The Random Snapshots from Okinawa

The wind in Tokyo is insane and I am cold to my bones. But the countdown to spring has already begun so I am staying optimistic that this cold dry season will pass soon enough.
Until then here are a few more photos of Okinawa:
Blue skies on my way to the supermarket.
Missing those warm white-tshirt-no-socks kind of weather.
Isn’t this the loveliest entrance ever?
So many bright colored flowers and buildings here.
Did you know karate originated in Okinawa? (I had no idea!)
Driving along the sea on our drive up to Naijin (今帰仁).
Fresh daikon outside the soba shop we went to for lunch.
Our uncle’s home is wonderfully in the middle of nowhere.
They had tons of siikwasaa (シークァーサー) trees. Yum.
Okinawa has mountains, too.
Okinawa habu (a venomous pit viper) is my worst nightmare. Argh.
Our family couldn’t fit into one car so here we are driving in two separate cars.
It felt a little odd seeing palm trees surrounding the shrine torii.
There was an omikuji vending machine!
Naha city is a whole lot of white.
Last sunset in Okinawa. It was the best week ever and I can’t wait to go back!
You know you’re back in Tokyo when a kid yells “SAMUI!” the minute we step off the plane.

The Year End Family Get Together in Okinawa

I’ve mentioned before that our family rarely does anything tourist-y in Okinawa. 
It is one of the top vacation spots for domestic travel in Japan. And I’m quite curious to explore this motherland of mine (I was born here). But I can count on one hand the number of times we’ve actually eaten out, much less hit the tourist attractions.
The reason for this is: family get-togethers.
We have a lot of these. Especially when we visit during the holidays. Okinawa is said to have a very strong sense of family and community, which means everyone comes to these gatherings. It can get very lively and last late into the night.
This time it was just my grandmother’s younger sister’s family and us (because there just wasn’t enough space to invite my grandmother’s other two sister’s families). We spent the entire day getting ready for the get-together, cleaning the house and cooking, cooking and cooking some more. Apparently, there really is no such thing as too much food on occasions like this. Or at least that’s what my grandma says.
We rarely get to spend time with our Okinawan-side of the family so it was really nice to have the time to catch up with all my relatives, especially with a feast like this! Oh, what a night!
What are your family get-togethers like?
Here are some photos:

My brother good and ready to eat!
Our second cousins teaching us a new pose…still have no idea what it was.
A lot of my favorite dishes…mmmh!
So hard to choose where to start with this much food!
Chimaki is delicious and filling, made from things like rice, beans, and meat.
It’s finally my turn to hand out otoshidama (お年玉) now 😀
My great aunt, grandma, and baby sister taking a break from eating to chat!
For once in my life, I was too busy eating and chatting to take photos…and you can see why! x

The Year End Osoji in Okinawa

After flying into Okinawa, we jumped right into the year end tradition of Osoji (大掃除).
Growing up in Michigan, my family always kept with the tradition of spring cleaning. It makes sense to open the windows and clean the house out once the cold weather goes away. Especially in Michigan, it’s just too darn cold to do any cleaning at the end of the year.
But in Japan, osoji is part of the sacred new years ritual of preparing your house for the god(s) that will visit you in the new year. It goes hand in hand with the kadomatsu (門松) and shi-me-kazari (注連飾り), which are also put up to welcome the god(s) into your home.
In the Edo Period, they called this year end cleaning Susu-harai (すす払い). Most families in Japan do osoji in the last couple of days of the year now, but previously susu-harai was done on the 13th of December. It was considered the day to start preparing for the new year.
My family is neither Shinto or Buddhists, but we keep with tradition because it’s easier to do hardcore cleaning when you have the whole family there. The more hands the better, right? And also, it’s just a great feeling to be able to welcome the new year with a clean house.
Do you do osoji at the end of the year?
Here are some photos:
My mom was in charge of the yard.
My baby sister and I were in charge of all the windows and doors.
My daddy was in charge of fixing and cleaning electronics around the house, like fans and lamps.
Did I mention we were in Okinawa? Perfect weather to open the windows and clean!
My other sister was in charge of vacuuming the entire place.
We washed all the curtains. If you look closely, you can see my brother by the window.
Grandma coming to peek at how everyone was doing in between her osoji in the kitchen.
It may seem like I was just taking photos the entire time, but I did my part…you have to believe me!
It felt really great to get the house in order before the new year!

