At lunchtime, mum got to talking to Wayama-san, the owner of the mozuku soba place. Usually we’re closed at dinnertime, he said, but tonight it’s the birthday of one of our regulars, and he’s shipped in all this steak: (he showed us a room full of boxes and boxes of meat), so we’ve invited some friends for a party of sorts, it’s 1500 yen per person (about NZ$25), you two should come along, it’ll be fun, I’ve prepared plenty of beer, wine and awamori.
So after an afternoon of swimming at Furuzamami beach we showered and went over to the mozuku place where, sure enough, a crowd had gathered, a barbecue of sorts had been set up in a big metal drum, the aroma of grilled meat wafted through the air, drawing us in.
It quickly became clear that although they were collecting money this wasn’t a party for just anyone; these people all seemed to know each other, either through living and working on the island (plenty of dive instructors and lifeguards) or because of friendships they’ve made by coming to Zamami again and again.
It was Murata-san’s birthday and he was the one who’d sent down about NZ$1500 worth of steak to Wayama-san, asking nothing in return except a party everyone could enjoy. Murata-san comes to Zamami to dive five or six times a year, and seems to know everyone there. The gathered crowd burst into a cheer when he arrived: Murata! Murata!
There was barbecued steak, served Korean-style with spicy sauces and gochujang and lettuce leaves to wrap it all, there was kimchi-cured dried squid that Murata-san had made himself, there was chicken and sausages and stir-fried vegetables, fried egg with agu (what’s agu? I asked the girl sitting next to me. Agu is pig, she said, Okinawan pig, and it’s really really good. She was right), and, for the tenuous link to this blog, there was yakisoba. Not the light, almost-delicate yakisoba of the night before, but the kind I’m more used to: thick, strongly flavoured, almost gluggy with a sweet soy sauce, noodles almost overcooked, served with plenty of shredded nori and red pickled ginger, it matched perfectly with my beer.
There was a birthday song, and a birthday cake, with candles the wind kept blowing out before Murata-san could. There’s no cake shop on the island, someone said, so one of the young mothers (lots of kids at this party) made it from scratch. It looked and tasted exquisite: light and fluffy and full of whipped cream and fruit.
The mayor of Zamami was there. He said the challenge for him is to keep people on the island, because there’s no high school so a lot of the time when the oldest kid in a family reaches high school age they’ll either go to the honto themselves and rent an apartment in Naha, or the mother will go with them, taking the younger children along, leaving the father behind. And most of the time when they go, they don’t come back, it’s more convenient, more exciting in the city after all. Do you have kids, we asked. Yes, he said, and his oldest’s gone across to Naha for high school, she’s in an apartment by herself, as a parent it’s hard. He wants to set up a system, maybe a dormitory or something in Naha for the kids of Zamami so that whole families don’t move across, so that the island population doesn’t dip even lower. But there’s a lot of red tape, he said.