Restaurant preserves best of old Okinawa
Dining at the Paikaji restaurant in the Uenoya area of Naha City is like stepping back in time to Okinawa of yesteryear. The illusion begins when you approach the traditional-looking building with timber columns, shisha dogs and tiled roof.
Waiting to greet you at the entrance are young women clad in kimonos with the colorful patterns typical to the island. Welcomed with lovely smiles and respectful bows, you are invited to enter the anteroom.
Shoes are removed and placed in individual compartments with keys attached to wristbands before you are led down the tatami-carpeted hall to your table.
You may choose from a variety of seating arrangements, each with special advantages. One of the small rooms behind a sliding screen is perfect for an intimate dinner. In one of the open rooms, long tables give plenty of elbow room for a few friends to enjoy the food and ambiance alongside other groups separated by discreet panels.
A large open room affords a space where large gatherings can be accommodated for special events. And another room, large enough for a family, provides a television and Japanese dolls to entertain those with young children.
A couple may want to take advantage of the seating at the sushi bar where Chef Satoshi Tamaki can be seen using skills he has honed over the past 30 years to create beautiful presentations that are as tasty as they look. Asked what his favorite dish to prepare is, the chef replies, “I like all Okinawan food.”
Whatever the choice, you will find a full menu of traditional Okinawan culinary delights, including many versions of champaru (bitter melon stir fry), soba, sashimi and seafood dishes, not to mention those made with Okinawa’s famed native porker.
Give a few days advance notice and you can even try the adventuresome sea snake soup, reputed to enhance vitality.
There is one slight drawback to this enchanting place for most Americans – the menu is entirely in Japanese. But like many island restaurants, photographs of the food will give you an idea of what is available.
The fun at Paikaji does not stop with the beautifully presented meals. Talented roving troubadours, Haruki Asato and Ayako Matsuda, will serenade via song and sanshin with ancient tunes from the Ryukyu Islands.
When you finally, and probably reluctantly, prepare to leave, one last bit of well-known Okinawa hospitality awaits. English speaking photographer Machiko Ohno will offer to take a free souvenir photograph of you and your party. Ladies can pose in a bingata kimono and “hanagasa,” the locally revered flower-straw hat. The photo is printed while you wait.
Paikaji means “south wind” in the Miyako dialect of the Uchina language. The restaurant is one of five with the name started by Okinawan native Takayuki
Yamasiro. It is now capably managed by Hirokazu Tamaki – no relation to Chef Tamaki – with Reo Ota serving as his assistant. Ota is also one of the few staff who speak English.
Paikaji opens at 6 p.m. seven days a week, with entertainment starting at 7 p.m. To get there from Kadena Air Base, head south on 58 past the second bridge into Naha, and look for the Uenoya intersection marked by a sign for Makabi and the DFS.
Turn left toward Main Place and at the first light turn right at U Denim & Life, just past Big Echo. Turn right again at the first street next to the U Denim parking lot. Paikaji is partway down the block next to the Big Echo parking lot.
Because of the popularity of the place, particularly among locals, reservations are advised. Vice-Manager Ota recommends faxing your request to ensure it will be understood. The phone and fax number is (098) 866-7977.
This review was originally published in Stripes Okinawa, Oct. 22, 2010.