuma Private Resort in Kunigami has a free onsen for guests, and only about 900yen for outside visitors. Mahaina Wellness Resort Okinawa in Motobu has a free onsen for guests, 1000yen for outside visitors. Rizzan Sea Park Hotel in Onna has a really nice looking indoor/outdoor “spa bath” (don’t think they can call this one an onsen technically), 1500yen for outside guests (hotel guests have reduced fees).
Rikkarikka-yu りっかりっか湯 in the Naha Central Hotel is really a super-sento but has some more affordable entrance fees of varying combinations; you can try the sauna, the bedrock spa (ganbanyoku), and the baths for a fairly reasonable set fee of 2100yen– a pretty good deal.
A NEW onsen has opened at Aj Resort on Ikei-jima in Uruma! It is not huge, but it is nice, with an indoor and outdoor bath, as well as a family bath! There are also really nice looking private family/couple baths that can be booked for 90 minutes for only 3000yen (they request booking in advance for the private baths since they only have 2 available private baths!). Green tea is added to the Okinawa deep-sea water, and the outdoor bath has jets. **Note: I recently heard from someone that they were allowed to enter with tattoo. Please confirm this with the hotel if you decide to visit, as when I went there was a sign (in Japanese) saying no tattoo allowed… it is possible they decided to lighten up on the policy.
As new resorts are being built, many have “onsen” in their facilities, sometimes only for overnight guests. Okinawa has seen a lot of construction recently due to the influx of visitors.
There is also a place in American Village (Chatan) called Terme Villa Chura-yu ちゅらーゆ (also romanized as “Chula-U”), but I do not particularly recommend it. It allows tattoos if you can fully cover them, but only in the outside mixed swimming section. Indoor onsen area, no tattoos per their posted regulations (though I am sure some people ignore this, again making foreigners look poorly). The onsen area was not very good, nor very clean when I visited. Honestly, I would skip it unless it is truly your only option.
In Onna, the Renaissance hotel has an onsen onsite, but only for hotel guests staying on the premium floor. Sadly I have not been able to try it… maybe I will try staying there one day if I can find a good hotel deal. But again same as all of the others listed, the website explicitly states no tattoo, even though this is an exclusive place where you are paying a lot of $$$! Kind of surprising really.
If you make it out to Miyako-jima, there are also 2 onsen locations; Miyako-jima onsen and Shigira Ougon onsen. I believe they state no tattoo, but I don’t know if they are “flexible” on that. Sometimes the more “rural” places are.
These next 2 are not really onsen– Kanna Thalasso in Ginoza and Bade Haus on Kume-jima use deep-sea water, not hot spring water. The Kanna Thalasso website indicates no tattoo allowed (though I think you may wear swimsuits, they can be covered, or so I have heard); Bade Haus may use the pool only if tattoo are covered completely.
In addition to these few onsen facilities, there are several sento (public bath) around the island, often as part of a gym. I have visited a few here in Okinawa, but they usually are much more simple compared to onsen. Sometimes they have jetted pools or whatnot.
NOTE: they can not call them onsen if they do not use natural hot spring water, as per the “regulations.” And again, most if not all places in Okinawa state “no tattoo allowed.” So I re-iterate… it is important to check the rules for each place if you have any tattoo.
Another interesting option for those interested in Japanese bathing culture is the ganban-yoku 岩盤浴, bedrock bath (sort of like a sauna); click on the link to read more about it, as it is tattoo-friendly since you wear sauna clothes for this experience. Some of these are women-only, but some have options for both genders.
So now that you may have decided to visit an onsen, there is a basic procedure for entering the onsen or a sento. These procedures will be what I most commonly observe in mainland Japan and Okinawa, though it can vary widely by place– some places are much more modern or fancier, while others are much more simple and older.
When you first walk into the building, there will be shoe lockers; remove your shoes and take the key to the front desk. At the desk, you will turn in your shoe key and they will give you a locker key for the bath (segregated baths, men and women) with towels (usually 1 large, 1 small) and often a set of clothes that look a little like pjs called samue 作務衣 (some places may even give you a yukata 浴衣 instead). Now this really depends on the place… some will give you nothing (usually the really cheap places) and charge for towels, either “rent” or buy! You pay the entrance fee up front; sometimes the locker key you receive will have a code that they scan if you want to receive scrub or massage services, or even to purchase drinks, which you then pay for at the end when you check out.
