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Laidback in Okinawa
THERE'S JAPAN, AND THEN THERE'S Okinawa. The people speak nihongo, but the prefecture looks and feels like a composite of tropical islands from Hawaii to the Maldives. There are pineapples and soursops for sale in Naha airport, in the same shop that sells American-influenced spam and egg onigiri. They have all the trappings of modern city life in the bigger islands; at the same time, there are areas still stuck in time with their traditional homes and pagan rituals - the only nod to the 21st Century being the souvenir shops that sell soft toy versions of their guardian spirits.
Welcome to the more than 150 islands of Okinawa, which is about a lot more than just old people and politically contentious debates about the US military still in its midst.
In fact, you don't see all that many elderly people around, although when you do, you marvel at the energy and positive attitudes of 70- and 80-somethings still holding manual jobs like guiding water buffalo across rivers to get from one island to another.
For the uninitiated, if Okinawa doesn't feel as Japanese as the mainland, that's because it didn't use to be. Six centuries ago, it was known as the Ryuku Islands - an independent kingdom with its own language, culture and cuisine. It had strong links to China - many Okinawans can probably trace their ancestry to the Chinese immigrants who settled in Ryuku - until 1609, when the Japanese invaded the islands and eventually, in 1879, officially renamed them Okinawa.
There would be more strife to come in 1945 with the Battle of Okinawa, when the Americans launched one of the bloodiest battles of World War II.
But for the casual visitor, Okinawa is perhaps the antidote of the Japanese penchant for efficiency, speed and general anal-retentiveness. 'Okinawa time' is a fond reference to the laid-back, chill-out vibe of the islands, now seeing such a deluge of foreign visitors that you can't go a few metres along the main thoroughfare of Kokusaidori in Naha city without being cajoled (albeit politely) by vendors all selling the same range of snacks and souvenirs. While Naha city is a good spot to end up in on a visit to Okinawa, island hopping is still the best way to experience the breadth of what the prefecture has to offer.
From Naha, it's a 45-minute flight to Ishigaki, the second largest in the Yaeyama group of islands. It's also home to some of the best coral reefs in the world, and if you're not snorkelling or diving, the driest way to get your feel of being underwater is on a glass-bottomed boat that takes you out into Kabira Bay.
Here, experienced boat drivers effortlessly glide the craft over clear turquoise waters, so you can get your fill of Nemo and his friends whizzing by, glow-in-the-dark coral or giant clams as big as large rocks. They look so much like ancient fossils that you don't realise they're edible until you see their empty shells displayed outside some seafood restaurants later.
From Ishigaki, it's a short ferry ride to Iriomote Island, named for the critically endangered cat which is so rarely seen, it's more of a legend than anything. There are only about 100 of the felines left on the island, but thousands of fuzzy hats made in their likeness for sale in the tourist shops. Much of the island is densely forested, with stretches of mangroves that you can view on one of the many tourist boats available. You'll be glad you're on the boat when it passes by some trekkers on the bank who are apparently lost and waiting there to be rescued.
From Iriomote, a cluster of placid water buffalo and their wrinkled elderly handlers are there to take you across a shallow river to the tiny island of Yubu - so tiny that it's just 2 km around - and is literally where the buffalo live. The elderly handlers don't need to do much as the buffalo know the route like the back of their hooves. They're hitched to a cart that looks like it could seat 20 people, and ours has no problem with our party of maybe 12 or so. We feel bad about it, but the buffalo take it all in their stride, easily managing the 5-10 minute stroll across water that barely covers their ankles.
The buffalo on Yubu apparently descend from the same original buffalo couple, and there's a family tree chart on display in the tourist office to show you that there are 48 of them now. You can see them resting on the island as you wander around, on your way to the butterfly park where pretty winged creatures fly around in a netted enclosure.
Another ferry ride away is Taketomi island, site of a beautifully preserved Ryuku village, where a bullock cart ride takes you around to peer at the tiny traditional houses with red tiled roofs, all with the lion-shaped Shiza statues placed there to ward off evil spirits.
Taketomi is also home to pristine white beaches where you'll find people digging around not for crabs, but for unique star-shaped sand grains that are actually the shells of tiny little sand insects.
Even if you're not inclined to fly out to Ishigaki, there's much to explore the moment you touch down at Naha airport. Ashibina Outlet Mall is a place to hunt down fashion bargains, but if you want to do some big game hunting of the oceanic kind, sign up for a whale watching adventure in Motobu. Make sure you're able to withstand some major choppy waters as gung-ho boat drivers race to find spots where you might catch a glimpse of the mighty mammals on the move. If you're lucky, you get to spy a massive tail or a gigantic spurt of water far in the distance.
If you're an impatient cherry blossom fan, Okinawa with its sub-tropical climate enjoys it as early as late January to early February. The flowers here are dark pink and aren't perhaps as lush or jaw-dropping as they are on the mainland, but for an awe-inspiring experience, you'll want to make the trip to Nakijin castle. This is an evening sakura light-up, where a row of trees that leads all the way up a cobbled path is illuminated to create a flowery wonderland.
Food-wise, Okinawa is no dining paradise. The cooking is pretty rough, with Chinese and Korean influences in their stir-fried dishes, noodles in clear broth and good table barbecue or shabu shabu. If you do visit a traditional restaurant, don't be surprised if a wandering minstrel comes in to belt out an Okinawan folk song that will have diners singing along and even dancing impromptu.
It's one of those folksy, unguarded and charming aspects of Okinawan life that, once you get the hang of it, you'll understand why people here live long, healthily and happily ever after.
The writer's trip was hosted by Dynasty Travel, Okinawa Conventions Visitors Bureau and Jetstar.