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Okinawa Cultural Paradise

Beauty and heritage combine on Japan’s subtropical Okinawa island.
  There are many places to see a breathtaking  sunset, and I’ve been lucky enough to experience more than my fair share almost to the point of indifference. Almost. 
  In Okinawa, the largest of Japan’s subtropical Ryukyu island chain, surrounded by pollution free sky and the deep, clear waters of the Pacific, I was treated to a truly memorable ten minutes on aptly named Sunset Beach, a short stroll from my plush lodgings at the Hilton Okinawa Chatan Resort.  
  This particular sunset had me mesmerised, my gaze fixed like the 100 plus people around me on a horizon of low purple black storm clouds (which had drenched us earlier in the day), a thin strip of azure sky, and an ocean of deep blue, from which emerged the silhouetted peaks of the distant Kerama Islands. Behind the clouds, the sky glowed bright orange and rich gold before the fiery sun emerged and then quickly dipped below the waterline. It’s a deeply satisfying feeling,  seeing Mother Nature put on a show like that.


  Okinawa about a two hour flight from Tokyo is an intriguing island of many faces. Centuries old castle ruins with walls of coral limestone serve as a fascinating reminder of the Ryukyu Kingdom, whose rulers oversaw a dynasty that lasted almost 500 years, from the early 15th to late 19th centuries. Its success was built on the sea trade between Japan, Korea, China and South East Asia,  its strategic location on the main sailing routes bringing  wealth and power.  
  In the latter part of the Second World War, it was this strategic location that made it the focus of imperial Japan’s  final defence against the advancing US naval forces. The Battle of Okinawa involved three months of fierce fighting from April to June 1945, claiming the lives of more than  100,000 Japanese soldiers and native Okinawans.  
  After the war, Okinawa was the site of a large US military base and under the control of the US government. It was only in 1972 that it was finally returned to Japan. Since then, it has slowly developed into a tropical holiday hotspot for Japanese, Koreans and,  increasingly, mainland Chinese, who come for the sun, sea,  sand… and shopping.
  The hub for serious retail enthusiasts is in Naha, Okinawa’s main city in the southern part of the island,  where the airport is also located. The efficient Yui monorail  transit system curls right through Naha; get off at Makashi station and you’re at the northern end of a long, straight street running right through the downtown area all the way to City Hall. This is the famous Kokusai Dori, a mecca  for shopaholics with bulk buying on their minds.
  Kokusai Dori is lined with duty free stores fronted by oversized models of all descriptions, from six foot high anthropomorphic hot dogs to great white sharks and anime characters souvenir shops cafés (serving both homegrown and imported coffee) and fast food outlets and restaurants with faux limestone walled booths where you can sample shabu shabu ( Japanese hotpots), Okinawan pork and the island’s distinctive purple sweet potato, while being entertained by traditional song and dance acts.
  Branching off Kokusai Dori is a series of covered market streets collectively known as Heiwadori, where you’ll find stalls selling arts and crafts, brightly coloured clothing, noodles, cheap souvenirs and cosmetics.

Fit For a King

  On the largest hill overlooking Naha is Shurijo Castle, home of the Ryukyu kings. Almost completely destroyed during the Battle of Okinawa, as well as on a number of occasions in previous centuries, Shurijo was carefully restored from the 1950s on, and in 2000 was named a World Heritage site.  
  The castle and its grounds are surrounded by impressive three metre thick walls. Its architecture, open squares, immaculate gardens and decorative themes are a curious blend of cultural traditions influenced by the surrounding kingdoms with which the Ryukyus traded. 
  The emblem of the Ryukyu kings was the dragon a symbol appropriated from the Chinese and displayed on the roof of the main castle building and on pillars, murals and carvings throughout the complex. Vibrant red paint and lacquer covers almost everything.
  The tour is relatively short and very interesting, and you’re free to wander Shurijo Castle Park afterwards, which offers panoramic views across the city  and out to sea.  
  Okinawa has many more cultural highlights, but if you simply need some relaxation between meetings, the Hilton Okinawa Chatan Resort’s adultonly outdoor pool is a good place to while away a couple of hours. In a stroke of genius, the hotel created this and a shallow family pool just far enough apart (over a walking  bridge) to keep everyone happy. Sipping a cocktail, I admired the long sweep of the property’s west facing  façade, designed like a wave and offering sea views from  almost all 346 rooms.
  In summer last year Hilton opened another property next door under its Doubletree brand, keen to benefit from Chatan district’s status as a major tourist destination on the island. 
  As well as being close to Sunset Beach and Okinawa’s remaining US air base, Chatan is also home to Mihama American Village, four blocks of land devoted to a Japanese rendering of leisure lifestyle Americana that’s rooted in Okinawa’s large US militar y population of decades ago, and now teems with tourists by day and night.  
  It’s gaudy and gauche, but fun if you’re in the holiday spirit. A ferris wheel stands over one “Carnival” mall; an American Depot store boasts pirate statues and convertible  cars on the walls and there’s a multiplex cinema, and colourful Tex Mex style buildings filled with pizza and taco joints, fashion stores and ice cream parlours be sure  to tr y Okinawa’s famed salted flavour.
  There are plenty of other tourist districts on the west coast. South of Chatan is Araha Beach and Ginowan, where the Okinawa Convention Centre and neighbouring Laguna Garden Hotel are situated in an expansive green space (with its own baseball park) next to a marina. North of Chatan in the central part of the island is Onna Village, a laid back enclave that has seen a number of resort openings in recent years, such as Hotel Monterey, Moon Beach, the ANA Intercontinental Manza Beach and properties from Renaissance, Sheraton, Marriott and Ritz Carlton. 
The new Hyatt Regency Seragaki Island was added to the mix in summer last year.