Hawaii of the East: 72 Hours in Okinawa

 

Okinawa has been referred to as the “Hawaii of the East.” As Japan’s southern most prefecture, the island of Okinawa offers a tropical climate that can be an easy escape from the more northern parts of the country. Memorial Day weekend gave my family a couple of days to take the quick trip and do a little exploring ourselves.

We booked our trip through our base’s IACE Travel department, which made things so easy from the start. The flight and car rental were arranged, and we were given a choice from a variety of hotels. We chose the Rizzan Sea Park Hotel Tancha Bay. Our plan was to arrive on Saturday afternoon, have two full days Sunday and Monday, and then head back Tuesday.

The plane was only about half full, so both Jesse and I had our own row. We split the kids, and we had landed in Okinawa in what felt like just a few minutes. For a relatively small island, Okinawa has a decent sized airport. After we departed, we hopped a shuttle bus that carried us to our baggage claim. Within a few minutes, we had our items (as stated in one of my earlier blogs, Navigating Tokyo , Americans always stand out because of our immense amount of luggage. My family is working on downgrading with each trip) and on board another shuttle headed to get our rental car. Since our three suitcases, two carry ons, two car seats, a camera bag, and a double stroller didn’t fit in the first car, we had to upgrade to the next sized vehicle. But once we were all settled in, we were off to the Rizzan.

The drive from the rental car agency to the Rizzan was about an hour, but was completely worth it. I made Jesse pull over at one point so I could snap a picture of the emerald waters with the mountains in the background. Pictures truly don’t do it justice.

We don’t like to waste too much time in hotel rooms while we travel, so once we were checked in, we turned right around and jumped back into the car. It was already the afternoon, so we knew we couldn’t adventure too long, but being the military family that we are, we wanted to check out the Kadena Air Force Base. We spent some time shopping at the Exchange, which is much larger than the one we are used to, grabbed some dinner, and headed back. We ended our evening splashing around in the hotel’s indoor pool.

On Sunday, I wanted to head to the Mihama American Village. This American themed area is filled with restaurants, shops, and entertainment. The main spot in the village is called the American depot. The maze-like area is massive and filled with shop after shop. We spent several hours shopping and dining, and there was still so much we just couldn’t cover. If you want a touch of American food and clothes, the American Village is definitely a place to visit.

It may sound strange to some, but one of my little bucket list items is to one day get a fish pedicure. I planned on doing this (and still do) in Thailand or Vietnam, but the American Depot gave me a a little glimpse into how it would be. Although not a full pedicure, we did find an area that allowed customers to sit and have doctor fish (a family member of the Carp)  eat away at your feet. I, for one, could not wait to do this. We paid 500 yen for 5 minutes, and I honestly loved every minute.  I had no idea if it would hurt, but I quickly found out it simply tickles in the beginning. After a minute or so, it just feels strange. As for my feet after the 5 minutes? They actually were really smooth.  As soon as I was done, Jesse was throwing down another 500 yen and giving it a go as well.

Part of our travel package was a free dinner at the hotel. With five resort restaurants to choose from, we instantly decided on one of our favorites: Yakiniku. Popular in Japan, Yakiniku restaurants allow guests to cook their own meats and vegetables on top of the flame grill located in the table. We were seated right on the ocean and surrounded by tiki torches. It definitely closed the evening with the tropical feel we were seeking.

After breakfast on Monday morning, we decided we needed some beach time. There was no way we were going to a tropical island and not spend some time on the beach. We rented an umbrella and stretched out for a bit. I was so excited to get Maddox in the ocean that I had purchased a cute life vest, beach ball, a float in the shape of a jet, and a pail and bucket. Unfortunately for me, Maddox may not yet share my love of the beach. Other than the pail and bucket, he wasn’t having any of it. He threw a fit when sand touched his feet, so an hour and 800 yen later, we packed everything up and headed to the pool. He enjoyed that scene a bit more, so at least the float got some use.

