I’m starting this column sitting at a table on the terrace of a Starbucks on a busy corner of one of the busiest tourist attractions in Okinawa’s Capital City: Kokusai Street, Naha.
I flew down to Okinawa for the 5th Okinawa International Movie Festival a few days ago and am really enjoying the laid back ambiance of the festival and the happy, hospitable and helpful people of Okinawa. I arrived on a lovely afternoon – much warmer than Tokyo in these months of course – and checked in at the luxurious Loisir Hotel, Spa and Resort in Naha. First thing was to get a car, and then I drove around a bit and sort of oriented myself to the layout of the city.
That evening I got together for a dinner hosted by Fox TV’s Dan Smith for about a dozen friends. The restaurant, “Sauces” is owned by one of Dan’s former military buddies, and the Cajun style barbecued shrimp, ribs, fish and chicken really added up to one of best meals ever. It was a great evening in every way and actually turned out to be a great way to celebrate Matthew Ireton’s birthday.
The festival officially opened on March 23 and continued through to March 30; from the very beginning it was evident the main sponsor, Yoshimoto Kogyo, the Okinawan people and all involved had really gone all out to make it very special.
My first stop when I arrived at the venue, by the beach just a short drive from the center of Naha, was the press center, where I ran into many journalists I knew – and some I didn’t; they had actually come from all over Asia to cover what really is a growing festival. A couple of girls who I also knew from Tokyo took me under their wing and walked me to an excellent spot to see and photograph an almost two hour red carpet presentation that featured a wide variety of showbiz and film industry personalities.
The long line of celebs ended up on a stage on the beach in front of the world’s largest movable outdoor screen, where they joined local dignitaries for the opening ceremony. All this was followed by the screening of the festival’s opening film, Warner Brothers’ Jack, the Giant Slayer. The huge crowd of mostly Okinawans – all manner of people including families and quite a lot of kids – loved it all.
That was great as one of the goals of the organisers is to promote the bond between the festival and the Okinawan people. Most of the films had English subtitles, and some had Chinese as well – the whole thing felt very international, including the competition section. Sponsors told me the festival was different than most: although this was an international festival, there were many events supported by the local people of Okinawa. These included a fashion show on the beach, a concert by Korean singer Kim Hyun Jong, comedy shows, sports events concerts by top Okinawan artists and dynamic traditional song and dance.
Special guests included Masi Oka (Heroes and Hawaii Five-O) who taught an acting class for Okinawan High School students; he’s often partied at the New Lex in Tokyo and was actually on the cover of Weekender back in 2009. There were special festival themed parties every night at which media and guests had a chance to meet and talk about the industry while having a really fun time relaxing.
I could only stay for three nights so just made it to the opening night one at Laguna Garden Hotel; it was packed and I was amazed at the number of friends I saw there. The food, especially the Okinawan cuisine, was excellent. One of the highlights of the evening was a performance by one of Okinawa’s top musical groups “The Boom”. The next day I went to the local Tower Records and found their CD, Shimauta – mellow music I have been listening to every day since.
Here’s a few places well worth checking out in Naha itself: The American Village is a well laid out “town” where American culture blends with Okinawa. There are dozens of trendy boutiques, movie houses, eateries, hair salons, massage parlors, and a live house.
Check out the Dr. Martens shoe shop and the huge American depot for some real bargains if you are around here. Another great place to shop is the big ultra modern Main Place, in the heart of Naha. There’s lots of both men’s and women’s fashion shops, excellent restaurants, and of course Starbucks. Kids will love the Namco Land and theaters there all first class.
Back to Kokusai Street – it is long, lined with souvenir shops and restaurants and almost always busy. It is a great place to meet and talk with the locals who shop at the near by public markets. I also got into the spiritual world near Naha when I visited some the sacred caves and meditated at a few power and worship spots.
My last night was great. Joined Bill and Charo Ireton, Joel Schumacher, his assistant Greg and a few Yoshimoto Kogyo people for dinner at a marvelous old house on the side of a hill. The Okinawan food was really good. When you go to the island and want to check up current happenings, pick up a copy of This Week in Okinawa and Okinawa Nightlife!
Really wish I could have stayed longer, but I had to get back to Tokyo for the re-opening of the Kabuki theater and a Min-on performance of the ShenYang Acrobatic Troupe of China. Congrats to Yoshimoto Kogyo’s chairman/CEO, Mr. Osaki, his staff and the people of Okinawa: “The land of song, dance and laughter”. Hope to get back there soon.
