Day 9, Part 2: a party for Murata-san (Noodles with strangers, #2)

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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!

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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.

After that there was too much Orion beer and awamori and chilled red wine and resulting nonsensical conversation for me to write down all the details here, but here are some photos I took:
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Day 9: Mozuku soba

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This one was really good.

In Okinawa, and on Zamami Island in particular, there’s a type of long, thin, edible seaweed called mozuku. (Actually I think it’s pretty widespread all over Japan – you can buy it in little packs at the supermarket – but it’s harvested around here). They come in strands, like slippery little noodles, and are often eaten cold in a rice vinegar dressing, sometimes with a bit of lemon, really refreshing. And good for you too: they’re a good source of fibre, and vitamins and minerals, especially iron.

At the far end of Zamami village, near a stream flowing into the port, is this little open-air mozuku shop called Wayama Mozuku. They’re only open for lunch, and they only serve a few things: Okinawa soba, with mozuku kneaded into the noodle dough, rice and pork (the rice cooked together with mozuku), and fresh mozuku in rice vinegar. Mum and I went there at lunchtime, in between a swim at Ama beach and another swim at Furuzamami beach, and ordered one of everything, except they’d just run out of fresh mozuku for the day, zannen. It must’ve been popular.

Even without the fresh mozuku the rest of the food was really good. My Okinawa soba, topped with sliced pork and kamaboko and red pickled ginger was deeply fragrant, the light, clear broth carrying the distinct umami flavour of katsuo (bonito), savoury and just faintly sweet.

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The noodles were a light grey-ish colour and just a tad earthy-tasting from the mozuku kneaded into the dough, and their twisty-ridgy shape suggests they’d been hand-cut, none of this machine-made uniformity here. They were at once slippery and firm, with a good bite; the slightly irregular shape seemed to carry more flavour with each slurp. This dish, guys: a textural odyssey in your mouth.

The toppings were pretty standard as far as Okinawa soba goes, but the sliced pork was well-seasoned and a good balance between fat and meat.

On the table there were some bottles (one homemade, one commercially bottled) of Okinawan chilli vinegar, a recommended condiment for soba. I added some: it wasn’t too hot, just a little tingly and sour from the vinegar. Yum.

After this, mum got to talking to Wayama-san, the owner, who invited us to a party of sorts. But that’s a story for the next post. Stay tuned!

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Day 8, Part 2: squid ink yakisoba

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This plate of yakisoba was at a little local izakaya / restaurant in the little town on Zamami island*. The name of the place is Umi-batake which translates to “sea field” or “sea farm”. During the day they’re a noodle shop and at night they turn into an izakaya with lots of little dishes to choose from,** including a full page of different variations on yakisoba.

On the owner’s recommendation I got the ikasumi yakisoba, a plate full of stir-fried squid ink noodles, vegetables, the ubiquitous spam (Okinawa is practically Hawaii or a Pacific island in this regard).

Visually, the dish was striking – a stark contrast of the inky black noodles against the white bean sprouts especially, but also the rest of the only lightly cooked, still just-crunchy vegetables – onions, green capsicum, thin strips of shaved carrots.

The noodles themselves were thick and flat, linguine-like; I suspect they’re the same noodles used in Okinawa soba. They were perfectly cooked – just a little chewy – and I thought I could detect a little brininess in the flavour, though it was hard to tell.

Some yakisoba you get in Japan can be really strongly flavoured, with soy sauce or a thick, sweetish yakisoba sauce. This one, though, was what you’d call assari – lightly flavoured with just a little salt (and perhaps just a bit of soy sauce), almost refreshing. It was really easy to eat. Oishikatta!
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*it was really surprising that a place as small as Zamami (island population 645, no idea about the actual village but somewhat less) had so much really good food – we weren’t disappointed the whole time – but I guess there is enough diving tourism in the area to support all the restaurants and izakaya.

**other things we had, and really enjoyed: daikon salad, cucumber and local (raw) octopus marinated in kimchi, mozuku (a type of local sea vegetable) in a light rice vinegar, rice cooked in squid ink. All very, very good.

Day 8, Part 1: Yui the goatherd

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I’m riding my rented bike up a steep and winding hill road on the coast of Zamami island, getting ready to hop off and push it the rest of the way, when I hear the clank of bells and some rustling in the grass. Around the corner on the narrow road (and foraging in the bush lining it) is a small herd of rather large goats followed by a girl sweeping droppings off the road with a makeshift broom made from the handful of tall grass she’s clutching.

She says her name is Yui and she’s not from around here, she’s from Kanagawa in mainland Japan, but has been on Zamami for five months working at this place down the road, Robinson’s farmstay. Her time on Zamami is almost up and then it’s back to Kanagawa.

I say I’ve come from New Zealand and she says, so have these goats! I think. Or maybe from Australia. After this she’s planning on going to Australia for a working holiday, and maybe New Zealand too (do it! I say).

It’s a good pace of life here, she says. Her typical day usually goes like this: tidy the guest rooms in the morning, do some odd jobs around the farm. In the afternoon if she’s got a bit of free time she’ll take the goats on a walk. Where do you go, I ask. Oh, just up this road a bit further, and back again, wherever the goats take me.

