As the golden hues of summer fade, longings for palm trees and deserted beaches start to bite. St Barths? Fiji? Turks and Caicos? If you’re looking for an island escape, you’re unlikely to spin the globe and point to Japan. Yet the Okinawa Islands have long been the best-kept secret of the Land of the Rising Sun. Scattered across the Pacific from Kyushu to Taiwan, they tick the box of every desirable tropical island cliché – long white-sand beaches, coral-fringed bays, azure skies and water the shade of every blue-hued precious stone you can think of – but with a unique culture worth the long-haul flight.
Skip the main island, which has been teeming with US marines since the end of WWII, and fly directly to the Yaeyama Islands, a small cluster of green dots closer to Taiwan than mainland Japan. Laid-back, friendly and a little dishevelled, these islands are a welcome contrast to the rigidity and polish of the rest of the country, which is unsurprising considering their history. For centuries the Ryukyu Islands were an independent kingdom that adopted Buddhism from China, established trade routes from Siberia to Siam, and banned all weapons (which led to the development of karate). But in 1609, Japan’s Satsuma clan invaded, and in 1879 the mainland officially annexed the islands, renaming them Okinawa Prefecture.
The tiny island of Taketomi is centred around a hushed settlement that is one of Okinawa’s few preserved Ryukyu villages. Nearly all 350 residents live in a maze of red-tiled one-storey houses surrounded by hand-built stone walls and white coral lanes. Ferocious lion-dogs, or shisa, snarl above each building, protecting the village from evil spirits.