Early afternoon, we headed back to the room from the pool to get cleaned up. Fifteen minutes later, we were on the road and headed  to the end of the island to explore the Okinawa Churami Aquarium. The kids were asleep, and it really allowed us to take in the beauty of this island on the hour drive. Jesse even commented just how much Okinawa is similar to Hawaii in both beauty and culture. Aquarium passes were included in our package, and when we arrived, we couldn’t wait to see the heavily advertised whale sharks. Once we parked, we followed a long trail pass intricate hedges and cafes before entering the actual aquarium. Once inside, some of the most beautiful fish were displayed, many native only to Okinawa. Maddox had never been to an aquarium and was completely fascinated with the fish in the smaller tanks. We kept explaining there were big fish and sharks to be seen, but he was perfectly content where he was. After some coercing, we managed to bring him into the aquarium’s main attraction: the whale shark tank. There were small tables set up on the side where a guest could grab a snack or coffee and sit. I mentioned to Jesse that I was grateful none were available, because I would never leave that spot. We just sat with Maddox as he screamed and pointed to each shark, fish, and manta ray that swam by. The size of each of these species was incredible to see in person but we had to move on to the rest of the aquarium.

Before exiting the main building, we went through an exhibit which displayed skeletons and activities geared towards teaching more about underwater creatures. Maddox tended to pound on the glass too much, so we could only stay there for a short time. Once we left, we went across the trail into the next portion where we saw manatees and sea turtles in their underground viewing room. We had just missed the dolphin show, but were able to see several of them playing in the pool at the end of the trail. After exploring what all there was to see, we started to make our way back to the car. We did let Maddox play a bit in the fountain before our drive home, which must have worked because he fell asleep rather quickly on the drive.By the time we arrived back at the hotel, we were completely exhausted.

The next morning, we packed up our things, had some breakfast and headed back to the rental car agency. Okinawa is only about 466 square miles, but there is quite an abundance of activities. A 72 hour trip to this tropical destination was the perfect getaway for Memorial Day Weekend, but Jesse and I are already talking about when we would get to visit this beautiful island again.

View from a coffee shop at the American Depot.
Trying the soda flavored iced candy. Advertised as the “only one in the world.”
Trying some hard iced candy
Toy Kitchen rainbow snow cone
Coffee stop in the American Village
Only a small portion of the American Village
Yakiniku at the Rizzan
Baby Asher
Our personal Yakiniku chef
Very upset with sand getting on his toes
Finally playing in the sand-on a towel
Pool time went over better
Sea turtles
Massive whale shark
Aquarium
Small fish tank
Aquarium
Entrance into the Aquarium
View of the ocean from the aquarium
Intricately designed hedges along path to aquarium
Intricately designed hedges along path to aquarium
Playing in the fountains

Navigating Tokyo

View from the top of Tokyo Tower

Sometimes, well most times, military families do not get much of a decision when selecting a duty station. In our case, the Marine Corps sends my husband where he is needed, and the family just tags along; however, in our particular case, we were asked out of AZ, CA, & Japan, where would we like to go next.

For us, Japan was the obvious choice.

We sometimes get weird reactions when we tell people that, but we were born to travel. We want to see the world and everything it has to offer, and if the government wants to help pay for that, well, why the heck not?

Three weeks into our move, it was time for me to travel. A good friend of mine, Sam, was delivering her baby in Tokyo, so we arranged for me to come visit her for a few days while she waited for her baby to arrive. My husband had to work, so it was just little man and me venturing to Tokyo, and to say it was an experience would be an understatement.

Our plane journey to Tokyo is an entirely different story, so I will save that for another blog, so fast forward to my arrival.

  • Train Station-There may have been some watery eyes in this process. I feel I’m a pretty independent person, but when I’m in another country, with a 1 year old, a large suitcase, surrounded by virtually no one who speaks English, and I have to figure out what train to take to make it to my friend, my limits are tested; however, once I figured out the transit option on my Maps app, life became much smoother.
One of the many trains we took in our 72 hour visit.