The Hatsuhinode in Okinawa

The new years holiday has passed and things are pretty much back to ‘normal’ now. I fell off the blogging wagon for a bit, but am hopefully on a roll to share with you some photos from my family trip to Okinawa!
This was our hatsuhinode (初日の出).

Ever since I started living alone, I’ve been going home to my parent’s place for the new years holiday. First it was Akita, then Osaka, and now Imabari. I can’t imagine not spending the holidays with family (probably because I don’t have a family of my own yet). So despite the expensive airfare and crazy holiday traffice, I always head home.

But this new years holiday, I decided we should all head down to Okinawa to spend new years with grandma. Because we moved around a lot, I never got the chance to spend vast amounts of time with my grandma after moving away from Okinawa when I was four. I send letters and we talk on the phone…but you know, it’s still nothing compared to actually spending time together.

Last time we were in Okinawa for Golden Week, we were only there together for four days and my baby sister was still in boarding school and couldn’t be there. But now that my parents are retired, they’re a lot more flexible with their schedule, so I thought what better time than now for a family trip to Okinawa? Especially when this years new years holiday gave us nine consecutive days off of work?

It ended up being the best idea ever.

The warmer weather was just what everyone needed, we got to catch up with old friends and family, and best of all, my grandma kept on telling me how happy she was to have everyone there for the holidays!

Made me so happy.

One of the things my grandma and I were excited about leading up to this trip was hatsuhinode, the first light of the year. And despite the weather forecast for a cloudy day, I kept my hopes up that we would be able to see a peak of the first sunrise together.

My uncle’s family drove down to see the sunrise with us. We all gathered (this may wound weird…) at my grandpa’s grave, because it has a really great view of the sea facing east. You’ll see that Okinawan graves are much larger than the one’s in mainland Japan. We waited in the cold for quite sometime as large clouds blocked the sunrise. But because it was so windy, it blew the clouds away and we were soon basking in the warm rays of this year’s first sunrise!

For me, it was the best way to welcome the new year.

Here are some photos:

The morning started out with massive clouds covering the sky.
But as the sun rose, the clouds slowly moved away.
Everyone waiting to see the sunrise between the clouds.
And there it was! The first sunrise of 2015!
There were a lot of oohs and ahhhs as we all basked in the sunlight.
The clouds came rolling in again, giving us an even more dramatic sky.
Smiles and warm tea bottles.
After gazing at the ever changing sky for a while, it was time for family photos!
First family photo of the year!
We also brought new flowers for our grandpa and ancestor’s grave.
The view right before we left to go back home.
We all came back to eat breakfast together.
No better way to warm up than to eat hot oden and other new years dishes.
My sisters and cousins…we all decided waking up before dawn was worth it! x

The Flight to Okinawa

My love of staring out the airplane window continues.
Before I post the Okinawa photos, I thought I’d share some from my flight there (like I did previously with Matsuyama and Melbourne). It was a morning flight. A manseki (満席, full with no vacant seats) morning flight. Which means really long lines and lots of waiting.
But it was worth it because I got to see Mt Fuji from above and let me tell you, it was magnificent! Something about the new years season that always makes me think of Mt Fuji. Maybe I was Shinto in a previous life. Anyways, as always, I took tons of photos of the view from my window.
Here are some photos:
The line to board the airplane.
The airplane in line to take-off from Haneda airport.
There’s Yokohama port and Yokohama Bay Bridge.
I could already see Mt Fuji in the distance from above Yokohama.
And here we are with a closer view of Mt Fuji, flying right above Shizuoka.
It looks incredibly small AND huge at the same time…if that makes sense.
I actually spotted the path I took when I climbed to the top of Mt Fuji. Wow.
I think Mt Fuji looks even more beautiful with the snow, don’t you think?
The mountains of Minami Alps National Park were also covered in snow as well.
As much as I love looking down on land…there’s nothing like flying above the clouds.
I have no words for how amazing this view is.
First view of the motherland!
The ocean is so blue.
Blue ocean and green land…this is all I need to relax really.
Finally landed in Naha airport!
It is almost a 3 hour flight going there…but only a little more than 2 hours flying back to Tokyo.
And finally, you know you’re in Okinawa when these orchids welcome you in the terminal 😀

