Okinawa: Living In Paradise

I have just relocated to the U.S. after living in Okinawa for the past three years.  For those of you not up on your Japanese geography, Okinawa is a tropical paradise of an island situated south of Japan in the East China sea and approximately 340 miles from the Japanese mainland.  The sand is white, the water blue and the landscape dotted with palm fronds blowing in the breeze, pineapple trees and mango plants.  What’s not to love, right?  Wrong.

I have always been partial to traveling throughout Europe and I hope, in the future to spend time in Africa, like my sister who has just returned from working with the UN in Liberia.  I have never been particularly interested in Asia as a region or visiting any of the countries there. (Does that make me a horrible person?) But when the opportunity arose for my husband to  move to Japan for work, despite my lack of interest in visiting the area, I did not feel right turning down a chance for me and my family to live abroad, particularly my son who at the time had never traveled outside of the U.S.

Upon arriving on island, I began a love-hate relationship with Okinawa.  I loved the fact that there was beauty everywhere you looked and the weather was great (except the rainy season, barely noticeable earthquakes and the numerous tsunami warnings).  But an island is so, well, island-ish, you know…small and surrounded by water.  After awhile, you’ve done all of the touristy-things, you run into the same people and you, well start to pout and long to be elsewhere, like Rome or Paris. (Maybe that was just me.  Well, no it wasn’t because I had several girlfriends who felt the exact same way.)

Cape Hedo, Okinawa

Fortunately for me, about six months before it was time to leave the island, my best friend and I started to prematurely wax poetic about Oki (as the resident Americans called it) and all that we would miss.  Instead of meeting at the local Starbucks for our weekly gabfests, we started taking walks on the beach to enjoy the view.  I started taking pictures of the everyday things I knew I would miss.  My husband and I even made a list of restaurants we wanted to visit but hadn’t and made sure that we went.  And we visited some of our favorite tourist haunts–again.

By the time I was packing and readying to return stateside, I was, dare I say, misty-eyed? My husband noticing my change of heart reassured me that we could always return if I really truly missed the island that much.  I quickly came to my senses and realized that while I belatedly regained my gratitude for the opportunity to live abroad, meet wonderful people and experience a wonderful culture, I really did not want to stay.

Interestingly enough for a person who formerly has no interest in the region, I am now pursuing a Masters of Science in International Relations.  And yes, you guessed it, I am specializing in the Northeast Asian region and terribly interested in security issues related to Japan, both Koreas and China.

Here is my brief list of things I’ll  miss about Okinawa:

Drink Machines

Drink machines are more ubiquitous than Starbucks in Okinawa and throughout mainland Japan.  Literally, ever five paces or so, there was a drink machine offering the coolest drinks you never heard of, like white grape with bits of aloe (weird sounding but tasty),  fruity gelatin drinks (Yes, like drinking Jell-o with a straw and a big hit with the kiddies.), fifty different kinds of coffee in a can (espresso, americano, latte…) super-strong, bitter jasmine tea,  various fruit and tea mixes (like white grape tea, apple tea…) and White Water (a mysterious yet popular milky-white, carbonated beverage).

Canned Coffee

Delicious and convenient coffee in a can, I miss you dearly

Before you could find Starbucks in a can in your local convenience store, the Japanese were chugging canned coffee in the morning, afternoon and evening.  They come hot or ice-cold straight from the vending machine and only cost the equivalent of one American dollar.



Purple Potato Ice Cream

Yes, there is a purple potato that grows in Okinawa.  It is a lovely, deep violet color and is very tasty.

Nail Art

Nope, Not My Nails.

The nail art in Okinawa is not to be believed.  What would be considered tacky in the U.S. is  highly popular throughout all of Japan.  It is very rare to see local women and girls without nail art.  Most American women kept their finger nails traditional and went crazy on the toes.  I will admit, there are some exceedingly pretty designs.  When I was in Okinawa, I would typically get a French Manicure with a few strategically placed rhinestones on one or two fingers.  Occasionally, I’d get a small, three-dimensional white flower painted on one nail.  I miss getting nail art.  I am back to my predictable blood-red color on short nails.  Oh well.

Japanese Pastries

Exquisitely crafted, light as air, not-too-sweet desserts.  See this post dedicated to the art of Japanese patisseries.

