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Ocean Blue, Forest Deep

Located in the southern corner of Japan, the Okinawan Islands’ sub-tropical climate has created an archipelago that is surrounded by the bluest ocean and the greenest jungles, made even more resplendent by its ancient history and unique culture.

Words & Photography: Paul Dymond

Three giant whale sharks swim amongst manta rays and other fishes in the Kuroshio tank at the Churaumi Aquarium.

Pristine sandy beaches, azure waters filled with tropical fish below and jet-skiing holiday makers above – this pretty much sums up the appeal of Okinawa. The Okinawa Prefecture is a world renowned water lover’s tropical paradise. But what do you do if the weather isn’t co-operating, the sun refuses to shine and, the temperature sinks to goose-bump level? Mercifully, this beautiful part of Japan offers more than just sunbathing.

Friends from the ocean

As I sip my shikwasa soft drink – a local citrus fruit beverage in Okinawa – a shadow suddenly looms above, a very large shadow. As in the size of a city bus. It’s a good thing there’s 60 centimetres of acrylic glass separating me and what turns out to be an enormous whale shark.

     Situated right next to the ocean, from where it draws the 10,000 cubic metres of seawater needed to fill its 77 tanks, the Churaumi Aquarium is visually breathtaking. With displays of corals, turtles, sharks, clownfish and surgeonfish, it’s beautiful but certainly reminiscent of many other aquariums around the world. That’s until you reach the pinnacle where everyone gathers to see the main attraction: The Kuroshio Sea.

     A glass panel 22.5 metres wide and more than 8 metres tall – the world’s largest – dwarfs the silhouette of the tiny people standing at its base. This huge tank contains more than 7,500 cubic metres of water. But it wouldn’t be that awe-inspiring if there was only water in it. So, the organisation that runs the aquarium decided to fill it with hundreds of giant manta rays, yellow-fin tuna, bonito and three gigantic whale sharks. It truly is an amazing sight.

     To take the whole tank in you really need to stand at the very back of the auditorium it is housed in. In fact, you will need to go all the way back if you want any photo with all three whale sharks in one shot! Then, you should walk to the glass and get as close as possible to be mesmerised by the graceful manta rays gliding within inches of your face while the whale sharks cruise in for a better look at you. Just because the weather isn’t conducive for diving, doesn’t mean you can’t experience the wonders of Okinawa’s underwater world.

A traditional perfomer in clown costume plays the shamisen for tourists visiting the Ryukyu Mura on the main island of Okinawa.

Visiting Okinawa’s past

Okinawa has been razed to the ground and then re-built countless times over the centuries. Most recently, World War II brought fierce fighting and the destruction of much of Okinawa’s traditional buildings and cultural landmarks. To get a feel for what life would have been like during the Ryukyu Kingdom (14th to 19th Century) a visit to the Ryukyu Mura (village) is a must.

     Many of the buildings within the park are older than 200 years and have been transported stone by stone from outlying areas. Traditional tiled roofs display the ever-present shiisa. The shiisa are lion-gods that can be seen all over the archipelago, mainly in the form of roof ornaments and small figurines. The male shiisa has an open mouth that’s said to invite good luck.

An elderly woman working at the Ryukyu Mura posing for the camera.

     For those with a penchant for painting, making your own shiisa is a lot of fun. For around USD10, a kimono-clad lady will supply you with a white ceramic lion, a set of paint and brushes and, an hour of serenity as you add your own sense of style and design to this feline Okinawan deity. This is a great activity for the kids, as it makes a wonderful souvenir for their bedrooms back home. There are also classes available in traditional crafts such as sanshin – a traditional Okinawan three stringed instrument – weaving and pottery decoration.

A female dancer in traditional Okinawan (Ryukyu) kimono performing on stage at Ryukyu Mura.

Old is gold

One of the highlights of Ryukyu Mura is undoubtedly its staff, in particular its elderly staff. Many of the displays and crafts are taught by elderly Okinawan women – known as obaachan or ‘grandma’. These delightful women are an endless source of smiles and laughter as they teach you about their world, and ask about yours. Their English may be limited, so the conversation might involve a lot of gestures and head shaking but the effort is thoroughly worth it.

     Every day there is a wonderful performance of traditional Okinawan dance and drumming. Suddenly the old man who took your ticket at the gate is the king of the Ryukyu Kingdom. The lady who helped you put on your traditional kimono for a commemorative photo is the queen, and all the old ladies you met during the day are dragging you up on stage for a dance.

     Children will be thrilled by the giant shiisa who makes its way through the crowd with its good friend, the wandering clown minstrel. One lucky person is chosen from the audience to throw a ball into the friendly shiisa’s mouth and receives a reward in return.

The stone entrance to Nakijin Castle, a 14th Century castle in Okinawa.

Going deeper

To experience a side of Okinawa even more ancient than Ryukyu, you need to head south and venture underground. At more than five kilometres long and with over 1 million stalactites, Gyokusendo is Japan’s second largest cave and was formed about the time man migrated out of the African continent, but only discovered in the late 1960s.

     As you descend gingerly down the metal staircase into the bowels of the earth, the first thing you notice is that it is bright, brighter than you would expect so far underground. If there is one thing the Japanese do really well, it is sparing no expense to provide a wonderful experience for visitors. Here, they have gone all out to ensure you see the full beauty of this majestic cavern without the need for torches.

