Japan’s first A&W? It’s in Okinawa.

The photographer Okamoto Naobumi has focused much of his work on Okinawa Island, where he has captured the jarring juxtaposition of American culture – a product of the U.S. military bases there – and an area of Japan that was once its own separate kingdom.  In his book A Night in America, he writes of the English signs dotting the island, and the effect they create:

“These lights clearly illuminate the gates and fences of the US military base and the nostalgic sign[s] of old building[s]…”Cool but faking America,” that is the opposite side of the face of America [that] is hiding in the depths of the Okinawa Islands.”

Exhibit A of said visual contradiction appears on page 52 of Okamoto’s paperback book.  In the fall of 1963, the fast food chain A&W ventured outside of North America for the first time, setting up shop in Yagibaru.  Currently there are 28 A&W shops of all shapes and sizes across Okinawa – including one at Naha Airport, where lines can be frequently seen going out the door – and the brand has managed to endure even with stiff competition from other chains, acknowledged by A&W itself, such as McDonald’s and MOS Burger.  (Note that there are no A&W restaurants on mainland Japan.)

 

To witness A&W in all its retro glory, one must make a pilgrimage to the original Yagibaru location.  At night it shines like an orange beacon off a highway, and the emphasis on parking over indoor seating shows its roots as a drive-thru.  In fact, it’s still being used as a drive-thru today.

 

 

Unlike some other A&W branches in Asia, the Yagibaru menu is extensive.  In addition to burgers, fries (both the curly and regular versions),  and – of course – root beer, the Okinawa restaurants feature special and limited-edition items.  In May, they added the Hawaiian favorite loco moco and an 18-centimeter long “Party Burger,” and other offerings have included sparkling fruit sodas and special breakfast sets.

 

 

 

In a part of Japan that has, over time, embraced American imports and locally-produced fusion dishes such as Spam musubi, taco rice and Blue Seal ice cream, it’s easy to see why the A&W brand has survived for more than 55 years there.  If you visit, make sure to ring the bell on your way out.

Japan’s first A&W is located in Yagibaru, about 20 kilometers north of the Okinawa capital of Naha.  It is open 24 hours a day and is located at 700 Yagibaru, Kitanakagusuku, Nakagami District, Okinawa 901-2304, Japan (〒901-2304 北中城村屋宜原700), Phone: +81 98-933-1479 (without the country code: 098-933-1479).

Photos: The first A&W in Japan – Yagibaru, Okinawa, Japan
all photos by Yuan-Kwan Chan / Meniscus Magazine