THERE’S something about Japan that draws me in and never fails to cheer me up, no matter how many times I’ve visited the country (nine and counting).
I had enjoyed city sights in Tokyo, Osaka and Sapporo, and when I visited Okinawa in February, I felt like I was just getting to know Japan’s alter ego — a more relaxed and rural side of the nation.
The southernmost prefecture, which comprises more than 150 islands, is known for its untouched nature and pristine beaches.
My five-day tour of the main island of Okinawa and its surrounding islands was filled with local traditions, adventure, food and the highlight — cherry blossoms.
Here are some things I’ve learnt:
1. Okinawa’s cherry trees are first to flower in Japan
Sakuras flower from late-January to mid-February in Okinawa, due to its subtropical climate.
I visited three hot spots in Okinawa for hanami, a Japanese custom of viewing flowers: Yogi Park in Naha, Mount Yaedake in MotobuTown and Nakijin Castle Remains on the Motobu Peninsula.
In Yogi Park, a feeling of calmness washed over me as I took in the beautiful pink-dusted scenery before me — full of kanhizakura, cherry trees with dark pink, bell-shaped flowers native to Okinawa and Taiwan.
While we were there, my companions and I enjoyed a picnic of Japanese snacks and ocha (tea).
Towering high above the Motobu landscape is Mount Yaedake, the tallest mountain on the Motobu Peninsula.
On the way up, the temperature dipped to a chilly 10 deg C. When we reached Yaedake Cherry Forest Park, we were greeted by a stunning sea of pink sakuras along the road.
I had never seen anything like it before and was totally awed by the picture-perfect scene.
Just when I thought Okinawa couldn’t surprise me anymore, the annual sakura festival illumination at Nakijin Castle Remains took my breath away.
Set against a backdrop of blooming pink kanhizakura, the ruins of the castle look otherworldly when lit up at night.
The castle, home to the Hokuzan King in the 14th century, is now a Unesco World Heritage Site.
2. Okinawans love their purple sweet potato (beni-imo)
What coffee is to Melburnians, beni-imo is to Okinawans.
They process these locally grown sweet potatoes into a purple paste and use it to bake a variety of pastries, of which the beni-imo tart is the most popular.
If you go to Okashigoten, a beni-imo souvenir store located at 1-3-58 Makishi in Naha, the capital of Okinawa, you’ll be able to observe the production of these tarts, and even make one yourself, like I did.
To shop for these local favourites or to taste more freshly baked pastries, head to the store on Level 1.
Fret not about busting your diet. Purple sweet potatoes are rich in potassium, which helps to lower blood pressure, and are a good source of fibre. So enjoy this guilt-free indulgence!
As you savour the yummy snack, head upstairs to the Beach Terrace Cafe Blue Diamond and feast your eyes on the breathtaking view of the ocean, with landmarks Motobu Peninsula and Ie Island in the distance.
3. Okinawa prefecture is three times bigger than Singapore but four times less populated
There is seldom a queue in street stores, at ticketing booths or at public transportation stations — the tranquillity that citizens and visitors find in Okinawa is rare for such a big prefecture.
Its population of 1.46 million is spread across 2,281 sq km (total land size including all the islands).
Compare that to 5.6 million Singaporeans crammed into a 720 sq km Little Red Dot. No wonder Okinawans are a relaxed lot.
4. Okinawa has some of the most pristine beaches
Ishigaki island, located southwest of the Okinawa prefecture, clinched the number one spot in TripAdvisor’s 2018 Travellers’ Choice Awards for top destinations on the rise.
Thanks to its powdery white sand, coral reefs and clear water that glistens from blue to emerald green, and of course its local food, Ishigaki has seen increasing international tourism.
Kabira Bay, one of Ishigaki’s prime beaches, is a must-visit.
I went on a glass-bottomed boat tour and was mesmerised by the beautiful coral reefs and the spectacular views of the blue sea. You can also snorkel and dive here, depending on weather conditions.
Another noteworthy beach is Kondoi on Taketomi Island. It is easily accessible from Ishigaki, with ferries departing every 30 minutes.
Ranked as one of the top five beaches in Okinawa by TripAdvisor, Kondoi is known for its hoshizuna (star sand), made from millions of tiny star-shaped fossils.
5. Okinawa is perfect for nature adventures and cultural experiences
With 150 islands within the prefecture, island-hopping is a must-do when in Okinawa.
You can also whale-watch, hike, cycle, snorkel, swim, immerse yourself in local experiences such as coral painting, or just be a beach bum.
One of the unique experiences during my trip was crossing a river on a water buffalo. It can carry up to 10 people in a giant wooden cart across the river.
Water buffaloes are a common mode of transport for the 230 inhabitants of the beautifully preserved, traditional Ryukyu village on Taketomi Island.
As I sat in the cart, a local guide shared tales about the island, sang local folk songs and played Okinawan music on a sanshin, an Okinawan stringed instrument.
It was the perfect way to soak in the local culture.
The writer’s trip was sponsored by Dynasty Travel.
I flew from Singapore to Okinawa on Jetstar, which now has three flights a week to the Japanese prefecture.
Previously, it took nine hours to get there via Tokyo.
- Stay at Hotel Orion Motobu Resort and wake up to a beautiful sea view from your balcony.
- Keep warm. Temperatures usually rise to 27 deg C and dip to about 15 deg C in winter. But when I was in Naha last month, the temperature fell to 10 deg C — the lowest Okinawa has ever experienced.
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