Where to Eat and Drink in Okinawa, Japan

© Siu Yan Fung
An insider's guide to the island of Okinawa.

Elliot Faber is the Beverage Director at Yardbird, Ronin, and Sunday’s Grocery in Hong Kong. He's a Certified Sommelier and an Advanced Sake Professional. He's also the co-author of SAKE: The History, Stories and Craft of Japan’s Artisanal Breweries

Okinawa is unique to Japan’s other 46 prefectures. Its main island lies closer to Taipei than it does to Tokyo; the people there make their soba noodles from wheat (as opposed to buckwheat); and they produce their local spirit, Awamori, from Thai rice rather than Japanese rice. Okinawa embraces cultural inflections from China, Thailand, and the United States, but even so, when you're traveling across this prefecture it’s clear that you’re very much in Japan. It just isn’t a Japan you completely recognize. The islands have no trouble displaying their beauty, even on rainy days, and the Okinawan sense of hospitality rivals that of any great tropical paradise. With that in mind, it was the Okinawan food and drink that got me most excited about this place. While the Okinawan food and beverage culture has a lot that sets it apart, it maintains the familiar Japanese display of harmony in nature, ingredients, and craftsmanship—with purveyors who have passion to match.

WHERE TO EAT

Agu Pork: Ryumi Yakiniku, Omoromachi Naha-City

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No pork part is left off of their menu. Literally! At Ryumi, you can grill the local agu pork yourself (yakiniku-style) or try something prepared in their kitchen. The dry aged pork sashimi is something to experience – it’s extremely fresh and melts on the palate. Omoromachi 4-9-10 Bugibiru 1F

Okinawa Soba: Kenpah No Subaya, Omoromachi Naha-City

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The classic Japanese food vending machine system reigns supreme even down South in Okinawa. With a customized ticket, I was able to add aosa nori (local seaweed loaded with umami), yushi dofu (an unpressed tofu which is a specialty of the prefecture), and agu pork on top of a bed of Okinawa soba (wheat noodles similar to ramen) cooked in a light pork broth. 4-9-11 Omoromachi Naha Okinawa

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Taco Rice: King Taco, Okinawa City

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Uniquely Okinawan, taco rice marries the starchy satisfaction of Japanese rice with classic American-style Tex-Mex. The flavors are familiar and comforting: steamed white rice topped with refried beef (cooked with taco seasoning of course), cheddar cheese, and iceberg lettuce. This dish is simple yet extremely satisfying. The salsa is what really ties everything together and King Taco makes their own. 2-16-11 Mihara Okinawa

Pizza: Bacar, Kumoji Naha-City

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I believe that I know pizza. It’s my favorite food and I’m very careful when I talk about a pie. I was not expecting to have some of the best pizza I’ve ever had in Okinawa, of all places, but that was the case when I went to Bacar. The pizza at Bacar only comes in two varieties – margherita and marinara – but they’re prepared so perfectly that it’s really all you need. The chef and the staff at Bacar are so cool and they literally run the pie to your table immediately after it comes out of the wood fire oven. 3-16-15 Kumoji, Naha 900-0015

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Bread & Baked Goods: Muna Kata-do, Ginowan

© Siu Yan Fung

This bakery is definitely off the beaten path, but it’s worth the trip. With a selection of bread and baked goods made of organic ingredients and their own natural yeast, I truly felt like a kid in a candy store. The aosa nori + cheese bread was a highlight. Everything is made fresh daily and baked in a stone wood fire oven. The experience at this bakery and seeing the passion that owner, Munakata Yoshio, has for his craft was inspiring. 1-20-2 Kakazu, Ginowan 901-2226

© Siu Yan Fung

WHERE TO DRINK

Awamori Highballs: Makishi Kosetsu Market, Naha-City

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Awamori is still finding its place on the international stage, but domestically it’s well understood and very popular in the local izakayas, which are dotted all over Makishi Kosetsu Market. Order a Dan Ball (literally translates to “shipping box” – a local play on words), which uses the unique Danryu Awamori + soda water + lime (if you ask). Danryu Awamori is a combination of barrel aged and ceramic aged awamori and yields a mellow but refreshing highball. 2-10-1 Matsuo

Awamori Degustation: Awamori Soko (members club), Kume Naha-City

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There may not be a greater collection of awamori anywhere else in the world. From earthy, youthful bottles to mellowed out and barrel aged ‘Couth’ (the term for awamori aged 3 or more years), this place has a complete representation of Okinawa’s 47 distilleries—and then some. Although you do have to pay a one-time fee for lifetime membership, it does have its privileges once you join. The other option is to find a friend who’s already a member and go with them. Yubinbango 900-0033

Awamori Cocktails: The BAR, Kumoji Naha-City

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The BAR specializes in incorporating awamori, Okinawa’s local spirit, into classic cocktails. I tried just about everything, from an awamori mojito to an awamori old fashioned, but my favorite will always be the classic ‘Dan Ball’ with lime (awamori highball). The bartenders working there regularly participate in competitions across Japan and around the world to constantly hone their skills and raise awamori awareness. 3-15-15 Kumoji

Rum, Beer and Japanese Spirits: Helios Pub, Naha-City

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Helios is ambidextrous in its alcohol production. In addition to awamori, the people behind Helios also make rum, Okinawa’s only sweet potato shochu (normally a specialty of Kyushu), and an impressive array of microbrews. All of this is available at the Helios Pub, which is right on one of Naha’s main streets. The staff is friendly, the food is solid, and it’s the ultimate showcase of Okinawa’s most diverse alcohol producer. 1-2-25 Makishi

Beer: Orion Beer Brewery, Nago

© Siu Yan Fung

Tasting beer straight from the tank after touring the brewery where it’s produced is a very rewarding experience, no matter where you are in the world. Orion beer is fresh, clean, and pairs perfectly with the hot sun and cool breeze that graces Okinawa year round. 2-2-1 Agarie

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