A Hidden Gem in Kanagawa: Tamagawa Daishi Temple

Back in my tour guide days, I used to dread hearing the words “hidden gem.” Tourists claim to want to see unknown places that no one knows about, but if tourists went there, they wouldn’t be hidden. I know some of the popular places in Tokyo, but I wasn’t aware of many places that “no one knows about.”

However, today a friend took me to a temple in Futago-Tamagawa. Futago-Tamagawa, much like other places in Kanagawa Prefecture, has undergone a lot of development in recent years. Young people often visit for shopping and dining. But there is more to the area than department stores and restaurants.

After walking for around fifteen minutes after a delicious Korean lunch near the station, we reached a small temple called Tamagawa Daishi. Now, it didn’t look like much from the outside…

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But what made this very old temple special was that it was much, much bigger once you ventured underground.

Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to take pictures on the inside, but here is an account of what we found.

After offering a five-yen coin, ringing the gong, and saying a quick prayer, we ventured inside. The temple was stuffed full of old treasures: ancient gongs, statues of various Buddhist gods blackened by time, and solid gold bells and things I didn’t recognise. Incense burned and the smell of wood filled the air.

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It cost 100 yen to go down into the underground. We signed our names, put on the provided slippers, and headed down there.

“Last time I was here, we got into trouble for screaming,” my friend told me. “The monk had to tell us off.”

Apparently, it was so dark down there they got freaked out and started shrieking. She wasn’t kidding; it was pitch-black and we had to walk slowly, hands sliding along the wall. I’m not sure what the point of a dark tunnel in a Japanese temple is, but it might give you the feeling of walking into another world.

After several minutes of feeling our way along in the dark, we reached this amazing underground room. Again, taking photographs was prohibited and I wasn’t about to disrespect the rules, but there was a long corridor full of the 88 monks of the temple from back then. Some of them had unlit candles or other treasures placed before them.

There were also statues of angels, one enormous stone statue of the monk who built the temple, and various models of the gods of fire. At one point, we came across a god who helped take unborn deceased children to the afterlife. A month ago I had a miscarriage, but instead of being upsetting, the statue of a god with smaller cherubs clinging to his robes filled me with wonder (though I did feel my eyes burning.)

My friend said later that she had forgotten about my misfortune when she had invited me, and apologised profusely. I told her it was fine; I had wanted to visit a temple with these statues anyway, so in a way, it was beautiful, if a little heartbreaking.

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Fortunately, we were allowed to take pictures outside.

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Then we headed to Musashi-Nakahara to see a small farm of pansies. The pansy is the symbol of Nakahara Ward and is popular to buy around December. Some of the arrangements in the picture below were being sold for 30,000 yen (About £206 GBP or $265 USD)!

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All in all, it was a great day and very different from what I usually do. If you’re in the area, Tamagawa Daishi is worth a visit for the vast array of authentic treasures that are hundreds of years old. It’s a little surreal to be in an underground temple surrounded by priceless artifacts from temple worship.

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How to Eat Japanese Shabu-Shabu at Home

Now that winter is on its way, hotpot dishes such as sukiyaki, nabe, and shabu-shabu are regaining their popularity in Japan. People love to visit shabu-shabu restaurants to chow down on meat and vegetables in various flavours of sauces, along with a beer or two.

What is Shabu-Shabu?

Shabu-shabu consists of one large bowl of some kind of soup. This can be soy-sauce based, spicy, or tomato flavour; some restaurants offer a wider variety or special bowls with two kinds of sauce inside. Shabu-shabu is typically a social meal and is usually enjoyed as a group of two or more people sharing the large bowl of soup.

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Diners order ingredients to put into the soup themselves. The meat is cut thinly so it only needs to be dipped (and then “shabu-shabu’d” or moved around inside the soup to quickly cook it), then mixed briefly into sauce and eaten.

