The most common travelogue cliché for Japan is the contrast between modernity and the traditional; Tokyo and Kyoto, otaku geeks and samurai, neon tower blocks and temples. Yet tucked away in the appendices of Japan Lonely Planets is the archipelago of Okinawa.
A chain of hundreds of islands that stretch over 600km in length, its climate, cuisine, geography, culture, dialect, history and speed of life make Okinawa the antithesis of mainland Japan. Overlooked by most international visitors, the white sandy beaches and turquoise seas only a short flight from Tokyo have turned the archipelago into the domestic tourism destination of choice. Here there is a magnetic draw for busy salarymen and their families.
Big City, Small Delights
For most, Okinawa begins in Naha City. Contrary to the cobbled streets, terracotta roofed houses and tropical postcard imagery associated with the region, it’s a fully functioning modern city. It revolves around the thoroughfare Kokusai Dori, or International Street. A mixture of traditional restaurants and faux-Americana, that ever-present theme of contrast in Japan even manifests itself in Japan’s tropical anomaly. Okinawan izakayas with the wafting twangs of snake-skinned shamisen violins sit next to Sailor Sam’s Steakhouses with young Japanese girls in mini-skirts and sailor suits serving steak and fries. The street is touristy, but not without its merits.
There are some old shopping arcades that trickle off the strip with local music shops, markets and, naturally, souvenirs. These meander around the back streets of Naha and offer some respite from the commercialised Kokusai Dori. They illuminate what fascinates most mainlanders about Okinawa, the lulling pace. In the markets look out for specialty stalls selling sata andagi, a local doughnut, and shikuwasa juice, the product of a very sharp Okinawan citrus fruit that is at once lime, lemon and orange.
The city itself is well connected by monorail, making it easy to get to some more traditional sites like Shurijo, the castle of Okinawa. For those that have visited mainland Japan and seen Himeji Castle or Kumamoto Castle, you will know that once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen pretty much all of them. But, Shurijo is illustrative of the Chinese influences on Okinawan history, outwardly displaying similarities to the Imperial Palace in Beijing. On a clear day it offers great views of the island and is a pleasant detour from the city. At every gate of the castle on left and right are enormous shiza statues, fierce guardians that are a hybrid of canine and lion. Shizas are an icon of the islands and, on a slightly less grand scale, stand guardian outside almost every single building, from modern apartment complex to corporate office block or traditional bungalow.
A prerequisite of any trip is an excursion, or leisurely stay, on one of the surrounding islands. If time is of the essence, then Tokashiki Island is a great choice and only 30 minutes by boat from Naha City Port. It has a hidden cove with plenty of guesthouses and small hotels lining a 400-metre beach. The turquoise waters hide a wealth of corals and tropical fish, with scuba diving and snorkeling readily available. But, the star attractions are the sea turtles that have made the cove their home, each of which are nearly two metres in length. The cove in off-season is almost empty, making it a perfect time to swim alongside the marine inhabitants. For longer stays take a further flight to Ishigaki Island. 400km south of the main island it is a transport hub to the innumerable islands in the area. For the real Okinawa experience of deserted beaches and tourist-free wildlife, Ishigaki is the starting point.
From Soba to Tacos
One of the real gifts of Okinawa is its food — the options are abundant. The signature dish is goya chanpuru, a stir-fry made from bitter melon, pork, tofu and egg. Originally it was made with spam; thankfully this is generally not the case anymore, but for tradition’s sake some still use the quivering processed meat. Be wary. Unlike the bitter melon found in Vietnam, Okinawan goya is a vibrant green and full of flavour. Along with the shizas it has become an emblem of the island, adorning key chains, boxer shorts, beach towels and condom packets, sometimes with a cute face etched on for added effect.
Served in a light soup with a generous wedge of soft pork floating on top, Okinawa soba — buckwheat noodles with the thickness of udon — are the islands’ answer to ramen, and slightly less damaging in the calorie stakes. Rafute is a soy sauce-marinated, slow-cooked pork belly dish that falls apart at the slightest prod of a chopstick. Served with a Japanese mustard not dissimilar to the English variety, it’s an indulgent choice, but a perfect complement to an order of velvet-coloured sweet potato tempura.