The Mu-chi Legend

It all started with a phone call from my grandma last night.
I’m a letter writer and I don’t really like phone calls. But my grandma likes to call me because it’s much easier than writing a letter and going through the whole stamp and post office thing. So we have this routine where I write letters and send pictures to her, and she calls to say she got it.
Well, I got a call last night and our chat about food reminded me that I still hadn’t posted my photos of the mu-chi we ate in Okinawa last year!
So here it goes…

Mu-chi is the Okinawan dialect for the Japanese word mochi, which is known as rice cake in English. Although made slightly different from the mainland mochi, mu-chi is traditionally made on December 8th of the old lunar calendar in Okinawa. It’s said to be one of the coldest times of the year (although not THAT cold because hey…it’s Okinawa!). Many people eat mu-chi to pray for good health and ward off evil spirits on this special day, often together with family and relatives.
I never really knew why Okinawa had this tradition until the ever resourceful Ru sent me this tweet:


You can click on the link above and read the story (in Japanese) but it tells the legend behind the tradition of eating mu-chi in Okinawa. For the English readers, here’s the short story:
Long time ago, in the land near Shuri Castle lived a brother with a younger sister. They always got along very well until one frightful day the older brother suddenly turned into an Oni and began attacking villagers and their livestock.

Realizing something must be done to stop him, the younger sister devised a plan. She made his favorite food, mu-chi, but included a piece of iron in his. She called over her brother/Oni to the side of a cliff to eat together and enjoy the view. But because his mu-chi had the piece of iron in it, he could not chew on it, no matter how hard he tried. All the while his sister is munching on her mu-chi and enjoying it.

The brother/Oni could not understand why he couldn’t eat his mu-chi. His eyes then went to her lower body and he demanded to know what what going on with her “mouth” down there. She in turn lifted her kimono and closed in on her brother/Oni saying, “My mouth up here is for eating mu-chi…and my “mouth” down there is for eating Oni!”

 This outburst surprised the brother/Oni so much so that he stumbled off the cliff and died. The younger sister was hailed a hero by the villagers on this very day, December 8th, and would be forever known as a day to ward off evil spirits.

As legends go, there are many different variations of this story. Some include more details about how the brother became an oni. Some say the younger sister already had children and they were almost eaten by her brother/Oni when they tried to help.
And obviously in the more censored version for children, the part about the lower “mouth” is left out and the brother/Oni falls to his death by the sister pushing him or just falling from the surprise of not being able to eat his favorite mu-chi.
I found myself laughing just a little over this legend, not because of the “mouth” bit, but because of how both the male and female are portrayed in this story. The wild uncontrollable male and the strong smart female. I know it’s an island stereotype. But I feel like there is some truth in how many women are seen as stronger than men in Okinawa. The ones that hold down the fort.
Am I the only one who sees this?

The long dark green leaves in the back (left side of the photo) is the Gettoh plant.

Anyways, back to mu-chi…they typically look like the photo above, wrapped in gettoh leaves.
My grandma tells me that gettoh (also known as Shell Ginger) is a plant that many people have growing in their yards in Okinawa. These leaves are also sold in supermarkets by the dozen around January, which is when December 8th was on the lunar calendar.
Mu-chi is made from mochi powder, sugar, and water. It’s a simple recipe. Some add flavors like kokuto (muscovado) or beni-imo (purple yam) into the ingredients. Once mixed, they are rolled into balls, flattened onto a gettoh leaf, wrapped, and tied with a string. They are then steamed together for about 30 minutes and that’s it!
It is one of my favorite Okinawan treats and my grandma makes it for us every time we visit. The beni-imo flavor (above) is my favorite. I am already counting down the days until I’m back in Okinawa and eating mu-chi...yum yum!
I hope this gives you an idea of what mu-chi is. If you’ve never had a taste of it before, don’t you want to try it now? x
The pretty gettoh flower in my grandma’s yard.


