Sleepy, a mere 70 miles long, and rich in both beaches and seafood, Okinawa is a little bit Hawaii and a little bit maverick. The island was an independent kingdom called Ryukyu until 1879, and Okinawa retains its own distinct dialect, music, cuisine, and even its own liquor. The best way to explore its differences from mainland Japan? By rented car. (Just ask for an English-speaking GPS assistant.)
Forty minutes southeast of the airport in Naha is Hyakuna Garan, a boutique hotel that appears to sprout right out of the Philippine Sea. Built in the rustic Ryukyu style, with hand-worked masonry and ridged clay roof tiles, the hotel has just 17 rooms, each with ocean views and access to the six private rooftop ofuro (Japanese soaking tub).
Breakfasts at the Hyakuna Garan are robust in the typical Japanese way (miso, rice, eggs, pickles), enough food to sustain you in a quest for your Okinawan spirit beach. There’s Emerald Beach, with its piercingly clear waters and proximity to the Churaumi Aquarium on the northern part of the island. Or the rugged Shiokawa Beach on the northwestern shore, which has fewer amenities but more off-the-grid charm. For those who crave easy access, Tropical Beach is closer to the hotel and one of the most accessible white-sand beaches on the island (just off National Route 58, one of the main highways running north-south).
Nourish yourself with those famously life-lengthening foods: seafood and sea greens; bitter gourd; Agu, the prized local pig; intensely purple sweet potato; and shikuwasa, a native citrus. After a meal at Urizun, a traditional izakaya (think stir-fried tofu with egg and bitter gourd, and slow-cooked pork belly in a sticky sweet sauce) you can toast to your health with the local brew, awamori, a distilled rice liquor served in delicate, thimble-size ceramic cups.
At Ibukuro, a tiny restaurant in the island’s southern hills, Asako, a former publicist from Tokyo, prepares multicourse dinners inspired by the day’s produce and dips in and out of her open kitchen to serve her patrons who never number more than 10. She might start you off sipping a rare awamori from Hateruma, Japan’s southernmost inhabited island; follow it with watercress picked from the bottom of the hill, steamed and paired with local cured pork; and finish with a soft, homemade cheese.
Then stop by Umanchu Ichiba, a farmers’ co-op in the multishop Itoman City Market, to stock up on delicacies like sea salt, mozuku (a native algae), and jimami (peanut tofu) for people back home. Cap the day at nearby Itoman Gyomin Shokudo, where fishermen’s food (catch of the day, grilled and dressed with a sizzling butter sauce, or fish soup hot pot with tofu and fish head) is served in a nozura-zatsuzumi-style home with walls of coral limestone blocks that keep the sun out and allow the ocean breeze in.
Two more Japanese islands you shouldn't miss:
Just south of Japan’s main islands, enjoy the rolling hills, hot springs, and famous Saga beef of Kyushu. But it’s not just an idyllic escape. The island’s capital, Fukuoka, is a buzzing city with great shopping, and it’s the birthplace of the world-famous pork bone soup tonkotsu ramen. Although Kyushu is best reached by plane, those preferring a scenic route can opt for a multi day ferry hop from Okinawa to the island’s southern port, Kagoshima.
Japan’s northernmost reaches offer brilliant skiing in the winter, but also beautiful landscapes year-round, from lavender fields in summer to striking fall foliage. The food is also unusual for Japan: Hokkaido has an abundance of dairy farms, which means deliciously rich soft-serve ice cream and light-as-air cheesecakes at every turn.