Donald’s Poke Shop Brings Hawaiian Flavors to Okinawa, Japan
Hawai‘i Herald Columnist
“Okinawa is such a beautiful place, not just the ocean and scenery and culture, but the people. I’ve been treated well and taken care of by many people here in what has become ‘My Hawai‘i.’” — Colin Sewake
When I joined the Air Force Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program at the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa, and was slotted for a job as a missile-launch officer, I thought I would spend my entire career in the northern tier of the U.S. mainland, away from familiar family, friends and food because that is where most of the nuclear missile silos are located.
A change of events before graduation had me reassigned to the contracting career field and brought me to Kadena Air Base in Okinawa where a lot of the culture and lifestyle is similar to that of Hawai‘i. That includes being surrounded by beautiful blue ocean and an abundance of fish.
My favorite type of fish when eating sashimi and sushi is tuna, or maguro in Japan. In Hawai‘i, it’s known as “‘ahi” whose name is said to be derived from the smoke emitted from the cord as these deep sea monsters were hooked and pulled the line over the side of ancient Hawai‘i canoes. ‘Ahi in ‘Ölelo Hawai‘i (Hawaiian language) means “fire.” Fortunately for me, maguro is plentiful and available year round here.
According to Okinawa prefecture data, maguro represented 57% of the 15,295 tons of fish caught from local waters in 2012. Both tourists and locals can enjoy various types of maguro caught locally.
Varieties of Maguro
Albacore tuna (binchö-maguro) season runs from November to April. This variety of tuna sports a whitish meat that is light in taste, although those caught in higher latitude waters are more fatty.
Bluefin tuna (kuro-maguro) season runs from April to July and has the most depth of flavor among all types of tuna.
Bigeye tuna (mebachi-maguro) has less overall fat than bluefin tuna but does have both lean and fatty parts. This breed is available from August to March and is recommended for those who like lean cuts.
Yellowfin tuna (kihada-maguro), available from April to July, has less fatty parts and a light and mild taste. Skipjack tuna or bonito (katsuo) is an important ingredient in Okinawan cuisine such as soups and champuru stir-fried dishes. Okinawa consumes the most of this type of tuna in all of Japan and is caught from the end of March to October.
Quality and Nutrition
Freshness is crucial when buying and eating fish. Maguro caught here in Okinawa end up at fish markets and restaurants, fresh and not frozen. To further prove the quality of locally caught maguro, those that end up at Tomari Fishing Port and pass the strict inspection of dealers are sold under the brand name “Churaumi Tuna” which has become popular nationwide because of its springy texture, sweetness and savoriness. The port is known to produce the most maguro in Okinawa and shipped over 12.6 million pounds in 2014. They bring in an average of 20 tons of fish per day with busy days yielding up to 50 tons. Maguro represents 70% of their catch.
As much as I love a juicy burger and onolicious kalua pig, I know that I also need to eat more fish for health purposes. Maguro is rich in EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) which is a natural blood thinner and DHA (docosahexanoic acid) which keeps the brain active. This fish also contains lots of vitamins B and D and is known as one of the top sources for vitamin B12 in fish. Preventing hypertension, arteriosclerosis and anemia are some other health benefits.
Donald’s Poke Shop
Besides fishing ports, grocery stores and restaurants, I enjoyed a bowl of the cubed and seasoned Hawai‘i dish several years ago at 808 Poke Bowls in Onna-son run by a Japanese couple who lived in Hawai‘i. Then, I heard about a Hawai‘i guy who ran a shop in Okinawa-shi. It turns out that Donald Weightman is my Hilo cousin’s high school classmate and has been here for a couple decades.
Originally from Hawaiian Paradise Park in Puna on the Big Island, Weightman graduated from Waiäkea High School in 1985 and left Hilo to play volleyball at Golden West College located in Huntington Beach in Southern California. While going to school there, he worked at United Parcel Service and later secured a full time position where he was a driver trainer for 14 years.
