I have just relocated to the U.S. after living in Okinawa for the past three years. For those of you not up on your Japanese geography, Okinawa is a tropical paradise of an island situated south of Japan in the East China sea and approximately 340 miles from the Japanese mainland. The sand is white, the water blue and the landscape dotted with palm fronds blowing in the breeze, pineapple trees and mango plants. What’s not to love, right? Wrong.
I have always been partial to traveling throughout Europe and I hope, in the future to spend time in Africa, like my sister who has just returned from working with the UN in Liberia. I have never been particularly interested in Asia as a region or visiting any of the countries there. (Does that make me a horrible person?) But when the opportunity arose for my husband to move to Japan for work, despite my lack of interest in visiting the area, I did not feel right turning down a chance for me and my family to live abroad, particularly my son who at the time had never traveled outside of the U.S.
Upon arriving on island, I began a love-hate relationship with Okinawa. I loved the fact that there was beauty everywhere you looked and the weather was great (except the rainy season, barely noticeable earthquakes and the numerous tsunami warnings). But an island is so, well, island-ish, you know…small and surrounded by water. After awhile, you’ve done all of the touristy-things, you run into the same people and you, well start to pout and long to be elsewhere, like Rome or Paris. (Maybe that was just me. Well, no it wasn’t because I had several girlfriends who felt the exact same way.)
Fortunately for me, about six months before it was time to leave the island, my best friend and I started to prematurely wax poetic about Oki (as the resident Americans called it) and all that we would miss. Instead of meeting at the local Starbucks for our weekly gabfests, we started taking walks on the beach to enjoy the view. I started taking pictures of the everyday things I knew I would miss. My husband and I even made a list of restaurants we wanted to visit but hadn’t and made sure that we went. And we visited some of our favorite tourist haunts–again.
By the time I was packing and readying to return stateside, I was dare I say, misty-eyed? My husband noticing my change of heart reassured me that we could always return if I really truly missed the island that much. I quickly came to my senses and realized that while I belatedly regained my gratitude for the opportunity to live abroad, meet wonderful people and experience a wonderful culture, I really did not want to stay.
Interestingly enough for a person who formerly has no interest in the region, I am now pursuing a Masters of Science in International Relations. And yes, you guessed it, I am specializing in the Northeast Asian region and terribly interested in security issues related to Japan, both Koreas and China.
Here is my brief list of things I’ll miss about Okinawa:
Drink machines are more ubiquitous than Starbucks in Okinawa and throughout mainland Japan. Literally, ever five paces or so, there was a drink machine offering the coolest drinks you never heard of, like white grape with bits of aloe (weird sounding but tasty), fruity gelatin drinks (Yes, like drinking Jell-o with a straw and a bit hit with the kiddies.), fifty different kinds of coffee in a can (espresso, americano, latte…) super-strong, bitter jasmine tea, various fruit and tea mixes (like white grape tea, apple tea…) and White Water (a mysterious yet popular milky-white, carbonated beverage).
Before you could find Starbucks in a can in your local convenience store, the Japanese were chugging canned coffee in the morning, afternoon and evening. They come hot or ice-cold straight from the vending machine and only cost the equivalent of one American dollar.
Purple Potato Ice Cream
Yes, there is a purple potato that grows in Okinawa. It is a lovely, deep violet color and is very tasty.
The nail art in Okinawa is not to be believed. What would be considered tacky in the U.S. is highly popular throughout all of Japan. It is very rare to see local women and girls without nail art. Most American women kept their finger nails traditional and went crazy on the toes. I will admit, there are some exceedingly pretty designs. When I was in Okinawa, I would typically get a French Manicure with a few strategically placed rhinestones on one or two fingers. Occasionally, I’d get a small, three-dimensional white flower painted on one nail. I miss getting nail art. I am back to my predictable blood-red color on short nails. Oh well.
Exquisitely crafted, light as air, not-too-sweet desserts. See this post dedicated to the art of Japanese patisseries.
A bit self-explanatory but balls (or sometimes triangle-shaped) of rice, wrapped in seaweed, seasoned with salt and occasionally filled with salmon or pickled plum or my personal favorite, bonita flakes (dried flakes of smoked fish). Delicious, healthy and a much better option than Happy Meals with apple slices when feeding kids in the car.
The Sounds of Drums In The Far Off Distance
The sounds of drums could always be heard in the distance. It made for a nice, eerie yet authentically Okinawan soundtrack for my life on the island. Eisa (a traditional Okinawan dance) groups were ever present, practicing late into the night. Eventually you’d see the groups in their bright red vests on a random street corner attracting hordes of pedestrians while they did a choreographed dance along with singing and chanting with and without drums. Lovely to hear and lots of fun to watch. Check it out below.
Shishi translates into lion, but most Okinawans consider this mystical creature a dog with magical powers and the ability to repel evil spirits. For this reason, you will find statues of Shishi dogs on the roof of, or at the entrance of every home, restaurant, office building and facility on the island usually in pairs. Okinawans take their Shishi’s quite seriously. When I was new to the island, seeing them under every nook and cranny was unsettling.
I did, however get used to seeing them. And now, I miss their grotesque faces and hideous expressions. Good thing I sent my brother a pair of Shishi dogs for Christmas, I can see them when I visit his home.
Fun, Touristy Stuff
If, however you are like me and avoid water because it turns my perfectly blown-out hair into an impossibly frizzy mess of spiral curls (this island’s intense, dare I say suffocating humidity in the summer is also the archenemy of my hair). You will have fun visiting Peace Prayer Park, Shuri Castle, the Churaumi Aquarium (second largest aquarium in the world–we went three times!) and eating. Yes, I said eating! There are so many great restaurants on the island, I will probably have to do a separate post just to discuss Japanese food. Okinawans are also big fans of Italian and Jamaican food and there are numerous Italian and Caribbean restaurants on the island with an Okinawan spin on popular menu favorites. Sweet corn on pizza, anyone?
Vipers in Vodka (Pssst…I don’t miss this.)
Okay, not exactly vipers in Vodka but I liked the way it sounded (To an English major, alliteration-even in prose is cool). Habu sake or awamori is a liquor made of rice and the venom of the deadly pit viper, the Habu-a snake indigenous to Okinawa. And for the pièce de résistance, Okinawans bottle the beverage with an entire snake coiled inside. The alcohol in the liquor neutralizes the venom. However, I have never tried this beverage, nor will I ever. Just as I am not a cat-lover, I have a strong dislike for anything that crawls on its belly, hisses and is filled with poison.
What do you miss about Okinawa? Or if you’ve never been, what do you want to see?