Explore Okinawa's biggest food market
To stroll the bustling maze of tiny stalls in Makishi Kosetsu Ichiba food market is to embrace Okinawa’s food culture. The combination of seafood, tropical fruit and fresh meat smells float in the air. The enthusiasm of local vendors hawking their wares adds spice to the experience.
Is it any wonder they call this place “the Kitchen of Okinawa”?
Just off Naha City’s main street of Kokusai Dori, Makishi Kosetsu Ichiba has more than 120 shops. People from all walks of life, tourists, housewives, businessmen – young and old – peruse the shops, sampling morsels and chatting with salespersons.
On Okinawa, people call these local friendly markets “machiguwa,” and they are closely connected to daily life.
Makishi Kosetsu dates back to just after the World War II. It is said that in the postwar chaos people began to gather in Naha to sell and buy needed merchandise. The area got bigger and bigger, and eventually grew into a well-known black market, according to Naha City Office. The city moved the market to its current site, officially organizing it as Makishi Kosetsu Ichiba in 1950.
Today, the market is not only a popular shopping spot for locals, but also a well-known tourist attraction for visitor’s to see what’s cooking in Okinawa’s kitchen.
As you enter the huge market area, the first section you see is a seafood section, which includes more than 20 vendors. Colorful red, green, yellow and purple tropical fish, huge lobsters, slipper lobsters, shrimp and porcupine fish are on grand display and ready for purchase.
After you pass the seafood section, there is a pig’s head sporting sunglasses named “Jennifer” at Misato Butcher shop, welcoming you to the butchers’ section. For obvious reasons, the shop owner replaces Jennifer every business day. Jennifer has been a popular mascot of this market for more than 10 years.
Pig’s heads, or “chiragaa,” (literally “pig’s face” in the Okinawan dialect) is a local traditional delicacy. It’s said that you can’t find a whole pig’s face for sale anywhere in Japan except for Okinawa. A raw face that is grilled slightly on the surface costs about 500 yen ($5), whereas a smoked face costs about 1,500 yen.
“Most tourist buy smoked face; it’s already cooked and easy to eat, but locals buy raw chiragaa to cook at home,” said Kazuko Misato, 74, of Misato Butcher. “To cook chiragaa you boil it for about an hour. Then, you cut off the ears, slice them up and marinate them with vinegar. Other parts of the face, can be boiled with soy sauce or stir-fried with onion and garlic. You should try it if you are in Okinawa.”
In Okinawa, pork is more common in local dishes than beef or chicken due to the early Chinese influence in the Ryukyu Islands, according to Tomomitsu Aguni, chairman of Daiichi Makishi Kosetsu Ichiba Association. It is an essential staple for any traditional event. The whole pig is consumed without wasting anything – legs, feet, skin, intestines – butchers sell all parts of the pig here.
“In this market, customers enjoy talking with vendors and asking about special recipes for the items they buy,” said Aguni. “The shop owners here are second or third generation; these are all family businesses. Local customers are also second or third generation. So their grandmas used to come to this market to buy things, and now the granddaughter still comes to the same shop that her grandma used to take her to. This market is a place for connecting generation.”
Around major holidays such as the Lunar New Year and Bon Festival, the market teams with locals in search of groceries to prepare traditional foods for these special occasions. Aguni notes that as the market is essentially female run, it is also a symbol of the power of Okinawan women.
Makishi Kosetsu Ichiba also has a prepared foods section where you can find tasty souvenirs like fish cakes, soba noodles, pickled vegetables and even dried sea snake.
As with any market in Japan, don’t hesitate to taste the available samples. They include tempura, Okinawan doughnuts called “sanda andagi” and fresh goya vegetable juice. It’s also a great opportunity score points with the locals as you try speaking a little Japanese.
