Sign Up for Our Monthly Asia Newsletter
Over the centuries, Okinawa and its neighboring islands, as part of the Ryukyu kingdom, developed a unique character that sets them apart from the rest of mainland Japan. Cultural differences are due, in part, to the island’s geographic location nearly a thousand miles south of Tokyo, as well as the island’s position at a crossroads for trade between China, Korea and mainland Japan. Even today, visitors to the island will discover a tropical paradise that, while distinctly Japanese, has a unique and intriguing flavor all its own.
Okinawa is famous for its many activities. It is a prime location for scuba diving, however visitors interested in the island’s history and culture will find plenty of fascinating attractions as well.
Travelers should begin their Okinawa visit at Shurijo Castle, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the center of power for the ancient Ryukyu kingdom for 450 years. The woodwork and stonework of this restored 14th-century castle — one of several castle sites on the island for visitors to explore — highlights the blend of Chinese and Japanese influence on the region. Exhibits at the castle, in both English and Japanese, examine Ryukyu history and its role throughout Southeast Asia.
For a more physical immersion into Okinawa’s culture, visitors should arrange a karate lesson at the dojo at Murasaki Mura, which is a recreation of a traditional Ryukyu village. The martial art of karate held a central role in the philosophy of the Ryukyu, and the island is still considered a mecca for the sport. (Movie lovers will remember that the iconic karate teacher Mr. Miyagi from the film “The Karate Kid” was from Okinawa.)
Jungo Matsuda is a local karate master who offers visitors everything from one-hour lessons (for about $125) to weeklong, high-level intensive coaching sessions. According to Matsuda, Okinawa’s version of karate is more about philosophy than technique.
“The goal is to have the mind and body act together as one naturally,” he said. “This helps in all aspects of life. It makes people more carefree because they are reacting naturally and not getting confused by a lot of technique and rules. Thinking is not always the best in life.”
After working up an appetite at Matsuda’s dojo, visitors can head to Naha, the largest city in Okinawa, and take a stroll through the Makishi Public Market. This covered street market runs along several blocks and features a variety of inexpensive goods. The heart of the market, however, is a building that houses the food stalls where fresh fish, meat and produce are sold. Not only is it fun to simply walk around and see the exotic delicacies on display (water snake, anyone?), but visitors can pick out a fish (or a type of sashimi) and attendants will prepare and serve their selections at long tables upstairs. It’s a great way to sample the local food and culture at the same time.
Okinawa is famous for its production of sea salts, and visitors to the Makishi Public Market should also look for the displays of literally hundreds of types of salt for sale. Clients can test their palettes by sampling some of the unusual salts and trying to identify the subtle differences.
Another local product that is central to Okinawa’s history is its pottery. There are several studios on the island where visitors can see how the pottery is made and purchase items to bring home with them. One such spot is Yachimun-no-Sato, near Yomitan Village, which features an enormous wood-burning kiln used to fire the clay. In Yomitan, tell clients to look for the studio of Miyagi Sumiko. A talented potter herself, Sumiko is the daughter of pottery master Kinjyo Jiro, who is a certified Living National Treasure of Japan. Visitors interested in other local crafts should be sure to check out Okinawa World. This well-developed tourist attraction combines an underground cavern complex with extensive demonstrations by local artisans and shops selling local handicrafts, such as paper, glass, pottery and more. One of the highlights of a visit to Okinawa World is a shop that specializes in a local alcohol called Habu, which is packaged with a fierce-looking venomous snake coiled in every bottle.
Finally, visitors can learn about Okinawa’s more recent history with a visit to the Former Japanese Navy’s Underground Headquarters during World War II. From these underground bunkers, Japanese admirals planned their attacks on allied forces throughout the Pacific. In addition to fascinating displays and a detailed history of the battle of Okinawa — where thousands of soldiers on both sides, as well as local civilians, died — one of the most eerie spots in the underground command center is the room where Japanese officers committed suicide en masse to avoid capture at the end of the war.
The navy headquarters provide a look into a grim chapter of Okinawa’s rich history. It’s another example of the island’s unique cultural sights, offering travelers an unforgettable experience in this off-the-beaten-path destination.
