Awamori is the celebrated spirit originating in and unique to the Ryukyu Islands (Nansei Islands in Japanese) of Okinawa. It is made from long-grain Thai rice, which historically has been used in this region. The Ryukyu Kingdom was independent and ruled most of these islands from the 15th to the 19th century.
The name Okinawa means ‘rope in the open sea’ which refers to this long swathe of islands between Taiwan and the four main islands of Japan. It consists of around 50 inhabited islands and more than 100 uninhabited ones. It was a tributary both of China and of Japan and a convenient portal for Japanese trade with China. When Japan officially closed its doors to all European nations except the Dutch, Nagasaki and the Ryukyu Islands became the only Japanese trading ports connected with the outside world. It has therefore had a more open nature and has developed its own culinary culture.
Short-grain rice is generally used for sake- and shochu-making in Japan, but Okinawa uses long-grain Indica Thai rice instead. Centuries ago the islands had easier access to this rice than products from the rest of Japan. It is thought that sake was brought to Okinawa from Siam around the late 14th to 15th century. Okinawa’s distilled Awamori liquor is the forefather of the more widely-known shochu which is popular throughout Japan. Unlike shochu, Awamori is made only from rice, where shochu can have other ingredients such as barley and sweet potato.
There are vintage Awamori bottles that are held in the same regard as fine whisky and wine, with age giving a richer and deeper taste. Those that are said to be aged more than 3 years are called Kusu (‘old liquor’), and are particularly popular. In reality it’s called Kusu when at least 50 percent of the beverage is aged for three or more years. It is distilled once, and afterwards the alcohol content is lowered with pure water to about 25 to 30 percent, although some Awamori is found at more than 40 percent alcohol. Awamori is traditionally aged in clay pots which is thought to improve its flavour and softness.
Some Awamori has been aged for decades and there are subterranean cellars that are used for keeping bottles that are bought to celebrate the birth of a child or other important events. The temperature in these caves is a little too warm to keep wine but they are perfect for Awamori. The most popular way to drink Awamori is with water and ice. It can also be drunk straight, on the rocks, and in cocktails. They tell me that you won’t wake up with a hangover, either.
Okinawa is an undiscovered gem, at least by non-Japanese. It has a delightful tropical climate with all the associated crops. The cuisine is a little different from the rest of Japan, with more influences from China. Awamori pairs perfectly with these dishes. These islands should be a magnet for any lover of good food and those interested in a slightly different aspect of Japanese culture. The chance to sip Awamori in its place of origin, and perhaps to see it made, would be special.
Other things to do in Okinawa:
Okinawan music is popular in mainland Japan and the three-stringed sanshin is a beautiful local instrument which could be a striking souvenir for any music lover. Kokusai-dōri, Naha city’s main street, is where it’s possible to find all manner of gifts including traditional and contemporary sanshin. Kokusai-dōri (‘International Avenue’) is a 1.6 kilometre-long street of shops, restaurants and assorted bars. Yes, there is the inevitable McDonalds but the majority of the stores and restaurants are local or Japanese.
The covered Heiwa-dōri Shopping Arcade and Makishi Public Market are the older and more colourful faces of Okinawan retail. There are souvenirs aplenty but also household goods, fabrics and toys. There are small family-run outlets that specialise in drink including awamori, snacks, tea and clothing. The food market is vibrant and bustling with people buying ingredients for dinner – glistening fish, still-live crabs, octopus, as well as condiments, local pickles, meat and vegetables. This will be the highlight of a visit for anyone looking for an authentic food experience.
Just outside the market is the Tsuboya or ‘pot jar shop’ area. This neighbourhood was once a major centre of ceramic production on the island and is still a magnet for those hunting for Japanese tableware or ceramics of any description. A whole dinner service might be too weighty to take back home but a set of chopstick rests would be light and affordable.
Most people will know of Okinawa from wartime documentaries. Historical World War II sites abound throughout the islands, especially the main island of Okinawa, commemorating the huge loss of life and conflict in the region. There is the Peace Memorial Park in Naha, the navy’s former underground headquarters, and the Himeyuri Monument.
Travel review by Chrissie Walker © 2018