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A traveller’s guide to Okinawa, land of longevity

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Welcome to Okinawa, Japan’s almost-secret, subtropical idyll in the East China Sea. Those who know of these rich islands rave about serene beaches, unbelievably fresh cuisine, a care-free culture of vitality, and the world’s highest density of centenarian residents to prove it.

If you’re keen to experience Japan with a difference, Okinawa is certainly unique. Read on for our guide to making the most of these alluring islands and to see for yourself why it earns its reputation as the ‘Land of Longevity’.

Okinawa: where is it?

The southernmost prefecture of Japan comprises hundreds of islands scattered across the East China Sea, Okinawa being the largest. This somewhat overlooked area attracts visitors keen for a slice of Japan that is distinctly ‘un-Japanese’, away from the city crowds and typical sakura-strewn metropolises of Tokyo and Kyoto. As a welcome contrast, Okinawa is laid-back and progressive; a culture that melds a Japanese way of life with those of other Southeast Asian nations that surround it.

When visiting, you’ll probably fly into the capital, Naha, using Okinawa main as your base. From here you can stop off in other clusters of neighbouring islands, defined by timeworn cliffs, gorgeous beaches, lakes ripe for kayaking, and many historic treasures.

Skyline view of Nago city in Okinawa, Japan

Historic highlights and traditions of Okinawa

Okinawa was formerly known as the Ryūkyū Kingdom, a maritime power which flourished between the 12th and 19th centuries. During this period, the region’s culture was deeply influenced by China, Japan and surrounding Asian nations, which somewhat explains the patchwork cultural blend in Okinawa today.

You can absorb Okinawa’s former Ryukyan identity in a number of UNESCO-protected sites – such as the Tamaudun Royal Mausoleum, containing tombs of Ryūkyū kings and queens; and the Nakijin Castle Ruins, one of the focal Ryūkyū fortresses.

Another defining element of Okinawa is its wartime resilience. In World War II, the island saw one of the bloodiest battles between the Americans and Japanese – there were an estimated 150,000 Okinawan civilian casualties. To commemorate this event, the Okinawa Peace Memorial Park and Himeyuri Peace Museum make for a stirring reminder for most – but many senior residents still remember the tragedy first-hand.

Shureimon Gate, Shuri Castle in Naha, Okinawa

Serene beaches and island-hopping

The Okinawa archipelago is lovingly called ‘Japan’s Hawaii’, and it’s easy to see why. These islands offer a subtropical climate, shimmering curves of turquoise ocean and palm-lined white sand – interrupted by limestone cliffs and lush, forest-swathed hills. Along with a plethora of unique wildlife (like the giant coconut crab and marine-adapted Kerama deer), there’s also a sense of breezy independence from mainlanders.

A trip to Okinawa main has the all-rounder appeal of nature, beach relaxation, and the convenience of capital Naha. But there are over a hundred islands here, many with their own distinct personalities, cultural sights and ecosystems. Island-hopping is the best way to experience Okinawa prefecture’s full range.

There’s the Kerama Islands, consisting of Zamami, Tokashiki, and Aka, which are UNESCO-protected for their historic fishing villages, marine biodiversity and picture-perfect beaches. The limestone cliffs of the Miyako Islands are ringed with captivatingly crystal-clear water and rainbow coral reefs, excellent for spotting sea turtles and other critters while snorkelling or diving.

Then there are the sparsely-populated Yaeyama Islands, awash with historic Ryūkyū sites and vibrant local festivals. Taketomi Island, for instance, is best known for its well-preserved Ryūkyū village set amidst a languid natural landscape. Elsewhere is Iriomote Island, the second-largest island next to Okinawa, covered in around 90% jungle. With barely any people and great opportunities for trekking and kayaking, it’s the ideal choice for those seeking a sense of wild escape.

