Last week, I visited Okinawa for the first time with my friend. It was the most wonderful place in Japan I’ve ever been. Okinawa is rich of history and it is known to be technically Japan, but so different culturally from the rest of the country.
It’s an island closer to Taiwan than mainland Japan, and more geographically similar to Hawaii. I’d heard before that it is pretty similar to Hawaii in some aspects of its culture and cuisine, since Hawaii has a large Japanese population and influence. Okinawan people actually have some different physical features from mainland Japanese, such as very dark skin by comparison, and polynesian features, and they speak a different dialect called “Uchinaguchi.”
Okinawa also has the highest concentration of American military bases in any country other than the U.S., which has led to its gradual Americanization and fusion of Japanese and American culture, and affinity for certain specific American foods and traditions that aren’t even popular in the U.S.
For example, I hadn’t ever seen an A&W fast food restaurant until I came to Okinawa. I knew the root beer, and when I was on a bus from Naha, the capital, to Nago, another city, I didn’t realize that the sign I thought was just an ad for the root beer was a full-on restaurant. It turns out that this was a large east coast chain for American fast food that started in California, but now there are no locations in California and 30 locations in this one prefecture of Japan. A&W is now more Okinawan than it is American. It came to Japan before McDonalds and has become a tourist destination for visitors from around the world with huge murals for photo opportunities. I tried the onion rings. The interior felt like an American restaurant, and the food was authentically American fast food, and I experienced culture shock because of the accuracy.
The famous Okinawan steakhouse chain, 88, is another example of Okinawan American food that doesn’t exist in the U.S. When I asked a taxi driver his recommendation for Okinawan food, he said, “grilled meat.” And when I asked another local where the best place is to get grilled meat, he said 88.
Another highlight of my visit was the city of Naha and World War II era shotengai (shopping streets). It felt so stuck in time, and this on its own surely was a tourist destination, but not a contrived one; it genuinely hasn’t changed since it opened up, other than maybe half of the businesses being abandoned or closed. I went walking down this street many times. I bought a pineapple on a stick from a fruit vendor, fresh Sata-Andaagi (Okinawan donuts) from a vendor, and souvenirs for my friends. My friend and I ate fried shrimp and wagyu beef at incredible Izakayas with a few outdoor seats on the shopping street, and blue seal ice cream, in Okinawan Chinsuko (Okinawan cookie) and Beniimo (purple sweet potato) flavors.
We also visited the Shurijo castle, which burned down in 2019. There is a tour of the remains and a place to observe the reconstruction, and many trails for hiking among the ruins with panoramic views of the city of Naha. Shurijo is on the 2000 yen bill, which is as rare as a $2 bill. It was here where my friend and I were served traditional tea and cookies and found so many nooks and crannies in the castle with jungles and hiking trails. It was my favorite castle I’ve visited in Japan. I also ate a spam musubi at the café. Spam is the notorious can of “Spare pork and meat,” but Okinawan people and Hawaiian people figured out a dish that uses it that actually tastes incredible. Spam musubi is a slice of grilled spam atop rice wrapped in seaweed. In Okinawa they also add egg to the spam musubi and heat it up. I remember loving these in elementary school, and they’re just as delicious as I remembered. The pineapple juice was incredible too.
In Nago, we visited the Churinami Aquarium. This is the most highly recommended tourist attraction in central western Okinawa. It is very big, and home to a giant shark. It was truly shocking to see baby whales doing tricks in pools for onlookers too when this is such a controversial topic in Japan. I loved seeing fish with some truly beautiful natural designs and unique shapes. Here, we ate taco rice- a bowl of white rice with taco meat and lettuce and ketchup, an Okinawan street food.
My favorite sight in Okinawa may have been Araha beach. Just beacause of the most beautiful basketball court I’ve ever seen. I even shot some hoops with some locals. The picturesque court is reminiscent of the one in Wii sports resort. It was stunning, and made me so happy. There were many Hawaiian food trucks near this park.
The court is right down the street from the American village. Think China town, or little Italy. The American village is a sprawling American themed town with a humongous parking lot. Parts of it must be inspired by American shopping malls. It had Mexican food, burgers, pizza, and Philly cheese steaks. There were big neon signs and even buildings reminiscent of San Francisco architecture. I was there for several hours while my friend bounced from one unhealthy restaurant to the next, but I still feel that we barely scratched the surface of this town. Though it was somewhat accurate, I still thought this interpretation of American culture was absolutely hilarious.
I would absolutely recommend visiting Okinawa. It is a culture so different from any other part of Japan, and I will definitely be back.
Make sure you check out my last few blogs about life in Japan!