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The name Okinawa means, “rope to the Sea,” and is a fitting title for this chain of islands between giant nations and a vast ocean. As early as the 12th century Okinawa was a prosperous trade nation because of its prime location in the Ocean between Japan, Taiwan and China. By the 15th century, Okinawa had developed a tributary relationship with China, and Chinese cultural influences poured into the region. Thus, Okinawa was an independent nation with allegiances to China until the invasion of the Satsuma clan from the north, a group intimately tied with the Japanese Tokugawa shogunate. Henceforth Okinawa would be tied with Japan.
After the Meiji Restoration, Okinawa was officially annexed by the Japanese government and became a prefecture of Japan in 1879. During WWII the United States invaded during the Battle of Okinawa and won the island, which it held following Japan's surrender until 1972 when the US government returned the island to the Japanese government. The US, however, maintains a large (and controversial) military presence on the islands.
Though it has Japanese characteristics, Okinawan culture is decidedly unique. It avoids the high-stress and business-minded focus of the mainland, as well as the Shinto religion and non-communal attitudes of self-reliance and isolation. Instead, Okinawa is community-based, relaxed and surrounded by beautiful scenery and a rich culture of dance, song, food and sport.
Okinawans maintain their own ancestor worship, largely separate from Japanese customs but similar to early Chinese ancestor worship. Spirituality is a personal and communal affair in Okinawa, and many attribute the strong spiritual nature of their culture to their extended longevity.
With the longest life spans in the world, the Okinawans owe much of their age to the low-stress culture they have created. Unlike Japan, which is a high-stress and work-centered culture, Okinawans cherish community, relaxation and exercise, spirituality and ongoing activity, and interaction with each other and nature. While in Okinawa, rise early to see the elderly on long walks together or doing morning exercises in their community gardens.
Gyokusendo, a limestone cave on Okinawa Island, is a popular tourist destination. Many caves were used during the Battle of Okinawa by the Japanese when fighting the Allied forces, and much of that recent history remains for interested visitors. Caves can be found across the island chain and were used for religious and housing purposes prior to WWII.
The beaches on Okinawa are some of the most beautiful in Japan. With coral islands protruding off the coast and average temperatures of 20 degrees Celsius, beautiful views are a regular sighting. Sea life, including many dangerous ocean creatures, dominate Okinawa culture and landscape. The seashell museum at the Pineapple factory is a testament to the permeation of sea life into everyday Okinawa life. Beach and water sports are popular in Okinawa and you will have little trouble locating your sport of choice.
Kokusai Dori is Okinawa’s most famous ‘international’ shopping street. Here you will find purses made out of frog skin, famous dried fish foods and medicines, a bazaar of clothing and other souvenirs and endless snacks. This street is well worth a day-long stroll. Avoid the tourist traps and venture into the back alleys where you will be met with a more permanent and realistic impression of Okinawan life.
Shuri Castle, in Naha, is a refurbished castle dating to antiquity. Here you will be asked to remove your shoes and walk silently through paper room recreations and into the great viewing room where past leaders once sat. The tour of the castle is followed by a small museum and, of course, gift shop. Skip the shop and head, instead, to the outer walls of the castle to view the formidable walls. Beware of snakes in this area. You can bring a picnic lunch and store it in the lockers at the castle’s entrance and then dine in the parks surrounding the castle afterward.
local tram, bus networks and taxis are available across the islands. Cabs are extremely expensive, a thirty minute trip ran us over 100USD, but the bus system is underdeveloped outside the major cities. Cabs have meters and are regulated and safe in Okinawa, unlike other areas in Asia.
You can enter Okinawa via ferry from Japan or China. However, most people prefer to fly as the ferries are quite time consuming. Flights to Naha run regularly from China, Japan and other neighboring nations, but can be expensive.
The Japanese Yen, exchange rate: 1JPY = 0.01 USD (or, 1 USD = 97 JPY)
There is little or no bartering. Be prepared to pay the tag price, although in Okinawa they are accustomed to visitors attempting to barter, so you are unlikely to offend. Okinawa is expensive, especially traveling, hotels, shopping, food and entry fees. Expect to spend a pretty penny on the islands.
Okinawans have the longest life spans on the planet. This is in part due to their exercise habits and in part to their eating habits. They eat low-fat diets with low salt intake and infuse their foods with vitamin rich fish, seaweed and tofu. Generally, you will not encounter dairy, red meat or egg-based foods. Instead, expect a variety of fish, noodles, rice and vegetables with various sea-flavorings and spices. You can find cuisine from any genre in Okinawa, but try local food, especially the noodles with seafood and locally produced liquors and sake.
Interaction with residents: minimal. Owing to the awkwardness between the Okinawans and the Japanese, and the Americans who occupy large sections of the island, there are naturally segregations in the society which mean travelers are not wholly embraced. However, we did find the people we encountered to be extremely friendly and straight-forward as well as helpful. Not one person we met spoke English, however, so bring a language guide.
We went in early December, obviously off-season. For this reason, flights were cheap and sights were not crowded. The beaches were still relatively warm and we sunbathed on several occasions. I’d suggest moving your trip forward a bit to truly get the tropical feel. Try March or April when temperatures are warmer and beach and water sports will be in full swing.
Be wary of the western drinking culture in Okinawa and try not to add to the stereotype. On an island only 16m across you become a representative for your country when you are in Okinawa. Avoid the nightlife of Naha city and instead take your group to a quiet beach and enjoy the sunset and starlight.
Recommendation level: 7
Overall it was an amazing experience. I highly recommend Shuri Castle and Kokusai Dori shopping street as well as a foray to the beaches. However, I found the trip a bit expensive for what it provided especially transportation and food. Lodging was expensive as well and quite cramped, but clean and well maintained. Interaction was minimal with local residents, which was disappointing, but people were friendly enough. It is worth a visit of about a week, but I would not expect to stay longer, given the costs.
Americans do not need a visa. Check with the Japanese consulate in your area if your are not Japanese or American to learn the visa procedures.
We traveled around Okinawa, but did not enter the mainland of Japan.
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