11 Things We Like and Don't Like About Okinawa

Ivan here. Last month, Jennie and I traveled to Naha, Okinawa for a three-day mini-honeymoon. Here’s a list of things that we liked and didn’t like (in no particular order). 

 1. Okinawan banjo

The sanshin (or “three strings”) is an Okinawan instrument covered in python skin, which makes for its distinctive sound. This music was playing all over the island - at restaurants, convenience stores, and from loud speakers in front of street vendors as we slogged past under the midday sun. It made for a pretty memorable soundtrack. Like being in a fairytale about an island long ago and far away. 

2. Coloring within the lines

One of the quirks about Japanese society is that people are - for lack of a better term - hopelessly square. Ask the average customer service rep to buck company policy and watch them try to process this troubling development. It’s like throwing a rock into a still pond. 

Here’s what goes through their minds: 

  • Good customer service is very important
  • The rules are very important
  • The customer requests that I break the rules in order to provide good customer service 

Like Fermat’s Last Theorem, these three statements do not compute.

Here’s how a Japanese would get around this: 

  • This customer will experience good customer service if I break the rules
  • But this sets a dangerous precedent that will prevent me from providing good customer service in the future
  • Therefore for the sake of good customer service, I must defend the rules with my life

3. Okinawa soba 

 
okinawa-soba-724986_1280 copy.jpg
 

I love Okinawa soba. It’s simple, cheap, and unspoiled by commercialism. This means that when you walk into a noodle shop on a random street corner, you can still taste the difference because the people who serve it still give a damn. The lightness of the broth, the chewiness of the noodles, the tenderness and fat content of the pork. It’s a dish that’s still tied to the Okinawan way of life.

4. The Japanese 4-hour workweek

In Japan, lunch is usually served between 11 and 2, and dinner between 5 and 8. Some Okinawan restaurants observe these business hours religiously. This means that for the more popular establishments, you either show up to find out that there’s an hour long wait or it’s completely empty because it’s 3 pm and they closed an hour ago. And since Jennie and I have this rare illness where we'll bleed to death if we’re in line for more than thirty minutes, this severely limited our options. 

5. Returning home

Every five years, Okinawans from all corners of the globe return to the island for a giant celebration call the Uchinanchu festival. A full week of events are scheduled, complete with opening and closing ceremonies. It was fascinating to watch the kids, their small faces pressed against the glass, as they rode the monorail from the airport into the city for the very first time. 

6. Parker's Mood Jazz Club

It makes me sad when I think about Parker’s Mood Jazz Club. We rode the elevator to the fifth floor of a shabby looking residential building and found the place empty. We were the first (and only) customers of the night. This was 9 pm on a Friday night. Inside, there were comfortable fifties style leather seats, candles and iPad menus on every table. Two female bartenders in white dress shirts, black vests, and bow ties were polishing the crystalware behind the counter. The live performance that night consisted of the owner, Kousuke, on jazz guitar and his friend on the piano. As they ran through their set from Charlie Parker to Thelonious Monk for an audience of two, you could tell that they still loved what they did. They just wanted to play for as long as they could. 

7. Okinawan office wear

The kariyushi shirt is a uniform of sorts in Okinawa. Basically, it’s a rip-off of the Hawaiian aloha shirt. It's mandatory attire for salarymen, government office workers, and even newscasters on television. Everyone looked like they were on a mandatory vacation. 

8. Kokusai Dori (International Street)

 
 

A copy and paste job of souvenir shops and overpriced restaurants. The noise and neon signs trick tourists into believing that they're having loads of fun, when what they're really doing is emptying their wallets on crap they don't need. Every major city in the world has a street like this. Nevada has an entire city.

9. Back Alleys of the Makishi Public Market

The further you venture away from Kokusaidori, the shabbier the surroundings. No guidebooks will lead you here. An old lady sells vegetables from a mat, which doubles as her living room. The local seafood bars and family run soba shops here barely get any customers. Walking through these back alleyways, we got a sense of how people actually live, and the income disparity that still exists between Okinawans and Japanese mainlanders. 

10. Former Japanese Navy HQ

This was a sobering reminder of what Okinawa went through during WWII. We walked through underground tunnels that housed Japanese soldiers prior to their surrender. Everything was left in its original condition, even the shrapnel and bullet holes on the walls where officers committed mass suicide. In a note to the Japanese government, the commanding officer asked them to remember the horrors of war and the sacrifices made by the Okinawan people. 

The other day, I overheard a conversation at an L.A. coffee shop about Mel Gibson’s new movie Hacksaw Ridge.  I’ve transcribed their conversation here without comment: 

"What war was that movie based on?” 
“I don’t know. I think it was either the Korean or Vietnam War. They mentioned Okinawa.”
“Okinawa? I’m like 99% sure that was the Korean War.” 

11. Blue Seal Ice Cream

 
 

Born on the U.S. military base, Blue Seal Ice Cream soon became an Okinawan staple. Our favorite combinations were Mango with Ube, Okinawa Salt Cookie with Beni Imo, and Okinawa Taro Cheesecake with Sugar Cane.