Paradise found in Okinawa

An archipelago of 160 islands, sub-tropical Okinawa is a gem of Japan, preserving ancient traditions from its cuisine to its crafts. And then there are the wizened locals…

I’m floating on my back in the ocean, the morning sun strong enough to blur my view of the thickly forested hills of Yambaru National Park. I roll over and make a few lazy strokes toward the reef and a small surf break. I hit a patch of water a couple of degrees cooler than the balmy 25°C I’d just been bobbing about in. Not cold, but contrast enough to make me shiver. Since I’ve been staying in Jashiki village on the Japanese island of Okinawa, a dawn swim here has become somewhat of a ritual. I think of it as my own ocean onsen.

Japan has long been a hotspot for Australian travellers, whether they attracted by the food, the culture, the contrasts or the opportunities for skiing and snowboarding. It’s a relatively easy flight – 10 hours from Sydney to Tokyo – and there’s little time difference. But while most visitors head to the islands of Honshu and Hokkaido, the most southerly prefecture of Okinawa is only now waking from its sub-tropical slumbers and luring us down.

Okinawa uncovered

Okinawa is an unclasped necklace of more than 160 islands strung across some 1,000 kilometres of ocean, almost reaching Taiwan. For 450 years it was its own kingdom, ruled by the Ryukyu kings. They trod a delicate line, kowtowing to neither Japan nor China, until 1879 when the islands became part of Japan.

But hints of the past remain: the ancient martial art of karate was founded by Ryukyu noblemen, and is still a popular sport, and is still a popular sport across the archipelago. The islands also have their own language, although Japanese is now mostly spoken, and the residents tend to have more animist beliefs than the rest of Japan.

Island idylls

I’m on a week-long visit to the archipelago’s main island, which is also known as Okinawa. And the region’s fascinating history is revealed to me in layers.

First stop is Shuri-jo Castle in Okinawa’s bustling capital of Naha. The grand, red-lacquered complex has been rebuilt a number of times – after the bombings of World War II and, most recently, following a 2019 fire. It deservingly attracts a lot of visitors.

More peaceful are the ruins of Nakijin-jo Castle, further north of the island. After an ocean-fresh sashimi lunch in Nakijin village, my guide Kazumi leads me up a steep hill, passing thick vines and twisted fig trees on an ancient path leading to the ruins. It was once a centre of religious activity, and today has been designated a World Heritage Site.

Long live Okinawa

As striking as these relics are, perhaps Okinawa’s biggest claim to fame is being a ‘Blue Zone’ – parts of the world where people live exceptionally long. It’s not fully understood why, but genetics, a diet rich in fruit and vegetables, exercise and strong community engagement are all believed to play a part. As someone with a seniors card newly added to my wallet, I’m rather hoping osmosis might help me absorb the Okinawan longevity.

Tiny Jashiki village, where I enjoy my morning dips, is deep in the Blue Zone. At the other end of the spectrum, like in much of Japan, there is a falling birth rate. Indeed the last birth in Jashiki was nearly two decades ago.

Given this decline, a number of island-wide initiatives have been developed to ensure sustainability and job creation locally. Yambaru Hotel Nammei Shinshitsu has converted traditional houses in villages into extremely comfortable accommodation, and also offer a range of experiences to immerse visitors in communities.

While in Jashiki I was lucky enough to spend two nights in a gorgeous little house where my host, Mishiko, took over the kitchen to cook up the freshest of feasts. With hunger being a great motivator, eventually I will master the art of the chopstick. A hot dining tip though – never leave your chopsticks in your rice bowl. I learned in Okinawa, much to my embarrassment, this is bad luck.

I arrived in Jashiki by bike, pedalling through the hills on a warm, humid day. It had been gentle riding along the west coast at first. At Ogima, I stopped at the visitor’s centre for the Yambaru National Park, part of a World Heritage area that swathes a large part of the north of the island – think dense rainforest with clear creeks and waterfalls.

Fortunately – at the hottest part of the day and with that deserving hunger only brisk exercise can bring – I rode into Gajimanro cafe where glasses of iced shikuwasa (a type of lime) juice were served for cooling; pizzas for calories. An influence more American than Italian. With the WWII surrender of Japan in 1945, the US occupied and administered Okinawa, not returning the archipelago to Japan until 1972. Okinawa still has some 30,000 American military personnel on the islands, now by invitation, not invasion.

Embracing Okinawan traditions

Small island peoples worldwide look to the sea for sustenance and spirituality. In Okinawa, the sabani, a traditional wooden canoe, allowed locals to fish and to move from island to island. There are few sabani boatbuilders remaining today – Teppei Hentona is one of them, probably the youngest. He comes from a once royal Ryukyu family and crafts these boats using Japanese cedar and bamboo nails. I try one out. With an oarsman and four paddlers we dip our single blades into the turquoise waters for a couple of hours, working up a sweat and then taking an obligatory dip in the sea.

My entire trip, food was spectacular – the sushi and sashimi, the sea grapes, the rice coloured by plum and other fruits, chutneys of marinated flowers, cakes made from mugwort herbs, insanely rich tofu soaked in awamori… This, the Okinawan sake spirit, is distilled from a black koji (rice malt) mold and Thai long-grain rice, and it’s is a local staple. But perhaps nothing challenges the omnipresent Orion beer, a refreshing, rice-based lager simply perfect for the climate.

The culinary culmination of my visit was at Alo Edesse, a restaurant in the modern Asbo Stay Hotel, halfway up Okinawa Island. The chef, Tadayuki Yamanaka, spent years perfecting his technique in Michelin-starred restaurants in France, and at Alo fuses Gallic gastronomy with Okinawan ingredients. It’s not the kind of meal I expected to be eating in Okinawa, but once I plucked up the courage to spoil the artwork of each course, I was in dining heaven.

My short visit allowed a mere taste of just one of the pearls of Okinawa. I’m certainly hungry to explore more – perhaps I’ll take a sabani and paddle away to some of the other jewels of this island necklace.

Okinawa is one of Japan’s hidden gems, an archipelago brimming with adventures, culinary experiences and traditions. Find out more via and


Renowned adventurer and writer Huw Kingston has capsized, slid, fallen and tripped in some of the most spectacular parts of the world.

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