On my first day in the city of Naha, I took a walk up Kokusai Street. It was four in the afternoon on a Friday, and I heard a voice that sounded like Nina Simone’s coming from above me. This was something I had to see, so I climbed a five-flight spiral staircase—not to a jazz club, but to an office party.

It was the annual summer office party for the Okinawa Kyoiku Shipba, an educational publication company. There was a jazz band with a singer, a guitarist and a standup bassist, along with a group of Japanese salarymen and women, in their shirt sleeves, nodding their heads to the music and drinking beer. Once I realized I was in the wrong place I turned to go back down the stairs, but a man stopped me by gently holding my arm.

“No,” he said in shaky English. “Stay.”

He then thrust a pile of educational materials (all in Japanese) into one of my hands and a cold can of Orion beer into the other. An English-speaking manager chatted to me amiably while we watched the music. This, she said, was laidback Okinawa.

This was my tenth trip to Japan, but definitely the first time I was allowed to crash an office party.

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Craggy and strange rock formations of Okinawa, Japan

They call Okinawa the Hawaii of Japan. I have never been to Hawaii, but if the people there are friendly like this, then I say let’s all go get lei’d. Okinawa is roughly 1,500 kilometres from Tokyo, in the subtropical, very far south of territorial Japan. It’s an archipelago that is unique in the country for its language, culture, history—well, everything. Native Okinawans, otherwise known as Ryukyuans, are the main ethnic group and give proof to the lie that Japan is just a single race, single people, single language.

For hundreds of years Okinawa was the centre of the Ryukyu Kingdom, a larger group of islands in the East China Sea that became wealthy controlling the trade between China, Japan and Southeast Asia. Though the Ryukyuans spoke a Japonic language, they were not Japanese. And their kingdom only became part of the expanding Japanese Empire in the 19th century—and by force.

Naha is the capital of Okinawa prefecture (the islands’ official designation); it’s the largest city in the archipelago and I was here on a short hiatus from Seoul, where I live.

Naha street food village, a pedestrian arcade full of izakayas

And it was hot as shit. Exiting the airport is like walking into the mouth of an enormous, panting dog. Within 15 minutes of arriving I was drenched in sweat. My socks squished in my boots. My T-shirt stuck to my belly like Saran Wrap until it was so drenched it hung from me like a lead apron. My room was a tiny hole in a tiny hotel above a skateboard shop, kitty-corner from a bookstore with a sign in English that read “No Rape! No Osprey! No U.S. Bases!” But the manager was kind and gracious, and the place was Japanese-level clean and organized.

Read Everything You Need to Know Before Going to Okinawa, Japan: a Travel Guide

There was a coin-operated air conditioner. And like a junkie with heroin, I piled 100-yen coins in great pyramids on the bedside table, for fear I would run out of air-con.

It was after cooling down and ditching boots for sandals that I went out and found Kokusai Street. Known as International Street, only in Japan does it qualify as international. There are a few foreign-run shops and bars, but otherwise it’s squarely Japanese. The clerks speak next to no English and with few exceptions every bar, restaurant, reflexology clinic and 100 Yen Shop (Japan’s version of a dollar store) is clearly aimed at Japanese tourists from the mainland.

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Off Kokusai is Makishi Public Market. It’s a long, covered market with elderly men and women hawking meat, especially pork, as well as stacks of toys, souvenirs, clothes, pots and pans, and anything else that has ever been manufactured. Okinawa boasts a weirdly high amount of centenarians, more per capita than almost any other place on earth, and I think most work at Makishi Market.

In the back are several minuscule bars and cafés. I got a can of Orion—the local brew, drunk all over Okinawa by GIs, Japanese and Okinawans alike—and talked to John Tanhara, the owner of the Parasol Café. I couldn’t tell if he was either 59 years old (he looked 45) or half-American, but he certainly claimed to be both.

Okinawa Japan Parasol Cafe

John Tanhara, owner of the Parasol Cafe in Okinawa

“Okinawan culture and Japanese culture is very different,” he told me. “Okinawa is Ryukyuan [culture].”

