NAHA, Okinawa Pref. — The beaches are Hawaiian, the suburbs look American, the marketplaces resemble Asian bazaars, and the omiyage-ya are definitely Japanese. But Okinawa, as any resident is keen to tell you, has a personality all its own.
Before being conquered by Shimazu Iehisa, daimyo of Kagoshima, in 1609, annexed as a prefecture in 1879, occupied by America in 1945, then returned to Japan in 1972, Okinawa enjoyed a long period of independence as the Kingdom of Ryukyu.
The Ryukyu king built Shuri Castle just east of modern-day Naha, and this is a good place to start exploring the island. Constructed sometime in the 15th century, the castle reveals a strong Chinese influence in its vermilion-lacquered pavilions. The red-and-white stripes in the courtyard were made to make it easier for ranked retainers to line up in order of precedence.
Work to rebuild the castle after it was heavily damaged during World War II was completed in 1993, and today the restored castle is the capital city’s prime tourist attraction.
A short distance from Shuri Castle are the Tamaudon Tombs, from 1501 the burial site of the house of Ryukyu. These show native design at perhaps its purest. An austere but elegant stone facade is reached, rather thrillingly, through overgrown gardens, free from the tourist bustle.
Bodies were placed in a central chamber and left to decompose. The clean bones were later removed to the appropriate chamber — kings and queens to the left, princes and princesses to the right.
To this day, Okinawans build unusual, mausoleum-style tombs, which can be seen along the roads and outskirts of all towns. In the rest of Japan, simple memorial markers (sotoba) are placed at a symbolic site, because cremation is enforced by law.
The first Ryukyuan tombs, around Urasoe, 8 km north of Naha, are the Yodore, cut into a cliff-face in the 13th century by the earliest kings, who are said to have descended from the military hero Minamoto no Tametomo (1139-77). These are currently undergoing excavation and repair, evidence of the increasing desire to preserve Okinawa’s distinctive cultural heritage.
Wartime experience reinforced the islanders’ sense of being a people apart. Caught between American onslaught and Japanese resistance, Okinawans suffered at the hands of both, as numerous “peace sites” testify.
Principal among these is Mabuni Hill Park, created where the ground battle reached its desperate climax in June 1945. The largest war cemetery is there, as well as an excellent museum, narrating events from the local perspective in a manner both moving and illuminating.
From the cliffs of Mabuni, the coastline stretches away into mile after mile of startlingly blue sea and white sand. The encircling waters of the Pacific Ocean are visible from virtually any high point on the island.
Indeed, one viewpoint from the summer palace of Shikina-en was prized precisely because it had no outlook over the sea. Visiting Chinese dignitaries would be taken there to prove that the Ryukyus were, after all, a spacious domain.
Nowhere in Okinawa is in fact far from a beach, but the Kerama Islands, an hour by high-speed ferry from Naha, offer surpassing sand — and more.
In 1989 a pod of whales came to winter near Zamami Island, the largest of the group, and they have been returning ever since. The result has been an upturn in the island’s economy (causing many young people to stay on rather than move to the mainland) and the sensitive development of ecotourism.
During January through March, the locally run Whale Watching Association takes small boats of curious sightseers out to meet the other visitors to Zamami’s shores. Keeping at a distance, and staying in formation to avoid encircling or separating the whales, the boats nonetheless take you close enough to see the spray from a spout and hear the downward slap of a diving tail.
The revenue allows the locals a degree of control over tourist access to the island and the whales, and goes into promoting responsible tourist activity in the area.
I took a dip in the sea on our return. Despite the sight of residents muffled in overcoats and complaints of cold from the man who sold me juiced goya (bitter gourd, which looks like spiky cucumber and is loved by the locals), it was well over 20 C when I visited in late January.
While peak-season Zamami doubtless feels like rush hour, off-peak, the experience was more “Robinson Crusoe.” I had the kilometer-long crescent of Kozamami Beach all to myself.
Sitting on sands of powdered coral, feet in the lapping sea, I imagined hearing snatches of whale song, oblivious to any world beyond the gold-belted shore of the uninhabited island opposite. Three hours by plane from Tokyo, but spiritually a million miles away.