Escape to Okinawa, Japan’s historic island paradise 

Aerial view of Iriomote island in Okinawa, Japan. (Shutterstock)
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Updated 08 December 2023

Escape to Okinawa, Japan’s historic island paradise 

  • The prefecture offers outstanding scenery, plenty of history and culture, and a laidback vibe  

OKINAWA: Located at the intersection of trade routes that linked Japan, China, south-east Asia and the tiny islands that dot the Pacific Ocean, the Japanese prefecture of Okinawa has adopted flavors from all its neighbors, but still managed to remain true to its cultural and historic roots. 

Those influences can be tasted in the area’s cuisine and witnessed in its unique architectural styles, festivals and attitudes that are more laidback Pacific than formal Japanese. And local people — descendants of the Ryukyuan Kingdom that was absorbed into Japan in 1872 — still take a fierce pride in being distinct. 

Now Japan’s most southerly prefecture, Okinawa consists of more than 150 islands, dotted between southern Kyushu to a point just over the horizon from Taiwan. Some of the more remote islands are uninhabited while others have just a handful of homes in communities that have changed little in generations. Bullocks pull wooden carts across the beach flats and the sound of three-string “shamisen” being plucked floats on the warm evening air. 

Shuri Castle which overlooks Naha in Okinawa. (Shutterstock)

The lifestyles of those outer islands is quite a contrast to Naha, the regional capital — less than two hours’ flying time from Tokyo and connections to the Middle East. 

Kokusaidori runs for more than 2 km through the heart of the city and, while touristy, is still the best place to get your first taste of Okinawa. Cafes, bars, boutiques and gaudy stores selling trinkets are cheek-by-jowl.  

Okinawan cuisine is a blend of many influences, with fish abundant in the surrounding waters, pork imported from China when the Ryukyus were still independent and fruits and spices from south-east Asia. For non-Muslims, no visit would be complete without sampling goya champuru, the islands’ signature dish that typically combines pork, tofu, eggs and goya, a green gourd with its own distinctive, bitter taste. Pork belly (rafute), simmered in soy sauce before being glazed with brown sugar, is another favorite, along with the local take on soba noodles. 

Kokusaidori, the main street in Naha, Okinawa's capital city. (Shutterstock)

Just off Kokusaidori is the covered market where many of the restaurants source their ingredients every day. In a warren of narrow alleyways, stalls are also piled high with every conceivable household utensil, local fabrics and electronic gadgets that you never knew you needed. 

Naha is overlooked from the east by Shuri Castle. The main elements of the UNESCO World Heritage site were razed to the ground by fire in 2019, but work is underway to rebuild the iconic red structure and it is expected to once again be fully open to visitors by 2026. 

Despite the damage, the castle is still worth visiting. The fortified buildings on the site dating back to the 12th century CE, when Shuri was the center of Ryukyuan politics, diplomacy and culture. An earlier version of the castle was designated a national treasure in 1925, but was destroyed in the fierce fighting that took place in Okinawa in the closing stages of World War II. 

Water buffalo cart near Iriomote island. (Shutterstock)

Its outer fortifications, gateways and courtyards escaped damage in the most recent fire, and their gracefully curving walls of limestone are markedly different from traditional Japanese castles. A series of decorated gateways lead deeper into the complex, their designs reflecting Chinese as well as Japanese and Ryukyuan influences. 

Okinawa’s islands are dotted with fortresses that were the power bases of local warlords, with Zakimi Castle another well-preserved example dating from the early 1400s. On the west coast of the main island, it dominates a hill overlooking the town of Yomitan and its thick walls complement the curves of the coastline below. 

The islands’ recent history is overshadowed by the brutal battles that took place here in 1945. The Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum opened in 1975 to give a fuller sense of the human tragedy. Built atop sea cliffs in the far south of the prefecture, on the site of the Imperial Japanese Army’s last stand, the museum’s gardens have rings of tall black stones bearing the names of each of the more than 250,000 men, women and children who died in the fighting here, regardless of nationality. A short walk away, along an avenue lined with memorials to the dead of each of Japan’s prefectures, is the tiny cave where the commanding officer of the defeated defenders committed suicide rather than surrender. 