     Only 890 metres of the cave is open to the public while the rest is used for research, but enough to give you an insight into the awesome power and beauty of nature. The metal paths weave through tight tunnels lined top and bottom with stalactites and stalagmites, forcing you to bend down to avoid bumping into them. Then suddenly, the cramped pathway opens out into a giant, cavernous cathedral hundreds of feet high and long.

     The warm tropical climate of Okinawa combined with the high level of rainfall means that the stalactites of Gyokusendo grow much faster than those in any other region of the country. These stalactites are simply magnificent and are definitely worth your time to admire, observe and ponder. Many visitors tend to almost run along the path in order to make it back to their bus on time but the true beauty reveals itself when the crowds have gone and all that is left is the quiet drip, drip, drip as water falls from the roof of the cave to the pools of water below. Keep an eye out for the large eels swimming around though.

Shurijo Castle, one of Okinawa’s UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Okinawan grandeur

Although much of the capital city of Naha was destroyed during Allied bombing raids, one shining example has been carefully restored to its former glory. For over four centuries Shurijo Castle was not only home to the royal court of the Ryukyu Kingdom but its political and cultural heart too. In lavish ceremonies the king would greet foreign dignitaries in the large enclosed courtyard of this magnificent castle. The interior of this UNESCO World Heritage site gives visitors a glimpse into the opulence of court life in the 15th century. Heavily gilded gold thrones are surrounded by decorated pillars and balustrades. An ornately jewelled crown worn by ancient kings hints at the riches of this lost culture. Although little of the original complex remains, the giant stone ramparts stand as a testament to the might of the past.

Some shopping would be nice

Before you jump on a plane back home, you’ll probably need some retail therapy and the place for that in Naha is Kokusai Doori or International Avenue, stretching over 1.5 kilometres and boasting boutiques, souvenir shops, candy shops, comic book stores… you name it and they’ve got it! This is a great place to pick up a local souvenir.

     Heiwa-Doori is a little arcade that runs off the main drag and leads to an undercover market area reminiscent of many in Southeast Asia. Although you might not be tempted to buy, one area not to miss is the giant fi sh market selling all kinds of colourful tropical fish (used in sushi), sea cucumbers and other exotic delicacies. For the really brave, you can even pick up a sunglasses-wearing pig’s head for a bargain price! Okinawa has only officially been a part of Japan for the last 200 years or so. Before that it had a long, proud history as an independent nation trading with many foreign empires. Although its beaches and resorts are world class, it’s nice to know that its history, culture and affable people are Okinawa’s greatest treasures.

GETTING THERE AirAsia Japan commences daily flights to Okinawa from Narita Airport, Tokyo. Go to www.airasia.com for details.

The stone entrance to Nakijin Castle, a 14th Century castle in Okinawa.

Suggested short stay

The easiest way to get around Okinawa is to a hire car. Most come with built-in GPS, which is a must on the maze-like Okinawan roads! For a short 3 or 4 day trip, start off at Churaumi Aquarium in the north of the main island. It is easily accessible from any of the resort hotels in the coastal town of Onna-Son and you can stop off at a number of other attractions and beaches along the way. The next day, head to Ryukyu Mura before the drive down to Naha. From your base in Naha, head south to Okinawa World and the Gyokusendo Cave. You could easily spend a day here exploring all the other attractions. On your final day, head out to Shurijo Castle before stopping off at Kokusai Doori for some retail therapy.

Okinawan craft

Okinawa cultural heritage includes some amazing art and crafts, namely:

  • Bingata and Bashoufu textiles
  • Okinawan ceramics from Tsuboya and Yomitan
  • Ryukyuan lacquerware famous for its chinkin gilt line engraving and mother-of-pearl inlay technique
  • Ryukyu glass that’s made from discarded glass bottles

Okinawa UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Okinawa has nine UNESCO World Heritage sites that chronicle the Ryukyuan civilisation dating from the 14th to the 18th centuries.

  • Shurijo Castle
  • Sonohyan-utaki Ishimon’s restored stone gateway of the Sonohyan shrine is all that remains of this utaki (sacred place)
  • The Royal Mausoleum of Tamaudun, built in 1501, is the final resting ground for the kings of the second Sho dynasty.
  • The Royal Gardens at Shikinaen offer visitors serene Ryukyuan atmosphere
  • The ruins of Nakijinjo Castle overlook the East China Sea
  • Nakagusukujo Castle provides visitors a chance to explore some of the more intact structural remains of the Ryukyu Kingdom.
  • Zakimijo Castle ruins is an example of Okinawa style aikatazumi or stone piling
  • Sefa-utaki is the sacred ground of the creator goddess, Amamikyo
  • Katsurenjo Castle sits on a hill on the Katsusren Peninsula with views of the Pacific Ocean

Umi Budou or ocean grapes, is a traditional Okinawan food.

Okinawan cuisine

One of the most striking differences between Okinawa and the rest of Japan is the food. Firstly you’d better like pork! It’s in absolutely everything and is considered a local delicacy. Some other local specialties are the Okinawa soba –a type of noodles served in broth, umi budou (sea grapes – a type of seaweed that looks like grapes, goya – a bitter vegetable used in another local delicacy known as champuru, and shikwasa – a citrus fruit used in juices and soft drinks and found only in Okinawa and Taiwan. For more information on Okinawa, go to www.okinawastory.jp/en