Mention Okinawa (沖縄) to a mainland Japanese and you’ll likely receive a wistful sigh in return. Perpetually warm weather, clear seas bursting with fish, fantastic food, gentle people, unspoilt beaches and jungle…the list could go on. More than one hundred subtropical islands, collectively known as the Ryūkyū Shotō, stretch over 700km of ocean from Kyūshū southwest to Yonaguni-jima, almost within sight of Taiwan, and provide one of Japan’s favourite getaways. Getting here may be a little costly, but Okinawa’s lush vegetation, vision-of-paradise beaches and superb coral reefs can charm the most jaded traveller – if you’ve had your fill of shrines and temples and want to check out some of Japan’s best beaches and dive sites or simply fancy a spot of winter sun, then Okinawa is well worth a visit.
Continue reading to find out more about...
The largest island in the group, Okinawa-Hontō, usually referred to simply as Okinawa, is the region’s transport hub and home to its prefectural capital, Naha. It’s also the most heavily populated and developed of the Ryūkyū chain, thanks largely to the controversial presence of American military bases. Okinawa-Hontō boasts a number of historical sights, many of them associated with the Battle of Okinawa at the end of the Pacific War. But the island has more to offer than battle sites, particularly in its northern region, where the old way of life still survives among the isolated villages.
To see the best of the region, you’ll have to hop on a plane or ferry and explore the dozens of outer islands away from Okinawa-Hontō, many of them uninhabited. Even quite close to Naha, you’ll find gorgeous beaches and fantastic dive spots around the Kerama islands, just 30km off Okinawa-Hontō. Divers and beach connoisseurs will want to visit Miyako-jima and Ishigaki-jima, way down the Ryūkyū chain. If you’re looking for an idyllic retreat, Taketomi-jima can’t be beaten, while the adventurous will want to explore Iriomote-jima, coated in thick groves of mangrove and steamy rainforest, and home to the elusive Iriomote lynx.
It’s on these outer islands that you’ll also find the strongest evidence of the much-vaunted Ryūkyū culture, born of contact with Taiwan and China, as well as the rest of Japan. The most obvious expressions of this culture are found in the islands’ cuisine and in a vibrant use of colour and bold tropical patterns, while the Chinese influence is clearly visible in the region’s architecture, traditional dress and the martial art of karate – the Ryūkyū warriors’ preferred mode of protection. Ancient religious beliefs are kept alive by shamen (called yuta) and, in central Okinawa-Hontō, there are sumo bouts between bulls. There’s also a Ryūkyū dialect, with dozens of variations between the different islands, unique musical instruments, and a distinctive musical style that has reached an international audience through bands such as Nēnēs, Diamantes and Champloose. If you’re lucky, you’ll stumble on a local festival, such as giant rope tug-of-war contests or dragon-boat races, while the biggest annual event is the Eisā festival (fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month), when everyone downs tools and dances to the incessant rhythms of drums, flutes and the three-stringed sanshin.
Besides Hokkaidō, Okinawa contains Japan’s largest areas of unspoilt natural environment and its greatest biodiversity. Much of this wealth of wildlife is underwater, spawned by the warm Kuroshio Current that sweeps up the east coast and allows coral reefs to flourish. But there are a number of endemic species on land, too, including turtles, a crested eagle and the noguchigera (Pryer’s woodpecker), in addition to Iriomote’s wild cat, the yamaneko. A less welcome local resident is the highly venomous habu snake. It measures around 2m in length, is dark green with a yellow head, and usually lurks in dense vegetation or on roadsides, though rarely ventures into urban areas. As long as you’re careful – especially during spring and autumn – you should have no problems; if you are bitten, make for the nearest hospital, where they should have antiveni.
With its subtropical climate, Okinawa stays warm throughout the year. Average annual temperatures are around 23°C, with a winter average of 17°C and a minimum of 10°C. Winter lasts from December to February, while the hot, humid summer starts in April and continues into September. Temperatures at this time hover around 34°C and the sun can be pretty intense, though the sea breezes help. The best time to visit is in spring or autumn (roughly March to early May and late Sept to Dec). The rainy season lasts from early May to early June, while typhoons can be a problem in July and August, and occasionally into October.
