November sees one of Okinawa’s biggest festivals, the so-called "Shuri-jo Matsuri" (Festival of Shuri Castle) and with it comes a long list of traditional dances, songs, concerts, shows, parades and nighttime illuminations. The festival lasts around a week and is one of the best times of the year to visit Okinawa if you’d like to get to know their unique culture: a moment when the Ryukyu Kingdom comes alive again for a few days.
Being highly interested in cultural aspects of this sort, I thought it would be a fantastic time to visit Okinawa!
What to Eat
Okinawa is overall a very vegan-friendly place, with lots of vegan foods already being included in their traditional diet and many modern vegan restaurants popping up all over. It’s without a doubt one of the best destinations for vegans in Japan. Some of the must-try local specialities include:
- Seaweed dishes: umibudou (sea grapes), mozoku tempura (deep fried mozoku), asa seaweed (asa soup in meat restaurants may or may not be vegan)
- Various unique tofus: jimami tofu (peanut tofu); yushi dofu (tofu soup) if it’s a solo dish but not when it’s soba; tofuyo (fermented tofu with awamori alcohol, very strong taste, consider yourself warned!)
- Snacks: muchi (they say it's similar to mochi from the mainland, but it has a fairly different taste, it typically comes wrapped in leaf), no manju, okinawa zenzai (ice + mochi + red beans), soy ice cream
- Fruits and veggies: star fruit, dragon fruit, goya juice, etc.
Dishes such as champuru, okinawa soba and taco rice can be made vegan in dedicated vegan restaurants so you won’t miss out!
DAY 1) NAHA — Arrival
Though my plane was scheduled to land in Okinawa at 12:15pm, my flight was first delayed and later couldn't land because of "flight congestion”, so I ended up reaching Naha later in the day and any plans I had were cancelled. A bus took us from the tiny airport terminal where we landed to the main terminal and I took the monorail into Naha proper, going straight to my hostel at Kencho-mae to check-in. Too late for any sightseeing, since museums were about to close, I just walked around Makishi Market and Kokusai-dori, eating plenty food.
DAY 2) NAHA
As always, I started early and took the monorail from Kencho-mae to Shuri, the last stop. I spent a while walking around the walls and park around the castle before attending the "gate opening ceremony”, basically a man banging a gong, marking the opening of the castle gate (8:30am). I highly recommend visiting at this time because Shuri Castle is an extremely popular site. I was able to visit the castle without any people but, when I did my second loop right after to stop by the café near the entrance, the grounds and halls were absolutely packed full of school children and tourists.
After the castle I visited Tamaudun, the royal tombs, then did a bit of a walking route through the ancient paved road, Kinjocho, and over the hill to Shikinaen. I got a bit lost along the way, but I was pointed in the right direction by a few passerbys, and ended up crossing through a cemetery to get there. Okinawa has kept its traditional style cemeteries, called haka, that differ from those on mainland Japan. A single haka belongs to a whole family rather than having individual spaces for each person, it looks like a sort of house made out of stone with a round roof. Shikinaen is a wonderful garden with many Chinese influences and, since I’m not from a tropical country, I was impressed with the amount of greenery, especially the corridors of trees!
Finally, I headed over the hill again back to the castle (stopping at another café for some Okinawa zenzai) for various festival events: volunteers dressed up as the traditional royal family, multiple dances on a stage set up in the castle grounds and an outdoors concert. I saw the sunset from one of the castle walls and stuck around for some of the night illuminations before heading back to my hostel.
Day 3) NAHA
Day 3 was the main day of the Shurijo festival, I won’t go into details here but you can read about it and see photos on my blog. In between the various festival events I visited the Tsuboya pottery district and had lunch at a delicious place called Natural food and snack mana (自然食とおやつ mana), before going back to the castle to see some more dances.
----- Intermission -----
DAY 7) URUMA and NAHA
After a morning at Katsuren (see Uruma tab), I made it back to Naha and visited Fukushuen, a Chinese garden made in more modern times (1950s) to celebrate the close ties between Okinawa and China. Someone I met who lives in China told me some details don't quite fit because of the different rocks and climate, but since it was my first time seeing a Chinese garden I was just excited to see the typical round doors.
Further along I went to Naminoue Shrine and Naha beach, they were both crowded with tourists (Okinawa is pretty popular with Chinese, Korean and US visitors), a small Confucian temple and I ended my day at an izakaya.
DAYS 8-9) NAHA
For my last couple of days in Okinawa I had planned to see a parade scheduled as part of the festival, unfortunately it was cancelled because of the bad weather! Clearly none of my plans were working out for me on this trip!
In the end I ended up visiting the Imperial headquarters, the Prefectural Museum and Sueyoshi Park, plus eating my way through Makishi Market once again. I ate so many muchi that the old woman at the stall smiled when she saw me coming once again.
The US and Japan fought at the end of WWll, most of the attacks were aerial but Okinawa was the only place where they fought face to face. The Imperial Headquarters was one of the Japanese bases, kilometre long tunnels underground built by hand, where they hid towards the end of the war when the US arrived to land in the "typhoon of steel". It wasn't too sombre because the loudspeakers kept playing a funny tune, but still a bit claustrophobic and hard to believe how so many people must've lived down there.
The Prefectural Museum was very interesting, I’d already seen a few Okinawan-style houses around Nanjo but the interior displays gave me a lot of information I didn’t know. Fantastic miniature models! Sueyoshi Forest Park is very underrated but was also wonderful, it was raining so it was very misty and seemed more green than usual, I highly recommend a visit up to the shrine and then the longer route past the waterfall.
My flight was at 18:50h, so I left my hostel and went to the airport at around 16:30h on my last day.
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