The Okinawa Prefecture Japan

| September 22, 2009

After the hustle and bustle of visiting the cultural delights of Tokyo and Kyoto, Far East expert Ewen Moore visited the most southerly part of Japan, the Islands that make up the Okinawa prefecture as part of a small group tour. There he found a climate and an attitude far removed from those on Japan’s main Island of Honshu.

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Okinawa Main Island
Our arrival in Naha, on the main Island of Okinawa and the biggest city in the Okinawa prefecture, couldn’t have been more different to our arrival in Tokyo only a few days earlier. Replace the efficient and immaculately dressed immigration guards at Tokyo Narrita airport with a handful of brightly dressed and deeply suntanned airport staff with clearly very little to do; replace the 150 metre baggage carrousel rushing out hard cased, dark coloured suitcases with a lazy single belt coughing up a mixture of golf bags and pink suitcases bulging with flip-flops and sun cream; and most of all replace the cloudy, still, inescapable heat of Tokyo and Kyoto in July with the (albeit just as hot and inescapable) humidity of a tropical Island. Here we are – Okinawa.

As we got on the bus to our hotel in downtown Naha, we were greeted with huge apologies from the Okinawan tourist board representatives, as our arrival had coincided with the evening rush hour in Naha and we had to cross the city to our hotel. 15 minutes later we were at our hotel, The Naha Terrace Hotel. With great views over the city and the coast, the 5 star Naha Terrace is the best place to stay if your flight is at an anti-social hour or simply if you fancy a few days exploring Naha.

Naha itself is certainly worth exploring for a day. The central Kokusai (or International) Street is packed with shops selling all manner of Okinawan delights. Particularly good souvenirs are a bottle of the local tipple, Awamori, a rice based spirit, stronger than any Sake you’re likely to encounter on mainland Japan and a ‘Okinawan’ style shirt. As our time in Okinawa moved on I became more and more fascinated with the ‘Hawaiian’ style of shirt worn not only by the holiday-makers, guides and street vendors, but by all the government officials and Hotel staff. I picked one up at a very reasonable price on Kokusai Street and slipping it on as we walked through the adjoining market immediately felt much more inconspicuous. The market half way down Kokusai street is another must-see, especially the food section, where one can walk through the stalls tasting the local delicacies, such as seaweed and pig’s ears. It is said that the people of Okinawa will eat every part of a pig apart from its squeal!

The next day found us heading north on the Island, towards the famous Churaumi Aquarium (until recently the proud owner of the world’s biggest fish tank). On our way we visited ‘Ryukyu Mura’, a cleverly designed ‘cultural village’ where you can walk leisurely around at your own pace viewing various aspects of traditional Okinawan life. The highlight for me was when an elderly lady suddenly appeared in one of the buildings and danced for us with a  huge bottle of Awamori on her head. ‘How old is she?’ I asked our guide after a spirited round of applause, ‘92’ she answered. I would recommend the Ryukyu Mura as a ‘fun for all ages place’, and if I’m being honest one of the few sightseeing places in Okinawa ready for the western tourist, demonstrated by their provision of an informative English speaking tape that accompanies you round.

I would recommend all the above excursions to anyone spending a few days on the main island of Okinawa, but the reason why you visit here is to relax by a beach after a busy tour of the main Islands of Japan. There are a range of different quality beach resorts to choose from on the Island, but in my opinion, there is no better place to stay than the Busena Terrace Hotel (sister to the Naha Terrace), a luxury resort situated on the mid-west coast with stunning views out over the light blue tropical sea. It was here that the G20 summit in the year 2000 took place and the hotel played host to many of the world’s leaders. If you are the sort of person who gets bored easily with relaxing by a pool or on a beach or the fear of bumping into Cherie Blair in a bikini is too much for you, the hotel is also right next to a first class championship golf course and 15 minutes from the aquarium and the cultural village.

