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Get a glimpse into the illusive lifestyles and traditions that belong to the rarely visited Ryukyu Islands
The Japanese archipelago consists of nearly 7,000 islands offering a diversity of experiences. It is possible to visit the snow-capped mountains of Hokkaido in the north and later walk the white sand beaches of Okinawa in the south all in the same day.
Additionally, there are islands that lie within the Ryukyu archipelago that visitors from abroad have history not been able to access. These islands have very limited resources in terms of transport and local guides, mostly due to their isolation. Island inhabitants have made a conscious effort to restrict mass tourism and preserve the natural beauty of the region, shunning large cruise vessels and instead recently allowing only select smaller vessels.
Within the archipelago, the Okinawa, Miyako and Yaeyama Islands have a long international history. The result is a fascinating and seamless co-existence of cultures. Once an independent kingdom and tributary state to China for several centuries, the islands became a Japanese prefecture in 1879. Despite efforts to assimilate the native population, the Ryukyuan culture survived. The native culture here is distinctly different from that of the rest of Japan, from language to cuisine and arts. Uncover some of the islands’ uniquities below.
Shisa are a very common feature and distinctive trait of the culture of the Okinawa islands. They are believed to provide protection and can be spotted sitting outside or on the roof of many buildings. This amusing part-lion animal is represented as a couple: a closed-mouth female supposed to keep in the good spirits and an open-mouthed male supposed to scare evil spirits away.
The sanshin is an Okinawan musical instrument that originated before the similar shamisen instrument that is popular on mainland Japan. Its recognisable design – a body that is covered in snakeskin – defines the three stringed instrument. The sounds produced by the sanshin are bright and warm and its songs are tied to the identity of the islands.
Okinawan food and drink culture differs significantly from Japanese cuisine due to the islands’ unique multicultural history with influences from China, South East Asia, Japan and the US.
The most popular dish is champuru (stir fry), with goya champuru variation being one of the most common in which the bitter Okinawan goya vegetable is stir fried with tofu, eggs and pork or spam.
The islands are also known for Okinawan Soba noodles which are completely different from their mainland counterpart. Made of wheat rather than buckwheat flour, they resemble udon more than soba noodles.
An interesting result of the American presence in Okinawa is a dish referred to as ‘taco rice’. This unique dish consists of typical taco ingredients, such as ground beef, lettuce, tomatoes and salsa served over rice. This internationally influenced dish is a representation of the islands’ post-war landscape, adopted by the US military bases on the islands.
As for beverages, awamori is a distilled spirit unique to Okinawa with an alcohol content usually between 30-40 percent. It is similar to the popular Japanese shochu drink in that it is made from long-grained thai-style rice, but the use of a black koji mold indigenous to Okinawa makes it unique.
Sanpin-cha is the Okinawan name for Jasmine tea. With its origins in the Ryukyu Kingdom tracing back to their trade with China, the tea has been a staple of the islands for centuries. The distinct scent of the jasmine flowers used to make the tea are deeply embedded into the islands’ identity.
The islands offer a wide array of opportunities for exploration. From World Heritage sites for the historians, monuments chronicling the war for the military buffs and numerous beaches and reefs for the for snorkellers.
UNESCO World Heritage Sites such as Shuri Castle, once the central government office and royal residence, and Shikinaen Garden, former residence of the royal family, offer intriguing insights into the islands’ history. Additionally, the Peace Memorial Park of the Battle of Okinawa pays homage to the over 200,000 persons killed during the battle.
The islands were also the former site of the Navy Underground Headquarters, which consists of several hundred meters of underground corridors and rooms that the Japanese forces utilised throughout the war.
Yonaguni is home to the Yonaguni horse, one of eight native Japanese horse breeds. These pony-sized horses, originally used for riding, are today protected due to their small numbers and allowed to roam freely in pastures near the villages. Known locally as shima uma (island horse), most of the remaining population are located on Yonaguni Island.
The rivers and densely vegetated landscape of Ishigaki offers a jungle-like scenery and is best explored up close by kayak. The island also is home to the highest mountain in the Okinawa Prefecture, as well as various hiking trails for explorations throughout its hilly interior.
In addition, the islands’ pristine coastal surrounds allow for numerous opportunities to beachcomb, snorkel and dive in surrounding coral reefs – making them a nature lover’s paradise.
In 2023, Coral Expeditions will embark on a true expeditionary voyage ‘Through Japan’s Ryukyu Islands’ being the first ship granted access to some of these remote islands.