Hawai‘i Herald Columnist
Growing up, Okinawa was never on my travel bucket list. Summers (and a few winters) in Japan meant family road trips to onsen villages and hotels in which my O-mama was a member of the loyalty program; most of these places were in remote areas best reached by car and a few were family favorites that we would go back to yearly. As a Nagoya-based family, our vacations did not include a flight, road trip or train ride to Okinawa. Like, ever.
My family would say “what’s the point? If we wanted to visit someplace tropical, we’d visit you in Hawai‘i instead,” (fair point) or, “it’s warm and sunny like Hawai‘i, wouldn’t you rather visit someplace different?” (I mean, true). So, I grew up with the mentality that warm and sunny meant home and that travel-worthy meant non-tropical, urban, very rural or someplace on the opposite side of the world.
I also grew up in Hawai‘i and that meant that I was exposed to a lot of Okinawan culture and food. I mean, the Okinawan Festival took place at Kapi‘olani Park for years, and that area was a part of my stomping grounds (yes, I grew up a townie) in my youth. Fresh andagi is my kryptonite and I never thought I’d love bitter melon the way I love it in a good goya champuru. My mother and aunties loved taking us to Sunrise Restaurant off Kapahulu Avenue where we became friends with the owners and enjoyed the husband playing the sanshin for guests when he had a moment to do so. When I first moved into a tiny spot in Kaimukï with Brent, it was my Aunty Hiroyo that took me to Sunrise and celebrated that milestone. I discovered Okinawan soba and fresh sushi expertly made in that tiny restaurant, while she gave me pointers on how to cook with meat (my mom is vegetarian). It felt right that I would be in that place where I learned about recipes at the same time we enjoyed something familiar yet novel (to me).
I came to know many people with Uchinanchu pride through work, friends and family. In fact, Koki is an Okinawan last name and my business card has the kanji for Koki that my mother researched – my in-laws did not know. She found that the Okinawan surname kanji most common (and most auspicious) was kou, or happiness (幸), and ki, or joy (喜), and so that became a part of my identity, too.
It was my best friend, who is part Okinawan, that really got me interested in visiting. A few years ago, she told me about how she would be traveling to Okinawa with her family and boyfriend (now husband) for an Uchinanchu pilgrimage. It’s called the World Uchinanchu Festival and it takes place in early November as a celebration of Okinawan people. Uchinanchu that have moved away are given this festival as a means to come back and reconnect, celebrate and discover themselves.
When I heard about this, I thought it was one of the most beautiful ways to uplift a culture and its rich history while passing on its legacy and pride in identity to future generations. It’s what Merrie Monarch is to Hawaiian culture. I remember wishing that there was a version of this for the Black Diaspora, and if there already is, I’m still none the wiser. And knowing that we have family ties to Okinawa, my dream is to someday visit with our family and experience the festivities in its full glory.
Maybe it’s the fact that I grew up Uchinanchu-adjacent but in recent years, I’ve grown to have a fuller appreciation for Okinawan culture, food and products. I noticed that much of what I enjoy align with my focus on wellness and pleasure – which makes sense when you think about what Okinawan culture emphasizes, too. Either way, I can attest that there are notable Okinawan products that my family greatly appreciates.
- Mana-su: I was given a bottle of Mana-su, a black drinking vinegar, by the founder Randy Kuba himself. I liken the flavor and texture of Mana-su to aged balsamic vinegar–sweeter and less acidic than traditional vinegar. According to Randy, this particular vinegar is apparently one of the secrets to longevity and health in Okinawa (I believe it); people drink one tablespoon mixed into water as a daily probiotic-type drink. I once upset a few friends by trying out and posting that healthy “cola” challenge where you mix vinegar with sparkling water and it supposedly tastes like coke (note: it doesn’t) but it was good and I do like to drink it that way from time to time, so I guess I’m just carrying on an old tradition and adding my own sparkling twist. (healthymanasu.com)
- Aloha Awamori: Black vinegar (the Mana-su) is a by-product of awamori, a distilled rice spirit–like an Okinawan vodka, but some call it shima sake (or island sake). You can’t have one without the other. Randy Kuba of Mana-su naturally also owns Aloha Awamori and his signature collection is the Kuba Vintage. The company has also expanded to include Hawai‘i-flavors such as Kona Coffee and chili pepper. Awamori makes for a beautiful and unique gift and pairs well with champuru or pork belly rafute. (alohaawamori.com)
- EM-X Gold: In a nutshell, EM, or Effective Microorganisms, is a scientific breakthrough that is based in Okinawa. The Hawai‘i branch, EM Hawaii, are the people that have helped spearhead the highly successful Genki Ball Ala Wai Cleaning Project. EM can be used in a wide range of ways, including as a prebiotic drink. Fun fact, when I was pregnant and suffering from extreme morning sickness, my mom got me a bottle of EM-X Gold and it helped quell nausea. (emhawaii.com)
- EM•1® Microbial Inoculant Liter: As mentioned above, EM can be used in many ways and one of the more popular uses is as a gardening tool – it’s a sort of fertilizer, deodorizer and plant supplement all rolled into one. My husband is a big fan of this product because he’s seen how beautifully our fruits and flowers grow when he uses this. Yes, it’s the same brand as the prebiotic drink. (emhawaii.com)
- Jimame by Aloha Tofu: Fun fact – Aloha Tofu is a third-generation company that’s owned and run by the Uyehara family, proudly Okinawan. Legend has it that Kamesaburo Uyehara (the first owner) took over the business from his friend and learned everything about tofu making in two days. While the products are Japanese, once a year and in coordination with the Okinawan Festival, they make jimami tofu (peanut tofu), which is an Okinawan product. It’s only available at the factory in limited quantities and during a limited time so be sure to order ahead and check their social media for updates. (alohatofu.com)
I know now that it’s not a matter of if but when I will finally visit Okinawa. When I do so, I can’t wait to share that experience – especially if I get a chance to go during the World Uchinanchu Festival.
Join me on my journey to self care and happiness along and see how I do with the rest of my goals. You can find me at @saschakoki on Instagram for more.
Sascha Koki is the vice president of Media Etc., a PR marketing company based in Honolulu. As a Japanese and Black hapa bilingual woman who grew up in Hawai‘i and Japan, Sascha has a unique perspective on growing up with three rich cultures; she sees herself as a bridge that connects these worlds through her career and in life. Happily married and a mother of two humans and one pup, she strives to raise her pack of wild cubs into compassionate beings that wield their powers for good while enjoying all that life has to offer. Passionate about fashion, beauty, wellness and good (okay, and bad) TV in near equal measures, this former Miss Waikiki and UH Rainbow dancer is a true Aquarius.
In her column, she plans to write about “lifestyle” which really means anything and everything, all at once. Her wish is to inspire and shed light on everything from cultural issues to hilarious culture shock moments through personal stories.