Difference between revisions of "Okinawa"
Revision as of 09:39, 15 November 2012
The name Okinawa means "rope in the open sea", a fairly apt description of this long stretch of islands between mainland Japan and Taiwan. Consisting of 49 inhabited islands and 111 uninhabited islands, Okinawa has a subtropical/tropical climate. Unlike the other Japanese subtropical/tropical islands such as Ogasawara Islands, Amami Islands and Tokara Islands, there are frequent flights from all the major cities of Japan, which helps Okinawa being one of the major tourist destinations for the Japanese. Every year there are more and more foreign visitors going to Okinawa but the number still remains low compared to the tourist destinations on mainland Japan.
Once the independent kingdom of Ryūkyū (琉球), which was a tributary state of imperial China, the islands were first invaded and brought under the control of Satsuma (modern-day Kagoshima) in 1609, who continued to use them as a conduit for trade with China, to the profit of all three parties.
However, Ryūkyū was annexed outright by Japan during the Meiji Restoration in 1879, and the Japanese proceeded to impose punitive taxes and did their best to suppress indigenous culture, language and religion. Worse was to come during World War II, when heavy bombardment and suicidal Japanese tactics, including the use of civilians as human shields, killed 120,000 Okinawans or one fourth of their population at the Battle of Okinawa. Post-war they remained under U.S. occupation until 1972, and there remain several large American military bases on Okinawa Island. There has been sporadic protests against the presence of the US military, usually after a high profile crime committed by a service member, but repeated polls show the majority of Okinawans do not object to the presence of the the bases (controversial statements- ref. needed; updates needed). The US bases also provide a large portion of the economy of the main island of Okinawa.
With their own language and customs, Okinawans still regard themselves as different from the mainland Japanese and some still harbor a certain degree of resentment towards the mainland for the brutal way the islands were treated as colonies and during World War II. Okinawans proudly call themselves uchinanchu (沖縄人) or "sea people" in the local dialect and talk of the way things are done on the shima (島) or island(s), in contrast to the ways of the mainland, known as hontō (本島) in standard Japanese, yamato (ヤマト) in the local dialect, and sometimes as the slightly derisive local slang naichi (内地).
Okinawa's most famous export worldwide is the martial art of karate. In recent years Okinawan culture has become quite popular throughout Japan thanks to popular musicians and local foods. Okinawan music is very attractive and unique because of the mixture of original Okinawan sounds and American rock, jazz, and other sounds from the USA. The distinctive instrument of choice is the sanshin (三線), a three-stringed, banjo-like distant relative of the mainland's shamisen, whose pentatonic melodies are instantly recognizable. The island has produced a disproportionate amount of musicians, most famously J-pop singer Namie Amuro, and The Boom's electric-guitar-and-sanshin Shimauta ("Island Song") has been dubbed Okinawa's unofficial national anthem — even though the group actually hails from mainland Yamanashi.
On the roof or at the gate of almost every house you will spot the ubiquitous Okinawan shīsa or guardian lion-dogs, one with its mouth open to catch good fortune, the other with its mouth closed to keep good fortune in.
Most of the Okinawa islands belong to the subtropical climate (Tarama Island, Yaeyama Islands and Okidaito Island belong to the tropical climate). Even in January and February, the average high temperature is around 20°C (68°F), making the area a popular winter getaway, although it's often cloudy and usually a little too cold for sunbathing due to the winter monsoon. Spring, around late March and April, is an excellent time to visit if you take care to avoid Golden Week (a succession of national holidays from the end of April), however, it does not get busy at all on the small islands even during Golden Week. The rainy season starts early in May and continues until June. Unlike the rainy season in mainland Japan, it rains neither everyday nor all day long during the rainy season in Okinawa. Summer in Okinawa is hot and humid but still one of the peak visiting seasons, while September brings a succession of fierce typhoons. October and November are again good times to visit.
