Quirky but calm, Okinawa is all charmOKINAWA, Japan ― When seen from above, Okinawa Island is said to look like a long rope sprawled over the sea. The island is long, 145 kilometers (90 miles), but narrow, around 4 kilometers. It’s understandable why it was named Okinawa: the Chinese characters in its name mean “deep sea,” and “rope.”
Okinawa is not a well-known tourist destination for Koreans, but it was the site of the only ground battle in Japan itself during World War II, and even today 30,000 U.S. soldiers are still stationed on the island, which has a total population of 1.3 million.
It’s the only subtropical oceanic climate zone in Japan. Even in November, the temperature can reach 30 degrees Celsius (86 Fahrenheit).
Okinawa was an independent kingdom called Ryukyu, until the 17th century, when it was subjugated by the government on the larger Japanese island of Kyushu. It prospered due to its intermediary trading role between China and Japan from the 14th to the 16th centuries.
Those trade relations could be one reason why Okinawa is so different culturally from the rest of Japan. One of the most noticeable differences is the food: Okinawans eat every part of a pig, from head to toe. In the traditional market on Kokusai (meaning international) street in Naha, the capital of Okinawa, pig heads rest on store shelves. (Some of the more fun-loving shop owners try to lure customers by putting sunglasses on the pig heads.) They sell the whole head or just the skins of the face for 1,500 yen ($12.50).
Its dialect is also unique. The Japanese word for welcome is irasshaimase, a common refrain for shopkeepers and restaurant owners, but in Okinawa they say mensore. Okinawans are also famous in Japan for being strong drinkers, passing glasses around all night long.
The symbol of Okinawa, the shisa lion statue, seems to have been influenced by South Asian culture. It’s hard to find a shop or a house that doesn’t have a shisa statue in front of it. A shisa is usually one of two statues: a lion with its mouth open to catch evil spirits or a lion with its mouth closed to hold in good fortune.
Okinawans are famous for having long lives. The residents are remarkably laid back, the island has an abundant source of healthy food such as seaweed and the water and air are clean.
Small islands known for their coral reefs are scattered around Okinawa. One is Zamami Island, west of Okinawa, which houses about 600 residents. It takes about an hour by speedboat to reach Zamami from Naha’s Tomari harbor. The island’s coral reef is a great place for scuba divers and snorkelers.
The swath of sea between Zamami Island and Aka Island, 3 kilometers to the south, is protected by the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, an international treaty signed in 1971 in Ramsar, Iran, that mandates the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands and wetland resources. Zamami Island is as natural as the surrounding sea: it’s hard to find man-made facilities on the island, except for the docks, roads and houses.
Zamami is a great place to circumnavigate on a bicycle and its jade green sea is beautiful when seen either from one of the island’s observatories or with your feet in the sand. The island has few tourists in November and December, and whales show up along the coast from January to March.
by Sung Si-yoon
Asiana Airlines flies from Incheon to Okinawa directly four times a week. The Okinawa Convention & Visitors Bureau has a branch in Sogong-dong, central Seoul. Visit www.ocvb.or.jp/kr, or call (02) 318-6330 for information.
Major sites in Naha are connected by a monorail. It takes only 27 minutes to go from the airport to Shuri station, the last stop on the line. A one-day ticket costs 800 yen and a three-day ticket costs 1,500 yen. There is a duty-free shop in both Naha city and in its airport. There is no purchasing limit.