Okinawa – Growing old on bitter gourd and sugar cane

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“You really have to try the goya juice”, Fusa urges. “It is good for your health.” Aware that people on the Okinawa Islands in Southern Japan enjoy the highest life expectancy in the world, we jump at the opportunity and order the recommended drink. It turns out to be a screaming green liquid, topped with two mint leaves, that tastes very bitter. Goya, a vegetable looking a bit like a shrivelled cucumber, is used in many regional dishes: The famous Goya Champuru is a stir fry made of eggs, tofu, vegetables and the bitter goya, which adds a pleasant tangy taste. Researchers have confirmed the high life expectancy on Okinawa to be a result of the healthy local diet: Rice, lots of vegetables and seaweeds, fish and boiled pork dishes.

Into the sugarcane fields

Beyond the village of Inoda, the bus passes only three times a day. Next to the bus stop we are watching an elderly couple cutting sugarcane on the fields when a white compact van stops beside us and a diminutive woman of at least 75 gets out to rearrange heaps of plastic bags, wrapping material and gardening tools that fill the back of the car. “I have some field work to do, otherwise I would drive you to Cape Hirobo,” she munches. “Have a lump of cane sugar with mint – very good against a sore throat. I always buy it at the small shop over there.” Although we don’t have a sore throat the candy is quite tasty.

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Pancakes made with sugarcane sugar

Originally introduced via China from India, today sugarcane is one of the leading agricultural products of the islands. Most of the harvest is shipped to mainland Japan, where it will be processed to refined white sugar, but some of the tall ripe sticks are processed here and turned into a sweet dark molasse known as kokutô, or “black sugar”. Supplemented by fruit syrups, salt, chilli, sesame, or several other ingredients it is consumed as a popular snack by the islanders, while tourists buy it as a souvenir.

Sea grapes and algae

The next day, a woman originally from Osaka stops for us. She has moved to Okinawa after retirement for its beautiful nature, the pleasant climate and the generally relaxed atmosphere. “I’m on my way to pick mozuku algae fresh from the sea, because I’m going to visit friends in Osaka, and they all love it.” Most of the locals, she says, don’t collect mozuku anymore, but nonetheless it is a popular food item on the menus, along with umibudô. The “sea grapes” are cultivated in huge tanks and give a funny sensation to a dish as the pinhead-sized juicy berries of this algae type pop up when chewed on.  

The Iriomote Wildcat

A few days later we relocate to Iriomote, the largest island of the Yaeyama group in Southern Okinawa, where the buses are just as rare. Most of the island is mountainous and covered in forest and mangrove wilderness that is home to the endemic Iriomote Wildcat. Although we have a bought a free pass for the bus, we end up hitchhiking again most of the time.

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 “No, I’ve been working here for five years now, but never seen a wildcat,” Wada san shrugs. The diving instructor from Tokyo points to a road-side warning sign depicting the small Iriomote Cat. “But it seems there are a lot of accidents.” The local administration has even introduced rattling road bumpers to deter the shy protected cats from dashing onto the road.  At the same time the road is being widened and straightened for increased traffic as more tourists visit the island, followed by more development, and thus creating jobs that also draw more long-term residents. Naturally, the inhabitants are torn between economic relief over new job prospects – Okinawa being not only Japan’s healthiest egion, but also one of the poorest – and concern for the abundant nature of their island which they know is their biggest asset. “All this new development is destroying the natural habitat of the island’s wildlife,” Kenichi complains. As a guide, he needs both the tourists and the animals.

Eventually we did find a few people who had actually seen the wildcat. Taira-san, a local boat man, has been working on the Urauchi River for decades. “I’ve seen them running on the street, but also swimming in the river. They are not very good swimmers, but they like prawns, you know. Recently, you rarely see them anymore.”

Everything good on Okinawa

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Beer brewed on Ishigaki

In two weeks on the Yaeyama Islands we enjoyed talking to the friendly locals and tasted our way through the range of local food and drink: Freshly made soft Island Tofu, thick wheat noodles, shîkuasa juice (made from a variety of sour oranges) and Ishigaki beer, brewed according to German recipes. We will have to come back to explore more of the smaller islands.

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