Long life and happiness in Japan's sunshine isles

okinawa travelEven the Japanese regard the sub-tropical Okinawa archipelago as exotically foreign.
Photograph: Alamy

We were halfway to Coconut Moon, a beach bar owned by Kiyomasa Higa, Japan's godfather of rock, when the taxi radio crackled into action. Coconut Moon was shut, having conceded defeat to Typhoon Lupit. The locals had been praying for rain and they'd got it. Lupit, the first typhoon of the year, arrived in Okinawa about two hours after we did. But while typhoons have scant regard for tourists, our driver had it sussed.

"You want awamori [a rice-based spirit]? Dancing?"

After three days of lashing rain and cancelled flights and ferries our bedraggled crowd was up for anything. And that's how we ended up in Nakayuki (Little Break), an inconspicuous bar in the village of Onna, taking turns on a traditional three-stringed guitar, eating dragon fruit, necking guava juice laced with awamori and "pushing the happiness" until 3am. Sharing the love with locals has never been so much fun.

Welcome to Japan's sub-tropical alter ego. An island archipelago flung 1,000km across the Pacific, Okinawa is Japan, but not as we know it. Even the Japanese regard Okinawa as exotically foreign, and until its annexation to mainland Japan as Okinawa Prefecture in 1879, it was exactly that.

The Ryukyu Kingdom was for centuries a self-governing tributary state to China, before being invaded by the mainland Satsuma clan at the start of the 17th century. The capital Naha, midway down the island chain on the main island, is closer to the tip of the Philippines than it is to Tokyo and on a clear day, from the southernmost island, Yonaguni, it's possible to see Taiwan, 111km away. If you're looking for quintessential Japan you won't find it here, but Okinawa's bizarre mish-mash of influences makes an interesting ride.

Among its biggest draws are the people. A happy, welcoming if endearingly bonkers lot, the dark-skinned Okinawans are an origin-defying blend of South Pacific-meets-North Asia, with a dash of the Inuit for good measure.

The rare fusion of influences also permeates music, culture and dialect. Traditional music in Okinawa has overtones of gamelan from Indonesia. Its stir-fries are comfortingly familiar. Chinese "lucky" cats litter the streets, and Japan's clean architectural lines are hijacked by curlicued eves that infiltrate the roofs of temples, castles and traditional houses.

Where mainland Japan is conservative, Okinawa is carefree and progressive. Tokyo's "salaryman" suits are replaced by kariyushi wear (the local version of the Hawaiian shirt).