Following annexation by Japan in 1879, Okinawan students were taught Japanese at school—and taught to revere the Japanese Emperor and forget their own Ryukyuan King. As Japan became increasingly fascist through the 1930s repression tightened. And by the time Pearl Harbor was bombed in 1941, Okinawans were forbidden from speaking their own language—if caught, they were assumed to be enemy collaborators and shot.

The 82-day Battle of Okinawa in the spring of 1945 was among the last major engagements of the Second World War, and the bloodiest battle of the Asia-Pacific theatre. When the war ended the Americans infamously occupied Japan; in Okinawa, they never left.

The island is Japanese territory, but huge tracts here support U.S. military bases. And the Americans are a distinctive presence, given that they are, overwhelmingly, temporary residents. They are mostly marines, and some Okinawans welcome them; others would like them on the first boat out.

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Then there are the mainland Japanese. Most here are tourists, but others have made the move, giving up the humongous cities of Japan for the relative quiet of Okinawa. Many mainlanders express a deep love and appreciation for Okinawa, and for Okinawan culture. But others see Okinawans as many in North America view the indigenous peoples there—as “noble savages,” quaintly backward, maddeningly slow and unappreciative of “the civilizing gifts” they’ve been given.

The Parasol was barely a café, just a small hut next to a series of other small huts, big enough only for a toaster oven on a bar fridge, a CD player, a coffee machine and Tanhara himself. Leaning against the bar there was an old man Tanhara spoke to in Okinawan and a young woman he spoke to in Japanese.

Tanhara told me that the tourists who come from Japan just treat it as a resort island, don’t care much about the culture.

“They just come, go to the beach, go back to Japan.”

Many young Okinawans go to Tokyo to follow their dreams, he added—dreams of big money, of working for companies like Sony, Mitsubishi or Honda. He too went as a young man, but came back to the island.

“People move slowly in Okinawa. Tokyo people move too quickly.”

He wants the Americans to stay, but more out of filial duty than anything else.

“I’m half-American, my father was an airman. I want the base to stay.”

Miho Wakasugi, who is 30, sat at the bar talking to Tanhara. In a blue cotton dress she seemed more impervious to the humidity than any of us. She had moved to Okinawa a year ago from Tokyo.

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“Tokyo is so busy. I was stressed out. Most people [in Tokyo] think about only money. And I didn’t feel that way. So I wanted to live [in] another place. I visited Okinawa three years ago and I really liked it. So I moved here last summer.”

She works in a café during the day, and at night as a bartender.

Read Dave Hazzan’s account of how moving to South Korea changed his life.

“Everyone who looks at me knows I’m not Okinawan,” she said. But though she can’t speak the language, “neither can most young Okinawans.” And she isn’t the biggest fan of the American soldiers.

“Some military people are really not gentle. I really like music, so I often go to music clubs [and] I meet military people.” Some were nice, she says, but others were “aggressive…because of stress. I think the soldiers get stressed out here. They don’t choose to be here.”

   

That evening, I decided to go to a restaurant that was recommended to me, where I ordered Ishigaki steak. Named for an island in the Okinawa prefecture that features a more meat-based diet than in the rest of Japan, Ishigaki steak is tender and juicy, and served with a light vinaigrette called “Japonae.”

Shuri Castle, former seat of the Ryukyuan kings

My steak came in a sizzling pan with white rice and corn soup, and was a revelation. I didn’t know what kind of financial horrors were approaching, so I dished out $50 for the 150 grams of it. And it was well worth it—until I later discovered just how much the cab to Chatan, where I wanted to head for a night cap, was going to cost me.

As I sat savouring a true island delight, I reflected on what Miho had said and on the impact of the American presence here.

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There are about 27,000 U.S. military personnel on Okinawa—almost half of the total United States forces in Japan. Fifteen thousand of these are marines, the rest are from the other branches of the Armed Forces or associated American civilians. And there are numerous military bases and sites scattered across the island’s landmass; in other words, the Forces are a significant force here.

