Having only been to Tokyo and Naeba, I was eager to explore more of Japan, especially some of its lesser-known regions. Although most know of Okinawa by name due to the popularity of karate, where the martial art form originated, and its role in World War II history, considerably less have actually visited Japan’s tropical, southernmost islands. Just 2.5 hours from Tokyo, Okinawa offers visitors cool ocean breezes with clear waters for snorkeling and diving – plus fascinating culture and history to boot.
After arriving in Naha, we got our bearings at The Okinawa Prefectural Museum and Art Museum. The mini iPod guides offer information and commentary in a variety of languages so the museum can be seen without a personal guide. Okinawa did not become part of Japan until it was taken over by the empire in the 17th century, and by then, the Ryukyu Kingdom, as the islands were called, had already been trading with China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Korea, and many others for several centuries. Okinawa is an amazing intersection of Chinese and Japanese culture. In fact, the Ryukyu kings’ coronation robes were gifts from Chinese emperors and there are Chinese characters everywhere, far more than I’ve seen in other parts of Japan. There were also comprehensive displays on the Battle of Okinawa, a tragic episode that came to life a few days later on our second pass through Naha.
Okinawan food is also vastly different to what most people think of when they think of Japanese food. They are exceptionally fond of bitter melon, mozuku, a type of seaweed harvested on the shore by sticks arranged in a grid that catch the crop as the tide recedes, and shikuwasa, a delicious local citrus fruit. Emi no Mise, or Emi’s Place, is a wonderful place to experience Okinawan cuisine and hospitality. Emi is a lovely nutritionist/chef who has a small restaurant, which is across the street from her vegetable and herb garden. Most people grow what they eat, and anything leftover is shared with neighbors. This is an example of yuimaru (a word in the local Ryukyu dialect), an Okinawan practice whereby people take care of each other and share their skills, food or time. Okinawa has the greatest percentage of centurions in the world, and with meals like the one we had here, which consisted mostly of vegetables unique to Okinawa, it is easy to see why locals live so long.
The next day I went scuba diving for the first time in a few years, a real treat! The water is very clear and if you look down at the ocean from a cliff or from a great height, the water is blue-green in color for a good 20-30-feet from the beach to the horizon before it becomes darker/opaque to the naked eye. The dive we did was less than an hour but we were able to see a variety of tropical fish. Next time I would love to see whale sharks; Okinawa is the only place in the world where you can dive with these gentle giants in a large, cylindrical net set up off the coast of Okinawa near Yomitan village.
My last day in Okinawa was by far the best. We went to the Peace Park and War Memorial and then to a small museum commemorating a group of teenage nurses who lost their lives in the aftermath of the Battle of Okinawa. The girls were conscripted into military service straight from the classroom without medical training and forced to care for wounded soldiers in the caves/tunnels of Okinawa’s main island. Conditions were horrifying, as you can imagine. A few of the girls survived and some of them work at the museum as docents. It is impossible not to be moved by their story; you could hear a pin drop in the museum as patrons silently read the displayed information and many people in my group cried. Okinawa was the only place on Japanese soil that saw battle so the people here are very aware of their past and their place in WWII history.
On our last night, my friends and I discovered Kuran, a great little izakaya in Naha that’s only frequented by locals who were transfixed by a boxing match shown on one of the flat-screen televisions in the restaurant. This was where all of us tried taco gyoza for the first time, a culinary expression of the warmth and openness of the Okinawan people. Kampai until my next visit to this beautiful country! Ja matane!
Asia Travel Writer