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Secrets in the Sand – Introducing Okinawa, Japan

Taketomi Island - Hoshizuna Beach - Japan

Taketomi Island, Japan

 

Taketomi Island, Japan

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.

Traditional Costumes, Okinawa Japan

Traditional Costumes, Okinawa, Japan

“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.

“Okinawa is different.”

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.”

“We are a relaxed, optimistic people.”

Shisa, Okinawa, Japan

Good Luck Charms, Okinawa, Japan

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.

Beach Stars, Taketomi

Beach Stars, Taketomi

“All we have in Okinawa is sand, sea and sun,” the interpreter had told me.

With sand this interesting, I had to disagree…

Sand Stars, Taketomi Island, Japan

Sand Stars, Taketomi Island, Japan

I visited Okinawa as a guest of JNTO. More about Okinawa’s food, its traditions and those buffaloes will be coming soon…


14 Responses to Secrets in the Sand – Introducing Okinawa, Japan

  1. Lust for Travel December 7, 2010 at 12:09 am #

    Okinawa fascinates me, looking forward to hearing more. I hadn’t heard about the sand stars though, only the longevity of its Okinawan people!

  2. Melvin December 7, 2010 at 12:48 am #

    Others are going horseback riding on their trip… you do buffaloe riding. Sounds fun! I’m looking forward to see/read more!

  3. Nellie December 9, 2010 at 3:46 am #

    Brilliant write-up – I’ve always wanted to go to Okinawa since I was a kid. Can’t wait to read more about it. ;)

  4. Indra December 9, 2010 at 4:38 am #

    Picturesque…will wait for more

  5. AdventureRob December 12, 2010 at 5:32 am #

    I was going to skip Okinawa but I think I just changed my mind – star sand looks awesome!

  6. Abi December 15, 2010 at 8:34 pm #

    Okinawa a truly fascinating place. Yep, they have some of the oldest people on the planet (and yes, it might have been easier to go horse-riding ;) )

    The sand stars were incredible, though. Stay tuned…more on its way!

  7. LeslieTravel December 16, 2010 at 4:47 pm #

    Fantastic photos! Sounds like a wonderful place to visit

  8. Jan December 17, 2010 at 2:58 am #

    Awesome place!! too bad I missed it. I shall return to Japan, not having enough of it yet.

  9. Abi December 20, 2010 at 2:17 pm #

    It certainly feels different to the rest of Japan – and worth the detour if you have the time.

  10. TravelBlggr December 20, 2010 at 3:39 pm #

    The good luck charms are adorable! And the water is gorgeous and crystal clear. Thanks for sharing!

  11. Nicole December 20, 2010 at 3:44 pm #

    I love the last photo of the woman. Tells a story in itself. And looking forward to hearing more about Okinawa!

  12. Mariko August 7, 2012 at 12:59 am #

    Unfortunately as cool as star sand looks, it’s not everywhere in Okinawa, mostly in little bottles in tourist shops with colored sand so the stars stand out. However, if anyone has an inkling to visit, I’d encourage it because even though it’s out of the way and doesn’t have a rail system like mainland Japan, it’s more tourist friendly than one would assume, especially with a little planning and phrase book. If you stick to the bigger places, someone knows broken English, it’s on the menus, they have forks, Western toilets, etc much more likely than in mainland Japan. Plus, it’s beautiful with a sadness.

    • Abi October 13, 2012 at 11:34 am #

      It’s definitely beautiful and, yes, there are plenty of changes to make it easier for Western travellers to get about. But also, some of the differences are why people like to travel so a part of me hopes that it doesn’t change too much ;)

  13. Enepi September 30, 2013 at 3:14 pm #

    Nice post. Short and sweet as Taketomi herself :)

    I went last April and it was superb: the people we talked to (my wife is Japanese), the laid back atmosphere, the transparent waters, the perfectly preserved village, the food…no doubt why most of the super-centenaries are from Okinawa!

    Thanks for sharing

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