Photo above and left side below ©Okinawa Convention & Visitors Bureau
Many Japanese consider Okinawa their version of Hawaii. This group of islands in the south reflects Chinese, Japanese and indigenous influences, with strong impressions of traditional Ryukyu culture evident in its architecture and arts. Not minutes after setting foot on one of the islands you’ll undoubtedly encounter the slow, soothing tones of the sanshin—a banjo-like instrument with a deep, reverberating sound that seems to say, take it easy, you’re in Okinawa now. The pace of life is slower and the people more open, a contrast to the sometimes faceless whirl of life in Tokyo. Everyone’s got a reason to smile, and the locals aren’t shy, often waving and saying hello. In fact, ask anyone in Japan and they’ll tell you Okinawa has a special culture all its own.
Okinawa Hontou (Main Island)
The main island of Okinawa is a great place to start your tour. It’s home to many of Okinawa’s most celebrated spots such as International Street, Shuri Castle and the gigantic Churaumi Aquarium. Rent a car if you can, as Okinawa’s capital, Naha, lacks the connectivity of Japan’s other major cities: it’s serviced by a single monorail.
After checking your bags you may want to start with a trip to International Street, known as Kokusai Dori in Japanese. It’s the place to buy all kinds of yummy Okinawan sweets and quirky souvenirs, or find an izakaya (pub-style restaurant) where you can sample Okinawan cuisine. If you’re looking for a place to start your culinary tour of the islands, goya champru is an Okinawan staple. This stirfried dish contains goya, a bitter but healthy green vegetable, mixed with egg and pork. Umibudou, or “sea grapes,” is another popular dish unique to Okinawa. These long, green tendrils harvested from the sea really do look like bunches of tiny green grapes. Another must is soki soba, an Okinawan noodle soup featuring delicious cuts of juicy pork.
Photo ©Akimasa Yuasa/©JNTO
Once you’ve fuelled up, it’s time to take in some of the island’s famous sights. Shuri Castle is accessible by monorail, though it’s a bit of a walk from the stop to get there. The castle was the seat of the Ryukyu Kingdom, which reigned over the Okinawa Islands before they were taken by Japan in 1609. As such, the castle reflects a more Chinese esthetic, with plenty of red and gold embellishments, and Chinese dragons lurking all over. Shuri Castle sits on high ground and gives a great view of the surrounding island.
Shikina-en Royal Garden is another example of how Okinawa gives Japanese cultural influences its own unique spin. The corrugated red roofs of the garden structures are distinct to Okinawa, and palm trees are liberally represented with the rest of the carefully cultivated foliage. Though the garden was destroyed in the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, it has since been restored and declared a World Heritage Site.
Ask anyone what to see in Okinawa, and Churaumi Aquarium is sure to make its way into the conversation. It’s a three-hour bus ride from Naha but worth the trip. Churaumi is huge, comprising four floors of amazing exhibits featuring giant sharks, manta rays and a special exhibit full of mysterious deep-sea creatures, like the lumi- nous shrimp. And their dolphin show is a crowd favourite, featuring adorable trained dolphins that dance, flip and even sing on cue.
Compared to the spectacle of the aquarium, the Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum is a more sobering experience, but it presents an important part of Okinawan culture. It’s a monument to the over 100,000 civilians who lost their lives in the Asia-Pacific War. The museum’s five permanent exhibits detail the history leading up to the battle of Okinawa, simulating the terror of hiding in caves, rocked by the boom and flash of artillery, and life in postwar refugee camps, among other things. But the most haunting facet of the museum is the fourth floor, where rows upon rows of personal testimonies from civilians are laid out for the public. Reading about some of the horrors native Okinawans faced during the battle is not for the faint of heart.
Okinawa’s eats and treats
There’s no shortage of sweet treats to take home from Okinawa. From chinsuko (shortbread) biscuits to sweet potato tarts, the unique culinary offerings of Okinawa make the best souvenirs.
Soki soba: Soki soba is a hearty soup made of chewy Okinawan soba noodles and fall- off-the-bone boiled spare ribs, all served in a flavourful pork broth. ￼Photo©Sakura Higa
Okinawa’s sweets: Some classics among the plethora of sweet snacks are popo-crêpes, a rolled crêpe made of flour, eggs and miso oil, and sato andagi, fried dough balls also known as Okinawa doughnuts. Photo©Okinawa Convention & Visitors Bureau
The many sights of Okinawa’s islands
Ishigaki and Miyako are popular Okinawan islands. The pristine beaches of Miyako feature clear turquoise water and white sand, making them ideal for scuba divers. One must-see spot is Yoshino Beach, where the crystal-clear water reveals schools of colourful tropical fish. It’s the perfect place for snorkelling.
Ishigaki’s sunny beaches are another prime spot for scuba diving. At the famous Manta Scramble off Kabira Bay, divers can mingle with graceful manta rays. In fact, Ishigaki has one of the highest rates of manta ray encounters in the world.
Photo ©Okinawa Convention & Visitors Bureau/©JNTO
Ishigaki is also home to a large boat terminal, and is a hub for visiting the various smaller islands such as Kohama, a pristine getaway with a tiny population supported by two resorts. It’s also the site of Churasan—a popular serialized TV drama from 2001—and the house from the show is a tourist attraction. On nearby Taketomi Island, you can take a ride on one of Okinawa’s water buffalo carts.
Far south, Iriomote Island is closer to Taiwan than Japan. It’s known for the beautiful, sprawling green jungles that make up the majority of the island. If you’re lucky you may spot the Iriomote cat—a critically endangered leopard-like cat that can only be found on this island.
Photo ©Sakura Higa
With all the good eats, great music and easy island vibes it has to offer, visitors to Japan can’t afford to miss out on a trip to Okinawa.