Shabu-Shabu Restaurant Prices

Going to a shabu-shabu restaurant will easily set you back a couple of thousand yen, and more if you plan on having some drinks as well. Red meat, in particular, is expensive in the land of the rising sun and it’s not uncommon for the majority of your bill to be towards a plate of beef.

Some eateries offer special all-you-can-eat deals or special lunchtime prices, but even then you’re looking at a minimum of 2000-3000 yen per person.

Well, we recently decided to buy the ingredients ourselves, and not only did it come out much cheaper, but just as delicious as any shabu-shabu restaurant! Here are some tips on eating this yummy Japanese dish at home, including typical prices, what you’ll need, and how to prepare it.

The Ingredients and Equipment

The priciest part of eating shabu-shabu at home is the equipment. You’ll need a nabe bowl and a gas-powered cooker to go with it. You also need a canister of gas, which you can buy for a couple of hundred yen at most supermarkets.

*Hint for shopping in Japan: check your local supermarket for a point card! Some supermarket offer discounts for point card holders, and some shops such as Foodium give bonus points for not using plastic bags. If you’re living in Japan, make use of the free points system for rewards and benefits.

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Ingredients (for a large meal for 2-3 people):

  • 200g thinly sliced beef. Ideally it should say しゃぶしゃぶ (shabu-shabu) on the packaging
  • 200g thinly sliced pork
  • 1 spring onion
  • 1 carrot
  • Chinese shiitake mushrooms
  • Enoki mushrooms
  • Half a head of lettuce
  • Ponzu sauce
  • Momen dofu (tofu). There are two kinds, and this kind is much better for hotspot dishes.
  • 200g Shirataki konyaku noodles

You’ll also need:

  • One large pair of serving chopsticks
  • One regular sized pair of chopsticks for each person. A fork or spoon will work as well.

Directions:

  • Mix 550ml of the ponzu sauce and 550ml water in the nabe bowl.
  • Chop the vegetables and tofu up into bite-sized but chunky pieces and arrange them on a plate (or two plates if needed)

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  • Prepare smaller bowls of sauces of your choice. This can be the ponzu sauce (add water if needed as it’s a little salty). Another great choice is sesame-based dressing which goes very well with pork.

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Once you’ve got everything ready, you can start adding the ingredients to the soup. Some things, such as carrot and tofu, need a couple of minutes to boil. Other things like lettuce and meat don’t need much time.

Add a bit of everything, and then “shabu-shabu” the meat. Use the serving chopsticks to dip the meat inside and mix it in the liquid. You’ll see it cook in the boiling soup right before your eyes! After around thirty seconds (or when it looks done) you can take it out and add it to the sauce. Some people like to eat it piping hot straight away, and others prefer to wait a bit.

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Pork goes well with the sesame dressing and beef suits the ponzu sauce better. The vegetables are delicious with both. You’ll find that this healthy dish is surprisingly filling!

It’s really easy to enjoy shabu-shabu at home for a fraction of the price you’d pay in a restaurant. The ingredients, plus the gas canisters, cost less than 1,500 yen each (two people) including some drinks! I recommend that everyone living in Japan tries a home hotpot at least once. If you feel confident in making this yummy dish at your place, you can even invite people over for a shabu-shabu party.

Like lots of Japanese food, shabu-shabu is both healthy and delicious. Why not give it a try?

Traditional and Affordable Japanese Food in the Middle of Nowhere

A group of my students sometimes take me out for lunch. They’re a sweet bunch who love English and like to treat me sometimes. I’m very lucky for that.

Today we took a taxi somewhere in Kanagawa from Mizonokuchi, waited in an elevator, and suddenly came upon this traditional restaurant where the staff members wore kimonos and a scent of soy sauce based cooking filled the air.

We all ordered the special set lunch, which had several delicious courses including a dessert.

1. Sweet Cod, Egg, And Daikon Radish

This was yummy. The fish was sweet, boneless, and easy to eat. The daikon was crunchy and refreshing.

2. Sashimi

Next was maguro sashimi (raw fish) with some vegetables and soy sauce for dipping. As a huge fan of maguro (tuna), this was a great bonus! There was just enough to get your appetite going.

