Okinawa day 1: A full day of travelling

Today was the start of my holiday and my flight was super early. My flight would depart at 1 am, so I had to be at the airport the night before. Because I am cheap, I tried my best to book the cheapest flights available which meant that I would be flying off on Jetstar and coming back on Scoot. At the airport, the counter staff noticed that my ticket was only one-way and asked to see proof for my journey to Okinawa. Did they think that I’m going to be an illegal immigrant? Do I have an illegal immigrant face?

Once I showed the counter staff my ticket to Japan, all was fine. Then it was a 5-hour flight to Taipei. The plane left on time and despite the early hour, it was a full flight. I slept for most of the journey, but I still ended up feeling not very rested at the end of it. The seat was uncomfortable and the plane rattled noisily when it landed at Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport. I looked at my watch. It was 5:50 am. The plane landed 10 mins earlier than expected, which was always a good thing.

It was very cold when I walked along the corridor towards the immigration counters. I realized that part of the airport was not heated when my teeth started to chatter uncontrollably. I was just wearing a long sleeve cotton tshirt and jeans. They were pretty warm when I was in Singapore but obviously they were not enough in Taipei. So I walked as quickly as I could to the immigration counters which were heated.

Once I had collected my luggage, I tried to contact Bell, who arrived on an earlier flight. However that woman forgot to give me her new mobile number so there was no reply when I smsed or called her. Luckily, there was free wifi in the airport and I managed to get her through chat.

After we met up, we headed to the food court for breakfast. We found an empty table near a stall called 新東陽 (Hsin Tung Yang). Hsin Tung Yang had many souvenir and snack shops at the airport. We passed by probably 5 – 6 Hsin Tung Yang shops in terminal 1. Bell commented that she did not know that Hsin Tung Yang sells cooked food as well. Feeling tired, we decided to just get something from the nearest opened stall which was Hsin Tung Yang’s cooked food stall. Besides, not many stalls were opened at the early hour.

We spent a lot of time looking at the menu. There were buns, toast and porridge available for breakfast. Finally, we decided to get a pork bun each and share a bowl of porridge. The filling of the bun was tasty, but the skin was thick and not very nice. Bell said that there was a yeasty flavor which she did not like. We also had the century egg porridge which was average. It wasn’t really Cantonese porridge as written on the menu as the rice felt more like Teochew porridge style.

To get to Okinawa, Bell and I took Peach Aviation, a Japanese budget airline. Bell told me that “peach” was pronounced as “peachy” in Japanese. I asked Bell to say it the way a Japanese does when we are talking to the counter staff but she refused. Bummer.

The plane is small and the interior was decorated in shades of purple. The seats were cramped together, just like other budget airlines. Even so, I quite like Peach Aviation because the website is a cheery purple, although I thought that it made more sense to be pink because peach is more pink than purple. The Peach menu also looked more appetizing than other budget airlines that I’ve taken. Bell and I were interested in the curry bun, peach eclair and peach ice-cream but in the end, we decided to forgo them as we were not feeling well. My stomach had been feeling a bit uncomfortable before I left for the trip so I wanted to give it a rest. I hoped that I would recover soon. It would be quite sad if I had to watch what I eat while on the trip.

The flight was uneventful. Bell and I were quite tired and we fell asleep for most of the journey. We landed at 1 pm at Naha Airport. The international terminal was only one storey tall and felt rather small for a building that catered to international flights.

As there was time, we had a quick lunch at the airport cafeteria, which had only one stall. Both of us ordered gyudon (beef bowl) which came with miso soup. Lunch was tasty. It was like Yoshinoya but much nicer in every way.

From Naha Airport, we would need to take a two-hour bus journey to where we would be staying for the next two nights. There was a bus stop just outside the international terminal. It was a simple bus stop and consisted only of a wooden bench and a sign. Bell suggested that we should walk to the domestic terminal since the Yanbaru Express bus would be start from there. She was worried that it would be crowded and there was a higher chance of getting a seat if we board at the starting point.