Apr - June: Rainy season June - Nov: Typhoon season
small inhabited islands several hundred kilometers to the east
Most visitors arrive in Naha, the capital of Okinawa. Domestic flights do connect major Japanese cities directly to some other Okinawan islands like Miyako and Ishigaki, but prices can be steep; for example, the standard one-way fare for Tokyo-Ishigaki is a whopping ¥50,000. Using an international airpass like Star Alliance's Visit Japan or JAL's Welcome to Japan, both of which allow domestic flights in Japan for ¥12,000, may allow considerable savings. Numerous discount airlines now offer flights to Naha from the main cities in mainland Japan offering much cheaper options to visit Okinawa. SkyMark, JetStar and others offer flights from Tokyo and other major cities in Japan to Naha.
Ferry services to Okinawa have been cut drastically in the last few years, with Arimura Sangyo filing for bankruptcy and RKK Line stopping passenger services entirely. With long travel times, bumpy seas, frequent cancellations in the fall typhoon season and prices that aren't any cheaper than flying, it's easy to see why this isn't too popular anymore.
As of November 2008, the only survivors are A-Line Ferry , aka Maru-A (マルエー), which runs twice a week from Kagoshima (25 hours, ¥16,000 2nd class one-way) and once a week from both Osaka/Kobe and Tokyo (44 hours, ¥28,000) to Naha, and Marix Line , which runs between Kagoshima and Naha only. All ferries call at various minor islands including Yoron and Amami Oshima along the way. Note that if you don't speak Japanese, you will find it easier to book through a travel agent.
Ferry and air connections link the islands together, but many of them are simply so small in population that scheduled services may be infrequent and prices vary.
Flights between the islands are mostly handled by Japan Transocean Air (JTA; ) and its subsidiary Ryukyu Air Commuter (RAC), both owned by JAL. ANA's subsidiary Air Nippon (ANK) also has a limited network radiating out from Naha. If you plan on traveling extensively in the region by plane, consider JTA's Churashima Kippu, which gets you five JTA/RAC flights of your choice for ¥35,000.
There are dense webs of ferry links between nearby islands, but only infrequent cargo boats ply lengthier routes like Naha-Ishigaki. If traveling by boat in late summer, note that the area around Okinawa is known as Typhoon Alley for a reason.
By Rental Car
Rental cars are easily available at many locations, including the airport. Be prepared to drive on the left side of the road and to show your International Drivers License. Military and other SOFA personnel may obtain driving priviliges via their own installation procedures.
By Public Bus
Public busses are available to almost all locations on Okinawa. Times and routes (usually in both English and Japanese) are indicated at each bus stop and at the various bus terminals. Prices outside of Naha are based on distance travel and are indicated in the front of the bus as it moves from sector to sector (your ticket, that you take as you enter the bus, has a sector number on it). Prices are not cheap and may cost in excess of 2000 yen to go from Naha to the Aquarium at the northwest point of the island. There is a changer for 1000 yen bills and coins at the front of the bus.
Most people come to Okinawa for the sun and beaches. Even in midwinter, when many areas of the mainland Japan teeter around the freezing point, temperatures rarely dip below 15°C in Okinawa. For more adventurous types, the vast yet almost uninhabited island of Iriomote is covered in dense jungle.
Cultural attractions are rather more limited, as the Japanese invasion and subsequent brutal colonization coupled with fighting in World War II did a regrettably thorough job of eliminating most traces of the Ryukyu Kingdom, but two standouts are the newly rebuilt Shuri Castle  in Naha on Okinawa Island, and the carefully preserved tiny village of Taketomi in the southern Yaeyama Islands.
Historical sites related to World War II can be found throughout the islands, especially the main island of Okinawa, including the Peace Memorial Park in Naha, the navy's former underground headquarters and the Himeyuri Monument.
Churaumi Aquarium is a world class aquarium located on the Motobu peninsula. Attractions include one of the world’s largest tanks with huge whale sharks and manta rays. The aquarium is located in Ocean Expo Park with a beautiful public facility called Emerald Beach.