Brief history of Okinawa
In the fifteenth century, the islands that now make up Okinawa were united for the first time into the Ryūkyū kingdom, governed from Shuri Castle in present-day Naha. This period is seen as the golden era of Ryūkyū culture. Trade with China, the rest of Japan and other Southeast Asian countries flourished, while the traditionally non-militarized kingdom maintained its independence by paying tribute to China. But then, in 1609, the Shimazu clan of Kagoshima (southern Kyūshū) invaded. The Ryūkyū kings became vassals to the Shimazu, who imposed punitive taxes and ruled with an iron hand for the next two hundred years, using the islands as a gateway for trade with China when such contact was theoretically outlawed by the Togukawa Shogunate. When the Japanese feudal system was abolished in the 1870s, the islands were simply annexed to the mainland as Okinawa Prefecture. Against much local opposition, the Meiji government established a military base and tried to eradicate local culture by forcing people to speak Japanese and swear allegiance to the emperor, forbidding schools to teach Ryūkyū history.
By the early twentieth century, Okinawa had been fairly successfully absorbed into Japan and became a key pawn in Japan’s last line of defence during the Pacific War. Following the battle of Iwō-jima in March 1945, the American fleet advanced on Okinawa and, after an extensive preliminary bombardment, referred to locally as a “typhoon of steel”, the Americans invaded on April 1, 1945. It took nearly three months of bitter fighting before General Ushijima, the Japanese commander, committed suicide and the island surrendered. The Battle of Okinawa left 12,500 American troops dead (plus 37,000 injured) and an estimated 250,000 on the Japanese side, nearly half of whom were local civilians.
It’s estimated that one third of the population of Okinawa died in the war, many in mass suicides that preceded the surrender, and others from disease and starvation. But the islanders’ subsequent anger has been directed at the Japanese government rather than America. Most people feel that Okinawa was sacrificed to save the mainland – this was the only major battle fought on Japanese soil – and that they were misled by Japanese assurances that they were luring the American fleet into a trap. Compounding this was the behaviour of Japanese troops, who are accused of denying locals shelter and medical treatment, and ultimately of abandoning them to the Americans.
By comparison, the American invaders were a welcome relief, despite the islanders’ worst fears. They brought in much-needed food supplies – Spam was an instant hit in this pork-loving country, and a precursor of the processed luncheon meat found in pork champurū – and gradually helped restore the local economy. This wasn’t wholly altruistic, of course, since Okinawa was ideally placed for monitoring events in Southeast Asia. As the 1950s Korean War merged into the Vietnam War, so the American bases became a permanent feature of the Okinawa landscape.
In fact, Okinawa remained under American jurisdiction until 1972, when local protests led to the restoration of Japanese sovereignty. Since then, the two governments have colluded to maintain an American military presence on the island despite growing opposition, which reached a peak when three American servicemen were found guilty of raping a 12-year-old schoolgirl in 1995.
Okinawa has since borne witness to some curious political shifts. In 2007, local elections brought Aiko Shimajiri to power; interestingly, his focus was on the local economy rather than military issues. These were, however, to come to the fore in national elections two years down the line, with Yukio Hatayama elected Prime Minister on a pledge to remove, rather than relocate, the Futenma air base – his failure to do so saw him step down in disgrace less than a year later.
Diving in Okinawa
With scores of dive sites around Okinawa-Hontō – and many more around the outer islands – one of the best reasons for visiting Okinawa is to go diving. There are plenty of dive shops, but only at a few will you find instructors who speak English. PADI courses are available on Okinawa-Hontō from Maeda Misaki Divers House and the American-run Reef Encounters. Once you have your certificate the islands are yours for the taking. To rent equipment, you should know the metric readings of your height, weight and shoe size.
