Dance Hall Bar Thank You isn't all Reggae, with a calming yet innovative cuisine (Photo: Bonson Lam)

Sakaemachi After Dark

Four Hours on a stool, Four Friends

Dance Hall Bar Thank You isn't all Reggae, with a calming yet innovative cuisine (Photo: Bonson Lam)
Bonson Lam   - 6 min read

Sakaemachi is a miniature Showa period town filled with alleyways and hundreds of pubs and hole in the wall eateries, where liveliness and darkness coexist, making it a curious discovery day and night, like an odyssey in multiple acts.

Act 1 - Day Time

At midday it looks lifeless, abandoned, unkempt, like being in your teenager’s bedroom the morning after. Shelves bent with the weight of time, and posters that look dog eared around the edges.

One of the charms of visiting Sakaemachi, is that it is like going to your childhood. To a time when ma and pa stores ruled, with simple old toys that are all play and no pretence.

In the rabbit warren that is the Sakaemachi markets, there are over 130 shops and eateries that is largely a hold out against twenty-first-century progress. One that still feels like as it was, in the mid-twentieth century. One that doesn’t abide by the political correctness of this current era, they call it as it is. Fancy some Chiirichi, or Goats blood soup? If that was lost in translation, they even dot the eatery with a cute picture of a furry goat, like something straight out of a children’s bedtime story.

Part of the reason why the signs look unkempt, may be because the shopkeepers are venerating the past generations that opened these stores. It is like if they were to come back at Obon, they can find their way back and reunite with the land of the living.

This market square, or rabbit warren, has been sustaining life for centuries. Nearby is the Asatogawa, a fresh water stream which flowed into Naha Port from Shuri which meant that coral was not formed in the port. Possibly this is why the market is founded here, close to market gardens for vegetables that were thirsty for water.

Actually, these markets were rebuilt, phoenix like, in 1955, and these days are a mixture of bars, restaurants and shops, most of them the size of a single car garage. While the majority serve Okinawan cuisine, there are also a scattering serving cuisine from nearby countries.

Act 2 - Night Time

At night the lights are finally turned on, as if the teenager is finally awake, the make up is put on, and ready to party.

People may think that all-nighters are all about getting drunk. It isn’t, it is the lubricant that engenders connection, with laughter and tears that bonds humanity from ocean to ocean. It may be half a century since the return of Okinawa to Japan but I am still bowled over by the people I met here, in humble gestures like naming their daughter with the symbols of world peace. Is she the one who holds the hopes and dreams of the nation in her hands, as she prays for her father and mother, her future sons and daughters? Since ancient times, it was thought that females protect males with their spiritual powers, and thus only females were allowed to enter Sefa Utaki.

It reminded me of ancient Greece, where people lived in fear. Philosophers were revered as they thought they knew the way. The Greek word for wisdom was Sophos, love was Philo, and so philosophy was the love of wisdom. To name your daughter Sophie, was very aspirational, as it was hoped that she would light up her generation with wisdom.

Most restaurant reviews are about the food, but today I want to focus on the culture and the setting. You may remember long ago, Nescafe used to sell coffee on the conversations it engendered, not the coffee itself. Perhaps it was the Awamori, or the communal dining, or the festive and musical atmosphere in these hole in the wall eateries, that engendered such deep and nostalgic conversations. I can’t guarantee that you will have such a special time as me, but it was a great journey into what it was like to be a human, not just what it meant to be Okinawan, for a few hours.

Prayer is a reflection of Gods work in our lives. It is true at Osaka International Church and just as true in the bars of Sakaemachi, as my new found friend mentioned over an amazing Goya Sour cocktail. "Prayer is praise, songs are praise." So Okinawan songs take on another dimension, whether sung at a Goat kitchen or in the arms of a love lost chanteuse past her prime.

Act 3 - Future Fusion

While Sakaemachi is known for its historic ways, there are plenty of up and coming bars and eateries as well. So off we go, to another hole in the wall bar where the drinking is easy and the decor is light. I am seated next to Superman (well at least that is what his shirt says) but you don’t need any supernatural talents to pick a good drink at the aptly name Dance Hall Sakeba Thank you.

I was treated to a Goya sour, kind of like a pisco sour without the egg white foam but with a slight citrus note was both a surprise and a delight. Come back another time, and you might see Shingo the resident DJ crafting the best reggae, Yaman! you might say, but the perfectly manicured wait staff with pristine caps and denim aprons say more green mango cocktails than brown sugar.

Four hours later, my bar hopping at Sakaemachi can easily take you to the red line, where you miss the last train at 1138pm. Thankfully taxis to downtown Naha are reasonable, though for Chatan and beyond you may as well stay the night.

Getting there

Asato is just three stops on the monorail from the Prefectural Office, yet it is a world away from the bright lights of Kokusai Dori.

Bonson Lam

Bonson Lam @bonson.lam

I knew my future was destined to be with Japan the moment I flew from Sydney to experience the atmospheric laneways of Kyoto last century.  I am humbled to have met many distinguished people during this time, especially the national living treasures of Japan, such as the doll maker to the Imperia...