We decided to go to the southern most part of Japan (Okinawa) for our Thanksgiving Break. We heard it was very different from the rest of Japan and indeed it is. The islands definitely have their own distinct culture and a very different history than the main islands of Japan.
There are actually more than 100 islands stretching some 600 miles from the southern part of Kyushu down to Taiwan and all of these islands use to be part of the independent Ryukyu Kingdom. Some island groups have their own language – 6 different languages in total (which are slowly being phased out due to the national education system). Japan started invading and occupying the islands in the early 1600’s, – they weren’t officially annexed by Japan until 1879. Until then, the Ryuku kings paid tribute to both the Japanese Shogun and the Chinese Emperor. The islands were deeply effected by WWII and were also influenced by the Americans (due to US military control of the area until 1972).
The subtropical location of the islands make them look like a cross between Florida and Hawaii. They are completely surrounded by beautiful coral reefs which make them a very popular diving and snorkeling destination. Driving around the towns and looking at the buildings, it is obvious that this is the poorest prefecture in Japan (I’m sure the weather doesn’t help the appearance of things either). The locals look different than the Northern Japanese and they have a much more casual and relaxed demeanor. The local folk music sounds more Hawaiian and their instrument, the sanshin looks a lot like a ukelele. They also eat more beef and like their food spicier.
We stayed at the ANA Intercontinental Hotel (highly recommended) which is about 6 km outside the city of Ishigaki. We loved their pool and spa, and especially liked the little contraption that would dry our swimsuits out for us. Their concierge desk was extremely helpful with making dinner reservations and planning our big excursion to Iriomote. The city of Ishigaki isn’t beautiful, but it has lots of character and wonderful restaurants. There are even enough shops to easily occupy a full day. All the meals we ate in Ishigaki were fantastic including their famous soba noodles (which we had downtown at the little Okinawan hut which was full of business men and a big group of local woman planning some event). The taco rice, seafood salad, ishigaki beef, and sushi/sashimi (especially the tuna) were fantastic too. Two of our favorite dishes, which we never had before, were peanut tofu and sea grapes. We also had some of the best Chinese food we ever had one night at our hotel (we had to book it two days in advance to even eat there). The town really comes alive at night and you MUST make reservations at the restaurants (even in the off-season) or you’ll be turned away. We really enjoyed their local beer (Orion) and even tried a couple different Amawori (the local distilled liquor made from rice). We also liked all their speciality desserts we tried (too many to list).
One day of our trip was devoted to just exploring Ishigaki island rather than visiting one of the other islands. As it turns out, there were lots of little hidden gems here too. We traveled along the west coast of the island to visit both Sukuji beach and Kabira Bay. Kabira Bay is known for cultivating black pearls. It was by far the prettiest beach we saw on the island, but unfortunately you can’t swim there. The associated town is not very big. In fact, the whole area once you leave the city is very sparsely populated, full of lush vegetation, mountains and streams. It would be very easy to get away from it all if you stayed at one of the hotels out this way. It really has a lot to do if you are an outdoors/beach person. In route that day around the island, we also saw Tourinji Temple, Gongendo Shrine, the Toujin Grave, and the Wetland Wild Life Refuge. If we had more time, we would have liked to see more of the island and it’s beaches, do some snorkeling, and hike up Mt Omoto.
The Okinawan islands are actually very easy to get to from Fukuoka and makes for a nice getaway. Each island we visited (Ishigaki, Taketomi, and Iriomote) was rewarding and different in it’s own way. It makes me want to visit all the islands….but that would take quite a long time. 🙂