Okinawa info.

Okinawa info.: January 2006

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Shurijo Castle offers glimpse into Okinawa's past

Nestled deep in the heart of Okinawa's busiest city lies a beautiful tribute to the island's ancient culture; Shurijo Castle, a fully restored monument to Okinawa's past.

Shurijo Castle dates back to the 14th century where it served as both a royal residence and the center of government and religion. Nearly all important government and religious ceremonies were held at the castle, such as the ceremony Chou-hai-o-ki-shiki, held the first morning of the new year.

In the early 15th century, King Sho Hashi gained control of the three divisions of Okinawa, thus unifying the island for the first time and placing the seat of government at Shurijo Castle. The unifying of Okinawa marks the beginning of the Kingdom of the Ryukyus and the founding of the first Sho Dynasty.

The castle housed the kings of the Ryukyus until the Japanese overtook Okinawa in 1609. After the overtaking, the kingdom was forced into a feudal relationship with Japan.

In 1879, the Japanese deployed soldiers to forcibly demand the turnover of Shurijo Castle, consequently ending the independent rule of the 450-year-old Ryukyuan Kingdom, and establishing the Okinawa Prefecture.

Following the kingdom's demise, the castle was used for a multitude of things. It was first used as a barracks then later as classrooms for Shuri City Women's Crafts School, Okinawa Prefectural School for Industrial Apprenticeships and Shuri No. 1 Elementary School. It was also the site of underground air raid shelters and housing for the Japanese army before World War II.

In 1945, when Okinawa became the site of a fierce battle between Japanese and U.S. forces, the castle was reduced to rubble.

In 1992, after more than six years of renovation, Shurijo Castle was once again open to the public. Although the exterior of the buildings are completely restored, the interiors are still being perfected.

The castle offers visitors a panoramic view of Naha Harbor and is said to be located at an exceptionally fortuitous site full of positive spiritual influence, according to Fengshui, the Chinese practice of predicting fortunes of castles, residences and tombs.

The castle is the site of more than five festivals throughout the year and is open year-round until at least 6 p.m. The castle is illuminated until midnight every night, offering tourists a beautiful view of the high castle walls.

Visitors can expect to see gates and walls decorated in traditional dragons and gold leaf writing. They will be able to explore the castle grounds, fountains and gardens. Tour guides and other hosts are dressed in traditional period clothing. Many of the gardens are under construction but should be completed within the next year.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Okinawa cuisine is worth every bite

The new year is here, and high on that list of resolutions was one to “try some of Okinawa’s native dishes.”

Right up front, set yourself at ease. It isn’t going to be a traumatic experience where you’ll have to eat beetles or lizards or monkey brains.

Okinawan food is downright delicious.

Okinawa’s reputation for having the longest life spans of any people in Japan is attributed to many things, including the temperate climate here in the southernmost prefecture. More to the center, though, are the combination of Okinawan mindset and diet. An almost stoic acceptance of what life brings, blended with a belief that food is ‘kusiumun’, medicine, leads to the belief that food is ‘nuchigusui’, healthy for life.

Okinawan food is not Japanese food. Aside from embracing rice as a staple, local food is totally different. The Ryukyu Kingdom, the forbearer to Okinawa the Japanese prefecture, picked up much of its culinary styles and techniques from China, as well as other Asian trading nations that included Thailand and Korea.

Pork is the cornerstone in Okinawa cuisine, much as beef is with Americans. It’s been around since the Chinese introduced it in the 14th century, and Okinawans use every single part of the animal in their cooking. Pork’s abundance of vitamin B1, which purges the body of proteins and cholesterol, is attributed to the long life syndrome achieved by Okinawans.

The pork is slow cooked to achieve tenderness and to eliminate fat. Two dishes easily accepted by the western palate are rafute, pork marinated and then cooked in a brown sugar and soy sauce, and soki, a spare ribs dish cooked with soba noodles with seaweed and soup. A couple other pork dishes loved by Okinawans, but which will take the proverbial leap of faith to try, are tebichi and mimiga. Mimiga is pig’s ear, sliced into slender strips and eaten as a snack or a salad. The true delicacy is tebichi, a unique dish with pigs feet being boiled for a long, long time, then slow cooked over a low heat. They’re actually quite good, and very tender.

Vegetables are a staple in Okinawa cooking. There are some which are not part of western cooking styles, such as mugwort, a medicinal herb, and goya, a bitter melon. Goya is chock filled with vitamin C, and is terribly bitter when eaten raw. You’ll find it cooked and served here with scrambled eggs or tuna, giving it a more refined taste.

