Welcome to the other Japan, where pebble gardens and cherry blossoms give way to white-sand beaches and swaying palm trees. Despite centuries of mainland exploitation and horrific destruction during the closing months of WWII, Japan is in the midst of an Okinawa boom. Today, Japanese mainlanders, both young and old, are flocking to the islands in droves. And it’s not difficult to see why – with a year-round balmy climate and plenty of sunshine, Okinawa and the Southwest Islands, or the Nansei-shotō, are the perfect destination for beachcombers, hikers and marine sports–lovers alike.
While package tourism is evident, independent travellers can easily search out unspoilt beauty and relative seclusion. Coastlines are dotted with beaches that run the spectrum from powder-white sand to hoshi-suna or ‘star sand’, which consists of the skeletal remains of tiny animals. Island interiors range from subtropical rainforest to mangrove jungles, while the underwater world teems with colourful fish and vibrant coral reefs. Okinawa and the Southwest Islands were also the centre of the Ryūkyū kingdom, and there are still traces of this rich cultural heritage in the region’s architecture, language, music and cuisine.
Okinawa and the Southwest Islands comprise a string of subtropical islands that stretch for more than 1000km from the southern tip of Kyūshū to about 110km from Taiwan. Although the Nansei-shotō is one of the top domestic tourist destinations for Japanese, few foreigners explore this part of the country. It’s unfortunate, as the region is brimming with sights, and a glimpse of tropical Japan is a wonderful complement to time spent exploring the mainland.