At first glance, Naha, Okinawa, didn’t look much like the images of Japan that had been imprinted on my mind while exploring Tokyo, Kyoto and Kōchi. Japan’s smallest and southernmost island seemed a world away from its northern counterparts, with palm trees, a beachy vibe and a main street that shouts instead of whispers.
Any minute, I half-expected a Japanese Jimmy Buffett to appear around a corner, singing Cheeseburger in Paradise.
But turning the corner away from Kokusai dori Street, I felt as if I had found Japan, or at least the Japan that had been swirling in my thoughts these past extraordinary days.
Herb and I were headed to Tsuboya Yachimun Street, a district known for a special type of pottery called Yachimun made in Okinawa. Translating as ceramics in the Okinawan dialect, the pottery dates back almost 800 years and was influenced by styles from China, Korea and Southeast Asia as well as Japan.
Exploring the pottery district seemed like a perfect way to spend our time in Naha. After more than a week of over-the-top, feast-for-the-senses sightseeing, Herb and I were craving a day to simply wander. Tsuboya Yachimun Street also sounded like a great place to find some unique presents for our family. And truth be told, I have a real soft spot when it comes to dishes – especially ones from our travels – and I was hoping that maybe we’d happen upon something special for our house, too.
Tsuboya Yachimun Street
The route to Tsuboya Yachimun Street took us down backstreets and alleys, past hotels, storefronts and low-rise apartment buildings. It was a little trickier to locate than it appeared on the map, but when a giant-sized shisa appeared, we knew we had arrived.
Shisas are mythical creatures from Okinawan mythology that take the form of both a lion and a dog. Inspired by Chinese guardian lions, they are believed to protect people from evil spirits. The Tsuboya shisa was the largest we’d encountered, but as we walked along, I noticed them everywhere – on houses, commercial buildings, rooftops – and they reminded me of happening upon all those trolls in Norway.
Yachimun pottery shops and studios are spread out along a stone paved road that runs through the district. There were so many different pieces and options that it was difficult at first to decide what we wanted, but we began noticing similar design patterns and earthy color themes. And we also looked for the artist’s stamp on the bottom, where you would typically find the manufacturer’s name.
In addition to pottery, Naha is known for producing wood products from trees that are native to Okinawa. There were bowls and plates and charcuterie boards in rich hues and textures.
We decided on serving bowls at a shop called Uchina Chaya & Gallery Bukubuku that also had a small café. I was a little concerned about breakage when I watched the woman who had helped us wrap my purchases in newspaper. But that was only the first layer. A sturdy layer of bubble wrap followed, secured with packing tape. In between, she placed a card about the potter who’d made the pieces and an information sheet on care instructions.
I should have known I had no reason for concern. This was Japan, where everything seems to be done with thoughtfulness, care and attention to detail.
As we waited, I noticed a man behind the food counter vigorously stirring an incredibly tall foaming mixture with a bamboo whisk. ” Oh, that’s bukubuku tea,” our saleswoman explained. “It’s native to Okinawa and a very old tradition. It’s made from rice, jasmine tea and hard water.”
The foam is created from rice, not milk? Herb and I looked at each other and almost in unison told her, “We have to try this!”
We took a seat on a long banquette in the shop’s café. A Japanese family was seated next to us, and a man who appeared to be the father kept looking our way, trying to get our attention. When I turned toward him, he raised his hands to his eyes and moved his right index finger up and down, as if it were a camera. I realized that he was offering to take our photo.
I handed him Herb’s iPhone, and he bowed and smiled and moved away from the table, capturing a moment that I will never forget. His family looked on, smiling and appearing delighted by the whole experience. I was grateful for his kindness and was hit with the realization that this was one of those serendipities that you can’t even explain. We had started out looking for pottery and ended up here.
Our bukubuku tea was served in Yachimun pottery handleless bowls, along with peanut and sesame seed cookies – all perfectly presented on individual wooden trays. There was even an instruction sheet for drinking the tea. The trick, it seemed, was tipping the cup without getting foam on your nose!
We said our goodbyes and made one last stop before heading back to the shuttle, having decided that an Okinawan wood charcuterie board at a shop we’d visited earlier would be a great gift. When we walked through the door, we were greeted as if we were old friends. “Oh, you came back,” the shopkeeper said. “Thank you!” And just like our other purchases, the board was wrapped in newspaper and bubble wrap, with the shop’s card tucked in between the layers.
On the way to Kokusai dori Street, we passed through a covered shopping area called Heiwa Shopping Avenue. Lined with market-like stalls on both sides and topped with a light-filled glass paneled ceiling, it literally was an avenue, leading from one street to another. The streets outside were interesting as well, decorated with mosaic plaques and what appeared to be manhole covers painted in colorful designs. This was one of those places where it pays to look down as well as ahead!
Be A Traveler
When we arrived at the shuttle stop, a woman carrying a clipboard asked us for our cabin number on the ship and added it to a list of people who had arrived ahead of us. When the shuttle pulled up to the curb, another worker stood at the door and called cabin numbers in the order of arrival. Once those people had boarded, the next number was called.
As we waited, I overheard a man grumbling about having to stand by the shuttle stop until his cabin was called. He had arrived later than we did, and I suspected that he assumed he could get on the shuttle whenever he wanted. But this was Japan, where order and patience are imbedded in the culture. And although I’d never experienced this type of boarding procedure before, it made sense to me.
And then it hit me. The words from Theo on our first morning in Tokyo:
“The difference between a tourist and a traveler is that a tourist expects that everything will be the same as home, and the traveler is an open vessel. Be a traveler, not a tourist.”
I oh-so wanted to run back to the Tokyo Hilton Shinjuku and share this experience with Theo. I wanted to tell him that there was a moment, under a cloudless azure sky and warm Okinawan sun, when I completely understood his words.
I wanted to tell him that I truly felt like a traveler.