New & Noteworthy
The Green Leaf Niseko Village Resort Reopens with DistinctionThe Green Leaf Niseko Village Resort underwent renovations in 2010 and reopened in December of last year. In May, the Green Leaf resort in Hokkaido, Japan, was selected by Travel + Leisure for its It List of 50 most groundbreaking hotels. The Green Leaf Niseko Village was, additionally, one of 10 hotels on the list that offers room rates starting at $300 and under. www.thegreenleafhotel.com
Travel Advisory Reduces the Travel Alert for JapanThe U.S. Department of State has reduced its travel alert to Japan to areas within a 50-mile radius of the Fukushima power plants. This radius excludes Tokyo and Yokohama as well as Tokyo’s Narita and Haneda airports. The majority of Japan was not directly damaged by the earthquake and has been restored to previous conditions. Public transportation, food and water are all safe and radiation levels outside the plant areas are not dangerous according to the International Civil Aviation Organization and other international organizations. www.japantravelinfo.com
Hiraizumi’s Buddhist Temples, a World Heritage SiteUNESCO granted the Hiraizumi Buddhist Temples status as a World Heritage Site on June 25. Located in the Tokohuko region of Japan, Hiraizumi rivaled Kyoto as the governing center of Japan in the 11th and 12th centuries and still bears vestiges of its governmental offices. Japan is now home to 16 UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Land of the Rising SunOn this 14-day tour with Intrepid Travel, travelers experience all the nuances and delights of Japanese culture, from the excitement and rich history of Tokyo to the acclaimed sake in Takayama. Tourist sites include the resting place of the first Tokugawa shogun, the Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima and the magnificent gold-plated Kinkaku-ji Temple in Kyoto. Traveling with a small group, a maximum of 12 people, the tour makes its way from Tokyo to Nikko, then on to Takayama and Hiroshima, culminating with a four-day stay in Kyoto. Accommodations include one night in a hotel and 12 nights in traditional inns, and modes of travel during the tour include cable cars, bullet trains and ferries. Two breakfasts and two dinners are included. Prices start at $3,850 per person. The tour is available through Dec. 31. www.intrepidtravel.com
Samurai Legacy TourJapan boasts a rich cultural heritage and the technical power of a modern country. With Asia Pacific Adventures’ Samurai Legacy Tour, travelers can experience the best of both aspects of Japan in 15 days. While staying in a country home with traditional Japanese hospitality, guests have the opportunity to learn the history of the Samurai warriors. In Tokyo, travelers are surrounded by modern architecture and pop culture and, in Kyoto, they can experience the grandeur of Japan’s ancient capital city, from its winding paths to its geisha district. Guests are also treated to demonstrations of Japanese art through private harp and fencing performances, as well as a Noh performance (a masked musical drama). Travelers also visit Mount Fuji and the great castle Himeji during the tour. www.asianpacificadventures.com
10/11Nikko Toshogu Shrine Grand Autumn Festival — The Nikko Toshogu Shrine is a World Heritage Site and home to the Grand Autumn festival in Nikko City. The festival features a procession of men dressed in samurai clothing makes its way to Otabisho, led by the portable shrine. (Oct. 17)
12/11Countdown Japan — To ring in the New Year, Japanese music artists gather in Makuhari and Osaka for this unique winter rock festival. The event is held in the two cities, simultaneously, at the Makuhari Messe Hall and Index Osaka. (Dec. 29-31)
1/12Yamayaki — Yamayaki is a New Year’s event said to have originated in a boundary dispute in 1760. During the event, Mount Wakakusayama is set ablaze, followed by a display of 200 fireworks. Nara City offers the best view, but the spectacle can also be seen from any surrounding town. (Jan. 28, 2012)
Ginza YoshizawaLocated in the upscale shopping district of Ginza in Tokyo, Ginza Yoshizawa is a restaurant acclaimed for its grilled sukiyaki and shabu-shabu dishes, which use the highest-quality wagyu (specialty beef known for its tenderness and rich flavor). With its traditional Japanese ambience and culinary excellence as well as its wide variety of beef dishes, Gina Yoshizawa is frequented by both locals and foreigners alike, and attracts a generous crowd of business people thanks to its 12 private dining rooms.
NichiyoichiNichiyoichi, or Sunday Market, is one of Japan’s largest outdoor markets, offering a plentiful variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, sushi, pottery, antiques and more. Approximately 500 stalls line the street in Kochi City. The market is open from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m., April through September, and from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m., October through March.
Tokyo BayA shopping center at the very heart of Tokyo, Tokyo Bay features various kinds of shops to satisfy a number of fashion preferences, from more sophisticated tastes to teen fashion and more. The center also houses the legendary Lalaport, founded in the 1980s and recently updated, to cater to the most modern fashionistas. Movies and gourmet restaurants provide a diversion between shopping sprees.
Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo at Chinzan-soSecluded within the tranquility of a historic Japanese garden, but minutes away from the subway and Tokyo’s shopping and financial districts, the Four Seasons Hotel at Tokyo Chinzan-so is offering a special package for the summer and fall. For every two consecutive paid nights, guests receive a third night free, with access to the fitness center, the pool and onsen at Yu, the Spa. Valid through Sept. 30, rates begin at $342 per night, and a three-night stay is required. www.fourseasons.com/tokyo
The Peninsula TokyoWith its outstanding views and stylish, comfortable rooms, The Peninsula Tokyo in the Marunouchi district is one of Tokyo’s must-see destinations. Currently, the hotel is offering the Peninsula Celebration package as an extra incentive. The package includes special rates starting at $846 per night, a complimentary bottle of champagne, a $130 dining credit valid at hotel restaurants, daily American breakfast, complimentary Internet access, use of its fitness facilities, a daily newspaper and a late checkout. The offer is valid until Dec. 31. www.peninsula.com/tokyo
Hyatt Regency KyotoFor those looking to relax, rejuvenate and renew, the Hyatt Regency in Kyoto is the place to be. Aside from its sleek, modern accommodations, The Hyatt Kyoto is currently offering the Onko Chishin package, which includes accommodation for one night; two, 40-minute shiatsu massage treatments and a 60-minute acupuncture treatment as well as a 30-minute herb bath; breakfast at The Grill; and a late checkout. The offer is valid through Dec. 31. www.kyoto.regency.hyatt.com