The Unexpected Charm of Okinawa

We flew to Okinawa on Peach Air. The stewardesses wore thick streaks of blush on their cheeks that matched their fuchsia uniforms, and as the plane pulled away, the air traffic controllers waved goodbye and bowed. Everything about the experience was precious, a sign of things to come.

Okinawa is the southernmost prefecture of Japan, and is made up of a chain of hundreds of tropical islands stretching for 1,000 kms. We only had a few days to explore a tiny slice of what Okinawa had to offer, and where so many influences– including traditional Okinawan, modern Japanese and the American military presence– come together to form a place full of eccentric charm.

Our plane touched down in Naha and first impressions were that of a balmy, slightly crumbling tropical city, with a visible battle between concrete urban elements and nature, curling tendrils of vines, exotic plants and birdsong. The feel of Okinawa was more casual, a little friendlier than Japan, and as we travelled Okinawa Island, I noted palm trees, hibiscus flowers, trees with long roots that grew from branches to ground and the clear turquoise of the ever present ocean. Much of the architecture retains a retro vibe, filtered through an endearing 1960s lens.

Homestyle beef curry with pickled ginger at a 24-hour diner

The local beer is called Orion, a light, refreshing brew with a simple, retro-looking label, but if anything is going to get you into trouble, it’ll be the local liquor, called awamori. We preferred it in cocktails mixed with sanpin, a Okinawan blend of jasmine tea, or straight up on ice. There’s also snake liquor, that comes with a full snake curled in the bottom of the bottle, usually with fangs drawn, but when I heard it tasted fishy, I declined to sample it.

The food draws inspiration from the aforementioned blend of cultures and traditions. We ate curls of pig ears in sesame sauce, sour wakame seaweed, battered chicken cartilage, fatty black pork belly, pungent tofu with the texture and taste of blue cheese, tempura garlic scapes and seaweed dipped in salt, bitter melon and tofu sautéed in egg on rice, and American-Japanese fusion “taco rice”. The ramen of Okinawa comes with fatty pork and crinkly noodles that are thick and chewy, topped with slivers of wakame and tamago (egg), with the option of adding strips of bright red pickled ginger and clear sour sauce from tiny bottles filled with orange peppers.

Then there were purple potato croquettes, purple potato roasted and dripping with butter, cold mochi filled with ice cream and soft purple potato, and straight up purple potato ice cream. In case you couldn’t tell, purple potatoes are a big deal in Okinawa, and they really are marvellous, sweet with rich, dark violet flesh that is almost unreal to behold.

In Naha, we rented a little dilapidated cabin, more of a cargo container really, complete with a slightly terrifying three-tiered bunk bed. We weren’t particularly concerned with the quality of our accommodation, as we spent the evening at a concert. Local heroes Mongol800 were playing a special show, as it was their 15th anniversary and the final stop on their last tour ever. The show was in an outdoor amphitheatre with a nearly full moon overhead, and the crowd was in high spirits, performing coordinated moves along to the music. The highlight was a special Okinawa song, a beautiful performance on which they were accompanied by a shamisin (an Okinawan instrument), the song climaxing with Okinawan drummers dressed in traditional outfits filling the stage, pounding handheld drums. It felt like a truly unique experience, of both old and new Okinawan culture.

A shaminsin concert played from a homemade bungee chairWe left Naha and road tripped north along the water, visiting scenic seaside capes, with a moonscape of volcanic rocks and trees shaped by the winds that howl off the ocean. A picturesque lighthouse, situated next to miles of dense, scrubby brush, with signs everywhere warning of the presence of snakes in the underbrush. A tiny shrine with a red terracotta roof punctuated the sea of bright green.

We stopped to pose at the feet of a roadside attraction in the shape of a giant red shisha, a mythical lion-dog creature whose presence is ubiquitous across Okinawa, sitting on rooftops or flanking the gates to homes. The shisa sit in pairs, one open-mouthed and one with a closed mouth, to ward off evil spirits and keep the good ones in.

Along the road, we stopped at a janky stand advertising Okinawan-style ramen. It was a jumble of cooking equipment, displayed trinkets and hand-written signs. We heard the shamisin first, a three stringed instrument that’s plucked, producing a distinct twang, and the proprietor soon revealed himself as the source of the music. After a lunch of hearty ramen, the proprietor happily informed us that since we were a group of five, we were privy to a free showing of his homemade bungee chair. The chair was made from a car seat strapped to a platform, suspended between two tall poles, that swung out over a relatively deep ravine. The proprietor strapped himself in, and using an electronic winch, drew the chair upwards, high between the poles. Once he reached a good height, he played a short tune on his shamisin, gripped it tight, then released the chair with a great cracking sound and it swung wildly out over the ravine. As the chair assumed a more mild back-and-forth pace, he picked up the shamisin again and plucked away. It was truly one of the weirdest things I have ever seen.

Our destination was Onna, where we stayed at Hotel Moon Beach, a resort that echoed Okinawa’s retro charm, with floating staircases, tiled floors, a courtyard filled with dangling vines, tropical flowers and singing birds at its centre, and landscaped with tall, swaying palm trees.

We swam in the ocean and it was the temperature of a cool summertime lake back home. We ate at a  24-hour seaside diner that had been there since the 50s and plugged the ancient jukebox, playing the Beatles and Boney M, while we ate thick beef curry and oversized hamburgers. We wandered the somewhat sleepy streets until we found a bar where we could order endless plates of Okinawan food and partake in nomihodai, all you can drink, for less than $10. We drank coffee at a beautiful cafe that I came across on a morning walk, with a deck overlooking the bright blue bay and green hills, that sold exquisite pottery and handicrafts. We indulged ourselves in the very touristy experience of glass blowing, where men with distinctly scarred arms performed a subtle dance, guiding my hands through the process of creating a very small crackled green cup.

We had to drive back to Naha and the city’s bustle was much more apparent after the sleepy feel of Onna. We wandered shopping streets, through covered arcades and into underground markets. And there was a stop at A&W, the American fast food chain’s only location in Japan, and a special treat for my expat friends.

I’d love to return to Okinawa and explore more of  its islands, beaches and sacred places. My dream is to organize a camping expedition across some of the islands, to sleep by turquoise waters and become acquainted with its wild places.

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