The final stop on our culinary travels through Japan is Okinawa. This southernmost prefecture of Japan is comprised of hundreds of Ryuku Islands stretching nearly 620 miles long. The area is a major tourist destination for the Japanese with temperatures hovering above 68F for most of the year.
The Okinawans have a language/ dialect of their own and their own customs which set them apart from the mainland Japanese. On the rooftops and at the gate of almost every house in Okinawa, you will find the omnipresent Shisa (Guardian lion dog). They are usually placed in pairs, one with its mouth open to catch good fortune and another with its mouth closed to keep in good fortune. Okinawan music is also very distinctive and the instrument of choice is the sanshin, a three-stringed banjo-like instrument that is the distant cousin of the mainland’s shamisen.
Numerous historical sites related to World War II can be found throughout the islands including the Peace Memorial Park in Naha, the capital of Okinawa and the Himeyuri Monument. The Monument was built on April 7, 1946 to commemorate those who had died during the Battle of Okinawa.
For those of you that are unfamiliar, the Himeyuri Corps was a group of 222 students and 18 teachers from the Okinawa Daiichi Women’s High School and Okinawa Shihan Women’s School who formed a nursing unit. They were mobilized by the Japanese army on March 23, 1945. During the three-month-long Battle of Okinawa, the students served on the front lines performing surgery and attending to the medical needs of the injured. On June 18, 1945, an order of dissolution was given to the unit. In the week following the dissolution order, approximately 80% of the girls and their teachers were killed. Survivors committed suicide in various ways because of fears of systematic rape by US soldiers. Some threw themselves off cliffs while others killed themselves with hand grenades given to them by the Japanese soldiers.
There are also some traces of the former Ryukyu Kingdom including the rebuilt Shuri Castle in Naha and Taketomi Village located on the Yaeyama Islands.
Okinawan cuisine is also distinctly different from that of mainland Japan in that it has notable Taiwanese influences. Some dishes worth sampling are the Goya Champuru (a bitter melon that is stir fried with pork and tofu), Gurukun (a small fish, considered the official fish of Okinawa, that is prepared in various ways), Hirayachi (a savory pancake similar to okonomiyaki but thinner), Rafti (a dish consisting of stewed pork), Sataandagi (deep fried dough also known as Okinawan donuts), Soki Soba (noodles in soup stock with cubed pork pieces).
For those that are more adventurous, there are also several “exotic” dishes worth looking into including, Chiraga (the skin from a pig’s face), Mimiga (sliced pork ears in vinegar), Umibudo (seaweed that is eaten raw dipped into vinegar or soy sauce), and Sukugarasu (fermented fish pressed into tofu).
There are many American restaurants in Okinawan too, opened to serve the military stationed there. Consequently, you will find several hybrid Okinawan-American dishes including the Nuuyaru Burger (using Spam) and Taco Rice (rice served with Mexican-style taco meat, cheese, lettuce and tomatoes). Since Spam is abundant in Okinawa, you will also find many restaurants serving Poku Tamago (Pork eggs) consisting of fried slices of Spam served with scrambled eggs and plenty of ketchup!
That does it for your adventures in gastronomy through Japan. Hope you enjoyed reading about the various regional culinary offerings and are willing to give some of these dishes a try the next time you visit. Until next time, ja mata!