Strawberry Tart – My Older Son’s Favorite Japanese Dessert.

Rice Balls

A bit self-explanatory but balls (or sometimes triangle-shaped) of rice,  wrapped in seaweed, seasoned with salt and occasionally filled with salmon or pickled plum or my personal favorite,  bonita flakes (dried flakes of smoked fish).  Delicious, healthy and a much better option than Happy Meals with apple slices when feeding kids in the car.

Yup. It’s a ball of rice.

The Sounds of Drums In The Far Off Distance

The sounds of drums could always be heard in the distance.  It made for a nice, eerie yet authentically Okinawan soundtrack for my life on the island.  Eisa (a traditional Okinawan dance) groups were ever present, practicing late into the night.  Eventually you’d see the groups in their bright red vests on a random street corner attracting hordes of pedestrians while they did a choreographed dance along with singing and chanting with and without drums.  Lovely to hear and lots of fun to watch.  Check it out below.

Shishi Dogs

Shishi translates into lion, but most Okinawans consider this mystical creature a dog with magical powers and the ability to repel evil spirits.  For this reason, you will find statues of Shishi dogs on the roof of, or at the entrance of every home, restaurant, office building and facility on the island usually in pairs. Okinawans take their Shishi’s quite seriously.  When I was new to the island, seeing them under every nook and cranny was unsettling.

I did, however get used to seeing them.  And now, I miss their grotesque faces and hideous expressions.   Good thing I sent my brother a pair of Shishi dogs for Christmas, I can see them when I visit his home.


Fun, Touristy Stuff

Shuri Castle in Okinawa, Japan

If, however you are like me and avoid water because it turns my perfectly blown-out hair into an impossibly frizzy mess of spiral curls (this island’s intense, suffocating humidity in the summer is also the archenemy of my hair).  You will have fun visiting Peace Prayer Park, Shuri Castle, the Churaumi  Aquarium (second largest aquarium in the world–we went three times!) and eating.  Yes, I said eating!  There are so many great restaurants on the island, I will probably have to do a separate post just to discuss Japanese food.  Okinawans are also big fans of Italian and Jamaican food and there are numerous Italian and Caribbean restaurants on the island with an Okinawan spin on popular menu favorites.  Sweet corn on pizza, anyone?

Vipers in Vodka (Pssst…I don’t miss this.)

Okay, not exactly vipers in Vodka but I liked the way it sounded (To an English major, alliteration-even in prose is cool).  Habu sake or awamori is a liquor made of rice and the venom of the deadly pit viper, the Habu-a snake indigenous to Okinawa.  And for the pièce de résistance, Okinawans bottle the beverage with an entire snake coiled inside.  The alcohol in the liquor neutralizes the venom.  However, I have never tried this beverage, nor will I ever.  Just as I am not a cat-lover, I have a strong dislike for anything that crawls on its belly, hisses and is filled with poison.

What do you miss about Okinawa?  Or if you’ve never been, what do you want to see?


29 thoughts on “Okinawa: Living In Paradise

  1. After reading your post it started me thinking. I arrived in Oki in 1955 on the U S S. Anderson and left in 1957 on the U.S.S. Patrick. My memories of the island(in spite of the cond.) was thw people,there were always helpfull,smileing and polite. There have been many a night,s that i sit and think of what a beaitiful place it was, I recall my first Chrustmas we did not have a Christmas tree to put up outside the Service Clib so with the help Okinawa people we built one out of ply-wood (18Ft) with stars cut out,we used light blubs to light up the stars. Boy it almost looked real you could see all the way down to the fight line. It was just great. There are so many stories and memories like this,but i am sure your not intresyed in a 81 year old babblings. But thank you for allowing me to reminisce.

  2. My husband and I are moving there in a couple of months. Heard more bad than good, but trying my hardest to go over with a positive state of mind about it. Easier said than done.

    1. It’s major culture shock to be sure, but so much to love and enjoy. Try to stay open-minded and enjoy the experience. Once you leave you’ll probably never have that experience again. 🙂

      1. My wife and I lived there from 2009 to 2012. We are now returning in 2 months to stay another few years. Although I have some anxiety about moving back because this time we have 2 kids (one was born in Okinawa, but left at 2 years old), it is a beautiful, and safe, place to live. Because we lived a bit away from the bases, we made a small network of Okinawan friends who are excited to have us move back. Granted, there are some bad things about Okinawa. The language barrier is tough. The island can get very small at times. The summer heat and humidity is also daunting on days. But, over all, Okinawa is a great place to live.

