With some of the world’s oldest residents and a rich maritime history, Okinawa is a world apart
MANYof us know about the subtropical islands of Okinawa, their wartime history and US bases, and that they’re closer to China than to mainland Japan.
But few have experienced Okinawa first-hand, a good thing for travellers who prefer their path less beaten. In the warm drift of tropical seas, edged with rocky beaches and coral reefs, Okinawa is Japan on island time. When I visit Okinawa Main Island early last month, the temperature hovers around 16C. The air in Tokyo, as I pass through, is icy by comparison.
Forty-nine of the 160 islands in Okinawa Prefecture (known as Ryukyu Islands) are inhabited. Here, Japan’s intriguing culture is bathed in a soft southerly air and imbued with subtle differences. After centuries as a peaceful, prosperous trading kingdom within the realm of feudal China, its food and music are laced with Chinese and Southeast Asian influences.
People drink Chinese jasmine tea (sanpin cha) rather than Japanese green tea. Okinawan favourites, pizza and taco rice, entirely transform their US originals. Yoshi, my travelling companion from the mainland, believes the friction of difference sparks creative energy. He cites the fertile life where land meets ocean.
Okinawa is a diver’s dream. In a long history of sea diving, Okinawan fishermen invented underwater goggles 120 years ago. We see quaint originals in the rustic little marine museum Itoman Uminchu Koubou, near Main Island’s southern tip. I also learn that Broome’s legendary Japanese pearl divers hailed from here.
Main Island is just over 100km top to bottom, 11km across and dotted with villages and ‘‘cities’’; the capital, Naha (population more than 300,000), is in the south, where I am travelling. US military bases occupy the central area, while the north is known for evergreen forests, indigenous wildlife and famously old inhabitants. Ogimi Village residents are legendary for their longevity, attributed to a diet of seafood, seaweed, tofu, herbs and vegetables such as goya (bittermelon) and turmeric. At a Naha restaurant, I meet 100-year-old Gushiken Kimi enjoying lunch with friends and wanting to dance.
In the easygoing, sophisticated city of Itoman, I plunge into the past at the Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum, which explores pre and post-World War II history, commemorates the fallen on both sides and seeks to promote peace. Okinawa was devastated by World War II, but its melting-pot history survives in the dialect (close to ancient Manyo, 7th to 8th-century Japanese), food, customs and restored heritage.
In the city’s northeast, Shurijo Castle, a World Heritage site, was faithfully rebuilt based on 18th-century documents, the oldest records now extant. The royal court flourished here late into the 19th century. Wearrive in a downpour that adds to the sombre majesty of sheer, grey fortress walls.
For 500 years Shurijo was the headquarters of the Ryukyu kingdom, the local monarchy overseen by China’s Ming and Qing dynasties. There’s a splendid red and gold entrance gate and ceremonial courtyard and, on the roof, ferociously fanged dragons repel bad spirits. Inside, cavernous, rust-red interiors contain costumes, royal portraits and three-masted, dragon-bedecked ships on painted screens.
Marine life permeates Okinawan culture and its unique art forms. I visit fabric-dyeing workshop Shuri Ryusan (1-54 Yamakawa-cho, Naha), near Shurijo Castle, where three women sit at low tables amid drum-like corals of all sizes.
Tossed up by the seas, the corals have been sliced across to form flat, intricately patterned blocks. The women stretch fabric across the surface, rubbing it with pigments, some ground from leaves, twigs and natural substances shelved in jars around the walls. Wooden rollers draped with gorgeously patterned kimono-length fabrics reach into the steep-pitched roof. Visitors can watch, shop or attend a pre-booked class.
Okinawa’s traditional beliefs, rooted in nature, embrace creator goddess Amamikiyo, shamanistic priestesses ( noro) and ancestor worship. On a headland northeast of Shurijo Castle we visit Sefa Utaki, a sacred place of old trees and wild bushland. Visible from here is Kudaka Island, a short ferry trip from nearby Azama Port; locals believe Amamikiyo arrived there from the east, to create the islands and spread the arts of agriculture.
On Kudaka, crops alternate with dense woodland and cattle low in the distance. Vegetables and kobe beef are shipped to the mainland. However, the island is frozen in time. Anature reserve with about 200 residents and a circumference of 7.5km, strict rules prohibit change and pose a dilemma. Residents want to keep the island as it is, but must seek employment elsewhere. It’s a future at risk.
Nevertheless, the shopkeeper at the ferry speaks excellent English (rare in Okinawa) and rents out bicycles, the perfect way to explore Kudaka’s rutted roads and rocky beaches. Car ferries alternate with 15-minute expresses, six times daily from Azama Port.
With an outlook equally untouched, but the most refined focus on detail, Hyakuna Garan is a hotel to which one could retire. Ona remote stretch of coastline south of Sefa Utaki, this temple to calm and beauty is just 35 minutes from Naha Airport.
The low-lying buildings echo Shurijo Castle’s austere beauty, but with walls of warm, lantern-lit limestone and art-lined corridors. Agiant banyan tree grows in a central courtyard, an entrance cave houses a 7m carved-stone Buddha and there is a spa, zen room and library.
above Shurijo Castle, a rebuilt World Heritage site