3. Tomato Sukiyaki

Sukiyaki is a special hotpot dish. It bubbled on its own mini stove while we are everything else. We took bits out to mix with the half-boiled egg. Sukiyaki isn’t usually served with tomatoes in it but it was delicious.

4. Chawan Mushi

Chawan mushi is sort of like soup but thicker. It has the consistency of soft boiled egg and inside I found a mushroom and a single soy bean!

5. Tempura

We also had tempura, which is deep fried vegetables and prawn. Tempura is a popular dish in Japan and this one, served with sauce and grated radish, did not disappoint.

6. Rice and Soup

There was also miso soup and “Mugi rice” with barley and bits of plum inside, making for a healthier option than just plain white rice. It was an excellent palette cleanser. At the back you can also see “tsukemono” or pickled vegetables.

7. “Azuki” Red Bean Dessert And Green Tea Served with Coffee

We chose coffee as an after-meal drink, and it was served at the same time as the green tea and dessert, which was unusual. As per many Japanese desserts, this sweet bean treat was very sweet so that the bitter taste of the green tea complements it.

I was very full and satisfied afterwards! Can you believe all this food cost just 2000 yen? If you go for dinner, the price will probably double, but going for lunch means you’ll get a real bargain.

(I’m going to check on the restaurant’s name). It’s about a ten-minute walk from Miyamaedaira Station on the Den en Toshi line, which is a bit of a trek if you’re staying in Tokyo. Going here was an inexpensive way to enjoy real Japanese food, so if you find yourself in Kanagawa, give it a try for lunch!

Taiwan Festival in Ueno Park

It’s rainy season at the moment so the weather consists of thick clouds and the odd shower. I didn’t want to sit in the house all day though so we went to Ueno Park, about half an hour away from our house by subway, to the Taiwan Festival.

It was actually surprisingly busy, but most places in Tokyo are at the weekend. There was merry music and an exotic, sweet smell of Chinese cooking in the couple of rows of stalls.

We started with a drink. Ken got some Taiwanese beer and I bought some mango juice. 500 yen felt like a bit of a stretch but it was thick, not too sweet, and very refreshing.

Ken got all excited so we went to get some food as well. Due to the sweet sauces they use, although it was a chicken and rice dish, it tasted very different to Japanese food. We sat on the damp steps of the park and people-watched while we ate. It wasn’t the most glamorous day out but I was full of happiness because I was with my favourite person.

We went to get some dumplings too but upon getting to the front of the line we saw the guy emptying a bag of frozen ones onto the grill! They weren’t fresh, so Ken got some noodles instead and slurped them while I drank a matcha tapioca milk drink. We listened to some taiko drumming, lined up to throw away our trash (which would probably never happen in other countries) and wandered back.

There are a lot of cool little shrines and things in Ueno Park, and we found ourselves at Hanazono Inari Shrine. It’s a cute row of torii gates and apparently a place to visit to strengthen your relationship, whether its friendship, family, or romantic.

We walked down hand in hand down this path and rang the bell to make a wish. Then, overcome by lethargy from food and the drizzling weather, took the long train home.

Little adventures like these are everywhere in Tokyo if you know where to find them by doing some research first. I happened to find the Taiwan Festival on Tokyo Cheapo, one of my favourite sites for finding events in this great city.

Though it was a little far, it was a nice date. Festivals are always done well in Japan so be sure to check one out when you visit… so long as you don’t mind the crowds.

Japanese Alcoholic Strawberry Milkshake

When I arrived at my homestay family’s house on Friday, my ‘Papa’ said to me, “You’d like to drink, right?” Well, I’m not one to turn down kindness, so he promptly bought me a load of stuff. I tried to say no but darn it, he’s persistent 🙂

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Because they live in the countryside, their supermarkets and such tend to be much bigger than in Tokyo since land is less expensive. I was surprised to see a bunch of drinks I’d never heard of before.

