Japan’s Emerald Isle

Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia - - SPOTLIGHT -

On Okinawa, Akemi Johnson discovers a subtropical paradise with a lively blend of cultures and a laid-back vibe that transcends its tumultuous history.

OKINAWA IS SO LUSH that buildings and rivers are often obscured by its profusion of greenery. Along the coasts, tourists swim in aquamarine waters. All this natural beauty may surprise anyone who associates Okinawa with World War II, when invading Americans bombed its terraced fields and wild forest down to the dirt.

Okinawa is the largest of the 160 islands, most of them unpopulated, that are between the Japanese mainland and Taiwan, collectively forming the country’s southernmost prefecture. The archipelago, also named Okinawa, was an independent kingdom until Japan overthrew its monarch in the late 19th century. An era of U.S. military rule followed World War II, with Americans bulldozing homes and farms to build bases, which remained after the islands were returned to Japan in 1972. Many locals continue to protest their presence.

Traveling the roughly 110 kilometers south to north along the narrow main island, I experienced what brings more and more visitors to Okinawa: subtropical beauty, a leisurely pace, and a rich mix of indigenous Okinawan, mainland Japanese and American influences. Of course, the island is also suffused with its troubled past. The Battle of Okinawa wiped out up to a third of the civilian population. The haunting Himeyuri Peace Museum (himeyuri.or.jp), at the island’s southern tip, recounts the three months of horror through the story of local schoolgirls conscripted to be nurses for Japanese soldiers. Nearby, Peace Memorial Park (sp.heiwa-ireiokinawa.jp) sits on manicured grounds in the area where the fighting culminated. The park’s museum (peace-museum.pref.okinawa.jp) chronicles the war in chilling detail.

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