Squeezed between the docks and the river, “Little Okinawa” in Tsurumi Ward is home to one of Honshu’s largest Ryukyu communities. Its estimated 30,000 residents arrived here in two distinct waves. The first fled an island-wide famine in the 1920s, and the second came after World War II had reduced their farms and homes to ash and rubble. While the push factors may have been different, the pull was the same: the promise of work in Yokohama’s Keihin factory belt.
Despite the recent economic downturn, Little Okinawa is still very much an industrial neighborhood. Trucks haul freight to the harbor and machinery pumps and wheezes behind the doors of dozens of small workshops. Two hundred yards along Naka Dori, I spot my first sign of the area’s Okinawan influences: a vending machine stocked with mango and goya teas and the island’s ubiquitous Blue Seal chocolate drink.
Close by is the Okitsuru Mart supermarket, where Tokyo day-trippers pick through racks of Ryukyu CDs and mobile phone straps. Any suspicions that this is merely a souvenir store are forgotten when one of the tourists runs screaming from the frozen food section. Bracing myself, I go to see what surprised her. Behind the freezer’s glass is a row of whole pig’s faces—with their wrinkled foreheads and upturned noses, they resemble chubby children staring through the frosty window of a candy store. Next to the freezer are less grisly staples of Okinawan cooking, including shelves of bright green papaya and purple sweet potatoes, packets of sea grapes, and cans of Tulip luncheon meat.
As I’m browsing the selection of awamori liquor, the shop’s manager brings in a tray of freshly fried sata andagi donuts. A swarm of elementary school kids emerges from thin air, but I hold my ground, and I’m able to scoop up one of the spherical treats before they’re all taken.
Standing outside the store, munching on my crumbly prize, I find my appetite whetted. The area hosts over a dozen Okinawan eateries, and I ask the kids which they recommend. They reply with a cacophony of different restaurant names, but after a few minutes, a consensus finally emerges: “Ha-chan.”
When I slide open the doors of the small bungalow store, I discover that the kids aren’t the only fans of this place. It’s just opened for the evening, but Ha-chan is already packed with construction workers and dockhands. On the advice of the owner, I order tebiki (pig’s trotter) soba. The noodles are flat and chewy and the hog’s feet succulent. The owner hands me a bowl of pickled goya. “Service,” she says with a smile. The laborer next to me slips a finger in and out of his fist and gives me a lecherous wink: “For stamina.”
My walk back to Tsurumi station takes me past an elementary school, where one of the neighborhood’s two eisa troupes is practicing a traditional Okinawan dance. Dressed in purple and yellow, 20 men and women beat drums and wave large flags as they stamp their feet on the dusty ground. A handful of elderly men watch the dancers from the shade, occasionally letting out an encouraging whistle or a puppy-like “hup-hup.” One of them forces a can of Orion beer on me, and once I’ve finished drinking it, he tops it off with a slug of awamori strong enough to bring tears to my eyes. After he’s stopped laughing, he points towards the can, then towards the dancers: “Okinawa style.”
I nod. This neighborhood is a world away from the resort hotels and white sand beaches of holiday brochures, but it’s indistinguishable from the backstreets of Naha or Nago. To be sure, Tsurumi’s Little Okinawa is rough around the edges, but chances are it’s more interesting—and closer to home—than any safely packaged island tour.
Tsurumi can be reached on the JR Keihin Tohoku or Keikyu lines. “Little Okinawa,” which is centered around Naka Dori street, is a 20min walk from the east exit of the station, or a five-minute bus ride (#27), getting off at Ushioda Jinja-mae. Okitsuru Mart (3-74-14 Nakadori, Tsurumi-ku; 045-502-9303) is open daily 10am-8pm. Ha-chan (1-8-8 Hamacho, Tsurumi-ku; 045-503-1587) is open Wed-Mon 11am-2pm and 5pm-midnight. The annual Naka Dori “Michi Junee” festival will be held from 5pm on Aug 22, replete with eisa dancers, traditional Okinawan sumo and a wide range of island food stalls.