In the Land of Shisaa

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One of the spots where I sporadically broke into the chorus of “Shima-Uta.” (Photos by Jordan Ikeda)

By JORDAN IKEDA
Rafu Contributor

We descended into a thick sea of clouds.

The early morning sky, illuminated with streams of light from the rising sun, faded into the swirling, cold mist.

As we broke through the thick cloud cover, the island came into focus, and even though the sky was shaded in grey, the ocean still shimmered like billions of churning emeralds. Certainly not the glittery aquamarine oceans and delphinium blue skies I had envisioned when my wife and I decided on Okinawa some eight months before, but after nearly 16 hours in two different airplanes and two different airports, I couldn’t tear my gaze away.

And why not?

Okinawa — a land of castles and military controversy, with history steeped in conquest and war, all backdropped by lush jungles and pristine beaches. With a style of flowered shirts, funky Japanese and way too many A&W restaurants. Where agu and ben-imo and shikuwasa and shisaa are literally everywhere. An island that, through its sheer beauty, compelled me to spontaneously break out singing the Boom’s “Shima-Uta” throughout my entire trip.

And despite the persistent clouds, despite the disenchanting revelation that “Karate Kid II” was filmed in America’s Hawaii, despite a tropical paradise filtered through a rain season two weeks too early, over the next six days, Okinawa’s beauty and culture would still manage to engulf my senses and take my breath away.

Our journey began in Naha, the main city in the southwest of Okinawa Island, Okinawa’s largest and most populous. Three nights in the city, one night in the northwestern Nakajin Village, and our final night in central Okinawa at the ANA Hotel.

A shisaa statue is traditional Ryukyu decoration.

Because my Japanese is limited to arigato and chotto matte, on trips to Japan, I’ve been spoiled rotten, having married a Tokyo native. But Naha, though it works hard to give the impression of a mainland city, is so completely not.

What’s immediately apparent is the lack of a train system. There’s the Okinawa monorail … and that’s it. And the monorail’s only been around since 2005.Which means, for those planning their own trip, be ready to drive.

The good thing is renting cars is cheap (we paid around $140 for four days) and obtaining an international driving permit is as easy as two passport-sized photos, your state driver’s license, $15 and a trip to your local AAA.

For those unaccustomed to driving in Japan, the idea does seem daunting — remember, the steering wheel is on the right, you drive on the left side of the road and the traffic signage is different — but after 15 minutes I was zipping around at 40 kph in my Mitsubishi EK Wagon like a seasoned pro.

Of course, it definitely helped that my wife could read and program the navigation system, which left me the tasks of listening for migi desu (turn right) and hidari desu (turn left) and making sure to hit the signal instead of the windshield wiper. For those lacking a Japanese-speaking significant other, mapping out specific destinations beforehand will help out tremendously, though the 58 will take you pretty much everywhere both north and south.

All of that to say, driving is a necessity when venturing further up the island, but for exploring Naha, walking and the monorail work just fine. From the airport, the monorail will take you to all the major spots in the city and all the way up to Shuri Castle.

Having flown into the Tokyo International Airport on a red eye flight via All Nippon Airways, then catching a connector flight into Okinawa, we arrived in Naha during the late morning. Unfortunately, our hotel check-in time wasn’t until 3 p.m. (Japanese hotels don’t work like most American hotels. Check-in time is non-negotiable.)
So we dropped off our luggage and headed out on foot in search of the only thing that mattered to us at that moment — lunch.

A cool pig’s head at Makishi Public Market in downtown Naha.

The main street in Naha is Kokusai Dori, 1.6 kilometers (1 mile) lined with department stores, bars and restaurants and shops selling everything from high-proof snake-liquor to pickled pig’s ears. It’s akin to Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade and the touristy feel can be a bit underwhelming for those seeking true Okinawan culture. That being said, shisaa, the lion/dog hybrid creature of Okinawan mythology, is everywhere — on rooftops and gates protecting houses and businesses from evil, and in every shop across the entire island taking ceramic form in all shapes and sizes.

Kokusai, while kitschy, at least gives a good feel for Okinawa’s varied demographics — military personnel, elderly tourists on shopping trips, mainlanders on vacay, middle-schoolers on field trips. We chose to go to Okinawa the week after Ogon Shukan (Golden Week) to avoid the mainland vacationers, and instead were met with swarms of middle-school kids. Kokusai

Dori was no different with teenagers buying T-shirts, posing for pictures, talking excitedly, doing teenager things.

But our minds were on our stomachs and all we could focus on were the pubs and restaurants advertising soba, agu (sweet Okinawan pork) and umi budou (sea grapes). Conflicting with the yearnings for lunch, every couple blocks was a Blue Seal ice cream shop selling a variety of flavors, though the two that caught our eyes (and eventually our taste buds) were the purple ben-imo (Okinawan sweet potato) and the green shikuwasa (Okinawan lemon).

After walking for a half hour trying to avoid teens and find an appropriate eatery, our hunger drove us to randomly select one. It was a nice enough place, with the rhythmic plucking of the sanshin (the shamisen’s older brother) playing in the background.

We ate soba and umi budou and drank shikuwasa soda. One thing I will note, random selection is not an ideal means of choosing a place to dine. While we thought it was good at that specific moment, it wasn’t until we had tasted the Okinawan food of the locals (a bit later on in our trip) that we realized how mediocre that first stop really was…

Part 2 next week.

Jordan Ikeda is a former Rafu Sports editor who writes from Torrance. He can be contacted at [email protected] Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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