Be prepared to be charmed by this endearing Japanese island, where happiness and hospitality are as much a way of life as throwing back an Orion beer or two. BY VERONICA CHNG.
A symbol of Okinawa’s storied past, the lavish seiden (main hall) at Shuri Castle bears architectural influences from the Ryukyu Kingdom and other parts of Japan, as well as China.
Impossibly laid-back, Okinawa is distinctly different from the frenetic urban landscape we’ve come to expect of Japan. With its cobalt blue skies, crystal clear waters and palm trees, this largest island in the Ryukyu island chain exudes a languid vibe that even the most jaded city dweller can’t help but surrender to.
Lying just 482km from mainland Japan, Okinawa also happens to be home to the world’s longest-living residents, boasting an even higher proportion of centenarians than in other parts of Japan.
It’s blessed with an abundance of fresh seafood and superfoods, clean air and a tropical climate that is surpassed only by the warm, generous spirit of its gentle people, who live by “Ichariba-chode” or the belief that “once we meet, we become brothers and sisters”.
Intrigued, we made our way to the island of longevity to discover the best of what it has to offer – especially its superfoods – and find out just what makes its residents tick.
Have your pick of seafood cooked a la minute at Makishi Public Market.
1 HEAD TO THE SOURCE
Get a crash course in Okinawan culture and cuisine at Makishi Public Market (2-10-1 Matsuo, Naha City). Located just off Kokusai Street in Naha, the capital city of Okinawa, the locals and visitors flock to this bustling market for the freshest seafood – from budai (blue fish) to lobster – and Okinawan delicacies like mimiga (pig’s ear), chiraga (skin from the pig’s face), and even a whole pig’s head!
Then head on up to the restaurant area on the second floor, where you can have your seafood cooked for about ¥500 (S$6.60). If you’re still feeling peckish, try the sata andagi (Okinawan doughnut), a popular treat that comes in flavours like purple sweet potato, brown sugar, green tea and coconut. Or munch on crunchy umi budo (sea grapes or green caviar), a seaweed often served with sashimi or enjoyed with a soya sauce or vinegar dip.
For a sea-to-table experience, you can’t do better than Tomari Iyumachi Fish Market (1-1-18 Minato-machi, Naha City), parked within Tomari fishing port in Minato-machi, Naha. From slabs of ready-to-eat maguro (tuna) to akajin (grouper), ikura (salmon roe), unagi (sea eel) and tako (octopus), take your pick of the freshest catch from 23 wholesalers.
Dine-in options are available at the few eateries on site or simply select a platter of your favourite catch and head to the stools nearby. If you’re game, splurge on some prized otoro (tuna belly), the fattiest part of the fish that literally melts in your mouth. Get there at 5am and you can even catch a boisterous fish auction in action.
Popular porcine delicacies, like mimiga (pig’s ear) and chiraga (skin from the pig’s face), at Makishi Public Market.
Experience Okinawan crafts like coral and Bingata dyeing at Shuri Ryusen.
Emi No Mise’s choju zen or longevity meal features the best of the island’s superfoods.
2 DISCOVER THE ISLAND’S ROYAL PAST
Witness the splendour of the former Ryukyu Kingdom in the majestic Shuri Castle (1-2 Kinjo-cho, Shuri, Naha City). For centuries, it was the official residence of Ryukyu kings and an administrative centre and royal court until Okinawa became a Japanese prefecture in 1879.
Remnants of its storied past are visible throughout the sprawling grounds and carefully restored and reconstructed buildings, like the lavish seiden (main hall), where the architectural influences of the Ryukyu Kingdom and other parts of Japan, as well as China, are permanently etched into the walls in the form of sophisticated relief carvings and engravings, and even the turret gates of Shureimon, the second of Shuri Castle’s main gates.
Of course, there’s no better vantage point for taking in the breathtaking view of Naha than from the Unesco World Heritage Site’s hilltop perch.
3 LEARN A TRADITIONAL CRAFT
Just a five-minute walk from Shuri Castle, Shuri Ryusen (1-54 Shuri Yamagawa-cho, Naha City) is the perfect place to gain an appreciation for age-old Okinawan craft.
Sign up for a hands-on lesson in Bingata dyeing, where you’ll get to create intricate patterns on a fabric using vibrantly-hued Bingata ink. An important part of Ryukyu history, the traditional stencil-dye textile design technique typically features bright, bold patterns and aspects of nature like flowers, and for centuries, remained the preserve of Ryukyuan nobility.
If that sounds like too much of an artistic challenge, try coral dyeing, where you design a T-shirt, scarf, tote bag, apron or furoshiki (traditional Japanese wrapping cloth) using fossilised coral and ink.
Or simply take away a piece of tradition in the prettiest forms, whether it’s Bingata or coral-dyed decorative plates, coin purses, tissue holders, noren (fabric room dividers) or furoshiki.
4 EAT LIKE A LOCAL
Okinawan cuisine bears distinct traces of its unique heritage and climate. Heavily influenced by China and South-east Asia, it’s no surprise that stir-fried dishes and pork figure largely in the local diet.
As you might expect of a region with the world’s oldest living residents, even their champuru (stir-fry) dishes feature the island’s superfoods, like the antioxidant-rich goya and shima tofu. A favourite and absolute must-try is the flavourful goya champuru (stir-fried bitter gourd with egg, pork and tofu). Most dishes come with a side of seasonal fruit, pickled radish, mozuku seaweed and miso soup.
Another speciality is Okinawan soba, which is unique as it uses wheat noodles in place of the usual buckwheat. Expect thick, springy noodles nestled in a rich broth of pork, bonito flakes and konbu (kelp), and topped with fall-off-the-bone tender soki (slow-cooked boneless pork rib) or pork belly, pickled ginger, scallions and kamaboko (fish cake).