Read Dave Hazzan’s profile of one of the world’s funkiest and wildest cities: “Sin City Seoul: Welcome to the New Korea”

Protests against the military are common, particularly when reports of crimes by GIs surface. The prime minister was heckled when he visited recently—something most Japanese would never do—over his failure to relocate the soldiers. And a plan to move one base to the unspoiled wilderness in the northeast of the island has met with ferocious resistance.

I found all of this intriguing—the geopolitical wrangling, the cultural mad-salad mix—and so following my steak caught a very expensive taxi from Naha to Chatan, a small town just north of the city. I didn’t know where I was going, so I just made a “drinky-drink” expression to the driver, pointing my inverted thumb to my mouth and saying, “U.S. soldier, U.S. GI, drink beer.”

At first I thought he had dumped me in the fields as a joke. The exurbs on the way out from Naha are brutally North American—a sprawl of fast food franchises, strip malls, gargantuan, neon pachinko parlours, hardware stores, and so on. He stopped about a mile past a McDonald’s and pointed to some buildings on the side of the road. I didn’t see any lit signs, except for one that read “Tattoo,” and I had not come all this way to get inked.

“No,” I said. “Drink. Beer. Drink beer. U.S. soldier.”

Again he pointed, by now forcing his smile. I paid and got out and he screeched away.

It was clear I was across the highway from a military base—the eight-foot chain-link fence topped with barbed wire was enough of an indication. But what anyone would be doing here, except drinking out of brown paper bags, was beyond me. Surely there was a town for the GIs to drink in?

At Shuri Castle

I found the entrance to a place called Samurai—a purple wooden door that led into a purple wooden bar. There were some small Formica tables and a long bar with three Japanese bartenders in T-shirts and short shorts. Two GIs played pool, drank beer and smoked. There was a live Jay-Z concert video playing, and you could order a “Freedom Bomb” shot if you so chose: vodka, something called “spyritas,” triple sec and blue lemon.

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It was quiet, but it was also Wednesday night.

This was not a new experience for me. Though I’m not American and have never served in any military, after living in South Korea for 14 years I am familiar with the GI Bar. They exist for one reason—to provide as much pleasure as possible to the visiting soldier. This usually means sexy waitresses and bartenders; cheap, familiar and easy-to-order drinks; and just enough of a taste of the exotic to make it worth the trip off base. The owners here understood how it worked.

Anna Tornatore, aged 23, was tending bar. She was from Yokoska, on the mainland, and married to a U.S. marine. I asked what the relationship was like between the GIs and Okinawans.

“It’s good. I don’t see any trouble,” she said.

What about the protests?

“Sometimes I think it’s an overreaction. It’s not true what they’re saying. Even the news stations, it’s not true what they’re saying.”

The friendly staff at an izakaya in Street Food Village

At 8-Ball Bar next door, a very friendly establishment with red walls and a long brown bar, Marine Lance Corporal Carlos Martinez, who was just 26, said he felt very welcome in Okinawa.

“It’s good as long as you’re friendly and not uptight. They’re very, very nice people.”

Indeed, every serving GI I spoke to, all marines, said they either “loved” Okinawa or had some high praise for it. There was the usual appreciation of the beaches and the scenery, but they were especially appreciative of the people.

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One of the key complaints the local population has about the bases are the V-22 Osprey aircraft deployed there. A tilt-rotor helicopter that also flies like a plane, it has a controversial safety record. I asked another marine I met at the bar about it and he told me he understood their concerns.

“The Ospreys are extremely loud,” he said. And regarding their safety, “You have a helicopter that is a plane. That’s a lot of moving parts.”

Once he drove through a protest outside Camp Schwab and described it as “tense.”

“You could definitely feel the animosity,” he said. “But I didn’t feel like they wanted to hurt me.”

Overall he loved Okinawa.

“The people are fantastic. You won’t go anywhere else and find nicer people.”

   

The next day was also disgustingly hot. I had failed to plug enough coins into the air conditioner and woke up in a puddle on the tatami mat. There were no towels for the showers across the hall so I used a blanket.

A small coffee and bagel with cream cheese and smoked salmon cost $12 at Starbucks. I decided to take the bus to the Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Park and Museum at the southern tip of the island, since another day of taxis would have rendered me destitute.

