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Thursday, December 22, 2005

Little Okinawa in Osaka


December brings the first real cold weather and the Bonenkai season to Japan. Bonenkai--literally "forget the year party"--are year-end parties held with colleagues or friends, and basically an excuse to get smashed. With some of Soccerphile.com's Japan-based staff, I recently spent a rowdy night in Osaka's Little Okinawa.

Located in a desolate part of south Osaka far from any train or subway station, Little Okinawa is not much to look at. En route, we were more than a bit skeptical. A "great bar!" had been recommended to us by a Japanese client whose judgment had to this point been nothing short of perfect. He had moreover gone to the trouble of making reservations for us, and so off we were.

Little Okinawa in Osaka Riding south in a bus--a bus!--from Taisho Station on the Osaka Loop Line, we wondered if our esteemed friend might be losing it. We got off at the appointed stop, and neither human nor stray dog was to be seen. A cold wind blew up from what appeared to be an abandoned factory.

Around the corner, though, was a telltale sign: a storefront decorated in the bright reds and blues and yellows of Okinawa. This was definitely not a mainland Japanese bar. Uruma Goten is a landmark restaurant and bar where local Okinawans come to play and dance.

Osaka is home to the largest population of Okinawans outside of Okinawa Prefecture. Japan's southernmost prefecture is a group of islands that stretch almost to Taiwan, and is the poorest of Japan's prefectures. For decades many of its young have left to find work on the mainland, Little Okinawa in Osakawith most of them ending up in Osaka. In addition to US military bases, beautiful weather and scenery, the longest-lived people in the world, Okinawa is known for producing great music.

Shima no uta, or Okinawa island songs, feature wonderful high-pitched female vocalists with ethereal voices. They are accompanied by men playing three-stringed shamisen and a female drummer pounding on a large taiko drum. Everyone in the bar (but us) knows the words--in both Osaka and Okinawa dialects--and sings along.

Thanks to a lot of Orion beer and an Okinawan sake in which a poisonous snake marinates to add flavor, the entire bar of 100 or so, from age 20 to 80, is dancing along with the music, either on the stage with the band or on the tatami mats on the floor where tables are set up. The band "gives up" at 11, and everyone calls it a night, drenched in sweat.

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