SUGARCANE fields, pineapple plantations, white sandy beaches and clear blue seas filled with vivid tropical fish might fool you into thinking that you’re no longer in Japan.
UPON further discovery, it’s not just the landscape that’s different; it’s the people, the language and the culture too. Okinawa was only a recent addition to the Japanese Empire. Prior to being absorbed into Japan in the 19th century, Okinawa was its own nation, Ryukyu; an archipelago of hundreds of tropical islands that stretch from Kyushu in the south west of Japan down to the very edge of Taiwan.
Due to its past ties with mainland China, Okinawa has many aspects that are more similar with Chinese culture than Japanese. The temples are bright red and decorated with vivid wooden carvings of animals. And the food that Okinawans eat is more adventurous; pig’s feet, ears, nose and pig’s face features on menus. Locals famously proclaim to eat all of the pig, apart from its voice.
It’s not just sugar and sunshine in Okinawa, these beautiful islands have been the scenes of some bloody battles throughout history, most recently the closing days of World War II. Amazingly, even after all that has happened to the people of Okinawa, including it now being the site of the largest U.S. military base in Japan, Okinawans are some of the most friendly and open people we met during our travels, with no hint of hostility or resentment to our presence.
After a week of exploring Okinawa Island, we left the modernity and headed to the small island of Zamami-jima (jima is Japanese for island). It was the highlight of our time in Okinawa; two days of remote bliss on an island small enough to walk around. Zamami is a tourist island, unquestionably, but it feels so far removed from any tourist destination that we’d been to thus far on our trip, which started at the top of Japan. There were no large incongruous concrete hotels and no giant omiyage (souvenir) shops. Instead there were rustic, Ryukyuan-style surf shacks and scooter-hire shops operated by laid-back locals running on island time.
Tourists primarily come to Zamami to laze on the beach and dive in the shallow, rich waters surrounding the island. After wading no further than waist-deep into the water, we felt like we were inside a tropical aquarium. There was an abundant number of fish and other sea-creatures from small clownfish, like Nemo, safe inside anemone, through to shy eels with nothing more than a head poking from a cave within the coral. The fish all seemed oblivious to our presence, barely moving out of our way as we floated above them.
Coming from the east coast of Australia, it takes a lot for a beach to impress me, but the pristine white beaches that surrounded Zamami-jima are unforgettable and are a contrast to grey, pebbly and murky beaches usually associated with Japan. Even though it was the end of October, and thus considered as being too cold to swim, the clear blue waters were a perfect temperature.
The other critical part of travel in Japan is testing out the local cuisine, and we tried our best to sample as much as we could, from the clean and refreshing Orion Beer, ultra-fresh reef-fish to delicious slowly cooked pork and the famous goya chanpuru (a stir fry). Pig feet weren’t bad, but neither of us were brave enough to try anything from a pig’s face.
A tropical paradise might not be the first thing people associate Japan with. But, this is exactly what Okinawa is – pristine, blue and warm.
Getting there: 2 hour, ¥2,120 ferry from Tomari Port in Naha City, Okinawa.
Words and photography by Ross Cole-Hunter