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Japan's fascinating subtropical island world

The anticipation increases on the footpath from the parking lot to the sea.

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Japan's fascinating subtropical island world

The anticipation increases on the footpath from the parking lot to the sea. The roar of the surf increases, the air tastes of salt. A stone staircase leads down to the beach, where your feet sink into the sand and a strange rock formation catches your eye.

Waves lap the formations in the water, called heart rocks because of their shape, but which could just as easily be mistaken for giant mushrooms sprouting from the sea. Fantasies or not, the rugged double rock here in the north of the island of Kouri is a highlight in the Okinawa archipelago.

The southernmost prefecture of Japan is a great unknown to Europeans. Far away from megacities like Tokyo, tangerines and mangoes grow here, bougainvilleas and hibiscus shine, the wind rustles through mangroves and sugar cane fields.

The climate is subtropical; the average annual temperature is around 23 degrees Celsius. Okinawa lies between the Pacific Ocean and the East China Sea, roughly on the same latitude as Hawaii and Mexico. 1.4 million inhabitants spread over 160 islands.

Once upon a time, Okinawa was independent for almost half a millennium: as the Ryukyu Kingdom (1429-1879), which traded briskly with other countries in East and Southeast Asia. The evidence of history is a World Heritage Site, including the Shuri-jo Castle with its stone ramparts and the Shikina-en Royal Garden in Naha.

The garden is a place for romantics. It's like entering a painting: filled with a secluded lake, stone bridges, a pavilion, root system, an enchanted forest of Gajumaru trees, the restored palace with red roof tiles and its wooden architecture. Inside, as in Japanese private houses, the rule is to take off your shoes.

Naha is the gateway to the archipelago and the airport is a hub. The city in the south of the main island bundles comfort hotels, the Naminoue beach overlooked by the Shinto shrine, shopping zones, the Makishi market. There are colorful fish like from the aquarium.

In the market restaurants you can taste peanut tofu, raw fish and umibudo - a type of green algae in the form of tiny sea grapes, where the salt aroma unfolds bit by bite. Elsewhere, habushu is offered, a snake liquor with a strange addition in the bottle: a dead habu snake.

Naha's Tsuboya Pottery Street has, as the name Pottery suggests, many ceramic shops. The most popular pottery motif is the shisa, which has been widespread in all sizes and forms of expression for centuries: the fantasy animal leaning on a lion is the symbolic protector of Shinto shrines, houses and apartments.

Today, a Shisa usually appears in pairs. In the male variant, the mouth is open so that it can take in happy things. In the female variant, the mouth is closed to keep happy things. That's what they say.

For potter Hirohumi Shimabukuro, making shisa is part of everyday life. When visiting the workshop in a street a little off Pottery Street, he is in the process of giving shape to a hand-sized figure. In the case of the man, who is in his late 50s, the figures certainly seem to have the desired effect. He says, "I have four pairs at home and I feel lucky and relaxed to live with that."

Not far from Naha is the Kadena Air Base, an air force base of the US Army. Their continued military presence on the island is a painful and controversial legacy of the past, following World War II. Until 1972 the region was completely in the hands of the United States.

It goes to the north of the main island. In Nago we stop at Hidekazu Akimura's tiny distillery. His passion is awamori, a rice liquor, the typical spirit in Okinawa. The finest varieties mature for years in bulbous clay jars.

The liquor is made from Thai long grain rice. "We tried Japanese rice, but the other one works better," says Akimura. He fills each bottle individually, glues the labels on by hand and says: "I haven't had a day off for fifteen years, there's a lot to do."

Another typical drink comes from Ogimi, another town on the northwest coast of the main island. There shikuwasa – small mandarins rich in seeds – are pressed into juice. The harvest is done by hand from September to December. The essence of the fruit is also used here for room fragrance dispensers and moisturizing creams.

Morio Taira proudly shows the tangerine tree in his own garden. The elderly man and his wife Etuko take in overnight guests at their home in Ogimi and feed them generously.

A homestay like this is an opportunity to immerse yourself in Japanese hospitality and customs. The room is cozy, instead of the expected sleeping pad on the floor, there is even a real bed. As is so often the case in Japan, there are separate slippers for using the toilet.

In the evenings you sit at the kitchen table with tofu, fried little fish and sweet potato donuts. In the morning, Mr. Taira warms up coffee in the microwave; he bought a plastic bottle with prepared coffee for the guest. The couple hardly speaks English, but words are not needed for a warm welcome.

But the Okinawa archipelago offers much more than just the main island. Island hopping is partly done in a rental car over land and modern island bridges, and otherwise by ferries or plane.

Ishigaki can be reached in about an hour by air. The southernmost city in Japan is around 400 kilometers southwest of the main island of Okinawa Honto. From here it is only 200 kilometers to Taiwan. Ferries to Taketomi and Iriomote depart from Ishigaki.

Taketomi scores with beaches and an open-air museum of traditional architecture of stone walls and tile-roofed houses. On Iriomote, the path to the Kura Waterfall passes under tangled aerial roots. Meanwhile, a tour boat rocks through the mangrove forest on the shore.

Mangroves also grow on the next group of islands, Miyako, a well-known snorkeling spot with coral and sea turtles. The shrimp fisherman Takahiro Yoshihama also works here. At low tide he starts small expeditions on foot.

"Mangroves are firmly anchored with their roots, they don't even tip over in a typhoon," says Yoshihama. The mud smacks under the rubber boots that the 45-year-old puts out for his guests.

Along the way, he checks cage traps baited with fish heads. Mangrove, kabuki and blue crabs are common. Yoshihama is missing a fingertip on one hand. She fell victim to crab claws.

But the threats to the local nature hurt them almost more than the severed finger piece: "If I hadn't fought for it, the mangrove forest would have turned into a sugar cane field," he says. Conflicts between economic interests and environmental protection exist even here in Japan's remote south.

Shrimp fisherman Yoshihama used to be an aircraft engineer. And he is not alone in his career change: sugar cane and banana farmer Katsuya Matsumoto (49) used to be a researcher in the auto industry – the man is the next surprising encounter on the islands.

In many places on Miyako, sugar cane grows all the way to the roadside. Matsumoto makes syrup from it, holds culinary workshops and has found his freedom in harmony with nature.

With Matsumoto you learn that a banana tree is not only used for fruit production. He peels off the inner workings, pulls out fibers and surprises even his compatriots by claiming: "In Japan we use banana paper every day," he says. What does he mean? Big guesswork, then he solves. "It's used to make banknotes."

Getting there: Flights to Naha go from Tokyo or Taipei.

Entry: After the corona-related lockdown, Japan has been open to international travelers again since October 2022. At the moment you either have to prove three corona vaccinations upon entry or present a negative PCR test, which must have been carried out no more than 72 hours before departure. More information about entry is available on the website of the Japanese embassy.

Travel time: Okinawa can be visited all year round because of the mild climate. Swimming season in the sea is from mid-March to October. The rainy season is from mid-May to mid/end of June.

Currency: 1000 yen = 7.10 euros (as of February 9, 2023). In many places you can pay by credit card, but it is advisable to have some cash on hand. Tip: It is best to exchange after arriving at the airport, if possible at the stopover in Tokyo-Haneda; the course is amazing.

Driving: There is left-hand traffic. If you want to drive a car in Japan, you have to have your foreign driver's license translated into Japanese; this can be done online at the Japan Automobile Federation, which also has an explanation (in English) available on the Internet.

Information: (also in German)

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