Castle, Gardens, Ramen, Shopping And Grand Fair In Okinawa

Day 53, 2024 Grand World Voyage

Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024; Naha, Okinawa, Japan.

As we were seated in individual booths, separated by partitions and facing a wall with a bamboo shade, I was composing this blog in my mind. I asked my sister Eloise how she would describe this seating area.

“Like a visiting room in a prison.”

I’ve never been to a prison visiting room, but I immediately thought what a great description.

We were at Ichiran, a basement restaurant on the busy Kokusai Dori in downtown Naha, the main city of Okinawa. This is the most southern prefecture (like a state) in Japan, closer to Taiwan and China than to Tokyo. Take Japan, put it in a tropical climate, mix in some influence from China (due to early history) and America (due to Okinawa’s heavy U.S. military presence since World War II), and you have Naha.

We came to Ichiran on the advice of Cruise Director Kimberly and friends Barbara and Richard, who ate here yesterday. That’s the advantage of an overnight stay with two full days in a port.

I ordered at a kiosk machine, where thankfully one of the options is English. The choice is ramen noodles. Then you can add a bit of pork, egg, green onions or mushrooms. I also added a draft beer. Next, we were escorted to our booths, where on a sheet of paper I customized the seasonings. Every few minutes the bamboo curtain would rise just enough for a beer, or boiled egg, or finally a bowl of ramen to appear.

No need to speak to anyone – an introvert’s delight! And despite being part of a chain — and a bit touristy — the food was amazingly good, and the bathroom signage translated to English.

We had the option after our half-day tour to stay in town and make our own way back the mile to the ship. Being a Sunday, the busy street was blocked to vehicle traffic, leaving us free to window shop (okay, gawk). Covered side alleys led to hundreds more shops and booths.

Every store seemed to feature the ubiquitous Shisa, the traditional Ryukyuan guardian lions. Sold in pairs (one grinning, the other sticking out its tongue), I kept expecting them to be salt and pepper shakers. We also saw lots of unfamiliar packaged foods, T-shirts featuring the local Orion craft beer logo, beachwear and jewelry.

Photo Credit: Eloise Johnston

During the morning, our ship’s excursion took us to Shurijo Castle Park, a vestige of the Ryukyu Kingdom. The castle was destroyed during World War II’s Battle of Okinawa, rebuilt and then destroyed by a fire in 2019. It is once again being rebuilt, this time under a huge temporary building, expected to perhaps open by 2026.

Its Shurei-mon Gate (also destroyed and rebuilt), the symbol of Okinawa, is one of several gates in the park, which overlooks the city.

We had almost an hour in Shikinaen Garden, a quiet respite in the middle of the city featuring winding manicured paths leading to a pond, a guest house and the Rokkaku-do Pavilion. I had just enough free time to sketch before a few drops of rain threatened to splotch the not-quite-dry ink.

Because we are so far south, there were a few cherry blossoms on the trees. Sadly, we are too early to see them blooming in profusion in Japan.

While leaving the garden parking lot, our bus driver hit a tree branch that broke one of the rearview mirrors. He and our guide apologized profusely, bowing a full 90 degrees. Our guide pulled out her shamisen, a three-stringed traditional Japanese instrument, and entertained us with music and singing as we waited about 30 minutes for another bus.

Yesterday when we docked in Naha, Holland America’s president Gus Antorcha joined the ship for a few days, a practice common on the world cruise. In a couple of days, he will announce the 2026 Grand World Voyage itinerary. Of course, no one knows if the Red Sea will be open to cruising by 2025 or 2026, limiting voyages around the world to the passage around Africa.

My sisters joined a tour to Gyokusendo Cave yesterday, but I opted to spend a leisurely day on the ship, having been here once before. We’ve had a lot of sea days, but they are packed with activities, so it was nice to have few options but to relax and get a pedicure in the ship’s spa.

A lot of people went ashore on pub crawls or to dinner both last night and tonight, but we stayed onboard for a “Grand Fair” by the Lido pool. A dozen classic carnival games offered chances to win prizes ranging from Pinnacle Grill dinners to spa treatments and jewelry. Waiters circulated with a selection of free colorful drinks and appetizers of corn dogs, sliders, popcorn and candy apples.