If you read anything about the coral-fringed islands Okinawa archipelago, you'll quickly find out that diving, whale-watching and island hopping are among the best things to do here. The archipelago of Okinawa, made up of over 160 islands slung across the East China Sea, is a place of chalk-white beaches and mangrove forests, located closer to Taiwan than Tokyo. And while this is certainly true, to focus only on the beach activities is to overlook Okinawa's real charm: the traditional Japanese culture that makes it unlike any other island chain in the world.
THE LOCAL WAY
It is said that Okinawans have some of the highest life expectancies in the world. The archipelago sees a surprising number of 100th birthdays, and the islanders put it down to a philosophy known as nuchigusui: life's medicine. Nuchigusui is centred around mindfulness, spiritual fulfilment and physical wellbeing. It's about eating well, enjoying the sunshine, getting involved with the local community and feeling content.
In Okinawa, everything revolves around nuchigusui - and no more so than the food. Much of the islands' cuisine uses herbs and medicinal plants that are native to the archipelago, as well as plenty of fermented foods and soy-based produce, acting as a kind of 'medicine for the soul'. At a restaurant called Cafe Garamanjaku (garamanjaku, okinawa), located near the heart of Okinawa's eponymous mainland, you can experience nuchigusui-inspired cuisine in its purest form. Here, their food is created using island vegetables and wild grass, flavoured with handmade miso paste, pure local honey and organic island-brewed soy sauce. You can eat on the tatami mats of their red-roofed home, designed with large, low rooms to protect against Okinawa's strong sunshine.
Another great place to experience island cuisine is the nearby brewery of Tatsu-no-Kura, where tofu is fermented for over a year before it's ready to eat. This long fermentation process, which takes place in limestone caves 30 metres underground, makes the tofu surprisingly mild in flavour. Wash it down with the island's local liquor, awamori, which Tatsu-no-Kura also ferments underground after it's distilled from long grain rice. If you're interested, you can also tour the caves to learn how the fermentation process works - and how it contributes to Okinawa's' medicine for the soul' philosophy.
TRADITIONS THAT LAST
Okinawa has a history rooted in craftsmanship. Until the 1870s, the islands formed part of the Ryukyu Kingdom - an independent kingdom that ruled the islands south of Japan as a tributary state to China. People paid their taxes in cloth, which meant weaving became a prized skill. Today, Okinawan textiles are famous across Japan, from dyed fabrics to woven cloth. One such fabric, yaeyama minsa, was heavily traded in the 17th and 18th century, before being designated a 'traditional Okinawan' craft in 1989.
This woven cloth is prized across Japan for its romantic motifs: traditionally, the alternating patterns of the design means 'for many years to come', which has made it a popular fabric choice for wedding outfits, such as sashes on kimonos and neckties. On Ishigaki Island, towards the south-west of the archipelago, you can experience this weaving process first-hand at a workshop called Minsah. Using the enormous wooden contraptions to guide the fabric, you can hand weave anything from a coaster (taking 30 minutes) to a tapestry (taking up to five hours).
Another local fabric tradition is the art of bingata - a hand-dyed cloth featuring bright patterns created using stencils. The dye is made from local plants, which means no two dyes (and so no two fabrics) are ever identical. You can see- and try-this style of design for yourself at Naha City Traditional Arts and Craft Center, which lies at the heart of Okinawa's capital, Naha. It's a great way to observe the work of the crafts-people up close, who gain more respect with every year under their belt (another factor that plays into their long life expectancies).
As well as housing a cultural museum, the centre runs several workshops, where you can not only try dyeing bingata fabric, but also other local crafts, like pottery and glassblowing.
It's the fact that local traditions like these are still treasured that makes Okinawa s o special. Yes, the diving is world-class and the beaches look like they're made of powder, but it's the local culture that puts Okinawa on the map. It's not something you can really understand until you go, but once you're there, you'll feel the island spirit everything you do.