Okinawa: Japan’s tropical imperial souvenir

For some reason everyone is obsessed with visiting Japan. It might be its “exotic” culture (exotic, really? I thought we were over this), its amazing food (do people really enjoy raw fish with cold rice?), its breathtaking natural scenarios (most countries in Europe also have volcanoes and fancy forests) or some kind of distant memory from the anime we used to watch as kids that pushes us to the country. It was certainly not my case. I have never been particularly interested in visiting Japan. Before, I found it boring, “too perfect” to invoke in me some sort of adrenaline while imagining a trip to the islands. However, my opinion soon changed after my first days in the country.

In January 2024 I was invited to an event in Kuala Lumpur. The flights from Paris to Kuala Lumpur for those dates were extremely expensive so as I had time I figured out I could do a small detour around East and Southeast Asia before arriving to Malaysia. It was Winter and I wanted to go somewhere warm. The problem is that I practically visited all of Southeast Asia during my exchange semester in Singapore, the only exception being Myanmar (where the civil war had just intensified when I was planning the trip) and Timor Leste (which is super expensive to fly to). I was left with East Asia, which I have not yet visited but at the time was incredibly cold. South Korea was out of the table because of its freezing temperatures and I wanted to do China in a separate trip. Japan was then my only option left.

Still, I was not satisfied with the idea of “just going to Japan”. I don’t get that many opportunities to jump out of Europe and I wanted to visit some place that was truly unique. I took a map of Japan and went to the extreme South of it, where I spotted Okinawa. I quickly checked the prices — cheap, unusually cheap. It was love at first sight.

Okinawa is meant to be a “tropical island”. Although it is well above the Tropic of Cancer, it has very mild temperatures all over the year just like the Canary Islands in Spain. Nonetheless, the weather while I stayed there was unusually cold, between 11ºC to 17ºC and a freezing breeze and rain that almost got me a hypothermia. After a few days in Okinawa, I soon started to realize the uniqueness of this place — all my negative perceptions of Japan slowly faded away and now here I am, writing an article about how this country is now one of my favorites.

The Okinawa market, always busy but not too much. The right amount of hustle with no scams. Some countries in the Middle East should learn from this 😉

The main reason why I wanted to visit Okinawa was not its nice weather or famous beaches (which curiously are closed in Winter). Okinawa was one of the main scenarios of WW2 in the Pacific. A lot of people died here, around 100,000 civilians or 1/3 of the previous total population of the island. The American destruction of the island and consequent defeat of the Japanese army had as an objective to provide the US with a stable base from which start a ground invasion of Japan. The Americans decided not to do it and drope two nukes instead to defeat Japan, but ended up building the military base anyways. In fact, as part of the post-war agreements, Okinawa was given to the US, which retained its sovereignty until the 70s when it agreed to give it back in exchange for Japanese guarantees that the US military bases would be left unbothered.

In the main island of Okinawa, 18% percent of the territory is reserved for US Army military bases, specially airbases. That’s quite a lot. It is almost impossible to travel around the island without bumping into one of the 32 American military bases. The noise of the planes taking off the airbases and doing different exercises is truly maddening and gave me a strong headache during a great part of the day. I decided to rent a bike during for two of the three full days I was staying in the island. The first day I decided to go explore these American bases and I biked North from Naha, the capital city. I highly encourage anyone to bike around Okinawa, the car drivers are extremely nice and anyone will get mad at you. There aren’t many bike lanes but you’ll figure out how to make your way through.

Leaving Naha to enter the Okinawan countryside was truly an experience. Soon I entered a suburban, almost rural landscape with multiple stimuli all around, leaving my mind to wonder although I was promptly interrupted by the fighter jets taking off and doing loops above my head. I soon arrived to the “American Village” a “theme park” which mocks the ridiculously high American presence in the island, with American restaurants, shops and other entertainment venues for the soldiers that want to relax and feel like home after work. The Kadena Air Base is just a few kilometers away. After several hours pedaling, I arrived to an interesting road which is completely surrounded by the high wire fences of the American premises. Next to the runway, different individual Japanese photographers waited patiently for planes to land or take off in order to take pictures with their expensive cameras and then sell them probably to some stock photo companies.

It took me one sip to instantly fall in love with the Japanese Ramen. Here it tastes way better than back in Europe.

I decided to continue on for about one more hour in order to reach a beach that I had checked on Google Maps. Soon the suburban/rural landscape was replaced by dense forests and cute villages. Wide rivers traversed the countryside reminding me of the cartoons I used to watch as a kid where the essence of rural Japan was portrayed. For the first time ever, I felt like a true weaboo. When I was arriving to the beach I was met with a big military checkpoint. To my surprise, the beach (which by the way has many reviews on GMaps, probably from the American soldiers) is inside a US Army base and the entry is forbidden for foreigners. Oh god, the irony. If I was Okinawan I would certainly not like a foreign country control the natural beauties of my homeland. I turned around and returned to Naha.

Okinawa is a weird place, it feels like Japan but the American presence makes it have a “touch of Hawaii”. Naha is a very lively city, with a lot of things to do and a very good ambience. The food is unbeatable. And I’m not only talking about ramen or other types of food you can get at the restaurants, it’s also the convenience stores (Seven Eleven, Family Mart…etc.) they are incredibly useful and cheap, crazy cheap. Japan’s economy has been stagnate since the 90s and the prices haven’t really gone up. I was planning on spending a fortune and in the end I saved up quite a lot. Some places in Southeast Asia are way more expensive (Bangkok, for example). If you come, make sure to try Okonomiyaki, which according to a friend it is an Okinawan specialty (although I know they also make it in the rest of Japan. Lastly, the Japanese are probably the kindest people I’ve met along my travels. I know the “culture of respect” is a cliché, but it is truly comforting to find people willing to help you every time even if they don’t speak your language. I definitely think should start giving more value politeness and manners, that’s how Japan won my heart. I’ll be back as soon as I can. Arigato!

Thanks for reading!

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