Australian tourists have always had an affinity with Japan. It's one of those countries that everyone says they'd love to visit. For those that do take the plunge and pack their bags for the Land of the Rising Sun, the destinations they generally visit are Tokyo and the ski fields of Hokkaido. Well, if you take a look at a map of Japan and scan to the bottom of it, beyond the island of Kyushu, you'll find a chain of tiny landmasses. These are the Ryukyu Islands, in which you will find the paradise of Okinawa. It's a part of Japan that often goes unexplored by western tourists. It's almost as though the Japanese want to keep it for themselves! But then again, why wouldn't you?
Okinawa is one of those places that travel journalists refer to as being "The complete package". To tell you the truth, it's hard to find a word or phrase that truly captures all that's on offer here. Unique maybe? No, that just covers the culture. Adventurous? Well, there's loads on offer for the thrill seekers. If you had to define Okinawa it would require several adjectives and emotive terms, ranging from those above to words like exciting, tasty, proud, alive and beautiful. However you want to describe it, thanks to Japanese Airlines this one of a kind paradise is only a short flight away.
While Okinawa might be an island escape that's steeped in history, don't go thinking you'll be stepping back in time when it comes to the modern comforts a lot of travellers want. At the heart of the Okinawa Prefecture is the contemporary, bustling city of Naha. It's a coastal metropolis sitting on the edge of the East China Sea. Naha has long been the political and commercial centre of the Ryukyu Islands and today it's a contemporary and exciting city with a relaxed tropical vibe blended with the hustle and bustle of an urban hub.
Central Naha is built around a thriving commercial district. The cities main street, Kokusai-dōri, is known as the golden mile. It's literally a 1.6kilometer stretch of road lined with neon lights, shops, bars and restaurants. It's not only a shopaholics dream, but the foodies out there will love it too. As far as shopping goes, you're spoilt for choice. There's everything from souvenir shops selling local arts and crafts, to clothes outlets with the latest in European fashions.
Running off the Kokusai-dōri is the Heiwa-dōri Shopping Arcade and Makishi Public Market. If you're after some inexpensive mementos or want to try a few of the local sweets, then Heiwa-dori is the place for you. It's basically an arcade full of budget retail outlets where a few dollars will get you a Hawaiian shirt or a bag of Sata andagi, which is a local version of the old fashioned donut.
For a glimpse of what the locals like to eat, head to the Makishi Public Market. This is a fresh food bazaar with everything from live seafood, puffer fish and fresh local produce, to dried sea snakes and pigs heads wearing glasses! The bouquet might be a little pungent, but it's worth enduring the smell to see some of the unique sites.
Next stop for those after a little retail therapy is only a short walk away. It might be a five minute stroll, but it takes you back centuries in time. The place I'm talking about is the neighborhood of Tsuboya. This part of Naha is where an emperor long ago relocated all the areas potters. Here you'll get a lesson in history and culture while also being able to purchase some of the locally made ceramics. If you're really keen you can get your hands muddy and test your skills at making your own bowl or even a Shisa.
What's a Shisa you might ask? Well, it's another of the defining elements of Okinawa. They're a variation of the guardian lions or fu dogs from China and a cultural artifact dating back to Okinawa's roots in South-East Asia. They resemble a cross between a lion and a dog, and are found in pairs on the roofs or front gates of most houses. Shisa's are said to ward off evil spirits and keep good spirits in.
With the shopping out of the way, you'll be looking for somewhere to put your feet up and spend the night. In Naha there are seaside resorts with beautiful pools and private beaches, then there are budget bed and breakfast style lodgings where you can live like a local, and of course you have the usual hotel chains that you find in any major city.
Okinawa is the main island in a chain that consists of hundreds of tiny landmasses that dot the clear, clean ocean waters. The environment is pristine, with stunning beaches, uninhabited islands cloaked in lush rainforest and some of the best examples of coral gardens you can find anywhere on the planet. The landscapes here are what you would generally associate with south Pacific destinations, not Japan! But being a sub-tropical paradise and located so far from the chaos of the Japanese mainland, the marine habitats remain almost untouched.
Apart from having great surfing, nature walks and diverse flora and fauna, Okinawa and her islands are a divers paradise. There are numerous dive sites found throughout the region, including shallow water reefs where you can expect to encounter turtles, wall dives with swim throughs that lead to deepwater caves, plus wrecks teeming with fish life, manta rays and underwater ruins. What's more, the warm ocean waters make it comfortable to dive year round.
If you're the type of traveller that prefers the more passive pursuit of learning about the history of a destination, in Okinawa you will find yourself immersed in a culture with a dramatic past spanning hundreds of years. Okinawa sits in the middle of the East China Sea, close to China, Taiwan, Japan and South East Asia. This has made it an important regional trading post and therefore it has heavily influenced by various countries in the area. The impact of this means there's a unique culture here, quite different to that of mainland Japan. It's apparent in everything from the attitude of the people, the food and architecture, to the language spoken and their religious believes.
Throughout the islands you can find remnants of the past, such as Shuri Castle, one of the finest examples of gusuku, or Okinawan castle that you will see. This grand palace was constructed in the 14th century as the centre for administration and foreign trade in the kingdom. It was completely destroyed during World War Two, but such is its significance that it has been completely restored.
This brings me to the incredible and important military history of Okinawa. The Battle of Okinawa was one of the most significant and deadly battles of the war in the Pacific. The 82-day campaign was the scene for some of the most ferocious and intense fighting in the war and it lead to huge casualties for both the allies and Japanese. A visit to The Cornerstone of Peace and the Peace Memorial Museum are a must for anyone that goes to Okinawa. They tell the important and powerful story of this world-changing military conflict and commemorate those that gave their lives.
Food plays a huge roll in any holiday. After all, everyone has to eat! As far as cuisine is concerned, Okinawa is a tasty destination. The culinary culture here is a fusion of the various flavours and styles of Japan, with those of China and South East Asia, all added to the locally grown produce and seafood that's caught fresh daily. Even the locally brewed alcoholic beverage called awamori is said to have originated in Thailand.
It's said that apart from the relaxed lifestyle here, the food is what gives the Okinawans the title of being the longest-lived people on earth. Beyond the healthy nature of the cuisine, maybe it's the flavour that keeps the locals alive. Traditional favourites include Goya Chanpuru, a stir fry made from vegetables, tofu, egg and goya, which is a bitter melon. Then you have Okinawan soba, which is a delicious ramen-like soup with thick wheat noodles similar to udon, different to the buckwheat noodles found elsewhere in Japanese soba. Combine either of these dishes with the local beer called Orion and you have the perfect meal! Another element central to Okinawa cooking is pork. There's a local saying that Okinawan cuisine begins with pig and ends with pig, and that's certainly the case in many restaurants where there are menus with dozens of pork variations.
While Okinawa might feel like it's a world away, in truth it's just a short hop from Australia. You can leave the stress of daily life behind in Sydney, board a Japan Airlines flight in the morning, and be on the ground in Naha in time for a nightcap. One of the great things about flying with JAL is that in-flight you'll get a taste of what's to come, with amazing service and a delicious Japanese meal. What's more, with the minimal difference in time zone, there's no jetlag! So you'll be up early the next day, feeling great and ready to start your island adventure.
Words by David Byrne, Producer, The Travel Bug