Okinawa has always fascinated me. It is an island in Japan with Japanese inhabitants, yet not quite Japanese entirely with their diverse heritage.
Tucked away in the pristine waters of the Pacific, Okinawa is the home to a rich, historical and diverse culture. It is a place of rich tropical forests and untainted beaches, but Okinawa’s natural wonders are just the beginning. With one of the world’s longest life expectancies, the islands’ inhabitants have unlocked the secret to longevity – and they call it Nuchigusui:
Nuchigusui is life medicine to the islanders – a wisdom, a philosophy, and a way of life in Okinawa, revolving around mindfulness, spiritual fulfillments, and physical wellbeing.
It is something hard for us Singaporeans to understand without having visited Okinawa. Although Singapore is an island like Okinawa, things here move much faster and people are just too absorbed in the rat race and climbing the corporate ladder to pursue monetary fulfillments.
There are many things we can learn from Okinawa. The principles of Nuchigusui will be particularly useful for busy Singaporeans to learn to destress and seek other source of happiness in life.
What exactly is Nuchigusui?
Find out below as you get to know Okinawa more as a travel destination.
Rejuvenate your mind and body at some of Okinawa’s most peaceful spots. Enjoy the best of Japan’s tropical oasis through energising activities and picture-perfect scenery you won’t find anywhere else in the country. Whether you’re into stargazing, practicing yoga and karate or spending your time venturing around Okinawa’s beautiful uninhabited islands, there’s something for everyone.
1. Find yourself under the stars
When evening comes around on Ishigaki Island, you’ll be welcomed with a stunning sky untouched by light pollution. The dark night gives way to some of the best star-bathing in Japan, with glittering vistas as far as the eye can see. Take some time to spot your favourite constellations and perhaps even the Milky Way. To get a proper view at the night sky, join a star tour which takes you on an evening excursion from the southernmost tip of Japan along with a knowledgeable guide to answer all your star-related questions. Located just off of Ishigaki Island, Taketomi Island is currently applying to become part of the International Dark-Sky Association, which would make Iriomote-Ishigaki National Park part of Japan’s first night sky preservation area.
2. Take a yoga class against a spectacular backdrop
Soak up the sun with an invigorating yoga class amongst some of Okinawa’s most beautiful spots. Think you’ve got good balance? Test out your skills with a SUP yoga class, which involves you practicing your best yoga moves on a stand-up paddle board in the middle of the ocean. As well as being a great workout, hanging out on Okinawa’s stunning beaches and waters makes for a peaceful experience. If you’d prefer to stay on land, join a sunrise yoga class outside the grounds of Katsuren Castle, one of Okinawa’s beautiful UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The yoga class will surely leave you revived and refreshed, ready to take on your day ahead.
3. Rewind with meditation in nature
Relax in the great outdoors around some of Okinawa’s most serene spots including Yambaru National Park, a lush green jungle ready to be explored. The wild forest area is the perfect spot to sit back and enjoy the sights and sounds of nature. Easy walking and trekking paths are also available for those who want to get up close and personal with mother nature. Another serene spot is Naha’s Shikinaen Royal Gardens, which was constructed back in the 18th century as a home for the Ryukyu kings and continues to stand as a beautiful space for those looking to relax and unwind in the heart of Okinawa. Another Okinawan landmark included on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the garden boasts lush landscapes, while the main palace and pond make for some great photo ops.
4. Relax on a deserted island
Take the road less travelled and visit some of Okinawa’s sprawling sandy shores on uninhabited islands. No trip is complete without a visit to the beach, and the crystal-clear waters at Hatenohama Beach, located near Kume Island, is the ideal destination. This uninhabited island is the perfect location for beach lovers looking to do everything from sunbathing and swimming to snorkelling along coral-lined shores. For those intrigued by a little more island-hopping, head on over to Kerama Shoto National Park where you can explore the stunning Kerama Islands. This area is made up of a cluster of 20 smaller islands not far from the main island of Okinawa. You can easily reach the islands via ferry from Naha, and travelling in between the smaller islands is quick and easy by boat. Nagannu Island is another must-visit area, made up of the three uninhabited islands Kuefujima, Nagannujima and Kamiyamajima. It’s the ideal spot for those looking to start their diving experience, as the surrounding ocean contains an abundance of coral and plenty of sea life.