To experience these local specialities in a traditional Ryukyu-style setting, head to the cosy Ashibi-una (2-13 Shuri-Tonokura, Naha City) with its Zen-like garden landscape. Located on a quiet street, it offers both table seating and zashiki for those who prefer sitting cross-legged on floor pillows.
But to truly make like a local, get yourself a mug or two of Orion beer. The top-selling locally-produced rice lager pairs perfectly with most foods. With its refreshingly light, crisp taste and velvety foam, no wonder it’s a hit with the locals, and even Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto.
Glimpse the beginnings of Orion beer at Orion Beer Terrace at Aeon Mall Okinawa Rycom.
5 GET A TASTE OF LONGEVITY
If you want to eat your way to a ripe, old age, it’s worth making the trip to Emi No Mise (Emi’s Place, 61 Oganeku, Ogimi-son, Kunigami-gun, Ogimi) on route 58 in Ogimi, widely known as the village of longevity.
The pride of former nutritionist and owner Emiko Kinjo, the rustic restaurant serves traditional home-style cooking using fresh local produce from the restaurant’s own garden. A must-try is the choju zen or power-packed longevity meal (¥1,750) that showcases an endless variety of Okinawan superfoods, including vegetables like handama (Okinawan spinach), okra, hechima (cucumber-like gourd), sweet potato leaves, green papaya and bamboo shoots, shikuwasa (local lime), and tofu, seaweed, rafute (pork belly) and turmeric.
Be sure to call at least a day ahead to make a reservation and to order your longevity meal. During the 90-minute drive up from Naha city, you’ll even get to marvel at the stunning scenery of the East China Sea and mountainous surrounds of Ogimi.
6 JOIN A COOKING CLASS
Immerse yourself in the healthgiving Okinawan diet by enrolling in a superfoods cooking class by Yukie Miyaguni, who runs her school, Yakuzen Ryuka, out of her understated kitchen in a quiet neighbourhood at 251-1 Miyazato, Uruma City.
Her 90-minute class offers an excellent introduction to the island’s superfoods. It includes a lesson on the health benefits of nutrient-dense vegetables like goya, handama, shikuwasa, and yomogi (Japanese mugwort), as well as mimiga (pig’s ear), a local delicacy, before learning how best to prepare them to extract all their goodness.
The recipes – from green papaya champuru to goya soup and jushi (Okinawan porridge) – are simple enough for even novices to replicate at home.
During her class, Yukie also offers prepping tips, like wearing gloves when handling the papaya so the sap doesn’t get on your hands, as well as anti-ageing tips. For instance, she swears by hibiscus tea for combating pigmentation and adds goya and shikuwasa to smoothies for an added burst of nutrients like vitamin C.
Learn to cook like an Okinawan in a superfoods cooking class at Yakuzen Ryuka.
Discover the art of making awamori at Chuko Distillery.
7 DISCOVER JAPAN’S OLDEST DISTILLED SPIRIT
If there’s one other drink, apart from Orion beer, that Okinawans take pride in, it’s awamori. A distilled spirit with a distinct aroma and flavour, it is made from longgrain rice and a black koji mould that’s left to ferment for two to three weeks before being distilled.
The traditional production process shows a skill and an attention to detail that translates into the rich, smooth taste of this low-calorie spirit (almost half that of sake), which locals swear is less likely to give you a hangover – even with the high alcohol content of 30 to 45 per cent.
For a taste of awamori and to discover its intriguing history and production process, sign up for a free tour of Chuko Distillery (132 Nakachi, Tomigusuku City), a mere 10-minute drive from Naha Airport.
The massive Aeon Mall Okinawa Rycom has over 220 stores and a 2,200-seater food court.
8 SHOP AROUND THE CLOCK
No holiday would be complete without a spot of shopping. For that, the 1.6km-long Kokusaidori (International Avenue, 2-8-19 Matsuo) in Naha City is where you’ll find all manner of shops, department stores, cafes, bars and restaurants.
If you fancy a one-stop shop, head for the 24-hour Don Quijote. Japan’s largest discount store stocks everything on its five floors, from daily necessities to skincare and cosmetics, home appliances, clothes, luxury brands, and motorcycle parts.
Okinawan snacks, such as those made from local staples beni imo (sweet purple potato) or brown sugar, take up a few shelves.
If malls are more your thing, the massive Aeon Mall Okinawa Rycom has 220 stores and over 80 dining and snack options. You’ll also find the largest food court here – it seats about 2,200 – dishing up local and international cuisine. It is at 901-2300 Tochikukaku seirichinai Awase, Kitanakagusuku Village, Nakagami District. SH
WHERE TO STAY
• Trip Shot Villas Hamahiga
A virtual home away from home, this ultra-modern loft boasts a spacious living area and an ocean-facing bedroom on the second floor. There’s even a garden out front, as well as full kitchen, laundry and barbecue facilities. Amenities include free Wi-Fi and other mod cons. 247-5 Katsuren Hama, Uruma City, Uruma.
• Naha Tokyu Rei Hotel
Located right smack in Naha City, this is a great starting point for exploring the island’s attractions, like Kokusai Dori, Makishi Public Market and Naha Port. The hotel offers free Wi-Fi and there’s even convenience store Lawson on the ground floor. 116-37 Asahimachi, Naha City
• Spice Motel Okinawa
Converted from a love motel, this retro-looking boutique stay offers spectacular views of the Ginowan and Chantan regions. With its central location and proximity to the Okinawa Expressway, it is perfectly located for a self-drive holiday. Basic amenities include air-conditioning, free Wi-Fi, hairdryer, a laundromat and carparking facilities. The friendly English-speaking staff are a bonus. 1066 Kishaba, Kitanakagusukuson, Nakagamigun, Chatan