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Travel Okinawa Travel Guide

By JREF · Jun 18, 2012 · Updated Jul 20, 2017
  1. JREF
    Composed of a chain of some sixty islands generally referred to as the Ryukyu Islands (琉球諸島 Ryūkyū-shotō), Okinawa is located south of Kyūshū and surrounded by the East China Sea and the Pacific Ocean. The islands are generally subdivided into the Okinawa, Miyako, Yaeyama, and Senkaku groups. Okinawa, the main island of the Okinawa group, is by far the largest both in terms of size and population, and is the prefecture’s economic, administrative, and cultural center. With the exception of the northern portion of the main island, most of the terrain is fairly level. The climate is subtropical, with abundant rainfall; typhoons are frequent.

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    Maf of the Okinawa islands
    Okinawa Facts
    • 1,441,155 (June 2017)
    • 2,276.49 square kilometers
    • Population density: 632 inhabitants per square kilometer (June 2017)
    History

    While the people of Okinawa are the same ethnic strain as those of mainland Japan, they have developed outside the framework of the Japanese state for much of their history. Pottery and human remains indicate that the islands may have been inhabited from up to one million years ago. By the twelfth century, numerous small local rulers known as anji or aji had emerged, but their domains were gradually consolidated by conquest. In the fifteenth century the Ryūkyūs developed into a unified kingdom, whose ruler paid tribute to the Chinese emperor. The kingdom traded with Southeast Asia, Korea, China and Japan, absorbing cultural influences from all these sources. However, the islands seem to have maintained a measure of independence by virtue of distance, and when Toyotomi Hideyoshi ordered the kingdom to support his ill-fated campaign in Korea in 1592, his request was ignored.

    In 1609, the kingdom was conquered by the Shimazu clan of the Satsuma domain, which exploited its strategic location and freedom from shogunal supervision to profit from commerce with China. However, tribute missions continued to be sent to China. After the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the Japanese government claimed formal sovereignty over the Ryūkyūs and incorporated them as Okinawa Prefecture. This act was not recognised by the Chinese until the conclusion of the Sino-Japanese War in 1895.

    In the Second World War, Okinawa was a highly strategic location, which the Allies regarded as essential for an invasion of the Japanese mainland. In October 1944, much of Naha was destroyed by American bombers, and the islands were invaded in early 1945 in one of the bloodiest campaigns of the war. Over 260,000 people (many of them civilians) died over a period of three months. With the Allied victory, General MacArthur, US General in command of the occupying US forces, separated the Ryūkyūs and Japan into separate administrations. Okinawa thus remained under separate US control, which was confirmed with the 1951 San Francisco peace treaty. On 15 May 1972 the islands reverted to Japanese administration, but US forces continue to maintain many bases and training areas, and significant forces, on the Okinawan islands. Today, the continued American military presence in Okinawa and other parts of Japan still causes problems at times but is balanced with a general awareness of the importance of the bases for the Okinawan economy.

    Economy

    Economic development had been made difficult by the fact that much of Okinawa, including prime agricultural land, was occupied by US military bases. Currently, all US forces combined hold about 18 percent of Okinawa’s land. Remoteness from mainland Japan and lack of fresh water have also hindered progress. According to the Okinawa Industrial Promotion Corporation, the primary industrial sector of Okinawa’s economy accounts for 1.9 percent, the secondary for 15.4 percent, and the tertiary for 87 percent, depicting the heavy dependence on service industries. Agricultural activity is limited to sugarcane and pineapples. Manufacturing industries, as shown above, do not play any significant role. Service industries catering to the military bases are still a major source of revenue, despite the fact that US bases (mainly Kadena AFB and Futenma AFB) have reduced the number of civilian employees, significantly increasing the unemployment rate, especially among the young. With some 5.5 million visitors in 2004, tourism has become the backbone of Okinawa’s economy.

    Getting there

    The only options for getting to and from Okinawa are by air and by sea. There are regular flights from Taipei (Taiwan), Seoul and Pusan (South Korea), and Tokyo (Haneda), Ōsaka (Kansai), Nagoya, and Fukuoka airports in Japan to Naha Airport on Okinawa Island. There are airports at Naha, Aguni, Kumejima, Kerama, Shin Minamidaitō, Minamidaitō, Kitadaitō, Iejima, Miyako, Shimojishima, Tarama, Ishigaki, Hateruma, and Yonaguni on the islands with most operating daily flights. Naha is the hub of all transport, and the only airport that is open 24 hours a day.

