Okinawa is often described as 'the Hawaii of Japan'. Which is a bit misguided because I think Hawaii is the Hawaii of Japan. Japanese people love Hawaii, BUT I see where the comparison comes in. A trip to Okinawa felt like a trip to another country, not just another part of Japan. Okinawa is home to several large US military bases and so, as logic has it, there are many Americans living there as well. This leads to an interesting mix of Japanese and American lifestyle which is distinctly Okinawan. The Okinawan lifestyle is the ultimate island living and 'Island time' is king. You may say 'But Mireille, don't you live on a beautiful southern tropical Japanese Island already?' While that is true, yes, Okinawa is a whole 'nother level of island oasis.
Okinawa has a very distinct history and culture and this is displayed prominently and proudly. A very brief History of Okinawa:
OKAY so before Okinawa was Okinawa it was the Ryukyu Kingdom and they seemed to be pretty swell living the island dream throughout the 15th and 16th centuries. But oh no, they were invaded and conquered by the Satsuma Domain in the 17th Century! They took the main castle (picture below) and though still an independent Ryukyu Kingdom, they were sometimes referred to as a province of Japan. This lasted a crisp 200 years and just before the turn of the 20th Century, Ryukyu was officially annexed to Japan and turned into Okinawan Prefecture (which not everyone was too stoked on and mainland-island tensions were rampant). Today, Okinawan dialect remains quite distinct from mainland Japanese language.
Another fun fact is that Okinawa was the birthplace of karate in Japan! Well, Ryukyu was and then it was brought to mainland Japan after the annexation. Conor, Jess and I are the 'Goto Karate Krew' (self named and nobody calls us that) and so it was fun to travel together to the place where it all began. The World Karate Championship is held here every year and there are museums and dojos throughout the island dedicated to the practice. Karate will be included as a sport for the first time ever at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo!
I feel like Okinawa combined the best of Japan and America together in one compact island lifestyle. Namely it felt like Japan but with an abundance of Tex-Mex food and brunch-- the real dream. Because of the large American population, it is also extremely easy to get by without Japanese or very limited Japanese. In fact, we went to a few cafes that had no Japanese at all and looking at a photo you would never guess they were in Japan. Trying to use Japanese often went like this:
In Japanese: 'Ah hello, may I please have an iced latte and the breakfast special. I would like to add potatoes to the side of that please. Thank you very much. -head bow-'
Staff in perfect English: '.... Yeah, okay there, that'll be 1050'
Our trip was very centered around food with a heavy bias towards the American options. Many of my coworkers asked if I tried the delicious traditional Okinawan foods while I was there. And I can say yes, yes I did... if pizza and tacos counts as traditional Okinawan food. Or eggs benedict and french toast. Jalapeno poppers? No? Well, I'll get it next time.
Another attraction we hit up on the last day was Okinawa World! Okinawa World is an Okinawan themed amusement park that no one has ever heard of-- which made it all the more interesting. It was a bit off the beaten path but busy on a sunny Monday. The park features a replica of an old Okinawan market, various artisanal craft stalls, a snake exhibition (pass), and--the main reason for visiting-- Gyokusendo Cave! Gyokusendo Cave is a 5000m cave that is partially open to the public with a large elevated walkway meandering through the swelteringly humid cavern. The path only passes through approx. 1/5 of the total cave which is amazing to think how much more there is. There is also a micro brewery in the park that makes beer using the mineral water from the caves! With a heavy dose of kitsch and a dope cave, I would say Okinawa World is a hidden gem that more people should visit.
The trip was short but wonderful and 10/10 would Okinawa again.