There are great diving opportunities every way you turn on the islands, but the following sites are particularly notable.
Fantastic hard corals, more reef fish than you could count in a week and lots of big fan corals. Head to Zamami-jima, a particularly laidback spot from which to organize a dive with the instructors at Joy Joy.
There are over fifty different dive spots to choose from around Miyako-jima, with cave dives being particularly popular: start off by hooking up with Good Fellas Club.
Dotted around the Yaeyamas are 360 species of corals and sea anemones, including the rare blue coral reefs off Shiraho-no-umi on Ishigaki-jima. Among the thousand-odd species of fish you can expect to swim with are barracuda, butterfly fish, redfin fusiliers, spadefish and manta rays in the waters between Iriomote-jima and Kohama-jima.
There’s easily accessible coral in the waters surrounding this enchanting island. Both youth hostels can put you in touch with local diving operations.
For the ultimate dive experience consider lugging your gear out here to see sea turtles and hammerhead sharks, and to explore the enigmatic rocks that some claim are the remains of a sunken civilization.
The Kerama Islands
The KERAMA ISLANDS (慶良間諸島) are the closest group to Naha, lying some 30km offshore. A knot of three large, inhabited islands and numerous pinpricks of sand and coral, the Keramas offer some of the most beautiful and unspoilt beaches in Okinawa and superb diving among the offshore reefs. Zamami-jima (座間味島) is a sleepy place home to mere hundreds of people, yet has recently become hugely popular with international tourists thanks to the recent boom in winter whale-watching, as well as the demise of ferries heading from Naha to Miyako and the Yaeyamas – many travellers are now choosing the Keramas over costly flights south.
Dogs and dolphins
Zamami-jima has sourced much of its fame from the animal kingdom. The millions of fish enjoyed by divers (and diners at local restaurants) are an obvious draw, but dogs and whales have also made their mark. Historically, whaling was an important part of the local economy, but in the 1960s the whales disappeared and the industry died. Then, towards the end of the last century, the humpbacks started coming back to their winter breeding grounds – which the locals have been quick to exploit, though this time for tourism rather than hunting. In addition, most young Japanese associate the Keramas with the cutesy 1988 film I Want to See Marilyn. Based on a true story, it tells of a romance between two dogs on neighbouring islands: Shiro on Aka-jima, and Marilyn some 3km away on Zamami. They met when Shiro travelled to Zamami in his owner’s boat, but the passion was such that he started swimming over every day to rendezvous with Marilyn on Zamami’s Ama beach – or so the story goes. So enduring is this story that the pup’s supposed route is often featured on local maps.
The Miyako Islands
One has to feel sorry for the MIYAKO ISLANDS. Centred around Miyako-jima (宮古島), this small cluster boasts some of the best beaches in all Japan, but these are graced by precious few international visitors. Long overshadowed by Zamami-jima and the Yaeyama group, its appeal took another knock with the closure of ferry services to Naha and Ishigaki, making Miyako an expensive add-on to an Okinawan tour. However, it remains a time-out favourite with mainland Japanese, some of whom stay for weeks or months on end, chalking off beach after beach and dive after dive.
The flat, triangular-shaped island of Miyako-jima is roughly 35km from tip to tip – its most immediately notable aspect is field after field of sugar cane. HIRARA (平良), the main town, lies on the island’s northwest coast, from where roads fan out through the fields.
Once the centre of the Ryūkyū kingdom, Okinawa-Hontō (沖縄本島), or Okinawa Main Island, is a strangely ambivalent place. Locals are fiercely proud of their Ryūkyū heritage, and yet the competing cultures of Japan and America are far more prevalent. To some extent, the island still feels like occupied territory, especially central Okinawa-Hontō, where the American bases and the nearby “American” towns, with their drive-ins and shopping malls, have become a bizarre tourist attraction for mainland Japanese, who come to soak up a bit of American culture.
