Okinawa is a totally different Japan. It’s Japan’s island holiday destination and so it has a completely different vibe to anywhere else you might have visited in the country. We visited the main island, also called Okinawa. Being an island, it’s slow moving and casual. For the locals, enjoying a good life and being a part of the community seems to take priority over working hard and getting ahead. The islands are known throughout the world for their beautiful beaches, great food, clean living and friendly people and it’s true; the locals always share a smile and a wave.
Having just said that it is unlike the rest of Japan, Okinawa is very much an island holding onto its Japanese heritage having not yet yielded to international tourism and the cultural dilution it inevitably brings. Foreign travellers are still a rare sight on the island and something of a curios- ity, and English is not at all widely spoken.
Traditional architecture meets tropical beaches
The island is small so renting a car is a great way to explore everything it has to offer. It’s also a great way to find out more about the local way of life because it requires that you interact with people going about their business; you’re often relying on them to point you in the right direction.
I say this because it was challenging at times reading the road map and trying to figure out where I was. My hire car came with an English-speaking satellite navigation system however I still got lost often enough to get to know the locals and even though the language barrier presented some difficulties, thanks to their good humour and patience it was almost always amusing.
Author and an 89 year old local measure up
There were more than a couple of times that I found myself driving down some sandy road in some remote area of the is- land knowing that I was an unusual sight in that part of town, but there was always someone willing to look at my map while I spoke English and he or she spoke Japanese and they’d somehow help get me back on track with a smile and a wave goodbye.
It wasn’t just driving directions that proved difficult. Trying to ask: “What exactly is that on my plate” presented some uncomfortable moments. Sometimes I couldn’t work out if it was something I was supposed to eat or if it was there by accident. Apparently the pig’s anus was no accident. This foreign dining dilemma is a common experience to regular travellers but I gotta say it’s a good thing the Japanese like to have pictures on their menus.
Luxurious spas and pools
Okinawa is well known for having more centenarians per capita than anywhere else in the world. Fresh food from the ocean along with a healthy Japanese diet has this local population en- joying good health for a very long time and I met plenty who were proof of that.
The Okinawans take their fresh food very seriously. They are apparently known throughout Japan for eating every part of the pig, “except the oink”. I was told more than once at restaurants that the pork tastes so good in Okinawa because the pigs are happy; they enjoy the sunshine and the island life so they taste better. The chicken and the fish tasted great as well but nobody told me whether or not they were also happy.
Any trip to Okinawa must include a visit to the Churaumi Aquarium. Churaumi means beautiful ocean in the Okinawan dialect and the aquarium is indeed a beautiful ocean. The mesmerising main tank holds a whopping 7,500 cubic metres of water, (roughly equivalent to three Olympic-sized swimming pools) held back by the world’s largest acrylic window. Though the pane is 60 centimetres thick, it appears as if nothing separates visitors from the gracefully gliding marine life on the other side. I was so infatuated with the sight I spent an hour just watching what happened on the other side of the gigantic window, including three massive whale sharks. Just amazing.
Beautiful views right from your bathroom
WHERE TO STAY
The most authentically Okinawan of the island’s luxury hotels is Hyakunagaran with only 15 rooms in a peaceful setting overlooking the ocean in southern Okinawa. The hotel provides beautiful and very comfortable traditional Okinawan clothing and pyjamas to wear during your visit. Among the rooms on offer are six wonderful rooftop tea room pavilions that have private outdoor baths overlooking the ocean. The res- taurant serves beautifully authentic meals and a 12-course dinner.
Rates: Rooms are priced from JYP52,500 (about A$523) per per- son per night including dinner and breakfast. hyakunagaran.com
The Ritz-Carlton, Okinawa
Opened in mid-2012 The Ritz- Carlton, Okinawa is the first international luxury brand to open in the region. The hotel is set on an 18-hole championship golf course with a beautiful ESPA spa. At Kise, the hotel’s Japanese restaurant, I ate an incredible two- hour long teppanyaki dinner by Chef Jun who has been training in teppanyaki for seven years.
Rates: Rooms are priced from JPY31,000 (about A$309) per night plus taxes. ritzcarlton.com
Busena Terrace Resort
Just down the hill from the Ritz-Carlton, the Busena Terrace Resort juts out into the ocean on a small peninsula. Tucked away at one end of the property is the exclusive Terrace Club at Busena, a smaller resort within a resort of just 68 rooms. The Club is right on the beach and specialises in wellness. There’s a Thalasso spa pool – a saltwater maze of high- pressure jets that massage different parts of your body – which is amazing for deep tissue massage from the soles of your feet to your neck. Treatments focus on the natural healing properties of mud, algae and seawater along with gentle exercises and stretch- ing to boost metabolism and improve circulation. The fine dining restaurant at Busena Terrace serves an Okinawan-style menu as well as a low calorie healthy menu. Guests can also use the facilities at the main Busena resort which include more than 10 restaurants and bars, swimming pools and, of course, karaoke.
Rates: Rooms are priced from JPY77,385 (about A$770) per night including breakfast, afternoon tea and evening cocktails. terrace.co.jp/en/clubatbusena/