Rising and Resilient: Okinawa Then And Now

Have you ever wanted to explore other parts of a country where tourists don’t visit as often as they do its capital? This dip into going beyond the usual vacation suggestions gives you a new perspective on the country you’re visiting. A nation isn’t always entirely about the capital it uses to represent itself; variants of their deep culture, as well as beautiful attraction sites,  lay hidden in their rural districts and untapped provinces. You may have heard of Tokyo, for example – a bustling metropolis supposedly bursting with the very essence of being Japanese... But there is so much more to Japan than Tokyo. Japan is comprised of islands, and truly getting to know this country also means getting to know its islands. One of those islands is Okinawa.

The History Of This Japanese Island

Scattered below Japan are a set of islands. Though they follow different Prefectures, they are still known to be under the Japanese administration. This collection of islands is called the Ryukyu islands, and are comprised of islands labeled Yaeyama, Miyako, Amami, Tokara, Osuni, and Okinawa. “Nansei Islands” is how they are referred to in Japanese. Out of these islands, Okinawa is the biggest, and most well-known out of all of them. About 1.385 million people live in Okinawa, but around 321,467 of them live in its capital city, Naha.

During prehistoric times, it is believed that people who inhabited these islands were very much into pottery, fishing, and agriculture respectively. This was proven because of the shell mounds found by archeologists indicating activity by humans during that period. These shell mounds that were excavated are segregated into three chronological categories, each division called early, middle, and late. “Jomon” pots were found during the earlier period. Jomon pots are clay earthenware, designed with relief patterns from the textures of rope (which is how it got its name, “Jomon”.) These pots are known to be as old as, or even older than 13,000+ B.C., though their exact ages cannot be verified. Fishing would be picked up by this hunter-gatherer society as later remains of their establishments were found nearer the shore. Rice planting then followed, up until this civilization was developed enough to build fortresses in high terrain for politics and religion; around the 12th century.

Earlier Political Wars and Turmoil

Many battles and invasions from Mongolia and China would take place here over the coming years, with Ryukyuan kings holding their ground, fighting the aggressors off. There would also come many shifts in terms of alliances with China, as well as the other islands until wars turned civil (Satsuma domain versus the Ryukyuan Kingdom). They were captured, forced into being subordinated by both Japan and China, becoming a loophole for Japanese traders when the government of Japan closed its ports. Soon enough, the Japanese government during the Meiji period took full control of Okinawa by initiating it into the Okinawa Prefecture, causing an outrage at Japan’s attempt to unify their country’s identity, shunning Ryukyuan culture and tradition. Though many wars were fought in these islands, it is most recently remembered for serving as a hotspot during the second world war. 

WW2: The Importance of Okinawa

“The Battle Of Okinawa” was traumatizing to the island’s inhabitants, to say the least. Known as the “Typhoon of Steel” because of the sheer violence that occurred on this island is immense, troops from both sides did whatever it took to annihilate each other. American forces nicknamed this “Operation Iceberg”, occurred over a period of 82 days, beginning on the first of April, 1945. The allies wanted to take over the island because it was of utmost strategic importance to use it as an airbase to infiltrate the main areas of Japan further up top. A specialized troop consisting of both army and marine forces were made specifically for this attack, organized by the United States. Ultimately, almost 150,000 Okinawans (both soldier and civilian) were killed – a little bit less than half of their entire population during that time. Many of them were casualties of war, while many of them purposely committed suicide.

American troops brought in tanks, ships, planes, and amphibious crafts that would be destroyed by the hundreds. Japanese troops fought back with seven group-kamikaze attacks, where groups of fighter planes would get together and drop themselves on their foes, killing both themselves and their targets instantly. The U.S. lost around 82,000 servicemen, and veterans would continue to suffer mental issues from this battle more than any other in the pacific, largely due to the terrors they had faced. It is claimed that Japanese soldiers used the locals as shields when they were fired at with artillery, leading the American soldiers to kill innocent lives indirectly and accidentally. Not only that, but Japanese teenagers, the age of 14-17, were forced to join the army in the guise of volunteering, and fight at the frontlines. Soldiers from both teams also raped Okinawan women, though this was more rampant among Japanese soldiers, especially towards the end of the realization of their loss. On the 21st of June, 1945, allied forces were delivering their final blows to the already battered axis. The lieutenant Generals in charge of resisting the alliance (Lt. Gen. Mitsuru Ushijima, Lt. Gen. Isamu Chō) both killed themselves using the Seppuku method, disallowing their colonel to do the same, so their narrative would have a living voice. He would then go on to tell the story by writing a book named “The Battle For Okinawa”. On the seventh of September, Japanese forces officially surrendered. Almost 90% of the buildings, ancient monuments/landmarks, and documents in Okinawa were ruined because of this war.

Rediscovering Japan; Beautiful Okinawa

Though the war has inflicted terrible scars on this island and some of the bases remain, the Japanese people are resilient. They have since rebuilt their country. Okinawa is back up, running, and as beautiful as ever. Not only do they have wonderful beach resorts, but they also have fantastic ecotourism spots, ancient castles, and craft items and delicacies native only to their island. Here are some of the many special activities that you should partake in while you are in Okinawa.