Fascinating though all this is, it doesn’t make Okinawa-Hontō the most obvious holiday destination. However, if you’re drawn by the more appealing outer islands, the chances are you’ll spend some time on the main island waiting for plane or ferry connections. Okinawa-Hontō’s chief city and the former Ryūkyū capital is Naha, whose prime attraction is its reconstructed castle, Shuri-jō, the ruins of which were awarded World Heritage status in 2001. There are also some interesting market streets and a pottery village to explore, and you’ll want to take advantage of its banks – not to mention excellent bars and restaurants – before heading off to remoter regions.
Southern Okinawa-Hontō saw the worst fighting in 1945, and the scrubby hills are littered with war memorials, particularly around Mabuni Hill, where the final battles took place. North of Naha, the island’s central district has little to recommend it, but beyond Kadena the buildings start to thin out. Here you’ll find one of the better “Ryūkyū culture villages”, Ryūkyū-mura, and the island’s best beaches. The largest settlement in northern Okinawa-Hontō, Nago is an appealing town that provides a base for visiting the stunning Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium and exploring the scenic coastline and mountainous tip of the island, culminating in the dramatic cape of Hedo Misaki.
The American question
Twenty percent of Okinawa-Hontō and a small number of outer islands are covered by American military bases, employing 27,000 American military personnel. This in itself has fuelled local anger, but what rankles most is that Okinawa makes up less than one percent of the Japanese landmass, yet contains 75 percent of the country’s American bases. The issue is, however, far from black-and-white for the islanders, since the bases provide thousands of jobs and contribute vast sums to the local economy – rather important, given that Okinawa remains the poorest of Japan’s prefectures. In addition, many younger Okinawans relish the peculiar hybrid cultural atmosphere that the large number of foreigners brings to the islands.
Opinion to the bases, both local and national, has yo-yoed in the past couple of decades. A 1995 poll revealed a majority of Okinawans in favour of a continued American presence, but with a more even distribution throughout Japan. At that time, only twenty percent of the population wanted a complete withdrawal, but by 1996 the figure had increased to a convincing ninety percent – partially the result of an unfortunate but highly significant incident between the two polls, in which a twelve-year-old schoolgirl was raped by three American servicemen. Mass protests against American military presence were the inevitable result.
Manoeuvrings since then have been largely political in nature, and focused on Futenma, a large US Marine Corps air base just northeast of Naha. In 1996, the American and Japanese governments announced a joint plan to relocate the base to Henoko, a bay to the north of Okinawa-Hontō. This led to protests from the environmental lobby, aghast that the move would demolish precious coral reef in Henoko, as well as having an injurious effect on the bay’s sea life. eighty-three percent of Okinawans voted against the plan in a referendum. In 2005, the two governments agreed to move the relocation site to Camp Schwab, an existing Marine Corps base, though this will have similar environmental ramifications. In 2009, Yukio Hatoyama was elected Prime Minister on a campaign promise to move the base outside Japan entirely as the first step in a systematic removal of the American military presence. However, torn between Okinawa and Washington, Hatoyama reneged on his promise, and resigned just eight months after taking office. Regardless of what happens with Futenma, the American issue is likely to rumble on for some time.
Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium
The Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium (沖縄美ら海水族館) is a spectacular facility showcasing the marine life of the Kuroshio Current. The main tank holds 7500 tonnes of water and is home to several whale sharks – the largest sharks in the world – as well as shoals of manta ray and many other fish; the cinema-scope view will hold you entranced. Most explanations are in English and there’s an informative section on sharks that dispels many myths about these extraordinary creatures.
Getting to Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium
Arriving by bus, most services stop near Nago’s central crossing before terminating at the bus terminal on the main highway to the west of town. However, some stop on the seafront, notably the Express Bus from Naha Airport, via Naha Bus Terminal (hourly; 2hr; ¥2000), which ends up outside Nago’s Lego-block City Hall, roughly 500m west of the central crossroads. You’ll find the tourist information office (Mon–Fri 8.30am–5.30pm, Sat & Sun 10am–5pm) in Nago City Hall, which has English-language maps and pamphlets on the area. The Ryūkyū Bank, just north of the central junction, can exchange dollar and sterling cash and travellers’ cheques, and there’s a small post office with an ATM a couple of blocks to the west.