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Peace Park Memorial Okinawa Japan Dave Hazzan

Peace Park Memorial in Okinawa

The Peace Park spreads out between the highway and the cliffs right to the ocean of the East China Sea. The museum describes the history of Okinawa, from its beginnings to its annexation, from the buildup to the Second World War and the great battle, finishing with the 27-year American occupation.

Interpretation of Japanese wartime history is a fraught issue all over East Asia. But the Okinawan museum is no nationalist historical rewrite—it’s a testament to how both powers used the Okinawans as pawns in the war.

Anywhere between 100,000 to 150,000 (almost half of) Okinawan civilians on the island were killed in the Pacific battle, as well as more than 77,000 Japanese soldiers and 14,000 Allied forces. Houses were destroyed by seaborne shelling and aerial bombardment before the land assault had even begun, and most people retreated to live in caves, by the shore or in the mountains.

The Okinawans called the battle the “Typhoon of Steel” because of the ferocity of the fighting. The Japanese soldiers often used them as human shields or as gophers for fetching supplies. Rice and provisions were requisitioned from Okinawan homes, leaving families to starve. Ultimately, the Japanese army expected the people to “do their duty” and kill themselves in the name of an emperor a thousand miles away in Tokyo—the same emperor whose government had banned them from speaking their native tongue.

The Okinawan people and landscape were pulverized, and the museum demonstrates this in harrowing detail.

The final section is dedicated to the American occupation, and shows how properties were expropriated with minimal compensation, farmers pushed off their land and Cold War politics used to suppress “communistic” political parties who were opposed to the Allied presence. Okinawa also became a significant base for the American war in Vietnam, and it’s widely believed the reason the island wasn’t handed back until 1972 was that it was too vital to that one.

That occupation still breeds some resentment.

Outside of the museum, toward the sea, is the Cornerstone of Peace, a series of granite slabs that commemorate every single person—or at least every single known person—who died in the battle. Each long flat stone contains the names of a hundred or so dead, including the Americans, who have their own section close to the shore.

An eternal flame burns in the centre of the park.

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It turned out the bus back to Naha was not coming for an hour and a half. It was already 2:00 p.m., and if I had to wait until after three it would be Argentinian dinnertime by the time I got back. Extremely reluctantly, I asked the museum’s office to call me a taxi.

Okinawa Beach life Dave Hazzan

Beach life in Okinawa, where there are more centenarians per capita than anyplace on earth!

nother $35 later and I was at the lower end of Shuri Castle, Naha’s primary tourist attraction. The castle is built in a style similar to those in China and mainland Japan, a testament to the close cultural and geographical proximity of Ryukyu to both. It’s made mostly of wood, painted a deep vermillion and stands on a hill with great views of Naha. There’s a large central building surrounded by smaller ancillary ones, and plenty of gates and gardens. It’s no Forbidden Palace, and in the suffocating heat can be difficult to appreciate what it is, or was.

But Shuri Castle is the most important remnant of the vanished Ryukyuan Kingdom. Shuri had housed Ryukyu’s kings for 450 years, until the last king, Sho Tai, was removed in 1879 and trundled off to Tokyo. Until then, Shuri Castle had been the cultural, political and economic heart of Okinawa. After annexation it became an army barracks, and then a pile of matchsticks during the war. It was only in 1992 that rebuilding the main structure began.

I was determined not to take any more taxis—if I did, my family and I would be on potatoes and instant noodles for the rest of the summer. There was a monorail station near the castle and I was able to navigate myself to a road that appeared to lead to it.

Along the side of the road, two young Okinawans invited me to drink a beer with them at a bar made out of a small trailer—a very rare gesture anywhere else in Japan. Toku, a small-business owner, and Daike, a carpenter, spoke very little English, but they were extremely friendly and we got by through body language and drawing pictures in the air with our fingers.

When I said I lived in Korea, they both exclaimed “MERS!”—the highly contagious respiratory disease that had been giving South Korea a bad name in the public health department. But rather than ordering me to quarantine they exploded laughing and insisted I keep drinking, keep eating.

