With the lion’s share of Japan’s best beaches, an ocean teeming with colourful marine life, and abundant nature and primordial jungles, Okinawa is Japan’s premier resort and outdoor adventure destination.
A beautiful subtropical island chain between the border of the East China Sea and Western Pacific with nine World Heritage sites, Okinawa is Japan’s southernmost prefecture. Of its 160 islands 49 are populated, and there are six different local dialects used around them.
Unlike anywhere else in Japan, in Okinawa, it’s easy to just let yourself be and relax completely. If you’ve ever needed a holiday after a holiday, Okinawa is the place to go – especially for those skiing and snowboarding on the mainland or in Hokkaido. After shredding up the powder snow, a little R&R in the warmth might be exactly what you need.
Like the weather in Okinawa, its people are famously warm and inviting, and proudly treasure their cultural heritage. Okinawa is rich in history and cultural attractions boosts its appeal as a holiday destination, and it enjoys a consistently high number of repeat visitors from Japan and abroad year after year.
For more information on Okinawa visit: https://www.visitokinawa.jp/
FLIGHTS & ACCOMMODATION
Naha is the capital city of Okinawa, and to gain access to Okinawa and its many islands, you must go through Naha.
There are direct flights to Naha available from major cities like Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya as well as surrounding Asian countries. However, you can also access Ishigaki and Miyako Islands with a direct flight from Haneda Airport in Tokyo.
Here’s how to access Okinawa from Japan’s key ski areas!
|AREA||HOW TO ACCESS NAHA AIRPORT||TIME|
|Hokkaido||Limited direct flights from New Chitose Airport available everyday||4 hrs|
|Alternatively, fly from Hokkaido via Tokyo, Osaka/Kansai International or Fukuoka||5-6 hrs|
|Yamagata||Fly via Tokyo (Haneda) or Osaka||4.5 hrs|
|OR get the bullet train to Tokyo then fly from Haneda||5.5 hrs|
|Iwate||Fly via Osaka, Fukuoka or Sapporo||4.5-5.5 hrs|
|Niigata||Direct flight to Naha||3 hrs|
|Nagano||Bullet train to Tokyo then fly from Haneda||5.5 hrs|
A number of Japanese domestic airlines offer very competitive fares to Okinawa from the mainland; check the websites of Jetstar Japan, Peach Aviation, Skymark Airlines and Air Asia Japan for some great deals. Japan Airlines’ oneworld Yokoso/Visit Japan Fare and ANA’s Star Alliance Japan Airpass/Visit Japan Fare also offer savings on connecting flights within Japan.
If you’re doing some island hopping from Naha, Japan Transocean Air’s Okinawa Island Pass is another cost-effective option. Expedia and Webjet are two excellent online booking tools for flights and accommodation in Okinawa.
Further information: https://www.visitokinawa.jp/transportation/transportation-to-okinawa
LIFESTYLE OF OKINAWA
THE SPIRIT OF OKINAWA
Okinawan people are some of the longest-lived in the world, and when you look at their relaxed, laid-back native culture and lifestyle, it’s not hard to see why. The glue that holds it all together is the yuimaru spirit, a collective ethos of sharing and caring.
‘Yui’, the first part of the word, stems from the Chinese character meaning to tie together – essentially to cooperate – and is used to describe the pooling of labour and skills in local communities. ‘Maru’ is an Okinawan word meaning something like ‘turn’ or ‘order’. When combined together, both perfectly describe the altruism of the yuimaru spirit – an inseparable part of the Okinawan lifestyle.
For the people of Okinawa, staying healthy is as much about having an antioxidant-rich meal of goya chanpuru to nourish the body, as it is about having friendly cuppa and a chat with the neighbours to warm the spirit. Community ties are close-knit, and the islanders extend a friendly welcome to visitors without hesitation.
EATING & DRINKING
As well as the yuimaru spirit and easy going lifestyle, the unique cuisine of Okinawa supports the health and resilience of its population, who traditionally describe their food as ‘nuchigusui’ – medicine for life. Traditional dishes are filled with antioxidant-rich land and sea vegetables, one of the most ubiquitous of which is bitter melon.
Known as ‘goya’ in Okinawa, it really is ‘medicine for life’, packed with vitamin C and a cancer preventing compound called cucurbitacin, and is traditionally eaten as a restorative against fatigue during the hottest months of the year.
Vitamin-rich pork is also used prominently in Okinawan cuisine, with the local philosophy being to use every part of the animal except its squeal. Simmered in awamori and brown sugar it becomes ‘rafute’, a melt-in-the-mouth delicacy for special occasions.