It took us 5-10 mins to walk to the domestic terminal. The two terminals were not connected but they were next to each other so it was easy to walk from one terminal to the other. The domestic terminal was bigger than the international terminal. The bus stop for the Yanbaru Express was outside the domestic terminal.

We waited for quite a while before a weathered white bus arrived. The schedule was not frequent and there were specific timings for the bus. It turned out there were not many people waiting for the express bus. We were the only ones carrying luggage while the rest seemed to be locals. As I stood at the door wondering whether I should bring my luggage up, a friendly passenger said something in Japanese and pointed with his crutches at the luggage compartment at the side of the bus, similar to the luggage compartment of tour buses. Despite not knowing a single word of Japanese, it was easy to understand what the passenger meant and I quickly put my luggage in the storage compartment. I thought it was a bit strange that the driver did not come to assist but I guess it was because it was not a tour bus.

The bus ride was more comfortable than the flight. Two hours later at 4:50 pm, we alighted at the Hotel Mahaina Wellness Resort. The fare was ¥1,950 for each person. I alight first to unload the luggage while Bell paid the bus driver. Later she told me that she gave the driver ¥4,000. She stared at him for a while, hoping that he would give her the change in return. He did not.

Instead, he looked at Bell and asked, “One luggage?”

“Yes, one luggage,” Bell replied resignedly. In her heart, she was thinking, “Damn, looks like I’m not going to get any change back.”

The hotel staff quickly came to assist me in unloading my luggage from the bus. There was an awkward moment when we had to tell him that we were not staying at the resort. The owners of せんだん (Minshuku Sendan Hotel) had said that they would come and pick us up, but we arrived much earlier than the timing I gave them. So rather than wait for the owners to pick us up, we walked to Minshuku Sendan instead.

It was a 5-10 min walk to Minshuku Sendan but seemed much further when I had to drag my luggage along. The area was very quiet and the sound of my luggage wheels on asphalt sounded very loud. In the end, I carried it because I was afraid of disturbing the peaceful neighborhood.

There were signs pointing the direction to Minshuku Sendan but the signs were so small that they were not noticeable. Luckily I had a data connection so we were able to use Google Maps to find the way. Suddenly there was a rustle in the bushes and a bird flew out, straight towards Bell. It gave Bell quite a scare.

Minshuku Sendan was a two storey house. The ground floor was the owners’ residence and restaurant while the top floor was where the guests stay. The Minshuku Sendan dogs were resting on the porch and watched our approach with great interest. Once we stepped within the premises, no doubt crossing the invisible line which marked the boundary of their territory, the white dog, Nora, immediately barked loudly. I guessed she was doing double duty as a doorbell. Her loud barking alerted the owners and the wife came out to greet us. The wife spoke fluent Mandarin so it meant that we were able to understand her easily.

The wife led us up a metal staircase by the side of the house to our room on the second floor. I thought the exterior staircase was a good idea as it meant that the guests could get to their rooms without having to pass through the residence and disturb the owners.

There was a large open area in front of our room which I thought would be a nice place to chill on summer nights. Unfortunately the weather was windy and chilly, so Bell and I did not feel like lingering outdoors for long.

The wife showed us a big tree next to the house. She said, “This is the sendan tree. Our place is named after it.” At the moment it was considered winter in Okinawa and the tree was bare. But she told us that it would bloom in spring and like the cherry blossoms, the flowers would appear first, then the leaves.

There were only two rooms on the second floor, but lucky for us, we were the only guests during this period. We booked the Japanese-styled room which could fit up to four people. Bell was quite excited about it as she had never slept on a tatami mat before. After the wife left, Bell and I had a fun time exploring the room. It felt rather nice and cozy with tall ceilings and fake wood flooring.

There was a large bottle of mineral water in the room and a kettle which we could use to boil more water. The mineral water was really tasty and even the water that we boiled did not taste as good.

