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A thousand miles south of Tokyo, Japan's Okinawa Prefecture stretches far out into the East China Sea, an archipelago of some 150 islands in a long chain reaching almost as far south as Taiwan at its furthest point. This is Japan's subtropical region, with warm weather all year round, lush jungle vegetation, intense bright light when the sun shines, and spectacularly beautiful sea under blue skies with scudding clouds driven by very welcome sea breezes, particularly in the humid heat of high summer. Why not visit this other Japan as a break from sightseeing around Tokyo and Kyoto? The pace of life is less frantic here, and on many of the smaller islands you will find Japanese from the mainland who have re-located with their young families in search of a less stressed life in touch with Nature in the small island communities which thrive here.
I am writing this from Naha City on Okinawa main island in November. Kume island lies to the west of Okinawa main island, and an early morning flight from Tokyo or Osaka will take you there with a change of planes at Naha airport for the final 20 minutes, and you can be lying on the beach by the same afternoon! The change of pace is immediate as you land at the tiny airport, which only receives seven or so flights a day. Nobody seems to be hurrying anywhere and there are no crowds. The car hire desk is twenty leisurely paces away from the Arrivals exit, and whether you are hiring a car or transfering to your hotel by taxi you are soon on your way, pausing at one of only two sets of traffic lights on the island before turning left or right on the one circular road that takes you either to the hilly side of the island with panoramic views of the sea, or through flat farming country to Eef Beach Hotel, one of three small hotels on the island and situated alongside an uninterrupted expanse of sandy beach stretching out of sight in either direction.
The hotel seems to have a nautical theme to its design, with wooden floorboards throughout and floor-height lighting along the corridors casting light upwards as if on the deck of a ship. The downstairs restaurant is open-plan, with seating at large wooden tables. The rooms upstairs are large, most of them facing the sea with balconies overlooking the beach. Bathrooms are small but adequate. There is a bar open till midnight and a spa. But the beauty of this plain and simple hotel is of course its location. There are a number of small village bars and restaurants that have sprung up around the hotel and beach and they are in easy walking distance for lunch or dinner on days not eating in the hotel. There is a hotel swimming pool and the sea to swim in. I am here in November and the weather as always in Okinawa at this time of year is pleasantly warm in the low 20's but local wisdom has it that, by Okinawan standards, it is very cold: samui! samui! So the idea of swimming in the sea will meet with some good-natured merriment and incredulity in the winter months such as this, but why not?
Perhaps the key to why being on Kume island is so relaxing is the feeling of uncongested space and wide horizons, aware as you are everywhere on the island of the vastness of the sea, the crystal-clear seawater lapping gently onto the sandy beach, or more spectacularly the sea seen from the hills where a pure white sandbar called Hatenohama stretches dramatically out to sea giving an effect not unlike the famous nike symbol as if drawn freehand with a giant brush onto the deep blue surface of the water. You can visit this sandbar by boat. The turquoise-blue shallow waters around it are waist deep and home to shoals of tropical fish, so snorkling plays a part in most trips onto Hatenhama. It is a place to become wholly immersed in the natural world, with the blue of the sea all around you, the blue of the sky above you, and underneath your feet the pure white of the soft sand; to unplug yourself from everyday tensions and connect with nature. It is an experience of the marine environment like no other in Okinawa; just you, the sea and the sky.
Further away from the sandbar the depth of the sea plunges dramatically to 40 metres, and it is here and on other sites around the island that you can go diving. There are many "dive shops" on the island who arrange diving sessions with wet suits etc. The diving in Okinawa's waters is world-famous and here on Kume in the winter months you have a good chance to see Manta Rays. Many shops will ask if you have your PADI qualification.
Kume Island like the rest of the Okinawan archipelago has a fascinating history and culture. The islands when united together formed the Ryukyu Kingdom which until as late as the 1870's was an independent trading nation with long-established links to China. The prosperity which this brought to the Ryukyu Kingdom was also its ultimate downfall as neighbouring Japanese territories eventually sought to exploit this trading opportunity by annexing Okinawa to Japan which did not share in the economic advantages of those cultural links. In the glorious fifteenth century heyday of the Ryukyu Kingdom two or three ships a week were setting sail for China with goods such as kombu seaweed from the cold ocean waters of Hokkaido and returning with pottery and silks to trade with Japan.
When Chinese ships in return set sail for Okinawa they would stop off en route on Kume Island. Links with China resulted in an exchange of cultures which eventually gave birth to Karate in Okinawa, and Kume also established its own production of silk.
This is a tradition that has been revived at the Kumejima Tsumugi Weaving Centre, or Pavilion, on the island today. The whole process can be seen from April each year when mulberry leaves are harvested from a farm in the hills for the silkworm grubs to feed on, and once fully grown the silkworm caterpillars spin their cocoons when lifted by hand into grid-like compartmentalised boxes. The silk thread that is handspun from these cocoons is dyed using natural plant dyes which have given rise to the beautiful muted beiges, yellows and browns of the finished cloth incorporating painstakingly achieved patterns woven into the fabric.
