“Candy is Dandy…but Liquor is Quicker.” ~Willy Wonka


Japanese Hot Tub

Now THAT’s a Hot Tub

“I cook with wine, sometimes I even add it to the food.” ~W. C. Fields

“O thou invisible spirit of wine, if thou hast no name to be known by, let us call thee devil.” ~William Shakespeare, or, any one of the misinformed and less creatively inclined leadership in the modern US miliary

“Wine is bottled poetry.” ~Robert Louis Stevenson

The 'mo lights the 'mo better.  Regardless of the design....

The ‘mo lights the ‘mo better. Regardless of the design….

11922362203_bf0595c424_b11921945005_dd3ac4247c_bThe Itoman Peaceful Illumination Festival “Lights of Peace” is one of Okinawa’s most popular winter holiday events, drawing 50,000 visitors each year.  The venue, located in the south of the island near Itoman City, is beautifully if not haphazardly decorated with ~1.3 million lights, roughly representing the Okinawan population, and carrying the island’s hopes for peace through the night skies.  This year, as part of our New Year Day outing, we visited the 15th annual illumination, after spending the daytime hours at the nearby Okinawa Prefectural Peace Prayer/Memorial Park.

The Itoman Farm "Gift Shop," full of Liquid Holiday Cheer!

The Itoman Farm “Gift Shop,” full of Liquid Holiday Cheer!

img06wineI quickly and excitedly realized, however, the stroke of genius of the illumination’s hosts deciding on holding such an event.  You see, the venue is actually the “Itoman Wine Farm” (糸満観光農園), and although there is a small cover charge for admission to the illumination (250 yennies each), and without doubt their festival is a fun-filled, holiday-spirited family event, I couldn’t help but notice that they were doing a rather brisk wine and wine-related paraphernalia business on not quite the side, but front-and-center! image06p Jody and I were both surprised to find a winery here on Okinawa.  Having spent four years living among the people here, I had never come across or even heard of an indigenous wine made and bottled on the island.  However, Jody and I also both know that almost all places, no matter where you are, make and offer their own wine – although Florida and their local moscatos are barely edible – so shame on us for being so dumbfounded! img05 christs-sake

Sake:  Higher-End Beer Goggles

Sake: Higher-End Beer Goggles

Wine is usually made from fermented grapes, but can also be made from other fruits (fruit wines) or honey (meads).  Wines made from other such produce are named rather directly:  rice wine, pomegranate wine, apple wine and elderberry wine, for instance.  The term “wine” can also refer to starch-fermented or fortified beverages having higher alcohol content, such as sake, which most people immediately think of when they conjure up plans and schemes of imbibing in Japan. Sake or saké is a Japanese alcoholic beverage made from fermented rice, sometimes called “rice wine.”  However, the brewing process for sake is much more akin to that of beer, converting starch to sugar for use in fermentation.  So, in this sense, sake is not really a wine at all….  Sorry for raining on your alcohol-infused mental Far Eastern parade.  And to make things even more confusing, the Japanese language uses the word sake (酒, “liquor”) as a reference for most any alcoholic drink, while the beverage called sake in the West is usually here termed nihonshu (日本酒, “Japanese liquor”).

Okinawan Awamori, snake included.

Okinawan Awamori, snake included.

176759899_58cdf77ac4_z11412436355_31c144b435_bOn Okinawa, however, there is an obscure yet popular adult-oriented potion uniquely indigenous to Okinawa:  Awamori (泡盛).  It’s made from long grain rice, and is product of distillation rather than brewing, which makes it more like hard liquor than anything else.  All Awamori made today is from Thai rice, since local production in Japan is no longer sufficient to meet domestic demands (how shameful!).  Awamori is typically 60–90 proof, although the hanazake brand can be as high as 120 proof, making it flammable.  In any case, for all Awamori, the distilled result is typically aged in traditional clay pots to improve flavor and imbue a level of “mellowness.” The most popular way to drink Awamori is with water and ice.  When served in Okinawa, it’s usually accompanied by a container of ice and carafe of water.  Traditionally, Awamori was served in a kara-kara, a small earthen vessel with a small clay marble inside, which would make a distinctive kara-kara sound when the pouring vessel was nearly empty; it is very bad form and rude in Japan to pour from an empty vessel.   While still found on Okinawa, these vessels often now lack such distinctive clay marbles. All of these leads me to a funny tangent….

Drinking with the Boyz! I'm partially hidden at far left....

Drinking with the Boyz, circa 2000! I’m partially hidden at far left….

After months of this, I certainly could use the drink.

After months of this, I certainly could use the drink.

Mayumi - I'm surprised she still speaks to me!

Mayumi – I’m surprised she still speaks to me!

