Geographically closer to Southeast Asia than the rest of mainland Japan, Okinawa may be Japanese, but its personality couldn’t be more different than what most of us consider “Japan”. For starters, there’s no rush hour madness – only the soothing sounds of ha iya sasa (local folk music) everywhere you go; its skyline isn’t chock full of skyscrapers – instead, most buildings have cute figurines of Shisa (lion dogs similar to those in Chinese mythology) perched on rooftops.
In fact, with its eclectic mix of history, sun-kissed beaches and an unbridled sense of individuality, even Japanese from the mainland come to Okinawa to get away from Japan. So, in order to discover Okinawa first-hand, a group of students from Yale-NUS visited this sunny Japanese island with JTB’s educational trip.
The best part of the trip was a traditional homestay in Yomitan Village. Students were split into different houses, each with a different family. Speaking Japanese is a bonus but not mandatory.
Situated along the coast, Yomitan is mainly an agricultural and crafts village, making it a great place to interact with the locals who’ve lived here most of their lives. For culture vultures, there’s no comparison: you get to sleep in a traditional house (tatami floors!), experience how locals live, and of course, eat home-cooked food.
Get ready to loosen your belts, because the Okinawans take their food very seriously, but don’t worry – the food is organic and fresh (remember that Okinawans live the longest in the world).
Each host is different, so they have different stories to tell – they’re open to discussions ranging from politics to food and tradition, so expect conversations to stretch into the night.
Naha Kokusai High School
An important part of this educational trip was the visit to a local high school where you can get to know these students; it’s a special experience that you can’t get on your own or on any other organised tour.
Castles, Caves, Capes and Cetaceans
Of course, visiting some of Okinawa’s highlights are on the cards. These include:
Shuri Castle: Perched atop a hill overlooking Naha, the vermilion roof and its iconic Shureimon gate are unlike any castle feature in mainland Japan.
Churaumi Aquarium: It’s famous for its massive Kuroshio Tank which houses giant whale sharks and manta rays.
Okinawa World: Be awed by the huge otherworldly Gyokusendo Cave, and enjoy the cultural village where you can try your hand at traditional crafts like weaving and taiko drumming.
Cape Manzamo: An Instagram stop here is mandatory – it’s a scenic rock formation set against the crashing waves.
The American Presence
One of the most important aspects of Okinawa – compared to the rest of Japan – is its relationship with the USA. The fact that there are 23 American military bases in Okinawa.
See an airbase from the Kadena Road Station which overlooks the runway of the US Kadena Air Force Base, the largest in Okinawa. To understand the history behind the US military presence, visit the Okinawa Peace Memorial Park – site of the worst battle during WWII where over 200,000 people were killed. At the Okinawa Peace Memorial Museum, get a sobering view of the entire war.
The strong American influence can also be seen at Mihama Village, which resembles an outdoor mall in the US – it’s a very different shopping experience to Kokusai Dori, the main strip in Naha which features more traditional Okinawan gifts.
For more details and information on planning an educational trip to Okinawa, visit Japan Travel Bureau (JTB) at www.jtb.com.sg.