The train system is color coded, which helped tremendously. The app even allowed me to see which train to take, when to transfer, how long I would be on the train, and how many stops it would make. For those who may be used to trains and subways-I’m looking at you NYC- this may be common sense. For the girl who drives everywhere, this ended up being incredibly tough for me, and even after three full days in Tokyo, I still didn’t mastered it.

The Japanese utilize every bit of space available. There are even professional “pushers” to make get as many people on each cart as possible.

Also, be prepared to have personal space invaded. The trains are packed and chairs aren’t offered to women or the elderly like they would be in the States; however, the Japanese are so respectful. I took up so much space; yet, I received nothing but smiles. As the train doors opened, and there were mad rushes to get on and off before they closed, my luggage was constantly lifted on and off the train for me. I had a few people even escort me to the elevator with it. Sound sketchy? In the States, I would have elbowed someone in the face if they touched by luggage, but Japan-it’s just different. They are genuinely kind people.

Most of the strollers are simple umbrella strollers, so even my single Chicco Bravo stood out.

The biggest takeaway, be weary of large luggage. Americans definitely stand out. We have big everything-strollers, luggage, and bodies! Even the Japanese who carried luggage only had small carry-ons or backpacks. Strollers were mainly compact umbrella strollers, and I didn’t see any diaper bags (nor families with more than two children). I’ve never thought of myself as an over packer, but my next trip to Tokyo, I will definitely size down in this area.

Welcome to Harajuku!

DAY 1: Harajuku & The Fashion District                                                                    If large crowds give you anxiety, Harajuku is not the place to go. I have never seen so many people at the same place, at the same time. It was both fascinating and exhausting. Harajuku was eccentric to say the least. The fashion is, well, different.: five-inch platform sandals, giant glitter hair bows, rainbow colored crop tops. However, once I was able to get past all the crazy shops of clothing and souvenirs that a part of me wanted to buy, yet knew it was a complete waste of money, we discovered some amazing cafes and restaurants.

My brunch at Pompompurin Café made up of rice, pancake, fruit, veggies, and salsa.

We grabbed lunch at Pompompurin Café. Haven’t heard of it? You may soon. Pompompurin is a golden retriever character created by the same company that started Hello Kitty and is growing quickly in popularity throughout Japan.

The entrance to Reissue. You have to be looking for it, or you will miss it.

After finishing lunch, my friend and I headed over to the Latte Art Café Reissue. After climbing up a very steep flight of stairs, were warmly greeted and led to a small table, which we shared with a Japanese mom and daughter. One of our favorite stops throughout the entire trip, we simply showed the waitress a picture of whatever we wanted to have their “café artist” recreate on our drink. Since Sam and I were away from our husbands, we thought this would be a good way to have them join us.

My custom latte. <3

Ten minutes later, a phenomenally looking latte appeared. After a half dozen pictures, we finally made ourselves drink the $10 latte, and it was delicious. The café claims to be able to recreate any picture that is brought to them, including 3-D, and by the amount of pictures being taken all of the customers throughout the quaint café, we were not the only ones impressed.

One of the many high end stores located in the fashion district.

A street over is the fashion district. This was a nice break from the massive crowds, but any real dreams of shopping were quickly squashed for these two military spouses. The street was aligned with high-end stores such as Gucci, Prada, Celine, Louis Vuitton, etc. We window shopped and dreamed, and an hour later, we decided it was time to head home.

Fashion District

 

 

We had to brace the crowd back through Harajuku, which by now had doubled in size. On our way out, we wanted some cotton candy at the Totti Candy Shop. We had passed by this shop earlier, but thought it would be a perfect ending to our day. This is not your typical cotton candy. It’s colorful and massive and even comes with a glove to avoid that annoying stickiness. Unfortunately, everyone else must have thought it was a good time for cotton candy as well because it was a two hour wait! We passed for this trip, but definitely on our list for next time.

Before giving birth, Sam had the opportunity to go back to Totti Candy Factory to grab her some cotton candy. I will have to wait until my next Tokyo visit before I can experience this rainbow of sweetness.
  • Day 2: Shiba-Koen & Shibuya
A different view from the top of the Tokyo tower.
Our private elevator (not sure why the blue led lighting).

