Sunday, August 16, 2009

Farewell Okinawa

We are now far far away from Okinawa. But it was a great two years we will always treasure.
Things we miss about Okinawa, in no particular order:
turquoise colored water
stepping in for a dive off the seawall
the amazing cafes
fabu curry house for dinner
the produce market behind camp shields
seaside walks at araha or sunabe, zanpa or maeda
the Japanese pride in workmanship and attention to detail
safety of one's person and property
Skymark flights to mainland Japan
weekend trips to Zamami, or Okuma, or wherever...if only we had more weekends
bento boxes, especially those sold in random places by elderly ladies

So for those of you still in Okinawa - don't let the annoyances get you down. Rise above irritations like Mediatti (the worst cable company in the world), and not being able to read the menu or the events listing, and the fact that it always seems to rain on your weekend off. Get out, explore, order the set lunch no matter what might be in it, and trust that the Japanese people will almost always do the right thing. Find a favorite cafe, and keep going back there. Spent a lot of time looking at the sea.

Seaside the Beach hotel and restaurant

Location: Sunabe; from the 58 turn at Hamagawa, then turn right after the port. Take this road until you see the big purple Sea Dream apartment complex, and turn left there (there is a sign for Seaside the Beach at that corner as well). The hotel is on the right. Park on the seawall.
Hours: Holukea restaurant is open from 1700 every evening
We had a delightful stay at Seaside the Beach during our last 3 days in Okinawa. The rooms are 7000Y pp per night for two twins beds and a capsule private bath, and includes breakfast. The rooms are smallish, but have a minifridge, aircon, ample closet space, and memory foam mattress toppers. And the location means you can wander around the seawall in the evenings, or head to Gordies or Transit for lunches. The staff are helpful and friendly, and made up a nice receipt for me to turn into the authorities for reimbursement. There are beverage and beer vending machines in the hotel hallways and coin laundry services as well.
The breakfast is fantastic - all you can eat hot and cold items which rotate daily. There is an egg dish (tamago, scrambled eggs), meat (spam, sausage, bacon), champuru (tofu, fu, goya), miso soup, burdock root salad, rotating salad (pasta, potato), broiled makerel, rice or congee, yogurt, fresh fruit, toast and jam, coffee/tea/orange juice. It is served in the Holukea space, which has 270 degrees of windows overlooking all of Chatan and the ocean. On nice days, they open the windows to let in the breeze.
We also went to Holukea for dinner. They do 250Y Orion or Asahi draft 1700-1900 M-F. Dinner is reasonably priced, with izakaya type food for 400-1200 per plate. We had a decent seafood pasta, curry potato pizza, and soba noodle. All these felt like comfort food to us on our way out of Japan. Better food can be found elsewhere, but not with these views and beer prices.
What a lovely goodbye - drinking Orion and eating minipizzas while watching the sun set over Chatan.

Sunday, July 19, 2009


Location: across the street from Foster; if heading south on the 58 turn right at CowCow, the restaurant is on the north side of the street (ie across from CowCow) right after the turn. The parking situation is quite unsatisfactory - there are about 5 tiny spots that involve parking other people in or having a difficult time backing in/out. A little further west on the same street there is a larger vacant lot which some use for parking.
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. daily;; 098-936-6355
We have done lunch and dinner in the new location of Kasthamandap. Overall, the new building is much better than the beach shack - there is AC and the dining room is fairly classy. The bathroom still leaves a lot to be desired - it is left open to the outside (ie via a window) and is not air conditioned, so it is sticky and breeds smells. There is a shower in the toilet area, which had been used while we were eating lunch, so one of us had to clean the toilet seat of water droplets sprayed from the shower (yuck!).
Service is still lackadaisical though, very much like we remember at the old location. This is not a place to go if you are hungry. It can be difficult to get the attention of the servers. But this makes it ideal if you want to sit around and chit chat with friends - here no one will hurry you along.
The food remains adequate, nothing great. During the dinner visit we had the butter chicken curry (approx 1050Y) which was really just a tomato-cream sauce with no appreciable heat and a couple meager bites of chicken. We also tried the chicken meatballs, which were essentially ground tandoor chicken pressed into balls, a bit dry, accompanied with a sweet side sauce and small salad. At lunch, we had a large sampler set and a smaller single curry set. These come with choice of drink (get the lassi), mini salad with too much dressing, and a tiny chunk of chicken. The lamb curry was tasty, but had only a couple slivers of meat. The vegetable curry was less appealing, and had remarkably little veg in it, which doesn't make much sense as vegetable is quite cheap in Okinawa. The bean curry (ie dal) was fine. The naan here is large and freshly baked, and is the highlight of the meal. In some ways, this is a south asian chips and dip - naan and curry sauce. Perhaps a friend has a better approach - she orders the chicken biriyani which comes encircled in a salad and topped in an egg.... a bit more action that just a puddle of curry sauce.