You can usually buy individual cans for around 100 yen each. I saw this really interesting-looking strawberry milk… with alcohol in it. It’s called いちご&ミルクハイ or “Ichigo & Milk Hai.”

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Since strawberry milkshakes strike me as something children would be more likely to drink, I thought this was fascinating. So what would it taste like? Well, I just tried it. I poured it into a glass to check out the consistency. It was actually thinner than a regular shake, but I was still hit with a powerful scent of… well, what you’d expect a strawberry milkshake to smell like.

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It actually tastes exactly like a milkshake! You can hardly tell there’s alcohol in it at all. At 3%, it was never going to taste strong. You could easily give this to someone who is unaware it’s alcoholic and for them to not notice.

Papa said that it’s sort of an “initiation” drink for those who’ve turned 20 (the legal drinking age in Japan) because it’s nomiyasui or goes down easily. Other 3% alcohol beverages like this include the Horoyoi range and things like mango or orange ‘hai’s.

Anyway, that’s the Ichigo & Milk Hai for you! Think you’ll give it a try?

Delicious Monja-Yaki in the Heart of Asakusa

My boyfriend grew up in Asakusa, East Tokyo. Since it’s almost an hour away by train from our house in Meguro Ward, we don’t go there very often. When he was in high school, he’d climb over the fence and dash off to the local monja-yaki place, where he’s good friends with the owner. She’d let him sleep, smoke, and even drink beer there when he was fed up with school. She’s been like a cool aunt to him for years.

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We went to that restaurant together about two years ago when we first started going out. This time, I walked in and she grabbed my hand, saying “I remember you. Welcome back!” We also met one of Ken’s old friends and her two children, and ate delicious food (and got very drunk).

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So what is monja-yaki?

Monja-Yaki

Japan enthusiasts might have heard of okonomiyaki – the savoury pancake from Osaka that is a tasty and popular street food. Monja-yaki is Tokyo’s version: ingredients mixed together before they’re fried on a large grill. Okonomiyaki was also served here as well as other foodie bits. We started with sausages and cabbage, nom nom.

Monja works by mixing up all the ingredients in a bowl.

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I don’t know all of what was in there, but monja typically contains cabbage, meat, spring onions, beansprouts, and other things. Water, flour, and soy sauce are added so that you can pour it onto the plate.

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Put the ingredients in a circle then pour the watery part in the middle. It’ll all start to bubble and boil.

After that, you use a little scoopy thing to grab some, press it to the plate to cook it almost to burning, and shovel it into your mouth. It isn’t the most aesthetically pleasing dish, but it’s absolutely packed with flavour. My mouth’s watering just remembering it.

We ate some other things, including the heavenly buta kimchi (pork and Korean spicy cabbage), some weird fish cakes, and scallops. I’d never had scallops before and put the whole, chewy thing in my mouth, which took about eight years to swallow. Won’t be trying that again.

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Food always seems to be better when made by an old dear who’s been doing it for years. The monja-yaki was mind-blowingly good and it was a lot of fun eating and drinking with good people in my favourite city.

The restaurant is super local; I didn’t see any tourists, and we had to walk through residential areas for ages before we reached it. The owner is awesome – would you believe that she is 82 years old?

If you visit Tokyo, do try monjayaki. It’s one of the city’s best dishes! You can often get both monja and okonomiyaki at the same restaurant, so try them both and see which you like the most. They’re both delicious and are both cooked in the same way, but are quite different.

Video Games, Music, and Ramen in Tokyo

There’s a ramen restaurant near our house. Because of its location, it’s almost unknown, but it’s really trendy. It’s somewhere between a bar and a restaurant and has a theme that’s sort of a mix between music and surfing.

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This time, the owner got out his old SNES console and asked us if we wanted to have a go. Food and games?? I’d just spent the past nine hours on the PlayStation 4 but nobody needed to know.

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He set it up and we had enormous fun playing Super Mario, Tetris, and Street Fighter 2.

