Expat Living Editor KATIE ROBERTS visits the remote Japanese island of Okinawa.
Okinawa will appeal to Japan aficionados and those seeking an alternative to the run-of-the-mill Thailand or Bali beach break. The culture of Japan, centuries-old Ryukyu Island traditions and Western influence are all evident in day-to-day life on Okinawa.
Those who have also visited Tokyo and Kyoto will notice that, while it resembles the mainland in many ways, Okinawa’s compact size, tropical weather and remoteness (it’s over 1,500km from the capital) have combined to create a distinct identity. Aside from taking it easy on a beach, here are five things to do while you’re there.
#1 Explore Naha
All flights land at the airport close to Naha, the island’s bustling capital and commercial centre. The city’s heart is Kokusai Street, which locals affectionately call the “miracle mile” because it was the centre of recovery after World War II when the city was all but flattened. Today, it’s a busy strip of restaurants, hotels and souvenir shops. You’ll find the compact Makishi Market in the labyrinth of covered shopping lanes that branch off the main street.
The quaint Pottery Street is nearby. Named for its winding lanes lined with pottery shops, here you’ll find artists at work, Shuri Castle and even an old climbing kiln (similar to the dragon kilns found in Singapore).
Shuri Castle Park is set high on a hill overlooking the city, and it’s a pleasant place to stroll around for a few hours.
#2 Eat and drink the local delicacies
Since Okinawa is tropical, its cuisine differs in many ways from the rest of Japan. Sweet potato and pumpkin are popular ingredients, as is pineapple, the island’s largest crop; sugar cane is grown widely and is used to make brown sugar candy and for doughnuts. Okinawan pork is very popular (despite seafood being plentiful) and is widely served in a ramen-style dish with Chinese overtones.
Bitter melon, or gourd, features in most meals and is often served with tofu (which tends to be firmer and creamier than the mainland version). Ask for seafood and you’ll be served fresh sashimi, sushi, and fish cooked anyway you like it, often with a string of umi budo, a tiny green seaweed known as “green caviar”. Local brew awamori is also made with rice, but its flavour is entirely different to sake. Chuko Distillery (chukogura.com) is one of 48 distilleries on the island. It’s a good place to learn about the distilling process and watch patient potters creating from local clay the vitrified pots in which the awamori is stored.
#3 Take a stroll
Fukugi trees have been used for centuries as natural windbreaks to mitigate the impact of the typhoons that strike the island from time to time. The community of homes at Bise Fukugi Road is set along sandy paths behind these tall and shady trees that offer both privacy and protection. Finish with lunch or dinner at Cahaya Bulan Café, overlooking the sea.
#4 Get up close with the sea
The sparkling blue seas surrounding Okinawa have made it a popular spot for everything and anything to do with water. At numerous points along the coastline there are opportunities for participating in water sports such as parasailing – which I’d not tried before but thoroughly enjoyed – and flyboarding, best described as walking on water through the upward propulsion of jet pack shoes (much more difficult than it looks!).
A more sedate aquatic activity is swimming with dolphins. This was another first for me, and while it was very enjoyable I did wrestle with my conscience about the circumstances of their captivity. Snorkelling is easily accessible, but choose your spot carefully as some of them, such as Blue Cave, can be overrun with boats and divers.
Rather stay on dry land? The Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium (churaumi.okinawa/en/) is home to three enormous whale sharks, manta rays and bull sharks in one of the world’s largest tanks. It’s located inside the large Ocean Expo Park complex that also offers dolphin shows, gardens, museums and cultural exhibits.
#5 Visit an onsen
Public nudity is an offence in many countries, but in Japan, so long as you’re within the confines of an onsen, it’s totally OK. The Ryujin Onsen at the Senagajima Hotel (senagaspa. jp/en) is open to hotel guests and the public, and it’s a wonderful facility with indoor and outdoor baths. If it’s your first time, here’s (Link to onsen in singapore article) how to make the experience less stressful.
Where to stay:
Ryukyu Onsen Senagajima Hotel
Sheraton Okinawa Sunmarina Resort
The Terrace Club at Busena
Options from Singapore include flying via Osaka or Tokyo, or flying to Taipei (Taiwan) and taking a connecting flight to Naha from there. SilkAir runs direct charter flights from time to time (see below).
There’s little public transport beyond Naha, so independent travellers should hire a car, use hotel transfers or engage a tour guide. Check out Flight Centre for flight, hire car and accommodation deals (flightcentre.com.sg/holidays/okinawa).
Check out more great destinations on our Travel page.