With its serene blue waters, coral reefs, natural cuisine and deliciously slow pace of life, it’s fair to assume that southern Okinawa is home to not only Japan’s oldest and healthiest residents – but the happiest too.
Those keen for a taste of the Japanese good life should skip the urban chaos of Tokyo and jump on a plane south to Okinawa to wind down a notch, soak up some sunshine and tuck into some fresh local delicacies.
Here’s a selection of the very best experiences in Okinawa to add to your itinerary.
THE RESTAURANT: Emi no Mise
Biologists have long marvelled at Okinawa’s high concentration of healthy centenarians – with one key reason being a healthy Okinawan diet. Ogimi, a small village on the main island, Okinawa, is home to Emi no Mise, a restaurant that celebrates longevity in the tastiest possible way. Run by a sixtysomething nutritionist, the restaurant serves deliciously healthy dishes based on seasonal Okinawan ingredients: from citrus fruit doughnuts and boiled squid to miso sweet potatoes. Pop by for the popular (and beautifully presented) lunch spread – or pick up a takeaway bento box lunch.
THE CAFE: T&M Coffee
Japan’s craft coffee movement is alive and well in Okinawa – as reflected in a raft of top quality artisan roasteries opening across the island chain. One example is T&M Coffee in Naha, the Okinawan capital. Here, in a clean-lined, plant-filled space, coffee lovers can choose from a variety of beans as well as preparation methods, from French press to paper drip, served in colourful cups. While coffee steals the show, the menu also includes toasted sandwiches, smoothies and – the ultimate treat for sweet-toothed coffee lovers – tiramisu.
THE FESTIVAL: Yuri Matsuri
The Okinawan island of Iejima is dubbed Flower Island – and every year in late April it soon becomes clear why: an expanse of white Easter lilies burst into bloom, marking the start of its annual Yuri Matsuri, or Lily Festival. The event attracts crowds of visitors to the island to appreciate its signature flowers. This year it runs from 22 April to 6 May. To get there, hop on a 30-minute ferry from Motobu Port on the main Okinawa island.
THE GALLERY: Cotonoha
To tap into Okinawa’s contemporary art scene, pay a trip to Cotonoha in Ginowan city on the main island. It’s a multidisciplinary art space and cafe with a lively schedule of events, from exhibitions by local Okinawan painters to live performances by island musicians. Look out for its PechaKucha nights, a regular design presentation event.
THE ISLAND: Ishigaki
One of the best springboards for an authentic Okinawan experience is Ishigaki, just a short flight from the main island (or from Tokyo). The laidback island – which recently grabbed headlines as TripAdvisor’s top but little-known trending destination – is in the heart of the farflung Yaeyama archipelago and has countless postcard-perfect coral reef-fringed beaches for diving plus jungle-covered mountains and mangroves for hiking. It’s also the perfect springboard for a string of other picturesque islands.
THE ROAD TRIP: Yanbaru National Park
Okinawa is not just about sandy beaches: for a taste of its rich subtropical rainforest landscapes, jump in a car and head to Yanbaru National Park on its northern tip. A wild expanse of more than 13,622 forested hectares, the park is home to over 4,000 species, including a raft of rare indigenous creatures such as the Okinawan woodpecker plus the less savoury-sounding spiny rat. There are three villages, Ogimi, Kunigami and Higashi, that are perfect for a lunch stop.
THE INSTAGRAM SPOT: Yagicho Honten
Want to make your friends jealous? Then head to Taketomi Island, a blink-and-you’ll-miss it boat hop from Ishigaki Island in the Yaeyama archipelago. It’s a minuscule island, home to sandy paths, stone walls, traditional tiled roof houses – and some of the most photogenic beaches in Okinawa, with white sands and crystal-clear waters. Here and on nearby Irionote you can seek out the celebrated star sand beaches.
THE SHOP: Atelier Nicoge
Atelier Nicoge is a workshop, gallery and select shop all in one. Located on Miyako Island – a quick flight from the main island or direct from Tokyo – the space, found just next door to popular Moja’s Bakery, showcases a curated selection of Okinawan textiles, paintings, glassware and woodwork. Look out for talented craftsman Ken Fujimoto’s roughly hewn wooden bowls and plates.
20, Hirara Higashi Nakasone, Miyakojima
MORE PEOPLE VISITED OKINAWA THAN HAWAII IN 2017
THE HOTEL: Hotel Locus
Hotel Locus is an airy haven of white walls, light woods, sea blue textiles, concrete floors and windows. It opened its doors in January with 100 guestrooms overlooking the sea on a northwest beach on picturesque Miyako Island. Its contemporary restaurant Locus Table rustles up dishes using fresh island ingredients – including herbs, veggies and spices from its own gardens. It also has a stylish on-site boutique with a selection of Okinawan crafts and design products.
THE DISH: Soba
Okinawan soba is one of the island chain’s most lusted-after dishes – and is available all over the region. It isn’t like the soba noodles you’ll find elsewhere in Japan: Okinawa’s version is curly and springy, served in a pork and fish broth, and topped with either fish cakes or pork ribs. (The dish is so popular that there’s even an Okinawa Soba Day, held every year in October.) There are many restaurants to choose from across the prefecture, but Ryukyusabo Suru, in the capital Naha, is a solid-gold bet (and has an English menu).
2 Chome-13 Shuritonokuracho, Naha
● Naha Airport is an easy 30-minute monorail hop from the city centre (naha-airport.co.jp/en/access/monorail.html). Renting a car from the airport is recommended if you want to explore further.
● Spring (March to May) and autumn (September to December) are the best times to visit to ensure warm weather while avoiding the summer rainy season or travel-disrupting typhoons.