After Hours: Get off the road to try Exit Cafe in Okinawa
By DAVE ORNAUER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 2, 2014
On a rise off a seaside road in Okinawa about three miles west of Camp Courtney stands a cluster of buildings that used to house military families long ago, single dwellings that you see today in places such as Camp Foster’s Kishaba Housing Area but that closed and were turned over to the Japanese government in the 1970s and ’80s.
Several still have families, mostly Japanese, living in them. Others have been converted into small mom-and-pop restaurants whose names are as motley as the fare they purvey. One is called Isle de Pins. Another bears the name Soupcon (and no, the Soup Nazi of Seinfeld fame does not work there).
The aptly named Exit Cafe stands right at the roadside, the restaurant’s combined signs/menus in plain sight at the end of the road where one enters to dine there. Pizza and pasta, garlic and other fare that Americans favor are there to see in English, beckoning prospective patrons from the road to its quaint, homey trappings.
A sound system greets guests with a wide range of music. Four tables inside can seat as many as 20; during good weather, the deck outside has three more tables and can seat up to 10 more patrons.
The walls are pale white, the old floor planks are visible, there being no carpet. Bottles can be seen everywhere, along with toy horses and reindeer and a cap that reads “Momo” with a heart sign.
Momo is the name of Exit Cafe’s chief chef and wife of its owner, Kenichi Ogata, 50, a retired restaurateur/hairdresser. They retired 18 months ago to Okinawa from Funabashi, east of Tokyo in Chiba Prefecture, but they were far from ready to stop working altogether. They opened Exit Cafe in December 2012 because, “I like the business,” Kenichi Ogata said.
Locals say these former military housing units, which can sleep as many as four, are well-suited to small restaurants such as this. Front rooms are easily converted into dining rooms, they already come kitchen-equipped, a bedroom serves as a store room, another as a room for private occasions and the third as Ogata’s business office. An old washer and dryer, perhaps holdovers from when military personnel lived there, can be found out back.
Though such clusters of old military housing can be found in a few places on Okinawa, using them as restaurants and other small businesses is unusual given the history of what happens to vacated military housing. Makiminato on Okinawa, which closed in the 1980s, was bulldozed and turned into businesses and residences, as was Chofu Air Base west of Tokyo. Showa Park now occupies a large section of what used to be Tachikawa Air Base near Yokota.
Exit Cafe is quite literally a room with a view, a spectacular one of Kin Bay on the island’s sunrise side; hence why the area where the housing is located is called Akebono, Japanese for sunrise. On clear days, one can see everything from Yaka and Kin villages to the west all the way across the bay to Ikei Island in the distant east.
The fare is quite Western, with pizza, hamburgers, curry, gratin, salad, omelettes and pasta dotting the fold-over menu. Prices range at lunchtime, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., between 1,000 and 1,300 yen ($10 to $13). Dinner courses, 5 to 11 p.m., are a bit more pricey, between 2,500 and 3,000 yen ($25 to $30), with appetizers ranging from fried potatoes to fried calamari and even a plate of 20 shrimp (undoubtedly for multiple patrons) going for 2,300 yen ($23).
The customer demographic is equal parts Japanese and foreigners, and each has one thing in common: “They are all very friendly,” said Ogata. Patrons in kind told me that Kenichi and Momo treat them as if they were guests in their home, rather than run-of-the-mill customers.
Patrons may pay in either dollars or yen at current exchange rates. Exit Cafe doesn’t accept credit cards at the moment, but will start doing so in August, Ogata said.
Smoking is not allowed, and customers may not bring their own bottles.
Exit Cafe Okinawa
Address: 1-9-28 Akebono, Ishikawa, Uruma, Okinawa, 904-1107.
From points south: Take 329 north going toward Central Ishikawa (don’t take the Ishikawa Bypass). Turn right at the intersection for Route 75. Turn left at first stoplight and go about 2 kilometers and look for the Exit Cafe signs on your left as the road rises.
From Camp Courtney: Go left out of commissary gate, go right out of main gate onto 75 west. At the second stoplight with the golf driving range catty-corner right, turn right and go about 2 kilometers and look for the Exit Cafe signs on the left as the road rises.
From points north: Take 329 south and go to intersection with rotary overhead walkway. Go left into Central Ishikawa. Turn left at the intersection with the Family Mart on the left and the Lawson on the right. Turn right at the first T-intersection, then left at the next T-intersection. Go up the rise, down and then up again and look for the Exit Cafe signs on your right.
Information: Telephone 098-989-9966; mobile 080-3444-4531. The eatery has a Facebook page in Japanese; use translation links. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.