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Guide to Okinawa

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
Odoriko hadesa, a local dance
The Eisa festival
The Eisa festival

Okinawa Island
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
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.

Other Islands
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.

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