Opposite ends of Japan
by Laura Gelder | 03 May 2017
I’ve travelled thousands of miles but the cosy fug of Cafe Garamanjyaku is a home-from-home. A tabby cat pads silently across the tatami mat floor as the stone kettle bubbles cheerily on the glowing coal hearth at the centre of our table, the witchy-looking herbs sprouting out of the top giving off a calming aroma.
Kiyoko Yamashiro and her son are preparing our lunch in what she calls ‘Grandma’s kitchen’. Sitting cross-legged is harder than it looks but it’s impossible not to feel comfortable in this little wooden house, looking out to the damp, green garden. When the meal arrives I feel healthier just looking at it: a banana leaf is dotted with delicious clusters of food – grated orange carrot, juicy yellow star fruit, mauve fried taro, brown mushrooms, green beans, herb-flecked tofu and a ball of sticky white rice speckled with peas – all Okinawan vegetables and medicinal herbs.
Being an octogenarian in Okinawa isn’t that remarkable and it seems it’s all down to ‘nuchi gusto’. The phrase translates as ‘food is medicine’ and it must work because the women here have the best longevity in the world, living an average 87 years. Life expectancy for men’s is pretty decent too, at 77, but lower “because they drink more sake and do less work”, says our guide, with an entirely straight face.
The sake is not to be sniffed at either – down here it’s called awamori and it’s quite a lot stronger than the stuff on the mainland because it’s distilled rather than brewed – 30-40% proof instead of a paltry 15%. We tour the Sakiyama Distillery to learn how it’s made, using long grain Thai rice not short grain Japanese.
They do things differently in this southernmost prefecture of Japan. Okinawa only became part of the country in 1879 and its capital, Naha, is closer to Taiwan than to Tokyo. The prefecture stretches 1,000km and incorporates the Ryuku Islands, an ancient kingdom which traded goods and ideas with many regional powers – notably China – and developed its own unique culture during a time when Japan was closed to the world.
It’s only when you visit Shuri Castle in the capital that you get a sense of how powerful the Ryuku Kingdom was and how ‘un-Japanese’ too. The Seiden, where the king lived, has a scarlet façade topped with gold dragons which looks closer to China’s Forbidden City than the muted majesty of Tokyo’s Imperial Palace. It was the seat of the kingdom from 1429 up to 1879 and recieved trade envoys from both China and Japan in the adjacant halls.
Okinawa’s more recent history is less amicable and more tragic. During World War Two the island was invaded by U.S. troops in the region’s bloodiest battle. Nearly half the population died or committed suicide after 82 days of bombardment known locally as the ‘rain of steel’.
U.S. troops are still stationed in Okinawa and leave their cultural influence too - the endless stalls of tourist tat along Naha’s Kokusai Street peddle Hawaiian shirts along with dried fish snacks and kimonos.
You can see why people might compare Okinawa with Hawaii if you get away from the urban drag. We take a boat to the Kerama Islands and spy humpback whales dancing in the blue before exploring Nagannu Island. White shells and pink coral crunch underfoot and a chilly wind blows through the paths lined with tropical screw pine, but I can see how popular it would be in summer.
We spend a night in the beautifully-manicured Ritz Carlton but it could be anywhere in the world. Hyakuna Garan, however, could only be in Japan. We arrive at the hotel in the dark and follow the soft light of the floor lamps along a wooden deck, hearing the sea swirl somewhere below as we round a twisted banyan tree and into the reception area, where we’re given hibiscus tea. Later, we dine in the sparse restaurant, eating beautifully-presented sushi wearing the black pyjama suits provided.
Fast-forward 24-hours and I’m checked into the Prince Gallery Tokyo Kioicho, hermetically sealed into a glass tower, looking down at this frenetic city’s sparkling lights laid tantaslisingly before me, from my window.
Tokyo is a different world with its own contradictions. For dinner, we leave our high-tech haven to dine under the railway tracks near Yurakucho station. This dense alleyway is stuffed with izakaya (cheap foodie pubs) and smells of smoke and chicken from the yakatori stalls, but each place has its own speciality - tofu, noodles, sushi, and so on.
Soon our beer crate table is overflowing with glasses of beer, Shōchū cocktails and bowls of edamame beans. The waiters reach through the plastic hangings from the alleyway to add finely-sliced rare beef before we move next door for seafood - a place packed with hungry Tokyo marathon runners and circling fish in tanks awaiting their fate.
The next day we catch the tail-end of Tsukiji Fish Market - by 10am empty polystyrene boxes, wet concrete, a few bloody knives, tired looking people and some boxes of alien-looking sea cucumbers are all that’s left.
We walk under buds of cherry blossom in the serene Hama Rikyu Gardens before jostling with the masses at the world’s busiest pedestrian crossing in Shibuya. After sating our appetites with steaming bowls of ramen we visit Senso-ji, Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temple, and the Meiji Shinto Shrine. The Japanese follow both faiths, the latter mostly for matters of death since Shinto doesn’t acknowledge an afterlife. There’s no conflict or embarrassment at this dual faith system - Senso-ji even has helpful signs reminding patrons that clapping is for Shinto and bowing is sufficient in Buddhism.
It’s a bit like the whole country really - a conflict of interests which sounds awkward but somehow isn’t, like the overload of technology which seeps into every corner of life (including the toilet!) but comes with a steadfast refusal to forget tradition or the past, evident in everything from low-bowing shop assistants to teenagers taking peace sign selfies. Japan’s is an ancient culture rooted in ancient rituals but leading the way into a futuristic world of robots.
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