Go to the locker room, to the locker number on your key. Get naked. Yup. No swimsuits. Don’t feel self-conscious cuz it is just old ladies (or men depending on your gender) and they do not really judge. I mean, if you are a foreigner, yeah, they are gonna look simply because you are different, but really, no one cares. Anyway, strip down, neatly fold or hang your clothes in your locker, get your towel (and any toiletries you might have brought, for instance I have a scrubby bath towel from the Daiso/100 yen store) and head to the baths. Just put your key band around your wrist or ankle; if you are a lady you can even use it to tie up you hair in a ponytail or bun. And seriously, just use the smaller towel, leave the big towel in your locker, or at least off to the side, otherwise it will get wet and not dry you off when you actually need it. And do not try to wrap the tiny towel all the way around you, you will look silly; just embrace the naked, draping the small towel length-wise in front of your body if you want to cover any bits.
When you enter the bathing room, grab a stool by one of the shower stations and rinse yourself off; there is usually shampoo, body soap, and conditioner all provided at the stations (depending on how fancy the facility is, for some cheaper onsen/sento you need to bring your own shampoo/conditioner or purchase from the front desk). When you feel appropriately clean and rinsed off, time to soak away in the bath and sweat it out in the sauna (remember to make sure all of the soap if off your body). Repeat. If you go into a sauna, remember to rinse your body before you go back into the tubs. I am sure to dip into every bath, even the cold ones. Yes, there are both hot and cold… 湯 is hot water, 冷 is cold. They always display the temperature somewhere, so look along the walls or sides. Every bath has different healing properties with different minerals, which is also listed somewhere in the onsen, though if you do not read Japanese, it might not help you very much.
Etiquette: for anyone with long hair, tie up your hair so it does not get in the water! You will get stink-eye if you let it drape into the water. I use my small towel to wrap around my head and keep the stray long strands from escaping; you will see this is a common technique. Occasionally people will fold it into a neat little rectangle and rest it on their head, but I do not see this very often in Okinawa. Also, it is considered rude to soak your small towel into the bathwater (although I have seen some obaasans do it anyway). As far as noise, it depends on the place– I have been to some that are practically silent, and others that are alive with chattering gossip. Just use your common sense and do as the locals do.
Whenever you finish, change into the clothes they gave you, grab a drink (milk is popular and sold in small glass bottles), sit in a massage chair, watch tv, etc. The locker rooms have hair dryers, face lotion, hairbrushes (these are separated in a clean bin, usually a UV box, and a used bin), cotton swabs, lotion, etc. You usually do not need to bring much of anything, since most places have some amenities for you. I have a small bag of extra toiletries I bring for aftercare. Again, it depends on the place, some of the cheaper places provide very little in the way of amenities.
At the end, toss your towels into the laundry bin in the locker room, then bring your clothes and key back to the front desk (in some cases there may also be a laundry bin for your sauna clothes). Pay your balance, and they will give you the shoe locker key.
Also, as a fun cultural note, watch the Japanese movie “Thermae Romae” (based on a manga). It is hilarious, and gives me better appreciation of the bathing culture.
Addresses for top recommended Okinawa onsen:
Enagic Natural Onsen Aroma: 〒901-2223 沖縄県宜野湾市大山7-7-1 ~My favorite– several nice baths, steam sauna, salt sauna, and even an outdoor bath with a cute Japanese-style garden. Several affordable esthe options, including scrubs and massages. Shokudo restaurant on-site. Recommended for a down-to-earth experience that won’t break the bank. https://goo.gl/maps/dMNDCms3RaA2
Yuinchi Hotel and Spa (Bathing Ape): 〒901-1412 沖縄県南城市佐敷字新里1688 ~Interesting baths, all indoor. These baths contain Ryukyu “healing” clay (mud?), which is a little bit of a unique experience. You have a view over the southern valley. The buffet restaurant in the hotel (different than the small restaurant in the onsen building!) is AMAZING and well worth the price (2300yen for lunch). The baths are so-so, but it has special Ryukyu mud properties or something that sounds fancy. *separate blog post: Yuinchi Hotel: Onsen and Buffet
Senaga-jima Hotel and Onsen Spa: 〒901-0233 沖縄県豊見城市字瀬長174-5 ~Tons of delicious restaurants nearby. Admission to bath is reasonable, treatments are expensive but high quality. Indoor AND outdoor baths looking over the ocean (very beautiful). High end type of place, recommended for a luxury experience. *separate blog post: Ryukyu Onsen Senaga-jima Hotel
EM Wellness Resort Costa Vista: 〒901-2311 沖縄県中頭郡北中城村喜舎場1478番地 ~Awesome healthy buffet at the resort restaurant! The baths are decent (all indoor), and the treatments focus on wellness, so you leave feeling fantastic and refreshed. Pricier than Aroma onsen, but not too unreasonable. For an extra fee you can also try their bedrock bath (ganbanyoku). *separate blog post: EM Wellness Resort: Costa Vista and Spa Corazon
Aj Resort Onsen: 〒904‐2421 沖縄県うるま市与那城伊計1286 ~Newly opened on Ikei-jima (connected to Okinawa main island by bridge). Indoor and open-air bath, plus a private family bath. The only downside is it does not look like they offer any extra spa services. It is also quite a ways to get there as you have to cross the bridges from Uruma to Henza, Miyagi, and then finally all the way to the tip of Ikei-jima! It was nice enough when I visited, but pretty far away from everything. *separate blog post: Ikei-jima AJ Resort and Onsen: 伊計島温泉
**When I went to Aj Resort Onsen it was EMPTY! So… I was able to snap a few very quick pics. Normally you cannot take any pictures in the bath areas (for obvious reasons), so I rarely have pictures of these. Some of the “features” you may see at some of the more modern onsen:
海老, えび, or エビ ebi means shrimp. Here in Okinawa, there is very famous shrimp named Kuruma ebi. Oddly, kuruma 車 means car or vehicle… I do not know the meaning behind this shrimps name.
