I’m not sure what brought me to Okinawa.
I’d heard it was kind of cheap, sunny, laid back, and just a little bit different to the rest of Japan. But we hadn’t really planned things. We just kind of ended up there.
Of course, I’d done a bit of pre-arrival research, and in doing so learned Okinawa was famous for quite a few things. One, it was the home of karate. If you’re from my generation, you undoubtedly remember the original Karate Kid movies, and the famous “wax on wax off” Mr Miyagi who calls Okinawa home.
Okinawa is also littered with US army bases – a not-so-subtle reminder of the bloody Battle of Okinawa in WW2, and America’s later use of the islands during the Vietnam War.
But what interested me most was the lifestyle. Supposedly through diet and a better way of living, the people of Okinawa live longer than anyone else in the world.
But how? And why?
Hopefully five days on the islands would be long enough to find out.
After touching down on the islands, you could tell just from the airport Okinawa was a no frills kind of place. No baggage belt – just suitcases dumped out into a collection area. No big arrivals hall – just a big room with a token cafe in the corner. In it’s simplicity, I already liked it. It was different from the rest of Japan.
We’d arranged an Airbnb apartment beforehand, and caught the public bus out to our new home. Safe to say, during the bus ride I quickly concluded Okinawa was very, very different to how I’d imagined it in my head. I’d pictured more of a beachy, classic, traditional type vibe, but it was actually a lot closer to a typical mid-sized Japanese city. However, the vast contrast with Tokyo’s hectic pace of life was immediately palpable – and that I liked a lot.
Our apartment turned out to be a full on Japanese house; 3 bedrooms, lounge, TV room, decked out with tatami mats, a bum washing toilet, fancy gadget style Japanese kitchen, laundry, enormous shower room, fast wifi, dining room table, and even a little porch for us to sit and enjoy the sun. There was only 5 of us, but we could’ve easily slept 8 or 9 in there. Best part was, at $30/night per person it was actually cheaper than our shoebox Tokyo apartment, where we’d squashed into a tiny studio with a modest microwave kitchen and an airplane sized toilet.
As I’ve always said before – spend your time in the smaller cities. Your value for money multiplies, you live in greater comfort, and you’re able to stay on the road a lot longer.
We spent the first full day out on Okinawa’s International Street. It took us a whole day to wander from top to bottom, and while a lot of shops tend to lean towards the souvenir/tourist market, there’s some interesting stuff there.
By day’s end, we decided to settle down for dinner at a traditional Okinawan kitchen, which was perfect. As you know, one of my favourite things to do in a new place is eat, but in Okinawa this was especially so. Food and health go hand-in-hand, and in a place that claims the highest life expectancy in the world, surely exploring their favourite eats would uncover some of the secrets.
First was the awamori tofu. Awamori is a strong, traditional Okinawan rice liquor which is around 40%-60% alcohol, and as well as drinking it Okinawans like to cook their tofu in it. A strange combination for sure, and while I didn’t love it, it wasn’t bad. It’s actually quite nice at the start, but it has a very strong vodka aftertaste. If drinking games were on the agenda, this thing could surely make the night a lot of fun. Apologies for the shitty photo – it’s on the right.
Next were the sea grapes, or umi-budō. I guess it’s, or at least it looks like, some kind of seaweed, and is supposedly one of the Okinawan secrets to a long and healthy life. I was expecting a strong, fishy, sea salty taste, but it actually just tastes like……nothing. Didn’t get me excited at all, but if it’ll add another 10 years to my life, I’ll gladly eat a handful each day.
One dish I’d especially been looking forward to was rafute, a stewed Okinawan pork belly, which is supposed to be a flagship dish on the islands. I had high expectations for this but I’ll be honest – it was very average. A little tough, not so tasty, definitely not the melt-in-your-mouth I’d expected. Nonetheless, eating pig is supposed to be another long-life secret in Okinawa, and this dish is one of the local favourites.
As I mentioned, there’s historically been a strong American presence here, and this is telling in the food as well. One such dish is taco rice, basically a taco without a taco, served over rice instead. It seems strange, but it’s pretty good.
And then of course we have the goya, or bitter melon. I’m familiar with bitter melon as the Chinese also associate it with long life, but the incredibly bitter taste has never appealed to me. The Okinawans, on the other hand, seem to love this vegetable with a passion.
The goya can be cooked in a variety of ways, but goya chanpuru, or bitter melon stir fry, is the most popular and might be Okinawa’s most famous dish. Is this the vegetable that helps them live so long? I’m sure it doesn’t hurt.
The following days were easily the laziest days I had in Japan. In a way, it was recovery time from the preceding week, where we’d all fallen victim to Tokyo’s unkind winter. We did however, while trying to kick our lingering flus and colds, manage to do a fair amount of lazy exploration.
We visited Fruit Land, some sort of fruit museum, which honestly was so bad it was actually funny. I won’t even add a photo of it. Please don’t go there.
We tried sata andagi, Okinawa’s famous donuts.
We checked out the whale sharks at the Churaumi Aquarium.
We spent a lot of time waiting at bus stops.
We sat out in the sun on our porch and talked about bullshit.
We walked through the Shuri castle, the Ryukyu palace destroyed during WW2.
And then, one day while wandering around International Street, I finally think I discovered Okinawa’s secret. While drifting through some market, we caught sight of a small crowd of people, tucked away down some little alley.
“What’s down there?” I asked my friend.
“Don’t know, let’s go see.”