My first time on the island, between 1999-2001, I was the Officer-in-Charge of a detachment of air traffic controllers and operational air intercept specialists that I would serve with for six months at a time.  When not underway, they would live at the Habu Hilton on Kadena Air Base, and of course were a very long way away from home with little here to make them feel homey, let alone welcome.  So, for every det I hosted, I would hold at least one large party at my home, especially around the holidays and the middle of summer.  I, of course, would offer Okinawan Awamori for toasting.  Awamori here is sold in the coolest bottles, and in one-upmanship with Mexico, they have replaced that piddly little worm of same Latino fame with…a full-sized Habu pit viper snake.  Chew on that (before swallowing)!!  Not knowing any better, I would serve the Awamori like one would serve tequila, and my det Sailors, being on detachment and being sailors, would task me to keep up with them while shooting the shots.  Yes, alcohol was yet to be ordained another “Great Evil” in the service, although it certainly was seen already by the leadership as a lessor demon.  So, we would drink, laugh, eat, and drink some more.  And, we all had the worst hangovers the next day, the kind that put you down on the couch for most of the day!  It wasn’t until years later, when I was having dinner with a friend who was married to a Japanese woman Mayumi, that I learned my mistake.  When I took a shot of the Awamori I had ordered at the higher-end Japanese restaurant we found ourselves enjoying in South Beach (Miami), she was literally aghast at my behavior!  She explained that Awamori is to be savored and enjoyed, not gulped, and should always be cut half with water/ice, and then sipped….  It’s hard sometimes to not be the ugly American, even when you try.

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img02yimage01uThe Itoman farm, however, makes neither sake nor Awamori.  It does produce, however, several varieties of fruit wine, including acerola, passion fruit, and Sparkling versions of each, all made with produce grown locally on-island.  The Okinawans believe that acerola wine prevents aging and rejuvenates the skin, while passion fruit wine helps relieve fatigue.  I could’ve used some of this wine to cure my Awamori-induced hangovers.  If I had only known.

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Although no tours were being offered during the illumination, I understand they are available during more normal business times and hours.  Of course they do offer free tastings (some things are the same ‘round the world) in their traditionally red-tiled “wine house,” and have a nice souvenir shop where they of course peddle their wines, but also offer jars of fruit jams and spreads made out of local ingredients like sweet potato, acerola, pineapple, and passion fruit, to name a few.

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img01qimg01yThe Itoman Wine Farm is almost directly across the (main) street from Peace Prayer Park, making it an easy side-excursion.  The huge white windmills are nearly on the farm and are a key landmark to look for since they are simply unmistakable anywhere near the area.  There is plenty of free parking.  Miniature golf, pony rides and horseback riding, and greenhouses hosting fruit trees and local fauna can all be sampled as well daily from 10:00am through 6:00pm.

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Oh, and when it came time to leave the illumination well into the dark, we noticed some odd light beams shooting straight up skyward from the vicinity of the Peace Prayer Park.  We ventured to see, and what we stumbled upon was the “2nd Peaceful Searchlights,” where the park became wrapped in the solemn still and silent darkness, with five powerful beams of light projected skyward breaking through the atmosphere; each beam honoring the victims of the Battle of Okinawa from the five different countries and regions engaged in that conflict:  America, the United Kingdom, Korea, Taiwan, and Japan.  Lining the pathways of the park were literally thousands of circular battery-powered LED lights, each placed by hand, marking the way.  Only in Japan could such things be left open to the public without fear of being stolen, kicked, thrown, or otherwise molested.

And we hadn't even started drinking.  Yet.

And we hadn’t even started drinking. Yet.

Jody and I came home with I believe 4 or 5 bottles of Okinawan wine.  While we haven’t yet to partake of this find and discover what poetry this Okinawan potion portends, we are so very joyful to have a winery here to call home.  Our outing, complete with the Tomori Lion encounter (read about that here), our day on Mabuni Hill (an upcoming blog), along with the experience of an Okinawan holiday illumination and peaceful searchlights, was rightfully and wonderfully the Far East Fling flirtation with the first day of the New Year here in Okinawa, Japan.

Ride 2014 Like you Mean It, Jody!!

Ride 2014 Like you Mean It, Jody!!

Christmas is…for Lovers…in Japan


“Christmas isn’t a season. It’s a feeling.”  ~Edna Ferber

“A good conscience is a continual Christmas.”  ~Benjamin Franklin

“Christmas is a time when you get homesick – even when you’re home.”  ~Carol Nelson

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Christmas is one of the holidays that has most changed in Okinawa since my first here in 1999.  Back then, while not uncommon to see some Christmas items in the major department stores in December, it was uncommon to see wide-spread Christmas decorations and certainly surprising if a western Christmas carol was heard, especially in English.  Almost 15 years ago, what actually struck us most in terms of western traditions that had been imported to Japan was how utterly westernized weddings in Japan had become!