She says she’s learned a lot from the goats, like the kind of plants they like to eat, and they’ve shown her some good spots around the island.

There aren’t many other young people around, she says, so it’s a pretty quiet life. There’s only a primary and middle school on the island, so once the kids get to high school age they’re all off to Naha. Most of them end up staying away, and few come back to live.

Another couple of curious onlookers has stopped by, so we say our goodbyes, and I continue the slow uphill slog.

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Day 7, Part 2: Sudou-san

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I didn’t get a photo of Sudou-san because I’d used up my phone battery taking way too many instagrams of the beach and sunset, so here is a poor drawing, sorry, I’m not an artist.

We came across Sudou-san sitting on a piece of driftwood on Ama beach at sunset, little tin pail of shochu at hand. We’d found these strange wiggly prints in the sand, and, wondering if they were from a snake or something, approached Sudou-san.

No, they’re from a bird, he said. Where are you from? And so we knelt down in the sand in the dwindling light and talked for the last few minutes of dusk.

Sudou-san is sixty-five, recently retired. He was camping on Zamami at the campsite just off Ama beach, just for a couple nights; he comes here often.

He lives in Naha with his wife, but they’re originally from Fukushima. After the quake last year their house was nearly flattened (it’s like this, he says, gesturing with a forearm bent sideways), then the nuclear disaster forced them to leave, so they settled in Naha. They like it there, it’s nice and warm, they can get away to a beach like this, the pace of life is good. But his wife doesn’t go out much, she hasn’t really made many friends.

Will they go back to Fukushima? He’s been back to visit once or twice, but whether they’ll move back, he doesn’t know.

He has a daughter in Tokyo and another in Los Angeles. When the quake struck last year, he says, the daughter in LA was the one who kept calling him, telling him to get out, get out, leave. So he did.

The camping’s good here, he says, he just gets the ferry over from Naha, sets up his tent, it’s 300 yen a night, it’s good to be close to nature. He goes back tomorrow, but he’ll come back again.
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Day 7: Aritaki-san

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Aritaki-san is getting ready to plant celery and cabbage seeds in her little garden plot she bought from the village years ago. The plants will grow through the winter season here, which, really, is still quite warm compared to most people’s notions of winter.

Behind her are some banana trees, but the typhoons come often and knock the trees down. So bananas don’t grow that well.

She bought the plot from the village back when they had divided up some of the unused land for residents to till, to sustain themselves a little bit. Her house is a few minutes’ walk away, in the village.

Aritaki-san moved to Zamami Island when she was four years old. She used to live on Palau, until after the war many of the Japanese were relocated back to Japan. She was only four, she doesn’t remember much of Palau.

(I had to Wikipedia this, but fact I didn’t know and am now sharing with you: Palau was under Japanese possession for the first half of the 20th century, when immigrants from Okinawa and mainland Japan settled in the colony; by 1935 Japanese made up about 60% of the population. After World War Two the Americans took over control and most of the Japanese were repatriated between 1945 and 1946.)

She has kids but they’ve all moved to the honto, the Okinawa main island. Her brother still lives here, though; he runs a little eatery down the road; we should visit him if we get a chance.

She’s not hot or uncomfortable doing this gardening; it’s hard work, but she does it for enjoyment as much as for the food.

Day 6: Okinawa soba, an initiation

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Okinawa soba. Uchinaa-suba. Or, in Okinawa, often called simply soba. It’s not soba as you or I know it; the noodles are made of wheat instead of buckwheat, the broth is a light, porky, salty soup and it’s topped with a big, fatty hunk of slow-cooked pork. I’m in Okinawa for the first time, and though I’ve eaten a lot of Japanese food in my life Okinawan food is mostly new to me.

My first bowl of Okinawa soba was from Kanouya (I think), a lively little Okinawan restaurant around the corner from our hotel in Naha. I’d just flown in, ravenous after a flight delay and a dull three-hour flight, and my mum (who had flown in on an earlier flight and eaten here for lunch) recommended this little place close by.

The restaurant is actually most famous for their prawns – we had some cold in a salad, and hot off the grill – but they also have a range of typical Okinawan dishes, and from this I chose the Okinawa so-ki soba, Okinawa soba with a big, fatty, boneless chunk of pork rib meat floating on top.

This is the perfect stamina-giving meal for someone doing physical labour or coming off a long flight: filling, fatty, but not too rich, the noodles satisfying to slurp, the broth packed full of flavour. It was a bit different from anything I’d tasted, but somehow familiar at the same time: a full-bodied smoky sweetness, rich with umami, with globules of pork fat floating on top.

(Now I understand ‘globules of pork fat’ might put some people off, but they really did add to the overall satisfaction levels I experienced eating this soup, and if you really wanted to, you could avoid them…)

The pork was falling-apart tender, very fatty, but again you could just pick off the meat if you wanted to. The noodles were thick and flat, almost linguine-like; they seemed to have been made from dried rather than fresh noodles but I’ll forgive Kanouya that, they are a prawn shop after all.