Okinawa: Japan’s Offbeat Islands

Okinawa

One place I’ve been itching to visit since I came here is Okinawa, which is a chain of islands to the south of Japan’s mainland. Descriptions of a place with a chill island vibe, chatty people, and palm trees waving under clear blue skies on picturesque beaches had me anxious to explore. If you ask someone Japanese about Okinawa they’ll say something like, “It’s nothing like the rest of Japan.”

And I have to agree. Naha, Okinawa’s capital, is home to military bases, America town and the famous Churaumi Aquarium. But even here the tempo and style is more like somewhere in south-east Asia, the opposite of Tokyo’s break-neck pace.

Kokusai Street

Walking along the famous shopping district, Kokusai street I wandered into many stores, lured by the slow, relaxing twang of Okinawa shamisen music. Inside I found island-y things, like fifty different colors of flip flops, or traditional Okinawan souvenirs such as pineapple and mango cakes, or the benimo (sweet potato) tarts Okinawa is known for.

The people are pretty friendly and likely to try to start up a conversation. It’s true, they’re also trying to get you into their restaurant or to buy something, but it’s still nice. And though Kokusai is a well-known tourist spot, it’s still not as crowded as Tokyo, and there’s something to be said for being able to walk without getting body checked by someone every five minutes.

Okinawa-Goya-Chanpuru

Goya Chanpuru

But the highlight of Kokousai street was the food. Okinawa is famous for goya—a really bitter gourd type thing that’s actually pretty gross on its own, but mixed up with pork, egg and tofu in goya chanpuru it somehow becomes amazing. The benimo tarts I mentioned before are crusty and buttery on the outside, and pure, purple goodness on the inside. Soki soba is one of the reasons I wanted to visit in the first place.  It’s noodles in broth with this big slab of the juiciest, most flavourful pork I’ve ever had. Tacos and taco rice are also really popular in Naha, likely due to the American influence.

Bouldering on the Beach

Okinawa-Beach-Forest

I went with a group of friends, and the five of us ended up at a beach way off the beaten path. The taxi pulled up, (quick note, taxis are much cheaper than Tokyo, especially if split five ways) dropped us off at the beginning of a gravely road leading into some dense trees and we were on our own. The trees shut out all noise, surrounding us in a world of green. There was something magical about it. Squint and an old, dirty bathroom could become an ancient ruin caressed by encroaching leaves. The air smelled like earth and plants and the ocean.

Okinawa-Beach-1It was only about a ten minute walk through this wonderland before the trees opened up and the beach spread out in front of us. It was deserted: there was literally no one else in sight. This wasn’t the usual sand and surf beach for swimming though. We’re all into bouldering, and my friend found this place because of the big rocks that thrust out of the sand, perfect for climbing. Even the coast was a jagged, broken line of rock bordering the ocean. It should have been ugly, but was somehow majestic, a reminder of the wonders nature can create. Plus it was kind of fun to hop and stumble over the rocks while trying to get to a pier a few yards away. The surface sometimes opened up into little pools, where tiny, electric blue fish darted around.

A walk down the beach finally turned up some other people, a few who were sitting on the steps to…an abandoned beach shack! I went all around, trying every door and window to get inside but it was no good. Everything was locked up tight. It’s probably for the best. I might have run into some surfer ghost, eternally waiting on his reggae punch.

Okinawan History

Okinawa-Shuri-CastleShuri castle is easy enough to get to. Just take the monorail and walk a while. This castle is unlike the other castles in Japan, in fact it looks more Chinese with its snaking wall surrounding the interior. It’s a UNESCO world heritage site, and is most famous for being used by the Ryukyu royals. The Ryukyus are the indigenous people of Okinawa. The style of the castle shows distinct Chinese influence, from the shape of the roofs, to the red colour and swirling dragon motifs done in gold. It seems the Ryukyus have had a close relationship with China, and the theory is that the first immigrants to Okinawa descended from China.

While Shuri Castle and the Shikina-en garden nearby were beautiful, the must enlightening part of this whole trip was visiting the Peace Memorial Park, which is a museum and monument to those who died in World War II. This one was harder to get to. It took an hour and a half long bus ride, but it was worth it. The curators held no punches, being frank about the devastation caused to Okinawans by both Americans and Japanese. I will never forget one room, where there were rows upon rows of books with accounts from civilians in the war. During the war, people often hid out in caves, listening to the sounds of constant bombing from American planes, the clatter of bullets from American guns and the rumbling of American tanks. At times Japanese soldiers stumbled upon a cave and, finding civilians already inside, kicked them out into the line of fire so they could hide instead. If they were kind enough to allow the civilian’s to hide with them, the situation was terse.

One woman recounted hiding with soldiers, who were irritated by the cries of another woman’s baby. Fearing the baby would give them away, a soldier told her to leave. The woman went outside for a while, and then came back without the child. No one dared to ask her any questions.

Another account was of people running during an attack. One girl saw a woman running frantically with a baby bouncing on her back. The baby had no head, but the woman didn’t seem to notice.

Okinawa has seen very dark times in its history, but it continues to bounce back and thrive, and has become one of Japan’s most sought out vacation spots for its luxury resorts, clear oceans perfect for scuba diving, world-class food and island philosophy. I hope to visit another one of Okinawa’s islands sometime soon.

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3 Responses to Okinawa: Japan’s Offbeat Islands

  1. zoomingjapan says:

    I was disappointed when I visited Naha because to me it was not so much different to other big cities in Japan, but as soon as you get out of the city, it’s beautiful!

    However, the main island of Okinawa is rather boring apart from all the great castles. I recommend visiting all the smaller islands such as Kumejima, Miyako, Ishigaki, Kohama, Taketomi, Yonaguni, Iriomote, Hateruma etc.
    I just came back from a summer vacation visiting the Yaeyama Islands, including the westernmost and southernmost points of Japan. Some of these islands have a population of only 200. There are more cows, horses and goats than people! ;)

    • Amanda says:

      I would really like to go back to Okinawa and see some of the other islands, I especially want to hit Iriomote. But it was good to see Naha for the first time and go to Kokusai street.

      • zoomingjapan says:

        Iriomote was lovely! I spent 3 days there. One day was a tour where we went by canoe to a waterfall. You could swim beneath the waterfall and look up to it while floating in the water. Later we went snorkeling on a small island.
        I hope you get to go! ^^

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