5. Learn the art of karate
Did you know Okinawa is actually where karate originated? This Japanese sport which has become popular around the world traces its history back to Okinawa, where the martial art was passed down as a highly respected tradition throughout the generations. Karate is special in its own way, as it takes great care in respecting traditional culture and incorporates elements of peace, respect and courtesy while building strength and character at the same time. While in Okinawa, pay a visit to Okinawa Karate Kaikan where visitors interested in karate can learn and participate in the sport. The practice institution also houses an arena which holds matches for about 380 spectators as well as a training room and a small museum open to the public.
6. Visit Okinawa’s “top power spots”
Located just south of the main island of Okinawa, the enchanting island of Kudaka can be reached by ferry and is where to rejuvenate your mind and soul. This fairly untouched island is filled with natural wonders and is considered a sacred spot – an ‘island of the gods’ – where the ancient Ryukyu people first introduced many essential crops including grains like rice and wheat. Many locals around here still speak the local Okinawan dialect of ‘uchinaguchi’ and it is one of the few places where you can still see aspects left by the Ryukyu Kingdom. Another spiritual and healing location to visit is Sefa-utaki, once the Ryukyu Kingdom’s most sacred site. The word ‘utaki’ describes the collective sacred areas in the region, including Sefa-utaki in Nanjo City. Another easy ‘power spot’ to visit is Hamahiga Island, which is conveniently linked to the south end of the main island by bridge. The island is home to two villages as well as a lot of traditional architecture accented with red-tiled roofs and stone walls, and is also a popular spot for those who like fishing. Its ‘power’ derives from the fact that the creator gods of Okinawa, Shirumichu and Amamichu, are said to have once lived there.
For those looking for an active getaway, Okinawa is a great place to start your outdoor adventures. Whether you’re interested in jungle excursions, deep water diving or even a sweat-inducing hike, Okinawa will leave you with endless opportunities to capture magnificent vistas and unforgettable memories.
1. Kayak through the ocean and nature
Located about an hour’s drive north of Naha, Nirai Beach is where to spend your day kayaking through turquoise blue waters alongside sandy shores. The ideal location for an excursion with the family, it offers calm waters that make it a great place for beginners to start their kayaking experience. Trek around long enough and you might spot some local sea creatures roaming around the area. For those looking for a wild adventure, head on over to Iriomote Island, a quick ferry ride from Ishigaki Island, where you can experience the ultimate kayak excursion: rowing through dense jungle foliage and beautiful waters. Iriomote Island is also ideal for trekking, as it’s home to stunning waterfalls and lush subtropical forests which cover most of the island. There’s no telling what you’ll find on your excursion, but keep an eye out for the rare Iriomote wildcat.
2. Ride a horse on a beach
What better way to explore Okinawa’s great outdoors than horseback riding on a beach? Hop on a steed and follow a new path along the serene shores and through the waters of Okinawa for an unforgettable trekking experience. In particular, head on over to the Okinawa Horse Riding Club, located around the coast of Yomitan Village, for lessons or a guided trek through the area. Beginners and children are both welcome, as are advanced riders looking for a challenge. From basic lessons to trekking for veteran horsemen and -women, the club is a great place to start.
3. Go underwater diving
Free your mind in a world beneath the waves. Okinawa is a true diver’s paradise, offering the opportunity to explore tranquil waters and stretches of untouched coral reefs. In particular, the incredibly clear and beautiful seas around Miyako Island are a special destination often referred to as ‘Miyako Blue’. With an average annual temperature of 23°C, the climate on Miyako Island also happens to be quite pleasant and hospitable year round. Yonaguni Island, a remote island that sits just west of Ishigaki Island, also offers untouched waters where you can dive deep through underwater sea ruins.
