Straggling for over 600 miles (1000km) from Kyushu to within a stone’s throw of Taiwan, the sun-drenched Okinawan Islands are Japan’s subtropical flipside. The archipelago’s climate is blissful; its beaches white and powder soft; its seawater translucent; and people famously laid-back, hip and quirky. Leave the salary-man suit in Tokyo; the national dress here is the Hawaiian-style ‘Kariyushi’ shirt.
The 159 coral-fringed islands themselves range from large and hilly to remote, jungle-covered outcrops of limestone. Snorkelling, diving and kayaking over turquoise bays and sparkling reefs are the reason most people travel here. But the traditional Ryukyu culture adds a distinctive flavour to any Okinawan holiday. Until 1879, when they were annexed by Japan, the islands formed a semi-autonomous kingdom, whose multiracial roots remain discernible in the local language (‘Okinawa-ben’), music (played on the three-stringed sanshin), Chinese-influenced architecture and, not least, the local Thai-style rice liquor, awamori.
Okinawa may look like just another idyllic beach haven, but it’s one with its own distinctive style and atmosphere, offering the perfect wind-down after a tour of the country’s heartlands.