Dim sim lunch at Nikko Alivila

Location: Yomitan, just north of Nirai beach (off the 6) See map:
Hours: Sunday / holiday brunch 1130-1500 (
This is a lovely brunch for a special occasion. The dining room is attractive and boasts big windows with ocean views. There is a back room with two large tables, perfect for a work function. The cost is 2500Y + drinks (beer, tea, etc 500-900Y). There is a large buffet that includes salad, sides, rice paper rolls, steamed buns, stir-fry seafood and greens, stir-fry rice noodle and veg, various fried bits including pork & chicken, shrimp wontons, shrimp balls various, wonton soup, congee, chili-tofu over rice, and about 15 different types of dessert. Then, on top of that, servers come around with dim sum trays and you pick dumplings of all varieties, colors, and filling-types. Some of these were quite creative, ie purple or green wrappers around interesting meat-based fillings.
All the food was quite good. The dumplings brought to the table were quite appealing, especially the shrimp ones. Along the buffet table, the shrimp wontons were very tasty, as was the seafood stir-fly. The egg steam buns should be saved for dessert, but were delightful. Another standout dessert item was the coconut tapioca in benino-flavoured milk. Certainly, this is an all-you-can-eat option that does not compromise quality, and has something for almost everyone.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Delicious cafe

Location - heading east on the 23, turn right at the Bowling center sign. The restaurant is on the left-hand side, before you get to the Sports/bowling center and Kitakaisen
Hours: approx 11:30-1:30 lunch, 6p- dinner, unsure which day closed
This new cafe has garnered lots of positive press recently. I was suspicious it may not live up to the hype on the basis of its sign, which proclaims "Let's try Japanese cuisine" (or something to that effect). A sushi (ie flamboyant rolled sushi) restaurant that tries so hard to cater to gaijin has already got one strike against it.
We decided to try it anyway. The interior has an unfortunate diner quality, with plastic booths and misapplied plastic frosting on the windows. There is large English menu on the wall, which is slightly different to the English menu brought to the table. At lunch, you order off the standard menu, and get a soup and salad with your sushi selection. Prices for rolls are 600-1300Y. We tried the deep fried California roll and the special of the day, which was a variety of Dragon roll. Sadly, both were almost inedible. The California roll had was filled with the cheapest and most dreadful fake crab stick, an overabundant helping of cream cheese, and underripe avocado, surrounded by excessively sweet rice, mushi nori, then seared on the outside to no apparent culinary advantage. Only slightly better was the dragon roll, which was pretty but simply not worth the calories. The inner part of the roll was a tempura shrimp, which seemed to have no flavour at all. This was surrounded by a large quantity of the over-sweet sushi rice and nori. On the top, outside of the roll, was a small and bland piece of maguro. All this was topped with way too much mayonnaise, another sweet sauce, orange roe, and flecks of tempura batter. There was almost no fresh fish flavour to the roll at all - instead it was just sugar, rice, and mayonnaise - three things I would not want to mix up in a bowl and eat. The accompanying ginger soup was mediocre, and the salad was your typical lettuce/cabbage but drowning in proprietary Japanese dressing.
It saddens me to write such a poor review of a local small business. Perhaps the owner will find success with his restaurant by giving the gaijin what they want - fat and sugar, with a small amount of fish thrown in for appearances. But if you are craving rolls, head elsewhere. We haven't been to Sushi Zen for a while, but last time we went the food quality was far superior.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Monkey pod