Peace has once more returned to Okinawa and for anyone in search of true tranquility, consider a trip to Iriomote, the second-largest of the islands. It is famous for its unspoiled natural environment and a unique species of wild cat. 

Its sparse coastal communities are linked by a single road and the island’s interior is largely untouched — and protected as a national park. Visitors can explore by sea kayak, while a 20-km trail leads through the jungles of the interior and the mangrove swamps of the coast, all providing an enviable escape from the pace of modern city life. 

AlUla’s Wadi AlFann celebrates Saudi contemporary artist Manal AlDowayan 

Updated 7 sec ago

AlUla’s Wadi AlFann celebrates Saudi contemporary artist Manal AlDowayan 

  • Two exhibitions of the influential Saudi artist’s work mark the pre-opening program of a new cultural destination  

ALULA: The work of Manal AlDowayan, one of Saudi Arabia’s leading contemporary artists, is often focused on cultural metamorphosis, collective narratives and the representation of women, particularly from her home country. 

AlDowayan, who will represent the Kingdom at this year’s Venice Biennale, is currently the subject of two exhibitions in AlUla as part of the pre-opening program of Wadi AlFann, a major new cultural destination for art, design and performance.  

The first exhibition, “Oasis of Stories,” features hundreds of drawings and tales from local communities across AlUla. It will run in the AlJadidah Arts District as part of the AlUla Arts Festival 2024 until March 23.  

Part of the exhibition 'Their Love Is Like All Loves, Their Death Is Like All Deaths’ by Manal AlDowayan. (Supplied)

“AlUla is a library of stories,” AlDowayan said in a statement. “This land holds an archive of narratives and identities that numerous civilizations engraved into its rocks for centuries, telling us about the tools they used, the animals they farmed and the lives they led.” 

The detailed drawings of daily personal and collective life in AlUla were created during workshops AlDowayan held that attracted 700 participants from AlUla, including farmers, cooks, teachers, tour guides, rangers, artists, students, craftspeople, junior football teams and a disability association. AlDowayan asked them to draw their personal stories on paper. The results are poignant and endearing renderings that detail the realities, hopes and dreams of AlUla’s residents as well as the beauty of the region’s natural landscape. 

“I want to give the contemporary inhabitants of AlUla a space for their narrative, allowing it to live permanently in a public artwork for future generations to contemplate,” AlDowayan said. 

Part of the exhibition 'Their Love Is Like All Loves, Their Death Is Like All Deaths’ by Manal AlDowayan. (Supplied)

The exhibition marks a turning point in the development of AlDowayan’s permanent large-scale desert installation for Wadi AlFann, which will also be titled “Oasis of Stories,” and is expected to be completed in 2026. That work takes inspiration from the labyrinth-like passages and walls of AlUla’s Old Town. The drawings and stories from the workshhops will be inscribed into its walls, meaning that AlUla’s residents will leave their mark on a major piece of art in the region they call home.  

“I decided to speak with the AlUla residents to learn about their old town,” AlDowayan told Arab News. “I realized that the story of the people of AlUla has not been documented. (And I thought they needed to) inscribe their story onto something in the surrounding landscape. 

“I visited women’s homes and asked them to document their recipes; I attended weddings and danced and also asked eldery women to tell their stories,” she continued. “Me and my studio manager, Carla, were constantly trying to build a relationship of love and trust with the people from AlUla.” 

One of the pieces in the 'Oasis of Stories' exhibition. (Supplied)

Wadi AlFann is a 65-kilometer “Valley of the Arts” in the desert of AlUla. It will include large-scale art installations set against the natural desert landscape and alluring rock formations. The first five commissions will be by AlDowayan, her fellow Saudi artist Ahmed Mater, and the US-based artists Agnes Denes, Michael Heizer, and James Turrell.  

