Crouched on the beach, I watch him press his hand into the sand and hold it there for a count of three. He then stands and stares at his palm. Beyond him, two others do the same and beyond them even more people stoop, silhouetted against the bright sun and flawless turquoise waters of Hoshizuna Beach.
We’re on Taketomi Island in the Okinawa prefecture, a series of islands thrown southwest of Japan around 5 million years ago. It’s winter on the mainland but sub-tropical here, where we’re closer to Taiwan than Tokyo. Instead of business suits and silk kimonos, floral shirts are all the rage. But Okinawa’s identify runs deeper than just sunshine and fashion.
“Okinawa is different,” confided a businessman I’d met in Tokyo the day before.
“How so? “
“They are ocean people,” he shrugged. “They relax more, have different food and speak a different language. They are a young addition to Japan.”
Young, as it turns out, means 500 years old.
Taketomi itself has changed little over the centuries; its 300 or so inhabitants still farm sugar cane and have banned the use of concrete. While the main Okinawan island, actually called Okinawa, has embraced modernisation with high rise towers, an airport and the controversial US bases, Taketomi seems happy with stone walls, solitude and swathes of mangrove.
It’s not the only Okinawan island with its own identity. Iriomote houses an endangered wild cat and on the tiny island of Yubu, buffaloes carry visitors onto its shores (And yes, I went on one. More about that later…)
What the islands share, other than stunning beaches, is the rich Ryukyu culture that survived the region’s greatest tragedy. The only WWII battle fought on Japanese soil took place in sunny, laid-back Okinawa and its implications burn on still. The defeat left a third of the population dead, many as a result of suicide, and ushered in the US occupation.
“We are a relaxed, optimistic people,” one interpreter told me. “Which makes it easy for other countries to take advantage.”
He looked over his shoulder. “Not that it will change us. I lived in the UK and I was depressed. When I came back to Okinawa I asked my doctor for help. He told me I didn’t need it. That now that I was home I would be fine.”
He chuckled. “And he was right.”
I stood on Hoshizuna beach, pressing my own hand into the sand as the sun warmed my shoulders, ready to uncover at least one of Okinawa’s secrets.
I turned over my palm to discover, scattered among the sand, a constellation of tiny stars.
“All we have in Okinawa is sand, sea and sun,” the interpreter had told me.
With sand this interesting, I had to disagree…
I visited Okinawa as a guest of JNTO. More about Okinawa’s food, its traditions and those buffaloes will be coming soon…
Abigail King is a writer and photographer who swapped a career as a doctor for a life on the road. Now published by Lonely Planet, the BBC, CNN, National Geographic Traveler & more, she feels most at home experimenting here: covering unusual journeys, thoughtful travel and luxury on www.insidethetravellab.com