After we had freshened up, Bell and I decided to take a short walk around the area. The wife had given us directions to a nearby place where we could watch the sunset, but we lost our direction and ended up walking in circles. As it was getting darker and colder, Bell and I decided to head back. On the way back, a bird suddenly flew out of the bushes and headed straight towards us, veering off to the right at the last moment.

Bell had a fright by the sudden appearance of the bird. She remarked, “Why are the birds here so scary? They hide in the bushes and rustle, then they suddenly fly out and kamikaze in your face.” Then she suddenly turned to me and said accusingly, “Are you going to put this down on your blog?”

I didn’t think of doing so, but since Bell brought it up…

We returned in time for dinner, which was at 6:30 pm. Nora barked loudly upon seeing us. This time Charlie, the Shiba Inu, probably felt that he should do his duty as a guard dog, so he halfheartedly joined in. Charlie gave a few rounds of what sounded like half-bark half-howl and then decided to rest. Meanwhile, Nora kept barking enthusiastically.

Hearing the dog barking, the wife came out and led us to the door of the restaurant. We took off our shoes and put on the slippers the wife handed us. Besides the two of us, the other customers were a middle-aged couple. So the restaurant was very quiet.

After showing us to our seats, the wife asked if we would like any drinks. Bell and I decided to go for fruit juices. I had an orange-colored juice, which was made from a local berrylike fruit. I liked it as it was tangy and quite nice. Bell, on the other hand, preferred the lime juice.

We had informed the owners that we would like the Chef Special Dinner set for our dinner. This set had to be ordered at least one day in advance. Our dinner cost ¥3,000 but I was under the impression that the price could vary by a few hundred yen depending on the ingredients used for the day.

The first course was beef sushi with octopus and ginger. The beef was seared on the outside while the inside remained raw. The meat was tender and very tasty. We really liked it a lot. The wife told us that the beef came from a nearby island called 伊江島 (Iejima). It was her husband’s hometown and the beef for this dish came from cows raised by her husband’s classmate. She said, “Tomorrow you will be able to see the island. It is just opposite Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium.”

The octopus was chewy and tasted so-so. The thin strips of ginger were surprisingly nice. They were marinated in soy sauce, which removed the spiciness. There was still a ginger flavor, but it was milder and more pleasant.

Next we were given a bowl of clear soup. In the soup were various ingredients. There was fish wrapped in mochi. It was interesting to eat and Bell thought it was pretty tasty. I preferred to eat fish as sashimi or sushi so to me, it was okay only. Strangely, I preferred the vegetables, especially the baby radish which had a mild sweetness. Plus, the baby radish looked really cute, so round and white! But then, I supposed all babies looked cute. The wife told us that the baby radish was grown in their garden.

After the soup, we were given a plate with sashimi and a type of seaweed found in Okinawa called sea grapes. They were simply drizzled with olive oil. Each of us were given half of a small mandarin orange to squeeze over the fish and seaweed. The result was very tasty.

The sashimi was fresh and good, but I was more taken with the sea grapes. They were a lot of fun to eat! There were little round balls on the seaweed which burst when I bit down, releasing the briny liquid within. Kinda like fish roe, but without the fishiness.

We were given a plate containing a piece of grilled tuna, yam and sugar-pickled kumquat. The tuna was fatty but a little dry. The miso taste was prominent, but whether that is a good thing or not is up to you. I didn’t mind it as much as Bell thought the miso overpowered the taste of the fish. I thought the yam was so-so. The kumquat was sweet, but felt refreshing as it helped to get rid of the oily taste of the tuna.

There was a green leaf on the plate which the wife told us could be eaten. She said that it had a mild wasabi flavor. The wasabi flavor was very subtle and not spicy at all. I ate the leaf alone as the other food overpowered the mild wasabi flavor.