“There is no desert quite like the AlUla desert,” Wadi AlFann’s lead curator Iwona Blazwick said during the press tour. “This was once a large plateau that was underwater over millennia. The cliffs have been eroded. They’re made of sandstone. There are 7,000 years of human presence in this area, and we find it through rock art markings, petroglyphs, pictograms and hieroglyphs. They’re everywhere you look. But we want to find an expression of the 21st century that we can also add to the landscape.”  

Wadi AlFann, AlUla. (Supplied)

AlDowayan’s second exhibition, presented in collaboration with Madrid-based Sabrina Amrani Gallery, is “Their Love Is Like All Loves, Their Death Is Like All Deaths,” a solo exhibition that delves further into her artistic practice. Sculptural works and drawings in a range of mediums explore the idea of ruin — all inspired by the engravings and architecture of the ancient tombs of AlUla. 

In several rooms of the exhibition, there are soft desert rose-shaped sculptures made from tussar silk, on which are printed subtle images reflective of AlUla’s heritage. Elsewhere, AlDowayan’s labyrinth-like drawings bring to mind the winding passages of AlUla’s Old Town.  

The 'Oasis of Stories' exhibition in Wadi AlFann. (Supplied)

There are also intricate works created by Sadu weaving, a technique traditionally used by Bedouin women, mounted on the wall. Once again, AlDowayan engaged the larger AlUla community, and its imprint powerfully resonates throughout.  

“I want to be sure that everyone enjoys art,” AlDowayan told Arab News. “Saudi Arabia is going through a huge transformative moment and public art is being commissioned across the Kingdom. This is part of a vision that art will be ingrained in our communities.” 

Saudi director Khalid Fahad discusses his Netflix hit ‘From the Ashes’ 

Updated 12 min 33 sec ago

Saudi director Khalid Fahad discusses his Netflix hit ‘From the Ashes’ 

  • ‘It’s a great time to be a Saudi filmmaker,’ said Khalid Fahad


DUBAI: When Saudi filmmaker Khalid Fahad received the script for his latest project — the Netflix movie “From the Ashes” — it didn’t take him long to sign up. 

“I got attached to the characters, I got attached to the ‘villains,’ I got attached to the idea that we, as a society, make a villain, then we judge him or her for their badness,” Fahad tells Arab News. “I related to the idea that parental pressure can make someone make a mistake. And I wanted to tell people that what happens in a school can be because of what we do in our homes. The school is responsible for educating children, but kids learn a lot from each other, and kids can be aggressive or very kind depending on their parents’ guidance.” 

The film garnered attention ahead of its January release in part because of the real-life events that inspired it. It is set on the campus of an all-girls’ school in Saudi Arabia in which a fire breaks out, resulting in several deaths — echoing the 2002 fire at a school for girls in Makkah that left 15 students dead and many more injured. 


However, Fahad is quick to stress that “From the Ashes” is not a retelling of that incident.  

“The writers went with their own — different — story,” he says. “The film’s not really about the fire; it’s about the relationship between the schoolgirls and the teachers and the parents. Some of the girls get bullied, and if we don’t address bullying in schools, then bad things can happen. That’s the real message that we wanted to deliver. These incidents — bullying, or arson, or vandalism — we wanted to show that they happen because of relationships between people and to look at why they’re doing this to each other. What’s the real reason for harming other people?” 

There are several such reasons raised in the film — from parental pressure to outperform one’s peers to institutionalized tendencies to label kids as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ without really trying to understand their circumstances or the underlying causes of their behavior. 

Fahad on the set of 'From the Ashes.' (Supplied)

For a film dealing with such nuanced topics, and so many strong emotions, Fahad knew the casting, particularly for the students, would be crucial. 

“For the teachers, it wasn’t hard because we have some expert actresses,” he says. “But for the students, it was very hard to find new people who fit these roles. It took five or six days of auditioning to find the right people.”  

When they did find them, Fahad’s experience of working with young actors (as he did in his debut feature, last year’s fantasy adventure “Valley Road”) came to the fore.  

