All the Okinawan Treasures
“So cute! Like a doll!”
Little did I know I’d be hearing this for the next few weeks. It was true. She really could have been one of the little keychain Monchichis on the girls' backpacks.
We were in Naha, Okinawa's capital. The lesser known yet culturally rich island to the south. It was the subtropics, not what you think of when you think "Japan." And we were jet-lagged.
The flight was pleasantly uneventful: Sia made friends with the Philippine female weightlifting team, I watched three movies starring Bradley Cooper and Michael my polyglot husband conjured up his secret Japanese with the couple sitting next to us. Standard procedure on a round the world trip.
But now we were in Okinawa, feeling a bit like Guam or Hawaii, with its US military presence and palm trees. Even the sanshin players sounded more like Delta blues guitarists than masters of an ancient Eastern instrument.
But it was still JAPAN!
The Ryukyu people, the indigenous people of this archipelago, set the tempo for much of the Japanese culture we know and love. Karate, Taiko drumming, Bingata style painting on kimonos, glass-blowing and the unglazed pottery style that centered right here in Naha in the 16th century. So many treasures right here!
"So cute! Like a doll!" said the girls on Kokusai-Dori. We wandered around in a semi-tropical haze through the chaos of Naha's shopping district, escaping into the food stalls for pork-gristle soba. Okinawans are some of the longest-living people on the planet, thanks to a healthy diet of seaweed and pork.
"Michael, pottery!" as we approached the the Tsuboya district. What better way to combat righteous jet-lag than perusing Jiro Kinjo cups of the 17th century?
But really, I am a sucker for pristine, thoughtful bodies of work. And Okinawa had plenty of it. The Kasekake dancers moved so slowly, so precise, that you could hardly tell their motions at all. The painstaking labor of painting a pattern onto silk by hand. The symmetry of ceramics. Maybe because I always strived for but could never completely achieve it with my own art. Music took discipline, to be sure, but often I’d felt guilty that I couldn't get it right, I never hit that sweet spot that sometimes takes a lifetime to refine.
An illuminated woman dressed in bright green patterns waved us over so she could meet the baby. She was sitting outside her studio, watching us. How did her outfit match Sia's perfectly? Her skin was flawless, and I made a mental note to invest in seaweed when we returned to Germany.
My daughter was sitting on the lap of this glorious octogenarian, each of them bookending life. We were on the other side of the world together, on this little street made out of coral and limestone. We would probably never see each other again. Maybe the sweet spot didn't matter so much.
She turned to me, motioned to Sia, and smiled. I knew what was coming!
"So cute! Like a doll!"
LESSONS LEARNED IN OKINAWA:
You are the secret ingredient.
Getting lost in the food stalls of Kokusai just might change your life.
Say “Hai!” instead of “Domo Arigato”
The Estinate Hotel rocks- stay there when you travel to Naha.
If you have a German husband, he’s not allowed to drive so be prepared to drive on the left.
Japanese GPS does not equal English GPS (see above).
Get out to the islands.
Be prepared to be greeted with smiles wherever you go.
1 Tsuboya Pottery District
8 The bingata architecture style of the Okinawa Prefectural Museum
9/11 Tsuboya Pottery District
12/14: Watching the Kasekake Dance at Shuri-Jo Castle
15 Naha's food stalls
16 Day trip to Zamami / photo by Michael Runkel
17/18 Kokusai & Tsuboya
19 Seifa-Utaki / photo by Michael Runkel
20 Southeast Botanical Gardens / photo by Michael Runkel