Sugar cane has long been a primary crop in Okinawa, and its nutritious brown sugar can be found throughout the local boiled sweets, shortbread-like ‘chinsuko’ cookies and other treats.
Awamori is the strongest traditional spirit in Japan – which can turn polite dinnertime conversation into raucous comedy with incredible speed – and Okinawa’s Orion Beer is produced the north of Okinawa Island and enjoyed around the world.
Okinawans actively celebrate their culture together, and one of the best places to see this is at an Eisa dance performance, essentially an Okinawan answer to the South American carnival. The brightly coloured costumes and thunderous drumming of Eisa can be experienced in its full glory at the All-Okinawa Eisa Festival, in Okinawa City every August.
As well as the Eisa festival, there are quite a few blockbuster events held in Okinawa, including Naha Giant Tug of War!
Your average piece of straw rope may not attract a crowd on its own, but woven into a 43 ton, 200 metre long behemoth blocking an aterial road in downtown Naha, it sure draws a crowd. A whopping 270,000 people attend this event held mid October every year with 15,000 participants.
You could cut the air with a knife as karate masters face off like Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee before the tug of war begins, enveloped by a mass of chanting flag bearers in traditional Okinawan costume, and the sound of incessant drumming and bells.
This prelude to the main event is a colourful reminder of its 450 years history of Ryukyu Kingdom, with beginnings in an ancient rivalry between two lords in the Naha area.
Earlier in the year, in May, dragon boat racers with sculpted torsos paddle it out in the intense competition of the Naha Haarii Festival. It’s much like watching the Spartans working up a head of steam to ram an enemy vessel. The festival is effectively an Okinawan state championship of dragon boat racing, which has been ritualised in Okinawan culture as a fisherman’s festival since it was adopted from China around the fourteenth century.
Find out more about Okinawa’s many attractions here: https://www.visitokinawa.jp/attractions
NATURE OF OKINAWA
EXPLORING OKINAWA’S ISLANDS
Okinawa is made up of 160 islands that are full of life on and off the islands. There is no way to appreciate Okinawa without exploring these islands – nature is a big part of the Okinawan lifestyle. People live in harmony with nature here so the local guides will know exactly where to take you. Let them take you on a journey filled with gorgeous subtropic scenery and mystical creatures.
Just off the coast of Yonaguni Island in the southern extreme of Okinawa’s Yaeyama Archipelago is the Yonaguni Monument, an enormous palace shaped underwater structure thought to be a lost Atlantis.
Measuring 300m long, it has been suggested that it almost resembles a Mayan temple with its carved staircase, main terrace and artistic reliefs, and is a popular attraction on both diving and glass-bottomed boat tours around Yonaguni Island.
Dive, snorkel, or windsurf your way around the Kume Island region, a 30-minute flight away from Naha. Kume is home to some dazzling beaches, headed by the 2km white strip of Eef Beach, also a gathering point for the local marine sports enthusiasts.
Get right away from mankind altogether on Tonaki Island nearby, an uninhabited 3.5km bastion of Prefectural Natural Park. It’s all enough to make you feel like a few nips of Kumejima-no-Kumesen, the famous local awamori spirit.
Some head to the alluring beaches of the Miyako region in full stride during its famous triathlon, but more choose to saunter, quite possibly after a morning already spent diving on lush coral reefs like Yabiji in the north of Ikema Island.
There’s also Toriike pond on Shimoji Island, which appears as a double on the surface, but is actually one interconnecting stream between fresh and saltwater, full of interesting discoveries only surpassed by a towering Marksburg Castle at Ueno German Culture Village.
It’s hard not to notice the crystal clear waters and the coral reefs when arriving at Ishigaki Island. Within the surrounding ocean of this subtropic island is an abundance of marine life complete with sea turtles and manta rays. Find yourself a professional diving tour guide to take you on an expedition under the sea. With luck you’ll have a magical encounter with one of Ishigaki’s magnificent sea creatures.
When you arrive at Taketomi Island, hitch a ride on a carriage pulled by a water buffalo. The buffalos were brought in for farm work, but they are the best way to slowly explore the nationally protected scenery of this old village island. Change over to a bike to freely explore the sandy white beaches and friendly community, it takes less than a day to see all of the island by bike and be completely enchanted.
If you’re looking to immerse yourself in pure nature, 90% of Iriomote Island is covered in a native subtropic jungle. There’s no better way to experience the island than to simply kayak down Nakama river, one of Iriomote’s 40 rivers that also has Japan’s largest mangrove coverage… Or trek through the jungle to meet Pinaisala Falls. There are plenty of guides in the area to choose from, so be sure to go with one or you may encounter Iriomote’s resident Iriomote wild cat.