“It used to be said that Okinawa had the highest life expectancy because of its traditional food, but Okinawans have changed their diet and the food is getting more westernized. The life expectancy rate is dropping,” Aguni said, alluding another important function of the market. “It’s important to keep local markets like this going, and revive the traditional Okinawan diet. We want to show the importance of traditional food – for both tourist and locals.”
What's served on the 2nd floor
No day of shopping at Makishi Kosetsu Ichiba market is complete without satisfying the stomach on some of the local fare. And there’s no better place to do that than on the second floor of the market where there are more the 10 restaurants. These are by no means fancy high-end eateries, but the food is tasty.
What is even better about these friendly affordable establishments is that you can purchase your favorite grocery item on the first floor and take it up to a second floor restaurant and have it cooked for an extra $5.
For example, you can purchase a fresh “gurukun” (banana fish) on the first floor and have it fried up for lunch at any restaurant on the second floor. They will cook it and serve it up right there on the spot. How cool is that?
There is a limit of three market-bought items that can be cooked to order at a time. So choose your favorite foods carefully and eat them as market fresh as they can get.
At these restaurants, basic Japanese foods such as yakisoba and sushi are also available.
Made-to-order market classics
Stir-fried bitter melon with tofu, pork and egg. The melon or gourd is bitter but believed to be very good for health. This dish is a local favorite. $6 - $8
Porcupine fish soup. A combination of miso and the rich taste of porcupine fish. $10 - $15
Sea snake soup. Well-stewed sea snake in a bonito (dried fish flake) soup base. Once the cuisine of high-class Ryukyu Palace dwellers, it is said to be good for stamina. $22 - $24
Yagi Niku Yasai Itame:
Goat and vegetable stir-fry. The goat meat is tough but tasty. $15 - $17
Boiled pig’s feet. Looks can be deceiving; it’s tender and tasty. You’ll never know until you try. $6 - $8
Sea grape. Although it looks like green caviar, this is a beautiful sea vegetable that’s best eaten raw. $6 - $8
Markets of notable mention
1. Sakaemachi Market: Individual shop hours vary, closed on Sunday and holidays, nearby pay parking, reminiscent of old Okinawa, local foods, daily goods, clothing, cafes and pubs. This daytime market area is also known for its Okinawan-style pub life at night.
381 Asato, Naha, call 098-886-3979 or visit: sakaemachi-ichiba.net/about.html (Japanese)
2. Awase Payao Fish Market: Open 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. (April to Sep.), 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (Oct. to March).
1-11-34 Awase, Okinawa City, call: 098-938-5811 or visit: www.jf-okinawa.jp/ (Japanese)
3. Michinoeki Itoman Market: Open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday - Sunday. This very large market area (almost 7 acres) includeds a farmer’s market, seafood shop, grocery store, liquor store, Okinawa handcrafts, restaurants and food courts as well as seasonal events. 4-19-1 Nishizakicho, Itoman, call: 098-987-1277, or visit: michinoeki.ti-da.net (Japanese)
4. JA Farmer’s Market Champuru Ichiba: 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Fresh vegetables and fruits, groceries, bento lunch boxes, and special food events in every 19th day of the month. 2697-2 Noborikawa, Okinawa City, Call: 098-894-2215 or visit: www.city.okinawa.okinawa.jp/site/view/ (Japanese)
Easy Japanese for shopping
Ikura desuka? - How much is it?
Oishiii desu. - It’s tasty.
Karaii desu. - It’s spicy.
Takai desu. - It’s expensive.
Yasui desu. - It’s cheap.
Oisiku-nai desu. - It’s doesn’t taste good.
Irasshai! - Welcome!
How to get there:
Makishi Kosetsu Ichiba (Makishi Public Food Market)
Address: 2-10-1 Matsuo, Naha City, Okinawa
Businss hour: 8 a.m. – 10 p.m. (April to Oct.), 9 a.m. – 9 p.m. (Nov. to March), closed the fourth Sunday of the month, New Year’s, Chinese New Year
Homepage: kousetsu-ichiba.com/ichibaannai.html (Japanese)