Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Timeless Serenade: Okinawa

Apart from the ricocheting wail of a U.S. army helicopter, the air is full of the melodic clucking of a sanshin, the Okinawan three-stringed guitar.

My wife and I are sitting in a roadside restaurant somewhere between the cities of Naha and Nago on the main island of Okinawa. We've just ordered a dish of umi-budo-don, a specialty consisting of sea-grapes, sea urchin and red fish eggs. The walls, painted the day-glow colors of a neon sunset, give off the cheesy vibe of a black velvet painting. I cross my fingers and hope the decor isn't a reflection of the food.

When the dish finally arrives all thoughts of tropical kitsch are soon forgotten. Our meal, culled from the indigo waters off the coast, is delicious. We may have come to Okinawa for the sun and diving, but we've also discovered a few keys to longevity: raw fish guts and a green, bitter gourd called goya. The Uchinanchu (local dialect for native Okinawans) have the longest life expectancy of anyone on the planet -- 86 for women and 78 for men -- and diet is one of the main contributing factors.

Another factor is the Okinawan lifestyle. "Okinawa time," the islander's casual relationship to the clock, set the Uchinanchu far apart from mainland Japanese. Nan kuru naisa, (don't worry, be happy) is the local creed and clocks rarely agree with one another.

The Okinawan islands stretch over 1,000 kms from Kyushu, the largest southern island of Japan, to Taiwan. As a result, the Uchinanchu share more in common with the Taiwanese and Filipinos than with mainland Japanese. Once an independent nation known as the Ryukyu Kingdom, Japan officially renamed the islands Okinawa Prefecture following the Meiji restoration in 1879.

Shurijo, the 13th century-era royal castle of the Ryukyu Kingdom, was completely destroyed in 1945 during the "Battle of Okinawa," also known as the "typhoon of steel." It has since been rebuilt and is a source of local pride.

While diving off Zamami Island, Miyazato-san, the owner of our hotel and diving buddy, grabs hold of a porcupine puffer fish. It flares up like a prickly volleyball in self defense and swims away into the lucid blue distance of the warm sea.

On our last night while walking down Kokusai Dori (International Street) in Naha, a local troupe of traditional Okinawan dancers known as Eisa suddenly emerge from traffic. They pull up in two small flat-bed trucks waving their taiko drums and begin a free performance in the parking lot of a convenience store. Two chondara clowns run around exciting the audience while the entourage plays on. After 20 minutes they pack up as quickly as they'd arrived and speed off.

Soon we'll depart from Okinawa and reluctantly adjust our watches to prepare for a slow transition back to "real time".

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