Okinawa, Japan’s Subtropical Beach Surprise
Balmy, sunny skies, clear blue seas teeming with fascinating marine life and white sandy beaches. This is Japan’s southernmost group of islands that unveils a very different side to the country you know. Beneath its Japanese identity lies a fusion of cultures that is reflective of its historic evolution through the centuries. Okinawa became a Prefecture of Japan only in the 19th century, before which it was part of ancient Ryukyu, an independent kingdom with ties to China. Okinawa has garnered Chinese and Southeast Asian influences from its various trading partners, and this coupled with its influences from mainland Japan has given it a rich and unique character.
Most travellers come to Okinawa to enjoy its delightful subtropical climes, clear blue skies and restful beaches. The seas that surround the islands are spectacular, presenting intricate coral reefs and ample marine life that take snorkelling and scuba diving to an all-new level. Of course, if you’d like to enjoy these underwater observations and remain dry too, then visit the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium to view “The Mysteries of Okinawa in Living Colour.”
Located south of Okinawa Main Island is the beautiful Miyako Island, where the beautiful color gradations of the ocean mesmerize. The beaches are picturesque and relaxing, and provide excellent opportunities for snorkeling and diving among the coral reefs.
Kohama Island lies at the heart of the Yaeyama Islands. It is smaller, remote and a great place to rejuvenate from city life. You can explore it on cycle within two hours. It boasts two beautiful beaches. Toumaaru Beach is an untouched stretch where you can also enjoy snorkeling. Windsurfing and water skiing are offered on Haimurubushi Beach. It is the perfect place to relax and unwind.
When to visit
Okinawa offers a pleasant sub-tropical climate all year around, but the beach season is best enjoyed from the end of March to mid-October.
On the cultural side, Okinawa remains distinctive, carrying the culture of the Ryukyu mingled with influences from other trading countries over centuries. It is rich in the performing arts, and traditional entertainment such as Ryukyu-buyo and Eisa still exist. Karate is, perhaps, Okinawa’s most famous cultural contribution, a result of Chinese influence on native culture.
To savor a Japan beyond the tourist spots of Tokyo and Kyoto, visit Ryukyu Mura for an insight into the fascinating history of Okinawa. Located in the resort area of Onna Village, it is a beautiful re-creation of Okinawa from over a century ago. Here, you’ll find houses with their iconic red-tiled roofs, and black stone walls that are meant to ward off evil and protect against typhoons. In ancient times, the color red symbolized nobility, and the common folk were not allowed to use red tiles for their own houses. Over time, however, the allure of the red tiles grew, and in 1889, the ban to use them was lifted, so the people of Okinawa all used them.
Of course, for the roof to be distinctly Okinawan, it has to hold a shisa! The shisa is a small statue of a half-dog, half-tiger-like animal, drawing its origin in Chinese mythology. It is said to protect the inhabitants of the house from evil spirits.
The Ryuku Mura gives you the opportunity to take a step back in time and soak up the culture and history of a bygone Okinawan era, and experience a side of Japan you wouldn’t expect to see elsewhere.
The temperatures in Okinawa are comfortable all year round, promoting the growth of flora and fauna that are not seen elsewhere in the country. Visit the ancient forests that crown the city to view rare species including the protected Iriomote wildcat. You’ll also enjoy the myriad colours of flowers like the Bougainvillea, pristine white Easter Lilies, the golden Tabebuias and the red Diego blossoms. Okinawa welcomes a much earlier spring than the rest of the nation, and this is marked by the blooming of the deep pink Hikanzakura, unlike the pale pink Someiyoshino that characterizes most of Japan.
Okinawa also has its own unique food culture, with bold flavours underlining its signature dishes such as Goya Champuru, Rafute and Okinawa Soba, all of which contain pork. Umi Budo includes seaweed clusters that have a caviar-like texture, and Sukugarasu, tofu topped with baby fish, is the classic accompaniment to sake or the local liquor awamori.
Right from its language to its culture, its history to its climate, Okinawa has a character and flavour that is completely its own. Though not as well known as Tokyo or Kyoto, it stands proudly among Japan’s must-visit destinations through the sheer uniqueness of its offerings. The more relaxed pace that Okinawa’s beaches offer comes as a pleasant change to the neon-lit skylines and temple and shrine hopping in Japan’s other cities. Here, you can let your hair down and settle in for the ultimate island experience in scenic coves beside tranquil waters.
What to do
– Enjoy scuba diving and snorkelling
– Relax on its pristine beaches
– Explore local cultures