Shureimon is one of the main gates of the Shuri Castle, a palace designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. WANG XU/CHINA DAILY
Search Okinawa, and the internet shows up enduring battles between the United States and Japan over its military bases on the island, or one of the last major battles of World War II.
There's more to Okinawa than that. It's a chain of hundreds of islands and Japan's southernmost prefecture with its own history as an independent kingdom that few foreigners and not many Japanese have ever seen.
About 1,600 kilometers southeast of Tokyo－and just 600 km from Taipei, capital of China's Taiwan province－is Naha, the capital of Okinawa, and the starting point for tourists who want to explore a "lost island dynasty" and a "modern-day kingdom of seaside pleasures".
Sixty percent of local residents live in this city, the biggest in Okinawa.
Naha is the center of Okinawa, where the laid-back Ryukyu culture－named after the independent kingdom that existed before it became part of Japan－is best perceived.
Naha Airport is the gateway to all of Okinawa's islands, and is only a 10-minute drive from the city center.
The best way to get around the main island is by renting a car. Companies offering cars for rent can be found at the airport as well as the city center.
People familiar with history may know that Okinawa didn't become part of Japan until 1879. Before that, the Ryukyu Kingdom had been China's "vassal state". The feeling that Okinawa is closer to China than to Japan, manifested by Naha's food, culture and architecture, remains to this day.
The mainland Japanese who have moved here are referred to as immigrants by locals.
The majestic buildings, such as the Shuri Castle, a palace designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, and the terminal station of Naha's only monorail line, reminds of the architectural elements of China's Forbidden City.
The castle, which was first built in the 13th century, was palace of the Ryukyu Kingdom's rulers during the 14th century.
Shuri Castle has been destroyed several times over the centuries, with the recent one due to a fire in October 2019, which raged for more than 10 hours and left at least one-third of the palace's artifacts gutted.
Before that, the castle was destroyed in 1945 during World War II, and was rebuilt between the late 1980s and 1992.
After the palace was destroyed in the 2019 fire, the Okinawa government came up with a plan to rebuild it－its fifth rebuilding effort－by 2022 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Okinawa's transfer to Japan by the US.
The Tiger Beach in Onna, a small village in Okinawa. WANG XU/CHINA DAILY
A growing interest in Okinawa's food and music has been attracting more Japanese to the islands for sea tours, and as a getaway from the country's dense cities.
As the local saying goes, "you're never far from the sea in Okinawa". The sea tour begins in Onna, a small village about an hour's drive north of Naha, where emerald blue waters with fish and corals can be viewed from glass-bottomed boats, and where the Blue Cave, a famous spot for snorkeling and diving, is located.
"There are many diving spots in Okinawa, but this one is my favorite," said my unofficial tour guide nicknamed Hime-chan, which means "princess" in Japanese.
Many people might think only experienced divers can get a chance to get up close with marine life. However, in Onna, such trips are available for beginners. Even those who can't swim take a plunge here.
Led by Hime, I descended about six meters and settled at the bottom of a cluster of coral rubble, which was home to a variety of small species of fish, including clownfish.
Okinawa's rich marine life is because of the warm currents that flow through Okinawa, known as the Kuroshio Current, and the coral reefs, according to Hime.
There are more than 800 known species of reef-building coral worldwide, of which 200 are found in Okinawa's waters.
Thanks to these reefs, diving has become to Okinawa what safaris are to Kenya. Even convenience stores sell diving gear in Onna.
As we reached a depth of about 10 meters, we came close to the entrance of the Blue Cave, whose interiors are filled with a shimmering blue flow of sunlight reflecting off the white seafloor－a favorite photo spot.
At 15 meters, yellow, narrow-faced oriental butterflyfish appeared and disappeared in bursts. They seemed to materialize out of the deep blue and then disappear back into the deep blue.
Fifteen meters is a daunting depth for divers, with many continually pinching the nose and gently blowing out to reduce the chances of blocked ears, and to balance ear pressure. But for advanced divers, the 30-meter Manza Dream Hole is the final destination, where they get to see sweeper fish, garden eels, fan coral and more.
Free diving is another popular choice for divers in Okinawa who like the ultimate adrenaline rush.
The darker side
Besides the beautiful beaches and the thrills of scuba diving, the island also has a darker side for people to explore.
It has been 75 years since the Battle of Okinawa－fought on the island by US Marines and Army against the Imperial Japanese Army－but in the inky depths of a cave in Tomigusuku, south of Naha, the war memories come alive.
The cave was used as a command center by the Imperial Japanese Navy, where one can enter through a set of stairs, improvised for tourists, into a warren of dozens of rooms and shafts leading off from a few main tunnels burrowed into the soil by the sea.
Soldiers killed themselves by exploding hand grenades in the cave at the end of the war. When the cave was unsealed in the 1950s, the remains of more than 2,000 sailors were found. The blast scars from grenades are still visible on the walls.
Okinawa caves were the focus of the 1945 battle, during which 545,000 US troops stormed Okinawa in the largest amphibious armada ever assembled, bigger than the Normandy Invasion－the Allied invasion of western Europe, which was launched on June 6, 1944.
Soldiers and civilians alike hid in those caves. More people were killed in this battle than the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, with over 200,000 killed, of which 14,000 were US soldiers.
Left: The Shuri Castle is being rebuilt after it was destroyed by a fire last year. Right: The cave in Tomigusuku was used as a command center by the Imperial Japanese Navy. WANG XU/CHINA DAILY
Memorial for the war dead
At the Peace Memorial Park in the southern end of the Okinawa main island, black granite slabs were engraved with the names of all the war dead: Americans as well as Japanese; civilians as well as soldiers.
There are 234,183 names, variously in English, Chinese, Korean and Japanese.
Museums in Japan usually gloss over its own brutalities, portraying the Japanese as victims rather than aggressors. The museum in the park also does not fully explain the background that led the US to invade Okinawa, nor does it acknowledge the brutal Japanese invasions and occupations of China, Korea and other countries.
The museum, however, does "acknowledge the viciousness of the Japanese army", noting that Japanese troops often evicted civilians from caves to face ground shelling or killed them outright.
"As the soldiers handed out grenades, they told us 'Tomorrow is the landing day. We cannot keep the civilians alive. If needed, use this to die'… I was given the grenade, but I was too afraid to die," wrote Hatsuko Miyahira, a survivor who endured that terrible summer of 1945 at the age of 19, in his testimonial displayed in the museum.
Numerous accounts in the museum and other recollections by survivors give a clearer picture of the tragedy.
The Japanese army had told local residents in Okinawa that the Americans would torture them and kill everyone, which led to people committing suicide to avoid rape and mutilation they had feared.
In a cave called Chibichiri Gama, 83 people died by their own hands or at the hands of their parents even after US troops dropped leaflets in Japanese, pleading with them to surrender and explaining they will be treated well.
However, no one believed the Americans. When they came close to the mouth of the cave, they witnessed the horror: parents had killed their children and then killed themselves.
"It has been 75 years since the war ended. However, the sorrow of losing beloved friends and family has never healed. It has only got stronger," Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki said in his speech at a memorial event in June. "It is our duty to keep sending the message of the terror of war and the importance of peace to the world," he added.