Life in Okinawa is more laid back than mainland Japan. For instance, while Okinawans are still very strict about arriving on time to work and scheduled meetings (always be early for these!), it is acceptable to be late to social gatherings—Okinawans will often quote that they’re running on “Okinawan time” or “Shima time” (shima = island). Dress codes, as well, are much less strict than you may have been lead to believe at the Tokyo Orientation. The business dress in Okinawa during the warm months (about half of the year) is called kariyushi wear and is similar to hawaiian shirts. You will often see people wearing these very bright colored shirts in city offices and other companies.
The full range of mainland Japanese food can be enjoyed in Okinawa. However, Okinawa has it’s own set of unique dishes like Okinawa soba (made from rice, not powder), Goya/Fu/Tofu Champuru, Okinawa miso soup (a lot more ingredients than mainland Japan), hechima; inherited foods from China such as mabu doufu (a spicy tofu dish); and adaptations on American food, such as taco rice. Furthermore, Okinawa is blessed with many cafes that serve tasty international cuisine. It is typical of many Okinawan dishes to include pork, especially spam. So, if you are vegetarian, explaining that “you can’t eat meat” (“niku ga taberaremasen”) may not be enough. You may also have to mention that “you can’t eat pork or spam” (“butaniku mo supamu mo taberaremasen”).
Moreover, take heed to the special crops/fruit that grow exclusively in Okinawa – particularly, goya (a bitter melon), beni-imo (a purple sweet potato), and shiquasa (a small citrus fruit). Okinawan’s health and longevity is often attributed to goya. Okinawa, also, has its own unique liquor: orion beer and awamori (a potent spirit distilled from Thai rice). You will probably get introduced to these drinks sooner or later at a nomikai (drinking party) with your co-workers.
I am sure you must have heard that Okinawa is the birthplace of Karate. Likewise, there are more styles practiced here than in mainland Japan. While mainland Japanese predominantly practice Shotokan Karate, in Okinawa Uechi ryu, Goju ryu, and Shorin Ryu are the big styles. Karate is often linked with Kobudo, the weapons martial art of Okinawa, known for its use of unconventional weaponry (two of which were made famous in America by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the sai and the nunchaku).
Okinawa’s primary art forms are pottery and glass, and there is no greater testament to Okinawa’s mastery of these mediums than the Shisa ornaments. The Shisa comes from Okinawan mythology and is a cross between a lion and a dog. People place pairs of them on their gates or rooftops to guard their homes. The closed-mouth shisa is supposed to keep goodness in, and the open-mouth shisa is supposed to keep evil out. As you travel around a bit, you will see more and more creatively and intricately designed shisa. The design possibilities for these little creatures are endless. Another great Okinawan form of art is bingata (stencil-dyed fabrics). Bingata are usually brightly-colored with various patterns featuring themes from nature. Clothes made from bingata are worn during traditional dance performances.
Ryukyu Buyu aka Ryubu (Okinawan Dance) is a very interesting form of dance, where emotions are subtly expressed with the hands. Ryubu is always danced to the rhythm of the Sanshin (Okinawan banjo, and ancestor of the Japanese shamisen). Okinawa has the world’s slowest dance: yotsu no take (the four bamboos). It’d be great if you get to experience this firsthand, and other great Ryubu dances while you are here. Eisa (an Okinawan form of folk dance) is more energetic compared to Ryubu, and is performed at festivals and events year round. Eisa is very exciting, because it is accompanied by the loud pounding rhythms of the Taiko drum and chants (“ha iya sasa!!”).
Finally, the pop song, Shimanchu nu Takara by Begin, is kind of considered an anthem for Okinawa. If you learn this song and sing it at karaoke with your co-workers, they will love you forever. Either that or the Orion beer song (ojii jiman no orion biiru), which is also by Begin. You should also know that these nationwide-popular bands are Okinawan: Orange Range, Mongol800, and HY; and the pop singer, Amuro Namie, is Okinawan… just in case it pops up in conversation! 😉