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Japan’s Tropical Paradise

By Gabby Beckford

Posted: December 7, 2023


Adventure in Okinawa

I always say that my favorite kind of travel is the type that gets me to the second page of Google. So often, I feel that people see destinations for their Instagram moments or “Top 10 Tourist Attractions,” are satisfied, and feel like they've done that destination. I find joy in pulling those people around the corner and encouraging them to take a bit of extra time and dive deeper. This time, I was pulled deeper on my recent trip to Okinawa, Japan. I'd previously lived in Okinawa from 2007 to 2010 because my father deployed there as a part of the U.S. military. Most of our time on the 463 mi² island was spent in the capital city Naha, or on the military bases.

I've also been back to Okinawa twice for weeks at a time: in 2018 and even with family earlier in 2023. All that to say, I truly thought I knew this Okinawa. But in just one week on my Adventure Travel World Summit 2023 pre-event trip, I discovered more culture, history, and adventure than I could have imagined. This trip was organized with the intention of showing us Okinawa's hidden aptitude for adventure through intimate conversations with locals, cycling and hiking and its diverse landscapes, and learning its history and culture firsthand through food.

Having a moment in nature after a walk around Nakijin Castle.

Our itinerary was a journey through time: from the origins of Okinawa as the Ryukyu Kingdom to the more recent history of WWII and now modern-day Okinawa. To start: Nakijin Village! Stunningly well-preserved castle ruins in the northern “Hokuzan” area of the island. Our guide painted vivid pictures of a way of life centering a connection to nature and folklore, as well as international influence mainly from China, which was a central trading port of the region in the 14th century.

The international influences continued to appear as we explored Okinawan cuisine. Who knew that this famously “Blue Zone” diet would be so pork-heavy? From the local pork shabu-shabu to the Chi-Iricha infused with Brazilian influences, every bite celebrated Okinawa's multicultural essence. No matter where we ate, one thing was consistent: the meals were all vegetable-centric, prepared with locally sourced ingredients, and kept simple so that the natural flavors would shine deliciously throughout.

Traditional Okinawan meals of locally farmed island vegetables.

One of the most surprising and thrilling experiences to have in Okinawa was our cycling tour from Kouri Island to Ogimi Village. I’d never believed you could go from some of the most clear sapphire blue waters in the world to the dense jungle of Yanbaru forest. Riding 22km on the e-bikes made the trek low-stress so that we could fully sock up the peaceful scenes, which included sea turtles, a local shikuwasa farm, and stunning views from the more than 1600 ft elevation.

Biking across sunny Kouri Big Bridge! Just saw sea turtles!

I was brought back in reflection to my personal U.S. military connections when we explored both Kin Town and the WWII Peace Memorial in Itoman. The presence of the U.S. military base blended cultures and histories, creating a unique fusion of the past and the present. The stories of World War II and subsequent conflicts were not only evident in monuments but also shared through the experiences of the locals. It was here that I truly grasped the depth of Okinawa's narrative, one that encompassed both joy and sorrow, peace and conflict. At the Peace Memorial Park, we each made a paper crane with a wish for world peace.

Throughout our week’s journey in Okinawa, the local community was an endless source of inspiration. Their stories, smiles, and hospitality wove together each experience. Whether it was the passionate guide sharing his knowledge, the local Ogimi farmer taking pride in their citrus fruits, or the hotel staff greeting me with genuine warmth, each person added a layer of richness to the adventure.

One of many stunning tropical views in Okinawa.

One layer of this was Okinawa’s ecological diversity. For such a small island, there are so many plants and animals inhabiting it in a delicate balance. On the third day, at the Okinawa Rail Learning Center in Kunigami forest, we saw a captive Okinawa rail and learned of its descent towards extinction and how conservation facilities on the island are trying to maintain the wild population. On our nature walk to the Hiji-Ohtaki waterfall, our national park guide pointed out all of the hidden inhabitants of the forest: from critters like newts, banana spiders, frogs, and beautiful butterflies to various mushrooms and plants.

Reflecting on this week of intention, remembering the art, music, animals, beaches, forests, and traditions, it's surprising to decide “what was my favorite part.” Without a doubt, the people of Okinawa are what bring this charming Island to life. Kakazu sensei, who led us in a karate lesson at the Shorin-Ryu dojo in Naha, was stern but had a surprising sense of warm humor. Ritsuko san from Kin town had an endless well of energy and was excited to know more about us as visitors to Okinawa. Our guides, Ai san, and Nobuo san, started as our leaders but ended the tour as our close friends. They shared their personal views on Okinawan culture and their favorite things to do on the island. The common thread throughout every warm host and educator on the adventure was a strong sense of Ikigai, or “sense of purpose”—one of the core tenets of the Okinawan way of life that helps the population known to live more than 100 years of age. Each person had a passion for adventure tourism that they were burning with a desire to share with us, have us understand, and use as a bridge to connect us more closely as people.

The ladies of Gajimanro waving goodbye to us.

It’s impossible to convey in words the energy that the island has for its tourists. If I tried, I could conjure up “ethereal” or “harmonious,” but those words still don’t suffice. Okinawa is a place you should visit if you’re looking to travel deliberately. She is an extension of Japan, but she has her own personality and way of being. All the while, her simplicity and ability to transport you through time and drastically different landscapes show Okinawa for what it truly is: an adventure!

Find Your Japan Adventure

Gabby Beckford is an award-winning travel influencer and solo female traveler who tells her travel stories at @packslight. Contributing writers to this destination series were hosted on adventures throughout Japan as part of the Adventure Travel World Summit 2023 in Hokkaido, Japan.