If Okinawa seems like a virgin land of hidden beaches and unmapped jungles, it’s worth remembering that until recently it was American territory. The islands extend the banana curve of the Japanese mainland a thousand kilometres south-westward: a gnarled tropical finger pointing squarely at Taiwan. Okinawa’s strategic position between Japan and the continent turned it into a flashpoint of the Pacific War, when 185,000 American troops island-hopped their way up the archipelago, killing up to a third of the civilian population on the way.
The Allied occupation of Okinawa ended in 1972, a full two decades after the rest of Japan regained its sovereignty; yet an American presence remains today, in both the 34 military bases that dot the islands and the curious cultural imports that surprise foreign tourists. This occurs to me as I scan the menu in a restaurant in Naha, the regional capital. Every other item contains Spam – once a staple of the American troops’ rations, now ubiquitous in Okinawan kitchens. A stroll down the city’s seedy Kokusai-dori (‘International Avenue’), all gaudy neon and forlorn palm trees, bolsters the impression of having stumbled into a scene from a Vietnam War flick. Think Bangkok’s Patpong district, with GIs instead of gap yah juveniles.
Charmless it may be, but Naha is almost everyone’s introduction to Okinawa. It’s situated on the largest island in the chain, Okinawa-Honto, which serves as a transport hub for the region. Thirty kilometres to the west, the Kerama Islands draw the international crowd with their superb diving and whale-spotting opportunities. Further north is Yakushima, a densely forested island famous for its associations with the anime film ‘Princess Mononoke’. But it is to the Yaeyama Islands, at the archipelago’s south-western tip, that the intrepid traveller heads to lose the crowds and find adventure.
The beautiful south-west
Since ferry services were discontinued some years back, these far-flung isles can now be reached only by air. Disembarking at Ishigaki Island’s airport, I step out into a subtropical climate of enervating humidity. I am now 430km from Naha, 2,000km from Tokyo, and barely 200km from the disputed Senkaku Islands, to which the fishermen of the area used to sail in less turbulent times. With its sprawling town and decent tourist infrastructure, its pretty beaches and stands peddling omiyage (souvenirs), Ishigaki retains some semblance of being in the swim; but anyone arriving from mainland Japan will find it very provincial indeed. The Spam is still here, but the military bases are gone.
Ishigaki Town is a pleasant enough settlement: somewhere to stock up on sporting equipment, plot your hikes and sample the local cuisine of seafood and pork (and occasionally snake). The cliché of the accommodating locals is fully justified. One moment, I find myself chatting to the owner of the neighbourhood ramen joint; the next, he’s shut up shop in order to take me on an impromptu snorkelling tour of the island’s north-western peninsula. We follow the road that runs along the west coast, and which doubles up as an attractive waterside cycle path. To our right, clouds gather around the island’s hilly hinterland, dotted with the walls of hand-stacked stone from which the island takes its name.
Lions and seashells
Within sight of Ishigaki harbour lies the tiny circular islet of Taketomi. Though barely 1km wide, the island draws hordes of daytime visitors eager to ride its buffalo-drawn carts and hoard the famous star-shaped shells that line its shore. By this point, traces of American colonialism have given way to the unmistakeable cultural stamp of the Ryukyu Kingdom, which ruled Okinawa from the 15th to the 19th centuries. Gates and eaves are adorned with statues of shisa, the dog-cum-lion of Okinawan mythology. Tiles are made from red clay, and local clothes are imprinted with bold bright colours. The innkeeper speaks standard Japanese to me, relaxes into a local dialect with two backpackers from Tokyo, and switches to a distinct Ryukyuan language to address his son.
If Ishigaki is ideal for cyclists, Taketomi is best explored by foot – otherwise you’ll have covered the place in ten minutes. The sandy alleyways of the sole town (population: 300) lead up to a small garden in which a lonely watchtower stands. The view from the top takes in the terracotta roofs below and the beach halo that rings the island. The sense of remoteness here is balanced out by the intimacy of the island community. For true isolation one must head to Iriomote, which glowers on the western horizon.
It’s a jungle out there
Iriomote is an astonishingly wild place for Japan. As my ferry approaches Uehara harbour, I have to remind myself that I’m in the same country as Tokyo Disneyworld. The island is bigger than Ishigaki, but 90% of its dense rainforest remains uncharted. Few Japanese tourists make it this far, let alone Westerners, and as I check into my hotel I discover that my reputation precedes me – the owner confirms that she’s heard tell of a tall Brit touring the Yaeyamas.
My fellow guests have all come here with express goals: to learn to scuba-dive, to take a dip in the country’s southernmost hot spring, to attempt the perilous hike across the island’s interior. One optimistic mainlander is here to catch a glimpse of the elusive Iriomote lynx, whose Pokémon-like existence on the fringes of the jungle has inspired countless popular myths. I bond with the travellers on a nocturnal expedition to see fireflies, and it becomes clear that many of them are regular visitors to the island and well acquainted with one another.
On their advice, I set out the following morning for Funauki Beach. A two-hour cycle down the island’s only road takes me past mangrove swamps, a convenience store (closed) and an improbably large primary school (only two pupils at the last count) to a forlorn ferry terminal. A tiny vessel carries me across the inlet to the far shore, where a wizened old local with more fingers than teeth points me down a path through the jungle. Twenty minutes later, I emerge onto a pristine beach wrapped in a small cove.
With time and money, I could go further: on to Yonaguni, Japan’s westernmost island; down to the massive rock formations on its seabed, which may have been carved by men; even all the way to Taiwan, which lies within sight of Yonaguni. But with the blinking neon lights of Tokyo and Naha a distant memory, I feel I have come as far as I need to.
What you need to know
Airlines operate between Naha and most major Japanese cities, as well as a handful of international airports. Ferries also run between Naha and the mainland.
Ishigaki can only be reached by plane from Naha; services are frequent, but can be pricey. It’s worth looking into the domestic air passes offered by the likes of JAL and ANA. Budget airlines such as Peach Aviation tend to offer attractive prices.
Regular ferries operate between Ishigaki and Taketomi/Iriomote.
When to go
As with the rest of Japan, the best times to visit Okinawa are in spring (roughly March to early May) and autumn (roughly September to early December), when rainfall is relatively low and temperatures hover around the mid to high twenties. Summers tend to get uncomfortably hot and humid, and typhoons can play havoc with flights between June and October. Constant sea breezes mitigate the heat.
Okinawa’s fauna can be dangerous. The greatest threat comes from the notorious habu snake, though the media has blown its threat out of proportion – its bite ‘only’ has a 3% mortality rate. Try to avoid long grass unless you’re wearing leg protection. Jellyfish and other seaborne creepy-crawlies can sting; their presence is usually signposted on the beach, sometimes in English. Pack insect repellent.
As far as crime goes, Okinawa is one of the safest regions in one of the safest countries on earth. Locals won’t think twice about leaving the front doors open all day. Still, it pays to stay alert, especially in Naha.
Where to stay
Naha: Monkey’s Inn 098 963 7252. Dorm ¥1,500.
Ishigaki: Emix Ishigaki 098 082 5236. Dorm ¥1,500.
Taketomi: Je T’aime 098 085 2555. Dorm ¥2,500.
Iriomote: Irumote-so Youth Hostel. 098 085 6255. Dorm ¥3,100.