Sauteed dishes often integrate goya, as well as tofu an noodles. Champuru is the name for a tofu stir-fried with vegetables. Add somen, a noodle, and somen champuru is a popular dish that includes leeks as well. Noodles are a mainstay of local cooking, served with everything from sanmai-niku, the port we’ve been talking about, with noodles both on the plate and in a soup.

Okinawa noodles are made with wheat flour.

Fish ranks alongside pork as the most popular dishes, with chicken coming in third. Okinawa’s fishing fleets bring a vast variety of fish to islands’ dinner tables. A visit to the Makishi Kousetsu Market, in the Heiwa Dori area of downtown Naha, is an eye opening experience. Be sure to take your camera, because it’s an odds-on bet you’ve never before seen so many different fish, not to mention other foods. There’s even a set of restaurants on the market’s second floor where you can take your fresh purchases for an immediate meal.

There’s more to Okinawa cuisine than the everyday dishes. The royal court of yesteryear is preserved by the Okinawan people, and many of the traditional royal dishes are served today. Some, such as boiled salted pork, suchikaa, sea grapes, tofuyo, a cultured tofu, sukugarasu, tofu with salted fish, and kuubu-irichii, a fried kelp, aren’t too much of a gastronomic leap.

On the other hand…..there are some dishes you’ll have to take on a leap of faith. Nakami soup, made from cow entrails, yagijiru, goat stew, and irabu-jiru, sea snake soup, are a little different for the western palate.

So is inamuduchi, an Okinawa soup made with miso, a bean paste, vegetables and pork entrails. We’d add here that miso is more than okay; it’s the other ingredients that give some cause for thought.

Seaweeds are imported from the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, and fit well with many local dishes. Different, we’ll concede, but nutritious and tasty too.

The questions then are “what should we try?” and “what should we do if we don’t like it?” The answer to the first is to try everything. The second will come far less often, and a simple discrete movement with a formerlyconcealed handkerchief will make the offending morsel disappear. You’ll be surprised how delicious Okinawan foods are, and will be anxious to go back for more.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Ancient traditions and omens linked to foods

The holiday celebrations are in full swing, and will continue through the lunar new year late this month.

Foods are at the heart of many celebrations, and there is more to the process than simply nibbling and eating. Okinawans believe strong meanings are linked to various foods. In essence, eating certain foods evoke certain omens.

Pork is considered a food that brings happiness. Eating yams is believed to keep a person from growing old, and seaweed promotes long life. Want children? Eat fish cakes and fish eggs.

Want to have money…to be wealthy? Fried eggs and yellow chestnuts will lead in that direction. Good health is believed to get a boost from pork intestine soup, and also from tofu.

Keeping the evil spirits at bay is thought to best be accomplished by chowing down on squid.

Holiday festivities used to take days to prepare for, with family members gathering to prepare everything in a single household in anticipation of the celebration. Today, young people consider themselves too busy to commit to all the cooking, and are turning to hotel chefs to work the culinary magic on their behalf. While some housewives are doing the cooking at home, many are ordering from hotels and restaurants.

It’s not cheap, but the meals are delicious and presentation is exquisite. Figure on Y16,000~35,000 for a full food set. The Laguna Garden Hotel in Ginowan is one specializing in holiday feasts. Chefs have been slaving and fretting for days to make everything ready.

Expensive dishes including crab, lobster, shrimp, roast beef, smoke salmon and caviar are extremely popular, and orders have been flowing in for weeks. The tempo is slowing now, but will crank up again for the Lunar New Year.

More food and less exercise is proving a problem to waistlines this holiday season. Medical professionals note people tend to eat over and over, and are gaining weight at an unprecedented clip. Radio and television are now rolling out the post-New Year’s holiday programs promoting fitness. One radio and television magazine is touting the obvious, that people should not be eating before they’re really hungry. The holiday season tends to find people doing lots of snacking and nibbling. Instead of high calory, high carbohydrate foods, the experts encourage a trend toward vegetables.

New Year’s gifts, Otoshidama, are ever popular, with relatives being the principle beneficiaries.

Money is given to children and other relatives, and bosses are doling out money to office staffs. The whole issue is so steeped in Okinawan culture that families are even going into debt to meet the otoshidama requirements. Social counselors point out that many families are now forced to take out bank loans to have the money to “properly” celebrate the new year.