Why would anyone go to Okinawa in the winter? Well, it helps that the trip started off with no destination in mind, mere days before leaving, with an aimless Google flight search for the cheapest flights out from Taipei. And so, Okinawa.

Of the many places in Japan, Okinawa was never a place I thought about much. But its proximity to Taiwan wins. With many cheap regional airline flights, plus affordable hotel options during off-season, it was the perfect low stakes escape.

Given the season, I felt perfectly content to not be ambitious in seeing the most of Okinawa. No car was rented. No tour was booked. The outdoor activities that Okinawa is known for could be saved for a future, warmer trip.

Three days, two nights. A few sights seen, meals eaten, malls shopped, and an itch scratched before returning to Taipei.

The flight to Naha took about 90 minutes. From there, the little monorail that could dropped off just a couple blocks away from the Hotel Nahana. The hotel looks pretty standard and no-frills but still checked off any amenities one would seek on a short trip. 

Like most of my Japan trips, the flight landed late enough in the evening that dinner became a konbini haul. Which, no one is mad at. 

The next morning started with the hotel’s breakfast buffet. And like every Asian hotel, the breakfast buffet delivered. 

The hotel breakfast buffet had many classic Japanese breakfast fare, as well as local delicacies like Okinawa noodles and smoked tofu. And my new obsession: pineapple and black sugar butter. 

— shuri castle

After breakfast, we took the monorail to Shuri Castle. The weather was playing nice and it was a temperate morning to spend walking the grounds with views over the city. 


Perched up on a hill, it’s a short walk from the monorail station to the entrance to the grounds. Before reaching the castle, you cross a lovely bridge and Buddhist shrine that leads to the ancient stone gate.

From the top, views of the city, island mountains, and the ocean beyond. 

For lunch, we stopped by a local favorite, Shuri Soba, which specializes in the Okinawan classic soba noodle, which is a chewy wheat noodle (notably different from the more well known buckwheat soba) garnished with pork in a light dashi broth. During lunch time, there was a queue out the door, many locals and some tourists (Japanese and foreign). The old school house was a little creaky in the best way. Upon entering, you take off your shoes and are ushered to a table, humble wood furnishings in a largely wood room. The menu is simple – noodles, rice, some side dishes. Simple and comforting food. 

— american village

It does feel a bit…ironic. Coming all the way to Okinawa from America. To go to American Village. But alas, it is one of the main attractions in the Naha area and accessible by bus in less than an hour. Which made it a good afternoon activity on a grey day.

American Village feels like Vegas. Or Disney. Or truly any large destination outlet mall. Or any other warm weather ostentatious commercial resort town with signs that scream at you. Perhaps the most American part of the aesthetic is the parking lot. It feels like an American childhood, spent in the back of the car, emerging in a parking lot to overstimulation of sights in a tourist destination.

I wish I could see this place through the eyes of a Japanese local, or someone who didn’t know America. Because to my American eyes, it felt a little uncanny. Like an AI-generated imagination of America. Dated. A surreal amalgamation of the most commercialized exports of American culture. America, as an aesthetic. Each individual item undoubtedly American in an overt way, and yet all together, felt foreign. I suppose it’s like any themed place, in America this is Chinatown. 

Hell, there was a whole Christmas store. Which, even though it was seasonally appropriate (it was mere days after Christmas), still felt off season somehow.

We stopped at Kona’s Coffee for an afternoon pick me up of coffee and decadent pancakes before heading toward the promenade to look over the water, even though it was far too overcast to have a real sunset.

grabbed another okinawa classic bite: an onigiri with egg and spam (and a creamy fried tofu), before hitting the road back to Naha

Goodbye to this glittering fever dream of America.

The next day was spent shopping in Naha. It was rainy anyways, so I was more than content to spend the day making the most of the current exchange rate while sheltering from the rain. Nothing groundbreaking, just hitting the mall for the classic chain stores. Uniqlo, MUJI, and some other local clothing chains. 

It was at the mall when I truly felt how small Naha is compared to the Asian megacities I am used to. The department stores were hardly crowded. The food court lacking, with just a couple restaurant/cafe types in the building. It all felt a bit sleepy, which was a novel experience after being used to feeling overwhelmed at Asian malls.

For dinner, we borrowed umbrellas from the hotel and walked over to a nearby ramen shop. It was an intimate bar-seating noodle counter perfect for solo eating. The noodles were made in house, and the tsukemen was wonderfully chewy.

— kokusai-dori

Every Japanese city has a tourist shopping street that becomes a “must hit” in all Asian travel guides. Because let’s be real, for Asian tourists, trips to Japan are more or less shopping trips, so no matter where you go, you’re obligated to not only pick up the specialty souvenirs, but also a full drug store haul. 

In Naha, this street is Kokusai Dori. Which has plenty of offshoots and markets in the commercial district. The main street is lined with souvenir shops and restaurants and hotels. Built for tourists. But there are some markets and galleries that branch off and feel a bit more local.

Okinawa is camp. It is Americana chaos. A little nostalgic. A pastiche of American exports and military influence. The street is, well, not pretty. It’s a visual mess compared to the tourist streets of cities like Kyoto. Or even the organized chaos of Osaka.

Many of the stores are filled with loud logos. A particular love for SPAM and of course the local pride Orion.

When it comes to souvenirs, many of the local delicacies are rooted in tropical produce. Pineapple, mango, and a local citrus that is a cross between a lime and an orange. Sweet potato, which is giftable in the form of tarts. Also, salt (sea salt – particularly delicious on ice cream or in creme-filled sandwich cookies) and black sugar (which, in addition to being delicious also has health benefits). 

There are also some beauty/skincare brands that feature local ingredients. Suisavon has beautiful soaps, skincare and fragrances.

There are also dozens of shops selling Okinawa Shisa of every size and color (reminiscent of Chinese guardian lion statues). Usually, they are in pairs, with one that wards off bad spirits and one that protects in good luck and blessings.

Then it was a final lunch (obligatory taco rice – though I opted for a vegan one) and obligatory Blue Seal ice cream dessert before heading back to the airport. 

Okinawa in the winter was surprisingly lovely. The warmth of a tropical island culture came through even in dreary days. I hope to be able to visit in a warmer season soon to fully appreciate the beauty and nature of Okinawa.

see also

snapshots from OSAKA
snapshots from KYOTO