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3-Day Model Trip Outline of the region

3-Day Model Trip Outline of the region / Okinawa / A Subtropical paradise alive with the culture of the old Ryukyu Kingdom

From an airplane window, Okinawa is a breathtaking spectacle of coral islands on an emerald sea. But you won't want to remain in the air for long: sun-drenched and soulful, Okinawa is a delight. Imagine an exquisite setting in a tropical ocean, filled with the serenity and simple, natural style of Japan. Throw in the vibrant colors of China and the crumbling stone walls of the Mediterranean. That's Okinawa. It's just above the Tropic of Cancer, and warm all year round. The cherry blossoms flower as early as January, and you can swim from April to October.

Tropical Treats

Naha, the largest city on Okinawa's main island, is laid-back and tropical, yet brims with modern hotels, commerce and contrasts. At one end of its downtown area, colorful shops sell bikinis and ice cream. Far at the other end is the demure, exotic entrance to the Fukushu-en Chinese gardens. Back streets beckon with markets selling local specialties, and tiny bars and eateries serve them up each night. Island-style pork dishes, the rich bitterness of gourd against sweet southeast Asian stir-fry, and your choice of tropical seafood are all part of Okinawa's delicious cuisine.

Scars of War

From Naha, take a day to explore Nanbu, the southern part of the main island. In 1945, this was the scene of Japan's brutal, final battle against the U.S., in which one out of every three Okinawans were killed and the landscape was ripped apart by shellfire. The eerie underground shelter of the former Japanese Navy Headquarters, some thoughtful memorial museums, and the Himeyuri monument are a moving, ironic presence among the rippling sugarcane fields and innocent blue skies of today.

Ryukyu Kingdom

Long ago, Okinawa -- then called Ryukyu -- was a small kingdom. Its people worshipped the gods of nature, and carried no weapons. They crossed the seas with Okinawa's fine textiles and lacquerware, returning with Chinese medicines and ceramics, and southeast Asian pepper and perfumes. A dynasty was established in the 15th century outside Naha at Shuri Castle, and tumbling limestone walls and streets still wind around today's replica--the original castle was totally destroyed during the Second World War. Over the ages, Okinawan culture has both fought and adapted to control by China, Japan and the U.S. Yet its traditional arts thrive, from vibrant festivals to a music scene unrivaled on mainland Japan. A rich ceramic tradition began over 400 years ago, yet Okinawa's colorful glassware was begun as a post-war innovation: recycling soda bottles.

Cultural Kaleidoscope

Today, the island's central region is Okinawa's main resort playland; here luxury hotels, lush parks, convention facilities and marine recreation await the visitor. White-sand beaches and coastline promenades mingle with towns near the U.S. Air Force Base, microcosms of American culture. Nearby, Okinawa City is a cheerful mix of Tex-Mex eateries and local pubs, many offering live music. Its backstreets, bridges and foundations are built from the same sunbaked, sensual limestone as are the area's many soulful castle ruins. At Yomitan, artisans gather to perfect pottery traditions, and in the far north at Ogimi, to weave ever-more beautiful Okinawan cloth. Here in the north, you are in a quieter part of the tropics. The pineapple fields at Kunigami give way to lush mangroves and the rolling hills of Yanbaru, brimming with birds, waterfalls and peace -- perfect for trekking.

Islands Guarded by Gods

But how will you choose which of Okinawa's myriad other, paradisical destinations to visit? There are over 160 islands in the archipelago, most of them uninhabited, stretching over 1,000 km south of Japan. Immediately near the main island are the Kerama Islands, with their rich coral reefs, and whales that play merrily in the ocean each January to April. Further west is Kume Island, as much a sophisticated resort for diving, jet skiing or windsurfing, as it is a home to old Ryukyu-style villas. Legend has it that the gods still guard over impossibly beautiful beaches at spiritual islands Izena, Iheya, and Kudaka. Some islands are famous for their abundant wildlife; others are quiet and charming, each traditional home guarded by the ferocious yet endearing rough clay shisa lions so typical of Okinawa. Taking a giant leap south, about an hour by air or a stunning 12 hours by ferry through dolphin-filled waters, you will reach Okinawa's remote, deeply traditional outer islands. Divers will want to head for the kaleidoscopic Miyako-jima Islands for unsurpassed crystal waters, coral reefs, underwater drops and caves. Many will want to head for Ishigaki-jima Island, filled with natural wonders such as the reef-and-island dotted Kabira Bay, just 10 minutes by ferry from the traditional red-clay roofed houses and shocking pink bougainvillea of heritage island Taketomi. Here, white-sand roads crisscross the tiny island and rough coral rocks form contrasting black walls. Each piece of star-shaped sand on Hoshizuna beach is said to bring happiness. Stay the night at a local inn, where locals and travelers gather for island songs and the haunting tunes of the jamisen lute, and you'll be touched once again by the dignity and genuine warmth of the Okinawan people.

Last Frontier of Peaceful Beauty

At the very outpost of Okinawa are the Yaeyama Islands, where rare wildcats and deer roam some of Japan's only subtropical jungles and mangroves. Immaculate coral structures fill the seas. On land, feast your eyes on the sparkling seas and lush hills while basking in Japan's southernmost hot spring. The strange underwater rock formations of Yonaguni Island -- reminiscent of a sunken metropolis -- are said to be remnants of the lost continent of Mu. On Iriomote-jima Island, locals and travelers ride picturesque water buffalo carts through shallow, clear waters to Yubu Island. Nearby, villagers revive ancient processes of floating dyed and woven bashofu cloth in the sea, to soften them and fix the pastel colors. The Yaeyama Islands are Japan's last frontier of peace and sublime natural beauty.