Tourism in Okinawa is very much alive and developed in terms of domestic visitors, but despite the large US presence from the Naval base (who it seems on-the-whole keep themselves to themselves), Okinawa is fairly new to the idea of western tourists. Despite the current dearth of western visitors, it is however well enough equipped in terms of accommodation and activities to make an ideal tourist destination.

One thing I would highly recommend doing if you are visiting Okinawa is hiring a car and self-driving. This is something I experienced for a morning and found the roads to be safer and quieter to those in the UK. Although Okinawa may not feel like Japan, with some things (such as safety) it certainly is and I was put in a simulator which spoke to me in English and let me practice on the ‘virtual’ roads of the island before being plonked in front of a short DVD which explained to me how not to collide with the car in front and the importance of fastening my seat belt. I was also delighted to find that, (despite their being only really 3 roads on the island), the car did have a Satellite Navigation system which would speak to me in English and which the people in the hire shop are more than happy to set up for you. Having a car on Okinawa is a big plus as it allows you to hop from beach to beach as well as visit some of the attractions above in your own time.

So it was with difficulty that the following morning I dragged myself up and headed to the airport for our flight to the Island of Ishigaki, the most southerly part of Japan and a mere 100km from Taiwan.

I shouldn’t have worried, what we found on the smaller, far more sparsely populated Ishigaki (around 45,000 as opposed to around 1.2 million), was another delightful place to come and relax.

After an early start and some fervently drawn out goodbyes from the entourage that had accompanied us for our days on the main Island, we were in need of refuelling. We weren’t disappointed as our first stop was the Kaho restaurant, famous throughout the Ishigaki and the neighbouring Yaeyama Islands for its healthy cuisine. The highlight of it was trying a local seaweed dish, Mozuku, thin ‘noodle-like’ seaweed, served in vinegar.

Stomachs full of seaweed and tea; we set out for our afternoon’s excursion, a leisurely cruise around Kabira Bay in a glass bottomed boat. Kabira Bay is home to some of the most beautiful coral and tropical fish in the world and it makes for a fascinating afternoon, cruising in and out of the small islands scattered off the Ishigaki coast.

The Yaeama Islands, of which Ishigaki is the largest and most populous member, offer a sight of rural Island life, where many of the inhabitants have barely ever left their own Island, and can’t comprehend the commerce of mainland Japan. Just a 20 minute ride from Ishigaki is tiny Island of Taketomi, whilst a mere 300 lay their heads here at night, the daytime population can rise into the thousands with many of the visiting Japanese enjoying a leisurely Buffalo cart ride around the traditional Okinawan residences.

In terms of accommodation, The ANA Intercontinental Ishigaki resort is the Islands premier hotel. Just 10 minutes from the airport and situated on a kilometre long stretch of beach, the hotel bears all the reassuringly classy traits of other hotels in Asia under the Intercontinental brand.

The final one of the Islands that we visited in the Okinawan Prefecture was the small holiday Island of Miyako. It was clear from the our arrival at the airport that it was a big deal for the tourist authorities in Miyako to have visitors from UK travel companies and after a rushed interview for the Miyako TV news, we were taken to a fantastic lunch at the Miyako Tokyu Resort. This resort is situated on what is arguably the best stretch of beach on the Island and is well equipped for Western visitors, with a brand new spa and a number of restaurants to choose from.

The main attraction of visiting Miyako is the Ocean and wonderful Coral and tropical fish that can be seen there. The Island is a truly great place to lie on the beach relaxing or splashing around with a snorkelling mask.

If you are the looking to experience the ultimate in luxury resort relaxation that Japan has to offer you may wish to stay at the suite-only, Allamanda resort. Popular with Japanese honeymooners and government officials, and with it’s own stretch of beach and golf course, there is nowhere better on the Island to relax and enjoy being pampered.

To discuss Tailor-Made options to Japan’s Okinawa Prefecture call 020 7873 5000.

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