By Carlo Fornari
I have been living in Okinawa for almost two years. For a lot of foreigners, especially Western people, Okinawa is an unknown destination, known only through the movie “Karate Kid Part 2,” or at least for me it was so. This doesn’t surprise me very much, especially when we consider that even a lot of Japanese people don’t know this beautiful island, except for the image as a tourist destination or think of it as a place where Winter never comes.
But actually, Okinawa is much more than it seems. We can start by saying that the population is one of the most long-lived in the world. Why is this? I think there are three reasons. The first one is, of course, the weather, with a temperature that never goes under 15 degrees in Winter. This fact allows people to save money (no heating). The Summer, like almost everywhere in Japan, is very hot but the wind makes it more bearable. In that way, the money saved in winter can be spent on air conditioning at home to prevent unpleasant mold and bad smells caused by humidity.
Another feature is that earthquakes are very rare in Okinawa. Instead, typhoons are very common during the year, especially in September. In Okinawa, the seasons start earlier than in the rest of the country; so we have spring in mid-February, when it’s possible to see the cherry blossoms before others in Japan. But also the rainy season (tsuyu in Japanese) that comes from May to June, is one month in advance compared to other places in Japan.
The second factor can be found in the Okinawan diet. Obviously, like all other diets, you have to follow it every day, 365 days a year. And like anywhere else in the world, also in Okinawa there are a lot of fast-food restaurants (probably because of the large number of Americans living here), that can tempt you. In my opinion, the three Okinawan gastronomic symbols are: goya, a vegetable rich in vitamins and minerals, that is consumed especially during the summer. It looks a bit like a cucumber with deformed skin, and its flavor is bitter, so it’s eaten with rice or other foods, and always cooked.
Second is Okinawan soba, made from 100% white flour, unlike mainland soba. It is served in a bowl of broth with pork (3 slices), a fish paste called kamaboko and various spices. You can eat this dish any time of the day, because it has a very relaxing taste, even in summer.
Last but not least, there is the typical Okinawan liquor: Awamori, made from Thai rice and rice malt. It helps to prevent arterial sclerosis and heart attacks. But despite these healthy qualities, when you drink it for the first time, the smell doesn’t seem so good. I think that’s why Okinawan people drink it with ice and water, tea, coke, or other soft drinks. Not to mention that its alcoholic content can reach 50%.
But an important factor is how Okinawan people live day to day. At a first glance, life in Okinawa should seem the same as in any other Japanese city. But if you lived in Tokyo for some time, you can easily spot the difference. In fact, the atmosphere that you feel walking through the streets of Naha is more relaxed compared to that of other big Japanese cities. Only here you can find businessmen wearing kariyushi (similar to Hawaiian shirts) during working hours, and rarely wearing a necktie. Another feature of Okinawa is that there is no subway, but only a railway line that runs from the airport to the Shuri castle. So almost everybody must use a car or bus for long distances.
People act differently, too. I noticed that people are more informal and direct than in other Japanese cities, and that is also true in a work environment. As previously mentioned, in Okinawa, there are a lot of Americans, mostly soldiers, but this contributes to the international and casual soul of Okinawa too.
Okinawa is an ideal place to discover the unexpected side of Japan. Now with ANA, you can do so – for only 10,500 yen.