Beach holidays and me don’t quite go well together. Relaxing ‘downtime’ at beach resorts or getaway destinations is like sentencing me to prison time. I will be bored to tears. So how in the world did I end up in Okinawa? Well, opportunity came a knocking, and I’ve learnt that sometimes, having no choice doesn’t necessary mean things will turn out bad.
In the five days I was in Okinawa, mingling and spending time with the locals, the sense I got is that Okinawa is like the forgotten child of Japan. It’s evident in the backward infrastructure on the island. People on the island do not refer to themselves as Japanese; they proudly proclaim they are Okinawans and have a very strong community spirit amongst themselves. The determination to be self-sufficient, developing a culture that they politely disassociate with mainland Japan, is an open secret.
Perhaps the parallel of a concubine might be better? Blessed with subtropical climate, this sunny (ok, sometimes cool and wet) island is where mainland Japanese will make their way to escape the bitter winter cold or city stress. There are lovely beaches with crystal clear waters where you can snorkel for views of splendid coral reefs and marine life or simply relax and get a tan; world-class dive spots are available for scuba enthusiasts. If you prefer to stay dry yet able to leisurely observe marine life, a visit to Churaumi Aquarium is the answer.
Things in Okinawa are not flamboyant. They strike one as disarmingly charming. At the Yomitan Village, an award-winning pottery master received me at his lovely home and shared his lifelong achievements and works. The concept of the pottery village was conceived out of economic and sustainability needs for the people on the island. Four or five famous pottery masters got together to build this community,resulting in a common traditional kiln area for all the craftsmen in the village to practise their art and dry their pottery based on a roster. The craftsmen and their families live and work here. Visitors are free to wander around the village, visit the workshops (a number are receptive to walk-ins) and browse and buy the exquisite pottery ware. The famed Okinawan glassware can also be found in Yomitan. You can visit the glassblowing workshops and shop for Ryukyu glassware.
Besides cultural and traditional elements, there are many other things to enjoy in Okinawa. It’s a place for both adults and children, active and passive travellers. You can go on a whale-watching expedition, explore a mangrove jungle with canoe or trek through the mountains. Head to a Ryukyu Bingata store to learn about the Bingata (Okinawan dyed cloth) orjoin a 20-minute handicraft class to design your own scarf, bag or t-shirts. Shop at the Makishi Public Market for fresh seafood and have them cooked for you, visit the new factory outlet mall for branded goods shopping and/or spend time at Kokusai Street to browse for souvenirs, local fashion and dine at one of the many gourmet restaurants.
Speaking of food experience, do visit a Ryukyuan traditional ‘dinner and dance’ restaurant. The graceful dancers in vivid Bingata costumes moving to traditional music evoke the graceful courtimperial days during the Ryukyu Dynasty. The spread is equally royal — guests are treated to an entertaining eight to 10-course meal.
Given that the Okinawans have a steadfast reputation of beingvery health conscious, it is of course not a surprise to see longevity menus, which feature home-grown vegetables and ingredients. Food to Okinawans is medicine.
Long before aeroplanes were invented, Okinawa was the gateway between China and mainland Japan. Back in those days, officials travelling between the two countries typically rested about six months in Okinawa, and the island played a key role in entertaining and keeping Chinese envoys happy. This also explains why Okinawan cuisine has very strong Chinese influences (though the Okinawans are reluctant to admit it!). Despite very Japanese-sounding dish names, I find the taste, texture and cooking methods very similar to the food we eat back home. There was this particular dish that is almost identical to the Dongpo rou or braised pork belly…. absolutely yummy!
So as it turns out, Okinawa is not just a beach holiday destination (that was the impression I got and people telling me it’s a “boring place”). I am very glad to have made the journey, witnessing its beauty with my own eyes and senses and experiencing the fullness of the Okinawan hospitality. Away, you naysayers!
Other than mainland Japan, Okinawa is easily accessible through Hong Kong, Taiwan and China. For customised itineraries involving Okinawa, contact our travel consultants online or call 6435-0922.