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On top of that, we of course got to eat yummy ramen! I like this place because although there isn’t as much variety as other ramen restaurants, the guy can make killer tonkotsu (pork) ramen.

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We also had some gyoza dumplings and it was yummy. What a nice evening!

If you find yourself in Meguro, definitely give this place a try. It is right next to Kushi-Katsu Tanaka and it’s called Iki. Here’s the location on Google Maps.

Kamakura and Cherry Blossoms

Hi, everyone. Spring is finally here! I hope that wherever you are, the weather is getting warmer and you’re waving a cheery goodbye to winter. If you’re in the southern hemisphere, maybe you’re glad the weather is cooling down.

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I went to Kamakura with some friends to see the cherry blossoms. I decided I didn’t want to do hanami this year (visiting a park or natural space with cherry blossom trees under which to eat and drink all day) since last year I was left disappointed. I’d made a huge picnic only to have the couple we’d planned it with cancel at the last minute. But I decided to go to Kamakura, the lovely town near Yokohama, and it was great!

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Cherry blossoms, locally called sakura, only bloom for a couple of weeks in the year and since there are thousands of them all over the place in Japan, there are many great spots where you can see them. We visited a temple and a shrine, as well as a long pathway with sakura trees either side. It was pretty magical.

We went to Engaku-ji, a gorgeous temple that is really “Japan” in many ways; gorgeous architecture, tranquil grounds, and a sense of peace. My friend Mike joked that all we needed to see was a cat and the day would be complete. Lo and behold, we saw a chubby kitty on our way out.

We also saw some ladies in kimonos riding a rickshaw.

After a wander around the shrine, we walked down the road surrounded by sakura trees. You could see several torii gates in a row, which means the road must have been some kind of pilgrimage path long ago. I bet it looked even more magnificent back then without the cars and buildings.

We were starving after all the walking so we had an awesome lunch at J.S. Burger near the station. Om nom nom.

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I haven’t been getting out much lately so it was a really refreshing day. Kamakura is around an hour away by train but it’s got a completely different vibe from Tokyo and it’s well worth a visit to get a taste of the “real” Japan.

Guys I Just Had Ramen That Blew My Mind

Today I was craving ramen, and my boyfriend can never say no to ramen. So we found this place near our house.

It’s called Mame-kin Gyoza and it serves Chinese noodles. They had a spicy hotpot with which you can have gyoza (dumplings), or tsukemen (that you can dip into the hot soup.)

I chose both, naturally. The picture had five little pictures of peppers and wooooo it was spicy indeed.

The hotpot thing had vegetables, pork, shiitake mushrooms, chili peppers, and even some fish ball stuff that you find in oden.

It was super hot and spicy and tasty. I chucked in the cold noodles and gobbled them all up. The gyoza dumplings had also soaked up all that lovely soup.

The waiter put two small bowls down so my boyfriend and I could share but he underestimated my power. I shoved all that in my belly and it was D E L I S H.

If you like ramen, visit Mame-kin Gyoza for yummy spicy tsukemen noodles! ❤️

Top 8 Experiences in Ishigaki, Okinawa

I’ve been on a social media hiatus the past week or so, and it’s been quite refreshing. Tied in with that was my three-night stay on Ishigaki, the westernmost island of Okinawa, Japan. It was exactly what I needed to get rid of the stress that has been building up lately. If you’re stressed and you can afford it, an island holiday is a great pick-up.

I never really thought of myself as a tropical island person. I like mountains, rivers, and cities. But I loved Ishigaki. The contrast between the rather cold Tokyo and the open friendliness of the island people was surprising and refreshing. Despite it being February, Ishigaki’s weather lingered between 20-25 degrees Celsius. And there was so much space. So few people.

I won’t bore you with every single detail, but here are the best things I did in Ishigaki and the surrounding islands.