We knew today we wanted to see the city: literally. We headed for the highest point: The Tokyo Tower located in the Shiba-koen district. We had been told to get there early to avoid the long lines. While reading up on the Tokyo Tower, articles kept mentioning all the steps we needed to climb. If this were accurate, it definitely would have been a site we wouldn’t have been able to see between a 9 month pregnant woman and a stroller. Fortunatley, it was the complete opposite. We felt more like VIPs. After about a 20 minute wait, we purchsed tickets and were escported to a private eleveator that took us right to the top. The views were spectacular. There was a little café, so we sat to have a bite and some coffee while enjoying the scenery.

Cafe at the top of Tokyo tower overlooking the city.
Max enjoying the view.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After an hour or, we started back down on our private elevator and headed to Shibuya.

Pedestrians getting ready to cross.
Approximately 2,500 pedestrians cross this intersection every 60 seconds. This is our view from the top of Starbucks.

This was the most fascinating part of our three day trip. There is a reason Shibuya is known for the world’s largest crosswalk. In only 60 seconds, up to 2,500 people cross the street every time the light signals. I have never seen so many people in such a relatively small space in my entire life. Before crossing, we had to take a moment and just watch (as did MANY other visitors). We finally went, and as cheesy as it may sound, it was a bit of an adrenaline rush. Directly across the street is Starbucks. The line was out the door, but we still wanted to see the “Starbucks View.” Hands down, that has to be the quickest Starbucks I have ever been to. There were close to 20 people in line in front of me, and I had my latte in less than 10 minutes. I headed up the stairs and just watched the crossing from a higher viewpoint. (Plus, I was able to grab my Tokyo Starbucks mug). With the exception of a $5 latte, it was one of our favorite spot and completely free.

  • Day 5: Kamakura
Great Buddha
Our entrance ticket to walk the grounds around The Great Buddha.

On our last full day, we decided to head to Kamakura to see The Great Buddha. There was a nice trail leading up to The Great Buddha. There is an option to go inside, but we decided just to purchase the main entrance ticket. We saw many Japanese lighting incense and praying, and it was a really interesting location to just observe. We walked around the site for a bit, learned more about Buddhism, and then ventured into Kamakura.

Shopping the streets of Kamakura.

There were cute shops and restaurants we visited, but after three days, these two gals were exhausted, so we decided to call it an early day and headed back.

 

 

 

Overall, Tokyo is a fascinating city to visit.  Although we just touched the surface on sites to see and things to do, we feel that three full days was our max for that trip. Our legs were sore, we were mentally exhausted, and it gave us an excuse to visit again.

 

Saying Sayonara in Kamakura

What is a must for our next visit? Mario carts!

A Kid in Kyoto

The second most visited place in Japan is the city of Kyoto. With a population of over 1.4 million, the city is filled with tourist hot spots, and my family couldn’t wait to visit as many as possible.

My husband, son and I decided to use Veteran’s Day weekend to take the 2 night, 3 day trip to the city. We had two options-drive 5 hours, or take the 2 hour Shinkansen (bullet train). I had been wanting to take the bullet train since we arrived in Japan, so that was an easy decision. Many of our friends had recommended AirBnB, so that is the route we decided to take. Our rental was approximately two blocks from the train station, so very convenient to access the train throughout the weekend.

No handrails-simply steps cemented into the wall. Terrifying, especially with a toddler.
Our AirBnB. It was small, but very neat and modern.
The only panel that was operated using the electrical panel in the shower stall.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We arrived around 3:30 pm, and with only about 48 hours to see as many (kid friendly) sites as possible, we knew we had to make it count. Here are our Top 5 Must-See Destinations in Kyoto:

 