    2. Hello, We moved to Japan last year from Hawaii and it has been one full year.
      Finally adjusted and we like Japan very much! Just wondering what Oki is like
      for you both? We are living in Karuizawa. Thinking of visiting Oki in Dec.
      Last year we spent winter in Thailand to avoid the cold here. Be blessed!

  3. This place is actually the armpit of Asia…and Asia is the arm pit of the world (middle east being the other armpit). I can never understand people who “love” this place….it’s so horrible in so many ways. I hate it and will never return again in my life! I have one month left of my 3 year your. PS. The weather is definitely not “gorgeous” as another poster said. It rains all the time and is so incredibly hot and humid anytime may they September that it’s impossible to enjoy anything outdoors.

    1. I’m sorry to hear you’re so unhappy there. Surely there’s one thing you like about it? How about the canned drinks? They’re kind of cool, right?

  4. I have visited my son and his wife for a couple months around the holidays of 2015 and just returned from Okinawa a month ago. I was not just pleasantly impressed, but really fell in love with the beauty of the island, it’s people and it’s customs. I found it to be very friendly and very safe. Lots of things to do, places to visit, restaurants to experience all sort of cuisine, with an accent on the Okinawan and Japanese – but also a number of Indian, Thai, Chinese and European (Italian, Greek…).

    Going to visit in the winter time is much better than in the summer, specially if you are used with a typical continental 4 seasons kind of weather. It’s a perpetual warm spring, mild summer – never too hot as I heard it is in the summer months. The weather was dry enough in November-December.

    I read comments that Okinawa is the poorest of Japan’s prefecture: let me assure you, it does not feel poor at all – but rather much more relaxed and definitely less crowded than Tokio (where I have stopped for a few days on my way back to the States).

    It’s a beautiful experience, no matter how travelled you are (…I had my share of international traveling during my life). And if you never got out of the US before, that’s OK too – it will hopefully seem to you even more exotic and more like nothing that you have experienced before. You can’t help not to love this island !

    No matter the situation, I recommend with all my heart the you take time to visit Okinawa, if possible. It has amazing good deals for hotels, cafes, restaurants – there is something for every budget !

    It has amazing beaches and a lot of interesting places to visit, though many of the historical ones have been completely razed down during, and reconstructed after WWII – when the island suffered massive destruction and loss of lives, during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. Nonetheless, despite its militaristic past and the tragedies that unraveled during WWII, Japan is today one of the most advanced, most beautiful, most peaceful and most safe country on Earth. An absolute pleasure to visit and discover !

  5. I was born in Okinawa 57 yrs ago. I have quite a few childhood memories and most are pleasant. I remember fresh fruit I used to pick off a tree that tasted something like a tangerine. I had my first friend there, my first dog. I remember going to school and chasing a boy on the playground. I remember the bathrooms being holes in the ground in some locations. I remember playing on monkey bars and swings, swimming with my Dad in a pool on base. I remember vendors selling their wares on the muddy streets. I remember typhoons and being able to stay home from school and staying up late to watch TV. They usually would run lots of Twighlight Zone. I remember being on base and my mom was shopping and passed out. She was pregnant at the time. I remember watching TV when President Kennedy’s assassination was announced. I remember enjoying the food and back then it was easy to learn the language. I wish when I had moved back to the states my parents would have invested in a way for me to retain the language. Thank you for posting the beach picture. I have always enjoyed the beach. Maybe someday I’ll see Okinawa again. I’ve had an affinity for the Asian culture and its people for as long as I can recall. It’s amazing how one’s childhood can shape you as a person.

  6. Not the best of my service time, but not the worst, given the restraints of military life. Every place is wonderful if you can put your mind to finding paradise wherever you touch down, i.e., paradise as a place where you could see yourself spending the rest of your life. The best for me was SE Asia, circa 1962-1963, paradise before it turned to crap. The worst was SE United States, i.e., Fort Benning, which never remotely resembled paradise; worse were the racist cracker towns just outside–Columbus, Georgia, and Phenix City, Alabama, which seemed to penalize you for being human and a victim if you were in uniform.

