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Okinawa Paradise: A laid-back taste of Ryukyu culture

by Robbie Swinnerton

Contributing Writer

The earthly delights are numerous and varied in Kabukicho, Shinjuku’s notorious, though now mostly scrubbed-up, red-light district. The pleasures offered at Okinawa Paradise, though, are strictly wholesome.

As the name proclaims, the focus at this laid-back, old-school izakaya tavern is on the food and drink of the Ryukyu Islands, in Japan’s southernmost prefecture of Okinawa. Long a crossroads on the ancient maritime trading routes, the cuisine and culture there are distinctly different from the rest of the country.

The widespread use of pork in virtually every dish; the exotic fruits, vegetables and even seaweeds that grow in the subtropical southern climate; even the noodles are prepared and eaten quite differently from regular ramen. Just stepping into Okinawa Paradise you feel you are closer to the Asian mainland.

The menu is neither extensive nor sophisticated. As at most Okinawa restaurants, the “simple is best” approach rules. Where to start? Helpfully, the top-10 most popular dishes are listed on a single page, so you can directly home in on the greatest hits.

These include umi-budō seaweed, so called because it resembles miniature bunches of grapes that release their briny tang as you bite on them; rafutei, chunks of pork belly slow-simmered until moist and tender — though here not cooked so soft you can cut the meat with your chopsticks; and, of course, gōya champuru, the classic Okinawa stir-fry jumble of tofu, pork and slivers of dark green bitter melon, here generously enhanced with extra portions of spam.

You will also find a few original flourishes. Okinawa Peperoncino is an in-house take on yakisoba, with griddle-fried noodles taking the place of spaghetti, plenty of garlic in the seasoning and topped with the ubiquitous gōya melon slices.

Many customers dispense with the menu totally. They come in groups, ordering in advance one of the set meals, along with a nomihōdai (“all you can drink”) option. Once you’ve downed a couple of tropical cocktails, all based on the local firewater, awamori, you’re ready to party.

And here is the other reason why Okinawa Paradise has built up a strong and dedicated following over the past decade. Every night there is a live performance on the sanshin (a traditional three-string banjo), accompanied by the plaintive style of singing known as shima-uta, the songs of the isles.

The man behind the instrument — he uses an amplified version — is Shingo Tamaki, the master of the house. A native of Kuroshima, a small island in the far southwest, he cuts a charismatic figure in his bright floral Hawaiian shirts, cut-off jeans and spiffy orange fedora. He likes to improvise his lyrics, often poking gentle fun at mainland Japanese or non-Japanese in general.

Tamaki also brings people up on stage if it’s their birthday, and gets the audience to sing and clap along. More than anything, it is this loose, easygoing sense of fun, of participation and enjoyment, that allows Okinawa Paradise to live up to its name.

Set menus from ¥3,300; Okinawa soba ¥850; drinks from ¥500; Japanese menu; some English spoken