Uncovering The Hidden Okinawa

I figure Okinawa will be the last frontier to “conquer” in Japan after I read Uncovering The Hidden Okinawa by Darrell Nelson.

Subtropical islands rarely need much promotion as the crystal blue seas and white sand beaches speak for themselves. But there are a few secrets that were too good not to share. From an amazing hidden bar crammed with artifacts to a cafe deep in a cave, the writer explored the rarely talked about areas that add to the unique attraction of the islands.

It is pretty difficult to explore Okinawa main island if you don’t have access to a car, however getting off the beaten path so to speak is well worth it. Pristine private beaches where hours can pass without you seeing another soul are dotted all over the island, and part of the charm of the place is just getting lost on the tiny country lanes (although it is hard to get lost when you have nowhere in particular to go). This was exactly how I first came across a hidden gem of a restaurant set high up on a hilltop commanding some of the most stunning views of the island.

An old Okinawan style house perched on the side of a hill, Kajinhou demands possibly one of the best vistas I had seen the whole time I was there. Accessible only via a winding single lane road the restaurant looks out over blue seas and the nestling Iiejima island and is chef/ owner Kensaku Kuba’s former family estate. The second generation to run the restaurant Kensaku san wants to keep the tradition of a welcoming family space alive and hopes it to remain a family run business for the next 100 years or more. There is a certain pride that Kensaku has in the running of the restaurant, and there is a sense of history that is obvious from the moment you step inside.

Butterflies floated pass on the warm hibiscus scented breeze that gently wafted in from the mountains as the late afternoon sun sank into the lazy bones of those relaxing on the old house deck. Exuding charm and character, many of the materials are sourced from local craftsmen, including the beautifully designed glasses that hold the freshly pressed juice also made from local produce. The very opposite of the ubiquitous, character lacking chain outlets that also dot the island, every part of the place exuded a rustic island charm, right down to fresh lemon peel in the bathrooms and hand cloths made from locally produced fabric.

A large part of the character of the island comes from the islanders themselves. Okinawa is renowned for the longevity of its residents and has more than its fair share of centenarians. The deep tanned skin of many of the older locals is set off by their smiles and friendliness. One such local was Kazuyoshi Chinen, a fourth generation farmer in the north of the island.

With his infectious laughter and obvious Okinawan pride Chinen San regaled me with tales of how the island had changed over the last 30 years or so. The military presence has meant that small parts of the island had lost their character but according to him there are still plenty of areas where the culture is as alive today as it was 50 years ago, “I would like people from many countries to see how Okinawa is still a special place, my flowers are sold all over Japan but I want Okinawa to be a flower that blooms all over the world”.

Moving on down to the south the island becomes a little more built up as you approach Naha city. There are more of the standard tourist traps around the resort city, however even around here there are some surprises. Opposite the more tacky Okinawa World sits the Gangala Valley, a natural park that houses a number of caves amid lush fauna and flora.

Entering the area I was surprised to see one of the more unusual cafe’s I have come across. Sat inside one of the large caverns is a cafe where patrons can enjoy their coffee under hanging stalactites. An impressive place, the cafe also hosts regular evening events and photographic exhibitions open to the public.

As evening fell the main drag of Kokusai Dori in Naha city starts to come alive with bars and the more tacky tourist themed restaurants. However once again a bit of exploration around the back streets will uncover many hidden gems like Kinjou. Sat one block back but could be a world away the cafe bar is a treasure trove of Japanese antiques and curios and one of the most interesting places I have drunk in.

Creeping hibiscus plants obscure the entrance somewhat and the hidden door is set back from the path as if in its own world, which it may as well be. Entering the place really is like entering a time capsule, literally every space is taken up by artifacts and random antique pieces that owner Kaoru has collected over the years.

Ukiyoe prints line the walls, a grammar phone still working pours slow jazz into the air and there is even a full samurai suit on display in one corner. Original 1960s Akira Kurosawa postcards are mixed in with fashion magazines showing exactly what was en vogue in the 1950s, while a smell of nostalgia hangs heavy in the air.

Stepping out into the street and back into the madness of Kokusai Dori you almost expect the bar to vanish behind you as though you stepped through a time portal and can’t go back. But of course you can, and that is the beauty of Okinawa and the many islands that surround it, there is so much to explore and uncover that each time you do go back (and I will) there are new surprises and hidden spots waiting for you.

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