I got up to leave and they insisted I stay, yelling in English “Service!”, meaning no charge. More beer! More food on a stick! But I declined as politely as I could. I had a date with a glass of awamori.

   

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It was time to give my attention to Okinawa’s culinary twins: awamori and pork. So I decided to venture to the Street Food Village just off Kokusai, where the owner of Shimo To Ato introduced me to the world of awamori, a traditional and indigenous liquor of Okinawa. Like the 20 other izakayas in the food market, there was only room for about six people to sit, crammed shoulder to shoulder, with the bartender in the centre, schlepping out the drinks.

This was also not a new experience for me—I’ve drunk my way through plenty of Japan, though not Okinawa. An izakaya is a small Japanese pub that serves up legions of beer, sake, shochu, food on sticks and good cheer. Men and women come here to get as drunk as possible and escape the rigours of Japanese life. The fact that many izakayas are tiny is part of the intimate charm, and the small meals mean you can order several dishes and sample away.

The owner of Shimo To Ato never gave me his name, but he appeared to be in his early 40s and said he came from Kagawe on the mainland.

“There are three varieties of awamori,” he explained. “Twenty-five percent, 35 percent and 43 percent. Anything higher than that is not awamori, but is a spirit.”

Awamori is clear, distilled from Thai jasmine rice, and though its taste varies depending on its strength and quality, it is similar to Japanese shochu. He had dozens of varieties, and we went through a few of them—some drier, some stronger, some more expensive, but all of them good.

He gave me a small sample of what he said was the best awamori, a nine-year-old variety. It was clean, dry, strong, hard on the palette and went up the nose. But then he shook it up in the glass and gave it back to me, and it was all of a sudden sweeter and softer on the palette.

“The awamori of awamoris,” he said.

The owner told me how he had ended up in Okinawa.

“I wanted to open an izakaya like this, but I didn’t know awamori. I tried it and tried it—why, it’s fantastic!”

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In Okinawa, he added, “history is very important,” and he described the people as “very pure” with “a strong culture.” And he sure knew his awamori.

At an izakaya called Ton Ton Mi, I decided it was time to tuck into Okinawan pork. There’s an expression here that says that when it comes to pig, Okinawans eat everything but the oink.

The mimiga, braised pig’s ear in peanut-miso dressing, was the cheapest dish. A common bar snack, it was served cold and a bit chewy, with the sauce creamy and used sparingly. The tong-tang, or grilled pork tongue in garlic sauce, was a bit mushy and strong; and the rafute, or pork belly, was two inches thick, braised in soy sauce and topped with mustard.

Every bite was like an explosion of bacon in your mouth; if that isn’t the world’s most perfect food, I don’t know what is. The other patrons were very curious—I was the only white person in the whole food village—and wanted to know why I would want to eat this stuff.

When I ordered a bowl of sashimi, everyone studied my reactions carefully as I ate. Someone offered me “pho soup with charamumi”—tuna’s eyeball—but I insisted I was full. Some other guys offered me tuna jaw and intestine. Barbecued tuna jaw is a delicacy I’ve long enjoyed, but I’ll pass next time the intestine is offered.

Though I was full, I decided to make space for the goat soup izakaya. The soup is oily, spicy, like Szechuan hot pot—you can taste that chili bitterness that comes from chili oil. It was full of vegetables and egg, but not a lot of goat as far as I could tell.

When I asked the owner about it, the guy showed me on his phone translator: “In soup of goat we are making,” further proof that Google Translate has a way to go before it replaces the ESL teacher.

But as a bonus, I got a free pig’s ear after the soup.

   

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In the middle of the night, catastrophe struck. Though I had loaded the air conditioner with 24 ounces of 100-yen coins, I woke up at 4 a.m. in a fresh puddle being blasted with hot air—my air conditioner had become a hair dryer.

There was no one at the front desk so I desperately pushed random buttons on the remote control, trying to get it to do its job. For an hour I alternated between trying to sleep, gulping down bottled water and smashing buttons, until finally it began blasting cold air.

Between ticket machines that yell at you, air conditioners that think for themselves and vending machines that distribute everything from soda to comic books to canned noodles, mark my words—when the machines take over it will be Japan’s doing!

