Okinawa is so lush that buildings and rivers are often obscured by its profusion of greenery. Along the coasts, tourists swim in aquamarine waters. All this natural beauty may surprise anyone who associates Okinawa with World War II, when invading Americans bombed its terraced fields and wild forest down to the dirt.
Okinawa is the largest of the 160 islands, most of them unpopulated, that arc between the Japanese mainland and Taiwan, collectively forming the country's southernmost prefecture. The archipelago, also named Okinawa, was an independent kingdom until Japan overthrew its monarch in the late 19th century. An era of U.S. military rule followed World War II, with Americans bulldozing homes and farms to build bases, which remained after the islands were returned to Japan in 1972. Many locals continue to protest their presence.
Traveling the roughly 70 miles south to north along the narrow main island, I experienced what brings more and more visitors to Okinawa: subtropical beauty, a leisurely pace, and a rich mix of indigenous Okinawan, mainland Japanese, and American influences. Of course, the island is also suffused with its troubled past. The Battle of Okinawa wiped out up to a third of the civilian population. The haunting Himeyuri Peace Museum, at the island's southern tip, recounts the three months of horror through the story of local schoolgirls conscripted to be nurses for Japanese soldiers. Nearby, Peace Memorial Park sits on manicured grounds in the area where the fighting culminated. The park's museum chronicles the war in chilling detail.
I was shaken by these sites, so a meal at Yama-no-chaya Rakusui (prix fixe lunch $12), a short drive away, felt like a salve. I sipped guava juice and ate chewy peanut tofu, sitting at a window overlooking the sea. Families hunted for shells in the tide pools below.
The 27-year American occupation wasn't easy for Okinawans, who struggled with poverty, loss of land, and a lack of constitutional rights. Knowing this makes the pockets of quirky Americana that dot the island all the more baffling. The 1950s and 60s seem to be seared into the collective memory as a golden age of classic cars and Coca-Cola.
On the coast overlooking the East China Sea, American Village is a theme-park version of the U.S. where visitors can ride a Ferris wheel and snap photos with a human-size Statue of Liberty. The nearby American American (3-6-6 Mihama, Chatan-Cho; entrées $10–$20), owned by a middle-aged Okinawan couple, mimics a 1950s hole-in-the-wall diner, right down to the canned carrots and peas.
"For Okinawa, the U.S. is an enigmatic figure," said Hideki Yoshikawa, an anthropologist who is fighting to stop construction of a base near his home. On the one hand, he explained, the United States represents oppression. On the other, it's a country founded on democracy and freedom — the same ideals activists like him struggle for.
I considered this as I visited Minatogawa Stateside Town. Tucked away amid modern apartment buildings in the city of Urasoe, the neighborhood of boxy, concrete houses was built for American military families. Over the past decade, a private developer turned the residences into shops and restaurants, with signs that depict drive-in waitresses and old-time Chevys. The quiet streets are named after American states.
On Virginia Street, I ate tender grilled tuna and vegetables at Limpid (prix fixe from $26), where chef Yutaka Wakabayashi prepares local ingredients using French techniques. On Florida Street, I read century-old postcards at the vintage shop American Wave. Owner Chris Towe, one of Okinawa's many American expats, first came to the island as a tourist, then came back for good because the laid-back atmosphere reminded him of his native Kentucky. With his shop, he tries to present the "good parts" of the U.S., he says — "the past, basically." The present, with its political headlines? "I don't want to tackle that."
With its white sand and coconut trees, Okinawa's western coast checks all the beach-vacation boxes. Massive new properties like the Hilton Okinawa Chatan Resort (doubles from $350), next door to American Village, have opened in recent years, along with mom-and-pop options, like the charming two-room Wassa Wassa (doubles from $237). At Okuma Private Beach & Resort (doubles from $265), my room needed some updating, but the large swath of beach bordered a bowl of blue-green ocean.
Travelers often stick to the coastal areas, which means that the Yanbaru, Okinawa's northerly expanse of dense evergreen forest, remains off the radar. The U.S. Marine Corps controls a chunk of these woods, but I didn't sense its presence during my stay at the Yanbaru Discovery Forest (doubles from $110), a former military camp that's now a cozy lodge with environmental education facilities. I hiked among the trees without seeing another person. Instead, I spotted orange beetles clustered on wide leaves; a tusked wild boar; and the endangered Okinawan rail, a flightless bird with bright-red feet and striped plumage.
That evening I soaked in the center's open-air bath, turned more curative with the addition of an enormous herbal tea bag. The drone of cicadas rose and fell in waves, and puffs of mist lifted off the treetops like campfire smoke. I thought about how landscapes are continually remade, even when the past refuses to fade away.