    Similarly, ferries operate from Naha to all the islands, often crawling from one end of the archipelago to the other. You can also take international ferries from Kaoshiung or Chilung (near Taipei) in Taiwan, or come from Kagoshima, Fukuoka or Osaka in Japan. Flying is of course faster, but if you have time, the ferry can be an interesting alternative. Consider flying if you are in the typhoon season, as you are more likely to encounter bad weather or find the ferry turned back – and you are less likely to be stranded if a typhoon does come.

    Climate

    Okinawa has a subtropical climate, resulting in hot, humid summers and mild winters. Spring brings with it typhoons and heavy rain. Average temperatures rise from the high teens in winter to the low to mid thirties in summer, with highs approaching forty degrees centigrade not uncommon. Combined with a high humidity rate, this makes the summers fairly sticky as in other parts of Japan. Okinawa is blessed with warm seas however, so it is ideal for all kinds of water sports most of the year.

    Rainfall peaks in May with the onset of the typhoon season, and again in August. Summer is generally clear and sunny however, as rainfall is very heavy and concentrated. Conversely, winters tend to be fairly hazy, with less direct sunlight. Okinawa is an ideal place to visit in the winter for those trying to escape the cold of the rest of Japan, or perfect for a tropical getaway in the heat of summer to indulge in all kinds of water sports.

    Things to see

    Okinawa is more of a place to go and do things than just to see. Being an archipelago of islands, the obvious thing is water sports. Diving, sailing, water skiing, windsurfing and so on are all possible, and some excellent beaches make the perfect tropical paradise.

    Satsunan Islands:

    The Satsunan Islands (薩南諸島 Satsunan shotō) are a group of islands forming the northern part of the Ryūkyūs. They belong to Kagoshima Prefecture. They consist of the Amami Islands (奄美群島 Amami guntō) and the Ōsumi Islands (大隅諸島 Ōsumi Shotō). The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency maintains the Tanegashima Space Center (種子島宇宙センター Tanegashima Uchū Sentā) on Tanegashima (種子島), the second largest island of the Ōsumi archipelago. Yakushima (屋久島) is part of the Kirishima-Yaku National Park (霧島屋久国立公園 Kirishima-Yaku Kokuritsu Kōen). It was designated a UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Reserve in 1980, and is famous for its Yakusugi (屋久杉) Forest with cedar trees over one thousand years old.

    Yaeyama Islands

    The Yaeyama Islands (八重山諸島 Yaeyama-shotō) form the southern and the remotest part of the Ryūkyūs. They contain Japan’s most southern inhabitated island, Hateruma (波照間島 Hateruma-jima), as well as its most western, Yonaguni (与那国島 Yonaguni-jima), both of which are renowned for their awamori (泡盛), an alcoholic beverage indigenous to Okinawa distilled of rice. Ishigaki (石垣島 Ishigakijima) has more good beaches, Torinji (Zen temple), and lots of good hiking trails. A short ferry trip (about ten minutes) will get you to Taketomi (竹富島 Taketomijima), which preserves the traditional Ryukuan character. Visit Taketomi Village and try some of the beaches for star-sand. Iriomote (西表島 Iriomotejima), the second-largest island in the Okinawa group, is almost entirely covered in tropical rain forest, and has many rare species – particularly the Iriomote wildcat or lynx and Serpent eagles. Take a boat trip up the Urauchi River to Mariundo Falls, or try one of the many hiking trails or beaches.

    Miyako Islands

    The Miyako Islands (宮古列島 Miyako Rettō) are located east of the Yaeyama Islands. They consist primarily of Miyakojima (宮古島) and Tarama Island (多良間島 Taramajima). Miyakojima is a popular tourist destination. Visit the Eastern Cape (東平安名岬 Higashi-hennazaki), Painagama Beach, Maehama Beach, and the Ueno German Culture Village, a theme park commemorating the shipwrecking of a German boat in the Meiji era, with the replica of Marksburg castle and underwater observatory boats. Miyako island is also known for its yearly triathlon, and jofu, the local cloth.