Okinawa is the best place in Japan for all sorts of watersports.
Snorkeling and Diving
The Okinawa archipelago is known as one of the world's best diving destinations, having a number of coral species and marine lives as large as those in the Great Barrier Reef of Australia. You can find over 400 types of corals, 5 types of sea turtles, manta rays, whale sharks, hammerhead sharks and many kinds of tropical fish. The main downside is that's quite expensive compared to, say, South-East Asia — a whole day's diving off a boat (2-3 dives including insurance and lunch) costs between ¥12,000 and ¥17,000, depending on the season and island, plus an additional cost between ¥3,000 and ¥5,000 if you need gear rental. For a 3-day certification course you will need to pay between ¥30,000 and ¥60,000, depending on the season and number of participants. Fortunately, a lot of the diving on Okinawa can be done from the shore (no boat needed), in which case you can get full gear rental and tanks for around ¥5,000, or if you just need tanks (and can guide yourself) then it will only be around ¥500 per tank. To top it off many shops do not accept credit cards, so you will need to carry a thick wad of yen to pay for it all. The language barrier can also be an issue, with most shops only set up to cater to Japanese-speaking tourists, although Piranha Divers Okinawa  in Onna Village, Reef Encounters  in Chatan or Bluefield  in Kadena on Okinawa Island, and Umicōza on Ishigaki are welcome exceptions.
Sailing is gaining in popularity in Okinawa. There is a small but passionate international sailing community centered at Ginowan Marina, near the Convention Center. Local and international sailors cruise and race to the Kerama islands and to other locations. Sailing cruises and classes are also conducted out of Ginowan Marina. To learn more, check out: www.Sail-Okinawa.com.
Surfing is popular in Okinawa, but it's not particularly easy: waves break over very shallow shelves of reef and/or basaltic rock, resulting in challenging waves. Surfing spots can be found all over the archipelago, but most surfers surf off the main island. Check out Mensore Surfing for weather forecasts and up-to-date info.
Okinawa has some of the best offshore fishing in the world. Some fish are seasonal, but there are fish for every season of the year. Marlin, mahi mahi, and various species of tuna are some of the fish that are teeming in Okinawa's crystal clear seas. There are many places where you can find a boat to go fishing, but as with diving, language can be a major issue. Some charter services provide fishing tackle, and others require you to rent fishing gear. The 2008-2009 Issue of "Okinawa Island Guide" has featured Saltwater Fishing Okinawa for catering to Japanese, English, and Chinese speaking travelers.
The cost for offshore fishing in Okinawa is comparable to other charter services around the world. Usually about $100 US Dollars per person for walk on charters, and up to $1,500 US Dollars for private charters.
Okinawan cuisine is distinctly different from that of mainland Japan and bears notable Taiwanese influences. Okinawans too proudly proclaim that they use every part of the pig except the squeal and pork makes an appearance in almost every dish, including bits like ears, trotters and blood which are generally disdained by the Japanese. Even Spam has a distinct following.
Other Okinawan ingredients include vegetables rarely seen on the Japanese mainland such as bitter melon (ゴーヤー; gōyā) and purple yam (紫芋; murasaki-imo). Okinawan tropical fruits including mango, papaya, pineapple, dragonfruit and the sour lime-like calamansi (シークァーサー; shīkwāsā) are delicious when in season. Dark cane sugar (黒砂糖 ; kurosatō) is also a popular snack, eaten both as is and made into a vast variety of candies and pastries.
