Snow-white beaches, giant coconut-eating crabs and karate-loving grannies: Okinawa is Japan but not as we know it. This alluring chain of sun-kissed, hibiscus-draped islands offers a blend of Southeast Asian heat, unique ‘un-Japanese’ culture and delicious, life-extending food. Andy Turner explores how to make the most of a trip to Japan’s subtropical paradise.
This could all be down to the local diet: steaming bowls of dark green vegetables, tofu, fresh fish and muzuku seaweed, the latter hoovered up from the Okinawan seabed and exported across Japan. Or perhaps it’s the knobbly goyu cucumber, apparently packed with all kinds of medicinal goodies (and often served up fried with SPAM, of all things).
Whatever the secret, it’s probably no thanks to the local hooch, awomori, 'island sake' which can pack a 60% alcohol punch. But that shouldn’t stop you sampling a glass – try the smooth, three-year aged version from local distillery Chuko Awamori.
Okinawan karate is less about flashy moves and more a way of life – the 'why' more important than the 'how' as they put it. Enthusiasts can arrange lessons with an experienced sensei (instructor). Alternatively drop in to Naha’s Dojo Bar, to lap up the martial arts memorabilia and an ice-cold Orion beer.
For classic white-sand and emerald water eye candy you’ll need to hop on a plane to Ishigaki, part of the Yaeyama group of islands, 400km southwest of Naha. Here Kabira Bay is as close as Japan gets to Boracay or Waikiki Beach, with only half the level of commercialisation. There’s even a gloriously unpretentious hostel which makes for a tempting place to wake up.
An independent state sandwiched between Ming dynasty China and feudal Japan, Ryūkyū developed its own culture and language, before finally being annexed by the Japanese in the nineteenth century.
The influence of its neighbours can be seen at Shuri Castle, painstakingly rebuilt in the 1990s. Here, vermillion Chinese pagodas and ornate dragons stand side-by-side with minimalist Japanese rooms kitted out with tatami mats. Look up and you’ll spot shīsā or ‘lion dogs’, glaring down from the roof. This uniquely Okinawan mascot can be seen warding off evil spirits and typhoons across the islands.
Andy Turner travelled with Inside Japan who offer a twelve-night island hopping trip to Okinawa as well as specialist itineraries for karate and diving enthusiasts. For a video taster of the islands see Be Okinawa.
Top image: Aharen Beach, Tokashiki island, Kerama Islands group, Okinawa © mapman/Shutterstock