Japan Eats Part I
So I know I’ve been emphasizing lately that I have been REALLY poor and while that’s pretty much a norm in my life, it’s been more so the past few months because I was saving up for an epic trip to Japan for two weeks. My friend Mike and I literally just ate our way through Okinawa and Tokyo.
Now, let me tell you a little bit about my good friend Mike. I met him while we were studying abroad for a year in Kyoto. He was extremely quiet the first few days (which if you met him, can’t believe – I know) but after our first conversation, I knew he was going to be my buddy for life. He’s one of the most intelligent, FUNNIEST people I’ve ever met and after putting up with me for two weeks, I can tell you, he’s a PATIENT and kind man. Not that I didn’t know it before but this trip really confirmed it. He was up for anything and put up with me being HANGRY (that would be “so hungry I’m angry”) most of the time. He’s a saint, folks.
So this starts my three-part series of Japan eats. Feel free to just scroll through the pictures because I’m probably NOT going to be very pithy here.
After a slightly painful 13 hour flight to Tokyo from JFK (painful because I was awake the whole time and really restless), we had a three hour lay-over where the only sustenance we could find was onigiri, Japanese rice balls, and then another 2.5 hour flight to Naha, Okinawa. Okinawa is the cluster of the southernmost islands in Japan. It was its own country until Japan took it over so it really has a unique culture that has a lot of Chinese influence. We got to our hotel at around midnight and pretty much passed out. Here was our digs:
We rose early in the morning to go to the center of town where there’s a main road with an outdoor market and lots of fun stores and restaurants. After dropping off our bags at the ferry terminal (we were scheduled to depart Naha for a smaller island, Zamami, in the afternoon) we walked around to find Kokusai-dori, which is the street with all the fun stuff. On the way, we dropped into a small udon place. Everything on the menu looked good but when I saw our neighbors finishing up a HUGE breakfast with lots of stuff on it, I pointed to it and told the server whatever was on those plates needed to be in my stomach immediately.
Yes, that would be udon, rice, salmon, pickled vegetables, and a meat/Japanese pumpkin dish. And if you’re wondering if I ate it all, the answer is YES.
We walked around, shopped a bit, and kept seeing these little tarts everywhere.
It’s a tart with an Okinawa sweet potato that is purple on the outside. It was sweet, creamy, and delicious. Well done, potato!
Then we got on a ferry to Zamami. Ah, Zamami. The village of Zamami is about 4 city blocks by 7 city blocks and has about 3 restaurants on the whole island. Most of it is uninhabited because it’s very mountainous. We were thinking of renting bikes but the minshuku (bed and breakfast) owners told us that it was too hilly to bike and that we should either drive or walk around. So walk we did! We took a little path that ended up on a lovely lookout.
It was drizzly and overcast but still beautiful! We were thinking we were taking an evening stroll but it ended up being quite the strenuous 35 minute hike. We worked up an appetite so dropped into one of three restaurants.
In Okinawa, they make this tofu with peanuts (or was it sesame…) and it was DELICIOUS. We ordered that as an appetizer.
Forgive the unappetizing photo. I dug into it before I remembered to take a picture of it. Another Okinawa specialty is Chanpuru, which is basically a stir fry. The most traditional one comes with an Okinawa vegetable called Goya, which is like a bitter melon with a firmer texture, and eggs. Mike got that one so I snuck a bite. And yup, it’s bitter.
I got a vegetable chanpuru.
For dessert, we walked to the only store on the island and got some chocolate. You know me – I can’t end a meal without something sweet :)
The next day, we decided to go on a planned hike. The minshuku made us a DELICIOUS and HUGE breakfast consisting of that peanut tofu, SPAM, shredded cabbage, miso soup, rice, and yogurt. Again, if you’re wondering if I ate it all – ABSOLUTELY. Those island people really enjoy their spam. In fact, we both bought an onigiri to eat for lunch and couldn’t find one without Spam. You could get one with Spam and cheese and ketchup or Spam with eggs and soy sauce. I think I chose the one that was soy sauce flavored.
