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Situated in the same latitude zone as Hawaii and the Bahamas, Okinawa is an archipelago of over 160 islands surrounded by ocean whirling with teal and turquoise shades. This unique island is Japan’s southernmost prefecture and a place I called home for 2 years. I was very lucky to have the opportunity to escape from my city life in Singapore and spent a few idyllic years on the island as part of the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme.
When I first moved to Okinawa, I had the impression that Okinawa was filled with just beaches. After I slowly explored the island as a “resident-tourist” and learnt more about its history and culture, I realised that it has so much more to offer beyond the usual spots advertised in travel brochures. Discover the secrets of Okinawa with my insider’s recommendations as you travel off the beaten path!
Visit Okinawa’s Outer Islands
Okinawa’s subtropical climate and picturesque coastlines are perfect for island hopping adventures. Most travellers land in Naha airport located midway on Okinawa mainland and head to the city’s Tomarin port to take a ferry to the popular Kerama islands where they can swim and snorkel in its gorgeous Kerama blue waters filled with vibrant coral reefs. Rather than crowd the nearby islands with other tourists, why not escape to quieter islands for more restful day trips?
Easily reached by 25-minute ferry from Azama port, Kudaka island is the most spiritual island I have ever visited in Okinawa. It is closely associated with the Okinawan phrase “Nirai kanai” which means the “faraway utopia where Gods live and all things begin” as the locals believe that the island was created by legendary ancestor of Okinawa, Amamikiyo. The island is also called the “Island of prayers” as it has many power spots which are closed to the public. Feel the peace and serenity as you cycle round the scenic island and uncover its secrets.
Tsuken island is historically linked to Kudaka island as exchanges between the islands were facilitated by sea travel. Located on Yokatsu Pennisula, Tsuken is a small island famous for carrots. It is accessible by a 30-minute ferry ride from Heshikiya port. Cycle leisurely through rows of carrot fields and be amused by the adorable “carrot inspired” structures. With the rolling farmlands and beaches, it is hard to believe that the tranquil island once endured a tragic past when it was completely destroyed during World War II. These days, day trippers head to the island to enjoy a restorative retreat and delicious treat of “ninjin shiri shiri” (an Okinawan dish of stir-fried shredded carrots with egg).
Spend a Day in Ogimi Village
Ogimi village in the northern part of Okinawa main island is one of the blue zones in the world. Blue zones are places where the inhabitants live longer and are less susceptible to diseases. The village of longevity, Ogimi has more healthy elderly over 100 years old than the rest of Japan. Active lifestyle, plant-based diet and strong community bonds are some key reasons why the people in Ogimi are leading such fulfilling lives. Their traditional Okinawan diet is respected for its organic ingredients and its principle of a balanced diet “hara hachi-bu” which means “eat until you are 80 percent full” in Okinawan dialect.
Francesc Miralles, the author of “Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life” believes that ikigai is why the island’s centenarians are enjoying life free from stress. Ikigai is a Japanese concept loosely translated to “reason for being” or the reason you get up every morning. Unlock the secrets of living a good life by spending some time in Ogimi. The friendly villagers invite you to join half to full day tour or even overnight stays and get a glimpse of their daily routine while trying local activities.
I joined a one day tour where I picked the citrus fruit shikuwasa filled with vitamin C and had my nutrition for the morning before trekking to the Ta Taki waterfalls in the afternoon. The most enlightening experience was probably a friendly chat with Moira Taira, a wise man in his 80s, about ikigai. While I am still searching for my ikigai, I feel more at peace just being in his presence as he radiated much humility, positivity and vitality. Delve into secrets of life by exploring Ogimi or even participating in one of the tours provided on their website.
Explore Ryukyu Kingdom’s Castle Ruins
Do you know Okinawa only became formally a prefecture in Japan in 1972? For close to 450 years, Okinawa was an independent nation called the Ryukyu Kingdom that prospered through trade with China and neighbouring countries. Many castles were constructed on the island with the most famous Shuri Castle, which was the residence of the Ryukyuan King. In December 2000, nine sites including Shuri Castle were registered as world heritage sites and named “Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu.” Most travellers give the castle ruins a miss after visiting Shuri Castle and that’s a pity as the enigmatic castle ruins offer insights to the island’s cultural and historical heritage.
One of my favourite castle ruins is Katsuren Castle located in the middle of the Yokatsu Pennisula. In the 15th century, the castle was the residency of Lord Amawari who tried to take over Shuri Castle but failed. While it is a steep climb to the top of the ruins, you will be rewarded with a panoramic view of the surrounding coast and landscape. The best secret of Katsuren is that there is no admission fee and parking is free!
Shop and Drink like a Local in the Island’s Markets
Learn how everyday life is like for the Okinawans by observing how they navigate the alleys in local markets that sit along the Kokusai Dori or International Street, the main shopping belt in Naha City. Immerse in the local way of life by venturing off well-trodden path and explore Sakaemachi, a historic market built in the postwar period.
Situated not far from International Street and near the Asato monorail station, the shopping arcade is busy all day starting with the morning market selling local produce. When night falls, the maze of stores is transformed into an eating and drinking haven. The locals tuck into snacks like gyoza and slurp local Orion beer in food joints hidden in the market. A lively festival takes place in the market once a month between June and October and sometimes the legendary granny performers “Oba rappers” will rap and rock the market.
Try the “Island Sake” Awamori in the Distilleries
A visit to Okinawa is not complete if you don’t try the quintessential island drink, awamori. This distilled spirit is native to Okinawa and made from Thai-style long grain indica rice. Unlike Japanese sake, awamori is not made from brewing but distilled from fermentation process. Awamori is truly Okinawa’s pride as no liquor made outside Okinawa’s distilleries can be called awamori. It tastes better with age when stored in traditional clay pots. This strong beverage is served in all Okinawan style bars or izakayas and restaurants on the island. The most popular drinking style is do drink it with water and ice.
Learn about awamori and have complimentary tasting when you visit the distilleries. There are 47 distilleries scattered over the island and the most convenient is Zuisen Distillery near Shuri Castle which has been operating since 1887. Chuko Distillery is a traditional wooden cellar that produces aged awamori “kusu” that has matured for three years or more. True liquor connoisseurs can travel further to Kin town’s Kin Shuzo to taste the reputed “Ryu” or dragon awamori or visit Nago’s Helios Distillery which started as a rum distillery. Remember to say “kari” which means cheers in Okinawan dialect when you drink awamori!
Unravel the secrets of Okinawa as you visit the outer islands, learn about ikigai in Ogimi, explore castle ruins and try the island’s awamori. As you interact with Okinawans in the markets and their community, you will be touched by their kind and warm hospitality. The Okinawan proverb “ichariba choodee” which means “once we meet, we are brothers and sisters” may be the biggest secret of the island as once you visit Okinawa, you will develop such a special bond to the island. Plan your trip to Okinawa now to discover the secrets of the island!