The beauty of this Japanese archipelago instantly envelopes you -- brightly-colored orchids in the airport terminal, a canopy of blue skies framed by palm trees and a crystalline sea. But that is just scratching the surface.
From giant bamboo towering into the sky to the vast network of subterranean caves, stalagmites and stalactites, rising from the floor and descending from the ceiling that mesmerize, Okinawa, a Japanese prefecture, is like no other. It has been a natural gathering place in the Pacific for centuries and has helped cultures meld together.
"Being an island at the crossroads of Japan, China, and Korea makes Okinawa very special," describes Li-Rong Lilly Cheng, Ph.D., managing director, Confucius Institute; director, Chinese Studies Institute; professor, School of Speech, Language, & Hearing Sciences; San Diego State University. As president of the International Association of Logopedics and Phoniatrics (IALP), one of her responsibilities is to help plan the organization's tri-annual conference, and she was visiting Okinawa as the potential site for a future gathering.
"Okinawa is a bridge between these cultures. It is part of its DNA," she enthusiastically explains. Cheng was so impressed, she is working on offering pre- and post-trips to Okinawa in conjunction with the IALP's World Congress in Taipei, Taiwan in 2019.
"Okinawa is a place that brings people together. It is a crossroads. Look at Shurijo Castle. It is a mixture of Chinese, Japanese, and Ryukyu," says Cheng. "Last time I was in Okinawa was in 1968 as I was passing through and it was a crude island. Today, it is a gem."
A History of Hospitality
Okinawa was once known as the Kingdom of Ryukyu, and for 450 years it existed as an independent nation under the rule of a king. 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. In 1879, the kingdom's last ruler abdicated the throne to the Meiji government and the archipelago became Okinawa, which means the center of the ocean.
Shurijo Castle served as the nucleus of the Ryukyu Kingdom. This sprawling complex is reminiscent of China's Forbidden Palace, combined with Japanese architectural influences. 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.
It is fitting that a similar bell hangs in a pergola in the center of the Okinawa Convention Center complex. The largest multi-function complex in Okinawa, it includes an exhibition hall that can seat up to 5,000, a theater for up to 1,709, 12 conference rooms of varied sizes, and outdoor function areas.
The Okinawa Convention Center is part of the Seaside Park complex in Ginowan City on the west coast of the island. Nearby is a gymnasium, a running track, and a baseball field that was full of energy during our visit as Japan's professional teams were in the midst of spring training.
Inspired by the phrase carved on the bell at Shurijo Castle, the idea for Bankoku Shinryokan, which means "Bridge between Nations," was born. This conference facility keeps Okinawa's legacy of cultural exchange alive. Located at the tip of Busena Point, Bankoku Shinryokan is a stunning meeting venue for up to 500 surrounded by ocean. One side offers views of the sunrise while the other side boasts the sunset. It hosted the world's top leaders including President Bill Clinton and Vladimir Putin during the 2000 G-8 Summit.
Next door is the upscale, 392-room Busena Terrace that features 16 food and beverage outlets including eight restaurants, a spa, private beach, and putting green.
"Okinawa is an undiscovered destination in Japan," describes Shuhei Kohagura, senior specialist, Okinawa Convention & Visitors Bureau. "It's quite different than the rest of the country as a result of being an independent kingdom over 500 years ago."
Its location off of southern Japan has led to Okinawa becoming a multi-cultural trading post with not only China, Korea, and Japan but Holland as well.
Adding a splash of Americana to the destination is Mihama American Village, a large and colorful entertainment complex with shops, restaurants, cafes, a cinema, live music, bars, and a promenade. A large Ferris Wheel looms over this lively eight-block area, once a US military airfield.
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 café 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.
The Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST) Graduate University is an interdisciplinary graduate school offering a five-year PhD program in science. Its state-of-the-art auditorium features contemporary architecture and is able to accommodate up to 493, in addition to four meeting rooms, one with a capacity for up to 130 people.
Hari (dragon boat) races, learning how to perform Eisa, a traditional dance, and coral dyeing in 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 are no shortages of hotels on Okinawa and three new ones are currently under construction. Hilton Okinawa Chatan Resort, with 346 guest rooms including 12 suites, a grand ballroom that can accommodate up to 400, three function rooms of varying sizes, and an outdoor event deck for up to 200 people with breathtaking views, will be joined by a sister hotel in June, the 160-room Doubletree by Hilton, under construction. Although there are no meeting rooms in the Doubletree, there is a rooftop bar that can be used by groups.
Opening in September is the 344-room Hyatt Regency Seragaki Island, Okinawa that will feature access to two beaches and a lagoon, indoor and outdoor pools, and five event venues.
Scheduled to open in the summer of 2019, Halekulani Okinawa will be nestled in Onna Village, on the west coast of Okinawa. The resort will have 360 guestrooms, a swimming pool, spa, and four restaurants and bars.
At present, the biggest hotel in Okinawa is Rizzan Sea-Park Hotel Tancha Bay that has 826 guestrooms, five restaurants, and several event venues including Brilliant Hall that can accommodate up to 1,000.
Another group friendly hotel is the 640-room Loisir Hotel Naha and its annex, Spa Tower. The largest hotel in Naha, it features a spa with natural hot springs and is only seven minutes from the airport. There are eight banquet rooms including a ballroom that can accommodate up to 1,420.
Laguana Garden Hotel with 303 rooms is another group-focused hotel with a banquet hall that can accommodate up to 1,200.
Unique Landscapes, Unique People
Colorful tropical garb replaces traditional business attire. Kariyushi, which means harmony, have some similarities to Aloha shirts but are all Okinawan.
With an average temperature of 72 degrees Fahrenheit, the islands are lush and green. Vegetables, fruit, its famous purple sweet potatoes, and seaweed are plentiful, and these food sources are one of the reasons Okinawans are famously long-lived.
A world unto itself, Okinawa's food, music, history, and local spirit combined with its beaches, crystal blue water, and abundant coral reef, make this an exciting meeting and incentive destination.