OKINAWA (ATT.JAPAN ISSUE 27)
Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost islands blessed with white sand beaches and blue oceans.
On your first trip to Okinawa, like anywhere else, everything you see is new. Okinawa is Japan but it is an area with its own unique culture and history largely different from that of the rest of Japan.
How about staying at a resort hotel, playing all day on the beach, dabbling in marine sports, shopping, eating local delicacies and / or watching live folk music?
Now featuring locales designated a World Heritage Site, Okinawa was once the independent Ryukyu Kingdom and with so many isolated islands full of nature, surrounded by a beautiful ocean and coral reefs, even a full week isn’t really enough to see all Okinawa has to offer so, for your first visit to Okinawa, let me give you a taste of the ‘essence’ of this historic and very interesting area.
Okinawa Prefecture is located between the large island of Kyushu in southern Japan and Taiwan and all told, consists of approximately 160 islands. It is the only complete prefecture in Japan classed as being inside a subtropical zone. The average yearly temperature is 22.7 degrees Celsius; summertime feels longer than in the rest of the archipelago and the islands remain warm even in winter. Famous for the beauty of the surrounding seas, coral reefs and forests packed with unique forms of vegetation, swimming in the sea is possible between May and October. Being so far south of the main Japanese archipelago, Okinawa has a resulting history quite different to the areas to the north and was once an independent nation known as the Ryukyu Kingdom. As part of the 1868 Meiji restoration, Ryukyu became Okinawa and fell under Japanese administration for almost 80 years before the US took over running the islands post WWII. In 1972, Okinawa was returned to Japanese administration. The prefectural capital is the city of Naha and more than half of the prefecture’s population live in central and southern parts of Okinawa Honto (Okinawa’s Main Island) – the island home to Naha.
Okinawa is usually accessed by air – with most flights going to the main island. There are direct flights from cities all over Japan to Naha airport and there are even some direct flights to the isolated islands but far fewer. From Okinawa Honto to the harder to reach islands, travel by air or water is possible with flights from Naha to Miyako taking 45 minutes and from Naha to Ishigaki 55 minutes. Around 7 to 10 flights depart daily depending on the season. International flights out of Naha can take travelers direct to Korea, Taipei, Shanghai and Manila.
Since the 12th century, Okinawa’s isolation has led to the islands developing their own distinctive culture influenced in large part through trade with China, mainland Japan, Korea and Southeast Asian nations. One indication of this mix of influences is Shuri Castle, once a royal palace of the Ryukyu Kingdom. Essentially a blend of Chinese and Japanese styles, this well known castle is a building typical of the Okinawan culture of old as are dyed fabrics such as Bingata, Ryukyu-kasuri and Bashofu, Tsuboya ceramics and Ryukyu lacquer ware – all traditional craft with origins in the time the Ryukyu Kingdom was independent. More recently, due to the 27-year administrative control by the US, American influence in many fields, including music, food, clothing and Okinawa now being very much a car-oriented society remains strong.
Individual Area Characteristics
The Central Part of Okinawa Honto
Strongly influenced by the US, American and Japanese culture is very much a single entity in this area. The US military base strongly affects the surrounding areas and Okinawa City is the center of the resulting cultural melting pot with Okinawa City as is – a town of music where clubs featuring live music compete with each other on a daily basis. Chatan Town is the old site of the US military base and is now home to an “American Village” with a huge Ferris wheel. The nearby World Heritage Sites of “Katsuren-gusku Castle,” “Zakimi-gusuku Castle” and “Naka-gusuku Castle” also attract the crowds and even bullfighting is popular. Festival wise, those timing their visit right or simply lucky can expect to see the “Okinawa Zento Eisaa Matsuri” festival.
The Southern Part of Okinawa Honto
There are no very high mountains in the south of the main island meaning that gently sloping hills stretch out in all directions. Sugarcane, vegetable and flower cropping is a major industry in this area where once, countless Japanese soldiers and civilians were killed at the end of WWII. Okinawa Senseki Kokutei Koen is a park to console the souls of more than two hundred thousand such war dead and “Heiwa Kinen Shiryo-kan” is a museum and “Heiwa no Ishizue” a monument, on which the names of these victims are carved side by side – regardless of nationality, in Heiwa Kinen Koen.
