In recent years, Okinawa has been a breeding ground for popular
musicians, such as The Nenes, The Boom, Amuro
Namie and her former backing dancers Max. Their music often has an exotic touch that reveals just one
of the many differences between this region and the Japanese mainland.
The Nansei (Southwest) Islands are a chain of some 160 small islands to the south of Kagoshima
Prefecture and in Okinawa Prefecture. Also called the Ryukyu Islands, they stretch
over a 1,200km arc almost as far as Taiwan, and
are almost all in the sub-tropical zone. The islands are surrounded
by coral and have become very popular for Japanese looking for
someplace exotic without leaving 'home'. They can be reached by
ship but there are regular flights from major mainland airports
to Naha airport on Okinawa Island. From Tokyo, it takes about 2 hours
30 minutes, 2 hours from Osaka and 1 hour 30 minutes from Fukuoka.
There are also about a dozen smaller airports that serve other popular
destinations, such as Amami-Oshima, Kume, Miyako and Yoron
Islands. Culturally, the region has been influenced as much by China
as Japan and the local dialect is unrecognizable to mainlanders.
It was not until after the Sino-Japanese War in 1895 that Okinawa
Prefecture became an undisputed part of Japan. The area was the
scene of incredible fighting during the Pacific War, when a great
number of local civilians were killed. The territory was returned
by the US to Japan in 1972 although the US military still occupies
much of the best land for its bases. This is an ongoing subject
for discussions between the two countries.
Odoriko hadesa, a local dance
The Eisa festival
The biggest of the Nansei Islands, Okinawa is located roughly
halfway along the chain. The island has many places of historical
interest as well as its natural beauty, coral reefs and white-sand
beaches. There are remnants of castles from the days of the Ryukyu
kingdom, which was ruled from Naha for 400 years, although most
were destroyed during the war. The prefectural capital of Naha
is in the south, and is the business and transport hub of the
region. Naminoue shrine is located on the site of one of the old castles.
Sogenji temple was a sacred place for the Ryukyu kings and its restored
stone gates can still be seen. Another reconstruction on the outskirts
of the city is Shureimon (Gate of Courtesy), the gate to the remains of
Shuri Castle. Kokusai Dori (International Street) is lined with fashionable
shops and restaurants. Local products include brightly colored
bingata fabrics, colorful tsuboya-yaki pottery and awamori
liquor. The food is cheaper than on the mainland and some local
specialities are Okinawan noodles and mutton. A few kilometers
east of Naha is the Gyokusendo Cave, Japan's most spectacular grotto with hundreds of thousands of
stalactites and other limestone formations.
One of Okinawa Island's many beaches
An hour bus ride north of Naha is Okinawa City, venue for the Eisa
dance festival in late August. The festival celebrates the native
eisa style of music and dance, which is performed to honor the
island's ancestors. Teams of up to 100 members chant and play
small drums to the accompaniment of sanshin, a three-stringed predecessor
of the shamisen. North of the city are
Moon Beach and Manza Beach, two of the islands most popular resorts.
Near the city of Nago to the north is Expo Memorial Ocean Park,
site of Okinawa Expo '75, where you can find beautiful gardens,
one of the world's largest aquariums and the Oceanic Culture Pavillion.
Among the other islands in the Nansei chain, the 20 or so largely
uninhabited Kerama Islands are an excellent place for coral diving. Miyako Island is covered
with sugar plantations and is very peaceful. Ishigaki Island has
the region's tallest mountain, the 526m Omotodake, and many historical
buildings. Tokunoshima Island's main claims to fame are its bullfighting and the longevity
of its inhabitants.