Andy Williams - an Okinawan Fav for the Holidays

Andy Williams – an Okinawan Fav for the Holidays

However, this Christmas in 2013 has been a real shock…in a pleasant yet strange 9-volt battery-on-the-tongue kindda way.  We are astounded at just how much more of our Christian holiday that the Okinawans and Japanese have smuggled from the West.  From the standard Christmas carol cannon in English played in almost every commercial venue (Rudolph is much more enjoyable in Japanese for some reason), to the sheer amount of stores, organizations and segment of the populace choosing to actively participate in seasons greetings, one could argue that our holiday spirit thrives innocently and cheerfully  here in Okinawa, Japan.

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However, what exactly does that spirit mean??

A central theme seems to be cute Santa helpers ....

A central theme seems to be cute Santa helpers ….

Seriously, it's almost like if you merged Halloween and Christmas!

Seriously, it’s almost like if you merged Halloween and Christmas!

No, not dirty dancing; making hearts with their arms and head!!

No, not dirty dancing; making hearts with their arms and head!!

For starters, Christmas here is not religious in nature, much like their “Christian-themed” weddings, the ones complete with crosses and long-trained white flowing gowns.  In a cliché, Christmas here is…for lovers.  It is a couples’ holiday (but becoming more family oriented), much more akin to our Valentine’s Day than of any other type of spiritual ceremony or ritual.

“Single Hell, Single Hell….”  It would make a nice seasonal ring-tone.

But think about it this way; replace the notions of a Christmas turkey and caroling through illuminated neighborhoods…with buckets of “Christmas Chicken” and well-dressed lovers on a date partaking in a local holiday “illumination” and you’ve got it about right.

Taken well BEFORE Thanksgiving....

Taken well BEFORE Thanksgiving….

If it's good enough for JAL....

If it’s good enough for JAL….

You see, in the 1970s, KFC – yes, Kentucky Fried Chicken – started to aggressively market itself as the chicken of choice as the culinary Christmas craving, which has become a much more broad representation of our (western) holiday.  It worked; when we visited KFC about two months ago, there were already large in-store displays about ordering holiday meals, and the statue of Colonel Sanders out front (which all the KFCs have here) was already in a Santa costume.  It’s odd to think about the God of Chicken (the Colonel has successfully approximated deity status in Japan) as a surrogate for Santa, but in a weirdly Japanese way, that’s exactly what he is here!

That's a pretty detailed...and full chicken schedule!

That’s a pretty detailed…and full chicken schedule!

BentOn-Christmas-cake-2013Another culinary holiday tradition here centers on a “Christmas Cake,” which is generally a store-bought (see a commercialized theme going here?), white cake topped with strawberries and often other garnishes which spank of the season, resulting in the prototypical red, white and green colors which visually represent Christmas so well.  At least where it snows and there are evergreen pines, which for the geographically challenged, does NOT include Okinawa.  Here in Okinawa you will find a small, local bakery in almost every neighborhood, and these shops literally pump out these cakes during this time of year.  I’ve heard rumors that the Okinawans compare people without a love on Christmas as about as sad as a leftover, unsold Christmas Cake:  while still attractive on the outside, stale tasting on the inside!  Lovers, such revolting people….  Let them eat cake!!

So we did.  With ice cream.

So we did. With ice cream.

Creepy Christmas Character

Creepy Christmas Character

Finally, one of the biggest things to do on Okinawa during this season is to visit an “illumination,” one sure way to tell that winter is at hand on a sub-tropical Pacific island!  These events are held all over the island, from private venues, to the major resort hotels, to some of the more popular themed and touristy attractions.  Illuminations provide a true glimpse of just how the Japanese interrupt our traditional and long-standing Christmas culture, complete with accurate if not humorous portrayals of Santa, his sleigh and reindeer, along with all the other Christmas elements and characters you could ever imagine…and then a few more.

Ready for the (Illuminated) Tunnel of Love!

Ready for the (Illuminated) Tunnel of Love!

Okinawa Holidays 2013, Zoo Illumination, Winter WonderlandWe attended the Okinawa Zoo Children’s Land “Christmas Fantasy,” an annual, one-of-a-kind holiday spectacle held the week before and after Christmas.  Here the landscape, in the middle of dense urban sprawl, is truly transformed into a wintry (or at least chilled & rainy) wonderland, where snow blowers produce snowfall on the walkways, pictures can be taken with real snowmen, and the kids can even go sledding or spoil for a snowball fight.  Okinawa Holidays 2013, Zoo Illumination, Churros in Japan!!They also host a “unique” laser show which is both weirdly corny and wildly fun as only the Japanese can produce.  While it rained steadily in a blowing gale the night we visited, the park remained crowded with couples well-dressed and clearly on more formal dates; it’s amazing the places that Japanese women will and do wear heels.  Carnival and state fair-like games, food and candies were plentiful, and I was soooooo excited to have our picture taken with a true Japanese Santa…who was tucked away, hidden in a dark alcove that built our suspense…who turned out to be…white…American…and from the Lancaster Dutch Country in Pennsylvania!

