It was a time of unrelenting heat. It was a time of ever-present humidity. The summer was upon me, and it found me with no plans how to best spend it. So I sat beneath a tree in the local park to meditate upon this serious matter. As sweat poured down my body, and the infernal song of hundreds of horny cicadas dominated all manner of sound, a truly profound thought came to me: go somewhere even hotter. Ladies, gents, and other such creatures, today we look at Okinawa.
The islands of Okinawa have always held an attraction for me. Japan has no shortage of history and culture by any stretch of the imagination. And even so, The Ryukyu kingdom stands apart in my eyes.
The Ryukyu kingdom came to officially be in 1429. At the time, there was no trade agreement between China and Japan. The Ryukyu islands situated between them proved a great middleman of both trade and culture. While the two nations couldn’t openly trade with each other, they did so through the Ryukyu islands. The islands became a melting pot of culture. The earliest forms of Karate were born there, inspired by Chinese Kempo. The Ryukyu kingdom thrived on trade, and it continued to develop its own unique culture that was neither Japanese nor Chinese, but a thing of its own. In 1879 the Ryukyus officially became the prefecture of Okinawa, but their culture and heritage strongly endures to this day.
As a long time student of Karate, it was my Mecca. It was the birth place of Karate along with Kobudo – the use of traditional weapons such as the nunchaku, sai, bo staff, tonfa, and kama. And after a year in Japan a pilgrimage seemed overdue.
A comfortable two and a half hour flight later I landed in Naha. The first thing I noticed, literally as I walked out of the airport air-conditioned doors, was the wall of heat. The air was just moister and hotter than anywhere I’d ever been before. And that’s saying something from someone coming from central Japan. That being said, three or four hours later I no longer noticed it. Vending machines are accessible virtually everywhere, so as long as you stay hydrated and pace yourself, honestly it’s just fine. If you’ve heard any horror stories about unimaginable heat and humidity, dismiss them. Don’t let them sway you from an otherwise awesome experience.
The second thing I noticed was how little like the rest of Japan Okinawa looked. If the Japanese signs were to poof out of existence and I had to place my best bet on where I was, I’d have wagered maybe northern Spain, Monaco, or Greece. The streets are wider. There are gardens, flowers, and vegetation hanging out of balconies and adorning street corners. Even the buildings themselves are colourful and the architectural designs vary greatly. A very sharp contrast to the concrete and homogeneous jungle that is Tokyo.
If you’re a museum junkie like myself, you will probably find the Okinawa Prefectural Museum & Art Museum to your liking. The exhibit has a great collection of old Ryukyu documents, pottery, works of art, and so on. It gives you a decent idea of what life was like six or seven centuries ago. Also, once you’re done getting your history fix, you can just hop on over to the other side for some art. There are regular art exhibits in the very same museum from both contemporary and historical Japanese artists. No pictures allowed there, unfortunately. But hey, you have eyes.
For you would-be warriors out there, there’s two facilities worthy of mention. There’s the Budokan in Naha. If a samurai was transformed into a building, it would literally be it. They have classes and seminars on just about every Japanese martial art imaginable. They are open to foreigners as well. Just keep in mind to pay attention to the etiquette, as you are in another country. If the sensei at said classes are willing to share their culture and tradition with you, the least you can do is reciprocate with respect and humility.
Also, freshly opened this year there is the Okinawa Karate Keikan. A facility truly devoted to the preservation and continued influence of Karate. Masters from different styles come to teach there, predominantly the more Okinawan-centric styles. If you train a different style, don’t let that discourage you. The differences in the styles are pretty small. For the most part you can follow along without too much difficulty. They are very welcoming to foreigners, and some of the younger black belts there speak English and really go out of their way to help you and welcome you.
The facilities themselves are ideal. Large, well-lit dojo with plenty of room for large classes. There’s a garden around the facility if you want some time to collect yourself after a hard work out. And then there’s Shuri hall – a room made in the style of traditional Okinawan dojos. It is used for special ceremonies and important black belt rankings. As a practitioner of Karate, it felt difficult not to be in awe and in love with the place. A lot of time, work, and thought clearly went into making it a Mecca for Karate-ka, and even with my high expectations, there was no room for disappointment. Also, it is worth mentioning that they hold a week-long Karate seminar every summer, open to foreigners from all over the world. The classes cover several different styles of Karate as well as Kobudo. 10/10.
So, you’ve just finished a vigorous session at the Mecca of Karate. What next? How does one Karate even more? By stopping by the Dojo Bar for a drink, of course! Located conveniently in Naha, it is a hub for fellow Karate pilgrims.
The DOJO bar is unique in Okinawa, perhaps in the world. Okinawa is the birthplace of karate and kobudo and the DOJO bar is a tribute to that heritage and a gateway for visitors to the island, its people and its rich fighting arts culture. We offer a truly special place, open and easily accessible to all, across cultures, countries and styles.
Of all the tourist attractions in Okinawa, I feel like one’s actually worth its salt. I am talking about the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium. I’ve been to a great number of aquariums, and while most of them are decent, I would say they barely cover the price of admission. I was pleasantly surprised by this one. It is by far the best and biggest I’ve ever been to, and I’ve visited a good amount. Also, while most aquariums are just giant boxes, this one is designed beautifully. The tanks are all underground, and above ground you have beautiful winding gardens with the ocean as a backdrop. The selection of marine life is spectacular. There is a whole host of species which are only native to Okinawa. So you’re not just seeing pretty fish, but you’re getting a good idea of what the surrounding waters hold. Pictures speak louder than words, so I’ll let them do just that.
I visited the Okinawa theater, where you can see some classical Japanese plays. I also went to see Okinawa World where you can explore some pretty cool limestone caves. I saw the shrines, the castles, the beaches. But honestly, the best part about Okinawa is, well, Okinawa. Unlike most big tourist places there aren’t many attractions and things to do. Rather, the atmosphere and the place itself is the attraction of Okinawa. By all means, I urge you to see some of the beautiful temples and castles. But make time for Okinawa itself. Go to a few Jazz Bars (one that comes to mind is Parker’s Mood) or workshops. Strike a conversation with some of the locals. They’re more than happy to exchange a few words with a foreigner, and you’ll learn much more about the real Okinawa from them than any other museum or castle. The transportation in Okinawa is pretty limited, so if you have an International Driving Permit (IDP) or a Japanese license, just rent a car for a few days and drive around the island. It doesn’t take more than three hours to go from North to South. Take the ferries to the smaller islands, and just soak in this awesome and truly unique place!
Oh, and last but not least, as promised – a vast abundance of Shisa stone doggos!