Stretching 400 km north to south and 1,000 km east to west, the islands of Okinawa are some of the most remote and least visited parts of Japan. Venture this far south and you’ll discover a world of subtropical islands fringed with flowers and star-shaped grains of sand, where turtles and humpback whales play in the clear warm waters, and where the culture is distinctly its own.
With all this natural beauty and healthy living, it’s no surprise that Okinawans have one of the longest life spans in the world. There’s plenty for the adventurous traveller to explore, from tiny islands with terracotta roofed houses and star-filled night skies, to snorkelling among corals in the pristine waters around Miyako Island, and perhaps even catching a glimpse of the rare Iriomote wildcat. Okinawa is unlike anywhere else in Japan and richly rewards those who make the journey.
Fly to Naha Airport ,1h45min from Tokyo and 1h from Osaka.
A Distinctive Island Culture
The 160 islands that today make up Okinawa were once known as the Ryūkyū Kingdom, becoming part of Japan in 1879. As you travel around, you’ll notice that things are a little different here. Listen carefully and you’ll hear different words being used, such as the greeting “Mensōre”, a reminder that the Ryūkyū Kingdom once had its own language. Look at a local restaurant menu and you’ll see items unfamiliar in the rest of the country. Okinawa is proud of what makes it different, with music, food, language and even textiles identifying the islands as being proudly Okinawan. Head to Kijoka in the north of Okinawa Island to discover a unique type of fabric, bashōfu, made from banana fibre dyed with natural plant-based colours. It can take the fibres of 200 banana plants to produce enough fabric to make one kimono, but the result is a cloth that is light, delicate, and allows air to flow through it, making it ideal for tropical climates. Visit the fascinating workshop in this small village to see artisans making bashōfu by hand, in the same way that they’ve been producing this uniquely Okinawan textile for centuries.
The turquoise waters of Okinawa are home to a rich variety of marine life, and if you know where to look there’s a high chance you might meet some. Between January and March humpback whales pass through the water around Zamami Island on their 9,000km journey from Alaska to the Kerama Islands National Park. Join a whale-watching tour and you might even see mothers nurturing their babies. For underwater adventures, grab your snorkel and fins and head to Yabiji, Japan’s largest coral reef located to the north of Miyako Island, spanning a huge 17km by 6.5km. With the reef being close to the surface due to the shallow waters here, it’s a good spot for beginners. For more advanced divers, head to the westernmost point of Japan, Yonaguni Island, for schools of hammerhead sharks between November and early May, and to discover the mysterious underwater “ruins” discovered in 1986. While some believe they may be the remnants of a lost civilization, it’s most likely that they’re a natural, albeit very unusual, formation.
Discovering the Yaeyama Islands
In the very far southwest of Okinawa lie the beautiful Yaeyama Islands. Ishigaki and Iriomote Islands are the gateway to this region. Combine both, as well as lovely little Taketomi sandwiched in between, to discover the natural wonders of this far flung corner of Japan.
Ishigaki is blessed with wide stretches of white sand, fiery sunsets, and clear blue waters ideal for snorkelling and diving. Time your visit between June and October to dive with schools of manta rays, or head to beautiful Kabira Bay and join a glass-bottom boat tour to see where rare black pearls are cultivated. Just 20km to the west and connected by regular ferry services lies Iriomote Island. Covered in rainforest and mangroves that can be discovered by kayak or boat trips into the lush interior, the island is also home to the elusive and endangered Iriomote Yamaneko wild cat, of which only around 100 are believed to still exist in the wild.
Between the two lies lovely little Taketomi. At just over five square kilometres, it’s a place where life really slows down. The island’s sand roads are perfect for strolling or cycling, and bougainvillea and hibiscus flowers punctuate the scene with bright pinks and reds. Coral-walled houses are topped by red terracotta roof tiles, a style specific to Taketomi. Look out for the twin shiisa that crown the rooftops, stone creatures that are half-lion, half-dog, and are believed to provide protection to the inhabitants.
Hoshinoya Taketomi Island Hotel
With just 48 villas constructed in the traditional style of the island, the shiisa-topped accommodations of Hoshinoya Taketomi Island are furnished in contemporary style, with natural wood or tatami floors, washi paper screens, and south-facing floor-to-ceiling windows that open onto private flower-filled gardens. Guests are invited to live the way locals do, with opportunities to join craft workshops with artisans from the island. Weave your own mats from plants gathered around Taketomi, learn to play the traditional Okinawan sanshin stringed instrument, or make your own shiisa to guard your home.
Executive Chef Tatsuo Nakano’s “Nouvelle Ryūkyū” cuisine is worth a visit in its own right. Using locally grown vegetables and seafood straight from the sea combined with herbs grown in the hotel’s gardens, Nakano’s creations differ from other Okinawan cuisine yet remain true to its roots, using French culinary techniques to bring out each individual flavour.
After dark, when the day-trippers have left and peace and quiet reign, Taketomi becomes even more magical. Take a moment to sit in your private garden and look up before heading to bed. The clear skies here, free of light pollution, provide some of the best stargazing in the country.