An Epic Okinawan Adventure

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As readers of our newsletter already know, we were away on a trip to Japan for the last two weeks of October which is why we were temporarily unable to ship certain items. We spent the majority of our time in the city of Naha in Okinawa for the 6th Annual Worldwide Uchinanchu Taikai, which is basically an extended family reunion for anyone who happens to have ancestors from Okinawa. Besides taking part in the event and meeting a few relatives for the first time, we saw a multitude of local sights thanks to the tour group we joined organized by our travel agency (Naka’s Travel Service).

Since we’ve never traveled with a tour group before, it took us awhile to get used to the early wake-up calls and strict adherence to daily schedules, but in the end it was worth it because they provided translation and interpretation (very useful since we don’t speak Japanese), transportation (also important because traffic and parking in the city was horrible during commute hours), meals and restaurant recommendations (all delicious), and the ability to see as many sights as physically possible during our stay.

On the first day we arrived we visited Gyokusendo Cultural Park. It’s sort of like the Okinawan equivalent of the Polynesian Cultural Center (for anyone who’s ever visited Oahu), or a more authentic Disney World, in the sense that it’s a theme park providing tourist-friendly samplings of various culture-specific foods, arts, crafts, souvenirs, and performances. Unlike most theme parks, it also features a remarkable 300,000 year old cave full of stalactites and stalagmites. Immediately after, we headed to the Okinawan Peace Memorial and Museum where we marveled at the world’s largest lacquer statue and learned of the many horrors of the Battle of Okinawa, which ultimately killed more people than the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the majority of whom were civilians and conscripts.

The next day had a more hectic schedule starting with a tour of Naha, a stop at Shuri Castle (capital of the Ryukyu Kingdom), the Okinawa Prefecture Museum (covering Okinawa’s natural and cultural history) and ending with a festive Uchinanchu welcoming parade. The day after we visited an Awamori distillery (Awamori is like Saki except distilled instead of brewed), and then attended the Uchinanchu Festival Opening Ceremony. In the following days we visited the town of Nishihara, took a day trip to Kumejima Island, visited a memorial for the Tsushima Maru (a cargo ship full of students sunk by an American submarine during the war) and stopped at a beautiful Shinto shrine in the city.

On Oct. 30 we attended the Uchinancho Festival Closing Ceremonies, a few highlights of which can be seen in the following video.

For longer (and more professional looking) clips from the same event, visit Toranosuke’s YouTube channel.

The last two days of the tour were spent mostly in northern Okinawa. We visited Takoyama Park (or Ryukyu Village) which depicts life in pre-war Okinawa, stopped at Nakijin Castle and Museum, the second largest castle in Okinawa and a World Heritage Site, toured the Orion Beer Factory, and spent a long day exploring the impressive Ocean EXPO Park which features several Whale Sharks, the world’s largest fish species. There were plenty of other sites and events we took in besides the ones mentioned, each of them compelling, entertaining and educational in unique ways.

Though Okinawa’s history is steeped in tragedy, from my observations and interactions with locals, the culture and/or environment seems to foster an honestly friendly and generous spirit. It’s just a theory, but perhaps part of the reason for their resilience and longer than average natural life expectancy (besides good diet and close-knit communities) is that they seem to know how to enjoy and appreciate the good things in life. Examples of this go way back, from tobacco pipes dating back to Japan’s medieval period to stories of 300+ year old containers of Awamori, many found (and destroyed) during World War II. During the course of the trip we also had an opportunity to drink beer and wine infused with Habu (a venomous pit viper), and have on more than a few occasions seen locals wearing Bob Marley or Rasta-themed clothing (but no actual public cannabis smoking). Though there didn’t seem to be many head shops in the area of downtown Naha we were at there was at least one store we found, “Hot Wax”, which sold cannabis pipes and various Bob Marley products.

We didn’t see very many vapers in the downtown area though we did find a small selection of vape kits and cartridges in one of the largest and busiest department stores in the area, “Don Quixote” (they also happened to carry a large variety of “Hemp Air Fresheners”. Unfortunately, Okinawa does seem to have more tobacco smokers than in most cities in the U.S. This was evident not just from noticing more smokers around, but more ashtrays in public areas, more cigarettes butts littered on the streets, easily accessible cigarette vending machines, and even a smoking room near the airline gates at Naha Airport. If more locals could switch to vaping or cannabis (or even natural tobacco) instead of smoking industrial cigarettes, a larger portion of the population could retain the longevity the area has become world-renowned for.

The following video is a performance of a cover song by Nenes, a popular Okinawan pop group who may be representative of (and contributor to) Marley’s popularity in Okinawa, further proving the universality of his music and message. We happened to hear this song played in the background at a few places around Naha and were charmed enough to share it.

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