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Okinawa is Japan’s southernmost prefecture, encompassing more than 100 islands that make up the Ryuku Archipelago. The chain of islands stretches more than 620 miles from Kyushu, the most southern of the country’s four main islands, all the way to Taiwan.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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Okinawa’s capital city (and most tourists’ point of entry) is Naha, located on the southern part of Okinawa Island. Drive 30 minutes south, and the sprawling metropolis—chaotic street scenes, seas of concrete and neon—surrenders to the tropical landscape you anticipate when you envision Japan’s smaller islands.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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There’s also life to behold underneath the waves of the Pacific; Okinawa boasts some of the best snorkeling and scuba diving in the region, as exemplified by this striped damselfish.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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Prime dive spots lie as close as Chatan City, about 45 minutes from the Naha airport.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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Many of Chatan City’s diving and snorkeling spots lie about 20 feet off the seawall, with dense clusters of soft coral and both macro- and medium-sized sea life. Further afield—about an hour by boat—lies the Kerama Islands, with healthy hard coral and animals such as green sea turtles and reef sharks.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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Chatan City also houses three U.S. military bases. Between the soldiers stationed there and the hearty population of U.S. ex-pats, it might be the most Westernized part of Japan. English is commonly spoken, signs are in both languages, and the city even boasts an U.S.-style mall complex, the Mihama American Village.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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The military bases have one added influence on Chatan City: near-constant air traffic as planes, jets, and helicopters perform their daily training missions. Each evening the aircraft return home, flying over the Chatan City seawall with clockwork efficiency. Here, a plane lines up for landing, while the lights of Naha cast an orange halo on the distant clouds.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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Of course, as with any island town, Chatan City also draws its fair share of dive bums, like Toyo, a dive master and instructor for Reef Encounters. He once worked as a salaryman in Japan, but dumped the 80- to 100-hour work weeks to spend a year touring around Australia. His love of the ocean eventually led him to Okinawa.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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Snorkelers can rent equipment from Reef Encounters, the only expat-owned dive shop on the island, and check out a variety of sea life, such as this iridescent coral clam at depths of about 10 to 15 feet.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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Go deeper and you increase your chances of spotting the more unusual and rare Pacific animals such as this cuttlefish.  
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Or the lion fish.  
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Bubble coral clings to the undersides of the plume-shaped bedrock on which the soft coral beds form.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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Though the prefecture was thankfully unaffected by the 2010 earthquake and tsunami, Okinawa Island does sees some pretty dramatic weather, including up to eight typhoons a year (most hitting between mid-August and September).  
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Evening skies that light with pastel perfection…  
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…can give way to ominous horizons. Here, Tropical Storm Roku was closing in, and would hit the island in 48 hours.  
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“When the storms come, we just hunker down and wait it out,” explains Doug Bennett, owner of Reef Encounters.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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Spring is the best time to visit, except during Golden Week, a nation-wide holiday (typically the last week in April or the first week in May) that brings floods of Japanese to the island.  
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Despite all the converging cultural influences, Okinawa also lies firmly rooted in its own, distinct past, with its own language, cuisine, and cultural traditions.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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As expected, much of this is anchored to the fishing culture, which appeals to both island visitors and the legions of locals who have plied these waters for generations.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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Tourists can typically locate day-trip boats in Naha, while the locals retain local fishing rights, which are designated to members-only fishing clubs.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
 
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