It’s not Japan, it’s Okinawa
It may be a prefecture of Japan but this amazing group of islands has an identity all its own
THE alluring islands of Okinawa are south of the mainland of Japan.
There are 160 islands in the precinct but only 49 of them are occupied and each island has a marked individuality.
Okinawa is best known to the Japanese as a tropical holiday destination or a place to honeymoon.
It is heavily influenced by China and the US as well as Japanese culture, but Okinawa has its own culture, which is very much separate from anywhere else in the world, along with its own dialect, music, food and scores of unique and special things.
The food of Okinawa is so idiosyncratic and it’s worth trying as much of it as you can.
In the 16th century, Okinawa was in great poverty and it wasn’t until the beni imo (purple sweet potato) was brought from China and planted in these islands that the Okinawa people felt they were saved and restored.
Because of this they treat the beni imo with enormous respect and it is regarded as an almost sacred commodity.
It’s used in a lot of cooking and sweets and also made into fabulous ice cream as well as a famous must-try sweet pie.
You can buy these little pies from almost anywhere and I recommend you seek out the beni imo ice cream as well because it was one of the best things that I’ve tasted.
Speaking of ice cream, Okinawa is also very big on salt and they have a very special salted ice cream, which is to die for. Trust me, it’s a lot better than it sounds and that sweet and salty flavour is nailed in this delicious and special desert.
I got my serve of this mouth-watering ice cream from the local downtown markets in Naha, Makishi public market, and I went back four times over the course of my trip.
Speaking of the Makishi public market, to get a taste of the real Okinawa and the people, I recommend shopping in the main street of Naha, Kokusai Ave, also known as “The Miracle Mile” where these local markets are filled with shops and food and wonderful local vibes.
You could spend a whole day here shopping and also you can pick your own fresh seafood to take it up to the “food court” and have it cooked fresh for your lunch.
Also, late at night all the stalls close down and, although it is eerie entering the corridors, it is worth trying to seek out one of the late-night bars hidden in the depths of the markets for some local spirit.
A wonderful place for dinner backs on to the Makishi markets so for all-round local food and atmosphere eat dinner one night at the Urizn restaurant for great food and an amazing ambience .
Then head over to the nearby bars afterwards.
Try Okinawa’s version of sake as well. It’s called awamori and is Japan’s oldest distilled liquor. It is made from Thai rice and rice malt.
It is distilled once and the result is strong, an average of 43 per cent.This is why the locals drink it one part awamori, five parts water.
There are more than 50 awamori distilleries in Okinawa and many of them welcome visitors for tasting sessions. Also try Orion beer, which is Okinawa’s representative local brew.
Okinawa until recently housed some of the oldest living people in the world. They are also among the least likely to suffer from the chronic diseases of ageing such as heart disease, cancer, stroke and dementia.
Things like the beni imo, which is harvested all year long and their love of local seaweed, seafood, fresh meat and goya, fuchiba, nabero and shibui, which are vegetables, all make up the healthy and long-living diets of the Okinawa people.
Try them all, as they are so unlike anything we have here in Australia.
I had a motto while I was there and that was to try everything. This decision found me digging into a beautiful dish at a traditional restaurant.
After I was almost finished I asked, “What is this delicious food” and the locals replied “pigs ears”.
I didn’t finish the dish and was sorry I asked – sometimes it’s better not to know.
Also try the distinctive seaweed grapes called kaisou. They are salty in flavour and a little slimy and strangely pop in your mouth like tiny eggs when you chew but are surprisingly good and a must taste as they are only grown in Okinawa due to a combination of the warm weather and pristine blue/green water.
There’s also a typical local dish, Okinawan soba, which is made from 100 per cent white flour, unlike Japanese soba noodles. It’s served with the most delicious pork spareribs in a soupy broth. To die for.
When travelling to Okinawa I would recommend getting an interpreter and guide as the Okinawans speak their own dialect, separate from Japanese, and English is not common.
I recommend using the company that our guide was from (oiga.jpn.com/english).
They do, however, drive on the same side of the road as us Aussies, so renting a car is a good idea so you can explore and get yourself around. The main island is only 112km long and 11km wide.
Try the very popular OTS Rental cars (bit.ly/1rVsyrB) which has offices at the airport and most hotels and whose cars come with Englishspeaking navigation.
Okinawa is also the birthplace of karate. (See kenshikaihonbu.jp/en/).
If this is why you are visiting Okinawa, make sure you go to Dojo bar one night.
It’s owned by an English man, a karate enthusiast who came to Okinawa to practise the art but loved it so much he stayed and opened a karatethemed bar.
The sanshin (three strings) is an Okinawan musical instrument and a predecessor of the Japanese shami-sen. You will see them everywhere and they are a unique and beautiful instrument.
If you are into war history, especially World War II history, I would recommend that you spend a day to see two memorable sights in particular.
Start your morning at the former Japanese navy underground headquarters (see www.ocvb.or.jp) where members of the Japanese Navy Corps of Engineers dug a tunnel complex for the navy’s Okinawa headquarters bunker in 1944. It was opened to the public in 1970 so that future generations might understand the tragedy of war and to invite prayers for lasting world peace.
In the afternoon head to the Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum (see www.peace-museum.pref.okinawa.jp). This is where the Battle of Okinawa took place and claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people.
The war wiped out one-third of the Okinawan population and left the island in devastation. For a long time the elders who went through this time didn’t talk out about what happened to them but are now speaking out and writing books.
Also head to Tsuboya Pottery Street and check out the 300-year history of this unique Okinawan pottery. They have classes where they teach you how they make these beautiful and earthy ceramics mainly made for practical use.
The best time to visit Okinawa is March/April due to the milder tropical weather but all year round you can enjoy scuba diving, fishing, whale watching and many water sports that are all highly accessible around the islands.
UNIQUE CULTURE: (clockwise from main) The Naha skyline; Okinawa soba is served with a soupy broth; sashimi at Urizn restaurant; kaisou is a kind of seaweed grape; salty ice cream is the big treat in Okinawa; customers enjoy a late-night drink at one of...
WAR AND PEACE: (clockwise from left) One of the shops in the Makishi public market; Okinawa Peace Memorial Park; and the entrance to the former Japanese navy underground headquarters.