  • Nijo jo Castle

About a block from our AirBnB, was the Nijo-jo Castle. The castle lets in its last guest at 4:00pm, so we had to hustle; fortunately for us, we were the last ones allowed in. Built over 400 years ago, the Nijo-jo Castle was the residence of the most powerful man in Japan and first Tokugawa shogun (military government ruler), Ieyasu. In 1893, it became an imperial palace after the fall of the Tokugawa before being donated to the public in 1939. Today, visitors can walk throughout the castle, viewing each of the numerous rooms and learning of its purpose. Some rooms were designated for the less ranking officials, while others were held for special guests. Breathtaking murals are painted throughout the castle, each with a distinct meaning and purpose. Some rooms are covered in tigers, while an adjacent one may have floor to ceiling pine trees. The most unique feature of the castle is the “nightingale floors.” To warn against sneak attacks or assassins, the boards were intentionally structured to make a bird chirping sound when anyone walks on them. Walking through this centuries old palace and getting a glimpse into the style of that time period can be considered beautiful in itself, but when guests exit the building, they are surrounded by acres of gardens, moats, and elaborate gates once used to protect the castle from outside enemies. English audio tours can be rented for 500 yen (around $4.50), and we wish we could have taken advantage of those. I’m sure we would have learned even more about this destination; however, being the last visitors, we simply ran out of time. Fortunately, there are signs throughout the castle explaining much of the site. Cameras are not allowed in the castle, so it really is a spot one must see.

 

Cost: 600 yen per person (kids are free)

 

Kid Friendly: Unlike many castles that go up, this one is considered a flatland castle. There are very few stairs; however, strollers are now allowed. Shoes also must come off before entering, but both strollers and shoes can be safely stored at the entrance.

 

  • Fushimi Inari Tight

The next morning, we headed to the most famous shrine in Japan, theFushimi Inari Taishi in southern Kyoto. About a ten-minute walk from the Kyoto train station, the shrine has thousands of torii gates dating all the way back to 711 A.D. Each of the torii gates were dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice and their names and dedication dates can be found in kanji writing on the backside of the gate. Foxes are thought to be Inari’s messengers, so many statues are located throughout the grounds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Upon arriving to the destination, visitors will quickly see the gates start to ascend up a mountain. Many hikers will explore the full 2.5-mile path; however, all guests are welcome to turn back at anytime.

Cost: Free

 

Kid Friendly: Strollers are not allowed on the trail; however, the mountain is not steep, and with the flexibility to turn back at any time, it is definitely manageable with children. Take comfortable walking shoes.

 

 

  • Arashiyama

Arashiyama is a full sightseeing district and definitely worth the trip. Thinking our son would love it, we decided to take the hike up the Iwatayama Mountain and see the monkey park. With over 150 macaque monkeys up close and personal, the monkey park is about a 30-50 minute hike.

Being six months pregnant, this proved to be a bit more difficult for me, but there were benches located throughout the train that several visitors were utilizing. The trail itself had some dangerous areas, no railings and steep drops, so there were several spots we wouldn’t allow our one year old to walk and needed to be carried. Towards their top of the mountain, and just short of the park, is a “resting area” with a small playground. Once we left the playground, and ascended another 100 feet, an absolutely incredibly view of Kyoto opened up for picture taking. For a few moments, we didn’t even pay attention to the monkeys walking right next to us because we couldn’t take our eyes off this beautiful city, but once we broke away, the exhaustion from the trail was quickly forgotten. Our son loved the monkeys; however, he did decide to throw a tantrum when we wouldn’t let him play with them. Visitors can purchase food to feed the monkeys and there is no shortage of spots where monkeys are relaxing, but there are signs everywhere to not look them directly in the eyes. After half an hour or so, we decide to head back down the mountain, which proved to be much easier!

Cost: 550 yen ($5.00) per adult. Kids 4 and under are free

Kid Friendly: Semi depending on age. Strollers are not allowed, so be ready to carry small children.