He visited his parents in Okinawa who moved here in October 1999 after he completed high school. Weightman’s Uchinänchu mom, one of six boys and four girls, hails from Miyazato, Okinawa-shi. Like me, he met an Okinawan lady during his stay, got hooked and got married. While I was performing Air Force Reserve duty to support preparations for the G-8 Summit to be held at the Busena Terrace Beach Resort in Nago, Weightman was holding a wedding ceremony and reception on O‘ahu in June 2000. After the formalities were done, he returned to his mother’s birthplace where he has resided ever since.
In 2016, Weightman started selling poke, made mostly from fish caught from his own boat, out of the back of his car under the name “Okinawaiian Poke.” After numerous questions about his name, he changed the business name to Donald’s Poke. Just a couple years later he couldn’t catch enough fish to meet the demand for his onolicious poke. This was easily overcome when he learned that his friend was a buyer at an auction block.
The business tidal conditions were just right for him to open up a small location in a 10-foot-by-12-foot piece of property in Okinawa-shi that was formerly used as a bar. Two Okinawan cousins, an Okinawan niece, a hänai (adopted) niece from Nänäkuli and an Air Force dependent help him sell approximately 100 bowls per day at his shop that is open from Tuesday to Friday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. What a small world Okinawa, like Hawai‘i, is when I learned that the Hilo wife of another friend who I just played guitar with in a couple of kani ka pila (casual music playing) sessions at my house was also a part of his staff. Justine, his other hänai niece, helped him manage the shop until the other month but took a break to give birth.
My favorite menu item is his “lu‘au” combo off “Da Bomb” plate series, which features ‘ahi poke in an inari cone sushi style along with macaroni salad. Donald’s Poke Shop’s crowd, however, prefers the best selling spicy ‘ahi bowl with Korean chicken.
Weightman has always had deep connections with his Okinawan side of the family. His dad would send him and his sister to Okinawa every year from when they were 1st grade until they were 12th grade. He must’ve been surrounded by Uchinäguchi (Okinawan language) while growing up in Hilo because he thought it was Nihongo (Japanese language) until he made friends with Japanese people from Tökyö and Ösaka while living in Los Angeles.
He enjoys spending time with his mother two to three times a week, attends church services with her and goes out for coffee or lunch after. When he visits, he brings her fish or sometimes, of course, his poke. Not only is his shop used for selling poke dishes, the Uechi location served as a place to gather with his approximately two dozen first cousins for their monthly moai meetings where he would close the shop and they would yuntaku (talk story) for two to three hours prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
His family time with them several times a year at beach parties and camps where everyone would come and go as their schedules allowed reminded me of how I also used to get together with my relatives on the North Shore of O‘ahu. How fortunate it is for his 9th grade daughter to also enjoy both worlds by attending an off base public high school until recently and then transferring to Kubasaki High School on Camp Foster to learn English in order to communicate better with her American grandfather.
Weightman cherishes his original birthplace and hometown of Hilo but also plans to enjoy Okinawa, his little slice of heaven, for many more years. According to him, “Okinawans are down to earth, warm, and very family oriented and giving just like the folks back in Hawai‘i.” He further remarks, “I really lucked out marrying my wife as we share a lot of the same family values but more importantly, she has been supportive in everything that I have done in the past 21 years that we’ve been married.”
After I’m done writing this story, I think it’ll be time to head over to Donald’s Poke Shop to snag me a bowl of poke. Hopefully, he’ll be in so that we can also catch up on more of his childhood stories of the Big Island that my late father also shares.
Check out his Facebook page facebook.com/gotpoke for more information.
Colin Sewake is a keiki o ka ‘äina from Wahiawä, who was assigned to Kadena Air Base in Okinawa in December 1994 to fulfill his U.S. Air Force ROTC commitment. There, he met his future wife, Keiko, and decided to make Okinawa his permanent home. Colin is now retired from the Air Force and the Air Force Reserves. He and Keiko have two children and live in Yomitan.