Home > The Okinawa and Ryukyu Islands: Japanese to the core

The Okinawa and Ryukyu Islands: Japanese to the core

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Embark on a spiritual journey to subtropical Japan

Known for its spirituality, Japan invites travellers to reconnect with their essence. And the subtropical Okinawa and Ryukyu Islands, with their wealth of centuries-old animist traditions, are probably where this invitation is felt most strongly. Get to know yourself in the heart of unspoilt nature.

Okinawa, the mythological heartland

An idyllic group of islands located in the heart of the Ryukyu Islands, halfway between Taiwan and Kyushu, Okinawa is the cradle of an active religious tradition focused on spirits. The best way to discover its heritage is by visiting its sacred sites: natural sanctuaries where the islanders have come to pray for centuries.

Starting with Kudakajima, a beautiful, densely forested island. Legend has it this is where Amamikyu, the creator deity of the land and people of the Ryukyu Kingdom, first descended from the heavens. Between the dense palm groves and striking beaches, enjoy a rejuvenating break on an island where sanctity inspires preservation. It is the perfect place to relax or meditate in front of the ocean.

Voyage spirituel dans les archipels d’Okinawa et Ryukyu au Japon
Head north to the peaceful island of Hamahiga to discover the home and tomb of Amamikyu and her partner Shinerikyu, two historical sites with a powerful aura. Many Ryukyuan couples go there to pray to their ancestors for fertility. Admire their colourful offerings adorning the small altars. Beyond these sacred sites, the island is welcoming, with superb white sandy beaches and turquoise waters that are perfect for a peaceful swim.

Last but not least is Sefa-utaki on the main island of Okinawa. This site of rock formations has been the site of many ceremonies since the 12th century and is now a listed UNESCO World Heritage Site. The islanders consider the rocks of Sefa-utaki to be sacred, especially the one where the deity of the hearth is enshrined. Perhaps you will feel the powerful energy emanating from it? Enjoy a moment of introspection surrounded by sumptuous nature.

Okinawa and the secrets to a longer life

Okinawa islanders are lucky as they have the longest life expectancy in the world: 90 years for women and 84 years for men (compared to 81 years for women and 76 for men in the USA). The island group is home to no less than 400 centenarians!

Scientists have tried to unravel the secrets of their astonishing longevity but have failed to reach a definitive conclusion. Some believe the quality and freshness of the diet — largely made up of seafood and vegetables and rich in antioxidants — is the main reason. Others praise the island’s calm atmosphere and the community’s focus on mutual aid, with a special place given to the well-being of the elderly. In any case, a trip to Okinawa can only do you good, nourishing the soul as much as the body.

Iriomote-jima, a tribute to the spirits of nature

It’s time to head south towards Iriomote-jima, a small island off the coast of Taiwan where traditions dictate the pace of life. There is little noise or fanfare here: the serenity of the few villages scattered along the west coast soothes the soul. The islanders mainly engage in traditional activities, from fishing and agriculture to textile crafts. The highlight of their year is undoubtedly the Shichi Festival, a 500-year-old celebration during which they give thanks to the gods for the good “five grain” harvest. Expect traditional outfits, singing and dancing to the beat of drums, rowing boats and prayers on the beach.

Want to connect with nature? Most of the island is covered in unspoilt jungles and mangroves that are now part of Iriomote-Ishigaki National Park. This exceptionally beautiful and rich area, which some call the “little Amazon”, can be visited on foot, by boat or by kayak, whichever you prefer. Make sure to keep your eyes peeled for endemic wildlife, particularly the rare and endangered Iriomote wild cat. And also to finish the day on a fine sandy beach with clear water that invites you to thank Mother Nature before putting on your flippers for a swim.

Voyage spirituel dans les archipels d’Okinawa et Ryukyu au Japon

Taketomi-jima, daily animism

A few hundred metres from Iriomote is Taketomi-jima, an island covered in wild vegetation where people live at a different pace. First, discover the charming village of Taketomi, a collection of centuries-old houses devoutly maintained by the islanders. Each part of these low structures with stone walls and red-tiled roofs stems from the island group’s traditions, right down to the sculptures of animals who protect the homes. Perhaps the most popular is the “shiisha” or lion, known for warding off evil spirits. Don’t forget to greet him and make an offering.

The village is also the ideal place to discover healthy gastronomy focused on fresh produce: with traditional noodles, fish, shellfish, seasonal fruits and vegetables, and more. Take the opportunity to try healthy yet flavourful food. Foodies will be able to visit a handful of gourmet restaurants on the island. Having trained in major cities, their chefs like to offer surprising pairings, some of which are inspired by French cuisine.

Wonderful surprises await around the village, especially stunning beaches with sparkling water. Kondoi Beach, on the west coast, is probably the island’s most beautiful beach and it offers the best view if you want to watch the sunset. The annual Tanadui Festival, a winter event dedicated to deities, is sometimes held here.

The Obon festival

Celebrated throughout the Japanese archipelago, Obon or just Bon is a 500-year-old Japanese tradition that takes place in the heart of summer on the 10th day of the 7th lunar month. It is an opportunity to honour one’s ancestors and visit their graves. The celebrations are particularly intense in the subtropical Ryukyu Islands, especially in Okinawa, where islanders perform a folk dance known as eisa, accompanied by traditional drums called taiko. A mix between a celebration and a religious trance, it provides an unforgettable experience

Photos credits :  © Istock

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