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From battleground to island paradise: Okinawa reborn

Almost 1,000 miles from Tokyo, Okinawa prefecture hides coral encrusted seas, white sand beaches and the scars of an all out assault by 1300 American ships and 60,000 American troops. On April fool’s day 1945 the full might of the US military assembled off the south western coast of the main Island of Okinawa and carried out a devastating two and a half hour air and sea bombardment. Operation Iceberg, as the assault and occupation of Okinawa was codenamed, resulted in a heavy death toll for both Allied and Japanese forces but was nothing compared to the number of civilian Okinawans killed. It is estimated that between 42,000 and 150,000 civilians were killed, which accounted for between one-tenth and one-third of the indigenous population.

Fast forward to 2009 and reminders of the war are plentiful. Museums and memorials are scattered around the island like pieces of shrapnel, lodged into the island’s history but in between these sombre mausoleums to the men, women and children who died you can see palm trees, kariyushi shirts and white sand beaches, all working to divert our attention to the present and on to the future.

Okinawa has transformed itself from the scene of so much bloody conflict and misery to a true island paradise. The largest of the Ryukyu islands, a chain stretching 1,000 miles from mainland Japan to within 100 miles of Taiwan, Okinawa prefecture consists of hundreds of islands with most offering white sand beaches and inviting, crystalline water. The southern end of the main island has most of the people, especially the capital Naha, but you don’t have to go far to escape to the coast where you can snorkel amongst coral reefs or get lost in the limestone caves, caves which were put to good use during the 82 day Battle of Okinawa. The northern part of the Island is slightly more rocky but still has some fantastic beaches, especially Okuma beach, which is said to have a reef that has more marine life than Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

The most recent battles are easily the most devastating in the history of Okinawa but this isn’t the first time the Ryukyu islands have experienced invasion. Long before WWII the islands were a constant source of attention for the ruling powers of both China and Japan and at various points the Ryukyu kingdom formed tributary relationships with both nations and was later officially annexed by Japan late in the 19th century. Toward the end of the 16th Century, Japanese feudal leader Toyotomi Hideyoshi ordered the Ryûkyû kingdom to support his invasions of Korea with men and arms but his demand was rebuked. Soon after that the Ryûkyû kingdom itself became the subject of invasion but the Ryûkyûans did not put up a fight. The king ordered them to take no action and so they just watched as cultural treasures were looted and taken back to Kagoshima. The King simply said “nuchidu takara” (Life itself is a treasure).

The languages and unique culture of the region can still be felt today and visitors can make their stay more pleasant by dropping in a few local phrases when talking to natives, especially older Okinawans (as native speakers under 20 years old are becoming increasingly rare.) In the capital Naha, and surrounding areas, there are estimated to be around 900,000 people who can speak Okinawan and so a ‘Nifçdçbiru’ (Thank you) may go down very well.

The Island was almost entirely destroyed by allied gunfire, including hundreds of cultural relics. Among them was the gate to the ancient capital of Okinawa, Shuri. Shuri was also the home to Tomiko Higa until she was forced to leave during the conflict. Her father was a strict man and instructed Yoshiko, the oldest sister at 17, to lead the remaining children in whatever course of action she thought best if he should be not return from his work in the fields.

After two days and nights of waiting Yoshiko made the tough decision to leave their house.

Shuri is now part of the capital city of Naha and the castle and its replica gate can be found a short walk from the terminus station of the monorail that gives Naha city a futuristic edge and serves as a reminder that we are still in Japan.

Tomiko and her siblings headed south towards the coast but with no real idea of where they were going or what they were going to do when they got there. They walked only at night because the aerial bombardment during the day was so fierce and took shelter where they could find it, which one night, after fatigue and hunger defeated them once again, was on a long, low, exposed hill. They were soon woken by the shouts of retreating Japanese soldiers. As they rose to leave the scene of yet more fighting, Tomiko tried in vain to wake her brother. He had been shot in the head as he slept.

The coral littered coasts that saw so much fighting are now the playground of tourists and locals who sunbathe and swim on the very beaches where the grim realities of war were played out. In the same area where the children spent the night now stands the Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum. The building contains a wealth of information about the war including testimonials from survivors and eerie reconstructions of scenes from the war.

Ultimately the superior size of the invading forces overwhelmed the Japanese troops and they fell back and back until they found themselves cornered at the southern tip of the island. With a wall of Allied troops in front of them and the crystal waters of the Philippine sea behind them they began surrendering. By this time, Tomiko had been separated from her sisters and wandered alone until she eventually surrendered, with the help of a white flag made for her by the elderly couple she hid in a cave with, a white flag that has since come to define Tomiko Higa as ‘The Girl with the White Flag’

Perhaps the main reason people come to Okinawa is for the sun drenched beaches and seas of melted glass. There are dozens of islands that are easily accessible by ferry from Naha including Tokashiki. A 2 hour boat trip is followed by a 10 minute bus ride that teases and builds excitement with a slow, roller coaster like ascent to the crest of a mountain before finally revealing the East China sea in all its aquamarine glory. After stepping onto Tokashiku beach, bypassing stalls selling and hiring snorkelling and scuba equipment, you would be forgiven for thinking that the bus had driven you right into a postcard. The beach is bleach white and the sea so clear that the glassy waters freely reveal the corals that lie just meters from the beach and are home to an impressive array of psychedelic marine life.

Naha is the capital of Okinawa and is the nucleus of the island’s tourist industry. The tourist traps come to a sense assaulting crescendo of tat on Kokusai-dori, the main street. A neon jungle of knick-knacks and feeding stations, Kokusai-dori offers opportunities to eat, drink, rest and shop. Of the local food, Okinawa Soba is probably the most famous dish of the island and really is a must try, followed closely by Rafuti, a dish of fatty pork stewed in miso, soy and the local tipple, Awamori. The sweet, tender meat is wrapped in a blanket of fat and elevates Rafuti to an essential Okinawan eat. The other must try food is a hangover from the from the US occupation. Spicy salsa, beef and crisp lettuce sit on a bed of sticky Japanese rice and come accompanied by French fries. It may sound like a Mexican-American hybrid but Taco Rice is a part of modern Okinawa and a part of the Island’s history.

The main island isn’t big by any means but it is well stocked with sights. Buses ply the island from tip to tip and the timetables, although almost exclusively in Japanese, present no real problems if you do a bit of homework. There are plenty of options for sleeping too from camp sites and hostels right up to high end hotels. Budget conscious travellers should pay no heed to myths about Japan being uber-expensive because with the application of a little common sense and some self restraint, Okinawa needn’t break the bank.

With its alluring beaches, tragic but rich history, diverse culture, interesting cuisine and amiable people, Okinawa is the perfect place to escape into a postcard daydream. A flight from London Heathrow to Okinawa, with a change in Narita, will cost around £600 but prices vary according to the season.

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