If you love swimming, then Okinawa during the summer has inviting, warm waters that are perfect do dive in. In fact, you could go diving in conjunction with island hopping, and take in the beautiful vistas of the oceans between the islands. Still in the Okinawa Prefecture, but off Okinawa island by about a 45-minute plane ride is Miyako island, which holds beautiful coral reefs. Around Yonaguni island are gorgeous hammerhead sharks that are friendly to swim around. Just make sure you’re a certified diver before you sign up for this. You don’t have to be certified to go island hopping, though. You can buy an Okinawa Island Pass from Japan Airlines and visit a handful of their islands for only $95.

Because it’s much warmer here than it is up north, Cherry blossoms tend to flower rather early compared to Tokyo. Instead of turning pink in March or April, you’ll find them blossoming around the middle of January to the end of February. Plus, if you’re bothered by droves of tourists relishing in this spring phenomenon, you’ll find that Okinawa isn’t as crowded as other Japanese Cherry Blossom attractions. It is said that if you go up Nakijin castle, you can see the Cherry Blossoms clearest. Speaking of castles, castle hopping is another fun activity. Whether it was rebuilt and in tip top shape (Shuri castle) or left in ruins (Katsuren, Tamagusuku, Nakagusuku Castles), they’re still worth a visit.

Head to the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium

There’s a reason why this aquarium was named “Churaumi” – it’s a combination of the words “Chura” and “umi”, meaning “Graceful” and “Ocean”, respectively. The objective of this aquarium is to draw more interest in marine life and matters. The Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium holds the world’s third largest aquarium, carrying 1.98 million gallons of water. Currently, it is the only aquarium in the world to house Whale Sharks – three of them, in fact. Besides the thousands of marine species that swim around you held by a cylindrical glass in their hallways, they also tend to about 80 kinds of corals. The most outstanding view of them all is the glass screen that measures 22.5 x 8.5 meters. This is where they keep their Whale sharks and Manta Rays in full view. This would be a great educational trip; perfect to bring kids along with you.

When Is the Perfect Time To Visit Okinawa?

The perfect time to visit Okinawa all depends on what you want to do there. However, it is advisable for you to avoid visiting this island during the rainy season, which is the latter part of May until June. March is advisable if you plan to take a dip in the beach, as the weather is neither too cold or hot. Other than that, Okinawa is perfect to visit all year round.

How To Get To Okinawa

Depending on what part of the world you’re in, you may have a direct flight available going to Okinawa. Otherwise, you’re going to have to take either a connecting flight or a ferry. Taiwan, Seoul, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and of course the many airports scattered around Japan usually have direct flights to Okinawa. International flights can set you back about 30-50,000 yen per flight, depending on your country, while local flights range from 35,000+ on average. If you find yourself in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, Kagoshima, or Fukuoka, there is a ferry available headed there. Take note that this is no short trip; it usually takes 44 hours if you’re coming from Tokyo for example. That one-way ticket costs about 22,000 yen – not far from the cost of that airplane ticket.

The Weather In Okinawa: What To Expect

Because they are nearer the equator than Japan is, Okinawa is quite a bit more humid than Japan is. That doesn’t mean that it never gets cold –  in November, beaches and pools are no longer open for swimming. December still calls for wearing a coat during its peak temperature drops. This continues throughout January and February, when you’ll want to keep a sweater on hand just in case it gets too chilly. March is when you can start shedding the layers, just keeping a light shawl on top, leading to bright and sunny April. As already mentioned, the next two months will be quite rainy, followed by more months of typhoons, so gear up for those possibilities if you plan to visit on those dates.

Map Out Your Tourist Spots In Okinawa

Before visiting Okinawa, it’s handy to have a map of the island with you. It doesn’t matter what medium you use; you can use an actual app, an old-school map, or carry around a GPS if you want to. Just have it ready so you can properly plan your itinerary. It’s smart to select activities that happen nearest each other to make the best use of the time you’re visiting.

The Okinawa Diet – Live Long And Prosper

Did you know that the people inhabiting the Ryukyuan islands (not just Okinawa) are known to be one among of a handful of present societies to have the longest average human lifespan on the planet? Perhaps, this is connected to their diet and easy-paced way of life. Longevity can be linked to what and how the Okinawans eat – and here’s exactly what those foods are, and how they are eaten. Vegetables of all sorts of colors – purple, yellow, and green – are a staple in their dishes; specifically, purple yam. This gives them a lot of sources for proper antioxidants, vitamins, and nutrients. Because their food is anti-inflammatory, their immune systems become stronger and easily fend off illnesses and diseases. They also don’t consume a lot of sugar and/or wheat. Instead, they eat a lot of legumes, as well as fish, and occasionally pork. They do tend to avoid dairy as well. While they eat, they practice a mindfulness they call “Hara hachi bun me”, which means you should only eat until your stomach is 80% full; not filling yourself up all the way.

Now that you know more about Okinawa and its resilient and lively history, take some time to visit this lovely Japanese island.