The Okinawa Island chain, a fifteen million year old string of jewels stretching from Japan to Taiwan, is home to the longest-living people on Earth. Your smiling Okinawan hosts are laid back, music-loving, marathon-running folk, whose healthy lifestyle and relaxed attitude belies their tough past. Indeed, Okinawa is first sensed as a warmth rising through the body, and one begins to feel a deep peace. Time slows down, as if you've entered another age...
As the world's mightiest ocean pounds her vigorous turquoise dance, the Pacific Tectonic Plate moves North-West, causing earthquakes and floods in Okinawa's 160 glorious islands. This spectacular group of coral reefs, where the dusky sting rays roam, speckled whale sharks drift and Pacific turtles beach, is warmed by undersea volcanoes, bringing glorious, multicoloured fish and plants, with new marine species being discovered daily.
However, this paradise arose from a troubled history...
People migrated to these volcanic shores from Asia, and possibly also Australia, at least 32,000 years ago, living in caves until mysteriously disappearing 18,000 years ago. Jomons arrived from Japan ten thousand years later, leaving treasures such as a recently discovered 8000 year old underwater temple.
A mere thousand years ago, the three Ryuku kingdoms arose, and when in the twelfth century the mighty Mongols invaded, the Okinawans repelled them. The three Ryuku kingdoms were unified into one, governed from glorious Suri castle. The king banned all weaponry, so the Okinawans invented Karate (empty hand) fighting.
In 1944 the Americans invaded in the brutal 90 day Battle of Okinawa, and a quarter of the population died, many from mass suicides. The Americans used the islands as a base to attack Japan, and today their military bases bring prosperity, whilst deterring China's territorial ambitions.
A mere 3 hour flight from Tokyo, the capital city, Naha, is modern and alive, yet so laid back, even its main tourist attraction, International Street, is only one lane each way. Despite the neon manga characters and the designer shops, one can relax and enjoy the abundant cafes, reasonably-priced restaurants and bars, and the street sculptures.
Everywhere you'll encounter flood warning signs giving your current elevation above sea level. Due to the large American military base, English is widely used. Indeed, a vast shopping area of Naha is called mihama, American Village.
Seafood is ubiquitous, and you'll enjoy poisonous puffer fish, mozuku seaweeds, purple rice, and longevity leaf. Okinawan black pork, aguh, is highly regarded, being flavoursome and nutritious. Umibudo, sea grapes, is a seaweed with bubbles instead of leaves, served with soy sauce, and harvested only in Okinawa.
Wash it all down with some Awamori, sake made from rice and black mould, and the famous Habushu Awamori, made from the venom of the Habu snake, which comes with a pit viper in the bottle. It's known to help your libido, should you require bolstering in that department.
Spirits roam this ancient land, part of the ever present life-force of Okinawa, massive as the surrounding ocean, as assured and calm...You'll see delightful little doggy-dragons on garden fences and on rooftops, singly and in pairs. These are called shisha, the left one has his mouth closed to keep good spirits inside, and the right one has his mouth open, to scare evil spirits away.
A decent sized back yard makes a chap feel like a king...
The little-populated Yaeyama Islands of the south near Taiwan have charming local traditions, such as the buffalo taxi-cart between Iriomote and Yubu Islands, which are almost joined. Your driver will play the sanshin, a three stringed, 16th century instrument with a snakeskin-covered body, crooning Okinawan folk songs, whilst riding on back of a buffalo... Enchanting!
Nagannu has some of the clearest water in the world, and you'll see manta rays and hammerhead sharks. Ride the glass bottomed boats of Ishigaki Island, visit the black pearl farms, or chatter with the friendly, energetic squirrel monkeys.
Everywhere you'll see people so very very old, one begins to think there is no death here, perhaps they simply meld with the islands. Indeed, such a potent natural force emanates from these volcano-warmed emeralds that the mind is still, the thoughts quiet: one feels one has been here a long time ago...
In Okinawa the spirit feels nourished, renewed, refreshed. One may go forth into the world with a feeling of renewed energy, a sense of perfect peace.