Friday, September 16, 2005

Okinawa Part 2

Okinawa is the poorest prefecture in Japan. Of course, this doesn't mean that its children are sleeping on cardboard in the streets and huffing glue fumes when they can't find food; the great majority of people in this world would be thrilled to enjoy access to luxuries that even the most impoverished Japanese take for granted. Likewise, I find it difficult to feel sorry for anyone living on a sun-soaked island in the glinty green water of a tropical ocean. Give me a rasta-shack on the beach and a stack of good books and keep your I-banking job.

That said, the streets of Naha, Okinawa's largest city, are a little grimier, a little looser, a little less well-groomed than the sparkling avenues of Tokyo and Sapporo. Colorful hand-painted signs advertise flophouses that charge less than $10 for a night and $250 for a month's stay. The main drag, Kokusai-dori (International Street) is packed with swarmy too-bright souvenier shops selling painted shisa lion trinkets and shochu whiskey with whole snakes fermenting in the bottles. Long haired stoners sell hemp jewelry off of blankets laid out on the sidewalk in front of army surplus stores and taco stands, the sort of places that would have long since given way to Armani boutiques and Mr. Donut restaurants in the capital cities of most prefectures. Surprisingly, I didn't spot a single foreigner on International Street - apart from Thai import stores and a small sign advertising a Canadian Bar, even the taco stands were wholly and distinctly Japanese, right down to the Orenji Juusu on the menu.

Naha is hot. It smells like a city, a city where people do all the dirty things that people do, in contrast to Shinjuku, in Tokyo, which sometimes seems more like a marble mortuary whose inhabitants do nothing but stride purposely about in black suits all day. But Naha is also undeniably Japanese. A shiny new monorail whisked us from the airport to downtown and, perhaps most tellingly, the toilet in the convenience store across from the bus terminal was not only spotlessly clean, but also featured a heated seat and bidet.

Okinawan's seemed to take after their city, although it could very well be the other way round. While the waitstaff in many Japanese establishments function as polite automatons, shouting a standardized greeting when customers arrive, the owner of the restaurant we ventured into the first night simply looked us up and down, glanced forlornly at a recently vacated table covered with empty bottles and dirty plates and, after asking if we really had our hearts set on sitting down, waved us over to help him clear off the table.

He kept up the informal banter throughout the meal, vetoing menu selections one by one until our order suited him and demonstrating how to mix the sauces that accompanied each dish. "People in Hokkaido are 'koi-kuti' (strong-mouthed)," he said. "Too much salt and miso. You should eat healthy like us Okinawans."

Healthy or not, the food was fantastic. Okinawan cuisine is known for large amounts of imaginatively prepared pork and an extremely bitter bumpy green vegetable called goya, which went well with scrambled eggs and bacon bits. Sea grapes, tiny pops of salty seaweed were also fantastic - a sort of low budget vegetarian caviar.

My skin starts to crawl after 24 hours in a city, so we left the exhaust fumes of Naha behind the next morning, boarding a ferry that took us 30 kilometers west to Zamami island, a coral outcrop surrounded by uninhabited islets, home to 300 fishermen and dive shop operators. When the Americans staged their invasion 60 years ago, the fleet massed in Zamami harbor before the assault on the main island. Like so many of their fellow Okinawans, hundreds of Zamami residents were killed during the invasion, many by their own hand. Concrete bunkers set deep into coral walls stood out against the dusty brush in back of town, easily visible from the ferry terminal. It was hard to reconcile the sleepy village, the tanned sea kayakers and the stray cats wandering lazily through the streets with the historical fact of American soldiers younger than me holding flamethrowers to the slitted windows of the bunkers, while Japanese soldiers tossed grenades among the families sheltering within.


Anonymous mitzu said...

Hi, Tim !!
Thanks for write-up on Okinawa. Enjoyed reading it. Have always been facinated by Okinawa but have never really visited it except on the net.
From the many articles you have posted of your travels elsewhere, it looks like you are "the globetrotter". Wish I were you.

5:13 AM  

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