It was a long hike but not as steep as the one from the previous day. Here I am at the top:
Apparently you can sometimes see whales from there but we saw none, unfortunately.
Afterwards, we just kept walking all around the island until our feet were aching.
We started to get slightly bored since there was literally nothing to do on the island, however, we did accurately reflect that one day we were going to look back on the day and wish we were re-living it. We had another delicious dinner with grilled fish and Okinawa pork that went undocumented. Then we watched Japanese television until we thought it was an acceptable bedtime. I believe it was about 9:00 pm.
The next day, we had another great breakfast at the minshuku:
We took some pictures outside the minshuku:
And then boarded a ferry back to Naha. The island is so tiny, there are only three ferries that leave the island. A fast ferry (which we took) at 10am and at 4pm and a slow ferry at 3pm. However, if the waves are over 3 meters, the fast ferry gets cancelled and if it’s over 4 meters, the slow ferry gets cancelled. And how do you know if it’s cancelled? They announce it over a loudspeaker throughout the village – LOVE! Mike and I were checking the weather report the night before and found out the waves were supposed to be 3.5 meters the next morning. There was definitely a panicky moment when we thought we would get stuck on the island and miss our flight to Tokyo but in true Mike fashion, he very politely told me to CALM THE EFF DOWN. (Sorry for the profanity, Mom)
Thankfully, our ferry wasn’t cancelled (though the other two were) and we were headed back to Naha. The mom from the minshuku actually came by to see us off – it was so cute and heart-warming :) We went back to Kokusai-dori (surprise, surprise) to shop and eat one of those purple potatoes:
DE-licious! At some point we went to Shuri-jo, which is the castle in Naha. I feel like this would be a good time to tell you my secret for not gaining weight on vacation while eating your face off. It’s called “climb the highest point in a 1 mile radius. This was clearly evidenced on our Zamami excursion but it really started our first day in Naha. To get to the monorail from our hotel, we had to climb a RIDICULOUS hill just to get to the street. After zig-zagging our way to the street twice, we realized there was actually a hidden staircase that just went all the way up. Unfortunately, I didn’t take photos but picture a stone staircase that goes up about an eighth of a mile.
Then to get to Shuri-jo, we had to climb from our hotel to the castle and then there was more climbing.
We saw some more stairs to the side of the castle so instead of wondering why no one else was going up them, we climbed. Because that’s our thing. This is Mike wondering what going downhill would be like.
There was also a sign that said there were poisonous snacks on the stairs but the magnetic draw to get the highest point was just too strong.
Afterwards, we went back into town and finally sat down in a cute little café.
I had one of those potato tarts:
And Mike got this:
We explored Kokusai-dori again (there’s REALLY not that much to do in Naha when it’s March) and stumbled upon Fangorn forest.
In this little area, which was hidden from the street, they had a whole building that made traditional crafts like pottery, glass, and weaving stuffs. You can actually get an appointment to blow glass and try your hand at pottery if you like.
And then we decided to karaoke. We started the first half an hour singing Japanese tunes but by song number 6, we had exhausted our repertoire. Enter: Beyonce.
EPIC, I tell you. I’ve got video of Mike singing Single Ladies in a Johnny Cash voice.
The next day, we woke up and headed straight to the airport.
I got a donburi with tuna, ikura, egg, and tororo (which is a root) over rice.
I also ordered an iced coffee with the world’s tiniest straw.
We still hadn’t tried Okinawa’s sea grapes, which is just seaweed that looks like grapes and is described as green caviar, so Mike ordered it. Oh my gosh, SO GOOD. It kind of tastes like ikura (which is sitting on top) and is just plain delicious.
We then shopped in the airport for more gifts. Here’s why Japan is so great. They have samples of EVERYTHING in these cute little boxes.
I firmly believe that if there were more samples in the world, it would be a better place.
After snacking on different sweets and buying purple potato flavored kit kats, we headed to Tokyo!