by Devon Sponheimer
Looking for a tropical island getaway in Japan? The Okinawa Prefecture or “The Land of Eterenal Summer” just may be the trip for you. With spectacular dive sites, a unique cultural history, stunning natural scenery and year round events you’ll want to put Okinawa on your list!
The Okinawa Prefecture is the southernmost prefecture of Japan. It is comprised of hundreds of islands in the Ryukyu chain which is over 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) long. The islands are divided into several geographical areas. The Okinawa Island Region (Ie-jima, Kume, and Okinawa), Islands near Okinawa (Kita Diato, Minami Daito, and Kerama Islands), the Yaeyama Island Region (Yonaguni, Iriomote, Ishigaki, and Hateruma) and the Miyako Island Region (Miyako, and Tarama).
Temperatures at the islands are typically above 20C (68F) year round. It almost never drops below 10C even during the cold season. Summer-like temperatures begin in May, with June and July marking the rainy season. August & September tend to be hot, while April and October are a comfortable time of the year to visit. December and January can be chilly but these months are the short winter season.
From swimming and snorkelling to diving, Okinawa’s crystal clear waters are perfect for spotting tropical fish and beautiful corals. The islands are home to rare blue corals found off of Ishigaki and Miyako islands.
Best Dive Sites
Okinawa Main Island
Sunabe Point: For beginners to professionals. Access diving from the beach and try your hand at night diving (be safe and hire a guide).
Onnna Point: Located between Caoe Manza Beach, this hidden diving spot is also known as Toilet Seat Point due to the coastal shape.
Kerama Islands: This is arguable the most famous diving spot featuring diversity in sea creatures, clarity of water and field full of variety. Diving shops are located on Tokashiki, Zamami and Aka if you didn’t bring your gear.
These feature protuberant coral reef rocks, white sand beaches and crystal clear oceans.
Popular dive spots include Shimoji Island and Yabiji, the largest coral reef in Japan.
For the best views of manta rays, try diving at Ishigaki where they gather in the Yonara channel between Iriomote Island and Kohama Island. At Yonaguni Island, see some mysterious ruins and maybe even a hammerhead shark!
Fishing for big-game is very popular here. Try you hand at tuna, marlin or dorado fishing.
With transparent clear waters, enjoy a relaxing journey on the sea and view tropical fish swimming around magnificent coral reefs.
Okinawa is a paradise of diverse plant and animal life. The best place to explore for native wildlife is on Yanbaru and Iriomote (The Galapagos of the East, and the last unexplored region of Japan) Islands. These islands with their old-growth forests create a tropical ecosystem containing over 1250 different species of plants many of which are endangered.
In order to enjoy these natural wonders to their fullest extent, try canoeing at Gesahi Bay, or take a forest trek to see Hiji Falls. While exploring, keep an eye out wildlife including the world’s rarest and most endangered cat species, the Iriomote Cat, as well as the kuina (a flightless bird), Pryer’s woodpecker and tenaga-kogane (a gold beetle). As many species still being discovered on both islands, maybe you’ll discover one of your own!
Okinawa offers courses from beginners and professionals, with amazing ocean views and some with fairways crossing the ocean. The natural terrain allows for elaborately designed and challenging courses.
Okinawa hosts many marathons, triathlons and bike races. Participate with the locals and put your abilities to the test!
Okinawa’s rich history is in part due to the Ryukyu Kingdom, the era responsible for creating Okinawa’s unique culture. During its high point, this kingdom produced crafts, performing arts, food and even invented Karate! Check out the gorgeous craftwork — Ryukyuan lacquerware, Bingata dyed products, Ryukyu glassware, Bashofu and Shuri Ori weaving and Tusboya and Yachimun pottery.
If you have the opportunity, check out a “Ryukyu dance”. Performed in elegant costumes, these dances have a variety of purposes — to welcome guests to royal court, to display feelings of the people or to console the souls of ancestors. With each island having its own style and incorporating it into their every day, music is an intrinsic part of life in Okinawa.
World Heritage Sites
Okinawa also has several sites registered by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites — Known was “Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu”. Gusuku were fortresses used by regional chieftains. Many of these properties are free to visit, below are just a few of the must see WHS in Okinawa -
- Zakimi Castle Ruins
- Katsuren Castle Ruins
- Sonohyan Utaki Stone Gate
The following sites have admission fees, however, they will only set you back a few hundred yen each.
