To be honest, before this trip, all I knew about Okinawa had to do with food.
Soki soba, taco rice, champuru.
But I didn’t know much about what else makes this collection of islands so unique and different from Mainland Japan.
In just a few days here — visiting Shuri Castle, walking down the touristy Kokusai Dori, touring around a soba noodle factory — I’ve learned so much about the prefecture’s rich — and often tragic — culture and history.
(It helps I came with the production crew for “Family Ingredients” and they’re interested in capturing the spirit of whatever place they’re at.)
One of our stops was Shuri Castle (below), the palace of the Ryūkyū Kingdom.
After the kingdom was annexed by Japan in 1879, the king was removed and the castle was used as a barracks by the Japanese army.
During the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, the Shuri Castle was almost destroyed. (It was shelled by the American battleship USS Mississippi for three straight days.) In 1958, the stone gate was reconstructed and, in 1992, the main building of the castle was reconstructed.
The castle was reconstructed on the original site based on photographs, historical records and memory — not unlike castles in Europe that were destroyed during war.
Today, along with other sites in the area, the castle is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
And then there’s awamori, that iconic Okinawan spirit derived from long grain indica rice imported from Thailand and fermented with koji, a kind of mold. Unlike sake, which is brewed, awamori is distilled like shōchū. And in order for it to be called awamori, it has to be made in Okinawa.
We learned this by visiting Zuisen Distillery near the castle.
This distillery has been churning out awamori for more than 100 years. In fact, it supplies the largest volume of awamori to stores in Okinawa.
Awamori is colorless distilled spirit that’s a lot like vodka (though with far lower alcohol content). It’s only made with three ingredients: Thai rice, water and the black koji yeast-culture.
The most popular way to drink awamori is with water or over ice. (Many people drink it straight, too, or mix the spirit into cocktails.) Traditionally, it’s served in a kara-kara, or a small earthen vessel with a clay marble inside (giving it that sound, kara-kara.)
OK, taco rice.
Not everyone gets this dish, but I love it.
It’s really simple: taco-flavored ground beef is served on a bed of rice with shredded lettuce, cheese (usually straight from a bag), tomatoes and salsa.
It’s likely a dish born out of the U.S. presence in Okinawa, but the locals have embraced it as well. Taco rice is often served in school lunches and, in 1996, it was on the menu at KFC in Japan.
And it wasn’t until I went on a tour at a soba noodle factory did I truly appreciate Okinawan soba.
Noodles arrived in Okinawa from China in 1574 — almost a century before udon popped up in Japan.
And in order to call noodles, “Okinawan soba,” it has to meet 12 standards, including the water ratio content, concentration of sodium, thickness, and the noodles have to be coated with oil while it’s hot.
And it has to be made in Okinawa. I didn’t know that.
The most impactful experience, though, was visiting the Peace Memorial Park in Itoman.
This area was the site of one of the war’s bloodiest battles, when U.S. forces invaded and occupied the island. About 200,000 people died, including more than 100,000 civilians. Some were killed by bombs and shells. Some committed suicide. Some died of starvation or malaria. Some were killed by retreating Japanese troops. It was a tragic moment in the prefecture’s history, and the message of peace has been strong and fierce every since.
The Peace Memorial Park is the main memorial to the Battle of Okinawa, the 82-day battle that lasted from early April to mid-June 1945. (It’s called the “Typhoon of Steel.”) It’s near the ocean, where many people jumped to their death.
The park also houses a museum with artifacts from the war, including oral histories from survivors.
This fountain symbolizes Okinawa with waves of peace emanating from it. Even the walls surrounded the fountain are placed in a way to look like waves coming from the fountain. It’s a stunning tribute to those who died — and those who survived.
The Cornerstone of Peace is a collection of large stone plates with the names of all the fallen soldiers and civilians, including Korean, Taiwanese, Americans and Brits. It was unveiled in 1995 on the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Okinawa. We left an offering of flowers here in honor of their memory.
The Golden Okinawan Buddha is housed at the park. This is where people come to pray for peace. Above the buddha is a narrow opening that mimics the night sky. So your prayers leave the building and go towards the stars. It’s very poetic.
Finally, we went out to a bar that showcased live music and kachāshī, a form of festive Okinawan folk dance. (You’ve probably seen this at the local Okinawan Festival.) It’s a traditional style of music and dance that features the sanshin and taiko drum. Men dance with closed fists; women dance with flat palms.
Honestly, this kind of dance was utterly foreign to me. It felt like a faster, livelier version of bon dancing. And we couldn’t figure it out.
But we did it. It wasn’t pretty. But it was fun.
And I think ultimately, that’s what it was all about.
Follow my adventures in Okinawa on Instagram @catherinetoth and Twitter @thedailydish. See even more photos at @familyingredients on Instagram and Facebook.