Back in Tokyo
Indian Ambassador Deepa Gopalan Wadhwa was only posted to Japan a short time before she hosted a marvelous reception at the Okura Hotel. The occasion was the celebration of their company’s 64th Republic Day! No problem as she served as ambassador to Qatar and her husband is Indian ambassador to Thailand. The Indian food was excellent and, like the traditional dance show, colorful and exciting.
Happy I had the opportunity to introduce the ambassador to Hiroyasu Kobayashi, the President of Min-on concert Association at an earlier party. In a relatively short time, Min-on, who are leaders in international cultural exchanges, brought a wonderful Indian show that featured top dancers and musicians in a concert, titled Creative Integration of Indian Dance. It was a beautiful show, perfect for both the celebration of Min-on’s 50th anniversary and the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between India and Japan.
The Indian Embassy in Kudan offers some of the best Sakura viewing in Tokyo. For several days Ambassador Wadhwa shared the awesome view from the terrace of the Embassy with many friends of India. I was out of the city at that time, but friends who were there said it was a very special and festive event.
British Airways and Visit Britain promo at Midtown
Great Britain, as we all well remember, did a great job on their many major events in last year or so. On a smaller scale, but still dynamic and well done, there was the two day Big British Invite at my favorite Tokyo Mall, Midtown, recently. The many visitors really enjoyed the campaign, showcasing the very best of British shopping, food, music, culture, heritage and countryside. In addition to enjoying the exhibits, I got to know most of the nice British Airways cabin crew and staff working with the promo, held in Mumbai and Shanghai as well as Tokyo.
I really got to know them better at a small party I had for them at the New Lex the night before they left Japan. Special guests at the opening ceremony included British ambassador Tim Hitchins, who was previously in Japan between 1985 and 1989 and really knows this country and its people. It was also nice seeing and hearing the cool sounds of one of Tokyo’s top DJs, Guy Perryman, playing some great British music and checking out the exhibition.
Guests moved upstairs to The Ritz Carlton Ballroom for refreshments, socializing and the opportunity to win a pair of round trip tickets on British Airways to London. At the Reception I also learned from the airline’s man in Japan and Korea, Vishal Sinha, that visitors to the event had a chance of winning travel packages to London, accommodation and even a fashion makeover at iconic fashion house, Temperley.
Vishal told me about the attractive fares on offer and I thought it seems a great time to plan a holiday to Britian. He also reminded me of BA’s motto, “To Fly, To serve” – I am planning to take advantage of all this later this year so will let you know.
Kuwaiti Celebration at the Imperial Hotel
Once again Jamilah Al-Otaibi, wife of the ambassador of Kuwait, Abdul Rahman Al-Ottaibi, proved what a creative lady she is. To celebrate the national day of Kuwait she really worked with her staff and the banquet staff at the Imperial to transform the venue into an Arabic wonderland.
The popular hosting couple wore traditional Kuwaiti fashion; he wore black, white and gold and she a beautiful silver, gold and black dress. Their children were all dressed for the occasion as well. Their older son, Humood, who goes to school in Australia, wore a tux and had a new trendy hairstyle. His brother, Khaled, wore a well-tailored suit and tie. Their daughter, Hala, who always is the epitome of chic fashion, wore an Arabic style flower print dress and the latest in fashionable makeup.
As I mentioned, the family are very popular and it was wall-to-wall people in the hotel’s huge Peacock Room. I had to leave early and didn’t see the Otaibi’s youngest daughter, Hessa. She’s an adorable child who loves to be around people and I’m sure she was there somewhere in the crowd.
People I did see who I hadn’t seen for a long time included politician Yuriko Koike, who studied in Cairo and from what I hear speaks perfect Arabic. Egypt expert Esmet Gammal and his wife were also there. Esmet had a travel agency, Egypt Tours, and arranged to have me invited there several times for some really spectacular events including Frank Sinatra’s concert in front of the Sphinx. Esmet is a good man and a great friend.
Other good friends at the Kuwaiti evening included the Peninsula Hotel’s G.M., Malcolm Thompson, with two of his staff. Happy to hear Malcolm, by the way, is not leaving Tokyo as I’d heard, and will be here “for some time to come.”
If you’re down the Peninsula way I suggest you check out their new steakhouse, which replaced the French restaurant Peter’s but which has kept the same name. It’s good healthy food at its best.
Main image: Bill Hersey with Demon Kakka at the 5th Okinawan International Movie Festival