When you tell Japanese people you’re headed to Okinawa, the biggest island in the country’s southernmost prefecture, responses split along generational lines. Young people’s eyes light up. They might mention a friend who moved there to surf, or to open a coffee bar, or to do both. A chef I interviewed in Tokyo would not stop raving about the produce—the tomatoes and the peppers and the mangoes, and how Okinawa was the only place in all of Japan with a decent betel-leaf farm—while an avid scuba diver told me its surrounding reefs, teeming with green turtles, sea cucumbers, and the occasional pygmy seahorse, were the healthiest she’d seen. For older people, the picture is more complicated. Okinawa was the site of World War II’s bloody last major battle; today it’s home to more than 30,000 Americans who live and work on 14 barbed-wire-enclosed military bases. The ongoing presence of American soldiers is a live issue, politically. It tends to color opinions on what is by any other definition a subtropical idyll.
Okinawa’s problem has long been that its location is too good. It’s both a long way from anywhere, in that it’s in the middle of the East China Sea and also close to lots of places (it’s a two-hour flight from Shanghai, Tokyo, and Seoul). The biggest island in an archipelago of 150, Okinawa lies at what was once the heart of one of Asia’s most important trade routes. It was also coveted by larger powers. During the Ming dynasty, the Chinese made it a tributary; in 1879, the Japanese invaded and annexed it.
The massive castles that the feudal lords of the Ryukyu Kingdom, which ruled Okinawa from 1429 to 1879, erected all over the island now stand in ruins. These are atmospheric (and collectively listed as a UNESCO World Heritage property). Until it was destroyed by fire this past October, the red and gold-lacquered Shuri Castle, on the outskirts of the prefectural capital, Naha, had been the only fully restored testament to the Ryukyu glory days. The horrors of more recent history are within living memory for many Okinawans. That’s because there are more people over the age of 100 in Okinawa Prefecture than anywhere else in Japan. In 2005, National Geographic writer Dan Buettner profiled Okinawa as one of the world’s five “blue zones,” that is, “places where people live considerably longer, healthier, and happier lives.” In his subsequent books on the subject, Buettner credits the Okinawan diet, climate, and cultural practices with unique, life-extending properties.
A hotel that opened in the middle of the island last July is capitalizing on this legacy of wellness. The second Halekulani (rooms from $450)—after Waikiki’s grande dame— is set amid coastal mangroves in Okinawa Kaigan Quasi-National Park and offers health-focused activities like kayaking and cooking classes. As for why a hotel synonymous with Hawaii should pick Okinawa to expand, Akiko Katsuki, director of rooms at the hotel, spoke of a kinship between the islands’ peoples. “We were looking for something culturally similar to Hawaii,” she said. “Tokyo is cold and cruel, but Okinawans are always smiling.”
To the list of similarities with Hawaii she could have also added diverting sunsets. The Halekulani Okinawa’s 360 rooms are divided among the family-friendly Beach Front Wing, the boutique-style Sunset Wing, and five cliffside villas. There are four restaurants and five pools, and a lot of Instagrammable vistas, but the daily theater of dusk is best enjoyed at the bar, under a ceiling fan in a caramel leather armchair with a mai tai in hand. If the whitewashed walls, orchid motif, and abundance of wicker start to feel too much like a simulacrum of Oahu, the sushi restaurant run by Tokyo-trained Hiroshi Tamaki will bring you back to Japan.
True to the Okinawan promise of approachability, Tamaki was one of the chattier sushi chefs I’ve encountered. Between incising perch and brushing miso on mahi mahi, he showed me a poster of Okinawan fish across the counter. Because the water hovers around a balmy 83°F most of the year, Tamaki said, the fish aren’t fatty enough for traditional sushi. Instead, “we have to use the imagination of the Okinawan sea.” I saw what he meant when out came a piece of shrimp topped with sea grapes, a type of seaweed that crackles in the mouth like salty Pop Rocks. (Sea grapes are one of the Okinawan foods thought to promote a long life.)
Tamaki had introduced himself by announcing “I am Okinawan first, then Japanese.” It echoed what I’d heard earlier from an indefatigable 87-year-old leading a tour of indigenous shrines. He said he didn’t think of himself as Japanese at all, and no wonder. For years, under Japanese rule, the Okinawan religion—a hybrid of animism, Taoism, and Confucianism—had to be observed in secret. Consequently, a lot of Okinawan shrines, mostly stone and small in stature, are hidden in the roots of banyan and fukugi trees. They also tend to be up hills, which is an important detail in this story because it was a very hot day. While the tour group was felled by the humidity, our guide, fueled only by endless bottles of iced coffee from roadside vending machines, bounded along.