Saudi actress Shaima Al Tayeb in 'From the Ashes.' (Supplied)

“My previous project taught me a lot about how to work with kids, which was very hard for me at first. It taught me what they need from me: I need to be their best friend, to tell them what I need and they’ll do their best to give that to me, in terms of emotion. All of them were very talented and I think this film will open the door for them to enter the industry.” 

The Kingdom’s still-nascent movie industry can only benefit from the younger generation picking up valuable experience on well-funded projects such as “From the Ashes,” which — despite the rapid growth — are still relatively thin on the ground.  

“Our industry is still young,” Fahad says. “It’s hard enough just making one film. In terms of capacity, I think it’s very hard to do, like, 10 movies in one year in Saudi Arabia.” 

Despite that, Fahad is only optimistic about the near future. 


A post shared by Khalid Fahad (@khalidf11)

“It’s a great time to be a Saudi filmmaker,” he says. “Everything is open, everything is new. And it’s OK to make mistakes. If you go into the industry in any other country — say, Egypt or Bollywood — there’s no way you can make mistakes, because there’s history there. But for us, mistakes are OK; we’ve just started and we want to learn from our mistakes.  

“But we also have to respect those companies that want to invest in our country and tell our stories,” he adds. “So there’s a balance necessary — we have to take those projects very seriously and deal with them respectfully and professionally.” 

That was clearly the case with “From the Ashes,” and Netflix has been well rewarded for its faith in the film. It made the list of the Top 10 non-English movies on Netflix in 37 countries, accumulating more than 7 million views in a little over a fortnight. 

“I’ve had comments from Mexico, from Spain, talking about bullies and how girls get into fights in schools — it’s similar to their schools,” says Fahad. “And this tells me that we’ve so much in common with other societies. It’s relatable for other people, which is very good. The message that we wanted to deliver is delivered.” 

Where We Are Going Today: Pierre Herme Paris

Updated 22 February 2024

Where We Are Going Today: Pierre Herme Paris

Visitors to the Four Seasons Hotel in Riyadh can get a taste for luxury from more than just the decor and surroundings.

At Pierre Herme Paris they can sample pastries and sweets conceived by French pastry chef Herme, known as the “Picasso of pastry.”

Among the most popular desserts are French macarons, and vanille cakes infused with exotic vanilla cream from Tahiti, Mexico, and Madagascar.

Dacquoise biscuits are adorned with crunchy hazelnuts, hazelnut flakes, thin layers of milk chocolate, milk chocolate ganache, Chantilly cream, and several ice cream flavors, while the pink rose macarons from Isfahan, Iran are filled with rose petal cream and raspberries.

All the pastries are lovingly prepared in the hotel’s kitchens and showcased in museum- style class cabinets.

One of the things that  impressed me about Pierre Hermé Paris is that it is headed by the Executive Pastry Chef Steve Thiery from France, who joined the global pastry-making operations in 2019 after honing his talents for a decade and
a half in pastry kitchens from French Polynesia to France and Morocco.


‘Disgusted’ British fashion icon bins honor from late queen over UK’s Gaza stance

Updated 22 February 2024

‘Disgusted’ British fashion icon bins honor from late queen over UK’s Gaza stance

  • Katharine Hamnett: ‘I’m disgusted to be British for our role in genocide in Gaza’
  • She released a video saying her CBE ‘belongs in the dustbin’ along with PM, opposition leader

LONDON: British fashion designer Katharine Hamnett has renounced an honor she received from the late Queen Elizabeth II to protest against the UK government’s stance on Gaza.

Hamnett, 76, famed for pioneering the slogan T-shirt, was made a commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in 2011 in recognition of her influence on the fashion industry.

This week she released a short video clip showing her outside her front door, wearing a signature T-shirt with the words “Disgusted to be British” emblazoned on the front, throwing her CBE medal into a bin.