Frosty's been eating a little too much sushi....

Frosty’s been eating a little too much sushi….  Look it’s even snowing (wink)!!

Not Japanese.

Not Japanese.

Okinawa Holidays 2013, Zoo Illumination, Japanese cuties pose with SantaYep, as we entered the tent for our turn, I peered with all my might to see what the Okinawans would put forth as Mr. Claus.  Would he be worthy?  How would he sound with a Japanese accent?  Could they find a guy larger than life, or at least over 6 foot and 200 pounds to properly pull off the rule?  As all these queries were racing around my head right alongside the sugarplums (and who knows what those are anyhow?), I hear, in a distinctly mid-western yet American accent, “Merry Christmas.”  What a tick!!  What the frack?  I respond, “Hey, that sounds mighty American!”  The response, which tinkered on stealing Santa away from me AGAIN, was, “Yup, straight from the Dutch Country in Lancaster County….”  What are the odds….

Our Non-Japanese Okinawan Santa

Our Non-Japanese Okinawan Santa

We had planned to attend the Itoman Wine Farm “Peace Illumination Festival” in Itoman City today, but the weather kept us away as of publishing (winter storm…less the snow and ice, oh, and loss of power and whatnot).  This annual event hosts the largest illumination at 1.3 million lights, representing the population of Okinawa, which carry the people’s collective hopes for peace to the world.  Itoman City and the entire southern part of Okinawa Island were subjected to fierce battles at the end of World War II and were the scene of horrific carnage, and the area is dotted with peace monuments such as the Himeyuri Monument and Peace Memorial Park.  Thus, this festival recognizes the awfulness of a savage past while displaying a radiant hope for the future.

A Christian Angel in Okinawa...riding a banana?  Wow!

A Christian Angel in Okinawa…riding a banana? Wow!

Person-to-whom-Ochugen-and-Oseibo-are-sentWhile gifts are not exchanged per se on Christmas or in relation to our own gift-giving tradition as a spiritual birthday celebration, the Japanese do have an end-of-year gift giving tradition called oseibo.  But don’t confuse this with the mid-summer gift-giving custom called ochugen!  In Japan, it’s custom to give gifts – or have major department stores or the Post Office deliver them – in December (usually by the 20th) to co-workers, bosses, relatives, teachers, and close friends.  Generally, these gifts consist of traditional hams, fancy cooking oils, gift certificates, higher-end beer, gourmet coffee, Asian seasonings, Okinawan seaweed, and perhaps even seafood and unique fruit arrangements.  It seems everyone has their version of fruitcake!

Really, Beer??

Really, Beer??

The presents generally cost anywhere from 3,000 to 10,000 yen (roughly $30-$100).  An interesting note about oseibo is that the most expensive gifts are usually reserved for bosses!  Talk about awkward by American standards:  “I’m sorry Naomi, your end-of-year gift wasn’t up to my standards, we we’re going to have to let you go….”  On each oseibo gift is placed a thin paper called noshi on which the word “Oseibo” is written.  The Japanese are, if anything, elegant and graceful in most ritualistic traditions they exercise.

Ritualistic grace & beauty

Ritualistic grace & beauty

Christmas Even in American Village, Mihama

Christmas Even in American Village, Mihama

Although we are indeed “home” now here in Okinawa, well rooted and seeking our own niche, I can’t help but also feel homesick this time of year.  Although our Far-Eastern inspired Christmas “half-tree,” the subject of an upcoming blog of its own, was certainly wonderful to plan, shop for, and decorate with Jody, it was not shared with very many.  We did start a new traditional Christmas Even dinner by eating Sushi at Mihama’s American Village with a few close friends, something akin to the Parker family going out for Chinese Duck visa vie A Christmas Story…less the tragedy involving the dogs eating our non-existent turkey.  And while we do have Christmas lights up on our 5th story balcony, and as entertaining and wonderful the Okinawan illuminations are, I still find myself drawn to “home” and the culturally, spiritually rooted traditions that have become so ingrained over almost five decades.  Jody and I will always find ways to celebrate on our own as Lovers so often do.  Just know that our friends and family are sorely missed this time of year, a time when friends and families should strive to be together.  If not in body, certainly in mind and spirit.

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So, in the spirit of the season wherever you happen to be, ring up some coworkers, cohort with your cronies, share an intimate moment with a loved-one, or just cuddle with a favorite furry friend.  Whatever you do, just do all you can to make sure you never become one of those dreaded leftover, unsold stale Christmas cakes!!

Single and 27 = Stale Leftover Cake....

Single and 27 = Stale Leftover Cake…from the Lucky Star 11 Anime Series.  Seriously.