Article by Jonathan DeHart04.12.2017Photographed by Andrew Faulk
A laidback vibe, distinctive arts and crafts, and a longevity-boosting cuisine give Japan’s southernmost islands a character all their own.
Arriving in Naha, the subtropical capital of Okinawa, you could be forgiven for thinking you were somewhere far from Japan — on a balmy isle in Southeast Asia, perhaps. Here, the white-sand beaches and azure waters combine with a laid-back vibe and distinctive culture to weave a spell all their own.
The islands’ eclectic culture is every bit as alluring as the terrain. The local beverage known as buka buka cha — containing polished white rice, brown rice and peanuts — is stirred into a rich foam with a bamboo whisk and served cold.
A boy runs down the street in Naha, Okinawa’s capital.
At Shuri Castle, just east of downtown Naha, a number of architectural frills evoke the islands’ history of trade with Ming dynasty China: red walls, opulent gates, ceramic dragons and especially shisa, as the lionlike talisman is known, warding off evil spirits around doorways and on rooftops around the complex.
Though many of the shops overflow with awamori cups and leonine shisa figures, Kiyomasa Toki offers some elegant alternatives — and more than 300 years of history.
At Usagi-ya in Ishigaki City, diners enjoy izakaya (small plates) cuisine alongside live performances of sanshin, the iconic three-stringed, python-skinned instrument of Okinawa. Salads, teppanyaki and the islands’ famed bitter melon are washed down with awamori, a strong local spirit made from Thai rice.
Travelers on the 15-minute ferry ride between the islands of Ishigaki and Taketomi-jima.
A bicycle is the preferred method for getting around Taketomi-jima, where no stoplights, no supermarkets and no convenience stores disturb the low-key vibe, idyllic streets and splendid views.