Jazz and Jubilation in Kokusai Dori

Jazz and Jubilation in Kokusai Dori

Kokusai Dori

Kokusai Dori, roughly translated to International Street, is a hot spot for tourists in downtown Naha, the capital city of Okinawa prefecture. Unlike the rest of Okinawa, Naha’s composition leans more closely to the metropolitan cities of mainland Japan. The unremitting drone of cicadas is absent. The streets are leaner. Free parking lots have given way to their greedier cousin, pay by the hour parking spots. 200 yen an hour or 1200 yen a day a bright sign advertises (The prices aren’t mainland inspired at least). Multi-story buildings crammed next to one another reach plaintively towards the sky where there is room to breathe. More people are walking the streets or riding bicycles. Local attractions are within a reasonable walking distance or a city bus ride away. Unseen in the rest of Okinawa, a monorail glides by overhead. Its sleek metallic exterior gleams in the sun as it barrels forward unimpeded. The Toyota Will Cyphas and Daihastu Mira Inos watch enviously from below mired in traffic. The monorail heralds from a science fiction novel compared to the older breed of cars inhabiting the island.

Kokusai Dori’s exterior at first glance is what a tourist might expect. The main street is bustling with cars and people, and it’s lined with an abundance of local food stalls, souvenir shops, mainstream restaurants, and drinking establishments. A lot of western staples or Japanese chain stores make an appearance: Starbucks, McDonalds, Guinness, Big Echo Karaoke, Don Quixote, etc. What you’re really looking for, the unique local flavor, simmers beneath the surface. A shotengai, a large section of covered maze-like interweaving alleyways, branches off from the main street. Packed tightly within this complex are a plethora of additional businesses, distinctly more Okinawan and locally owned.

A woman near the entrance sells homegrown Goya juice in small plastic cups. She’s upright and cheerful with a short bob cut. She’s excited to discuss her world travels with foreign customers. Sedona, New York City, Europe, Thailand, the list impressively goes on. What’s more impressive is hearing she’s in her seventies. You can’t help but double take at her unwrinkled face. Naturally, she credits her genki (healthy) disposition to drinking Goya juice every day. My wife and I buy a cup.

Coming off Kokusai Dori into the shotengai, you’ll see plenty of tourists perusing the local goods. Travel a little deeper though and the pockets of English conversation begin to fade away. The overhead ceiling is more worn in these parts. Accumulated water from the rain liberally drips down below. With each passing step, your ears gradually register uproarious Japanese laughter and discussion. You’ve officially entered a small haven away from the international crowd. Mainly consisting of dining establishments, it’s noticeably more compact. There’s a friendly, communal atmosphere as the locals gather around and converse with one another. Space is such a commodity that there are few tables or seats at a lot of the eateries. A wooden bar encircles the front of a store and the patrons eat and drink standing up.

It’s 1100 on a Saturday and a man sits perilously slumped over on a stool outside an Izakaya (a casual Japanese bar serving alcohol and snacks) in this cozy section of the shotengai. His chin rests against his chest. As you get closer, he abruptly bolts upright as if a giant pulled at his hair. A large smile stretches across his face with shining red cheeks. “Welcome, welcome,” he implores in Japanese.

Further still towards the end of the shotengai are locals selling Okinawa-style bentos for criminally low prices. They lack the colorful fanfare of your store-bought bento variety. The bentos aren’t in compartmentalized black or red plastic bins. Instead, they’re in clear, flimsy plastic containers held together by a rubber band. The presentation feels more authentic than cheap. This is homemade food without all the superficial frivolities needed to inflate the price. The variety and taste (the taste!!!) further negates any erroneous assumption of inferiority. Lightly fried foods, meat skewers, fresh fish, goya, natto beans, seaweed, sea grapes, and pork and egg onigiri are just a few of the items on display. With a price tag of 250 yen (about 2 dollars) hovering over stuffed plastic containers, it doesn’t take much convincing to snatch a few while passing by (regardless of when you last ate).

Oceanside Blues: Jazz in the Big City

Rose Room

Rose Room is a charming diner hidden in the depths of Kokusai Dori’s shotengai. The door promises “Jazz and Music. Coffee and Tea.” Upon entering, you’re greeted by the familiar acrid, but simultaneously welcoming and nostalgic, aroma of an antique store. The smell is like playing dominoes at your grandmother’s mobile home. The music too. The smooth rhythm is reminiscent of the click of dominoes being pressed against a foldout table. Heavier notes are like the pins of the foldout chairs sliding into place. Everything in a mobile home is folded in on itself. The table folds in after dominoes. The cot in the living room folds in to become a weathered couch. These practical design choices allowed for the conservation of space and memories. Memories linger in drawers and dusty stacked cardboard boxes. The Rose Room on the other hand doesn’t try to hide its past from prying eyes. Everything is on display.