The Northern Part of Okinawa Honto
This area is called Yambaru and is known for its mountains covered in dense green forests. Mangrove forests grow thickest around the mouth of the rivers running down from the mountains and were once so thick that the 1981 discovery of a forest resident – the Okinawa rail (Yambaru kuina) remains the only bird species discovered in Japan in the past 60 years although it is joined in the forest by a good many other creatures – all known to man but found nowhere else.
Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium is in Okinawa Commemorative National Government Park in Motobu Town. Another attraction of the northern part of the main island is the fantastic array of resort hotels lined up in Onna Village. “Bankoku Shinryo-kan” in Nago City, for those interested is also the location of the 2000 Kyushu-Okinawa G-8 Summit.
Yaeyama Shoto (Yaeyama Islands)
The Yaeyama Islands are islands around Ishigaki Island, located 450km to the southwest of Okinawa Honto. Ishigaki Island is the third largest island in the Okinawa island chain and is famous for its breathtaking seascapes and its coral reefs. The second largest island, Iriomote Island is covered with subtropical virgin forests, is home to the Iriomote wildcat, a special natural treasure, and other rare wild animals making it a mecca of eco-tourism. Taketomi Island is dotted with villages reminding all of the old time landscapes of Okinawa as they include stonewalls, red roof tiles and white roads made of coral sand. Hateruma Island has a monument marking the southernmost point of modern Japan and the Southern Cross star formation can be seen from this island during the summertime. On clear days too, it is even possible to see Taiwan from Yonaguni Island, the westernmost point of the Japanese archipelago. Ishigakijima Umikoza
Miyako Shoto (Miyako Islands)
The Miyako Islands are located around Miyako (main) Island and are approximately 300 km southwest of Okinawa Honto. All of the islands are rather flat, featureless in terms of elevation and full of nature. The winding coastline, white beach and coral reefs are particularly renowned and the beaches today attract many marine sport lovers. In April each year, many athletes from Japan and abroad participate in the All Japan Triathlon Miyakojima.
Isolated Islands around Okinawa Honto
There are several attractive islands around Okinawa Honto.
Beach and Marine Leisure
Because the coral reefs break up and weaken rough waves, the sea around Okinawa is relatively shallow for a considerable distance from the shore. This enables all to see coral and fish up close by snorkeling although scuba diving is the most popular of the marine sports on offer on Okinawa and can be done throughout the year. It is said that there are 800 kinds of coral in the world and approximately 200 of the 800 are confirmed as existing in Okinawa. Other marine leisure pastimes such as parasailing and sea kayaking are possible in these areas.
World Heritage Site
The Gusuku were first started in the 12th century. In the years since, those who secured power in the villages competed with each other until the three ‘powers’ converged to form the Three Powers or “Sanzan” in Japanese. The ‘parts’ are: Hokuzan (north power), Cyuzan (central power) and Nanzan (southern power). When Shohashi unified these three powers and established the first Sho-shi dynasty in 1492, the royal castle was then Shuri Castle. The Seiden (main hall) was reconstructed based on Chinese palace-architectural styles and Japanese architectural styles. In 1853, Commodore Perry dropped anchor at Naka-gusuku Castle on his way to Uraga, Kanagawa Prefecture with the black ships and the long stonewalls ruins of Nakijin-gusuku Castle even of today can remind all of the then castle appearance. Several representatives of Gusuku (castle), in 2000, saw the ruins inscribed as a World Heritage Site of “Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu.”
Minyo (Folk Song) and Ryukyu Buyo (Dancing)
Folk songs are even now indispensable in ceremonies and events on Okinawa, so, for those with an interest in music, a visit to a Minyo sakaba (pub with live folk music) is highly recommended. Enjoy live folk songs amidst the locals. Minyo sakaba are generally full of excitement due to both the music being played and the interaction of the fans as they sing and dance together with the musicians.
Ryukyu Buyo is a form of dance accompanied by a sanshin (a type of shamisen) and is a form of classical song on Okinawa. The colorful costumes and glittering accessories of the dancers remind you of the elegance of past Ryukyu dynasties.