The next morning I rented a car, a tiny Nissan Note. It only took an hour and a half of over-the-phone translations, declined credit cards, triple checking of documents and interoffice taxis to get my hands on it. And as I screeched out of the parking lot, I had to remind myself persistently to drive on the left.

Driving in a foreign country always makes me feel like I’m back in Drivers’ Ed, relearning the road signs, the give-ways and all the rest of it. With the right-side drive, the windshield wiper and indicator controls are on opposite sides of the wheel, so every time I went to change lanes I would give my windshield a wipe and the guy behind me a coronary.

Luckily, Japanese people drive slowly and cautiously, in stark contrast to their Chinese and Korean neighbours.

I was expecting something more romantic—I had an image of cruising down something like the Pacific Coast Highway, the window rolled down, with Japanese EDM blasting. Instead it was lined with strip malls, and later just vegetation.

The road to Emerald Beach, however, on the west of the island, was far nicer. It skirted the ocean and ran between and around the green, craggy mountains. And the rain had stopped.

That’s when I was struck by how stunningly beautiful Okinawa is. People say that about everywhere, but it’s impossible not to notice it here. The water is turquoise; the shoals are dotted with coral reefs you can scuba out to. I’m no diver, but those who are claim it’s one of the best locations in Asia.

But I do like to hike, and marching up and down the jungle-covered mountains is a good way to see the island’s wilderness, in all its forest, river and waterfall splendour. Despite living in one of the densest countries on earth, the Japanese have done an excellent job of preserving their forests, and here is one of the best places to crawl through them.

The sand in Okinawa is not the soft white sand you get in Australia or California—the kind you rejoice curling your toes into. It’s hard-packed coral sand; sand you can walk on in your hiking boots and leave only a slight dent.

Emerald Beach expands outward in a crescent toward a few small, uninhabited islands. The roped-off swimming area was busy, even though the clouds were heavy. Behind the swimmers an immense resort stretched out like a concrete barrier—12 storeys tall, 1,000 feet wide of bleached white luxury.

This was the heart of the Japanese Dream in Okinawa, the reason you put in the 12-hour workdays, six and a half days a week. Before you was the beach, behind you the jungle, and all around you fellow mainlanders. When they call Okinawa Japanese Hawaii, this is what they mean.

I walked inside the resort to look around and ask questions. I suppose I had entered from the back, because it took me 20 minutes to find reception. On my way there, I toured wide-eyed through cavernous ballrooms and meeting halls, intimate private restaurant rooms, bars of teak and brass, and banks of gold-framed talking elevators that went everywhere except the front desk.

When I finally reached check-in it took everything in my power not to plonk my screaming Visa on the desk and say, “Two nights please. Whatever you’ve got.”

   

An hour later I was at Onna Beach—I picked it almost at random, because it seemed nearby and was on the right coast for the sunset. Once I arrived, I realized I had made a terrible mistake. There were no guesthouses, no hotels, no hostels, no single tatami mats with coin-operated air conditioners. I drove in circles but found nothing.

I went to the roadside Gakura Café, with its promises of fresh food and free Wi-Fi. It was here that expat American waitress Athena Milano and her boss Gaku Hirosato began their epic quest to find me a room. After an hour of frantic telephoning and Internet searching, they located me a bed 20 minutes up the road.

It was so difficult to find, I had to drive behind them as we went off the highway into the tertiary roads, up the mountains. It was called, apparently without irony, the Daisy’s Inn Howdy. Ecstatic that I wasn’t going to have to sleep in my car, I bought Milano and Hirosato a drink, which cheered them immensely. I didn’t really understand why—it was only a drink—until I got the bill.

Milano was infatuated with Okinawan culture.

“The first word that comes to mind is magic,” she says. “The culture is so deep and full. At night here, if you step outside, you can hear the sound of sanshin”—a popular three-stringed local instrument.

She and Hirosato also compare it positively to the mainland.

“The most popular phrase that everyone knows in Okinawan,” she said, “is ‘Everything is going to be all right.’”