The small establishment is bursting with old-fashioned goods, vestiges of past lives. Yellow-paged books and records crowd the shelves that reach from the floor to the ceiling. Clocks compete with posters and paintings to adorn the walls. These clocks of varying designs and eras have long ago stopped tracking time, each of them frozen in their unique point in history. I wonder what happened at these versions of 5:12 and 2:50. Was it P.M. or A.M.? Was this small corner of the world rife with activity or barely stirring to greet the dawn? A narrow staircase, only fit for one person to navigate at a time, hides behind a shelf off to the left of the store as you enter. Old American comic books cover the right side as you climb. The width of the steps and closeness to the ceiling as you ascend imparts the sensation you’re headed to a small attic space. It’s a bit surprising then how much the second floor opens up. There are a few dining tables and against the back wall of the second story rests a yellow couch with a flower pattern. An acoustic guitar, propped up on the corner cushion, invites patrons to pluck at their strings. The jazz notes from the diner’s sound system are humming in the air.

Between 2 and 5 P.M., you can get a coffee and sweet pancake set for 550 yen. The sweet pancakes come out swiftly as the proprietor, an older Japanese gentleman, rushes up and down the small staircase to take your order. A small square of butter oozes on top. Accompanied by a sweet yellow syrup, it’s a perfect companion to the cup of bitter black coffee. The jazz tracks continue to play uninterrupted as you eat. The melodies invite lethargic, almost sensual, dining. The pancakes manage to be gone too quickly in spite of this.

Jazz Live Kam’s

Jazz Live Kam’s is hidden away on the second floor of a building overlooking Kokusai Dori. The wall facing the street is one continuous window. A black piano sits pressed up against the glass allowing passersby below to catch a glimpse of an ongoing performance. Tonight, Miyagi-san, an Okinawan native that spent a number of years abroad in Ireland and Canada, is at the helm. He was previously a student under the founder of the jazz bar, Hidefumi Kamura. His songs are long, complex, and exuberant. At points his fingers seem to be moving as quickly as a shredding guitarist. He speaks English fluently and jokingly remarks “like the Karate Kid” when introducing himself. Impressed by the length of his songs and lack of music sheets on the piano, my wife and I ask how he’s able to memorize all of the notes so well. “I mainly just improvise,” he says with a smile.

Improvisation. It’s a good word to describe the setting of the Rose Room and Kam’s. Like the Rose Room, Kam’s boasts an array of jazz inspired goods. The space is more open for the live instruments (two pianos and a drum set currently occupy the premier space near the window) and bar, but it is still bursting with character. Records, books, photos, and posters mingle about in the space swinging to the beat of the current performer. A large poster advertising the 1941 film Moon Over Miami oversees the festivities below. On it, a blonde woman in a bodycon dress arches her back with her hands behind her head. I’m not even sure if the movie is jazz themed, but her erotic gesture and attire seem appropriate in the hallowed space.

During the second set, the kind Japanese woman behind the bar, Kam’s wife, brings out her phone and small tripod to live stream the show. It’s a comforting mixture of new and old. With a 1000 yen (less than 10 dollars) door charge, available drinks and bar food, first set starting at 2130, and its location right on Kokusai Dori, this jazz bar is accessible to everyone making a trip to downtown Naha.

Parker’s Mood Jazz Club

A little walk off the main street will bring you to Parker’s Mood Jazz Club. An elevator ride to the fifth-floor teleports you away from the bright lights and raucous conversation of the downtown. Unlike the previous two establishments, the atmospheric presentation is leaner. 20th century heirlooms are absent or it’s possible they’re hiding among the shadows—Parker’s Mood is dimmer than Kam’s and Rose Room. After the small entranceway, the primary light source is candles at small, intimate tables positioned around a raised stage. Most of the tables are filled this Saturday night, but the hum of conversation is muted during the set. Voices rise during the interlude, but, influenced by the dim lighting, they remain reserved.

With another step out of the past, the growing popular restaurant iPad is at your table for ordering. A wide selection of drinks and food are available to order. The food is surprisingly diverse. You expect traditional bar food like edamame and nuts, but there’s also pizza, duck breast, beef stew, and pasta as well. A traditionalist might shirk at the thought of interacting with an iPad instead of the bartender, but this electronic communication allows for the ambience of the show to remain undisturbed. The bartender quietly approaches the table with orders and melds back into the surrounding darkness with no fanfare. The bar is positioned behind the tables, out of sight and mind. Throughout the night, no one willingly chose to sit there unless the tables were full.

Two guitarists and a standing bassist are tonight’s performers. They’re all a bit older and obviously have deep rooted chemistry playing with one another. Little body movements control the flow of the music. A slight nod and smile from one musician to another initiates a solo. An exchanging of glances among the three heralds the closing riffs. Between songs, the lead guitarist picks up a microphone and makes a brief comment about the upcoming track. No other words are spoken. No other words are needed as the music flows over the patrons like the ocean breeze.