 

Once we exited the monkey park, we took the 10-15 minute walk to the bamboo Grove, passing dozens of shops and restaurants and crossing a bridge with even more gorgeous sites to take in. I was so incredibly exited to get to these paths, which cover over 500 meters, and it was completely worth it. Shaded and peaceful, the bamboo forest really allows visitors to take in the tranquil surroundings of the area. If traveling without the kids and for a bit of a romantic feel, rickshaw rides can be rented for 5000-7000 yen (roughly $40-60). English tour guides on the rides will take up to two guests on private trails, picturesque spots, and provide knowledgeable information on the area. Although we snapped dozens of photos, none can convey the atmosphere in person, making it an easy (and free) must see.

 

Cost: Free

 

Kid friendly: Very. Strollers are allowed, and guests can turn back at any time.

 

  • Golden Palace

On our last day in Kyoto, we knew we wanted to check out the Kinkaku-ji , which became a favorite stop for my family and the most photographed temple in Japan. After a quick bus ride, we arrived at the Kinkaku-ji, better referred to as the Golden Pavillion, the Kinkaku. Dating back to 1397, the temple was originally built for statesman, Saionji Kintsune, and later purchased by Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. After Yoshimitsu’s death, and designated in his will, his son converted the complex into a Zen temple. In 1950, a crazed monk burned much of the original structure, but the pavilion was restored to its original design, including the gold-leaf coating that covers the temple. Besides the obvious gold element that makes this temple so unique, the building also boasts three floors of different styled architecture. The Kinkaku-ji is located in the middle of a pond, and although it cannot be entered, often the windows of the pavilion are open, where statues of Yoshimitsu and Shaka Buddha can be seen on the first floor.

Visitors can continue to follow the garden path around the pond and up a slight hill where a tea house will end the tour. The beautiful shaded trail is a must-see during the fall season when the leaves are changing colors.

 

 

 

Cost: 400 yen per adult & 300 yen per elementary/middle school aged child (toddlers/babies are free)

Kid Friendly: The garden path is a flat pathway and very easy to walk with small children and strollers; however, there are stairs towards the end of the trail (and must be climbed to access the tea house). We took turns going up the stairs to check out the tea house and small markets located at the top of the hill, while one of us stayed with our son (about an additional 10 minutes each). We then simply turned around and went back down the way we came down the path.

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Kiyomizu Sera

 

Once we left the Golden Pavillion, we jumped back on the bus and within a few minutes we were walking our way up towards the Kiyomizu Dera. Our last major stop on trip, this Buddhist Temple was founded in 780 and is best known for its “stage” that extends from the main building providing stunning sites of Kyoto. Like many sites throughout Kyoto, the Kiyomizu Dera is located up a steep mountain; however, the path is considered the Higashiyama District and is aligned with numerous shops and restaurants catering to tourists.

We were surrounded by both men and women in Kimonos and couldn’t help but to stop in a little shop to pick our son up his very own.

    

Throughout the Kiyomizu Dera are areas where guests can stop to pray, whether with the use of incense or in front of a statue. Once visitors exit the temple, they descend down a trail lined small waterfalls and even more views of Kyoto.

 

Cost: 400 yen per adult (kids are free)

 

 

 

Kid Friendly: The HigashiyamaDistrict is very crowded, but strollers are allowed; however, they must be left at the bottom of the temple due to the amount of stairs needed to climb. The temple itself is an easy walk with children.

 

What we wish we could have done:

There was one thing I really wanted to do on our short trip to Kyoto, but we simply ran out of time. I wanted to see a Geisha! Upon leaving Kiyomizu Dera, we decided to walk to the train station versus taking the bus. The walk was much farther, but it allowed us to walk through Gion, the area to find a Geisha. We had learned that dusk was the ideal time to spot one, and timing wise, we may have been a bit early, but that didn’t deter us from looking down every alley we passed. If you have extra time to sightsee, check out the neighborhoods of Hanami-koji-dori in Gion, especially n the weekends and holidays, but remember, snap a photo from afar since many geishas don’t have time to stop for a picture, as they are usually on their way to an appointment.

Overall, our trip was amazing. Kyoto is beautiful and has over 17 UNESCO World Historic Monuments. Traveling with a child (or children) will slow any family down, but children should never be an excuse to not explore the world.