The 160 tropical islands that make up the Okinawa Prefecture (also known as the Ryukyu Islands) look and feel very different from the rest of Japan, with their own language, cuisine and customs. While East Asian travelers have long been aware of their charms, the 1,000-km-long archipelago stretching out toward Taiwan remains something of an unknown to long-haul visitors, apart from its dubious renown as the location of the Battle of Okinawa. Visiting Japan? Here are five reasons why the Ryukyus should figure on your itinerary.
In an effort to preserve local culture after the decimation wreaked by WW II, traditional wooden houses from other islands were uprooted and reconstructed as a village at Ryukyu Mura, tel: (81-98) 965 1234, near the west coast of the main Okinawa Island. But this is no theme park. The elderly residents (locals regularly top the world's longevity lists thanks to a healthy diet and lifestyle) are serious about saving their way of life and will happily chat to you for hours on end over endless cups of green tea and sata andagi sweet, deep-fried doughnuts.
Sunset Beach House
This small boutique hotel, sunset-bh.com, in Onna-son in central Okinawa Island, is run by a young bohemian couple from mainland Japan. Slap-bang on a picture-postcard beach, it has just four stylish rooms. And the food is something else. Make sure you sample local delicacies such as squishy umi dubi (sea kelp), delectable crispy pork grilled BBQ-style in garlic sauce, and purple sweet potatoes, all served up on the ground-floor patio. Wash it all down with an Orian beer or awamori, a local high-octane version of sake, while you soak up the heart-stopping views.
Peace Memorial Museum
What happened at Nagasaki and Hiroshima is burned onto the world's collective psyche. What's less well known is that 200,000 people, including 100,000 civilians, died during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, the biggest campaign of the Asia-Pacific War. The Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum, peace- museum.pref.okinawa.jp, is located in the eponymous park on the southern tip of Okinawa Island and showcases poignant exhibits. One section covers the lead-up to WW II, another the postwar period when Okinawa was transformed by U.S. military occupation.
With over 100 varieties of awamori, the 30-year-old Urizun bar and restaurant, tel: (81-98) 885 2178, in Okinawa's capital Naha is an institution and a world away from tourist haunts. The liquor goes down well with mimigaa boiled, chilled and thinly sliced pigs' ears or boiled trotters (chock-full of youth-enhancing collagen). The Okinawans love a drink and a good time, so expect to be invited to join in an impromptu sing-along or two.
Kayaking in Iriomote
Ninety percent of the beautiful and remote Iriomote Island in the southernmost reaches of Okinawa Prefecture (it's an hour's flight from Naha to Ishigaki Island and then a 40-minute ferry ride) is covered in mountainous virgin jungle and mangrove forests. Tailored ecotours like those offered at Hirata Tourism's Jungle Adventures, hirata-group.co.jp, allow you to get up close and personal, either on foot or by canoe, with mysterious creatures such as the Chinese box turtle and the indigenous yamaneko wild cat. Abundant reefs and sparkling blue waters have also made the island a playground for scuba divers and snorkelers. And with just 2,000 inhabitants, it feels like you've got it all to yourself.
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