by Annabel Fenwick Elliott, The Telegraph, December 15, 2017
Perhaps you've never heard of Okinawa, but imagine, if you will, an archipelago of white-sand islands scattered amid an ocean smudged with teal and turquoise hues, and you've arrived. Fresh off a three-hour flight from Japan.
Located off the southern tip, this island destination has often found itself compared to Hawaii in the past - everything down to the vivid floral ‘kariyushi’ shirts paraded by the locals - and now it looks set to surpass it.
Visitor numbers have skyrocketed in recent years, leaping 10.5 per cent in 2016 year-on-year to a record 8.77 million people, according to figures from the Okinawa prefecture data, Bloomberg reports.
Hawaii, by way of comparison, welcomed 8.93 million in 2016, a growth of 2.9 per cent. The gap between the two has very nearly closed, and Okinawa's tourism boom shows no signs of slowing down.
“At this rate, Okinawa will definitely become as big as Bali or Hawaii, based on sheer numbers,” Carl Bastian, from international tourism consultancy Ryukyu World Office, told Japan Today.
Where is Okinawa?
Located in the East China Sea, and part of the Ryukyu Arc, the Okinawa Islands are a 620-mile long cluster that belong to Japan's southern Okinawa prefecture. The capital Naha, located midway down the island chain, is closer to the tip of the Philippines than it is to Tokyo and from the most southerly island (weather permitting), it’s possible to see Taiwan.
Head east in a nearly straight line across the North Pacific Ocean and eventually, you'll reach Hawaii.
Who goes there?
Around 80 per cent of its foreign visitors come from Greater China and South Korea, Okinawa government tourism official Shoei Gaja announced this year. Visitors from the West is still in its infancy there.
Okinawa Airport is now Japan’s sixth busiest with almost 20 million passengers passing through in 2016, mostly from Tokyo but with a 73 per cent increase from Seoul last year, and a 28 per cent spike in traffic from Taipei, according to the Japanese Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism.
The airport, which has more than trebeled its international air capacity over the last three years, is currently in the process of building a second runway.
Okinawa is a subtropical island chain that offers long, warm summers and mild winters, with yearly average temperatures of 20°C (68°F). The rainy season begins in May and runs through until June - though with showers only in fits and starts - after which typhoon season takes hold until November.
The fountain of youth?
Residents of the Okinawa Islands are known to live longer than anywhere else in the world.
There are around 35 centenarians for every 100,000 inhabitants here, five times more than the rest of Japan - a country already noted for the long life expectancy of its citizens. According to statistics from the World Health Organisation, the Japanese live to 83.7 years, on average.
Explanations have included diet (low-fat, low-salt foods, such as fish, tofu and seaweed are popular here), low-stress lifestyle, and the spirituality of the inhabitants.
A flurry of new hotels
Two of the world's largest hotel groups have both opened new properties in Okinawa in the last few years, the Hilton and Hyatt.
The Hilton Okinawa Chatan Resort opened in 2015, with three more set to launch between 2018 and 2020. Earlier this month, Hilton Grand Vacations announced the arrival of a new 132-unit timeshare, scheduled to open in 2012 on Okinawa's Sesokojima Island.
Starwood Hotels opened its new 200-room Sheraton Okinawa Sunmarina resort last year, and the The Hyatt Regency Naha Okinawa launched in 2015.
Both Disney and Universal Studios Japan are also reportedly eyeing up Okinawa as the base for new themes parts.
Nine Unesco sites
Okinawa plays host to nine Unesco World Heritage sites, one of them being Shuri Castle in the capital district of Naha, which was originally built in the latter part of the 1300s and once served as the throne of the Ryukyu Kingdom. It has since endured multiple battles, but has been patched up and preserved each time.
Even older is the ruins of Nakijin Castle, built in the late 1200s and located in the lush forests of Okinawa's northern Motobu Peninsula.
Other standouts include the Tamaudun Royal Mausoleum, where you'll find the stone tombs of the Ryukyu Royal Family.
Japan's famous fuchsia pink cherry blossoms actually emerge first in Okinawa on the northern Motobu Peninsula in January, before spreading to the mainland in late March.
Several festivals in Okinawa celebrate the arrival of these blossoms; Motobu’s Yaedake Sakura Forest Park, where the road is lined with more than 7,000 cherry trees, the Nakijin Gusuku Sakura Festival in the ruins of Nakijin Castle, and the Nago Sakura Festival in Nago Central Park.
How do I get there?
No UK airline flies direct to Okinawa Naha, but British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Lufthansa and All Nippon are among those which will get you there via Japan, starting at around £600 round-trip.