by Sandy Lai
In The Karate Kid, Mr. Miyagi responds to the question of where he learned something with, “Okinawa…My country.” Though this island chain is a part of Japan, Okinawans are proud to be Okinawans first. The former kingdom of Ryukyu was conquered by the Japanese to become Okinawa, but with their own sets of customs, the people still regard themselves as different from those on the mainland. In addition to its unique culture, the islands are blessed with splendid weather and beauty. From the nightlife in Naha, to the jungles of Iriomote and water buffalo of Yubu Island, Okinawa has excitement and relaxation in equal measures.
Sand and Surf
Okinawa and its 160 islands is a major vacation spot for Japanese tourists, perhaps because the uminchu (“sea people”) follow the island way of life as opposed to that of the hurried mainland. The archipelago is also one of the best diving destinations in the world, comparable to the Great Barrier Reef of Australia. Aharen Beach on the island of Tokashiki is one such snorkeling and diving spot. While some seasons are better than others, you can pretty much dive all year long. Surfing is also popular, especially off Okinawa Island. If you just want to lay around on the beach, some of the best beaches in Japan can be found on the Ishigaki, and you can camp out at Yonehara Beach. The star sand beaches on Iriomote and Taketomi are also worth noting for their deposits of tiny star-shaped shells that make up much of the beaches.
Flora and Fauna
With 90% of the sparsely inhabited island of Iriomote covered in dense jungle, a trip to Iriomote National Park is duly warranted. Or you may prefer a ride down the Urauchi, the Amazon-esque river that weaves around giant mangrove trees. Snorkeling and scuba diving are also popular here, and dolphins can be seen in the summer. Other close encounters with animals can be added by traveling to nearby Yubu Island, most accessible by water buffalo. Once across, you can see more water buffalo up close and explore the tropical paradise around them. Don’t be content with just looking at the exotic plants however. Give the Okinawan staple, beni imo, the delicious purple-fleshed sweet potato a try. It is used in a variety of dishes, including ice cream! Pineapples are also great here, and you can even learn more than you’ve ever wanted to know by going to Pineapple Park, a theme park with pineapple fields and tropical gardens.
A Glimpse of the Past
The preserved Ryukyu village found on Taketomi draws many visitors with its traditional red-tiled rooftop houses and tons of shiza lion-dog statues guarding their entrances. Many roads are unpaved, just avenues of pristine white sand. It’s possible to tour by water buffalo cart, but cycling is probably the best way to get around. Many of the traditional homes serve as minshoku, a Japanese-style bed and breakfast, while others are restaurants and shops.
Music and Nightlife
Okinawan music is also quite distinctive due to its mix of traditional sounds, jazz and American rock. The sanshin, a traditional banjo-like instrument with three strings is still used, and it is not uncommon to walk into a bar where someone is strumming away. Speaking of bars, no doubt Naha, the capital, has the liveliest nightlife and you can find many GIs frequenting the scene. However, it should be noted that there could be some anti-American sentiment due to the U.S. military base on the island. Ishigaki also has a vibrant nightlife and its microbrew, Ishigakijima Beer, is worth a try, especially its “marine” lager. Other unique Okinawan alcohol includes awamori, a strong liquor brewed using Thai jasmine rice dating back from the Ryukyu Kingdom. It can contain up to 60% alcohol and is widely served. If it is aged more than three years, it is known as kusu. Awamori is also used to make a liquer known as habushu, or Okinawan snake wine. As the name suggests, a venomous habu snake is inserted into the bottle and may be sold with it still inside. The alcohol makes the venom non-poisonous, and it is believed by some to have medicinal benefits, including on the male libido. Truth or marketing ploy? Only one way to find out…