Japan is a destination which draws millions of visitors every year. The bright lights of Tokyo, the allure of nature at Mount Fuji and historic Kyoto are just some of the country’s main attractions. Add lively Osaka and the world class winter sports of Hokkaido to the mix and there’s a lot to uncover. Many travel to the Land of the Rising Sun to soak up the amazing culture and a different lifestyle – although perhaps a lot of these visitors are missing out on one of Asia’s best kept secrets – Okinawa and the South West islands.
Okinawa is a small cluster of islands which is technically closer to Taiwan than it is to Tokyo. Located at Japan’s most southerly prefecture, Okinawa is based in the East China Sea and is probably most famous for being a battle ground in WWII. To give you more of an idea about geography and its isolated location, flying due east from its capital, Naha, the first major city you hit is Monterrey of Mexico over the Pacific while heading due south will get you to Indonesia’s most easterly islands. Okinawa itself is around 950 miles from Tokyo; think of how far Lisbon is from London and you get more of an idea of its distance from the mainland.
With the introduction of budget airlines such as Peach, Vanilla Air and Jetstar, the islands are becoming tourist destinations in their own right. The Okinawa islands, and other local island groups such as the Miyakos and Yaeyamas are much quieter than Tokyo but offer fantastic beaches, amazing food and a different insight to this fascinating country. “People would be surprised to know that Japan has islands which rival other more popular areas in Asia,” says Kylie Clark from the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO). “The Okinawa islands are beautiful, sub tropical and have white sandy beaches. It is one of the best spots in the world to go diving with manta rays but people aren’t aware the islands even exist; they think you can’t really have a beach holiday in Japan but you really can.
“In the Okinawa group, there are around 160 islands with 40 of them being inhabited. One of the main attractions there is the castle, which differs from castles back on the mainland which are white with black roofs, while in Okinawa, they are red with dragons and different decorations painted on them. Additionally they also have lots of hibiscus flowers which make the castles really colourful. The culture is very different in all the Okinawa islands. There are lots of cultural and historical sights on the main island but then you go to the smaller islands for a real beach break to get away from it all.
“On Miyako Island, not many people live there but it has beautiful beaches, and the same can be said for the Yaeyama islands. Both are really good for diving. There’s really good snorkelling along the coral reefs and you don’t need to be a professional diver to experience that. There’s also lots of kayaking and hiking available in the islands – so there’s lots of eco tourism there.”
Lovers of one of the most popular films from the 80s will be familiar with Okinawa. “If people have heard of Okinawa, its mainly because of the film, The Karate Kid,” Kylie adds. “The old karate teacher, Mr Miyagi was from Okinawa and the third film in the series was based in Okinawa, which is the birthplace of karate. These films and The Battle of Iwo Jima (isolated 850 miles east of Okinawa) are the most well known featuring the Japanese islands but Mr Miyagi left a really good impression on people.”
Despite Okinawa and the surrounding islands being something of a relative mystery for UK travellers, they have been popular for years with visitors from Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Holidays with flights via Tokyo can be booked by specialist operators Via Japan, Japan Journeys and Inside Japan. Okinawa has had international coverage on CNN and BBC World recently, while there was an advertising campaign on the London Underground which raised its profile to millions of UK commuters.
Once on the main island of Okinawa, travelling around is easy due to an extensive ferry network. Eco tourism is also a major draw. Iriomote, one of the smaller islands in the Yaeyama group, has a wildcat which is exclusive to that island while there’s some of the world’s best marine life on offer in the locality. Even the Intercontinental Hotel has a programme where one can plant coral to regenerate the reef. Okinawa and the surrounding islands are beautiful and pristine – and are just waiting for you to go and explore them!
To see and hear more about Okinawa, view the video of Kylie below.
For more information on the Japan National Tourism Organization, click here.