1. The Limestone Cave

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What I was expecting to be a touristy and highly commercialized spot was surprisingly awesome. We followed a path to admire some stalactites and stalagmites that had formed over thousands of years, sometimes taking on amusing shapes such as Totoro, the famous Studio Ghibli character.
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It was only a ten-minute drive away from the port and there was also a souvenir shop. We also saw some funky cocoons and a creepy-looking crab. It’s worth visiting when you’re in Ishigaki.

2. Trying Wagyu Beef

When you talk about high-quality beef from Japan, most people think of Kobe beef. Ishigaki wagyu is made from the black cows of the local area (whereas Kobe beef is made from the cows in Kobe), and we were hoping to try this high-grade stuff while we were here. A taxi driver recommended a place called Kingyuu, which means gold beef.

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It was just delightful. I’ve never had meat so marbled and tender, and now I finally understand what people mean by “melt in your mouth.” It was a fantastic experience. Kingyuu is just one of the many recommended places to try Ishigaki beef. If you want to go, make reservations.

3. Visiting Hateruma Island

We went to Hateruma Island for the day, which is an hour away by ferry from Ishigaki port. The island is the southernmost part of Japan and was so peaceful. The others on the ferry seemed to melt away and during our time cycling around the island, we didn’t see many other people at all. Just goats and sugar cane fields. It was gorgeous.

I took a photo of some farm workers, who were among the few people we spotted here.

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You can see the southernmost point of Japan if you cycle down to the south coast of Hateruma.

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4. The Beach

I’m not really one for the beach; when I was a kid, “beach” meant big coats, throwing rocks into the sea, and hot flasks of coffee. You wouldn’t really see me relaxing with a bikini and a book. However, we came across this lovely white sand beach on Haterumaand just had to take off our shoes and socks to play.

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There were a few other people there, as well as a guy who seemed to be living there – he had his clothes hung up and was relaxing on a towel with a beer! I felt it would be rude to take a picture of him, but it was a pretty unusual sight.

I didn’t see anyone paddling or writing in the sand, but what’s the point in going to the beach if you’re not going to do those things?

5. Visiting Taketomi Island

Taketomi Island is so nice, but it had a lot more tourists on it than Hateruma had. That being said, there are a lot of experiences you can enjoy here, such as seeing fish from a glass bottom boat and riding a wagon pulled by a water buffalo.

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I had my reservations about the buffalo part (I hadn’t booked it; I’d left all that to Ken), but the animals are strong and get fed well and showered every few steps of the tour. I think they were happy… but I really don’t know. They’re fed and washed and taken care of, so I suppose they’re as happy as buffalos can be.

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Taketomi is full of charming houses, fields of cows, and pretty flowers even in winter. It’s also only a ten-minute ferry ride from Ishigaki, so it’s easily accessible for a half-day trip.

6. A Free Shamisen Show

As part of the water buffalo tour, the man who guided us, a local of Taketomi, played this cute song on the shamisen. It’s unusual and exotic and was an unexpected treat.

7. The Food

Wagyu beef isn’t the only food you can try in Ishigaki. On our last night, we had tempura, maguro (tuna meat) katsu, sashimi, tofu (which tastes a hundred times better here), and thick chunks of pork. The vegetables here are fresh and the mango, in particular, is much better than on the mainland.

8. Swimming in the Pool

The Japanese like to keep by the rules. The pool is generally closed in winter, but if you don’t ask, you don’t get. Ken asked if we could take a dip anyway, and to my surprise, they said yes. No one else was hanging around the pool (25 degrees is hot for me, but I suppose not to everyone), so the pool was empty.

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This was a particularly special moment; my boyfriend asking the hotel staff if we could swim, and for us to be alone there, taking in the sea view and having a really refreshing dip before dinner.

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Almost the entire trip was fantastic, but these eight things were definitely the highlights. Getting away from the stress of the city was completely refreshing. I adore Tokyo, but I’d suffered from writer’s block and anxiety and didn’t realise how much I was feeling it until I had this very relaxing three-day trip to Okinawa. If you’re thinking of visiting this tropical prefecture, I highly recommend Ishigaki.