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Back alleys of Naha bring sights and smells of old Okinawa

By: Kenny Ehman

Date Posted: 1998-06-20

It is often said by travelers throughout Asia that the region has become too overrun by Western culture. Searching for exotic temples and scenes of local daily life often lead to American fast food chains and tourist traps that take your money. The same could be said about Okinawa. Highway 58 with its many American style stores, make visitors wonder if they are actually in Okinawa. However, if you explore, you can still find small pockets of the "real" Okinawa existing even in Naha. One of these places is located just off of Heiwa Dori, on the perimeter of Kokusai Street.

Simply look for the huge shopping arcade across from the Mitsukoshi Department store. After walking for about 50 yards on Heiwa Dori, make a right at the first corner. Here is where the "machigwa" (the market) starts and your adventure begins. Small vendors line the narrow street, waiting patiently for customers. There is an elderly gentlemen selling "sanshin", the traditional instrument from Okinawa. They hang from above like chandeliers. As you move along, people, bicycles, and small motor bikes making deliveries fill the passage way. Another woman has displayed stacks of dried bonito fish laying on an old table like small pieces of wood. They will eventually be bought, and taken home for making soup stock.

Around the corner fresh Okinawan produce line the back street. Friendly old Okinawan women chat with each other and call out to customers. Piles of different shades of green spread out in a variety of shapes. Here you can find Okinawan "goya", radishes, potatoes, and other fresh vegatables. Continuing along this same corridor, colorful fruit stands light up the area. Golden pineapples, pinkish mangos, and mini yellow bananas are just some of the fruit you can find. Other shops are selling snacks, prepared foods, and pickled vegetables. Small alleys lead to other directions with shop signs pointing the way. In one of these dark alleys, a woman carefully arranges flowers outside of her small florist. The purple and pink flowers outside provide a bright friendly entrance to the darkness beyond. The area is like a maze. Every turn brings in to focus new sights. This is where Naha's old market ignores every change of the city, never caving in to modernization.

Taking one of the walkways to your left, you will eventually find the indoor market, which provides many different smells and sounds. Vendors are busy yelling out "irasshaimase", kindly showing off fresh seafood, meat, and other food. Colorful fish are laid out on ice, along with huge shrimp. lobsters, and crab. There are also plenty of peculiar sea animals on display, which most western countries do not eat. Sea weeds, Sea cucumbers, and sea urchins have also found their way here. Tsugie Nagamine, who has been working here for over forty years runs a seafood counter with her family and relatives. "The hours are long. We work from 6 am until 8 pm, with only Sundays off," she explains. At 4:30 am one of the family members is already awake, and buying fresh fish brought in by fisherman at one of the fish auctions at Naha or Itoman. Across from Nagamine's shop a man and his wife are pulling out fresh squid from a bucket. "I've been here for 25 years, but I still enjoy it," he says. At another part of the market a young woman named Mitsuko is helping her mother Yoshi, who herself has been here for forty years. Among the tasty pickled vegetables and other traditional Okinawan foods, they also display taco rice mix and other products aimed at the growing number of mainland tourists that visit the market each day. "I really enjoy meeting and talking to different people," explains Mitsuko. She smiles as I say good bye, and I find myself with another friendly face.

Outside on Kokusai Street taxis honk their horns, shoppers check out the latest fashions, and young people are eating at Macdonalds, but inside here, Okinawa life continues at it always has.

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