Rethink your idea of Japan by considering these unique things to do in Okinawa, her most southern and sub-tropical islands. Brimming with history, palm trees, sunshine and a cuisine like no other, it’s here that people have the longest life expectancy in the world.
In Okinawa, you are 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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
When the US occupied the Okinawa islands in southwest Japan, they switched the rules of the road to make everyone drive on the right. When they withdrew, the local people switched them right back.
The chaos that resulted from these frequent changes never filtered through to the transport link between Yubu & Iriomote. These remote Yaeyama islanders did what they had always done*: they let the water buffalo choose the route.
These water buffaloes start their training at the age of two and it’s a process that takes a full year. They then plod across the paradise shores at their own pace until easing into part-time work prior to retirement.
The simple twang of the Ryukyu sanshin guitar keeps them entertained.
What did I make of this unusual journey? Well, when we arrived the water was glistening, the beach deserted and the buffalo carts looked like a mirage from another time and place.
Disclosure – I visited Okinawa as a guest of JNTO. As ever, as always, I kept the right to write what I like.
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