A visit to the house of an old aristocratic Kumejima family brings the history of the island alive.
The Historic Uezu House is about two hundred years old so dates from independent Ryukyu Kingdom times. Throughout the island you will see surviving examples of these old Okinawan houses with sloping red-tiled roofs, ornamented with pairs of Shisa which look like Chinese dragons and guard the house from evil influences emmanating from the spirit world.
(Up in the hills close to the hotel there is a pottery where you can arrange to make your own shisa! The pottery uses the characteristic red clay of the island, and if you want your creation to be fired in the kiln the potter will send it to your home address when the process is complete). The Uezu family house has separate ceremonial entrances for men and women and for visiting dignitaries from China. The guide will point out how the house was positioned along fen shui principles. The garden is peaceful and still, the guide gentle and unhurried. Her husband maintains the gardens immaculately. Time passes unhurriedly by.
Amongst the Japanese Okinawa has the well-earned reputation of being a place of wellbeing. It is a popular domestic holiday destination as mainland Japanese return year after year in search of the secret of its citizens' long lives (one village on Okinawa main island has the most centenarians surviving of any prefecture in Japan). The mild winter weather is an annual draw also for the elderly escaping the cold weather in Hokkaido or Tokyo. As I write the temperature in Sapporo is minus 2 degrees, so far apart are the two extremes of Japan, a long and thin country. So perceptions of what is samui! vary along geographical lines. Kume island's contribution to Okinawa's healthy environment includes the mineral rich deep waters that surround the island. Near to Eef Beach Hotel is Bade House where water is pumped from 70 metres below the surface of the sea into a spa building to feed a large communal bathing area with jets of water that can be trained on the bathers so as to bombard their bodies with the mineral-rich water. Sessions can be booked through the hotel.
Another use of this deep sea water is in the cultivation of a delicious speciality of the island, Kuruma Prawns with stripey brown and cream-coloured bodies, eaten simply grilled. The locals happily munch through everything, shells, heads and all, but I slip the head and body shell off. Locals remember fondly when, on a memorable day many years ago following a storm, the seawater tanks containing these prawns overflowed. Word spread like wildfire among the islanders who were soon taking home bucketloads of free prawns that had been washed onto the surrounding ground, a once only bonanza never to be repeated! The simplest Okinawa dishes are often the most delicious and healthy, like the stir fries containing vegetables, beansprouts, tofu (a more grainy textured tofu with more taste than the silky tofu of mainland Japan. It stands up well to being sir-fried), and small amounts of pork, usually, for flavouring. These champeru are cooked over a high heat in woks, another Chinese influence on Okinawan culture. Also simple and delicious are bowls of Okinawa soba noodles (not made of buckweat as elsewhere in Japan) as at the island-famous Soba restaurant Yangwa whose chef and owner is Naoki Nakasone san, where you can sit in the pretty garden of a traditional Okinawa house and eat bowls of spicy miso-flavoured soba with beansprouts piping hot and straight from Nakasone san's wok.
On Kume island it is also possible to explore the wooded areas of higher ground rising above the broad expanses of sugarcane fields. With the higher ground come clumps of Ryukyu pine (pinus luchuensis), not tall but spreading in habit, and you can take a walk through "Nibuchi" wetland forest, so if you are interested in ecology it is a good idea to come with walking shoes or boots for this 2.5 kilometre walk. The area is fed with mountain streams creating a habitat for many endangered species. Kume Island is home to unique species of firefly who first breed as larvae in the clear water of the mountain streams and you could combine a day of guided forest walk with a visit to the Firefly Museum and see the programmes that are run there to involve the children of the island in the future conservation of the island's wildlife. One little boy was proudly showing off his pet pigeon when I visited: "hatto!" he pointed, and ran off.
his pet pigeon when I visited: "hatto!" he pointed, and ran off.
These same mineral-rich mountain streams provide the water for the island's famous awamori spirit. There are two rival breweries on the island. Try kumessen aomori, and compare kumejima awamori. Best drunk with ice and water in small quantities!
There is much to explore that is fascinating on Okinawa main island, and in the south there are large luxury resort hotels. The north of the island is more forested and waiting to be explored, though it is less accessible from Naha. But a short flight takes you to the heart of rural Okinawa on the nieghbouring islands such as Kume. On a clear day you will also see the Kerama islands as you make your short flight to Kume, and there also you will find natural scenery and be able to experience the wild and sometimes stormy beauty of these Okinawan outlying islands, and the eery serenity and calm that descends on the jungle and the sea when the weather quickly turns and the sun shines once again.
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