Tokyo is a megalopolis that defies categorisation. From its dazzling skyscrapers with serene shrines at their bases to the tiny, multi-generation izakaya right next to a store selling the latest in technology or fashion, no other city can conjure up so many contradictory images as Japan’s capital. It’s an intoxicating and invigorating place, the energy of which is only matched by the calm of its backstreets and temples – no matter how long you spend in the city, you’ll need more time to take it all in.
And then there’s Okinawa. Less than three hours' flight from Tokyo, the tropical islands south of mainland Japan are known for having a unique culture, derived from their history as it was once an independent kingdom called Ryukyu Kingdom in the 15th-19th centuries. Offering much more than the stunning white sandy beaches and pristine blue waters, it’s also home to karate, lush mangroves, great diving spots, nutritious food, and laidback locals who know better than anyone what the secret to the good life is. Follow their lead, and you might not want to leave.
Combine the two destinations in one trip, and you have yourself the best of both worlds. Start off with eclectic metropolitan thrills, and then tune in to relaxed yet highly cultured island life: you’re sure to reach your happy spot along the way.
6 essential things to do in Tokyo
Did you know that the English word rickshaw actually comes from the Japanese word ‘jinrikisha’ (human-powered-vehicle)? And there’s no better place to try one out than one of Tokyo’s traditional districts. Rickshaw runners ply their trade in the streets of Asakusa. On most tours, you’ll be able to take in both the old town scenery, including Sensoji Temple and views of the Sumida river, with the Tokyo Skytree looming in the background, but the rickshaw runners might be able to take a detour if you ask nicely.
You haven’t experienced a Japanese crowd go wild until you’ve visited the Ryogoku Kokugikan during one of the grand tournaments. Held in January, May and September, the sumo tournaments run for 15 days. Be sure to go watch the sumo wrestlers clashing in person if you are lucky enough to be in Tokyo during the tournament. There is also the Sumo Museum in the Ryokogu Kokugikan, where you can explore a wide range of materials relating to the history of Japan’s national sport. When you finish watching the tournament, why not try chanko-nabe, a typical sumo wrestler's meal? The hearty stew will give you a vivid sense of the wrestlers' power source.
Shibuya is the centre of youth culture in Tokyo, and that energy is concentrated around the famed Shibuya crossing. Meet your friends at the Hachiko statue, the city’s main meeting spot, and cross the hexagon zebra to find yourself in a fashion shopping extravaganza. Further towards Yoyogi Park, hipsters hang out in record stores and minimalist coffee shops, while art galleries line the back streets of Harajuku and Omotesando. At night, the area comes alive even more, as people wind down from work at one of the many bars, clubs and izakaya in the area. Getting bored here is not an option.
The sakura (cherry blossom) season is a big thing for Japanese people and the season lasts from the end of March until early to mid April in Tokyo. One of Tokyo’s most eye-catching flower spots is a 3.8-kilometre stretch of the Meguro River, near Nakameguro Station, where the canal is flanked on both sides by cherry blossom trees that are illuminated with red-pink lanterns from dusk. Food vendors set up shop along the footpaths while the blossoms are there – grab a glass of sakura-inspired bubbly and go for an evening stroll alongside other hanami enthusiasts.
The grand mountain can be a bit shy, but your best bet to see it in all its glory is to head above street level – way above. Many skyscrapers in Tokyo offer unimpeded views of Mount Fuji from their observation decks. Both the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building Observatories and the Bunkyo Civic Center are free, and show Fuji-san beyond the concrete jungle. To really grasp Tokyo’s size, with Mount Fuji as the cherry on the cake, head to the Tokyo Skytree, while Tokyo Tower has the mountain set between the tangle of tall buildings.
An easy day trip favoured by many locals, Mount Takao is just an hour away from central Tokyo by train, and makes for a beautiful hike in any season. In spring, flowers line the hills; in summer, the trees provide much-needed respite from the sweltering heat; in autumn, the verdant trees burst into shades of red and gold so vivid they seem almost unreal; and in winter, the clear air gives you stellar views of Mount Fuji from the top. Whatever you do, take the main trail up or down: it’s lined with stalls selling all kinds of local delicacies, plus Yakuoin, a pretty temple.
6 essential things to do in Okinawa
Okinawa used to be part of an independent kingdom called Ryukyu, which stretched from the islands near Kyushu in the north all the way down to Taiwan. The Ryukyuan kings may have gone, but plenty of craftsmanship still remains, including yachimun, the word for pottery in the Okinawan language. For a crash course, Yachimun no Sato, a district full of traditional Ryukyuan pottery ateliers, kilns and more, is the place to be. You’ll find artisans hard at work around the village at places such as the Tsunehide Pottery Workshop, which creates gorgeous ceramics, or the Niji Glassblowing Workshop.
Japan’s most famous martial art alongside judo, karate has its roots in Okinawa, where it grew from many different, informal strands into the regimented sport that exists today. The Okinawa Karate Kaikan is the place to go to both learn more about karate’s history and have a go yourself. Inside, you’ll find exhibitions detailing karate’s evolution, plus regular sessions when masters show off their skills, while those looking to practice their kata can have a go at the full-scale dojo.
You’re bound to make friends in a place where the motto is ‘ichibari choodee’: ‘we are/become family when we meet’. Okinawans are renowned for their open and friendly nature regardless, but meet them at a local bar and you’ll make even bigger strides. Swig some awamori with them in the bar district of Sakaemachi, or try the small izakaya near Naha’s Makishi Station. The smaller the bar or izakaya, the better: you’ll be chatting away with your neighbours in no time.
Okinawa has its fair share of unspoilt nature, but Iriomote Island is one of the better examples. Part of the remote Yaeyama islands group, It’s almost completely covered by thick jungle or mangroves, which makes a kayak one of the best – and most exhilarating – modes of transport on Iriomote. Kayak your way beneath the dense foliage with a guide to help you find your way across, and keep an eye out for local wildlife while you paddle away.
Also part of the Yaeyama islands, little Taketomi Island is just off the coast of Ishigaki Island. Besides having some rather well preserved examples of traditional Okinawan architecture and streets made from pristinely white coral sands, the island’s main attraction is to hop on a cart pulled by water buffalos. Your buffalo minder will have enough stories to keep you entertained, and will sing a traditional song or two – island life in a nutshell.
Those whiter-than-white sands and bluer-than-blue waters? They’re not secretly Photoshopped: they exist right here around Miyako Island. The ocean here has such a beautiful shade that it’s often referred to as ‘Miyako Blue’, and the island is known as a great diving spot. Advanced divers will be happy with the plethora of underwater caves to explore, while some of the more shallow crevices have intricate arches which even beginners can try to spot. Don’t forget to say hi to the manta rays swimming by from early autumn to late spring, or the dogtooth tuna in summer.