Okinawa, and the other Ryukyu islands, must be the despair of real estate agents. All along the thousands of miles of coastline there are buildings with wonderful views of the Pacific Ocean and the East China Sea. The only trouble is, you can’t live in them – not if you’re living, anyway. These are the tombs of the Okinawans’ departed ancestors.
Why do the tombs enjoy such prime locations? In the religion of Ryukyu, the old name for these islands known today as Japan’s southern Okinawa prefecture, the spirits live in a mystical land beyond the seas known as Nirai Kanai. Like many second homeowners, they visit their coastal pads from time to time. They are always in residence on shimi, the tomb sweeping festival held in April, when their descendants come and hold a big party.
They don’t monopolise the coastal hotspots. When Okinawa was reabsorbed into Japan in 1972, a tourism boom led to many local and international hotel brands building their own temples to rest and relaxation, especially on the coast around the town of Nago in the north of Okinawa, the name of the main – and biggest – island.
Credit: Mark Parren Taylor
Further up that coast, the hills rise up and the valleys become dense. In a quiet village in the far north there is a new hotel called Casa Dumai. It has the proportions and look of a modernist seafront home and sits on one of the most peaceful bays on the island.
On a quiet evening I wandered along the beach. The dark grey line of the horizon was broken by barely perceptible peaks and crests. My rational mind (and GPS) worked out it was the island of Izena. But with the heavens a mass of feathery pink-tinged clouds and the seastill as eternity, it didn’t take a lot of effort for me to imagine I was gazing towards Nirai Kanai itself.
That was just one of many magical and unexpected experiences in the Okinawan islands I discovered beyond the brochures.
The Ryukyu kingdom, which gave up the ghost in 1879, won’t return. But quietly, the distinctiveness of its culture is being reasserted.
You see it in a place like Hyakunagaran, a wonderful new property, part ryokan, part five-star boutique hotel, set on a quiet bay south of the main island’s biggest city, Naha. In the basement, the proudly Okinawan owners have devoted a gallery space to portraits of historical figures from Ryukyu’s past such as King Shunten and the geisha poet Yoshiya Chiru. The owners are proud of their Okinawan identity. There’s another motive, too. As the front office manager shyly admits, there’s a marketing strategy at work here: every time someone googles the names of these great figures, the hotel’s name comes up.
You encounter that same curiosity with the arts and culture of these islands at a less likely site and another new hotel: the Hyatt Regency in downtown Naha, close to the main International Street thoroughfare. Here you get international luxury: but also a beautiful enclosed garden and in the rooms and public areas fine examples of Okinawa’s distinctive pottery and glass work.
Credit: Mark Parren Taylor & Chris Wilson
The Hyatt also overlooks the charming cobblestone street Tsuboya Yachimun Dori. This was historically where potters had their kilns and workshops, and there are still a few studios here among the galleries, shops and the museum dedicated to the history of the area’s pottery. Many artists, though, have moved to more bucolic quarters in Yomitan village, a community of artists in the gently rolling mountains north of Naha.
I spent a memorable hour with a great ceramicist, Shinman Yamada, whose elegant house doubles as a studio and gallery shop. As we spoke I became fixated on the artist’s supple, soft, strong hands cradling a tea mug of his own design. That design shows his impression of these islands as they appear, magically, from the air like precious minerals in a turquoise sea.
Twenty minutes after leaving I turned around. I had to buy the mug. To own a part of this elusive place, in a painting, ceramics or in the memory, becomes something irresistible.
For your own hands-on experience, I’d highly recommend the Shuri Ryusen, near Shuri Castle above Naha. Here you can spend a therapeutic hour making your own scarf or t-shirt designs by rubbing dyes on flattened coral blocks. They may not have the finesse of the shop’s own collection; but your handiwork will be a uniquely Okinawan memory.
Depot Island, a kind of retail theme park, caters to another side of Okinawa: the American side, implanted here in the form of army bases and their accompanying support structure since the Second World War – and currently a matter of hot debate between local politicians and the bigwigs in Tokyo and Washington.
But even here, among the shops selling Hawaiian-style Aloha shirts, is the Bokunen Art Museum filled with art that traces its origins not to Honolulu – but back to the ninth century. The museum shows the works of Naka Bokunen, who works in urazaishiki, a style of reverse-colour printing using wood blocks. The gallery has a video capturing Naka’s extraordinarily rapid method, gouging furiously at the wood in a kind of trance.
Naka is a native of Izena, a small island I saw earlier from Casa Dumai. Many of his works feature the perfect pyramid of rock that rises from Izena’s coast. In all of his work he captures the intense colour and interplay of sun, sea, beach, flora and mountain.
Credit: Chris Willson
The villagers of Ogimi, in the northern part of the main island, are in no hurry to meet their ancestors across the sea. The drive there is wonderful: you go ‘island hopping’ across Kouri, Yagaji and Oh, ending up at a sweet place that has become famous as the ‘longevity village’ – where people live longer than anywhere else in the world.
Geneticists and nutritionists constantly wrangle over why. A bento box at the Emi no Mise restaurant stuffed with black carrots, ginger, radish, oranges, herbs and sweet potato may be enough to put you in the nutritionist camp.
The main island, Okinawa, is only one of about two dozen islands that comprise the Okinawan archipelago. From the main island, it takes an hour’s flight to reach the southerly group, the Yaeyama islands.
This is where you come to get away from work and politics and shopping. On Kohama and Taketomi you coast on bikes through sugar cane fields, walk barefoot on silvery beaches, snorkel away the day in sparkling turquoise seas or, like me, hack your way around the very fine golf course at Kohama’s Hoshino Resort Risonare Kohamajima, scaring the resident peacocks along the way.
But the southernmost inhabited island, Iriomote, just 200 kilometres from the coast of Taiwan, has a different topography altogether. Here, you really can find Nirakanai – it’s the name of the island’s best resort. As we drove from the pier the bright morning sunlight caught the wings of dragonflies and butterflies as they danced around the bus windows, and lit up the Pinaisara Falls waterfall as it escaped from the mountainous jungle.
There is a sun-blanched little beachside café and hotel called Rest House Hoshi-No-Suna, close to Nirakanai. The Hoshizuna cove below is ringed with coral outcrops: the view across the bay is stupendous. But most people here don’t come for the view: they look intently at the ground. This is a star sand beach. The tiny grains are star-shaped fossils of marine life from over a billion years ago. It’s the kind of discovery you make on these heavenly shores.
Well-appointed property located south of Naha.
Casa Dumai, Okinawa
Modernist hotel on a beautifully quiet beach.
Hyatt Regency, Naha, Okinawa
Stylish, sympathetically designed central Naha hotel.
Hoshino Resort Risonare, Kohama
Attached to a tight, scenic golf course. Good beach, good walks.
Hotel Nirakanai, Iriomote
On one of the island’s best and cleanest beaches, surrounded by tropical rainforest.
Credit: Chris Willson
Makishi Public Market, Naha, Okinawa
Shop for fish downstairs, have it cooked upstairs, wander around the airy indoor shopping market afterwards.
Healthy, veggie and very Okinawan café. Don’t miss this.
Emi no Mise, Okinawa
You can bet the food is healthy here – it’s in Ogimi village, where the longest-living people in the world are.
Rest House Hoshi-No-Suna, Iriomote
Wonderful beach café close to the Nirakanai hotel.