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 Sunday Mail (Queensland) - Escape - - SEPARATE STORY - CATHER­INE BRITT

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 (

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 ( which has of­fices at the air­port and most ho­tels and whose cars come with English­s­peak­ing nav­i­ga­tion.

Ok­i­nawa is also the birth­place of karate. (See ken­shikai­

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 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.ok­i­ 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.

See ok­i­

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.

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