Ja­pan on­is­land­time

With some of the world’s old­est res­i­dents and a rich mar­itime his­tory, Ok­i­nawa is a world apart

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - JU­DITH ELEN

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.

ALAMY

GETTY IM­AGES

YOSHI­NORI SAKUNO

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

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