The current CNN incarnation of Anthony Bourdain’s food and travel show is now in it’s sixth season and for the third episode the witty, sarcastic and profanity-using American chef/TV personality returned to Japan. However, this time the destination was Okinawa; the most southerly prefecture which has somewhat surprisingly featured very little when it comes to the likes of American and British TV shows featuring Japan.
Bourdain is no stranger to these shores having visited many times over the years on previous shows like ‘A Cook’s Tour‘ and ‘No Reservations‘ but this was the first time he’s ventured as far south as these few dozen small islands that lie 400 miles south of mainland Japan. This episode aired on CNN this Sunday just gone (Oct 11th) with Okinawa following on from episodes on Cuba and Marseilles. The remainder of the season will continue on to Ethiopia, San Francisco Bay Area, Borneo, Istanbul and Charleston is South Carolina.
You can watch the episode here
Most of the content in this programme was new to me as I have only ever visited some of the prefectures smaller islands rather than staying on the main island. It is no real surprise to hear that it is more laid-back, less frenetic self-serious attitude of the mainland. First up was a spot of tōgyū (bull sumo) which sees the heavy animals fighting against each other rather than versus a human and dates back to the 17th century. Like watching any other sport in Japan, there is a range of food on sale at the arena and Bourdain enjoys yakisoba (wheat flour noodles) whilst watching this native spectator sport.
Mention any place in Japan to it’s inhabitants and it’s likely that they will tell you something about a local delicacy in that place. This obsession for food is very different to my own country’s and though it took a while to get used to it, I am glad to say that I have grown interested in such stuff too. For Okinawan’s, pork is king and every part of the pig is cooked in various delightful, interesting ways for the presenter to enjoy. It’s a tough job at times!
If it taught us nothing else, ‘The Karate Kid Part II‘ (1986) informed us that Okinawa is the birthplace of karate. Bourdain summarises it as a place with a fighting tradition and a history of ferocious resistance in reference to it’s role towards the end of WWII which played witness to some of the most horrifyingly bloody battles. It is pointed out that more people lost their lives in the war on Okinawa than both the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
After coming ashore in 1945, the US military have seemingly never really left and today there are about 30,000 troops stationed in Okinawa. It has been asked to make a lot of sacrifices for the mainland and having lost around 25% of its population in the final months of the war the disproportionate number of U.S. military bases on such a small set of islands has for a long time now been a sore topic.
There have been countless protests over the years as many locals still feel bitter about the sacrifice and think that they are treated as second-class citizens by the central government. Bourdain seems determined to explore the reasons for such activity whilst engaging in a number of sit-down meals with various Okinawan folk including a former governor where some very traditional Okinawan dishes are served up at a home-cum-restaurant.
Over the years Bourdain has been no stranger to a spot of martial arts action and it’s no different for him in this episode which has a few different sections throughout showcasing some of Okinawa’s long and glorious traditions. In one scene he witnesses a fairly brutal warm-up with exercises designed to repeatedly punish your hands and feet in ways that nature surely never intended but of course it’s designed to build up something or another.
As well as Okinawan-style soba, Bourdain also samples taco rice; a dish created over the years having been adjusted for American taste in parts. This meal is one which I have a great fondness for and one that brings back memories of the first meal my wife ever cooked for me. In Okinawa, it is loved equally by both locals and North Americans missing home.
As I expected, Lawson convenience store featured yet again (as it did on ‘No Reservations – Japan: Cook It Raw‘ and ‘Parts Unknown: Tokyo‘. Originally I thought this must be some kind of commercial tie-in with the chain (and that may still be so!) but it seems that it’s more to do with Bourdain’s affection for their fluffy egg salad sandwiches which he confesses to being a kind of guilty pleasure far removed from his past vices.
Dojo Bar is supposedly a well-known bar that is frequented by locals and foreigners alike and it is here that Bourdain and some karate people indulge in what he refers to as the best cure for martial arts ailments; alcohol! He must have tried just about everything over the years but his face is still quite the picture when his host pulls out some Okinawan sake with a huge snake in the bottle!
As is usually the case, these featured parts of Okinawa are most probably very known by the locals but as the programme is aimed at the millions of CNN viewers in the USA and around the world it really is a case of this Japan being very different to the mainland one which people like myself think they know! There really is far more to Okinawa than the WWII stuff associated with it and this programme did well to inform it’s viewers of the Japan which maybe they don’t know.
Click here to read about ‘Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown – Tokyo‘
Click here to read about ‘Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations – Japan Cook It Raw‘
Click here for a list of TV shows and documentaries about Japan