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Taking The Plunge In Okinawa

Che Alisan meets creatures of the deep in southern Japan and finds out why the islanders are famous for their longevity

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Che Alisan on 24 Sep 2014

The Straits Times

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OUT in the sea off Okinawa island is a small crop of coral reef that opens a window to the rich marine life that thrives in the crystal clear waters.

 

To peek into the subterranean world, we strapped on an oxygen mask and a lead vest for ballast. Seated on a platform in a customised boat called Water Bird, we were lowered into the waters just above the reef.

 

The fishes came close to us quickly, fearless and hungry for handouts. Clownfish, convict surgeonfish, harlequin sweetlips, spangled emperor and peacock wrasse darted about to peck at the bread in our hands. The fish that bit off a big chunk was pursued furiously by the others in the feeding frenzy.

 

This is a pseudo scuba dive that any novice can do.

 

Snorkelling is another option to look into Neptune’s world. Not just beautiful, the marine life in the seas off Okinawa is also bountiful.

 

Those who prefer to stay high and dry can go to Churaumi Aquarium, a vast maritime complex with lots of fascinating creatures from the deep. Top attractions in the aquarium’s massive acrylic tank are the humongous whale sharks, giant manta rays and super-sized groupers.

 

We emerged from the depths of the Pacific Ocean to venture into the bowels of the earth. We descended into the vast Gyokusendo underground cave. In the light and shadows, stalactites and other limestone formations over millions of years were a wondrous sight to behold.

 

Perpetually dark and damp, water drips endlessly from the cave ceiling to fill a pristine underground stream that meanders in this natural wonder. It is an awesome piece of artistry by nature. The grotesque rock formations in the dimness are best left to the imagination.

 

Secret to long life

Okinawans are famous for their longevity. Unlike the other crowded and fast-moving Japanese cities, Naha is slow-paced with a suburban feel. Small wonder that a long life is the norm here.



We met three nonagenarians in Ogimi-son Village to find out what keeps them going.



Bespectacled Ms Yamaga Katsu, 97, still works as a weaver while Ms Taira Sumiko, 96, is a farm hand. Mr Tamaki Shimpuku, 98, grows lime trees and goes about on bicycle. 

 

Alert and sharp despite their old age, all three are early risers and tea drinkers. They skip fast food.



Taking the cue, our longevity meal included goya (bitter gourd), tofu, seaweed and brown rice. 



Nestled in the quiet woods in Motobu town north of the capital Naha is an eco-friendly Shinmi- n-ya tea house run by 80-year-old Nakazato Mitsuko. Her grandmother taught her how to blend and brew herbs with curative properties for common ailments such as cough, cold and hypertension.



Another hidden culinary gem known only to the locals in Naha is Jugemu restaurant, which is actually a three-storey house. Its owner lives on the upper floor and converts the second level into an eatery that can seat up to 30 diners. 



Here is authentic home-cooked food in a homely ambience. It is like eating in a friend’s house. The menu changes every day, depending on what the owner buys from the market.



Silky smooth udon dipped in cold sauce, fresh tofu vegetable salad and sweet pumpkin ball made our Omakase meal notable.



Okinawans love to pluck the sanshin, a three-string musical instrument that resembles a banjo. Our hospitality host, Ms Takako Kamiya, is a traditional dance teacher.



Invited to her house for dinner, we ate a home-cooked meal she prepared and watched her perform a fan dance while her husband, a musician, played the sanshin.



Historic sights and unique culture

Okinawa is a major military base for the United States, which stations 50,000 servicemen and their families on the island. The observation deck overlooking the runway in Kadena Air Base is a perfect place for plane spotters. 



Another attraction is Shurijo Castle, built between the 13th and 14th centuries. The wooden structures with brick-red clay tiles stand on a limestone foundation.



A Unesco World Heritage Site, it showcases the glories of the ancient Ryukyu Kingdom. In the old days, some of the imposing gates in the castle were reserved only for the king and noblemen.

 

Okinawans believe in happiness, worship the gods and celebrate longevity. They are proud of their Ryukyu ancestry, culture and traditions. Unlike the Japanese in other parts of the country, they tend towards procreation and think a family with three or more children is ideal.



They place Ishiganto, a stone plaque, at the end of a T-junction or corner of the house to ward off evil. Shisa, a  ythical lion dog, stands as a guardian on the roof of houses or at the front entrance.



Subtropical Okinawa offers the sun, sea and surf. But no trip to Okinawa is complete without a visit to the historical Shinto Naminoue Shrine, built in 1890.



The site on top of a bluff overlooking the sea is sacred in the Ryukyan religion. Folklore has it that you pray in this shrine to make your wishes come true.

 

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.

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