Night & Day: When traveling to Japan, Tokyo and Okinawa provide two distinctly different settings
Stars and Stripes | .
published: July 27, 2016
Editor’s Note: For the purposes of this article, “Tokyo metro area” or “Tokyo” will be used to refer to both the Tokyo metropolitan area and the areas containing Yokota Air Base, Yokosuka Naval Base, Atsugi Air Station and Camp Zama. These installations contain the bulk of U.S. Forces stationed in mainland Japan.
YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE – As a single, 20-year-old servicemember fresh out of military occupational school in 2007, I was excited to discover my first duty station would be Okinawa. I was ecstatic to be stationed overseas, and I looked forward to exploring Japan. Okinawa did not turn out to be the Japan that I was expecting. Instead of crowded streets, tall skyscrapers and trendy shops, I discovered beautiful beaches, quiet, charming restaurants and a very relaxed and laid-back way of life. As I never made the trip to mainland Japan, Okinawa became “Japan” to me, and was what I would describe every time I was asked about my experience in the Land of the Rising Sun.
Roughly a year ago, I received orders back to Japan after a six-year absence. This time I would be stationed on the mainland, not Okinawa, and I would be returning as someone older with a wife and infant son. I felt pretty confident about my ability to quickly re-adjust to Japan, but was quickly surprised to see that the Tokyo metro area was almost another country compared to Okinawa. The people, the culture, the space – everything was very different. I quickly discovered many strong differences between the two areas.
Living space and population density
One of the most abrupt differences for me was living space or the lack of it. Okinawa, especially Naha, its capital and biggest city, is a bit denser population-wise compared to a lot of suburban or rural areas in the U.S., however it is nothing compared to Tokyo. People are everywhere here. I find myself constantly checking to make sure I’m not bumping into or tripping over someone. It’s not unusual to wait in lines for elevators or to struggle to find restaurants that have enough space to accommodate my son and his stroller.
Trains are crowded, and I generally find myself standing, smooshed into other people. I rarely experienced these issues in Okinawa, even in Naha. During evenings, I would be out walking and could only see a handful of people. On the monorail circling the city, 99 times out of 100 I would have a comfortable place to sit. And I definitely never, ever waited for an elevator.
I feel that the higher population density of the Tokyo metro area adds more stress to the mix, but it also makes life more exciting. If I was younger and single, I would probably appreciate living in a place with such a large, energetic population. But as someone who is married and has a young son, it’s very tiresome.
Availability of American goods and English usage
On Okinawa, English is fairly common. Obviously, the farther away you get from the bases the less common it is, but you have to travel pretty far. Many bars and restaurants near bases have English menus and accept American currency.
On foot, you’d have to walk maybe 20 or 30 minutes before anything in English isn’t seen or heard. This is not the case on the mainland. Even on Yokosuka Naval Base, I can walk 10 minutes from the gate and English usage dramatically drops off to almost none. Also surprising is how many businesses from America (or other foreign countries) are available in Tokyo.
On Okinawa, many businesses appeared to be local, and most foreign franchises seemed to be fast-food joints or Starbucks. I was very surprised during my first few days in Tokyo to hear someone mention they were going to Costco. Nothing like that existed on Okinawa during my time there. Costco, Ikea, North Face, Eddie Bauer and many other stores are fairly common in the urban areas of mainland Japan.
Enjoying the outdoors
It’s fairly easy to enjoy the outdoors on Okinawa. You’re generally never far from a beach. In fact, Marine Corps Base Camp Kinser and the Army’s Torii Station are located right on the ocean. You can visit the beach without even leaving the base. The beaches are also gorgeous; the sand is pure white and the oceans are a wonderful shade of blue. Fishing, kayaking, scuba diving and other such water activities are easily available. There are also plenty of opportunities to go hiking or just explore the jungle.
In comparison, the Tokyo metro area doesn’t have as much to offer in the way of the outdoors. Although there are rural parts of Japan, they require some time, effort, and planning to get to for people living in or near Tokyo, especially if you don’t have a car. You may have to travel a couple of hours before you get to something that you could reach in just 30 minutes on Okinawa. Some U.S. bases, such as Misawa Air Base or Sasebo Naval Base, are located in more rural areas of Japan, but the bulk of military forces on mainland Japan tend to be concentrated in the Tokyo metro area.
To the surprise of many foreigners, a majority of the beaches on the mainland, especially those around the Tokyo area, are not as clean as you’d expect. And during peak season, they can be overcrowded. On the other hand, Okinawans tend to have a strong relationship with the ocean and the environment and generally take better care of their beaches than what you find in the Tokyo area. Beaches are rarer in the Tokyo area, so a lot of people tend to flock to them when the weather is good. So get there early. If you do find an outdoor activity in the Tokyo area, expect to pay heavily for it and deal with crowds.
