In Ryukyuan legend, Nirai Kanai is the mythical realm across the sea where deities dwell and when invited, bring blessings into the home of the villagers. However seductive that imagery really is, present day Okinawa still styles itself as the island paradise (there’s even a bridge here named after this place), if the tree-lined paths, the beautiful coastal roads, the constant warm sea-breeze and the island vibes are any indications of what’s plastered on tourist sign boards.
After days of driving along the coast and staring at Okinawa’s turquoise waters, it is beyond difficult to go back to the cramped streets and buildings of Naha and not feel somewhat claustrophobic. The place I’m putting up at is close to the shopping street, better known as Kokusai-dori, and the overwhelming display of tourist wares and food stalls along this mile-long road is so similar to what I’ve encountered in other major Japanese cities.
I returned the car, then promptly and impulsively rented yet another for the next 24 hours so I could simply get out of the city for more breathing space and more of the coast. And for more of the glorious food too, which I’ve liked for years before visiting. Okinawan cuisine, much like the region and the people themselves, falls in the gap between Japanese, American and Chinese cuisines: stir-fries – or better known as Champuru – with wheat gluten, taco rice, peanut tofu, soba (that looks more like udon or Chinese egg noodles) in clear broth with braised sanmainiku (pork belly) and soki (pork ribs) are staples of the Izakayas and restaurants, made to differing standards. My carefully chosen encounters with these dishes however, thus far, in Yunangi in Naha and Yomitan Monogatari have been nothing but bliss.
Admittedly, the alluring wildness of and the strange, odd mix of cultures found in this tropical place are hard to resist. In the dazzling sun, sand and sea, it’s almost easy to forget Okinawa’s bloodied past that culminated in the a 3-month battle in 1945 in the Pacific theatre of war, termed by the locals as tetsu no bōfū, or Typhoon of Steel because of the endless artillery fire and bombing raids that happened here.
There is only “dishonour in war” as the Okinawa Prefectural Peace museum strives to remind its visitors, corroborated by the horrors of the eyewitness accounts about the severity of the campaign. The thrust of its message is neither quite anti-American (not too overtly at least) nor pro-Japanese but Okinawan-centric; the heavy focus remains the massive loss of civilian lives and the brutality they endured on an island made hell during the attacks.
It’s difficult not to be anything but profoundly moved by the whole area, its solemn, quiet, gentle atmosphere – barring the noise from school groups and tour groups – jarringly ironic considering how much of Okinawa was burnt, defaced and ravaged 7 decades ago. Yet built on the site where the former Japanese Imperial Army headquartered and where thousands of Okinawans committed suicide under the orders of the Japanese government to avoid capture, the memorial park’s stark reminder for peace couldn’t cry any louder.