The Afternoon at Shuri Castle

Can you believe it’s June already?
And I’ve still working on my Okinawa posts. I need to speed things up! So here is a quick post on one of the most popular tourist spots we stopped by, Shuri Castle, which we call Shuri-jyo in Japanese.
One of the reasons I’ve been putting these pictures off for so long is because I needed to look things up. But I can’t put it off any longer and still haven’t read enough to write extensively, so…I’m going to just show you some pictures here and let you look it up yourself if you want more information! 😀
Here is a quick quick history of the Shuri Castle:

So from 1429 to 1879, the Kingdom of Ryukyu reigned on the island, which is now Okinawa prefecture. Shuri Castle was the royal residence and also the administrative center of the kingdom. Records state that Shuri Castle  burned down several time and had to be rebuilt. But after the island became part of Japan, it was totaled during the war in 1945 because the Japanese army set up headquarters there (which everyone knows is just asking to be bombed).

After the war, it became the campus for the University of Ryukyus for awhile. During that time, Okinawa was actually part of the United States administration until they returned it to Japan in 1972.    Shuri Castle officially began reconstructing in 1992 to what is now the Shuri Castle Park.

And as you can see in the photo below…(drum roll please!)…Shuri Castle was one of the Ryukyu castles that was registered as a World Heritage Site in 2000!

So that’s a little history for you…and here are some of the pictures:

My family tends to read everything together out loud…I know, annoying! haha!
The first entrance to Shuri Castle, Kankaimon (歓会門).

View of the gate Kyukeimon (久慶門) from above.

A building which houses the Bridge of Nations Bell.
“Inscriptions on the bell describe the Ryukyus
as a beautiful nation in the southern seas, using its ships to serve
as a bridge between China, Japan and Korea, and with a flourishing trade.
The words proudly express the spirit of the ocean-faring kingdom.”
You need a ticket to enter the main area.
The main building, Seiden (正殿), standing majestically on the Una Courtyard.
Most of the buildings around the courtyard have buildings which are fascinating!
Below were the actually walls of the Shuri Castle that were preserved.

The inside was simple, yet gorgeous. I love the bright colors used in the design.
The roofs were all traditional Ryukyu Aka-gawara (Ryukyu Red Roof Tiles).
One of the miniature replicas on display…my ancestors were sitting in the Uekata (親方) rank. 

The outer wall shows which rocks are original and which rocks were replaced when rebuilt.
We only had about 2 hours to go through the castle grounds and at first we thought that would be plenty of time…but actually we had to rush through it all because there was just so much to see. Especially when you want to read through the information. It was just really interesting for me because this is all part of my history.
Funny story. I had no idea that Shuri Castle was rebuilt so recently. I remember talking with my mom before this trip and mentioning I wanted to stop by Shuri Castle. And my mom says, “Oh I’ve always wanted to go see Shuri Castle, too!” Which was really odd for me because I was thinking my mom was born and raised in Okinawa and why wouldn’t she have seen it already? I thought maybe it was one of those things when locals don’t go to touristy spots because they’re always there?
So it was quite a surprise to me when I learned that Shuri Castle was only rebuilt in 1992. Since we were state side until 1996, this all made sense. And it was just really fun learning about our history together!
I hope you have a chance to go see Shuri Castle someday, too 😀

The Okinawan Dishes by Grandma

My mom is an amazing cook.
I think she gets it from her mother because my grandma is also an amazing cook. She spoils us with our favorite Okinawan dishes every time we come…and so I thought I’d share some with you.
Fresh Aosa Soup (above) is delicious. We had this in the mornings instead of miso soup. Aosa is a type of seaweed and fresh Aosa can be found in Okinawa, although you can find dried Aosa even on the mainland. But it’s really good. And it’s also good for your body as well because it includes lots of fiber and vitamin C!
My absolute favorite dish is made from a type of potato called Tahnm (ターンム/田芋). I think the closest type of potato may be Sato-imo (里芋), which is called Taro in English. It’s only produced in a couple of places even within Okinawa, so you can only find them in stores around certain holidays, like New Years or other Buddhist holidays. What I think is interesting is that the Tahnm are sold in stores already steamed (below). So cooking it is really simple.
Tahnm can be used in a variety of ways. The two popular ways to cook it in our family is Dingaku (ディンガク), which is a sweet paste-like dish, and my absolute favorite, Kara-age (above). It’s basically deep fried Tahnm but you pour sweet soy sauce over it to add flavor!
This time we actually found Tahnm being sold in supermarkets so I bought a whole bunch, froze them in my grandma’s fridge, and actually brought them back to Tokyo with me. My grandma also taught me how to make the two dishes so I’m really happy I get to eat them in Tokyo, too 😀