Here is an area where Tokyo has Okinawa beat, hands down. The nightlife on Okinawa is fairly weak. First, there are really only two cities worth mentioning on Okinawa that aren’t heavily associated with a military base: Nago in the north and Naha in the south. Nago has a population of roughly 62,000 and Naha has a population of roughly 321,000. Neither of these cities are powerhouses.
All the other major cities on Okinawa are somewhere around 100,000 people or less. The drinking and entertainment districts outside the bases are mostly geared toward younger, single servicemembers, so anyone who is older or married probably won’t enjoy them as much. Even Naha isn’t a super-happening place. That isn’t to say Naha is bad. I personally like more medium-sized cities, but Naha isn’t going to be the spot to find the latest hot trends or world-renowned clubs. Outside of Kokusai Street, which is its main strip, much of Naha is fairly quiet and is composed of a lot of seemingly neighborhood-based bars.
Obviously, Naha peaks in the summer and during tourist seasons, but even then it pales in comparison to Tokyo. I don’t go out very much at night anymore, but I recently spent a bit of time in Roppongi and was surprised to see packed bars and restaurants even late on weekday nights. Tokyo is definitely a city that never sleeps, whereas I’ve been on many Naha streets where I was one of only a handful of people out at night. Tokyo is also a very trendy city and boasts fashions and establishments that are known around the world. Tokyo has plenty of bars for foreigners, so there are many opportunities to hang out with people from other countries who aren’t servicemembers.
Interactions with local people
In mainland Japan, a lot of my interactions with Japanese people have been brief but polite. I’ve generally gathered that a lot of Japanese are simply not familiar with foreigners and aren’t sure how to act. They are often slightly uncomfortable around Americans or other outsiders. For example, on trains, people generally will go out of their way to make sure they don’t have to sit next to me. Generally, mainland Japanese seem to be fairly indifferent towards foreigners. This is mostly because there are so few of them in mainland Japan that many Japanese have limited interaction with them. On Okinawa, however, servicemembers are very common off-base. This has led to many Okinawans forming strong opinions about foreigners, for better or for worse.
On the positive side, I’ve met many friendly Okinawans and even had Okinawan friends. In bars, many Okinawans would invite me to drink with them. Americans are generally welcomed warmly at local festivals and celebrations. On the other hand, some Okinawans have formed very negative opinions of Americans and have developed a dislike for them. I’ve witnessed Okinawans wearing anti-U.S. military logos or slogans, seen Okinawans yell at Americans to go home and have had friends screamed at and denied service by Okinawan business owners simply for being American. It’s also worth mentioning that while the U.S military’s occupation of mainland Japan ended in 1952, the occupation of Okinawa by U.S. forces lasted until 1972. This has contributed to feelings of resentment among some Okinawans, especially those who are old enough to remember the fighting on Okinawa or the occupation era.
Traditions and culture
First, let me say that pretty much everywhere I’ve visited in Japan has been a unique cultural experience. However, I feel Okinawa tends to have more distinct customs and traditions than the mainland. Both places have temples, shrines and people eating with chopsticks. Generally speaking, culture in mainland Japan seems to be consistent throughout the country, whereas Okinawa has some cultural aspects that are unique to their island. Bullfights, Sanshin music, Shisha dogs and Habu sake are all things that, for the most part, can only be experienced on Okinawa. Sure, you can buy Habu sake in mainland Japan, but it simply isn’t the same as buying it from a small local vendor on the island where Habu snakes originate. Okinawa also seems to be less commercialized than most of mainland Japan and the buildings tend to be older (in a good way). Okinawa always seems more “foreign” to me than the Tokyo, and that’s something I enjoy.
Most people living on Okinawa tend to be from Okinawa, which contributes to a strong sense of Okinawan identity. In comparison, many residents of the Tokyo metro area are from all over Japan, so the concept of a single “Tokyo Culture” is less present. Tokyo is a lot like New York City or London, in that it is more of a “global” city and has fewer native residents and more people from various parts of the world.
Overall, both are great places to live and visit, but they cater to different types of people. If you like the outdoors, peace and quiet, have a family or love the ocean and old traditions, then Okinawa is the place for you. If you are single, like fashion, fancy clubs and restaurants, large department stores or being in an area that sets trends, then the Tokyo is the place for you. At the end of the day, both places are worth a visit regardless of who you are. If you are stationed in mainland Japan, come to Okinawa and relax on the beaches. If you are stationed on Okinawa, come enjoy the hustle and bustle of city life in Tokyo.