This is a guest post by Priscilla
The inspiration for travel can strike at any time - seeing an image or tasting a particular food, whatever the trigger is that resonates and leaves you only with the knowing of i really want to go there.
I can't remember when or how I came to watch a YouTube video of the view of “the Kuroshio Sea” at Churaumi in Japan, one of largest aquariums in the world. What I do recall is only a few seconds in, i knew - i really want to go there.
So, in spite of limited time and budget for my first (and as yet only) trip to Japan, I was determined to fit in a stop to Churaumi. That is how i ended up seeing a very different slice of Japanese life that i wasn't aware existed.
Okinawa Island, Japan
Japan is made up of four main islands, and a series of smaller ones to the south. Okinawa Island is the largest within the Ryūkyū Islands chain, and on which the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium is situated. A world away from Osaka, Kyoto and Tokyo, where winter was still turning into spring, I landed in Okinawa prefecture’s capital city of Naha and was pleasantly surprised at the heat and humidity. I imagined this would be the sort of place most Japanese might go to escape the cold, akin to Canadians that head to Florida, the Caribbean or Mexico in winter.
This subtropical island felt instantly inviting. With warmer weather and lots of sunshine, there was a marked difference from the chaotic fast forward pace of life I felt in Tokyo. Unlike my time in bigger Japanese cities, I only had a two night stay here, just enough for a quick wander through Naha city and a day trip to the aquarium (a few hours away). With no other plans made, I turned to my Lonely Planet book which had proven to be helpful on my trip.
Hmmm... maybe Lonely Planet was wrong
The writer for the Naha section of the guide wrote “our favourite stop in this area is the Daichi Makishi Kōsetsu Ichiba, a covered food market” which offered a wide variety of produce and fish. This sounded as good a place as any to visit, especially as i noted the book said “…we highly recommend a meal at one of the eateries on the 2nd floor of this food market”. Perfect stop for a late lunch, I thought.
This may have been the one time I recall Lonely Planet having really let me down. I’d heard numerous times before, and came to believe from personal experience thus far in the country, that you “can’t really get bad food in Japan”. Finding a busy stall on the 2nd floor of the market as the book suggested, I had no clue what to order.
Overwhelmed with choice, coupled with a lack of English and/or food photos, I enquired with a friendly server about local Okinawan food. she spoke limited English, but did manage to suggest to me dishes that were local and popular. That is how I got persuaded into ordering what was easily the worst dish I ate in Japan...tempura seaweed (what was i thinking?!).
Seaweed, SPAM and Rice
The seaweed was semi-encased in tempura batter which quickly turned soggy from the moisture of the seaweed. Add to the fact it was possibly fried in oil that wasn’t hot enough, overall, quite an unpleasant eating experience.
The other popular dish i tried was”special fried rice”. It was neither that special (to me) nor was it fried rice. The dish was a stir fry of tofu, SPAM and bean sprouts with rice. In hindsight, the SPAM wasn’t too surprising seeing as it was likely introduced to Okinawa by U.S. military during WWII – the same humble beginnings of its popularity in Hawaii and Guam. While the stir fry didn’t taste bad, I guess I was hoping for something more…unique. Though given my dislike of the tempura seaweed, i was probably lucky!
Despite the less than awesome meal, it was pretty amusing all around. The fun for me is discovering new things in spite of language barriers and adventures in food make for great memories later on.
Finding amazing Japanese food
Overall, I enjoyed wandering the streets of Naha and soaking in the warmth. And when dinnertime came around, Lonely Planet redeemed itself with a recommendation of trying traditional Okinawa-soba (udon served in a pork broth) at a small noodle house named Daitō Soba. The noodles were the perfect consistency, the broth both aromatic and flavorful and the pork was tender and tasty – this fabulous dish quickly rose up on the list of best Japanese foods I tried.
Because Churaumi was a bit of a distance from Naha, a day trip there did unfortunately mean limited time wandering through the aquarium and not sufficient time to see the other areas of Ocean Expo Park which included a Native Okinawan Village and Oceanic Culture museum. The Kuroshio Sea was mesmerizing, and definitely the highlight. It was my first time seeing whale sharks and manta rays up close and their sheer size was incredible. Armed with my iPod, I sat watching these magnificent creatures and easily could have lost track of time. While the thought had previously crossed my mind to one day visit the world’s largest aquarium in Atlanta, my visit to Churaumi helped remind me to move that item up on my travel list!
I got there, now I want to go back
Getting to Okinawa and satisfying the I really want to go there feeling was fantastic. It opened me up to so much more of Japan than I expected, and only made me curious to learn more about its history and the origins of its people. I know it would be fascinating to explore more of Okinawa Island and on others in the Ryūkyū Islands chain. With such a short time in the area and having gotten a glimpse of this side of Japan, I left knowing something else – I really want to go back.