Whale sharks and mantas swim gracefully around a huge tank at the “Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium” in Motobu Town. “Murasakimura” in Yomitan Village is a theme park at which visitors can experience and enjoy any of 18 workshops and 55 attractions from today whilst traditional Okinawan events are even now held at “Ryukyumura” in Onna Village – in a manner unchanged for centuries. The village is also the site of the “Eisaa” festival. “Okinawa World” in Nanjo City is another theme park where you can experience all the culture of Okinawa but based on the central theme of a castle town of the Ryukyu Kingdom. “Gyokusendo” in the park is a limestone cave said to be the second longest in Japan. For lovers of ‘green’ though, relax all you want in subtropical forests with orchids blooming year round in “Bios on the Hill.” “Tropical Dream Center” in Kokusai Okinawa Kokuei Koen, “Southeast Botanical Gardens” and “Neo Park Okinawa” are all perfect to see more of the local forms of nature.
In Japan recently, several young, professional, and mainly female golfers from Okinawa have become extremely popular. The charm of golf in Okinawa is playing amidst nature’s prize gardens and with approximately 40 golfing links to enjoy there is something for everybody. One course looks down on the ocean, one is set in a tropical forest and one features holes built ‘over’ the ocean.
There are 2 places used as a gathering point for ceramic ateliers in Okinawa. Tsuboya, hosts approximately 20 ateliers and has been famous for its ceramics since the period the Ryukyu Dynasty was in full swing. Plates, bowls, coffee cups, jars and statues of shiisa (lion-shaped roof ornaments seen all over Okinawa) are made here and some places even allow you to look around and try doing it yourself. Yachimun-no-sato” in Yomitan Village hosts approximately 40 ateliers.
“Ryukyu glass” has a shorter history than other traditional forms of craftwork seen in Okinawa. Originally made from discarded soft-drink and beer bottles, brought in by the US military bases, its thick appearance is actually easy to crack and does contain bubbles, with less transparency and less delicacy than other glasses. That said, its rustic color and texture cannot be seen in other glass products and although the glass is now made from newer materials in addition to older bottles, it still retains its rustic and charming qualities.
Typical Local Products
There are many famous local products; kariyushi wear, clothes made using traditional dying designs from Okinawa, cosmetics using locally grown plants and pork, soup and chocolate cans (indispensable for use in the local cuisine). Concerning sweets, donuts named “Sata-anda-gii” and “Chinsuko” (cookie) are famous in the prefecture and can be purchased along the 1.6km Kokusai dori that runs through Naha and is lined with banks, hotels, department stores, general goods shops, clothing stores, restaurants and travel agencies as well as, of course, souvenirs shops.
At “DFS Okinawa,” a special tax free shop that opened at Omoromachi in the spring of 2005, brand goods can be bought tax-free, providing you can produce domestic flight tickets. At “Okinawa Outlet Mall Ashibinaa” in Tomigusuku City, there are approximately 70 high-end brand shops including some that have never before done business in Japan – all offering their goods at reasonable prices.
Under the movement of “Slow Food,” traditional Okinawan food is recognized as healthy food. It is said that Okinawan people eat such healthy meals that they really have the same effect as taking medicine daily. The key to tasty Okinawan soba (noodles) are the noodles, the soup stock and the ingredients. Stock is usually made from pork, chicken, bonito and kombu (kelp). Pork, fish sausage, shredded scallions and pickled ginger are the usual ingredients while Awamori liquor like whisky and shochu is extremely old in its production and at present, many milder types of Awamori are being concocted to go with the famed local items of shimadofu (tofu) and goya-champuru (sauteed nigauri).
Makishi Public Market
This market has its origins in a small black market that sprung up after the war but today hosts approximately 400 shops and is filled with the brisk voices of sellers each day the market is in full swing. Looking around the fish shops displaying and selling garish colored fish specimens and the meat shops selling all the usable parts of a pig such as block pork, tonsoku (the pig’s hoof), pork on the bone and chiraga (the skin off the pig’s face) is interesting to say the least. For the peckish, inexpensive Okinawan cuisine is sold at the restaurants on the 2nd floor and if you pay a cooking fee, some restaurants will prepare the ingredients that you have just bought at the shops on the 1st floor.