Imagine crystal skies, so clear, man could never mix the color. Imagine an ocean so blue, sapphires are put to shame. Look upon white beaches of star sand and experience the warm breeze tousling your hair. Dream a world under the sea so diverse, the colors of coral never fail to excite the senses.
Mensore and welcome to beautiful Okinawa.
Okinawa is located 300 miles south off the coast of mainland Japan. As the Hawaii of Japan, this small island in the middle of the Pacific and East China Sea is a hidden treasure of Asia.
Once given its power from mainland China, Okinawa was known as the Ryukyu Kingdom with its own set of culture, values, language, and traditions. With influences from China, Korea, America and Japan, Okinawa is a mixed salad.
Walking around Naha, a tourist will encounter the infamous Kokusai Dori lined with lights, souvenirs, and goya. You’ll encounter sanshin and shisa, and exciting flashing lights as the sun sets.
Okinawa’s indigenous language, Uchinaguchi is still heard in daily life. I’ve learned words like shikwasa [bitter lemon] or ni fei deibiru [thank you]. Instead of my students saying, itai [it hurts], I’ll hear aga.
On my morning walks to school, I’ll encounter the protector of Okinawa—the shisa or lion dog on the fence or roof of every house. Legend has it, Naha port was once terrorized by a sea dragon. A Chinese emissary brought a shisa figurine necklace as a gift for the king. He was told to lift the necklace to the sea dragon and the roar of the shisa caused a large boulder to fall upon the tail of the dragon. Unable to move, the dragon died and peace was restored.
Each protector comes in a pair—one male, one female. The male is shown with an open mouth to frighten bad spirits and his female counterpart has her mouth closed to keep the good inside your home.
Every August and September, I enjoy Eisa, the dances for the ancestors of Okinawa. Whenever the taiko drums are played, you can expect the sanshin to follow soon after. This unique instrument, known as the Okinawan banjo, has three strings and is covered in snake skin.
While you can expect Japanese cuisine on the mainland, the food in Okinawa is much different. Much of the food is pork-based or fried. You’ll find goya chanpuru, a green, bumpy bitter melon cut into half moons in a stir fry of spam, tofu, egg and bean sprouts. One of my favorite dishes includes Okinawa soba, a hot soup with pork, onions, noodles, and naruto [fish cake].
Okinawa’s traditional pottery, Ryukyu glass, and bingata (the art of dying fabric with coral) are treasures within Japan as well. The town where I reside, Yomitan has many pottery makers declared as national treasures of Japan because of unique and beautiful designs.
Alongside hot weather, the kind and warm hearts of the Okinawan people never cease to amaze me. Around seven months into my time in Japan, my language skills awful, I found myself in a minor accident that landed me in the hospital. A nurse, married to a serviceman, cared and stayed with me even after her shift was finished to make sure I was all right. At my favorite café, the owner knows me well and when I was sick, she provided throat soothing tea. Okinawan kindness is found even in my supervisor, Kazumi, who often helps me take care of many things from recycling to doctor appointments.
Living on an island has its perks like intensely gorgeous scenery, lush greens of the north, and bustling city life in the south. Completely immersed in what seems to be a never ending summer, Okinawa’s outdoors will lure you with its charms. Relaxed island rules make time is a guideline and I wear Hawaiian shirts to work.
Surrounded by ocean, my home is unique and beautiful and every day is a gift. One day, my time on this island will end like the setting sun of Okinawa. The sky will be painted red and orange as I watch the glittering ocean absorb the color from the sun. I’ll feel peaceful as I take with me an Okinawan proverb, “Ichariba Chode.”
Once we meet, we are brothers and sisters.
Gina is an enthusiastic, quirky teacher on the JET Program living in Okinawa, Japan. When she’s not teaching, she’s Cross Fitting, playing the sanshin, swimming in the ocean or getting lost in translation. Her blog, Gina Bear in Japan chronicles her misadventures living, loving, and traveling on the opposite side of the globe away from her native Chicago. Watch her in action through her YouTube videos for more on Okinawa and living in Japan!