   

On my last morning in Okinawa, I woke up with the tropical sun streaming through the window as the only guest in a four-bed dorm room. My hangover was gone (yes, I had over indulged), it was the Fourth of July and I was determined to make the most of the day.

I had eaten the pig and drunk the awamori, so it was time to try fresh sashimi. I drove all the way south, to miniscule Ou Island, famous for its fresh seafood. The island was barely drivable, with a small fishing pier and a set of beautiful rocks off the east coast, said to be holy Ryukyuan sites of worship. It was beautifully, dreamily quiet in the baking heat.

At an open-air restaurant above a supermarket it took me five minutes to explain that I was eating alone, and for the waitress to explain it would take 20 minutes for my food to arrive no matter how many people were eating. When it came, the sashimi was a revelation: soft, beautifully textured, obviously fresh. I spread each piece over my tongue and chewed languorously. It took almost an hour to eat, and I’ve cleaned out whole pizzas in six minutes.

About five kilometres from Ou, Sefa Utaki is a series of small stone altars and the most sacred site of the Ryukyu Kingdom. It appears in legends about the kingdom’s origins and people from all over the islands come to make pilgrimages; Japanese tourists come to see what the fuss is about!

Before you visit there’s a bilingual video reminding you to respect the location’s sacredness by not littering, not wearing dangerous high heels, and not taking selfies with people deep in prayer.

At Sefa Utaki, Okinawa Japan _Dave Hazzan

At Sefa Utaki in Okinawa Japan

You follow a narrow and slippery stone path through the jungle from one altar to the next. The first, at the entrance, has six incense burners. Next you go through a series of stops, where you’re meant to pray at stone cubes carved with the words of prayers. Two pots hold holy water that drips from the stalactites above, and toward the end you walk through a triangular passage between two boulders to a view of the coast. A young couple from Hong Kong was getting wedding photos there.

According to the literature at the temple, hundreds of years ago sacred white sand was brought from nearby Kudaka island—the island of the gods—to Sefa Utaki for rituals. The most important was called “Oaraori,” whereby Kikoeokimi priestesses, the highest rank of god-women, were inaugurated. It was all part of “Shinjo,” a god-woman system set up in Okinawa’s matriarchal society, says academic Eisho Miyagi.

Though the system still exists in some forms in some villages, Japanese efforts to impose Shintoism in the early 20th century largely killed the religion. Sadly, there were far more tourists taking pictures at Sefa Utaki than Okinawans praying.

   

On my final night, I decided to ditch my camera and notepad, and just take my own bad self into Kin’s camptown down the road from my hostel, to celebrate American Independence.

It was about three or four blocks of disgusting bars, emptier than I had expected.

I drank habushu—an Okinawan liqueur made with awamori and pit-viper venom (often known as snake wine, and sometimes from bottles with a snake inside)—even though I had been warned off it by others. It was a country-western bar and I talked to two navy kids young enough to be my sons. The boys liked being in Okinawa, had no trouble here, but weren’t big fans of the camptown scene in Kin.

The next morning, hungover at Naha Airport, I realized I had lost my glasses. I phoned everywhere I had been but virtually no one spoke English, including at the hostel I had slept in the night before.

I was close to losing it with the rental car agents—the last place my glasses could be were in the car—when one of them ran to me and presented me with my glasses with two hands, bowing. I thanked her profusely, wondering in amazement at how they had gone to the trouble to help me—another foul-mouthed, forgetful, hungover white asshole—get my glasses back at the minimum of inconvenience to myself.

Okinawa is the birthplace of karate, and it must take an enormous amount of restraint to not use it on people like me.

Why Okinawans live so long is actually under study, but I’d be surprised if it had something to do with their diet—I’m no doctor, but I’m pretty sure pork morning, noon and night does not typically make for a long life. Or it could be that Okinawans just know how to let it go. They’ve been through hell, they continue to have their hassles, but they’re relaxed. Far from the maddening crowds of Tokyo and Japan’s other high-stress cities, Okinawans seem to know they live in one of the most beautiful spots on the planet.

Maybe it’s just knowing this that keeps their hearts ticking.

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