So off we went. Luckily my friend, who is Japanese, was able to read the signs.
“Oh, this is a shop for Okinawan soba,” he told us.
As we stood around, wondering whether we should go in and try it, an American guy behind us obviously overheard and decided to say something.
“You guys should definitely try it. It’s really, really good man.”
We all looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders, and went inside.
Now, you can ask my Mum, I am a noodle freak. Ever since I could eat, I was a noodle man. An enthusiast, if you like. I eat noodles anytime, anywhere, and have tried many, many bowls of noodles in many holes in the wall around the world. And whenever I walk into a noodle shop, I can usually make a good guess in the first few moments of whether it’s going to be good or not.
In this particular shop, I noticed a few things off the bat. It was a one-woman operation – a lone, maybe 80+ year old lady who ran the whole show. As soon as we walked in and I saw her, I had a good feeling. Noodle soup is a dish where simplicity rules – it does not mix well with flash. There are no fancy tools or ingredients you need. There is only one way to make a good noodle soup, and it has nothing to do with the recipe or the ingredients; all it needs is to be cooked with lots and lots of love, and when it comes to cooking with love, grandma always know best.
As I sat in the corner of the restaurant, I watched her doing her thing, walking calmly up and down her small kitchen, not rushing at all, a kind smile on her face. Her restaurant had no menu, because she only cooked one thing, in one size, at one price: 390 yen for a bowl of grandma’s noodle soup.
It was definitely going to be good. I already knew.
When the bowls arrived, I’m sure we all thought the same thing. It looked freakin’ delicious. There was nothing fancy. Just a bunch of noodles, a few fatty slabs of pork, a clear broth and a sprinkle of fresh spring onions. But that’s all it needed, because from the first look we could all immediately tell – it was cooked with love.
We all dug in, and from the first bite, we all lost control. The noodles were firm and chewy, cooked to perfection, and the soup just flavourful enough that every mouthful had you begging for more. The meat, tender and fatty, tempered the dish perfectly. All I added was a sprinkle of chili flakes and that was more than enough. We slurped and groaned and let out uncontrollable “OH MY GODS”, stuffing our mouths with love-filled Okinawan soba.
And in the corner, I just knew, grandma was listening with a knowing smile on her face. She’s been doing this for years, and she already knew. She knew these moans of delight would be coming from the from the moment we stepped in the door.
It didn’t take us long to finish. We all sat there, stupid smiles on our face, hands on our stomachs, day dreaming about what we’d just eaten. It wasn’t a big bowl, and I could’ve easily eaten another, but something stopped me. I had a suspicion that I might ruin it all if I forced down another serve, and something tells me that’s not an accident. Grandma knew exactly how much to serve. And so I sat there, smiling and satisfied. One bowl was all we needed.
Where do you get it?
Ok, I’m going to apologise in advance here, I must be the worst blogger ever, because I actually don’t know the name or the address of this place. Instead, I will give you as many details as possible, and you’ll need to go on a little scavenger hunt to find it (or hopefully someone will read this and can post the name/address in the comments).
On International Street in Naha, Okinawa, you want to find the Starbucks, which is on a corner. Diagonally across the road is an alley/indoor market. It’s inside there somewhere, about halfway down. Show these photos to one of the store owners around there, and I’m sure they can point you to it:
Besides, this is most definitely a bowl of noodles worth hunting for, so if you’re not willing to do a little searching, you probably don’t deserve to try it anyway!
My final night in Okinawa was as relaxing as all the others. After a day of wandering I sat in a small burger bar and indulged in a burger and beer. My weapons of choice were the supposedly “world famous” Okinawa bitter melon burger and the local favourite Nihede beer. Despite my dislike for goya, I enjoyed the burger a lot, and the beer was crisp and mild, just the way I like it.
Following that, we decided to cap the night off with another local treat – Okinawan snake wine. This is an awamori based liquor, produced with a (usually live) snake inside the bottle. I have no idea why they do it – but apparently it’s great for male sexual health. All I know for sure is it tastes like petrol. Another secret to a long life? Maybe.
After a relaxing five days it was finally time to leave. My friends all flew out a little earlier than I did, and that left me with a little bit of time at the airport to sit alone and ponder things. Looking back, Okinawa hadn’t been all that eventful, and we hadn’t really done anything remarkable during our five days there; just a bit of lazy wandering, sitting around the house chatting, eating good food and enjoying the slower pace of life that it had to offer.
And then it occurred to me, maybe that is the secret. Maybe it’s not the food or the weather that gives them longevity, but just the fact that they know how to relax, slow down, not take themselves too seriously, and enjoy the simple things life has to offer. Okinawa is often the butt of the jokes in Japan – a bunch of islands with dumb, lazy people who never achieve anything. But, judging by the years in their lives, it seems the real joke is on everyone else. While the Tokyo salarymen hustle through subways, shivering in the cold working miserable 14-hour days, the Okinawans walk slowly, taking in the sunshine, working less and living more. Life may not be glamorous in Okinawa, but it is long and happy, and in the end, what else can you really ask for?
Despite not spending a lot of time there, I grew to really like the place. There’s definitely a few more stories to hear, more bowls of noodles to eat, and a lot more islands to explore, but five days there showed me more than enough to bring me back. When? I’m not sure. But I know there are more secrets here to be found, and I’ll definitely be back to find them.
I’m not done with you yet, Okinawa.
Have you been to Okinawa? What did you think? What secrets did you find? Let me know in the comments below!