Scattered through the East China Sea like jade paving stones leading from Japan’s most southerly point to Taiwan, the Ryukyu Islands of Okinawa are a modern enigma.
Stretching for more than 1,000 km and made up of 49 inhabited and 111 uninhabited islands, the name Okinawa translates as ‘rope in the open sea’. This ‘rope’, flanked by Japan, China and Southeast Asia, has evolved as a unique blend of Asian cultures, one that is driving its emergence as a tourism destination.
Always popular with Japanese travellers, Okinawa is now becoming the focus of a broader market drawn to its rare blend of cultural and physical attractions.
First settled in the 8th century, the strategic location of the Ryukyu Kingdom ensured that it became a prosperous trading nation dwarfed by neighbouring Japan and China, one that only maintained its independence by paying tributes simultaneously to both countries. Eventually Japan prevailed and annexed the islands in 1872, creating the Okinawa Prefecture.
Evidence of the old Ryukyu Kingdom abounds and there are nine World Heritage-listed sites on the islands that underscore its former prosperity. Until now, Western tourists have been largely unaware of Okinawa’s natural beauty and its accessibility, being only two-and-a-half hours from Tokyo, while the cities of Shanghai, Seoul, Taipei and Manila all fall within a 900 km radius of the capital of Naha.
Scuba divers are among those select groups who have come to know and appreciate Okinawa. They flock to the islands from around the world to enjoy excellent visibility in crystal clear water and dive some of the most spectacular reefs, with the rarely seen blue coral to be found off Ishigaki and Miyako islands.
The beautiful Kerama Islands are just an hour away from Naha while diving Yonaguni Island’s underwater ruins is high on the to-do list of scuba enthusiasts, who can also expect to swim with manta rays and sea turtles.
The main swimming season is from April to October but with the water temperature varying between 21°C and 25°C, water activities are possible almost all year round. The water clarity is matched by white sand beaches, which unlike many Asian resorts, are uncrowded. In winter, whale watching is popular as humpback whales migrate to Okinawa with their newborn calves.
Inland from the beaches are unspoiled sub-tropical forests watered by cool, clear rivers where travellers can follow hiking trails and go kayaking and canoeing. Accommodation is as varied as the islands’ attractions and ranges from five star beachfront resorts to more intimate traditional inns where visitors can stay in an old Okinawan-style house complete with tatami mats.
While scuba diving and snorkelling are among Okinawa’s main attractions, it is the fiercely independent nature of the Okinawans which is making its mark on the world tourism map. It is an independence which in spite of being drawn into the Japanese nation, has guaranteed that the language, culture and cuisine, those things that make up the very essence of the islands, remain distinctly different from Japan or anywhere else in Asia.
In the nineteenth century Japan tried and failed to suppress the indigenous culture, language and religion and the failure of these policies is seen today in the vibrant, proud and confident society that is modern day Okinawa.
Okinawans like to distinguish themselves from other cultures by referring to themselves as uchinanchu or ‘sea people’. This individuality is embedded in the language which refers to the way things are done in the islands as shima as distinct from honto, or the way of doing things on the mainland.
While karate is most commonly regarded as originating in Japan, it was developed as a martial art by the Okinawans. For centuries it was practised in secret, disguised as a traditional Okinawan dance with the techniques guarded by family members and practitioners. Banned from owning weapons by a succession of rulers, they developed karate for self-protection. It was taught in Japan for the first time in 1923 at the invitation of the Japanese government by Okinawan karate master Gichin Funokoshi.
Okinawa can also lay claim to holding one of the largest mass participation sports in the world; the Great Tug of War in the capital Naha in early October, was once held to settle village rivalries. More than 300,000 people attend this three day festival which takes place in early October, the culmination of which sees 15,000 people join in to pull a 40-tonne, 186-metre rope made of rice straw.
Contemporary Okinawan music is unique, being an attractive blend of Asian and western influences. In the aftermath of World War II, Okinawa was occupied by the United States and a number of military bases remain. This has led to the creation of a music style which combines the original Okinawan sounds produced by the distinctive local instrument the sanshin, which resembles a three-stringed banjo and is related to the Japanese shamisen, with a mixture of rock, jazz and other influences from the USA.
More traditional, and still widely performed, is the Ryukyu Dance once performed for the royal family in the Ryukyu Kingdom and the dynamic drum dance called Eisa, a prayer for ancestral spirits.
Okinawan traditional crafts are characterised by their vivid colours and these are evident in the pottery, lacquerware and Ryukyu glasswork which are popular souvenirs. Okinawa’s proximity to Japan and its occupation by Japanese forces saw it targeted for the largest amphibious assault undertaken by US forces in the Pacific during World War II. In some of the most vicious and bloody fighting of that conflict, 65,000 Allied troops were killed, wounded or missing and the Japanese figure was 100,000. Tragically, large numbers of Okinawan civilians were also casualties.
The Cornerstone of Peace monument at the Okinawa Prefecture Peace Park lists the names of those who died during the Battle of Okinawa–148,136 Okinawan civilians, 74,796 Japanese Imperial soldiers, 14,005 US soldiers as well as smaller groups from the UK, Taiwan, North Korea and the Republic of Korea.
The tranquillity of the islands, their plentiful supply of fresh fruit, fish and vegetables and the diet embraced by locals have led to one of the healthiest lifestyles in the world. Five times as many Okinawans live to be 100 than their Japanese counterparts and coronary disease, breast and prostate cancers are virtually unknown. Vegetables, grains, and fruits make up 72 per cent of the diet by weight, soy and seaweed 14 per cent, meat, poultry and eggs 3 per cent and fish about 11 per cent with the emphasis on dark green vegetables rich in calcium.
Okinawan vegetables rarely seen on the Japanese mainland include bitter melon and purple yam, while tropical fruits such as mango, papaya, pineapple, dragonfruit and calamansi, similar to a sour lime, are extremely popular in season. Dark cane sugar is also a popular snack and features in a variety of sweets and pastries.
Visitors may also encounter goya champuru, a stir-fried dish made from bitter melon mixed with pork and tofu, mimiga which is sliced pig’s ears in vinegar, umibudo or sea grapes, a type of seaweed eaten raw dipped into vinegar or soy, mild with a pleasant caviar-like texture, and sukugarasu, salt-pickled tiny fermented fish, usually pressed onto tofu before eating.
Okinawans enjoy a drink, although moderation is the key. Travellers wanting to indulge in local brews can drink–with caution–awamori, a rice liquor which can be incredibly strong and contain up to 60 per cent alcohol. The less adventurous may prefer Orion, the name of Okinawa’s local beer and a safer option!
There are small bars and live venues all over Okinawa where you can listen to local music and dance with the audience, a likely outcome after several glasses of awamori.
On the roof or at the gate of almost every house you will spot the ubiquitous Okinawan shisa or guardian lion-dogs, one with its mouth open to catch good fortune, the other with its mouth closed to keep good fortune in.
It’s a good fortune that Okinawans are now hoping to share with the world.