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Unknown island getaway: Okinawa

I had never thought of travelling there. It was the suggestion of an acquaintance on a train that led me, months later, to eventually arrive. It is a relatively unjourneyed snippet of islands in the Pacific. It is Okinawa.

With crisp beaches, exciting music, endearing statuettes, a mixed history and sumptuous food, Okinawa is a great, less than ordinary, travel idea.

Crisp coral sands

As might be expected with any island chain, Okinawa — south of Japan and east of Taiwan — is home to more than a few agreeable beaches. Made up of one main island and a series of smaller islets, the best way to enjoy quiet strips of beach is to head off to the smaller blocks of land.

Ferries leave the primary city of Naha, on the main island and head off daily to the smaller islands, such as Aguni or the Kerama Islands. I went to the small Tokashiki island, which is home to accessible yet secluded beaches — from the port you take a taxi or a bus. When I arrived I was struck by an oddity. The sand is not, well, the common idea of yellow, fine sand. It is instead very small pieces of white, porous coral, which give off a sizzling sound under foot. It has a massaging effect. Keep in mind that some beaches are not technically open for swimming. If you either stick to the legal swimming spots or flout the law, the water, clear and warm, will not chill. I was there in winter and had no troubles quickly growing accustomed to the water temperature. I lounged in the soft swell, under the warm sun, with my feet ever more massaged by the sand.

Keep in mind that in many cases only one or two ferry trips may be available for the day. If you miss them, that’s it. Also, bad weather, as I experienced, may mean all or most trips are cancelled.

Exciting music

While walking along the bustle of Kokusaidori, a fun stretch of road in Naha mixing music and bars and restaurants and shopping, I heard a wistful song. It was coming from a young woman playing an instrument I had never seen, a Sanshin. Like a long-necked violin with a rounded body, it is a tuneful, forlorn traditional three-stringed instrument (it’s name literally means “three string”). She played beautifully.

Inside the bars and restaurants, bands equipped with not only a sanshin but also deep-toned percussive sets, play raucously to the crowds. Sometimes it might be a man and a woman floating softly in song before driving toward a festive piece in a packed restaurant. Sometimes it might be a trio playing to a near-empty floor. Either way, they engage the audience: In between sets the band signals for all to drink from their glass or jokes about a tourist staring in from outside. The shows generally go from 6 or 7 p.m. to around 9 to 10 p.m.

A ridiculous, cute snarl

If you go to Okinawa you cannot not see them. If you are like me, you may at first confuse them for cats sitting on the edges of rooves. Snarling ridiculously, the charming Shisa (guardian dog) statuettes sit high and low across the island. Often paired, the figures, which look like a blend of vicious cat and angry dog with a high tail and puffed chest, can be found at the entrance to or on the rooves of nearly every abode across the island.

It becomes a fun, if ridiculous, exercise photographing the many and varied types of shisa. Some are traditional; some have changed. Outside design universities they take distorted, angular dimensions. Occasionally they don sunglasses. Modern homes are designed with platforms built into the wall to house them.

A mixed history

The history of Okinawa is many and varied. In a time not too long ago it was the independent Ryukyu. Then in the 19th century, Japan annexed it. In World War Two it was levelled. For many of the years after it was largely controlled by America. In 1972 it was again made part of Japan. The American and Japanese presence is still all too clear. Yet, the Okinawans still seem to hold a connection to that Ryukyu past. When there, play tactful and try to refer to locals as Okinawans, not Japanese. Relations with the mainland are far from rosy.

This history lends itself to a range of sites. Shuri Castle sheds light on the island’s Ryukyu past. It was totally destroyed in World War Two and then rebuilt. Do not let this dissuade you from going, if for no other reason than the beautiful view and garden. The castle is located on a hill, with an expansive view across Okinawa. On the western end of the hilltop is a set of gardens which blend sparse vegetation with rock formations. It is a calm and quiet place. Be on the lookout for what I assume to be yet more shisa. They are very large, stone statues sharing the same design and guarding the gates, such as the pair outside the Kankaimon gate — one of the castle’s entrances.

Other historical highlights near the castle include the Sonohiyan Utaki Shrine and the Tamaudun royal tombs a little way off. Just to the north of the castle is a small wooden shrine in a lake, and connected by a bridge. Fat ducks frolic nearby and the sun is dappled through the trees. It is a calm, pleasant place. One easily dozes off.

The island also has many moving, forlorn tributes to World War Two. The Himeyuri Monument and the Peace Memorial Park are two such odes to the tragic Battle of Okinawa. Built around a cave that was the site of violence during the conflict, the Himeyuri Monument and its nearby museum is devoted to remembering the Okinawan high school students, girls and boys, who were dragged into a war and pulled into battles that many did not survive.

The Peace Memorial Park is simply a sorrowful place. Perhaps most moving is the Cornerstone of Peace, a near semi-circle collection of black stone walls emanating out in waves, like the skins of an onion. Its purpose is simple, yet resonant, to list on the stones every name of every person who died in the battle — soldier or civilian, no matter which side. Japanese, Okinawan and Korean names are inscribed alongside those of the allied forces. Every year they add more names. The latest updates I saw were from 2012. The Peace Memorial Park and the Himeyuri Shrine are not easy places. It is not simple tourism. They are, however, important.

Sumptuous food

Japan, which Okinawa is technically part of, is so often known for its sushi. Yet don’t go to Okinawa, or for that matter to Japan, thinking this is all you will eat. Try the noodle-soup soba and its many varieties at any of the many small cornerstone restaurants. Try also the striking, charcoal black squid-ink noodles. Then perhaps enjoy some taco rice — taco-flavoured beef on rice. Then, try some sushi. All the while you can wash it down with the light, local beer Orion (pronounced o-ree-on).

Finish the food, watch the music, learn of its past, then wake afresh and board a ferry for a small islet on which you’ll while away a day on the soft coral beach.

But for a conversation on a train I wouldn’t have thought to go.

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