Okinawa’s heat is intense, interrupted only by a month of heavy rain in June and typhoon season in August. It sits on the same longitude as Palm Beach, but a more apt American comparison might be Puerto Rico. The attractions for visitors are obvious: white-sand beaches, pristine coral reefs, a vibrant culture. Okinawa is also the poorest of Japan’s prefectures, and infrastructure—for mass tourism, as well as for everything else—is lacking. A deal struck by a former Okinawan governor and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe allowed the American military to continue using the island; in return, a big pot of government funding has been devoted to large-scale building projects. These include a second runway at Naha airport, scheduled to open in March, and a new rail line that will eventually connect the north and south of the island. There is an ambitious goal to attract 12 million visitors a year by 2021, compared with 9.8 million in 2018. At the moment, Okinawa is popular mostly with the Taiwanese, Chinese, and South Koreans, but it’s betting on an increase of tourists from outside the region.
In addition to the Halekulani, international hotel chains like Hoshinoya and Four Seasons are coming. Akiko Katsuki said what sets the Halekulani apart from existing resorts is its many partnerships with locals, specifically those who can share the secret of a long and happy life. Hoping for the recipe, I was driven one morning into the bucolic center of the island, filled with rice fields, to meet with Kiyoko Yamashiro, the 68-year-old owner of Café Garamanjaku. The restaurant, which serves a set-menu lunch, is in the front room of Yamashiro’s red-roofed cottage. Yamashiro is a leading proponent of Okinawan cuisine, which is more vegetable-centric than typical Japanese food and, in its use of herbs to target particular ailments, borrows from Chinese medicine.
Intrigued by a rate of heart disease one-fifth that of Americans and very low rates of cancers, academics have long studied the Okinawan diet. Among them is the gerontologist Craig Willcox, who co-wrote the 2002 book The Okinawa Program: How the World’s Longest-Lived People Achieve Everlasting Health—and How You Can Too. Willcox’s findings can be summarized as “eat as low down on the food chain as possible,” which translates to plenty of whole grains, vegetables, soy products, and seaweed. Specific ingredients found around Okinawa also share credit. There’s the local sweet potato, a purple variety known as beni imo that is high in flavonoids, vitamin E, and lycopene; goya, a kind of gourd that tastes like broccoli rabe and has been shown to lower blood sugar in diabetics; and mozuku, a rust-colored, slightly slimy, noodle-shaped seaweed with a high concentration of fucoidan, a polysaccharide shown to slow blood clotting and potentially prevent the growth of cancer cells.
Dressed in faded overalls and flip-flops, Yamashiro plucked ingredients for our meal from her lush garden while batting away canary-yellow butterflies and some very persistent mosquitoes. She didn’t speak English, but a translator successfully kept pace, pointing out some more superfoods: giant guava leaves, which are good for high blood pressure; karaki, or Okinawan cinnamon, for regulating blood sugar; and yomogi, a bit like parsley with superpowers and an effective treatment for a high fever. Once we’d carried our bundles of foraged fiber inside, the cooking class began with a green smoothie from a base of three very ripe bananas and their skins, a handful of bamboo shoots, and plenty of herbs, including an ingredient described only as “bitter leaves,” beloved by the snakes in Yamashiro’s garden. “This is our concept of ‘whole food,’” she said as we sipped our sweet smoothies. (The bitter leaves were obscured by the addition of local brown sugar.) “We put everything in and make the doctors cry!”
There was more folk wisdom at a karate class held the next day at the Halekulani. Karate, which translates as “empty hand,” was invented by Okinawans as a form of self-defense after the Japanese forbade them from carrying weapons. Outfitted in a starchy white cotton V-neck tunic and wide-legged pants, I headed to a conference room for my lesson. (It was far too hot to practice on the sand the way the Ryukyu warriors did.) The 70-year-old sensei, Meitetsu Yagi, radiated charisma, and although it was my first encounter with karate, I nonetheless gathered a certain grace merely by copying his precise movements. His teaching culminated in a series of parables on the virtue of restraint. “I haven’t fought since I got my black belt at 16,” said Yagi. “It’s just easier not to fight in the first place.”
If anyone is qualified to talk about the importance of preserving peace, it’s the Okinawans. My final night at the Halekulani, I kayaked through a mangrove under a full moon. (Okinawa’s saltwater swamps are expected to be added to the World Heritage list next year.) I reflected on what this island has seen in the past century alone, and how precious its newfound tranquility must feel as a result. Shigemasa Higa, a naturalist guide, looked to be only in his 40s, which in Okinawan terms is practically pubescent. Higa had grown up nearby, and knew exactly where to point out frogs and clusters of fireflies. Mostly, though, he was quiet, and so was the mangrove, until the sound of fireworks and the lilt of the sanshin, an Okinawan three-stringed instrument, floated from over the horizon across the dark water. The sanshin was first introduced from China during the Ryukyu era. Its banjo-like twang is the backbone of Okinawa’s melancholic folk music, which is ubiquitous throughout the island. This occasion, Higa explained, was a festival for midsummer, in which Okinawans honor their ancestors and, for a night, invite them back home.