The three drunken U.S. Marines who stumbled into my motorbike headlamps were clearly combat-trained, as their agility in shifting from advanced inebriation to performing a nimble leap onto the sidewalk suggested seriously attuned reflexes.
Although I didn’t hang around to make small talk as a volley of expletives exploded behind, I did resolve to return to Kin Town the next day to see what the place was really all about. Set beside a huge U.S. base a two-hour ride north from the capital city of Naha, it is surely one of the strangest places on Okinawa.
Opened in 1959, Camp Hansen is more modestly manned these days than during the Vietnam War, when it was the region’s busiest U.S. Marine Corps base, serving as a way station for soldiers en route to meet their fates in the jungles, training camps and bars of Southeast Asia. Like all U.S. bases in Okinawa, it is a self-supporting universe complete with a bank, barbershops, cafeterias, a theater, chapels, a dental clinic, a Burger King, a dispensary, an enlisted ranks’ club and a bowling alley.
Some may say the camp exemplifies the way Okinawans are accustomed to getting the rough end of a deal. Here, for example, U.S. military personnel have been shielded from Japanese environmental laws on the firing of live ammunition. Bombardments of mountain slopes from Camp Hansen has left much of this once green habitat stripped, and fauna either dead or displaced.
According to Masahide Ota, a former governor of Okinawa, large quantities of unexploded ordnance remain on the target sites — in stark contrast to Hawaii, where the military is required to immediately remove all explosive materials.
Trapped in a relationship of mutual dependency, the core town is nourished almost exclusively from the base. It’s hard to know who the vampires and body-snatchers of this nocturnal zone are: the young soldiers who pour into its illuminated lanes in search of hard liquor, steaks and female company — or the restaurant, bar and store owners, the Japanese and Filipina strippers, lap dancers and bar hostesses, known by the marines as “buy-me-drinkie girls,” who take them for everything they have.
The town is also known as Kinville, a name ripe with the promise of cozy bistros, boulevard cafes and refinement. But hard daylight delivers hard facts, and as dawn creeps in what emerges is not a pretty sight. Made for hangovers and regret, there are still plenty of people for whom Kin’s three principal seductions — food, alcohol and sex — are powerful, habit-forming stimulants.
Centered on a small but concentrated entertainment area, the town provides all of this and more. Given the income that must be derived from U.S. servicemen, the ruinous state of the buildings is puzzling — until you consider that they don’t have to impress in daylight. These are nocturnal habitats that benefit as darkness covers their imperfections while neon refreshes them.
When I visited, it was eerily quiet, a inert space like a locked-down zone. Denizens such as the Toni Restaurant, “exotic dance” venues, tattoo studios and the Johnny Wong GQ Tailor were shuttered, and would stay so until early evening. I thus repaired to the promisingly named Gold Hall, a place I’d read about before I arrived.
Hard by a limestone cliff in the main entertainment area, a ticket gains you entrance to the restaurant and bar, from where a passage descends into rooms stuffed with showcases of grotesqueries: polished stone and wood ornaments ranging from griffins to giant bunches of quartz grapes.
Getting lost in the maze is easy as the labyrinth snakes through the limestone caves and chambers before exiting onto exterior viewing platforms with garden furniture rendered in hefty stone and timber. From there, the hanging bonsai garden is an extraordinary sight, with miniature waterfalls, cycads, birdnest ferns and other plantings growing on the spiky cliffs.
Folkloric figures from the Japanese and Okinawan pantheon inhabit the garden, too: tanuki raccoon dogs, phoenixes, corpulent Chinese-style Buddhas and mythological goddesses. One viewing tower affords a fine prospect of a marble Statue of Liberty held on a cliffside by a steel frame. It’s all extremely kitsch, but thoroughly compelling.
While in Kin Town I hoped to visit Cafe Garamanjaku, run by Kiyoko Yamashiro, an enthusiastic and articulate advocate for an organic vision of Okinawan cuisine. The restaurant, a few kilometers out of town, looks prewar — an impression reconfirmed by the business card bearing a sepia image of the traditional Okinawan-style building. I was surprised that it was less than 20 years old.
Yamashiro said the name Garamanjaku comes from a Sanskrit word meaning “pure throat, good taste.” A champion of the healthy food common in the prewar era, she was scathing about trends in postwar Okinawa, the prefecture with the highest consumption of junk food in Japan — as well as a Guinness listing for the world’s largest taco rice, a 746 kg monster made in Kin Town. This concoction ranks alongside Spam, cheap canned pork luncheon meat introduced by the Americans, as one of the unhealthy staples now on local tables.
Yamashiro’s lunch menus, served on banana leaves, are notable for their extensive use of Okinawan herbs, with dishes based on the food typically consumed by prewar and early postwar peasant families. All the ingredients are vegetarian, and much of the food is from her own fields. The dish I chose came with a fresh glass of juice made from the rind of shikwasa, an Okinawan lime.
Voluble and expansive, Yamashiro was as happy to explain each ingredient at length as to talk about a book that inspired her own food philosophy. “The Okinawa Program,” by two American and one Japanese doctor, examines the phenomenon of long life among island elders, and what can be learned from their dietary habits and traditions.
Besides that taco rice, Kin’s other claim to fame is its excellent awamori, an Okinawan liquor distilled exclusively from long-grain Thai indica rice. The Kin Distillery produces a 43 percent brand named Tatsu Awamori, which is stored inside the Kin Shonyudo natural limestone caverns in the precincts of beautiful Kin Kannon Temple not 500 meters from the fence of Camp Hansen.
The caves provide ideal conditions for aging awamori, with the temperature a constant 17 to 19 degrees. Bottles are stored for five or 12 years, and are priced according to age. Thousands line the cave walls, many of them with tags bearing the name of their owners, who will collect them or have them delivered after maturation.
I wanted to see this natural cellar for myself and began to descend the slippery stone steps into the dank Stygian world, but halted in my tracks when, quite suddenly, I couldn’t see a thing. Standing in total darkness, I recalled that large snakes were reputed to live in these caves, so retraced my steps into the sunlight.
Back in the center of town, the sun remained high in the sky, the temperature withering. There were still no young women visible on the streets; only older ones airing the clubs, vacuuming stale rooms, running errands and ministering to the copious amounts of snacks and liquor that would be consumed in the evening.
A few gangs of local kids roamed between the super-heated blocks and along the base perimeters, heavily armed with water pistols and balloon bombs filled with colored liquid.
Just outside the town, Kin Okawa Springs is said to pump up 1,200 tons of water every day, an invaluable resource as the area has a year-round dry climate. I wanted to get my hands on some of that cool water, but there wasn’t time. Instead, I ducked into a bar that was just opening and settled for a bottle of root bear.
It was still early afternoon when I left. The English-speaking barman, in common with the handful of shopkeepers and cafe workers who keep their businesses running during the day, sent me off with a spirited “Have a nice evening” — as if by common consent the daylight hours did not exist, except as a minor prelude to night.
The town of Kin, on Route 329 and the Okinawa Expressway, is about two hours by road from Naha. Cafe Garamanjyaku ( 968-8846) is open daily 11.30 a.m. — 6 p.m. Gold Hall opens daily 9 a.m. — 8 p.m.; admission ¥800.