Big In Japan: Okinawa, the Home of Karate, is One of the Far East’s Hidden Gems
By Richard Jones
The Olympic Games in Tokyo are just over a month away, so we can expect to see a deluge of amazing images designed to encourage tourists to visit the Land of the Rising Sun.
But although there will be plenty of futuristic neon-drenched skyscrapers, golden temples, wooden teahouses, cherry blossom and geishas, you may not see many shots of the idyllic beaches in the south of the country.
Despite being previously overlooked by many Western tourists, the tropical paradise of Okinawa, with its year-round warm climate comparable to Hawaii and Cancun and just three hours from Tokyo, is now becoming one of the Far East’s go-to holiday destinations.
But it’s not just the beach life that should prompt adventurous holidaymakers to visit the 160 spectacular islands in the East China Sea – the area is renowned for its crystal-blue and coral-abundant waters, lush green forests, cascading waterfalls and fascinating culture.
Okinawa is one of the foremost scuba diving and snorkelling destinations in the world, it is an important refuge for sea turtles and there is an abundance of river kayaking, surfing, whale watching, canoeing, jungle trekking, hiking, cycling and walking.
Meanwhile, Okinawa is the first place in Japan to experience the earliest bloom of cherry blossoms from mid-January onwards, and thanks to its unique history, it also appeals to culture seekers.
The islands were once part of the independent Ryukyu Kingdom, and influences from this time can still been seen in the area’s arts, crafts, traditions and events.
For those into Second World War history, the largest island (also named Okinawa) is home to the Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum, commemorating the massive Allied invasion in 1945.
Okinawa’s cuisine is also unique, with chefs and cooks making the most of the fresh bounty produced by the region’s natural environment.
The ancient Japanese phrase “ishoku dogen” translates as “food is medicine”, and Okinawans’ diet is believed to be a key reason for the place being one of only five ‘Blue Zones’ or ‘longevity hotspots’ in the world where people live longer than anywhere else.
Among the famous dishes is soba, a hearty and flavoursome soup made from sweet and tender pork ribs on top of egg noodles.
Also worth a try is the iconic goya champuru, a stir-fry dish with bitter melon, tofu, egg and pork belly, which goes well with steamed rice and a side of miso soup.
Finally, another traditional Okinawan product that came about due to its rich trading history is awamori – a distilled spirit made from indica rice imported from Thailand.
Visitors can learn the secrets of these and other foods and drinks with the Taste of Okinawa Cooking Experience in Naha, which includes a visit to a local market followed by a hands-on masterclass demonstrating how to cook some of the region’s dishes.
Okinawa is home to a number of traditional crafts whose origins date back to the Ryukyu Kingdom.
The making of pottery, lacquerware, dyed goods, textiles and glass is still popular today, with many younger Okinawans choosing to carry on the traditions of their ancestors.
Visitors can try out their skills at the Ryuku Glass Village in Itoman, which offers experiences such as glass blowing, candle making, accessory building and shisa (guardian lions) colouring.
For those looking for a day trip from Okinawa’s most popular resort towns, the cosmopolitan city of Naha is within easy reach of the golden sands.
Here, the relaxing charms of island life are contrasted with the vibrant buzz of a place oozing with history, culture and experiences.
A new English-speaking walking tour, Machi Mai, has launched this year, providing an authentic glimpse into the traditional life of Okinawans past and present.
Finally, no visit to this part of the world is complete without getting to know more about karate.
“Off the beaten track”
Although it has developed into several styles over time, the islands are considered the birthplace of karate and home to numerous dojos.
Movie fans may recall that The Karate Kid’s mentor Mr Miyagi (played by Oscar-nominated actor Pat Morita) was originally from Okinawa, while Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) recently returned to the islands in season three of Cobra Kai.
One of the best places in the Naha area to experience the sport is Karate Kaikan in Tomigusuku, which contains a large museum and exhibition.
Plus, there is the Okinawa Karate History Tour, which includes visits to lesser-known places off the beaten tourist track.
With karate set to receive exposure on a global scale this summer, the Okinawa Convention and Visitors Bureau has launched a new specialised website to help travellers discover the sport.
Available in English and Japanese, the site features experiences to suit all skill levels and interests, from excursions and classes to tours and camps.
In The Karate Kid, Mr Miyagi tried to give Daniel a flavour of his homeland. “In Okinawa, all Miyagi know two things: fish and karate,” he said.
Sure, that might be a good place to start, but any trip to these fascinating paradise islands will prove Okinawa has much more under its belt.
British Airways flies from London Heathrow to Okinawa, with a connection at Tokyo Haneda, from £859 return.
For more information and inspiration on holidays to Okinawa, please visit: www.visitokinawa.jp
On the western coast of Okinawa Island is U-MUI Forest Villa, a private hideaway surrounded by nature. As well as 18 private villas with sun gardens and outdoor jacuzzi, facilities within the beautifully manicured gardens and rich forest include a fitness centre, golf simulation experience, outdoor swimming pool and restaurant serving French and Japanese cuisine made with fresh local produce.
A perfect base for island hopping in Yaeyama is the newly opened Hotel Third Ishigaki. Located just a minute walk to Ishigaki Ferry Terminal, it features a spectacular rooftop terrace where guests can enjoy the sun by day and star-studded sky by night. The hotel also houses a café, bar and book lounge with a library of publications covering art, travel, culture and business. Room types include suites, family and twin rooms, while light refreshments are included in the room price.
Expected to open this summer on Yagaji Island, Feliz Villa Suite Kouri Island View will comprise eight luxurious self-contained beachfront villas with idyllic ocean views to Kouri Island beyond. Offering all of the modern comforts of home, each villa will boast its own resort-style terrace, private infinity pool leading down to the sea and a fully equipped kitchen. Villas will sleep between two and six adults, making them an ideal choice for families, friends or those on an extended ‘workoliday’.