4. Trek through Okinawa’s most beautiful sites
Trekking is one of the best ways to experience the abundant beauty of Okinawa. Refresh your mind and body by working up a sweat while taking in the natural scenery around the islands. At Daisenkirinzan, a park located in the natural wonderland of Yambaru on the north end of the main island of Okinawa, there are four different trekking routes to choose from. These include a subtropical forest route as well as a path where you can experience terrain formed by layers of limestone that have arisen over the course of 200 million years. If you don’t have time to go up to the north end of the island, another great spot is the valley of Gangala, about a 30-minute drive from Naha. Formed by the cave-in of natural limestone, the valley is home to mysterious ‘gajumaru’ (also known as Chinese banyan) trees and other natural wonders. These trees are said to be the homes of the ‘kijimuna’, or forest spirits from Okinawan mythology. To this day, archaeological digs are still being carried out at the Valley of Gangala. You can also see the world’s oldest fishing hook, which dates back over 23,000 years and was discovered at the site of the valley’s café.
5. Cycle through Okinawa’s great outdoor
Cycling is a great way to get around Okinawa, and outside the main city streets there are endless routes to guide you through the islands’ abundant nature. Whether you prefer mountains or the beach, there’s sure to be a cycling route to suit your needs. Serious cyclers may want to attempt a lap around the entire main island of Okinawa – which adds up to over 100km – but shorter trips are plentiful as well. Many of the smaller islands around Okinawa are also great for bikes, offering a convenient form of transportation instead of taking a bus or car. An easy route to start with might be the hour-long ride from Kencho-mae Station to Okinawa Hassha Okinogu on the main island of Okinawa, which boasts amazing views. Bike rentals are quite accessible and many rental outlets stock a variety of bikes for you to choose from.
Craft & Culture
The best way to experience the heart of Okinawa is to get to know the friendly people of the islands and immerse yourself in local crafts and culture. Why not start by shopping for traditional Ryukyu pottery known for its one-of-a-kind, rustic nature, or learn how to play a traditional instrument like the three-stringed sanshin? There’s also no need to worry if you’re travelling around alone – just come and experience Okinawa’s friendly culture and enjoy the leisurely pace of life on the island.
1. Interact with Okinawa’s friendly locals
Okinawa is a place where you can truly feel the connection between people. The friendly taxi drivers love good conversation and if you go to the markets, the stall owners are happy to introduce you to their various food and items for sale. The people of Okinawa enjoy helping those around them and share the mentality of ‘treat everyone you meet as family’, a phrase known in the Okinawan language as ‘ichariba chōdē’. If you want to have some fun getting to know the locals, head on over to Sakaemachi, a pub district with serious depth. This collection of small local establishments provides a place where many regulars gather, including everyone from the local ‘old guys’, to passing musicians and travellers. It’s the perfect place to experience a special evening drinking local awamori with Okinawa’s friendly locals.
2. Enjoy traditional music to the latest hits
Walk the streets of Okinawa and you can really sense that music is woven into everyday life. On many occasions you can encounter a sanshin player singing and playing in the streets, and many live performances can be enjoyed at restaurants and izakayas along Kokusai-dori. Of these restaurants, Shurei is one not to be missed. Here you can enjoy traditional music while savouring A5 Ishigaki beef raised in the Yaeyama Islands of Okinawa. If you have a real interest in the art of sanshin, enrol yourself in a class in original sanshin crafting and playing with sanshin master craftsman Tsuneo Yara, an authority in traditional Ryukyu music. Yara’s gentle and careful lesson will definitely be a heartwarming experience where you’ll be able to find your own personal rhythm. If you want to groove to the latest beats, the best places to head are Naha’s Sakurazaka and Sakaemachi, where a mix of locals and travellers tend to hang out on the regular. Also located nearby are many music bars and clubs perfect for those looking for an evening bar crawl.
