Okinawa is a chain of stunningly beautiful islands that together form Japan’s southernmost prefecture. Previously known as the Ryukyu Kingdom, its isolated location and year-round warm weather give it a laid-back vibe and relaxed pace of life very different from mainland Japan. This makes the islands very popular with both domestic and international tourists looking for some sun and relaxation.
There’s a lot to discover here – from historic castle ruins to dense mangrove jungles – but the biggest draw is undoubtedly the beaches, especially on the smaller islands. Stretches of pure white sand bordered by lush green forest and kissed by azure ocean can be found all across the prefecture, each with their own charm and unique features. Here are Culture Trip’s top beach recommendations, whether you want to swim, snorkel or simply relax in the golden sunshine.
Aharen is the biggest of the two main beaches on Tokashiki Island, the largest of the Kerama Islands. Its bay location provides shelter from the waves and currents, making it an excellent place for swimming. On top of that, the incredible coral reefs and crystal-clear waters have earned the beach its reputation as a top spot for snorkelling. Sun worshippers have plenty to enjoy, too, with around 800 metres (2,625 feet) of ivory sand to relax on. There are plenty of facilities nearby, including rental shops, restaurants, toilets and showers, all of which means the beach can get crowded in the peak summer months.
Tiny Akajima is the smallest of the main Kerama Islands, but boasts absolutely magnificent beaches. The best among them is Nishibama Beach, a one-kilometre (0.6-mile) stretch of pristine white shoreline where the ocean is shallow and the waves gentle. There are diving spots farther out where you can swim among coral reefs in a sea such a beautiful shade of blue that the colour has its own name: Kerama Blue. One of the area’s cutest features is the statue of a dog named Shiro at the nearby port. This pup used to swim three kilometres (1.9 miles) across to Zamami-jima every day to see his sweetheart, Marilyn, who has her own statue on the other side.
This seven-kilometre (4.3-mile) sweep of sun-drenched sand on Miyako-jima’s southwest coast frequently features on lists of the best beaches in all of Japan. Also known as Yonaha-Maehama beach, arriving here is like stepping into a postcard, with the sparkling emerald ocean lapping at perfect sandy shores. The area is suitable for swimming and other water sports, and is equipped with showers, toilets and a rental shop. The beach also experiences some of the island’s most beautiful sunsets, after which the darkness of the night sky makes it a wonderful spot for stargazing. As expected, it can get busy at peak times.
Reached via a narrow pathway leading over sand dunes and through a tunnel of trees, Sunayama Beach is well worth making the effort for. The sand dunes provide it with its name – which means Sand Mountain Beach – and it’s also famous for the arch-shaped rock formations jutting out between the sea and the sand. The waters around Miyako-jima are an amazing blend of blues and greens and well known for their high visibility, making the beach ideal for snorkelling. The beach itself is small, but the contrast of white sand, cobalt ocean and dark, rugged rock formations make it one of the most aesthetically pleasing.
Located on the northern coast of Ishigaki-jima, lively Yonehara Beach is one of the best spots on the island for snorkelling. Equipment can be rented from the shops or campsites nearby, enabling you to freely explore the beauty of the surrounding coral reef. Expect to come across a huge variety of colourful tropical fish (though keep an eye out for jellyfish, as there are no nets at Yonehara to keep them out). It’s worth noting that the current can be strong here, so the deeper water may not be suitable for children and weak swimmers. When you’ve had enough of swimming, there’s plenty of space on the sand for blissful relaxation.
One of Ishigaki-jima’s most well-known spots, Kabira Bay is an achingly beautiful place. The combination of ivory sands and seas of sapphire and emerald hues dotted with forested islets will take your breath away. Black pearls are cultivated in the bay, which means there’s no swimming allowed, but you can go out in a glass-bottomed boat to get a closer look at the reef below the surface. Visibility is excellent, and there’s plenty of colourful marine life to see. It’s also possible to tour the tiny, uninhabited islands offshore, where swimming, snorkelling and kayaking is permitted.
Widely considered to be not only the best beach on Taketomi-jima but in the whole prefecture, Kondoi Beach is a vast swathe of pristine white sand on the west coast of the little island. Its tranquil and shallow azure waters are perfect for swimming when the tide is right, and there’s plenty of space for sunbathing, too. There are changing rooms, bathrooms and showers, plus shops where you can rent snorkels and other beach gear. If you stroll out through the gentle waves you should be able to spot multicoloured fish darting around the coral, or you can stay on land and befriend the local cats instead!
This secluded spot on the southwest of traditional Taketomi-jima might appear to be just another gorgeous sweep of beach like the others. Those who look closer, however, will find a hidden touch of magic. Camouflaged amid the regular grains of sand you can find some shaped like tiny stars, which are actually the skeletal remains of miniature sea creatures. You can bring a small container to collect some, or purchase one of the many available souvenirs full of the delicate shapes from beachside stalls or local shops. There’s no swimming here due to the strong currents, but the beach itself is perfect for sunbathing or relaxing with a book.