Some dishes worth trying:
Okinawan chinmi or "strange foods", eaten as snacks with drinking, include:
Aficionados of American fast food may find Okinawa to be a curious treat, as many American restaurants popped up here to serve the US military long before they made it to the mainland. Most prominent is the presence of A&W outlets serving hamburgers and root beer (with free refills, even), available practically nowhere else in Japan. Foremost ice cream (under the "Blue Seal" brand) is also common. Several hybrid Okinawan-American dishes, most of which seem to employ copious quantities of Spam, are widely available:
The local brew of choice is awamori (泡盛), a notoriously strong rice liquor that can contain up to 60% alcohol. Unlike Japanese shochu, which is usually prepared from potatoes or barley, awamori is brewed using imported Thai jasmine rice since during the days of the Ryukyu Kingdom, short-grain rice could not be brought in from the mainland.
Awamori keeps well, and when stored more than three years is known as kūsu (古酒, also read koshu in standard Japanese). If the label indicates a specific age, it's 100% at least that old; however, kūsu without a given age is usually a blend of 50% 3-year-old and 50% new awamori.
Okinawa's local beer Orion is a safer alternative, at least in small quantities. Most larger islands also have their own microbreweries.
Naha has the busy nightlife scene you'd expect of a large city, livened up by the presence of many GIs from the military bases.
Okinawa has many live houses in Naha city and Okinawa city, with styles ranging from Okinawan traditional folk music to American rock, jazz and other sounds from the USA. The charge depends on the artist but it’s usually about ¥1000-3500, plus one drink. Check the time, the artist, and the price before you go.
Broadly speaking, accommodation on Okinawa can be divided into two brackets: cheap basic lodges, and expensive fancy resorts. Another option is sleeping in campsites.
Okinawa has a multitude of cheap minshuku-type lodges geared towards poor surfers and divers, and unlike the mainland many offer or even specialize in bed-only (素泊まり; sudomari) stays with no meals included. The very cheapest dorm-type places can go for less than ¥2,000, although you'll usually be looking at a minimum of ¥3,000 for your own room and around ¥5,000 if you want two meals. Watch out for hidden charges for things like air-con, fridge rental or even using the shower.
In Naha you can easily find dirt-cheap places starting from ¥1,000 per night.
There are many campsites around Okinawa, some on nice beaches. They offer cheap accommodation if you have your own tent and sleeping bag (and mat) for ¥500-1,000/night. Their facilities are sometimes very poor, they have only cold shower for example (and they even charge you for using it!) and no cooking/cleaning facilities. However they often rent out BBQ sets (¥2,000-3,000) which can make the night unforgettable.
B&B-type pensions are the most common midrange option, although there are some city hotels also. Figure on around ¥10,000/person with two meals.
The other end of the spectrum is Okinawa's host of resorts, usually located on a private beach in some remote corner of the island — which means you'll be stuck eating at the resort's expensive restaurant and using their expensive watersports services. Rack rates for these places tend to be ludicrous (¥20,000+/head/night), but you can usually get steep discounts by buying flight and hotel packages, especially in the low season.
In the Daito Islands, the obscure Hachijo dialect of Japanese by immigrants from the Hachijo Islands is the native language. The Hachijo-Daito dialects are direct descendants of the Eastern dialect of Old Japanese, while all mainland dialects are descendants of the Western dialect.
All Okinawans speak standard Japanese, and many understand English as well, particularly on the main island which has several large US military bases.
Okinawa is as safe as mainland Japan or more so. On the smaller islands it's not uncommon to leave front doors not merely unlocked, but open all day.
The number one health risk on Okinawa is sunburn, and it doesn't take long at all to get fried to a crisp when it's sunny outside. Slap on plenty of lotion.
Okinawa is also home to Japan's most fearsome array of poisonous critters. While the venomous habu (ハブ) snake gets a lot of bad press, mostly due to its unfortunate habit of entering homes in search of rats and mice, not only are you quite unlikely to encounter one outside a sake bottle in a souvenir shop, but bites have a fatality rate of "only" 3%. Jellyfish (クラゲ; kurage) and a variety of marine creatures that sting if stepped on present a risk, and many beaches have posters in Japanese (and occasionally English) explaining what to watch out for.