Naha is the capital of Okinawa Prefecture, the tropical island group south of mainland Japan. I was told by some Okinawans that they consider their islands to be Japan’s Hawaii, a tropical paradise with its own unique culture and a myriad of outdoor experiences. This string of islands in the East China Sea is closer to Taipei than Tokyo, so its food, music, art and architecture have broad Asian and Chinese influences. From the 15th to 19th centuries, it was part of the independent Ryukyu Kingdom, and only came under Japan in 1879. With their own language and customs, most Okinawans regard themselves as different from the mainland Japanese.
If you are a World War II history buff, then you will recognize Okinawa as the site of a major battle in 1945. Not surprisingly, Naha has memorials to this war in the Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum and the Himeyuri Monument. But after my heartbreaking and very moving visit to Nagasaki’s war memorials earlier this month, I (Merge) decided to look for something different. So I decided to explore four other things that Naha is known for – namely, a museum that unusually incorporates history, culture, science and art in one building; an ancient castle; longevity in its citizens; and a bustling shopping street.
The Okinawa Prefectural Museum and Art Museum contains artifacts relating to geology, biology, anthropology, archeology, history, folklore, crafts, and modern and contemporary works of art. The day I visited, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that entrance to the museum (but not the art galleries) was free to celebrate a special event. Bonus! While most of the museum’s explanatory signs were in Japanese, there were enough in English to make this museum visit very interesting.
I found the natural history section particularly fascinating as it had information on the Minatogawa man. These Minatogawa specimens are four human skeletons dated between 20,000-22,000 years BCE, and found at the Minatogawa limestone quarry, located 10 km south of Naha. They are among the oldest skeletons of hominins ever discovered in Japan. Another fascinating section of the museum was its many dioramas, which fortunately cross language boundaries.
Between 1429 and 1879, Shurijo Castle was the palace, and the centre of politics, diplomacy, and culture of the Ryukyu Kingdom. In 1945, during the Battle of Okinawa in World War II, it was almost completely destroyed. Beginning in 1992, the central citadel and walls were largely reconstructed on the original site based on historical records, photographs, and memory, and in 2000, the Shuri Castle grounds were designated as a World Heritage Site. Unfortunately, on October 31, 2019, the main courtyard structures of the castle were again destroyed in a fire. When I visited, the castle was once again being restored, but as I wandered through the grounds and viewed the castle from the outside, I could imagine how it would have looked in its glory.
Okinawa is recognized being in the “blue zone”, which means that the island has one of the highest percentages in the world of people that live to become centenarians (celebrate their 100th birthday). This has fascinated researchers for years, and this longevity is believed to be the result of diet, an active lifestyle, and a positive mindset. I asked around, and here are some of the key factors that locals told me have led to this outcome.
- Ingrained into Okinawan society are strong social support groups called “moai” that last from childhood to later years. This support network creates a strong sense of community and willingness to help others, and everyone has at least one close friend they can count on when times are tough.
- The mindset of “ikigai” ensures everyone has a purpose, i.e. a reason to wake up in the morning. Essentially, ikigai is the practice of self-acceptance and learning to live in the moment. Researchers believe that having a reason to get out of bed – even if it’s only something small – is just as important as healthy eating and regular exercise.
- Speaking of regular exercise, gardening is a way of life in Okinawa, and most people maintain personal gardens late into their golden years. The physical benefits of gardening are obvious, but this also ties into the concept of ikigai.
- Although not entirely plant-based, a traditional Okinawan diet consists of around 90% whole-plant foods such as fruit, vegetables, nuts, and grains. In addition, Okinawan people tend to only consume a small amount of fish, meat, dairy, and eggs throughout the year. One of the most defining features of the Okinawan diet is its smaller servings of rice compared to other parts of Japan. Instead, Okinawans pack their dishes with high nutritional value and low calories by basing many meals around tasty purple sweet potatoes. Other commonly used items are the bitter goya melon, the shikuwasa citrus fruit, and seaweed varieties such as kombu and mozuku.
- The other fascinating concept that is embraced by Okinawans is “hara hachi bu”. This is a Confucian expression that says one should stop eating when they feel 80% full. Interestingly, this is also a basic premise in mindful eating which is now becoming increasingly common in the western world.
As the capital, Naha has the same quirky vibe as Honolulu. And just like Honolulu has Kalakakua Avenue, Naha has Kokusai-dori (or International Street) with restaurants, bars, kitschy souvenir shops and random markets. As it was still only early afternoon, I couldn’t resist visiting, and it was fun to make my way down the street for the next 90 minutes or so.
In addition to lots of tacky and cheesy souvenirs, I also saw several examples of shisa – traditional Ryukyuan guardian lions from Okinawan mythology, always seen in pairs, resembling a cross between a lion and a dog. People place pairs of shisa on their rooftops or flanking the gates to their houses to protect from evils, with the left shisa traditionally having a closed mouth, the right one an open mouth. The open mouth shisa is believed to ward off evil spirits, while the closed mouth shisa keeps good spirits in.
As I meandered my way down Kokusai-dori, I noticed several locations of a shop called Okashi Goten. Each time, the store seemed to be full of customers. I wandered in to take a closer look and saw that their primary product was different versions of something called “beni imo” or the purple sweet potato. Remembering that this is a primary food for Okinawans, I purchased a beni imo tart to try. It was good, not very sweet, and quite filling. I think it would have gone very well with a cup of herbal tea.