Covered in lush rainforest and with a coastline dotted with coral reefs, the islands of Okinawa have a distinctly tropical feel. Okinawa’s removal from the rest of Japan transcends geography, and extends to distinctive culture, cuisine and wildlife.
For outdoorsy types, Okinawa has something to offer everyone. The tropical island of Iriomote contains uncharted areas of mountainous forest and is home to deadly habu pit vipers and the critically endangered Iriomote cat, a type of leopard cat which exists nowhere else on earth. The island is great for forest hikes and for snorkelling, diving and kayaking on the coast. Divers will also love the Miyamo Islands and the Kerama Islands – the latter group also has beautiful beaches.
To experience traditional Okinawan life, head to the island of Taketomi, where just a few hundred people live in traditional bungalows with little walled gardens and travel around on buffalo-drawn carts.
Okinawa is very distinct culturally from the rest of Japan, thanks to the rule of the Ryuku Kingdom until the 19th century – although it is here that karate, a symbol of Japan to many foreigners, was born. Ryukyuan languages are unintelligible to Japanese speakers, although the younger generation now speak Japanese, and the islands have their own religious traditions based on ancestor and nature worship. Perhaps the most distinctive facet of Okinawan culture, though, is the cuisine. Dishes are based on unique ingredients like bright purple sweet potatoes and rely heavily on meat; the extensive use of pork is perhaps the most striking deviation from Japanese cuisine.
They must be getting something right; five times as many Okinawans live to be 100 as those on the mainland, in a nation which is already home to the longest-lived people on Earth. Okinawan tradition advises you not to stuff yourself, but to ‘eat until you’re eight tenths full’ – good advice that may be hard to follow after your first taste of chanpuru stir fry or rafute pork ribs.