Okinawa is the southernmost prefecture of Japan and only became part of the country in 1879. The prefecture stretches 1,000km – its capital Naha is closer to Taiwan than to Tokyo.
Okinawa’s more recent history is less amicable. During World War Two the island was invaded by U.S. troops and nearly half the population died or committed suicide after 82 days of bombardment known here as the ‘rain of steel’. U.S. troops are still stationed in Okinawa and leave their cultural influence too – the endless stalls of tourist tat along Naha’s Kokusai Street peddle Hawaiian shirts along with dried fish snacks and kimonos.
Okinawa was home of the Ryuku Kingdom, which traded with other cultures when Japan was isolated
Off Naha is Nagannu, a sliver of an island carpeted in bone-white sand, crunchy pink coral and tropical screw pines, visited by humpback whales.
Growing Old Gracefully
Okinawa is a ‘Blue Zone’ region, where people live notably long lives and I found out one of the reasons why during lunch, at Cafe Garamanjyaku. Owner Kiyoko Yamashiro prepared my lunch in what she calls ‘Grandma’s kitchen’ as I sat cross-legged at the low table, looking out of the sliding doors to the damp, green garden of this little wooden house. “It’s all down to nuchi gusto,” she explained. This means ‘food is medicine’ and it must be because the women here live an average 87 years, men 77. “Because they drink more sake and do less work”, says Kiyoko, completely serious.
I felt healthier just looking at my plate. Colourful clusters of grated carrot, juicy yellow star fruit, mauve fried taro, earthy mushrooms, green beans, herb-flecked tofu and sticky rice speckled with peas – all local vegetables and herbs. As I tucked in a tabby cat padded silently across the tatami mat floor and a stone kettle bubbled cheerily on a glowing coal hearth at the centre of the table, witchy-looking herbs sprouting out and giving off a calming aroma.