Nakijin Castle Ruins
- Adults - 400JPY
- Children - 300JPY
- Children under 5 - Free
Shurijo Castle Park
- Adults - 800JPY
- High School Students - 600JPY
- Children under 5 - Free
Nakagusuku Castle Ruins
- Adults - 300JPY
- High/Junior High Students - 200JPY
- Elementary Students - 100JPY
- Children under 5 - Free
- Adults - 200JPY
- Students - 100JPY
- Adults - 300JPY
- High/Junior High Students - 100JPY
- Elementary and Children under 5 - Free
For more modern history lovers, visit battle sites and museums about World War II, such as the former Japanese Navy underground headquarters, the Himeyuri Peace Museum or the Okinawa Prefecture Peace Memorial Museum
Due to its proximity to other countries, Okinawa cuisine is highly influenced by neighbouring cultures. The most popular choice is pork dishes, introduced from China. Popular dishes include tebichi (pig’s feet), rafute (clear soup with pork tripe), inamuduchi (miso pork) and soki (pork spareribs)
Okinawan’s often ‘eat for health’, so there are many tofu and vegetable dishes, such as umi-bodu (sea grapes), goya (bitter melon) and beni-imo (sweet potato). For a global experience, try the taco rice. Tacos were introduced by the Americans stationed there and the Okinawans have their own take on how to make this dish.
Okinawa is also home to the oldest distilled spirit in Japan, “Awamori”!
Okinawa is accessible via both domestic and international flights to Okinawa’s main airport at Naha. You can get direct international flights from Taipei, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Seoul. If you’re visiting Ishigaki and Miyako Islands, there are direct flights available from Hanade, Kansai and Central Japan International airports. Naha airport offers transfer to other areas of the Okinawa Prefecture on either boats or airplanes to the outlying islands.
Where to Stay
Try a minshuku. Similar to a ryokan, these bed and breakfasts are family operated. This will give you and opportunity to meet a local family, sleep on a futon and bathe in an onsen. Many times, breakfasts and dinner will be included in your stay.
Hotels on the island will charge more during peak season (New Years, Golden Week and Summer) so be aware.
Rental cars, buses and taxis are the major modes of transport around the island, but there is also rental bicycles and a monorail on the island.
The monorail runs from Naha Airport to Shurijo Castle giving you a beautiful view of the island on the way to the city.
- One Way Pass: Adults - 220JPY, Children - 110JPY
- One Day Pass: Adults - 600JPY, Children - 300JPY
- Two Day Pass: Adults - 1,000JPY, Children - 600JPY
- Three Day Pass: Adults - 1,400JPY, Children - 900JPY
Yui Rail Buses cover nearly the entire Okinawa Main Island and are a great option for site seeing. In the city, there is a uniform fare of 220JPY for adults which must be paid when you enter the bus. For Suburban lines, the base fare is 220JPY from Naha city. Outside of the city, fares start at 160JPY and increase according to the distance. You’ll take a numbered ticket from the dispenser when you get on and pay when you exit.
If you’re looking to get to your accommodations, try the airport limousine bus, available between Naha airport and major resorts on Okinawa Island. Tickets can be purchased at the airport in domestic terminal 1F, the Naha Bus terminal and at each hotel where the limousines bus stops.
Taxis are available 24 hours a day, the minimum fare is 500JPY, and increases 60JPY every 360meters. An additional 20% surcharge is added from 10pm to 5am daily and taxis accept both cash and major credit cards. Be aware (Americans) there is NO tipping. Also available are tourist taxi cab drivers with a certified crew to guide you around the island.
This is quickly becoming a popular option for tourists, and there are a variety of types of cars for rent. Car rentals come with GPS and are available on all islands. If traveling on the outer islands, gas/petrol stations are infrequent so make sure you find out their locations beforehand. You will need an international drivers license to drive and remember driving is on the left side of the road for those of you used to driving on the right.
Rental bicycles, which are available on many of the outlying islands including the Main Island, are a popular mode of transportation for easily visiting various places. The cost is reasonable and touring around the islands is possible on the smaller outlying islands.
The spectacular islands of Okinawa provide a tropical escape for any visitor, as well as its locals. With natural beauty all around, and a vast array of activities that cater to all, it's easy to see why these tropical islands in southern Japan has ended up on many peoples must see when visiting Japan.