“I’m disgusted to be British for our role in genocide in Gaza,” she said. “This is my CBE. It belongs in the dustbin, with (UK Prime Minister Rishi) Sunak and (Labour leader Sir Keir) Starmer.”

Hamnett, who is noted for her political activism, released the clip ahead of a series of proposed motions in the House of Commons calling for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.

Review: ‘Dune: Part Two’ solidifies Denis Villeneuve as a master storyteller

Updated 22 February 2024

Review: ‘Dune: Part Two’ solidifies Denis Villeneuve as a master storyteller

DUBAI: French Canadian auteur Denis Villeneuve can rest easy as “Dune: Part Two” pulls off the most elusive of filmmaking wins: improving on the original movie with a sequel. A lot of it comes down to the fact that “Dune: Part One,” released in October 2021, utilized most of its 2 hours and 48 minutes of runtime to set up 2024’s sweeping spectacle of a conclusion to Frank Herbert’s first novel in the “Dune” series.

And what a spectacle it is. Not only is “Part Two” a sensorial treat in every possible way, but Villeneuve also injects the movie with an emotional verve and gravitas, as well as playfulness, that was drastically missing in the first, in comparison.

“Dune: Part Two” picks up on the heels of the first film, locating itself deep in the desert landscape of Arrakis (shot extensively in Abu Dhabi’s Empty Quarter), where young Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet) must earn the trust of the native Fremen tribes after his entire house was massacred by the Harkonens in a bloody coup.

While Fremen warrior Stilgar (Javier Bardem) is convinced Paul is the prophesized messiah come to save their world from the colonizing forces of Baron Harkonen (Stellan Skarsgard) and battle-hardened war-monger Rabban Harkonnen (Dave Bautista), other Arrakis natives view the young noble with suspicion.


A post shared by DUNE (@dunemovie)

As the battles between the Harkonnens and the Fremen play out in gigantic and awesome displays of fire power, Paul grapples with the consequences of his rising power as Muad’Dib and his need for vengeance, goaded by the growing occult influence of his mother, Lady Jessica, a powerful member of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood.

There is also a budding romance between Paul and Chani (Zendaya), a Fremen fighter who is vocal about her distrust in prophecies, and wants her people to earn their freedom themselves, instead of relying on an outsider.

Zendaya as Fremen warrior Chani in ‘Dune: Part Two.’ (Supplied)

High on the list of Paul’s hit list is Emperor Shaddam IV (Christopher Walken) for a reason that is made clear pretty early in the film, while his daughter Princess Irulan (Florence Pugh) serves as the audience’s entry point into the geopolitical nuances of “Part Two,” as she narrates the film.

Props go entirely to Villeneuve and writer Jon Spaihts for homing in on Herbert’s distaste for the Chosen One trope and dismantling the hero’s journey to reveal the greys that lie beneath what may initially seem like a very black-and-white story. Villeneuve also pulls on the religious threads of the story, ever so carefully, and the results are as mystical as they are cerebral.

Rebecca Ferguson as Reverend Mother Jessica in ‘Dune: Part Two.’ (Supplied)

Meanwhile, cinematographer Greig Fraser is well on his way to collect his next Oscar with “Part Two” — the first instalment of the film won the Best Cinematography Academy Award in 2022 — as he levels up his craft in the sequel. Also, composer Hans Zimmer delivers a superior soundtrack that will stick with audiences long after they have left the theater.

As far as performances go, main players Chalamet and Zendaya turn in expected performances, but never really push the envelope. However, the supporting cast, including Fergusson, Bardem, Bautista and Josh Brolin, are superlative and seem to have remembered to have fun with their characters. Even newcomer Austin Butler as the psychopathic Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen is an absolute treat to behold.

Austin Butler plays Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen in ‘Dune: Part Two.’ (Supplied)

While “Part Two” brings about a satisfying end to the events of the first book, the movie heavily hints at a third outing, and it would be a welcome one.

So if you have recently found yourself losing faith in blockbuster movies, “Dune: Part Two” is here to turn you back into a believer.