There are islands and there are islands. There are places of postcard perfect Instagrammable beauty that take your breath away:
Santorini in the Aegean Sea with its cascading whitewashed cliffside villages of Oia and Fira;
Boracay, a gem among the thousands of Philippine islands, with its flawless tropical white sand beaches;
Kauai, Hawaii’s garden isle with its its lush rainforests and spectacular canyons and cliffs.
Okinawa is not that kind of island. It doesn’t come close. Yet it does have its charms, even if they are man-made.
Mihama American Village is a tourist precinct that looks like it was created and built by the Disney art department — it could easily be mistaken for one of the company’s satellite theme park attractions.
The area was farm land before World War 2, then used by the US military until it was returned to the Japanese in 2003. Work on the commercial and entertainment precinct and a respectable collection of neighboring sports facilities began soon after.
The village comprises a number of multi-storey buildings sandwiched between the East China Sea and a series of open air car park lots and the island’s main highway, Route 58. The place is a warren of paths, passages, staircases and terraces, that connect eateries, bars, cafes and stores. There are countless places to sit, many with sea views. A couple of compact resort hotels flank the neighborhood, while an amusement center, movie theater and Ferris Wheel complete the theme park ambience. On weekend afternoons musicians play sets on the promenade and at night the place is lit up like the magic kingdom, crowned by weekly fireworks shows.
Residents and tourists alike flock to the village. It’s a cartoonish, fabricated place that should be soulless and cheesy, but it’s not. Despite the name, businesses are almost exclusively local and, refreshingly, chain stores and global brands are notable by their near absence. It’s in turn laid back and lively, a kind of fantasy land that puts a smile on visitors’ faces. This constructed island oasis is a rare example of a tourist development done right and by my reckoning it’s a huge improvement on what was here before.