The wife brought out a bowl filled with a thick broth. In the middle of the bowl was what looked like a huge meatball or dumping. But it wasn’t.

It was actually made of grated radish with some diced prawns. Hidden right in the center, like a buried treasure, was an oyster. The wife advised us to mix the wasabi thoroughly before we started eating. Bell didn’t managed to do so and got hit by the wasabi twice.

Around this time, Sei, the cat, came home for its dinner. It ignored us and followed the wife straight to the kitchen to eat. It reappeared again after it had eaten. Seeing that Bell was interested in the cat, the wife tried to encourage Sei to interact with us. Sei came and rubbed itself against the table leg. Then it took up position in front of the glass door and spent the rest of the evening staring outside. The wife told us that Sei only came home for dinner during the cold seasons. In the summer, it preferred to spend a few nights outside, hunting prey to feed itself.

The finale was steak, using the same meat as the beef sushi. The beef was nice and we preferred the parts which were less cooked as they remained juicy and tender. The parts which were more cooked were still tasty, but were not as good. The steak was accompanied with interesting vegetables like black carrot and burdock. The carrot was sweet and the burdock had a lovely smoky flavor. Bell liked the burdock a lot and said that it was not easy to make burdock taste so good.

The steak came with rice, miso soup and homemade pickles. The rice had a glossy sheen and lovely to look at. I really liked the pickled radish which were crunchy and mild. They were just a little sour and sweet. The miso soup had a slight citrus flavor which felt a bit weird to us. I think Bell noticed it more than me as it didn’t occur to me until Bell mentioned it.

The wife gave us less rice as she thought that we might be rather full by now. But being a good host, she came back after a while to check whether we wanted more rice. We were tempted as the food was really tasty. But we decided to show some restraint and declined her offer to refill our bowls.

Dessert was mizu yokan and syrupy winter melon. The winter melon was too sweet and I could do without it. We loved the mizu yokan was refreshingly light. It was like agar-agar but a classier version. At first, it tasted like water, refreshing and pure. Then a subtle red bean flavor started to permeate in the mouth, but its presence was fleeting and was gone almost as soon as I tasted it. I really like it because it looked so deceivingly simple but it had interesting layers of flavor.

During dinner, the wife asked us what were our plans for tomorrow. When we told her that we planned to spend the whole day at the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium, she looked surprised. She said, “There’s no need to spend the whole day at the aquarium, half a day is enough.” Then she thought about it and added a bit uncertainly, “If you want to look at every exhibit, you might need a day.”

Continuing, the wife said that it was cherry blossom season and there was a nice place nearby to view them. She offered to drive us to the place in the morning and then the aquarium later. We were a bit hesitant as we came all the way to visit the aquarium and it would be really stupid if we later regretted not spending enough time there because we spent half a day viewing cherry blossoms. So we told the wife that we would discuss it and let her know tomorrow.

After dinner, we left the restaurant and found the husband, who was also the chef, sitting outside the house with his dogs. The dogs remained quiet when they saw us as their master was with them. We let Charlie sniffed us and the wife said that now he knew our scent, he would not bark at us in the future.

It was quite chilly after dark so we bade the owners goodnight and returned to our room. Bell has been feeling a little unwell all day so she canceled her plan to soak in the bathtub. While she was bathing, I laid out the beds. Then Bell hurriedly came back, complaining that it was cold in the bathroom and toilet area. When it was my turn to bathe, I understood what she meant because the heater was only in our bedroom and the corridor to the bathroom and toilet was not heated. It was chilly once I stepped out of the bathroom so I didn’t waste time and quickly got dressed.

Luckily the quilts were puffy and very warm. We quickly buried ourselves under them. Bell said that the quilt was so puffy that even sitting up was an effort. It was very dark at night, but because it was cloudy, we were not able to see any stars. When it was time to sleep, we turned on the night light which gave a little glow so we knew where the toilet was, in case one of us wanted to use the toilet in the middle of the night.

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