Locations: Naha, north of Kokusai street; from the Mitsukosji department store, walk a couple blocks east and turn down a street than appears to have several restaurants on it (sorry, cannot be more specific). On the west side of the street, ie your left, within about a block will be a wooden construction cafe with vintage Americana decor. This is Monkeypod - they have a mini-chalkboard sign outside
Hours: unknown
Options for non-touristy food are scarce in the Kokusai district. We toileted in Mitsukoski (downstairs) and then headed east and north to look for a halfway decent restaurant. Monkeypod had the right vibe. The place is adorable, with vintage Hawaii-theme stuff everywhere. They have an English menus - 750Y for pasta and a drink, 1000Y approx for a locomoco set or Hawaiian plate. We got an array. The food was not spectacular, but was decent. All sets came with a light consomme and ice/hot coffee/tea plus a small piece of angel food cake with mango syrup sauce. The pasta was a creamy mushroom, well-prepared but a bit dull. The Hawaiian food plate had four segments - curried potato salad, rice, mini locomoco, and fried chicken bits. Again, nice, but better food is to be found at Hanahou. Really, the attraction is that this is an artsy, tranquil place within stone's throw of the hustle and artifice of Kokusai street. And that alone is worth a visit for those in the area.

Korea - week 2

TONGYEONG - The bus was about 1.5 hours from Jinju, and the station is a bit out of town. We took a taxi to the Gangguan harbour (approx 4000W) and then walked about in search of a love hotel. The first two nights we stayed at the Tower, which was an obvious fake brick building with neon signs on the external west side of the harbour. We paid 40000W a night and got panoramic views and Internet, but the building was a bit rundown and security felt lax. We changed hotels to the Injon, which was right around the corner and charged the same money for a slightly nicer room with a worse view.
What to do:
Tongyeong is a real live fishing town with a famous live fish market. This, and all the live fish restaurants, are a sight to behold. We also enjoyed wandering through the sculpture garden (in the park on the external east part of Gangguan harbour. We also spent a pleasant couple of hours making our way to the Hallyeo Waterway Observation Cable Car entrance, riding up, and checking out the views over the city and surrounding islands.
But Tongyeong's real attraction is the ferry terminal. This Seoul Times article explores some of the possibilities: Options include a ferry to to Yeonhwasa (check times, for us 9am) for a great hike out to Dragon's head point via the Yeonhwa temple. Take your own lunch, and get a beer at the Yeonwha ferry terminal to celebrate your safe return (at approx 1530). This hike is discussed in the LP. Another option is to take the early ferry to Bijindo (approx 7am), and hike the western part of the island, following a well-marked trail to the summit. Bijino's village, situated on one side of the strip of beach which connects the two tiny islands, wins the Korea "Tidy Town" award and has a distinctly Greek island feel about it. Relax on the beach before hopping the (approx 11:30am) ferry to Somaemuldo, where you can do another well marked hike out to the lighthouse. Some nice photos of that hike: This three leg trip needs to be discussed with the helpful desk people at the Tongyeong terminal, and also must be explained to the boat captain on the way to Bijindo. That way, you can clarify what time the ferry from Bijino to Somaemuldo will depart. You need to keep your ticket stub (which says Somaemuldo) when you get off at Bijindo. Luckily, our boat captain had worked in Australia and had great English language ability. Remember to pack food as options on these islands are limited and tend to include raw shellfish. There is accomodation on the islands. Bijindo had a cute looking pension or two, and would be our recommendation as to where to stay. Somaemuldo was a bit overdeveloped, with multiple hotel options, but the town was somewhat muddy and unpleasant. It appeared there was an unused hotel in the town on Yeonwha, but the place had a unwelcoming air.
