In fact Okinawa is also the setting for the final climactic scenes of my debut novel, Gold of the Rising Sun. During our time in Okinawa, I wrote copious notes about what I saw in the islands as well as various descriptions of the airports, roads, the abundant nature we observed and the magnificent beaches and ocean. This was so I could portray Okinawa more accurately in my book.
Okinawa is the southern-most prefecture in Japan, consisting of hundreds of islands stretching between Taiwan and the Japanese island prefecture of Kyushu. The four main islands of Okinawa are the Okinawan mainland, with its capital city of Naha, and further to the south are Miyako, Ishigaki and Iriomote islands.
The Okinawan islands were once collectively known as the Ryukyu Kingdom, and had close ties to China initially. Japan invaded the kingdom in the 1600s, and Okinawa officially became a prefecture of Japan in 1879 during the Meiji era.
Mandy and I originally planned to travel to Okinawa in the summer of 2006, to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary, but a sudden and rather powerful typhoon forced us to postpone our trip. As it turned out, the spring of 2007 was remarkably warm and so we traveled to Okinawa during spring break. Fortunately, due to the higher temperatures, the beaches had been opened for swimming season earlier than usual.
Firstly, it is important to remember that a quarter of Okinawa’s population died during the Battle of Okinawa in World War Two. Since then, the United States has maintained bases in Okinawa, which causes a lot of friction and political controversy. My wife and I are Australians, but we look like Americans to the Japanese people; Americans are not always treated so kindly on Okinawa Island, due to the protests over the continued existence of the American military bases.
Secondly, Okinawa Island is very built up, especially the capital city of Naha. In our opinion, it has neither the same ‘tropical’ atmosphere nor the ‘traditional island’ appearance that Miyako and the Yaeyama islands exude. Being our tenth wedding anniversary, we spent ten days in Okinawa, and so we chose to divide nine of those days equally between Miyako, Ishigaki and Iriomote. It was a good choice, and I recommend those particular islands to anyone visiting Okinawa.
Flying into Miyako, the plane circumnavigates the island, almost as if it were a planned tour. During this flight around the island, one sees a lot of farmland, rice paddies, tea fields, and of course plenty of beach and ocean, not to mention the odd golf course and hotel.
There are taxis and shuttle buses waiting outside the airport to take you directly to your hotel. Mandy and I stayed at the Breeze Bay Resort, next to which is situated a German Club called Bier Faz (Bier = beer). Despite it having a German design, inside there was a Japanese girl in a colorful Okinawan kimono playing a traditional Shamisen (a three-stringed instrument similar to a banjo, the body of which is covered in snakeskin). The show was entertaining, the music good, and the food delicious; the beer was the local Okinawan island beer – Orion Beer.
We hired a rent-a-car the next day and traveled around the island, firstly to Hirara Town where we bought some new swimwear, and then to the stunningly beautiful Sunayama Beach. Sunayama Beach is on the northwest coast of Miyako island, and a place I remember vividly due to its bright, white sands and its clear aquamarine waters. There was some coral reef visible close to shore, and it was a real joy to swim in those refreshing tropical waters. Gentle waves rolled in but it was more of a bay in that regard – there were no ‘breakers’, so to speak.
On Ishigaki Island, further south, palm trees and red/pink flower bushes surround the airport. Inside the airport are the obligatory souvenir shops, restaurants and cafes. Ishigaki has its very own beer though, Ishigaki Beer, and tastes very similar to the typical German beers that I have enjoyed in the past.
Ishigaki Island is popular for diving. My wife and I don’t hold a diving license and so the main attraction for us was Kabira Bay, with its sparkling turquoise waters, and its long golden beaches. We swam just offshore and saw a ‘clown fish’ (aka “Nemo”) and its family in its natural habitat – so much more interesting than observing it in an aquarium, we thought. And there were thousands upon thousands of seashells on the shore, along with crabs, clams, and other creatures.
During our stay on Ishigaki, we took a ferry to nearby Taketomi Island. Taketomi is small and flat, but lots of vegetation can be seen as one approaches the coastline. The interior of the ferry port resembles that of a small airport though, with its waiting area dominated by a large TV screen, its souvenir shop, and its various amenities. A lot of the roads on the island however are gravel, and lead past numerous farms complete with goats, cows, pigs, chickens and so on. Standard rock fences are common, over which stand papaya and banana trees.
Houses are traditional style island homes, with orange and white tiled roofs, most of which sport a clay sculpture of a ‘shi-sa’ (Caesar) – a mythical animal that looks like a combination of lion, dog and mini-gargoyle. These statues are not just decoration, but are said to protect the home from evil spirits. Mandy and I took a tour around the island in an ox-pulled cart, and had lunch at a local café.
Finally we traveled to Iriomote Island, which features prominently (and dramatically) in my novel. Iriomote is more of an island for ‘nature-lovers’ as opposed to those who enjoy pristine white beaches, diving and water sports.
It has many dense jungles, long rivers and great waterfalls, not to mention a nocturnal creature known as the Iriomote wildcat, or ‘yama-neko’ (mountain cat). There are some fine beaches as well, including Hoshi-no-Suna Beach. ‘Hoshi-no-Suna’ means “star sand”, and my wife and I found naturally star-shaped sand particles on the beach when we went there. It was also a wonderful place for snorkeling, as there is coral reef very close to shore, around which swim a myriad of colorful, tropical fish. My wife was thrilled to swim amongst these fish and interact with them. They certainly didn’t seem shy at all, and were in fact quite friendly. There are even little packs of fish-food that you can take with you while swimming. It was a lovely spot, and it was good to see many families enjoying swimming together. It’s definitely a place we’d love to revisit.
While on Iriomote Island, we took a day tour to Yubu Island on a cart pulled by a water buffalo. The water was only about one or two feet deep, and on the way our tour guide played some traditional songs on the ‘shamisen’ for us. It was a charming trip there and back, and we enjoyed lunch in the island’s only restaurant. The island itself didn’t have much to offer, other than a small zoo, but it was a rather picturesque island just the same, and a fun day out.
Finally we flew back to Naha on the main island of Okinawa, and then returned to the Japanese mainland the following day. We have very fond memories of our ten days in Okinawa - memories that will never be forgotten. It was an enchanting holiday, and one that will forever remain special to us. I hope that you can also get the chance to visit these spectacular islands for yourself one day.