Japan: Tranquil times in Okinawa

By Amelia Langford

Holiday isles are a world away from the mainland, writes Amelia Langford.
Okinawa, Japan. Photo / Amelia Langford
Okinawa, Japan. Photo / Amelia Langford

The subtropical islands of Okinawa are officially part of Japan but it's almost like a different country. In fact, it used to be. Once known as the Ryukyu Kingdom, it was not until the late 1870s that it reluctantly became part of Japan. It's clear that even now many Okinawans still feel separate to the rest of Japan. Few locals still speak the old Okinawan dialects but there is a push to retain the old culture and traditions.

One middle-aged man dressed in a Hawaiian shirt tells me in no uncertain terms: "I am Okinawan, not Japanese." Okinawa, however, is where mainland Japanese now come to holiday. For the overworked "salary-man" in Tokyo, Okinawa's beautiful beaches in the south are just a quick flight away.

I start my travels in Okinawa's prefectural capital, Naha, as it's the main hub with an international airport and ferries to the islands.

Naha is not the most beautiful of cities but it would be easy to spend a week here as there's lots to do. The main drag, Kokusai St, sells the usual touristy knick-knacks but it's vibrant at night and has lots of restaurants and small bars in sidestreets.

Some sell "habu sake" or snake wine. The habu is a very poisonous Okinawan snake but a creature you're likely only to see preserved in alcohol.

Naha is also known for its pottery village and a castle, which was once home to the Ryukyu Kingdom's royal family (it has since been rebuilt after being destroyed in World War II).

There are reminders everywhere of the war, as one of the last major battles was fought here, ending with the surrender of Okinawa to the US forces and the mass suicide of civilians.

For those interested in this era, there is plenty to see, including the former underground headquarters of the Japanese navy.

Peace memorials are also scattered across the islands in memory of the many Okinawans who died. Okinawa still has a strong US military presence, which has long been a source of contention.

Many people come to Okinawa just for the snorkelling and diving. The aquarium houses three whale sharks in a huge tank. I arrive when the whales are about to be fed and watch as the giant fish feed upright at the surface.

Okinawa, Japan. Photo / Amelia Langford
Okinawa, Japan. Photo / Amelia Langford

Their huge mouths take in litres of water as they eat. The audience of mainly Japanese cry out with oohs and ahhhs. It's also worth checking the other shark tank and its more menacing-looking bull and tiger sharks. Despite knowing I'm safe from these creatures, I edge away when a bull shark with squinty eyes heads my way.

After a few days in Naha, I go further afield and visit a group of Okinawa's smaller islands, known as the Kerama Islands. I travel to Zamami Island first and arrive on the ferry early evening.

The little island looks beautiful in the late afternoon and the owner of the pension hotel I'm staying at is there to pick me up.

The next day is cloudy and rainy. I wander around and bump into an Italian couple. The man is desperate to talk and tells me they have made the mistake of booking five nights and there is nothing to do. Zamami is the perfect place to relax on the beach or go snorkelling but if the weather is bad, there is not too much else on offer.

After three nights on Zamami, I'm ready to leave and catch the ferry to neighbouring Aka Island. This island is even smaller and gives new meaning to the hackneyed phrase "sleepy fishing village".

I walk to a nearby beach to find a long stretch of white sand and turquoise surf. I'm the only one there and it's hard to shake off the feeling that I'm a castaway.

The owner of the guesthouse I'm staying at tells me he used to be a weather forecaster in Tokyo but threw it all in to move to Aka.

His wife cooks the guests an exquisite breakfast and dinner each day and we eat together on the deck, with a cold Okinawan beer, Orion, on hand. After a day on my own walking around the island, it's nice to chat to other people.

By the end of my stay, I've met a French dentist, a Dutch stuntwoman, and a New Zealander on his way to London to work in the organic beverage industry.

The Kiwi and I find it hard to believe that we've both ended up on the tiny island of Aka
where the number of tourists can be counted on one hand.

On my last night, I go for an evening stroll with two other guests. It gets dark early here and street lamps are few and far between.

We spot some of the island's deer grazing on the beach in the moonlight. These small deer are unique to the Kerama Islands and I'm told they can swim between islands. The deer stare at us before running off into the darkness.

The next day I board the ferry to Naha but I'll return to Okinawa.

Hot tips:

• Aim for June or September or expect high humidity if you go to Okinawa in July and August.
• Try Okinawa soba, the region's take on the classic noodle dish.
• Wash your soba noodles down with habu sake or snake sake.
• Don't leave without buying Okinawan pottery or traditional Okinawan textiles.

- Spy.co.nz

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