Tongyeong is a provincial city, and we often felt we were an annoyance to restaurateurs who might have preferred to avoid interacting with foreigners. Despite this, we had some memorable meals. A visit to the most popular squid kimbap store on Gangguan harbour is recommended - this is the restaurant with the picture of the middle aged Korean lady on the sign. For approx 3500W each you get all you can eat squid in red sauce of daikon with an array on nori-wrapped rice. We also had an amazing samgyeopsal meal between the harbour and the ferry terminal. We picked the restaurant because it was packed and smelled of frying meat, and for 15000 each we had a feast comprised of fatty pork cooked on an aluminum-foil covered hotplate, wrapped in lettuce leaves with lots of toppings, and several bottles of beer. At the end of the meal, the proprietor fries off rice and veg in the porkfat so the rice gets crunchy on the bottom - mmm, like dolshot bimibap but possibly more delicious. We also enjoyed a fish lunch at a busy joint by the Ferry terminal (just east of it, on the corner). For approx 7000W, we got 4 small grilled fish with red pepper sauce and a vast array of side dishes. We got all our breakfast pastries from Neuf, near the live fish market.
The bus ride from Tongyeong (one can catch the bus to the station from downtown if you can find someone to ask which line is correct) to Busan is about 1.5 hours. It arrives in the western terminal, which is on the metro line that zips you into center city. We took the metro to Yeonsandong, and then surveyed the love hotel options. We checked out the Good Morning haotel, recommended by the LP - very cute, but with an obvious foreigner population. Ian and Wendy offer directions: We looked at a room at the posh Vu motel - for 100,000W a night you get a huge suite with double sink/shower/Internet and general plushness. We stayed at a motel two doors down, for 40000W a night, which offered the standard Internet, double bed, fridge, decent bathroom, room service, water dispenser. Yeonsandong is a great base - it has amenities but in not overrun with tourists and has a fantastic selection of restaurants. We enjoyed another meat on grill meal on the main drag there.
What to do:
We had to check out the live fish market and shopping district around Nampodong, which was hopping on a Saturday. On Sunday, we took the subway to Nopodong and followed all the Koreans dressed in expensive hiking gear up the hill to the bus stop for the bus to Beomosa. Honestly, Beomosa was not that impressive after having seen a variety of other Korean temples, but it was alive with activity. More importantly, it in the same zone of the city as the Hurshimchung spa (across from the Nongshim hotel; approx 8000W) which is easily seen from the pedestrian overpass you take coming out of the Oncheonjang subway stop.

Not far from the Oncheonjang subway station is the entrance to the Geumgang park and cable car, which provides a remarkable view over the sprawling city. You can then hike to the South gate of the fortress, and from there to a variety of spots. Interestingly, many Koreans end their hike with a picnic along the trails behind the cable car station. Ladies have small kitchens in the woods and set out a tarpaulin and table for you. If you wander up the hill from the cable car station, you will inevitably run into these joints. We did not partake, but almost everyone else did.
We also enjoyed a walk and a beer along Hae-undae beach and Dongbaek park. It is an easy walk from the beach to the Vesta spa (get a map from the friendly tourist info ladies) where for approx 8000W you partake in lovely outdoor/indoor pools and saunas with a view of the sea. We enjoyed this spa more than the larger but less aesthetic Hurshimchung. (For a bit more info on the etiquette of Korean spas: ) Food:
The food in Busan was a bit of a blur - we enjoyed cruising the main drag in Yeonsandong and choosing a meat-grilling restaurant, always ordering the obligatory house soju. We loved a tiny joint in Oncheondong (see photo with happy crab sign) on the main north-south street that runs between the spa and the gate to the cable car entrance. The place was crowded at 5pm, had no English menu, and catered to middle-aged Korean men who hiked the same route every Sunday for the past 20 years, then descended the mountain to get drunk and eat crab stew in this restaurant. And while wandering around the university zone we stumbled on a place doing a "couple set" for 11000W which included salad, drink, and a huge place of spicy glass noodle chicken stew (very much like the Andong chicken we had in Gyeongju).