3. Have a memorable awamori experience
When you think of Okinawa, awamori might be one of the first things that comes to mind. Loved in its own right as a local beverage, awamori is also known as a healthy type of sake which contains zero carbohydrates and tastes better with time. As awamori ages, the aroma slowly changes and the texture becomes more mellow and smoother. Kin Koshugura, housed inside a limestone cave, offers a service to preserve awamori and keeps bottles safely stored as they age into mature liquor. Each awamori can be accompanied with a message that you can read when your bottle is retrieved in five to twelve years – or even later. Other highly recommended locations include Zuisen Distillery near Shuri Castle and Chuko Distillery which offers tours in English. If you want to try awamori along with a great local meal, the izakaya Kozakura offers an excellent casual dining experience. Here you can sip on locally made awamori while enjoying simple Okinawan dishes like goya chanpuru. Most uniquely, their walls are also lined with a wide selection of awamori from the 42 distilleries throughout the prefecture.
4. Okinawa’s festivals
Okinawa is rich with culture and customs and hosts many traditional events each and every year. Participate in one of Okinawa’s traditional festivals and get a taste of the local spirit around these special celebrations. Okinawa has three main tug-of-war events, the largest of which is Naha’s Great Tug-of-War or the Otsunahiki Matsuri, where the rope used is recognised by the Guinness Book of World Records as ‘the world’s longest straw rope’. Originally a celebration of the Ryukyu royal dynasty, the festival boasts a 400-year history and was once a display of hospitality for envoys from China. In recent years the festival has been held in early October, when over 15,000 locals and visitors alike gather to pull the 200-metre rope. It’s said to bring good luck, and the tradition is for participants to bring a piece of the rope home with them to display for the year. In mid-September the Eisa Festival, Okinawa’s traditional Bon dance celebration, is held to honour the spirit of one’s ancestors and is also popular with many travellers in the area.
5. Explore traditional Ryukyu crafts
Delve into the world of traditional Ryukyu pottery at Yachimun No Sato or Yomitan Pottery Village, a charming area located on the west side of the main island of Okinawa. The village is lined with numerous ceramics shops, kilns and studios in which you can see local artisans busy at work. One building to take note of is the red-roofed kiln situated in the middle of the village, uniquely built along the curve of the hill. Apart from the kiln’s appearance, it’s special due to being fired up several times a year for glazing the pottery made for the season. Visit the Tsunehide Pottery Workshop, which sells a diverse range of beautiful ceramics, or the Niji Glassblowing Workshop, where you can buy traditional Ryukyu glassware. After shopping, stop by one of the few cafés in the area like Gallery Mori no Chaya, run by pottery master Meiko Kinjo, for a cup of coffee or tea. If you can, have a chat with the local artisans in the area as they will gladly share their work with you. If you can’t make it to Yomitan Pottery Village, head on over to the shop Fukurasha in Naha for a bit of retail therapy. The shop sells many ceramics and handmade crafts made by emerging artists and renowned masters of particular crafts.
Good news for those who like to eat: Okinawa is gourmet heaven and offers a unique dining experience unlike anywhere else in Japan. Okinawa’s food is both delicious and extremely healthy, as the islands are known for having many long-living residents. The local lifestyle and the highly nutritious food available in the area are thought to be keys to this longevity. Food is also the origin of the Okinawan saying ‘nuchigusui’, which means ‘life’s medicine’: a concept that describes how someone who eats a meal receives vitality from the person who made it, resulting in a healthier and happier body.
