Joyful anticipation starts right on the path leading from the parking lot to the beach. There’s the thundering sound of the crashing surf, the taste of salt in the air.
Stone steps lead down to the beach, where your feet sink into the sand and your eyes take in strange rock formations. Waves are washing around the formations, which, due to their shape, are called the heart rocks. But they could just as well pass for gigantic mushrooms sticking up out of the water.
Whatever the fantasy, the rugged rock formation here in the north of the island of Kouri is one of the highlights of the Okinawa archipelago in Japan.
Japan’s southernmost prefecture is largely unknown to many travellers. Far removed from the bustling mega-cities like Tokyo or Osaka, the Okinawa archipelago is where tangerines and mangoes grow, where bougainvilleas and hibiscus thrive and the wind is rustling among the mangroves and sugar cane fields.
The climate is sub-tropical, with an average annual temperature of 23°C. Okinawa is located between the Pacific Ocean to the east and the East China Sea to the west, on roughly the same latitude as Hawaii in the United States, and Mexico. The archipelago’s 160 islands are home to 1.4 million people.
Okinawa was independent for nearly half a millennium, when the Ryukyu Kingdom (1429-1879) carried out lively trade with other countries of East and South-East Asia. Reminders of this history are highlighted as a World Cultural Heritage Site, including, among others, the Shuri Castle in Naha with its protective stone walls and the royal gardens Shikinaen.
The garden is a place for romantics, like stepping inside a painting with a secluded lake, stone bridges, a palace built of wood and a magical forest of gajumaru trees.
Naha, located in the south of the main island, is the gateway to the archipelago, with the airport serving as the hub. The city features comfort-class hotels, the Naminoue beach overlooked by a Shinto shrine, shopping areas and the Makishi Market.
A hearty welcome
The journey heads to the north of the main island. In Nago, we make a stop at the tiny distillery of Hidekazu Akimura. His passion is for awamori, a rice liquor which is the typical spirit in Okinawa.
The noblest varieties mature for years in large round clay jugs. The liquor is made from Thai long-grain rice. “We tried Japanese rice, but the other one is more suitable,” says Akimura.
He fills each bottle individually, glues on the labels by hand and says: “I haven’t had a day off for 15 years, there’s a lot to do.”
A few kilometres further on, in Ogimi, Morio Taira and his wife Etuko take in overnight guests, whom they generously spoil. A homestay like this gives a visitor a chance to better get to know Japanese hospitality and customs.
The room is cosy, and instead of the expected sleeping mattress on the floor, there was even a real bed. For using the toilet, a separate pair of slippers are provided, as is so often the case in Japan.
In the evening, the guests sit around the kitchen table covered with dishes of tofu, fried fish and doughnuts made from sweet potatoes. The next morning, the elderly man warms up coffee in a microwave oven. For his guest he has purchased an extra plastic bottle containing coffee.
The couple speak only a little English, but not many words are needed amid such warm hospitality.
The Okinawa archipelago has much more to offer than just the main island. Island-hopping can take place partially with a rental car driven across modern connecting bridges. Otherwise, the connections are with ferries or by airplane. Ishigaki, for example, is about a one-hour plane flight.
Japan’s southernmost island lies about 400km south-west of the main island of Okinawa Honto. From here it is only about 200km to Taiwan. Ishigaki also has ferry links to Taketomi and Iriomote.
Taketomi scores with beaches and an open-air museum of traditional architecture made of stone walls and brick-roofed houses. On Iriomote, the path to the Kura waterfall leads beneath tangled hanging roots. Meanwhile, an excursion boat is rocking in the waters offshore, ready for the next stage of the trip.
Mangroves also grow on the next island group Miyako, a well-known snorkelling area with corals and marine turtles. It is here that Takahiro Yoshihama works as a crab fisher. At ebbtide, he leads a small expedition on foot.
“Mangroves are firmly anchored thanks to their roots. They even don’t fall over in a typhoon,” Yoshihama says, his words coming amid the squishing sound which the group’s rubber boots are making in the mud. Along the way, the 45-year-old examines the traps he has set out, using fish heads as bait. On one of his hands a finger tip is missing – the victim of a crab’s pincer.
Payment in banana paper
Yoshihama was previously an aeronautical engineer. But he’s not alone in his decision to change careers. There is also sugar cane and banana farmer Katsuya Matsumoto, 49, who previously was a researcher for the automobile industry.
Sugar cane flourishes in many places on Miyako, all the way to the edge of the beaches. Matsumoto makes syrup from the sugar cane and organises culinary workshops for visitors. He says he has found his freedom in harmony with nature.
And from him you learn that a banana plant is not limited just to fruit production.
“In Japan, we use banana paper every day,” he says. What does this mean, the visitor wonders?
After letting the visitor make some guesses, he reveals the answer: It’s the banana fibres. “Bank notes are made from them.” – dpa
How to get there
There are no direct flights from Kuala Lumpur or anywhere else in Malaysia, to Okinawa. But there are plenty of airlines that do fly to Okinawa from KL, including Malaysia Airlines, AirAsia and Batik Air, with at least one layover in another city. The shortest layover seems to be in either South Korea or Japan; there are also overnight layovers. We recommend taking this option if you are allowed to get out of the airport and go sight-seeing nearby.
Another option is to fly to Tokyo, and then book a local flight to Okinawa. On average, the flight duration from Tokyo to Okinawa is just under three hours. You can also take the bullet train, but that journey is nearly seven hours and will cost you double the local airfare.
The ferry is another option, but this journey takes about 25 hours.