I’m chewing on some Okinawan sugar cane and enjoying the warm afternoon breeze as I am writing this, reminiscence of my short-lived holiday in sunny Okinawa.
Having lived in Japan for a couple of years, I’ve travelled and visited most parts of Japan. However, it has never crossed my mind to visit Okinawa. Perhaps it is because my idea of Okinawa consists mainly of beaches, sunny weather and a culture and cuisine largely similar to back home. I also heard that it is dominated by the Americans and the Filipinos, which made me think; “If I were to go to a sunny beach destination with an international culture, there’s plenty of cheaper options in Southeast Asia.” Perhaps, that explains why I have never visited Okinawa in my years of travelling Japan.
Thanks to Follow Me Japan and the Okinawa Convention & Visitors Bureau, I had the opportunity to visit Okinawa and experience a different side of Japan. There are no tall buildings or departmental stores; no sickeningly cute maid cafes or noisy pachinko parlours; no overcrowded sushi restaurants or trains filled with drunk salarymen.
What there is, is the warm hospitality of the Okinawan people, their sunny disposition matching that of the climate, the rustic charm of the island villages, a slower pace of life in the islands of longevity, and a strong Ryukyu culture that reflects its key position in maritime trade with Southeast and east Asia, especially China.
My 5-day trip to Okinawa was barely the tip of the iceberg, and now I can’t wait to get back and explore more of the Okinawa islands. And here are five reasons why Okinawa should also be your next place to visit in Japan.
1. Sun. Sand. Sea.
Does it need more explaining? The image of a picture-perfect beach destination is almost synonymous with the word vacation. Even though Japan has never really been known as a beach destination, you just need to google images of Okinawa and you will realize what you’ve been missing out. Apart from the beautiful clear blue sea and soft white sand, the Okinawa islands also have some of the world’s most abundant coral reefs. There is a wide array of water activities to choose from, snorkeling, sea-kayaking, fishing, diving or even just being fascinated by the whale sharks and manta rays in Churaumi Aquarium.
2. Think you know Japan? Think again. Okinawa has a culture and history so rich and unique from the rest of Japan.
Never been a history buff myself, I was surprised to find myself intrigued by the history of Okinawa and the Ryukyu Kingdom. Unlike the rest of Japan, which prides itself on the homogeneity of the people, Okinawan culture resembles a mix of its early maritime trading partners, from China, Japan and Southeast Asia.
Even the modern-day Okinawa has its influences from the presence of the U.S. military bases. Walking down the streets, it is pretty common to see Japanese-Western couples, as well as military-related shops and western shops like A&W, something I have never seen elsewhere in Japan.
3. Learn the secret to longevity!
Also known as the islands of longevity, Okinawa people have one of the highest life expectancy in the world. In addition, Okinawa also boasts a population with the highest proportion of people living beyond 100 years old. The secret to this? The Okinawan diet. It consists of a large amount of vegetables, tofu, konbu seaweed and local produce like the Okinawan purple sweet potatoes and bitter melon, Goya.
Of course, being an archipelago, Okinawa also has abundant seafood. In fact, the Okinawan people eat only the freshest sashimi. Don’t be surprised if your sashimi does not come served on ice because ice is not even needed! And unlike the rest of Japan where sushi is only made by a sushi chef, sushi in Okinawa is made by housewives and eaten at home.
4. Go island-hopping and enjoy island life!
ALOHA! Don’t be surprised to see this word commonly used in the shops, for Okinawa does give off the same laid-back vibe as Hawaii. The archipelago consists of more than 160 tropical islands, so have your pick! Whether it is diving in Ishigaki island, hiking in the tropical forests of Iriomote island, visiting the traditional Ryukyu villages on Taketomi island, relaxing on the beautiiful beaches of Miyako Island, or even shopping on Kokusai Street in the main island, I’m sure you’d be able to find out to suit your preference. Time to escape the big city, kick back and relax with a glass of awamori, the local distilled liquor made from Thai rice.
5. If you think the Japanese are polite and kind, then the Okinawan people are super friendly.
Perhaps it is because of Okinawa’s history and interaction with its trading partners, or perhaps it is just the island lifestyle… The people of Okinawa seem to be more open and friendly to visitors. Everywhere we went, we were greeted by the warm and bright smiles of the locals, with their cheerful greetings.
I had the opportunity to visit Minami Daito island, a small island village known for its sugar cane plantations and I was simply blown away by the locals’ hospitality and warmth toward this group of foreigners. They shared their food and culture with us, and even went out of the way to catch some bonito fish to make fresh sashimi for us!
I hope I have whet your appetite about visiting the beautiful Okinawa islands. To find out more about where to go and what to do in Okianwa, keep a lookout for our upcoming blog posts!