Ask an office worker in Tokyo or Osaka where they plan to go for their summer holiday and there is a high probability they will answer Hawaii, Guam, or for those who want to keep it domestic, Okinawa.
They have good reason. Blue ocean water, great weather, white sand beaches, coral reefs, a castle from an independent kingdom in the nation’s past, which produced its own distinct culture, and plenty of opportunities for diving and dining make Okinawa a perennial favorite.
Okinawa lies at Japan’s southern extremity and may be small (roughly 1,200 square kilometers; 464 square miles), but is still the largest in the Ryukyu Islands chain (around 160 islands, which form Okinawa Prefecture) and the fifth largest of Japan’s more than 6,800 islands (excluding the disputed islands north of Hokkaido).
Situated in a subtropical zone, almost equidistant to Taiwan and the rest of Japan, Okinawa is an ideal spot for sun lovers, while comfortably dodging sweltering temperatures much of the year. In winter, temperatures dip roughly to the levels felt in Tokyo and Osaka during spring.
The island’s climatic separation from the rest of Japan is seen in its early blooming cherry blossoms (sakura) and other flowers that bloom throughout the Ryukyu Islands year round—red deigo flowers (the prefecture’s official flower), bougainvilleas, white Easter lilies, and yellow tabebuias. Okinawans partake in hanami as early as December or January, while the rest of the nation must wait until March or April.
But there’s much more to the island than sun, sand and flowers. Okinawa’s historical journey has differed markedly from the rest of Japan. From roughly the 15th to the 19th century, Okinawa was ruled from Shuri Castle in the capital city of Naha by the King of the Kingdom of Ryukyu, established by King Sho Hashi in 1429. Following an invasion by the southern Japanese Satsuma clan in 1629 and a move to formally incorporate the Ryukyu kingdom as a feudal domain in 1879, Okinawa was gradually made a part of Japan.
In the more recent past, since the United States occupied the island after World War II, more than half of all U.S. troops in Japan have been stationed at air bases that cover approximate 20 percent of the island, a controversial issue in the nation for decades. Just recently, the Futenma U.S. air base is in the news as the governments of both nations are in talks over returning approximately 1000 hectares of land to Japan and reducing troop presence on the island.
Throughout this long, complex history Okinawa has developed its own traditions, largely distinct from the rest of Japan, ranging from the elegant Ryukyu-buyo dance performed by women wearing brightly colored bingata cloth and the Shishi-mai lion dance (with colorful manes) to the eisa group dance accompanied by drums and the twang of the island’s three-stringed sanshin (a snakeskin-bodied precursor of Japan’s shamisen, the iconic instrument plucked by geisha and street performers across Japan).
The nation is also known for the local touches in its cuisine. Champuru (stir fry in the local dialect) is a local staple: a mix of the bitter goya vegetable, along with tofu, eggs and pork – or for those with an open mind, spam.
Okinawa soba differ from the buckwheat noodles served cold with soy sauce throughout Japan. The noodles are soba in name only in Okinawa, where they are made of wheat (resembling udon noodles more than anything) served in hot soup with toppings like green onions, boiled pork and red ginger.
The American military presence has even led to one culinary concoction, taco rice, an inexpensive Tex-Mex hybrid (essentially rice covered by the makings of a taco) now found throughout Japan.
And for the truly intrepid, the island is also known to serve up helpings of a singular form of sashimi: raw goat (yagi sashimi).
While it’s doubtfully from eating raw goat, Okinawa has earned a reputation for the longevity and friendliness of its people. Indeed, more centenarians live on the island than anywhere else on the planet. Further, heart disease, cancer and stroke rates are also among the lowest on Earth. This has prompted lots of research, and the findings are telling.
There are a few trends worth noting. Yes, diet and genetics play a major role. But something less expected has made the difference. A major factor in the long-lives of Okinawan people is attitude, influenced by their practice of martial arts (karate originated on the island), and living at their own slower pace: Okinawa time.