Okinawa, Japan's southernmost prefecture, is a necklace of approximately 160 tropical islands that sparkle at every turn. Unique food, music, and history combine with pristine beaches, aquamarine water, and dazzling coral reef to make Okinawa an exciting incentive destination.
Okinawa is finding its way on many bucket lists and last year welcomed 9.8 million visitors.World-renowned Beaches
Although there is no guarantee that a visit here will result in longevity, local Okinawans are famously long-lived. It may be the vitamin D from the seemingly never-ending shining sun or the plentiful fruits and vegetables including its famous purple sweet potatoes and caviar-like seaweed.
A gem in the Okinawan necklace is the Yaeyama Islands where the beach and natural world take center stage, in direct contrast to the crowds of people, commercialism, and futuristic technologies found in Tokyo.
One way to access the Yaeyama Islands is with a direct flight from Tokyo Haneda Airport to Painushima Ishigaki Airport in Ishigaki, the central hub of the Yaeyama Islands. About a three-hour flight, as the aircraft descends, passengers are immediately awestruck by the brilliant coral reef that surrounds the islands, visible from the air.
Unspoiled white sand beaches, swaths of sprawling mangrove trees, and rainforest await and Yaeyama's beauty doesn't fade as the sun sets, as this is a star lover's paradise. It is said that you can see 84 constellations out of all 88 from Ishigaki Island.
A Tropical and Cultural Paradise
Day or night, five-star beach resorts are at the ready to welcome groups. This tropical paradise also boasts a vibrant art scene. It is no coincidence that its tagline is, "Okinawa - Where Nature and Art are in Harmony."
Okinawa's pottery is world-renowned, and a shop on Ishigaki Island that shouldn't be missed is Yoneko-Yaki. It specializes in shisas, traditional Okinawan guardian figures that combine the features of a dog and lion and are said to ward off evil spirits. Usually found in pairs, the right shisa's mouth is closed to signify keeping in the good spirits and is open on the left to scare evil spirits away. Visitors are encouraged to wander the grounds of Yoneko-Yaki where shisa of all size and color are placed.
Another not-to-miss attraction is Ishigaki-yaki Pottery Studio that features an innovative technique in which glass is fused with ceramic, creating colors reminiscent of the blue ocean surrounding the island. In addition to a gallery showcasing its internationally-recognized work, Ishigaki-yaki also features a workshop where groups can make pottery.
No visit to Okinawa is complete without listening to traditional folk music played on a sanshin, a musical instrument that has a snakeskin-covered body, neck, and three strings. The sanshin represents the heart and soul of Okinawan culture. On Ishigaki island, an ideal spot for dinner and entertainment featuring the sanshin is Funakura no Sato.
Scuba diving and snorkeling around Ishigaki offer a glimpse of schools of colorful tropical fish, attracted to the coral reef. One of the most popular diving spots here is Manta Scramble where you can sit on the ocean floor and watch the manta rays frolic above you. Not only do you have the chance to see mantas in Okinawa but sea turtles as well. The less adventurous can also enjoy the underwater world aboard glass bottom boats.
The Yaeyama Islands have a rich history and culture going back to before their incorporation into Japan when they were part of the Ryukyu Kingdom. Taketomi Island is just off the coast of Ishigaki and is the site of an immaculately-preserved traditional Ryukyu village with one-storied houses topped with red-tiled roofs and surrounded by stone walls. A unique way to tour the village is with a water-buffalo drawn cart tour as your group will be serenaded by a sanshin-playing driver.
Other islands that can be accessed by a short ferry ride include Iriomote Island, the second largest in Okinawa; Hatomajima, Kohama Island, Yubu Island, Kuroshima Island, and Ishigaki Island.
Okinawa Island, the largest of the Okinawan Islands, was once known as the Kingdom of Ryukyu, and for 450 years it existed as an independent nation under the rule of a king.
Shurijo Castle served as the nucleus of the Ryukyu Kingdom. Today, the iconic structure with its bright red walls is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In the main hall of the castle hangs a bronze bell, originally cast in 1458. Not just any bell, inscribed on it in Japanese is the term, "Bridge of 10,000 Nations," referring to the Ryukyu Kingdom's prominence in maritime trade in the South Seas. Trade at the time took place with China, Japan, and Thailand and this interaction led to Ryukyuans becoming gracious hosts. Today, that spirit of hospitality still exists. The pride and passion Okinawans feel for their hometown is intoxicating, and they are excited to show it off.
"The hospitality of the people sticks out. I found them to be kind, gentle, and down-to-earth," explains Rosa McArthur, CMP, president, Meeting Planners Plus, an independent meeting planning company based in Costa Mesa, CA who visited Japan last year. "It reminded me of the Aloha spirit of Hawaii."Exciting Incentives
A destination as unique as Okinawa naturally has special event venues and activities that follow suit. The Valley of Gangala's natural limestone caves serves as an example. At the entrance to the caves is a cafe that is available for special events.
Next door is Okinawa World, one of the island's most popular tourist attractions that includes a replica of a traditional Ryukyu village with demonstrations of traditional Okinawan crafts like weaving, dyeing, paper making, pottery, and glass blowing. Available for group functions, Okinawa World also includes Habu Park, named after its local, poisonous snake, and a restaurant featuring Okinawa cuisine.
Hari (dragon boat) races, learning how to perform Eisa, a traditional dance, and "coral dyeing" held in a unique venue, Shuri Ryusen, are teambuilding activities that are popular. A boutique, gallery, and hands-on studio, Shuri Ryusen showcases natural dyeing methods using coral that washed up on the shore. Wall hangings, t-shirts, aprons, or tote bags are available for groups to dye themselves, creating one-of-a-kind souvenirs.
There was a time Okinawa was an undiscovered destination in Japan but that is no longer the case as its food, music, history, and local spirit combined with its beaches, crystal blue water, and abundant coral reef have it on the radar of meeting and incentive planners.