And, of course there are the local tipples of choice. Brewed on the island, Orion Beer is an institution and has even been honoured in folk songs. While tasty, it doesn’t stand out from any other of the main Japanese beers, though maybe keep that observation to yourself when visiting. The slightly more potent awamori, a 50 to 80 percent volume spirit, is a recipe for a hangover, but is the real deal for locals. It comes in an overwhelming number of varieties. For the truly brave, habushu — snake alcohol — is a big bottle of awamori with a venomous snake pickled inside, holding supposed Viagra-esque medicinal properties.
If you’re looking for a place to sample all of these delicacies and dangers, try the traditional izakaya paikaji, with staff wearing Okinawan kimonos, folk music and affordable pricing. There are several in the city and any taxi driver will be able to guide you there.
Okinawa has also absorbed a variety of American influences and the Japanese attention to detail with cuisine has been applied to Tex-Mex. Kokusai Dori institution Tacosu-ya is a revelation and, aside from the curiosity, provides an option for a quick bite. Solving the age-old problem of eating a taco without it falling to pieces in your hands, they have created a bendable version that retains its essential crispiness. Another staple of the modern Okinawan diet is taco rice, the contents of a taco sitting on a bowl of steaming white rice. For the country of seaweed pizzas, this is a typical culinary compromise. Tacosu-ya seats 15 people maximum, but turnover is high so don’t be disheartened. Further down the street salted ice cream pulls in the crowds, with flavours ranging from sweet potato and five spice to green tea. Sounds peculiar, but it is delicious.
Idyllic tropical island charm aside, the prefecture has a long and complicated relationship with the US. The only area of Japan that saw land combat during World War II, the following American occupation has left its stamp, not only on the cuisine. It is utilised as a bargaining chip in the Japanese relationship with the US, who desire a presence on Okinawa for its strategic location to China and North Korea. 20 percent of the islands is used for American military bases, restricting the growth of any industry apart from tourism.
Located on the only land available for development — the rest is mountains — the American presence has led to a deteriorating relationship between the local islanders and the GIs stationed there. The islands’ economy is dependent on the influx of capital from the American military, presenting a catch 22. Yet locals want change, with a clear majority in favour of removing the bases, and with the highest unemployment in Japan, an aging population and limited international tourism, the need to forge a new direction is unavoidable.
A catalyst for this deterioration is the high incidence of crime committed by American soldiers, with a long history of violence and sexual abuse. Following the rape of a Korean student by two soldiers in 2012, the military bases were put on lockdown for 24 hours to stop a full-scale political meltdown with Tokyo, and curfews have been put in place. The military argues that local Japanese crime rates are much higher, or unreported, and that false accusations abound. Yet it is indicative of a problem when nightclubs frequented by local GIs have strictly enforced ‘female only’ sections, and instructions for drunk soldiers above urinals ask people to try not to molest other clientele. No wonder some bars on Kokusai Dori refuse entry to military personnel.
To remedy this Okinawa is taking transitional steps to alter the status quo. This began five years ago with the inaugural Okinawa film festival. It is perhaps a stretch to call it a film festival, as in essence, it is a glitzy celebrity parade for Japan’s primetime comics, with a schedule largely made up of in-house productions. Nonetheless, the local community has taken to it, with beach events drawing 50,000 plus attendees. The end game is to set up performing arts institutions, create jobs and opportunities for the local community, reinvigorate the next generation of Okinawans, and change the perception of Naha City as a destination for retirees. Along with a new and improved international airport, and the rebranding of the main island as an entertainment hub for Japan, these are the first stepping stones.
Okinawa is such a unique part of Japan that it is unimaginable it will lose its identity, but it is clear that change is in the air.
Every region in Japan has its own dialect, but Okinawan is one step beyond and unintelligible to most Japanese. Here are some phrases to help you on your travels. If you can speak Japanese you get praise, if you speak Okinawan expect the beers and awamori to flow.
Nife de biru — Thank you
Mensore — Welcome
Chu uganabira? — How are you?
Kuwacchi sabitan — Thank you for the meal (in restaurants or home cooking)
Chura kagi — Beautiful girl
Akisamiyo! — Oh my god!
If you get called a ビーチャー (beacher), it doesn’t imply you are a wonderful surfer, more a pleasant drunk.