Closer to Shanghai and Taipei than they are to Tokyo, the 100 plus islands of Okinawa are a world away in spirit too. Famous for its white sands and turquoise waters, it’s a destination that’s long been popular with domestic tourists dreaming of the island life. But with overseas visits reportedly up 70% last year and new flights being added apace (though not yet direct from Singapore), it’s not somewhere likely to stay off the mainstream radar for much longer.
And while the continuing US military presence overshadows much of the main island of Okinawa-Honto, it’s still significantly less busy and considerably more laid-back than the mainland. The capital city of Naha is also where you’ll fly into, even if you’re planning to explore further afield, making the main island an obvious place to spend some time at either end of your trip.
1. Explore underwater
Okinawa is home to what was, in the early aughts, the world’s largest aquarium: Okinawa Churaumi (JPY1,850 ($23.70) entry), near the town of Motobu, one of very few in the world to display whale sharks. But, frankly, it’s depressing to look at so many captive creatures when there’s a wealth of life immediately offshore.
If you do find yourself in this part of the island, the traditional village of Bise, with its sandy, tree-lined lanes and beachfront setting is a much more rewarding use of your time, with Café Cahaya Bulan a very pleasant lunch stop.
Cliffs near Cape Manzamo
Far better, if you’re interested in the marine world, to get in the water yourself. Cape Manzamo is a hugely popular snorkelling and diving spot, famous for its Blue Cave—though it’s now so busy we’d recommend you avoid it. We heard much better things about Cape Hedo in the north.
And the diving gets better the further out into the archipelago you go, with serious scuba lovers drawn to remote places like Yonaguni island (a 90 minute flight from Naha), in search of schools of hammerhead sharks and mysterious underwater rock formations. Reef Encounters (+81 9 8995-9414), based in Okinawa City, is one of the few operators with English-speaking instructors and can help arrange trips to some of the more far-flung destinations.
Yonaguni underwater ruins
2. Eat well (and maybe live a little longer)
Okinawans are among the world’s longest-lived people, at least in part thanks to the local diet. Given the island location it’s no surprise they eat a lot of seafood, but they’re also big on tofu, bamboo, and pretty much anything pickled. You’ll see the purple Okinawan sweet potato everywhere and folks here eat more seaweed (including a local variety called mozuku) than anywhere else in Japan.
Thanks to historic ties with China, pork crops up more frequently than it does on the mainland, including in the Okinawan classic goya chanpuru (bitter gourd stir-fried with pork, tofu and egg) and local favorite mimiga(shredded pigs ear). You’ll also find pork ribs served with chewy oki-soba. And the islands are a great place to sample umi budo or sea grapes, fresh seaweed served up with a side of vinegar. One of the best places to try all of these items is Makishi public market in Naha (2-10-1 Matsuo; open from 8am-8pm), where you can pick your produce from the vendors on the ground floor and have the restaurants upstairs cook it for you.
Restaurant at Makishi public market
3. Learn about the islands’ chequered history
The islands of Okinawa saw some of the fiercest fighting in WWII, with the losses suffered dissuading the Allies from invading the mainland. Many of the key battle sites are in Mabuni (a 45 minute drive south from Naha), where you can tour the old navy headquarters, a national cemetery, and the Peace Memorial Museum (JPY300 ($3.80) entry).
Peace Memorial Park at Mabuni
Shuri Castle in Naha, for more than 500 years the royal court and administrative center of what was—until Japan annexed it at the close of the nineteenth century—the independent Ryukyu kingdom, was also destroyed in the Allied attack, but has since been rebuilt and reopened as a World Heritage site (JPY820 ($10.50) entry). It’s also the site of the three-day Shuri Castle Festival held in late October (this year’s edition starts on October 28), which sees traditional dance performances and a colorful re-enactment of a coronation ceremony in front of the castle, as well as on the streets of Naha.
Also in October (this year on the 10th) is the Naha Great Tug of War, another lively street festival, the centerpiece of which sees teams up to 15,000 strong pull a 200 meter-long rope weighing more than 40,000kg (no surprise then that it’s a Guinness World Record).
Naha Great Tug of War
4. Go in search of the local wildlife
While adventure lovers are better served on outer islands like the jungle-clad Iriomote-jima (sometimes nicknamed the “Japanese Galapagos” and home to an indigenous type of wildcat; it’s an hour’s flight to Ishigaki and then a ferry ride away), Yanbaru, the forested northern tip of Okinawa-Honto, offers trekking and wildlife-spotting opportunities of its own. Bird-lovers come in search of the extremely rare Okinawan rail, a near-flightless bird found nowhere else in the world, and other endemic species like the Okinawa woodpecker and the Ryukyu robin.
You might also be able to spot the Ryukyu flying fox and the deadly habu snake. You can trek to the Hiji Waterfall (JPY 500 ($6.40) entrance fee), which at 26 meters is Okinawa’s highest, and, though it’s only a 90 minute round-trip hike, camp in the forest at the trailhead (JPY2,000 ($25.60)) if you want to spend more time there. It’s a two hour drive from Naha.
5) Knock back the local liquor
Awamori is the Okinawan take on shochu, made from long-grain Thai rice, an indigenous black mold and water (unlike sakeit’s distilled not brewed). It’s commonly aged for at least 3 years and often for 25 or more, after which it becomes more potent and is known as kusu.
Pot-making at Chuko awamori distillery
There are some 48 distilleries in the islands, though the Chuko distillery, 10 minutes’ drive from Naha airport, is the only one that continues to make the drink in a traditional pot still—and it’s helpfully open to the public. You can see the pots themselves being made, watch a demonstration of the distilling process, and sample the wares yourself while you’re there. Admission and tasting are free.
It’s not easy right now as there are no direct flights. Your best bet is to go via Taipei with China Airlines, which can get you there and back from $690 (journey time is around 8h30m). Consider asking a travel agent though—we flew direct with SilkAir, which had a number of chartered flights running in June. Note that the island is not particularly easy to get around, and so we’d strongly recommend renting a car: try Budget at Naha Airport, which has vehicles starting from around $50/day including taxes.
Flights to the other islands with ANA and JTA start from $280 for foreign travelers, regardless of destination.
Where to Stay
The nicest place we stayed was Ryukyu Onsen Senagajima Hotel, a luxe spot right by the ocean, and only a few minutes from Naha Airport. It’s a great place to start or end your trip, with an in-house onsen, open-air baths with sunset views in some rooms, and a smattering of cafes and restaurants on the headland next to the property. Rooms start from JPY9,600 ($120) per night.
Ryukyu Onsen Senagajima Hotel
Other upmarket options on the main island include a Hyatt Regency in Naha and the Ritz-Carlton Okinawa, inside a golf course north of Motobu.