There are a few famous areas to indulge in fresh kuruma ebi (not frozen!).
On Kume-jima 久米島, there are many kuruma ebi farms and most restaurants use fresh ebi in their dishes. On our overnight trip to Kume-jima, my husband ate 3 out 4 meals kuruma ebi at different restaurants, they were so fresh. Fried, grilled, sauteed, etc, he could not get enough. Kume-jima is a short 35 minute plane ride from Okinawa main island, or 4 hour ferry ride.
On Okinawa mainland, there is a famous farm, shop and restaurant in Ginoza which is located in the northern part of the island. We have not been yet but all the pictures look so good.
In the southern part of the island located in Nanjo, there are some kuruma ebi farms where you can buy them fresh.
Probably in the Makishi public market in downtown Naha you can also purchase kuruma ebi, but I do not go there often, just have seen pictures.
酒 sake is a general term in Japanese for “alcohol.” Unlike in Western usage, it can include beer, wine, whiskey, chuhai, plum wine, shochu, and of course, various types of rice wine or liquor.
日本酒 nihonshu means “Japanese liquor.” This is what foreigners typically call “sake.” Ask a Japanese person for sake, and they would be confused because it is not very specific. They might even just hand you a beer. Here in Okinawa, they may even assume you just mean the local booze awamori 泡盛.
There are many types of nihonshu; I list a few here, but I will have to add more later.
清酒 seishu means “clear liquor.”
にごり酒 nigori is a cloudy liquor.
生酒 nama-zake is unpasteurized, and difficult to find unless you go directly to the brewery. It must be refrigerated and usually consumed within a week or 2.
The following special designations are specified by the Japanese government and will be shown on the label. Basically they vary the ingredients and brewing technique, etc.
junmai ginjo 純米吟醸
junmai daiginjo 純米大吟醸: this is considered the highest quality of nihonshu. Below is a picture of a bottle I received as a gift.This brand is Kubota 久保田 from 新潟県 Niigata prefecture. This particular brand gets a very high rating and is considered excellent quality. After trying it, I agree.
It is hard to know how to pick a good tasting sake/nihonshu when shopping about the store, so whenever you are on the mainland of Japan, visit some breweries and do some tastings! There are many out there. I have visited ones in Fukuoka, Kobe, Tsukuba, Ehime, and Nagano.
屋台 yatai are small street stalls typically only open at night. It is a small wooden structure with curtains, and inside is a counter for customers to sit around while the owner(s) cook and prepare dishes. And as with most things Japanese, alcohol is often involved.
These are not common in Okinawa, unfortunately (there is one small “yatai mura” 屋台村 where there are about a dozen clustered together on a street in Naha, here). However, in Fukuoka (the site of my most recent adventure) they line the streets around train stations and canals in the evening.
We saw the most famous Kokin-chan 小金ちゃん, but the line was very long so we searched around and came to Yosaku 与作. It had a Japanese-only menu, and while still in the touristy area, a bit removed from the ones aimed solely at gaijin. My very tall husband and I took an awkward seat. I read the menu, and noticed this sort of savory pancake looking item on another customer’s plate. It looked oishii, so I asked “sumimasen, nandesu ka?” while pointing. She pointed at 山芋ネギ焼き on the menu, assuming I would not understand the answer. So I read it, turned to the owners and ordered (in Japanese) 1 regular ramen ラーメン, 1 yaki-ramen 焼きラーメン, 1 yama-imo negi yaki 山芋ネギ焼き and 2 bottles of beer ビール. The other Japanese folks decided to clap, I guess they were surprised. I feel like plenty of gaijin can speak Japanese, and mine is barely passable, but it is pretty much always a shock to 日本人 Japanese people. Anyway, when we got our beers, everyone kampai’d us and we spent an enjoyable time eating and drinking with the customers next to us.
