Okinawa is Japan's Paridise

Okinawa is Japan's Paridise

NAHA CITY, OKINAWA - We open our umbrellas in what's supposed to be the sunniest place in Japan. Just my luck. I pick the rainy season to visit a place where, on average, it rains 30-60 days a year.

So what does one do when it rains in "paradise," the term many Japanese use to describe Okinawa?

I could stay bunkered in my hotel, or I could venture outside and get soaked.

At the urging of a proud island woman named Norimi Zukeran, I decide on the latter. So, off we venture, in monsoon conditions, to soak up a culture and history that dates back thousands of years.

"If we drive along Hwy. 58 we will see many historic sites and some beautiful scenery," Zukeran tells me as we start out on the narrow coastal road that hugs the island's southern shore. My first impressions of Okinawa, or at least the capital, Naha City, were not lasting. A late arrival the night before introduced me to Naha's neon side - endless rows of bars and restaurants whose blinking signs try to lure some of the 26,000 U.S. military personnel stationed here. Add to that a relentless rain and a less than inspiring skyline, highlighted by military drab architecture, and you see why a first-time visitor to Naha can be a bit under whelmed.

To be fair, there's not much you can do with a city that is basically a military camp. Naha and its suburb Kadena are home to two big military bases - one belonging to the U.S. Marines and the other the U.S. Air Force.

"See that base. It will take us 20 minutes to pass it," said the taxi driver. Sure enough, 20 minutes later, we finish passing Kadena Air Base, the largest U.S. Air Force installation in the western Pacific.

"It even has a four-kilometre-long runway!" said the driver.

Zukeran says 80 per cent of Kadena belongs to the U.S. military and 30 per cent of Okinawa is under its control. The American military is obviously one of the biggest contributors to the local economy, employing almost 9,000 islanders.

In recent years, due to some unfortunate events, there has been a chill in relations between Okinawans and the Americans and many islanders would like to see the bases closed.

In recent years, due to some unfortunate events, there has been a chill in relations between Okinawans and the Americans and many islanders would like to see the bases closed.

But no one expects that to happen anytime soon.

Zukeran's wipers can barely keep up with the driving rain, but still we push on - with Gene Kelly belting out "I'm Singing' in the Rain" on the car radio.

The lush vegetation that dominates Okinawa looks even more colourful in the rain. Delicate tropical flowers with beads of rain dripping from their pretty pink and red petals hang heavy on the tropical plants growing alongside Hwy. 58, which affords drivers some amazing sea views.

The south side of Okinawa is the most developed and it's where most of the four- and five-star resorts are located.

"The north side is mostly rainforest - at least 70 per cent is rainforest," says Zukeran.

On this dreary day, everything is a "rain forest."

Not far from the hotel, we spot some fishermen bravely casting their nets in the rainy mist a few metres off shore. Fishing and agriculture are the island's main industries and the name Okinawa actually means fishing net.

The island, which sits about 1,300 kilometres south of the Japanese mainland, was once known as Ryukyu, an independent nation that had closer ties with China than Japan. Now Okinawa is the favoured playground of the Japanese, who make up 97 per cent of its 5.5 million tourists annually.

One of the main reasons the Japanese come here is to play golf. There are 20 championship courses scattered about the island - there are another 20 that are considered short courses (less than 6,000 yards in length). The average cost of a round here is less than $100 U.S. - well below what the golf-crazy Japanese pay on the mainland.

Through the mist and rain I couldn't help but notice some interesting-looking islands sitting offshore. Nature has sculpted amazing rock formations here and some of the smaller islands look like animals - dragons and elephants - while the bigger ones resemble huge ships.

We travel along a narrow path until we come upon an amazing sight - the cliffs of Manza-mo, a natural wonder that juts out into the sea.

The ancient cliffs were discovered by a Ryukyuan king in the 18th century and the name means "a field large enough to accommodate tens of thousands of people."

Only a few brave souls stand on the rain-swept cliffs this day, looking out on surfers paddling between some of the smaller, animal-shaped islands.

A few metres farther along the path, we come upon more breathtakingly beautiful cliffs. The path is also lined with some unique island vegetation, including a skinny-looking pineapple that Zukeran describes as "forbidden fruit - because it's poisonous."

The rain starts to fall harder so we rush back to the car and head for a folk village known as Ryukyu Mura. The village features 100-year-old straw-roofed homes and offers a glimpse into ancient life on Okinawa.

Some of the buildings at Ryukyu Mura are occupied by local craftspeople who are busy making glass and pottery. Every hut seems to be selling lion statues - the island's symbol.

After an excellent buffet lunch, we pile back in the car and Zukeran heads in the direction of the ruins of Nagagusuku Castle, one of nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites located on Okinawa.

Only the walls of Nagagusuku Castle remain standing today. The fortress was built on a hill 160 metres high and was constructed using an extraordinary method featuring piled stone masonry and stone arches. Nagagusuku is just one of five castles that once dominated Okinawa.

The most impressive of all - and the only one still intact - is Shuri Castle. From the 15th century, when Sho Hashi unified the three Sanzan Kingdoms, up until the Meiji Restoration (1868), Shuri Castle was the residence of the Ryukyuan kings and centre of the kingdom which lasted close to 500 years, over 19 generations of kings.

A visit to Okinawa would not be complete without visiting one of the islands' war memorials or museums. Okinawa was completely destroyed during World War II and 230,000 people perished here. Names of the dead are carved on three massive black granite monuments located in Peace Memorial Park - a somber but lovely garden that is a delight to visit.

Also not to be missed is the Okinawa district headquarters of the Japanese Navy during World War II. The underground shelter is a labyrinth of rooms where Japanese naval brass conducted their campaign against American and Allied forces. At the end of the war, Commander Minoru Ohta and other officers committed suicide in the underground bunker, which remains exactly as it was found at the end of the fighting.

The sound of thunder in the distance makes me wonder if we should abandon our tour.

"That is not thunder," Zukeran says, "that's the American military practising."

Unfortunately, the sound of artillery interrupts the calm of this peaceful place on a regular basis.

During our drive, we also see lots of elderly people harvesting sugar cane in the wet fields.

"It helps keep them young," she says.

Actually, Okinawans never seem to get old. They live longer than anyone else on Earth. Many islanders live well past 100, Zukeran tells me.

"Doctors come here from all over the world to study our people," says the young guide. "We believe we live longer because life here is better, less stressful. And the herbs we eat make us feel young."

Hundreds of beaches dot the coastline and even on a wet day, they're filled with people - some holding umbrellas.

"The sea and rain are much warmer here than in other places, so people can still swim," says Zukeran as we arrive back at the hotel.

"I hope you will come back one day," she says.

"I'll be back," I assure her. "When did you say the rainy season ends?"

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