Okinawa Exile #1: An Embarrassment of Riches / 沖縄#1:大学院生避難所

At four p.m. last Friday, March 11, I landed in Naha Airport. I greeted my friend Sayaka, and she asked me if I had heard about the earthquake. About a day previous, there had been a long but mild tremor in Tokyo. The epicenter had been in the Northeast, and my friend in Sendai had changed his facebook photo to a cartoon of a namazu, the giant catfish of Japanese myth that lives under the earth and makes it rumble.

But Sayaka didn't mean that earthquake. She meant the one that hit shortly after I took off from Haneda Airport. She pulled me over to the television screen in the terminal. The tsunami had just hit the Northeast. Reporters were disheveled, and a map of Japan blinked red, pink, orange to indicate the tsunami risk along the coasts of the archipelago.

The plan had been to get in the car and head off to the north side of Okinawa, but the graphic on the news blinked away merrily, in pink.

We went back to Sayaka's place, and there we (with Sayaka's partner Colm) watched the news. Reporters were all wearing white helmets (and they would do this for a while), and slowly the first reports of casualties trickled in. It was so hard to know the magnitude of the disaster. Initially there were only reports of an elderly man who died of shock, or a woman gone missing in a supermarket. I guess I don't have to tell you in detail about subsequent developments, or describe the footage we've all seen of terrifying walls of water. I can't yet tell if the repeated viewings of the catastrophe made it feel more or less real to me...

My original plan was to return to Tokyo on Wednesday evening, but as we watched the footage coming from the nuclear plant in Fukushima, it seemed wise to extend my stay in Okinawa. From reports from friends in Tokyo, the fear and pressure from family, friends, and authorities from abroad were quite trying, and those who had the means to do so relocated to Western Japan or further. It seemed to improve their mental health, at the very least, and relieved pressure on the infrastructure in the capital.

In the past week, I've experienced too many emotions to relate here. Mostly, I'm so relieved that Christopher and Nori in Sendai are safe and are working hard to coordinate getting help to those in need in their community. I feel a little bit like I want to go home to California and get a hug. But I'm also eager to go back to Tokyo and get on with my life and research (and get a hug). But to all those worried about me: I could not be safer than here in Naha.

So it is a confusing, uncertain time. But one thing is for sure, even when the mind is mixed up, there is the body that needs to be taken care of, and fed. Nothing makes me happier than to have people to cook for... And now that Ryan has also joined this community of graduate school refugees (and brought my passport!), I'm happy to turn to the issue of food. So let's give words a break for a moment, and turn to more earthy needs...

Near the place where I am staying is a market. It's got a postwar black market feel. But alongside butchers that sell every cut of a pig and vegetable stands hawking their exotic foliage are small drinking establishments and hip coffee stalls.

The fishmonger I usually visit helps me pick fish based on what I want to make. The other day, when Ryan and I stopped by, he broke a baked sweet potato open for us, and we three stood around the trash can gnawing on the insides while throwing scraps of burnt potato skins into the can. We got a fish for a stew.

Here is the fish's head, after I unwrapped it from the newspaper:

With this, I hoped to make a Okinawa-inflected bouillabaisse.

Any visitor to Okinawa has probably noticed the bottled utchin-cha, or turmeric tea in stores and vending machines. At my market, I found fresh, dirt-covered turmeric:

It resembles ginger, but cut open reveals a lovely golden hue:

I made the soup base with this, local onions, garlic, Okinawan bacon... and the fish's head:

To this, I added tomatoes and the local yellow carrots:

Toward the end of the simmer, I added the rest of the fish.

I matched the stew with an island salad. The main green was handama:
Also wrapped in news. I thought it rather poignant, considered that I feel wrapped up in news myself these days, literally rolled up inside of all that information.

To this, I added some beans:
Opened up to find:

I simmered the shucked beans in salt water...and added them to the greens, with some shaved carrots, avocado, and sashimi that the fishmonger had insisted I take with me.

Rotating the pots (only one burner in these temporary lodgings), the soup was finally ready:

I reserved the fish head for Sayaka and I to dissect, since we are animals like that.
We picked it clean...

I'm truly embarrassed to be safe on this island, surrounded by such bounty. If only I could send them fish stew, or at the very least some beer (poor Christopher!)

I hope it doesn't come off as irreverent to those who are suffering from cold and hunger in the Northeast. To cook is the most powerful method I have to escape from the daily battering by the mass media, and it is with the deepest respect for the producers and the food itself that cook and eat.

In Japanese, the word used in the place of 'bon appetit' is literally the humble form for 'I eat.' With the greatest humility: itadakimasu.

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