Nanto-mochi (ナントウ餅) is a type of mochi (above) made from kokuto (dark sugar), miso, and peanuts. It’s not too sweet as it has a little kick of long pepper (called pipa-tsu (ピパーツ) in Okinawa) and ginger, too. It used to be a special dish for New Years but it’s become popular enough that you can find it all year long in Okinawa now.
And last but not least, is possibly the most famous Okinawan snack, Sah-tah-andagee (サーターアンダギー)! (below)
In Okinawan (they used to be the Kingdom of Ryukyu so they had/have their own language), Sah-tah means sugar, anda means oil, and agee means fried. So it’s pretty much a doughnut! My grandma always makes the Beni-Imo (紅芋/purple yam) flavor. I love how purple the doughnut gets on the inside. Isn’t it pretty?

Well, we ate much much more but that was all that I was able to take pictures of.
The others? We scarfed it all down before I could even reach for my camera. haha. Okinawan food is so simple yet so delicious. And even more so when you’re in the company of family you love!
So now you know what to look for when you go to Okinawa! Happy eating! 😀

The Family Dinner

Family dinners always consist of a lot of talking and even more laughing.
This time around we got to meet our new cousins, M and R! My uncle and aunt, who live in Okinawa, are foster parents and they’ve had M and R with them for about a year now but this was the first time my family got to meet them. I’m so glad we got time to get to know each other.

At our family dinners, we are pretty old school. The women gather in the kitchen to prepare dinner together, all the while chatting away. The men sit in the living room and talk about business…or whatever men talk about.
And when there are children around, someone is elected to play with (i.e. watch over) them. Usually the children have the power to choose who they want as a playmate.
This time around, the six year old R chose me!!! 😀
We played things like run-around-the-neighborhood-randomly or paper-rock-scissors-with-loose-rules (as in R always wins). It was a lot of fun, actually. We did this silly dance every time a game was over, regardless of who one!
R also took an interest to my camera, so I let her play with it. My aunt was worried but she was really careful with it. R took both of the pictures above. Isn’t she talented? I think she’s better than I am! When she becomes a professional photographer, I can say I let her use her first real camera! 😀

We had temaki-zushi for dinner…simple and delicious!

We include an Okinawa favorite Umi-budo (海ぶどう) in our temaki-zushi!

My grandma, aunt M, and my mom in the kitchen.

We spent the day sharing stories and catching up with each other…and still there wasn’t enough time. My uncle and aunt had a tough time dragging the girls away and we were pretty reluctant to let them all go, too. We really had a grand ole time together and I am already looking forward to our next family dinner together!

“The bond that links your true family is not one of blood, but of respect and joy in each other’s life.”
– Richard Bach

The Ginowan Seaside Park

People always assume that everyone goes to Okinawa for their beaches.
Truthfully, I have never stepped foot into the water during my trips to Okinawa. It may have something to do with the number of family and relatives we want to see while we’re here. Or because we’re there for certain occasions such as weddings or funerals. Or possibly due to the season we’re here.
But that doesn’t stop us from taking an afternoon walk by the beach!
This is part of the Ginowan Seaside Park (宜野湾海浜公園) and is a great place to walk around. There are also many benches and lawns so you can take a break or just sit to enjoy the view.
Despite the wind, there were actually quite a few people swimming in the water. There were also families who were doing BBQs. And of course, there were people like us who were just enjoying the weather (a bit cloudy, perfect for a walk outside!).
We’re definitely coming back here in the summer one of these days!