    The Yaeyama and the Miyako Islands are referred to as the Sakishima Islands (先島諸島 Sakishima shotō).

    Okinawa Islands

    The Okinawa Islands (沖縄諸島 Okinawa Shotō) consist of Okinawa, Kume Island (久米島 Kumejima) and Aguni Island (粟国島 Agunijima), along with the Kerama Islands (慶良間諸島 Kerama Shotō), Iejima (伊江島), and many small islands. Most people live on Okinawa Island, the main city of which is Naha, one of the most cosmopolitan and developed in Japan. There is not much evident of the old Ryukuan culture in the city outside of the museums; most of it was destroyed in the war. In the Tomari area of Naha, see the Sojen-ji Ishimon, the stone gate of the Sojen-ji, main shrine to the Ryukuan kings, which was destroyed in World War II bombing. Naminoue-jingu and Gokoku-ji overlook the sea in the Tsuji part of town and are worth a visit.

    Shurei (守礼) used to be the Imperial capital of the Ryukuan Kingdom, but is now a suburb of Naha. Visit the Shurei Kannon-dō, which has a traditional Okinawa roof but is a recent reconstruction, as well as Shuri Castle (首里城 Shuri-jō), the reconstructed palace of the Ryūkyū kings. The (admittedly rare) two-thousand yen bill features the Shurei Gate (守礼門 Shureimon (守礼門)), which is strongly Chinese in form. At the Ryusen Fabric Workshops craftsmen still make traditional bingata fabrics (see below for details). They also contain a museum of local pottery and lacquerware, and items from ancient tombs, tools, traditional swords, kimono, etc. Visit the Gyokuryō (玉陵, Royal Tombs). Another conspicuous gate is the Kankaimon (歓会門), which is a mixture of Chinese and Korean styles adapted to the Ryukyuan style. The Okinawa Prefectural Museum, given to the Okinawan people by the US military, contains a large collection of prehistoric to modern day items, and details the history of the islands and influences from China and Japan.

    Nanbu (Southern Okinawa) was scene to many of the most violent battles in World War Two. The Okinawa Old Battlefield Quasi National Park (沖縄戦跡国定公園 Okinawa Senseki Kokutei Kōen) is a memorial to the dead of the final days of the war. Many thousands of civilians and soldiers were killed; Himeyuri-no-to, Mabuni Hill, and the Japanese Underground Naval HQ all have stories of death and suffering. Nanzan Castle used to be the home of the Southern Kings of Okinawa, who lost out to their central adversaries in the fourteenth century. The Gyokusendo Cave, the largest in Asia, was discovered in 1967 and has some excellent stalactites and stalgmites. The area farthest to the south is well-known for kasuri cloth.

    Chubu (Central Okinawa) contains Okinawa City, centre of the American presence in Okinawa. Close to Naha is Urasoe (浦添), where you should see the royal tombs and the former royal palace. Excellent beaches line the coast all the way up to Nago, in the north, where the Nago Museum has a good display about traditional farming in Okinawa. Nakijin Castle (Nakijin Gusuku) on the Motobu Peninsula has some wonderful views.

    Hokubu (Northern Okinawa) is less densely populated and has the Bashofu Hall in Kijoka Village, a workshop where you can see the production of bashofu cloth.

    Okinawan Art and Culture

    Okinawan culture reflects the importance of the sea, as the provider of food, and the influences of trade with China, Japan, Korea and Southeast Asia. Music and dance are of central importance, particularly the sanshin lute. Some Okinawans often like to emphasise the peaceful symbolism of having a musical instrument as the mainstay of their culture, rather than a weapon as in the rest of Japan.

    Cloth and clothing: traditional Okinawan clothes resemble the yukata, and Okinawa is well known for handwoven and dyed fabric using natural colours including native indigo, and colours from tree barks and local earths. Designs tended to be geometric, and varied from island to island. In particular, Naha is famous for bingata, formed by stencilling a resistant paste onto cloth and then dying the material, and Kume Island for kasuri, a handspun silk patterned brown and yellow. The Miyako Islands have their own style involving an indigo dyed cloth called jofu where a large design is made up from an intricate pattern of smaller kasuri-style crosses.

    Bingata-style (紅型, lit. “red style”) dying was often used for making women’s clothing for dances, particularly for the brightly coloured kimono of the zo-odori (popular dances). Designs incorporated images of flowers, birds and other animals, waves and clouds and so on. The variety of designs and ways of producing them attest to the many different influences on Okinawan culture.