1. Experience ‘nuchigusui’
For many Okinawans, eating means taking care of your mind, body and soul through healthy living and, most importantly, eating. Join the cooking experience at Taste of Okinawa, an English-friendly cooking studio located in the heart of Naha, where you can learn how to cook up a tasty Okinawan-style meal using fresh, local ingredients. The program includes a tour of Naha’s public market, where you can learn about local produce, followed by a cooking class focused on a particular Okinawan dish. Another way to experience nuchigusui is by visiting small, local restaurants run by an ‘obachan’ who can cook up a tasty spread of Okinawan cuisine with local produce. You’ll be able to try specialities like rafute (braised pork belly), jimami tofu, Japanese bitter melon, umibudo sea grapes and mozuku seaweed in a soy and vinegar sauce, as well as other seasonal dishes depending on the time of year. If you want to try Okinawa’s traditional longevity-boosting diet, head on down to a restaurant where they’ll serve you with a smile. Okinawan cuisine includes plenty of distinctive island vegetables to nourish your body and soul and keep you contently fed.
2. Eat with the locals
Since the times of the Ryukyu Kingdom, Okinawa has come to have its own unique food culture with an abundant diversity of culinary traditions. If you’re looking to taste the flavours of Okinawan home cooking, look no further than Makabe China, housed in an old refurbished tea house where herbs grow in the garden and the residence is shaded by a great Okinawan banyan tree. Sit back, relax and savour tea made from freshly picked garden herbs, or go for traditional Okinawan favourites like goya chanpuru and Okinawan soba. Kokusai-dori (aka International Street) is also home to numerous restaurants. Locals often finish a night on the town with a delicious protein-packed meal at late-night restaurants like Jack’s Steak House, which has been running for over 60 years. It’s as popular as ever, so you’ll see lines of customers waiting to tuck into a juicy steak.
3. Explore Okinawa’s café scene
There’s a lot of delicious food to try in Okinawa, but the café scene is just as exciting to explore. Sip on traditional buku buku cha, one of Okinawa’s traditional tea drinks that was served to royals back in the day. It’s a unique drink known for its foamy topping, made from whisked white rice and sitting on top of warm genmai tea. These days you can find buku buku cha offered with a modern-day twist, as the foam topping is sometimes flavoured with a hint of ‘sanpin’ (jasmine tea) and can also be found sprinkled with peanuts. Another Okinawan café speciality is a sweet bean dessert called zenzai. Although this dessert usually comes in a soup-like form, the kakigori zenzai served at the local shop Inamine is something truly unique. Here you’ll find a sweet mix of kintoki beans and chewy mochi topped off with a mountain of fluffy shaved ice and drizzled in a sweet milk topping – a concoction ideal for cooling you off during the warmer months.
4.Taste the best Okinawan soba
Okinawa soba could easily be called the soul food of the Okinawan people. This particular type of soba is different from what you might think, as it’s characterised by a rich soup stock using ingredients like pork and bonito, along with plump Chinese-style noodles and the added flavour of red island peppers pickled in Okinawan liquor and ginger. The town of Motobu, which is best known for the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium, is also home to a district called ‘Motobu Soba Main Road’. This concentration of more than 20 well-known Okinawa soba shops is said to be here because Motobu is mainly a port town where bonito fish is readily available. One shop you should take note to visit is Kishimoto Shokudou, which specialises in a deep-flavoured broth and is known for its homemade noodles that use the froth from boiled tree charcoal. Another recommended shop is Yaezen, found in the vicinity of Motobu Soba Main Road.
5. Dine on Okinawa sushi
With different lands come different fish. At an Okinawan market you’ll find plenty of colourful tropical fish, including knobsnout parrotfish, bluestreak emperor and queen snapper. Okinawa is probably one of the only places where you’ll be able to enjoy such unusual sushi, made with tropical fish and unique Okinawan ingredients. For instance, at the major conveyor-belt sushi restaurant Gourmet Kaiten Sushi Ichiba you can taste ‘umibudo’ (sea grape) gunkan and tropical fish nigiri at reasonable prices. Another one of Okinawa’s most popular sushi spots is Daito Sushi, known for its use of sawara (Japanese Spanish mackerel) pickled in a sweet marinade made from soy sauce. For those on the go, Daito Sushi bentos can also be picked up at Naha Airport, allowing you to end your trip with a tasty meal on your flight home.