Aharen Beach on Tokashiki, part of the Kerama Islands in Okinawa, Japan

What to see and do in Naha, Okinawa’s capital

Okinawa’s pleasant capital city, Naha, is a welcome mix of urban convenience and entertainment, with a distant glimpse of the ocean. If you stop here to book-end your exploration of the islands, it’s the perfect place for hitting local street markets, boutique stores, izakayas (Japanese bars) and a number of intriguing historic sites. Be aware this is also the gateway to Okinawa for a strong stream of Japanese tourists, of which you’ll see plenty.

Most visitors head to Kokusai Dori, meaning International Street, for a range of souvenirs and trinkets as well as high street stores, restaurants and cafes. Don’t miss the quaint Tsuboya Pottery District to pick up some classic Okinawan ceramics – these talented artisans produced pottery in the Rykukyu period, from 1682. If you’ve got some time to spare, it’s also worth checking out the very enjoyable and well-curated Okinawa Prefectural Museum.

View of Shuri Castle in Naha, Okinawa

Nurturing a longer life in Okinawa

Okinawa is one of the world’s ‘Blue Zones’, meaning residents here, for some reason, live longer than most anywhere else. The high density of Okinawans in their 90s and 100s is truly impressive (and showcased in the Netflix documentary Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones, if you’re further intrigued).

Researchers have put the longevity of Okinawans down to the fresh, nutritious, and varied foods that make up the typical diet (read on for more on this), but also their cultural importance on ikigai, meaning ‘purpose’, and their active social communities.

Wellness is something you can easily nurture on a trip to Okinawa. With a wealth of hiking, swimming, kayaking and yoga opportunities, plus the proximity to the sea and usually sublime weather, it won’t take long for you to feel as Zen as the residents.

An extra bonus – Okinawa is the birthplace of karate. More than just a form of self-defence, the meaning of karate is rooted in balance, harmony and discipline. You can watch demonstrations throughout the year or even learn this ancient martial art first-hand.

Hiking a lush jungle trail in Okinawa, Japan

Eat your way through Okinawa

A big part of the Okinawan talent for reaching their golden years comes from their diet of nutrient-rich, locally-sourced cuisine. Due to the prefecture’s geography, most Okinawan food is supremely fresh – a selection of seafood, pork, vegetables and tropical fruits that come from the land and sea around them – and dishes are flavourful yet remarkably low in fat.

The freshest fish, purple sweet potatoes, sumptuous dark green veg and moreish seaweed make up a typical Okinawan feast. Many ingredients used aren’t found in mainland Japanese fare – goya, for example, a bitter melon used in stir fries; and sea grapes, a form of seaweed that adds a briny flavour to salads.

Still, there’s always room for indulgence, so don’t miss the rich, lip-glossing pork dishes – the braised pork belly of rafute, or the umami flavour of soki soba, a noodle soup with pork ribs. Cooking classes are fun, if you’re keen to adopt the culinary simplicity of an Okinawan diet and take it home with you.

Japanese soki soba

The best time to visit Okinawa

It’s rarely a bad time to visit Okinawa, as with its subtropical climate it stays pleasantly warm throughout the year. The most agreeable conditions come in spring (March to May) and autumn (September to December), when there is less chance of rain and scorching temperatures. Summers (June to September) can be intense, with temperatures hitting around 34 degrees Celsius, and the occasional typhoon. The winter (December to February) is slightly cooler, but January is prime time for watching humpback whales migrating past the islands.

Miyakojima Island, Okinawa, Japan

Travel tips: how to plan your visit and getting around

Once you’ve flown into capital Naha, it’s easy to get around the city via the monorail. For more extensive travel around the islands, hiring a car is the preferable option as it’s likely you’ll want the freedom to explore without being confined by public transport routes; walking and hitch-hiking are further options for the adventurous. Ferries are quite regular, to facilitate an island-hopping adventure. If you use a local expert based in Japan, they will iron out all of the transfer details for you.

Make it happen

If you’re spellbound by Okinawa’s charms, get in touch with one of our local experts to organise a custom trip to Okinawa. They’re based in Japan, full of the on-the-ground knowledge required to plan your ideal tour, and can do all of the hard work for you.

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