    Dance: originally dance was the pastime of the nobility, and different forms of dance existed for all age groups and for men and women. Interest in dances may have developed as a requirement for entertaining Chinese missions that would come to confirm the investiture of a new Ryukuan king. With the arrival of the Satsuma from Kagoshima came new Japanese influences. However, the Meiji Restoration and incorporation of the Ryukyu Kingdom into Japan as Okinawa Prefecture robbed the nobility of their security and they began to earn a living in the theatre. Rarified court dances were not suitable for the common crowd, it seems, and the lively and popular zo-odori was born with its brilliant red and yellow costumes and lively themes.

    Eisa Dance: Performed at obon, the summer festival of the dead (from July 13 to 15 in Okinawa), eisa is a traditional folk dance. Similar to such dances in other parts of Japan, the dancers move in a circle around a raised stage on which stand the musicians, playing the shamisen, taiko, and smaller hand drums called paranku. Eisa usually takes place on the last night of the obon festivities to give rest to the departed spirits of the dead, and the dancers make the rounds of all the houses in the village after an initial dance in the central square dedicated to the gods.

    Accessories: a few of the more common traditional accessories used in the dances of Okinawa include the hanagasa, a large hat that resembles a large flower. Coloured a bright vermilion with blue and silver patterns symbolizing waves, the hat is quite different to the hanagasa of Yamagata and other parts of Japan. The hanazumi tisaji is a long length of fabric that young women would make and dye themselves, to present to a man she liked as a token of her esteem. The hanazumi tisaji was thought to have talismanic powers.

    Music: Okinawan dance is accompanied by a group of musicians, called a jikata. They would sing and play the sanshin (三線, a type of three-stringed lute that is plucked and originated in southern China). This combination of song (uta) and lute (sanshin) is called utasanshin. It was highly important in the period of the Ryukuan Kingdom for male nobility to be able to play the sanshin, and the instrument was as important for the Ryukuan culture as the katana (the Samurai sword) was for Japanese culture. Dancers would also often use yosutake castanets; they would slick these together while dancing, not dissimilar to castanets in Spanish dance.

    Karate: Okinawa is the home of karate, a mixture of a local martial art “Ti” and Chinese Kung Fu. Okinawa remains a highly important centre for karate, and many schools have dojo in Okinawa and international competitions are held regularly.

    Lacquerware: Perhaps the most famous craft in Okinawa is lacquerware. Lacquerware is made by applying the resin of the Urushi tree to a base. At a temperature of over 20 degrees centigrade and humidity of over 80% in strong ultraviolet light the lacquer will harden to a strong, clear varnish. These conditions exist in Okinawa, making it ideal for production of this work. Mixing the resin with cinnabar makes the familiar bright red lacquer of Japanese work.

    Okinawan work was highly prized and during the period of the Satsuma occupation, lacquerwork and cloth were both exported to Edo (modern-day Tokyo). Today, Ryukuan Lacquerware is recognised as an important cultural property by the government. During the 16th century the work was produced under royal supervision and sent as tribute to both China and Japan. Early work was largely red, with native mother-of-pearl and gold inlays. Black lacquerware was also produced under Satsuma control to suit the tastes of Japanese rulers and also the Chinese court. By the early 1800s, production was also common in private workshops, and new methods enabling mass production were developed.

    Okinawan Religion and Festivals

    Okinawan religion, instead of being organised around temples, had sacred groves and natural places called utaki (御嶽). These are generally marked with stones and incense burners. Women also played a central role as priestesses and shamans. Festivals occupy an important part in Okinawan culture. As in the rest of Japan, Okinawans enjoy hanami in early spring, and the warm climate ensures that they are always the first to do so. In early June, the Haari or Dragon boat festival in Naha is a race between teams on brightly coloured rowing boats to pray to the god of the sea for good fishing.

    Okinawan tombs are also much larger than Japanese ones, as whole families would be interred there. Consequently, there are also several events each year when the whole family gather at the tomb to remember the dead and traditionally to entertain the souls of the departed with dances, food and drink and songs. Such times include shimi (festival for the deceased), jurokunichi (February 16), and the Tanabata Star Festival.

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