Foreigners tend to think of Okinawa as being an island, but the one they have in mind is simply the main island out of the dozens which make up Japan’s Okinawa prefecture. Although it’s not a big place, it holds plenty of surprises for a visitor from abroad.
1. Okinawa used to be an independent kingdom.
Perfectly positioned to take advantage of trade between Japan and mainland Asia, Okinawa was a prosperous kingdom for centuries, with its own language, its own culture, and its own royal family, and its ships sailed as far afield as modern-day Thailand and Indonesia. In the 1600s it was invaded by the Shimazu clan of southern Japan’s Satsuma domain, but it still managed to remain quasi-independent until Japan officially annexed it in 1879. Forced to move to Tokyo and become a marquis, the last Okinawan king died in 1901.
2. It’s home to some intriguing castles.
Called gusuku in the local language, Okinawa’s castles were a stylistic fusion of the ones still seen in mainland Japan and those found in China—imagine Beijing’s Forbidden City mashed together with Osaka’s or Nagoya’s castle. Today most of them exist only as stone foundations, but the one in Naha, Shuri Castle, was meticulously rebuilt after its destruction during World War II, and together with six others, it’s inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list.
3. Just about everything (including the food) has an Okinawan twist
Those gusuku aren’t the only things that are different from their counterparts on the mainland. What mainlanders call sake is made with a different kind of rice and called awamori in Okinawa. And soba, Japan’s tasty buckwheat noodles? Here they’re made with wheat; closer in appearance to mainland udon than to soba, they taste more like ramen. Drop a slab of cooked pork on top and you have sōki soba, a great, inexpensive way to fill your stomach.
4. Okinawans love Spam.
Invented 70 years ago in the US, Spam has long been ridiculed there as being strictly for gastronomical morons, but in Okinawa it borders on being one of the staple foods. Expect to find it in your gōya champuru, the hearty dish made with fried bitter green gourd, eggs, and tofu, and in pork tamago, the islands’ answer to the onigiri found in most parts of Japan: slices of Spam and omelette with a serving of rice, all wrapped in dried seaweed—much better than it sounds.
5. Taco rice is surprisingly nice.
You might know “tako” as the Japanese word for octopus, but don’t expect to find any in your taco rice. The latter is just what it sounds like: all the usual ingredients of a taco, sitting atop a bed of rice instead of being tucked into a corn shell. No fancy “fusion cuisine” pretensions here; taco rice is just a tasty, filling, everyman’s meal that happens to have its roots in two hemispheres. It probably originated during the US occupation of Okinawa, which lasted from the end of World War II until 1972.