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Okinawa Prefecture is located in the south of Japan. It is a historic place that has witnessed the battles of World War II. This island chain with subtropical climate is the birthplace of Karate. Predominantly, tourists visit these islands for their beautiful beaches and oceanic sceneries, and also for the preserved Ryukyu castles and temples.
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Okinawa is a famous tourist destination today but in the yesteryears, it was home to a free state separate from the rest of Japan called the Ryukyu Kingdom.
The Ryukyu Kingdom had a complex relationship with its neighbors. Flourishing through its trade routes between parts of Asia, the kingdom was not only a tributary state to the Chinese empire of the same era but was also subjected to the Japanese shogunate’s rule in the early 1600s. The Ryukyu Kingdom would exist until 1879, when the clash between Japan and China over its rule intensified, ultimately ending the kingdom.
The kingdom left around 300 castle ruins, traces of its once glorious past, and the only one reconstructed in current Okinawa, is the Shuri Castle. (A fire in 2019 severely damaged Shuri Castle and rebuilding efforts have commenced.) Other than its architectural marks, the kingdom had also left distinct culture, and art forms that survived through centuries, still celebrated today.
※ Okinawa Prefectural Government, "Introduction of Okinawa"
These cultural and religious practices may come in the form of festivals in which many visitors across the world also indulge in. These festivals were originally methods of the Ryukyu Kingdom, centered around its royalty, to pray for abundant harvests, safety, and paying homage to the ancestral spirits. Though the kingdom had long passed, these are part of their cultural identity that will remain.
Among the gifts of the kingdom to the world, perhaps Karate would be one of the most famous ones. Karate is a form of martial art developed in Okinawa during turbulent times. Weapons were prohibited under the shogunate rule, causing the people to master, and secretly train in Karate to protect not only themselves but specifically the royal family of the Ryukyu Kingdom.
Across the decades that eventually became centuries, because of the contact between the Ryuku kingdom and China, Karate was said to be influenced by Chinese martial art, Kung fu. In the following centuries, however, the “secret” martial art was popularized into a global trend, gaining immense fame.
From Tokyo to Okinawa, one would almost certainly take a plane. A plane ride is around 2 and a half hours from Haneda Airport to Naha Airport in Okinawa, the price fluctuating between around 14,000 yen to 45,000 yen. The great difference in price may be affected by different factors including the airline, and season.
※ Visit Okinawa Japan - Official Okinawa Travel Guide, "Domestic Flights to Okinawa" ※ Japan Airlines ※ Skymark Airlines
A trip to Okinawa by Shinkansen or ferry would only really be worth it if you are already in the Kyushu area. It is not recommended for tourists if you are coming from Tokyo because of the time it would take and the transfers required and overall cost not saving much money on a plane fare.
Okinawa Prefecture has three island groups; Okinawa Islands, Miyako Islands, and Yaeyama Islands. Each can be said to have their own charms, and reason to visit. The Okinawa Islands were the former central capital region of the former kingdom and today houses about half of the population in the prefecture.
The main island is home to many historical locations like the Shurijo Castle, the center stage for the former kingdoms' political, diplomatic, and cultural maneuvers, where important events were held in the past, including various rituals led by the royal family. The main island is also where the Naha Airport is, so it is probably the first island that you will visit in the prefecture.
Okinawa is also known for its stationed US military bases, making some parts of the main island more western-themed in its numerous shopping outlets, restaurants, tourist attractions, and engaging locals to speak in English, which many foreign visitors find very helpful.
Miyako Islands is famed for its scenic views. Mainly connected by bridges, the islands of Miyako can be accessed through Irabu Ohashi Bridge, the longest toll-free bridge in Japan, a view that is something to look forward to. The Higashi-Hennazaki Cape also lies in Miyako Island, nationally recognized to be a soul-capturing view of natural beauty. Many well-known beaches can also be enjoyed as part of the island experience, including the Yonaha Maehama Beach, a place perfect for jet skiing, and other similar activities.
The Yaeyama Islands group can be said to offer a different package than other parts of Okinawa Prefecture. Yaeyama Islands has Ishigaki Island, serving as the main transportation center in the region. Other than beaches, one can also experience buffalo-cart rides and ferry trips to other islands.
There is also the Iriomote Island, known not for its beaches like the rest of the Okinawa Prefecture, but instead for its dense jungle, and attractive mountain views for enthusiastic hikers. If one seeks to first hand observe the remnants of the former Ryukyu Kingdom, then Taketomi Island is where you will find a preserved Ryukyu village, still fashioned in its traditional appearance.
Kume Island and Kerama Island are smaller islands not part of the above 3 groups, but are frequently visited for its beautiful beaches, and diving spots, perfect also for snorkeling, and other forms of water adventure. Kume Island is also recognized as an important part of the great economic relations between the former Ryukyu Kingdom and China. Today, castle ruins can be found on Kume Island.
After a long day of adventuring, and touring the local sceneries, it is now the time to know the local taste. The Okinawa Kitchen is appreciated and treasured as much as its beautiful beaches, and here are a few to start with.
Champuru can be simply translated to “something mixed”, a dish mainly made with tofu, vegetables, and a choice of meat or fish. Variations are gradually introduced that people sometimes add bitter gourd - or goya in Japanese, famous in Okinawa - pork, egg, and even spam. Fun fact: the usage of spam was not part of the native cuisine, but prolonged contact with the US Navy in Okinawa made locals integrate this ingredient.
The Okinawa Soba is not technically soba. Made with tenderized pork ribs and broth, carved slices of fish cake, chopped green onions or scallions, red pickled ginger, and finally the egg noodles, which should have disqualified its title of soba, which are buckwheat noodles. An interesting fact to note was that the Okinawa Soba, even though not using the required buckwheat percentage, was allowed to be called “soba”, the only exception of its kind.
Harvested for more than hundreds of years in Okinawa, Umibudou, or "Sea Grapes” is a type of algae that looks like it’s covered with lots of little bubbles and is the perfect accompanying snack to beer. They can be enjoyed with soy sauce or a bit of vinegar, and are known for their popping-in-your-mouth texture.
Rafute is a classic Okinawan dish, a braised pork that is usually cooked with Awamori, the locally distilled liquor and is usually simmered for a long time until the meat is soft. This is a dish that every visitors must taste at least once in their trip to Okinawa
Regularly made with ground beef and taco seasoning, along with cheese and lettuce, taco rice is simply taco ingredients but over rice instead of a taco shell or tortilla. Taco rice was made by a man named Matsuzo Gibo as a mix of Japanese flavors with a Mexican food, loved by the soldiers at the US military bases. Now famously served by King Tacos across Okinawa Prefecture, as well as restaurants across Japan taco rice is a dish meant to be enjoyed by everyone.
Okinawa, a destination to truly experience the beauty of nature, is always a place that should be on your bucket list. From historical intrigues, crystal clear beaches, the famously scenic views, to the present-day package of tourist attractions, or the taste of the local cuisine, there is never a reason not to go.
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