If you find yourself in Fukuoka past 6pm, be sure to wander the streets near the train station and pop into one of these small stalls (avoid the canal area, it is mostly geared towards foreign tourists). Each one has different specialities, although Hakata ramen is available at pretty much all of them. Order a drink and some food, then slowly soak in the evening with the other patrons. It is a sort of quaint and unique experience that shows the real feeling of Japan.
Fukuoka also has some nice gardens where you can have tea during the day: here.
茶道 Cha-dou: The way of Tea.
My most recent adventure in Fukuoka included an afternoon break at a small Japanese garden tucked away from the hustle of the city. Within the tranquil garden was a cha-shitsu 茶室, meaning tea room. We were served matcha 抹茶 and delicate Japanese confections. While we soaked in the atmosphere and drank tea, a crane (tsuru 鶴) came to visit the garden. What a nice atmosphere.
串 kushi: skewer. The kanji even looks like a skewer, so easy to remember!
串屋: kushi-ya, the place where you will find grilled or fried skewered food. Kushi-yaki 串焼き is grilled, kushi-katsu 串カツ is fried. Similarly, there is 焼き鳥 yakitori which is grilled chicken and 炭火焼き sumibi-yaki which is charcoal grilled foods. All of these tend to mean skewered food in different variations.
In my opinion, these tend to be great drinking establishments; you can order individual sticks and small dishes over the course of the night.
Even though I do not eat meats, there are often times many other types of skewers and side dishes I can eat. Commonly you will find shiitake mushrooms, onions, shishitou peppers, garlic, potato, corn, tofu, ginkgo nuts, eggplant, lotus root… I also like edamame to snack on, and most establishments will serve you raw cabbage with tare (たれ sauce) for free. My husband likes the spicy cucumber pickles, too.
The kushi-katsu are fried, so this can be a little bit heavy while drinking. But fried foods and beer do seem to go well together. One of my favorites is 紅生姜 benishouga (pickled ginger). It sounds a little odd, deep-fried pickled ginger, but give it a try! Something about the flavor is really good to me. I always order it when we go to fried skewer restaurants.
There are even some chains that do all-you-can-eat kushi-katsu where you fry at your table! You get a plate and pick up the foods you want (meats, fish, vegetables, etc) and bring it back to you table, slather in batter and go. I warn you, you will smell like a fry pit when you leave; luckily they have storage underneath you seats for any jackets, purses, etc to protect them from the smell. It is a unique and fun experience, though, so try it out when you are in Japan.
Omiyage: souvenirs. Typically, this means food-related “souvenirs” of a recent journey, away from the family, coworkers, social club… seriously though, for every trip I take away from Okinawa, I have to budget quite a bit of yen for omiyage. That being said, when others return, I get to try a variety of little nibbles from all over. Yeah, omiyage is serious business. Do not return from a trip without some.
Especially after holidays, these show up in abundance. Social custom dictates that you eat whatever it is that your colleagues, friends, family, or whoever bought. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. Below are only some of the types of omiyage I have received– there are many kinds out there.
Sakura pie cookie. Shaped like a cherry blossom petal, flaky biscuit sprinkled with sakura sugar. WIN!
Konbu (seaweed) candy from Hokkaido. Um, yeah. Not bad per se… but LOSE. Sometimes I wonder if my colleagues are just playing pranks on me (“hmm, what can we get the gaijin to eat next??”).
Matcha and chocolate mini cakes. OISHII~~~! WIN!
Almond chocolate sandwich cookie and matcha/azuki bean biscuit. WIN.
White bean paste and matcha bean paste cakes. WIN.
Sable cookie shaped like Dove… meh. Not a win, but not a lose.
Famous Amaou Strawberry roll. WIN!
Hokkaido rare cheese: win.
Awa cookie: not a win, not a loss. It is pretty though.
Buttery crispy sandwich cookie. Win.
Not pictured: Ebi (shrimp) “cracker” and Mentaiko (fish roe) “cracker” (Japanese: senbei せんべい). I get more of these type of senbei than I care for; I am not really a fan of these fishy crackers, but they are cheap so I think I lot of people buy these to bring back.
Obviously there are many, many more not shown… I only recently started snapping a picture so I could remember some of my favorites (and least favorites). All of these were picked out by Japanese and Okinawan friends/colleagues.
Oh, and if you every need to bring back omiyage from Tokyo, I suggest picking up the famous “Tokyo Banana” (sold in the airport!). Honestly, I think they are gross, but Japanese people love them! I cannot explain it. Out of all the omiyage I have brought back to my lab colleagues, those are gone in seconds. Chocolates of almost any variety are almost universally disliked or at best vaguely tolerated (okay, I also work with ALL males, I am sure this is different if you have females). Otherwise, omiyage selection is still a bit of a mystery to me, no matter how often I buy it.
If you want to see what sort of omiyage to pick up while in Okinawa, visit this next post: Okinawa Omiyage: お土産.