A subtropical island paradise, Okinawa showcases an entirely different side of Japan. From pristine beaches and multicoloured coral reefs to historical sites and vibrant cities, there’s so much to discover here. These are the things you definitely won’t want to miss.
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Okinawa is the southernmost prefecture in Japan, a chain of scenic islands stretching across the ocean towards Taiwan. Its history as the independent Ryukyu Kingdom has gifted it with a culture very distinct from mainland Japan in areas like cuisine, arts and crafts, with influence from both China and more recently the USA.
The prefecture’s main island – also called Okinawa – is the largest and most developed part of the region. Here you can explore dramatic castle ruins and restored residences of the Ryukyu kings, party in modern entertainment districts or just relax on sandy beaches. The surrounding ocean is renowned for its beauty and abundant marine life, meaning Okinawa is also an ideal location for scuba diving and snorkelling.
Whether you prefer to be above the water or below it, Okinawa offers endless possibilities for things to do. Here are Culture Trip’s top recommendations.
Explore Naha, the prefecture’s lively capital
Naha is Okinawa’s largest city, and a great place to start your island adventure. It’s home to a number of important sites, such as Shuri Castle (which unfortunately was largely destroyed by a fire in late 2019 and is currently being reconstructed), Fukushuen Garden, the Tamaudun Mausoleum and the beautiful Naminoue Shrine. The Okinawa Prefectural Museum is full of exhibitions about the prefecture’s history and culture for those who want to learn more. Naha is also the best place to experience modern Okinawa, from the bustling shopping street Kokusai Dori to the numerous bars and restaurants that fill the surrounding areas.
Relax on gorgeous beaches
For many people, the number one reason for visiting Okinawa is the beaches. And with sugar-soft sand, crystal-clear ocean and a subtropical climate, it’s easy to see why. One of the most popular areas is Manza Beach, which is tucked away on a peninsula about halfway up the island and is renowned for its calm waters and pristine sand. For something more central, try Sunset Beach in American Village or Naha’s Naminoue Beach. Among the most aesthetically stunning beaches are Emerald Beach and Okuma Beach, both in the north of the island. With cerulean waves lapping at pure white shores bathed in golden sunshine, you’ll feel all your stress simply melt away.
Dive in underwater wonderlands
If admiring the ocean from afar isn’t enough for you, there are countless opportunities to explore it from within as well. The fantastic visibility, incredible coral reefs and abundance of marine wildlife in Okinawa’s waters make the prefecture one of the best places in the world for scuba diving. Spots like Blue Cave, Sunabe and the stunning Kerama islands – which are famous for the breathtaking blue of the surrounding water – are perfect even for beginners and snorkelers, with the chance to swim alongside iridescent fish and graceful sea turtles. More experienced divers should head to Cape Manza to explore some of the more advanced dive sites.
Get out on the water
In addition to diving and snorkeling, there are plenty of other ways to enjoy the beauty of Okinawa’s cobalt seas. Embrace the laidback island vibe by taking a surfing lesson, or try a yoga class on a standup paddle board. Guided SUP tours can be a fantastic way of discovering more of Okinawa’s rich landscape, or a unique way to watch the sunset over the water. And you’re not just limited to the summer months. Between late December and early April there’s also the chance to go whale watching, when majestic humpbacks migrate across the Pacific to Okinawa’s warmer waters to breed.
Sample delicious local delicacies
Okinawa’s unique heritage is strongly reflected in its cuisine, with plenty of local ingredients and dishes to try. These include goya (bitter melon), shiquasa (a citrus fruit) and beni-imo, a variety of sweet potato with vibrant purple flesh. Taco rice – where typical taco ingredients like ground beef, cheese, salsa and salad are served on white rice – is a popular dish, as is Okinawa soba, which varies from mainland Japanese soba in that it’s made with wheat noodles instead of buckwheat flour. And don’t forget to try the local spirit, awamori, made from long grain rice and found in pretty much every bar on the island.
Wander the imposing ruins of ancient castles
Okinawa island is dotted all over with historic remnants of its time as the Ryukyu Kingdom, including several castle ruins. While all that’s left are the stone ramparts and foundations, they’re an atmospheric reminder of the power of these bygone kings. Nakijin-jō in the north of the island is the most remote, surrounded by dense forest, whilst Katsuren-jō is free to enter and offers panoramic views from its hilltop location in the east. Zakimi-jō in the centre of the island also has free entry, and visitors can climb the walls for stunning sunset views. Nakagusuku-jō is the only other castle ruin where you can ascend the walls, and it is particularly well preserved.
Stroll through the serene Shikinaen Garden
This 18th-century garden was built as a second residence for the Ryukyu royal family, and is counted among the island’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. A calm oasis near Naha’s Shuri Castle, it houses a red-tiled wooden palace building where banquets were held for foreign dignitaries, constructed in Okinawa’s distinctive architectural style. A walking path runs through the gardens, taking you past pavilions, through woodlands and across stone bridges over the large central pond. Different seasonal plants and flowers line the route, including some species unique to Okinawa, making it a pleasure to stroll around at any time of year.
Have a day out at American Village
To see a more modern side of Okinawa culture and the influence the United States has had on the island, head to Mihama American Village in Chatan. This quirky Americana-themed outdoor entertainment complex is easy to spot by the iconic, colourful Ferris wheel at its entrance. The area is full to the brim with shops, cafés and restaurants, as well as bars where you can sample locally-brewed craft beer. There’s also a cinema that shows both Japanese and English-language films. Many of the eateries have gorgeous ocean views over the East China Sea, and Sunset Beach is just a few steps away.
Okinawa island is a fantastic destination, and you could easily spend your entire trip here. However, there are a number of smaller islands in the prefecture which are well worth making the short plane or ferry ride to visit. They’re also less frequented by tourists, and it’s not unusual to have a whole stretch of pristine beach to yourself in some places. Head to Ishigaki to dive with manta rays, or Taketomi to explore a traditional Ryukyu village and relax on a beach with star-shaped sand. Jungle-covered Iriomote is an adventurer’s dream thanks to its epic hiking and kayaking, while Miyako will blow you away with the unbelievable blue and green hues of the surrounding ocean.
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