OKINAWA, October 2015—I ate delicious yakisoba. And fluffy egg salad sandwiches from my favorite convenience store. I watched old school karate close-up. Maybe too close. I found out I am not completely horrible at tegumi, a relatively fat-free version of sumo (though I won’t be making a career of it).
Okinawa is the largest island in the Ryukyu archipelago, a kingdom, a culture and a people that was, until 1879, separate from Japan. You feel that difference immediately. It feels, relative to mainland Japan, like Southern California or Florida; balmy, tropical. Where the mainland feels frenetic, tightly wound, neurotic, Okinawa is decidedly laid back.
They have, since World War II, endured the mixed blessing of a disproportionate number of U.S. military bases, a proximity that has influenced the cuisine—the most famous (or notorious) example being taco rice—and have always been, like their Chinese neighbors, more pork-centric when it comes to protein of choice.
The island may be laid back, but it has a strong and steady tradition of activism. Okinawa paid an awful price in the final months of the war, losing up to a quarter of its population. It was sacrifice many feel bitter about still, as Okinawans then—and now—feel as if they are treated as second class citizens by the central government.
And Okinawa has a long and glorious tradition of martial arts. This, after all, is where karate comes from. Okinawa is where I found out that having a thumb crunched into the cartilage of the ear can really, really hurt. You will see an elderly karate master at one point effortlessly manipulate the digits of my hand. The fingers are messed up still. The “warm ups” at the dojo you will see in the show, by the way, are no joke. I sat there for 45 minutes and watched in horror as the students did things to their knuckles and toes and forearms that nature, I don’t think, ever intended. Absolutely brutal.
At the end of the show, a woman karate practitioner is called over to the table to explain things. She ends up perfectly capturing the difference between Okinawa and the rest of Japan. It’s a beautiful moment.