  7. I love her report. I was stationed on Okinawa in the early 60’s .I was only 17 yrs and , 4 months old when I arrived . I stayed almost 3 yrs and loved every day of it . I grew up in the mountains of Virginia so , this was a real change fo me I will always have Okinawa in my heart . What a great place .

  8. I am here now and must say this has been the worst 7 months of my life, I have been hit by a motorcyclist and had to worry for the last 5 months I (for some reason) was going to be the one in trouble, everything is excessively hard to get done, I can’t get home anytime I need to–especially during the death of a loved one–due to the fact that I had a wreck 5 months ago and the agonizingly slow decisions have dragged on and put me in traffic school, making a return trip to my parents house out of the question. I can’t run down to the gas station and get tylenol or any other kind of med., the schools are a year behind and I can’t figure out how to work the toilet. Ok I must remit on the toilet thing though– a heated seat is a beautiful thing.
    You have given me hope!! I refuse to let this situation ruin my only 3 years in Asia (please GOD). I do love the food, the people are sweet and except for the fact that I am allergic to every single speck of dust here– the weather is gorgeous– shorts in January anyone?
    Thank you for the encouragement. 🙂

    1. Sure. Do all of the touristy stuff on the island and then travel thoughout the region using the various military discounts and deals available to you and your family. It also helps if you work, at least part-time so you can ‘get out of the house’, meet other people and have a focus beyond household duties.

      Good luck! It really is a beautiful place to live.

    2. I may also be moving there soon with the military. Do the Okinawan people speak much English? What kind of opportunities would you have to interact with the locals? We won’t be new to the region, as we are in South Korea right now, but it is a totally different culture and surroundings. Any advice would be appreciated. Thanks!

      1. The locals who live and work around the various bases know some English. The ones who work on base (and there are many) have excellent English skills. You have only to go to the mall or the local McDonald’s to interact with locals, there are many opportunities. Many know little or no English the further you move away from bases and Americanized areas.

        Generally, the locals are friendly and respectful. The American presence on the island is so large that it is possible to never get a true Okinawa experience, but you should definitely try to patronize restaurants and shops off the beaten tourist path. Also, learn a little or a lot of Japanese to enhance your experience. It’s a marketable skill once you return to the states and if you have children, this may be a rare opportunity for them to learn a language not often taught in American schools.

        Your local library should have resources for free language online classes or the various bases will occasionally offer them. You can practice your Japanese with base guards, employees on base and in shops and eateries on the island. is a great resource for military spouses and American Expats. Check it out.

  9. Like you, I initially resisted the opportunity to visit Okinawa however, I truly confess that the Okinawan people stole my heart with their sincere graciousness, kindness, and generosity. I was there for the 5th annual Okinawa Taikai Celebration, where I met many distant relatives for the first time.My relatives went out of their way to escort us everywhere we wanted to go, whatever we wanted to eat, drink, buy, see, experience. Although communication was a challenge, we all managed to have alot of fun. I’ve even acquired the taste of goya, awamori, and music. They are admirable, humble, and truly remarkable people. Thanks for sharing. Aloha, G. Oshiro

  10. Thanks for this great post about an island I’ve never heard of before! Now I feel like traveling there and see all the things you described in reality!
    I always think that going abroad for a while enriches ones life extremely. I am, originally from Germany, currently living abroad in the UK. In the last year I got to know so many interesting people from all over the world and of course from Britain as well and all the stereotypes Germans tend to have about British people turned out to be completely wrong. But still, I agree with you, going back is a nice thing. I am not yet ready to go back to Germany, perhaps in a couple of years. Before that I’d like to live somewhere else as well, perhaps Okinawa??? 😉

  11. I didn’t get to try the habu-zake, but I sure wanted to! Great post on the basics and the ins and outs of Okinawa. I’d love to go back and see the shuri!

  12. oh wow, I’d love to visit one day. Sounds like an interesting place.
    I should actually be visiting South Korea at the end of next year to finally see family 🙂

  13. It’s nice that you were able to circle back and enjoy the rest of your time in Okinawa. You have some great pictures! I am really stating to believe that ice crean can be made out of anything.

    1. It’s a wonderful place to visit. I would definitely recommend Okinawa for a multi-week vacation. Maybe hop over to Tokyo and visit a few other interesting places in the region.
      I listened to your radio show and enjoyed it.

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