THE NATURE RICH SCENERY OF OKINAWA
The pace of life on the outer islands of Okinawa is best described by the pace of their local water buffalo: slow and relaxed. Patiently plodding around under their long, arched horns as if looking for somewhere to put them down, these friendly, docile creatures help the local villagers both at work and play. If you’re struggling to get into the rhythm when you arrive, just take a ride on a water buffalo buggy in a remote village.
Perambulating through sandy pathways lined by coral walls, and spattered with the deep green and purple of subtropical gardens is quite possibly as calming as a meditation session with the Dalai Lama, and your guide might even break into song with his Okinawan banjo – known as a sanshin – along the way.
Taketomi and Ishigaki Islands are especially famous for their beautiful enclaves of traditional houses, which miraculously continue to withstand the howling gales of the Pacific typhoon season each year.
Want to know a little more on Okinawa’s beaches? Click through to this link: https://www.visitokinawa.jp/attractions/beach-information
HISTORY OF OKINAWA
Okinawa’s history is as colourful as Shuri Castle. Despite being tossed about dramatically on the currents of political change, the islanders of Okinawa have held steadfastly to their relaxed take on life, and an open, welcoming spirit. The Ryukyu Islands, as Okinawa was known originally, underwent a transformation throughout its history. From a benign 12th century farming settlement, to a powerful 15th century trade hub of East Asia.
The Japanese gatecrashed the party in 1609 and annexed the islands, which then fell under the crosshairs of US bombers much later during World War II. Miraculously, Okinawa has retained historic monuments to its characteristic blend of Japanese, Chinese and Southeast Asian culture which are now World Heritage listed, complementing the beautiful natural environment that has made it one of Japan’s premier resort destinations.
WALK THROUGH HISTORY AT WORLD HERITAGE SITES
The islands of Okinawa and their history is steeped in local legends and mythologies, their creation is attributed to an ancient goddess. Known as Amamikiyo, she is said to have descended from Nirai Kanai – a sort of Okinawan Mount Olympus – and formed the chain of islands upon the glittering ocean. The first of these was Kudaka Island, a tiny sliver of land visible from between the enormous boulders of Sefa Utaki – a prayer site some 5km across the sea on the southeast coast of Okinawa Island.
The Kikoe Okimi, or supreme priestess of Okinawa’s native religion, would offer prayers from the stone overhangs and passageways of Sefa Utaki, which were almost exclusively the domain of female priests known as ‘noro’ – effectively the messengers of the gods during the days when Okinawa was known as the Ryukyu Kingdom.
Before King Sho Hashi unified the kingdom in 1429, Okinawa was ruled by powerful lords from castles that have also been inscribed on the World Heritage list with Sefa Utaki.
The most iconic amongst them is Shuri Castle in Naha, a replica of the 15th century original. With its brilliantly coloured architecture, reliefs and carvings, it stands as a powerful testament Okinawa’s prosperity as an independent trading power during the centuries from 1429 to 1879, when it was known as the Ryukyu Kingdom.
Including Sefa Utaki and Shuri Castle, Okinawa has nine World Heritage-listed sites, which form fascinating windows into the world of its ancient kings and indigenous culture.
Two more World Heritage-listed sites are walking distance from Shuri Castle: Sonohyan Utaki, a stone gate used as a prayer site by the Ryukyuan kings with strikingly detailed flames carved into it, and Tamaudun Royal Mausoleum, where these kings now lie at peace in beautifully decorated inner chambers under the watchful eye of shisa statues outside.
A little further away are the tranquil Shikinaen Gardens, a modern reconstruction of the original gardens built for the royal family’s summer palace in 1799. Coral walls and subtropical vegetation add an unmistakeable Okinawan flavour to the Japanese and Chinese design sensibilities of the gardens, providing a lovely example of the flair the islanders have in developing ideas from outside cultures and fusing them with their own.
Elsewhere in the north and centre of Okinawa Island, the original foundations and ramparts of Nakijin, Zakimi, Katsuren and Nakagusuku castles stand as an impressive testament to the advanced fortification techniques of the architects who designed them some 500 years ago. The journey through the rich natural landscape around the castles is as rewarding as the sweeping coastal views they afford, and is a wonderful way to conclude your tour of Okinawa’s World Heritage Sites.
Take a closer look at Okinawa’s history here: https://www.visitokinawa.jp/about-okinawa/history