Okinawa Prefecture Peace Memorial Museum
The final battle for Okinawa took place on Mabuni Hill (摩文仁の丘), on the island’s southeast coast. The site is now occupied by a cemetery and grassy park containing monuments (known as the “Cornerstone of Peace”) to the more than 200,000 troops – both Japanese and American – and civilians who died on the islands during the war. A distinctive white tower crowns the Peace Memorial Hall (平和記念堂), which contains a 12m-high lacquered Buddha and small museum. You’ll learn more (though not the full story) if you visit the Okinawa Prefecture Peace Memorial Museum (沖縄県立平和記念資料館), which has full English translations throughout. This interesting museum, planned under the anti-establishment regime of Governor Ōta, but completed by the more conservative Governor Inamine, doesn’t shirk the uncomfortable fact that Japanese soldiers ruthlessly killed Okinawan civilians. Generally, however, the whole build-up to the war is treated in the usual euphemistic way, and the exhibition ends on an upbeat note with displays on the postwar history of Okinawa to the present day.
Those in search of local crafts will find beautiful bingata textiles the most appealing. Originally reserved for court ladies, bingata fabrics are hand-dyed with natural pigments from hibiscus flowers and various vegetables, in simple but striking patterns. Also worth searching out are the fine jōfu cloths of Miyako-jima and the Yaeyama Islands, once gifted in tribute to the local monarchs. Ceramics are thought to have been introduced to the region from Spain and Portugal in the fifteenth century, but Ryūkyū potters concentrated on roof tiles and fairly rustic utensils. Nowadays, they churn out thousands of sake flasks and shiisā – the ferocious lion figures that glare down at you from every rooftop. The exquisite local lacquerware has a long history in the islands, too, having been introduced over five hundred years ago from China, but the glassware you’ll find is much more recent: it’s said production took off in the postwar years when Okinawans set about recycling the drinks bottles of the occupying US forces.
The Yaeyama Islands
Star-sand beaches to pad along, waterfalls tumbling down emerald mountains, and not a soldier in sight…it’s no wonder that even Okinawans go misty-eyed when talking about the YAEYAMA ISLANDS (八重山諸島). Japan finally fizzles out at this far-flung spray of semi-tropical islets, 430km south of Okinawa-Hontō and almost 3000km from northern Hokkaidō, and those lucky enough to make it this far are in for quite a finale. The bad news is that the Yaeyamas are no longer accessible by ferry, meaning that you’ll have to take a flight from Naha or the mainland – but it’s worth it, especially if you’re into diving, hiking, kayaking or meeting “alternative” Japanese.
Most flights arrive at Ishigaki-jima, the most populous Yaeyama island by far. Travellers tend to base themselves here for convenience, but while Ishigaki has its charms, you’d be mad to come this far and not go that little bit further – a fifteen-minute ferry-ride away is tiny Taketomi-jima, essentially a freeze-frame of traditional Ryūkyū life, while a little further away is Iriomote-jima, almost entirely cloaked with jungle and about as wild as Japan gets. Even more remote are Hateruma-jima, to the south, and Yonaguni-jima, stuck out on its own between Ishigaki and Taiwan.
Diving on Iriomote
Iriomote is a divers’ paradise, with the Manta Way between the island’s eastern coast and Kohama-jima being particularly famous for its shoals of manta rays; you’re most likely to see them between April and June. The youth hostels and all minshuku can put you in touch with the island’s several dive operations (for more on diving). Snorkelling is particularly good at Hoshizuna Beach (星砂の浜), around 4km northwest of Funaura, where you’ll also find a campsite, a decent restaurant and snorkelling gear for rent – all of which makes it popular. If you’re looking to escape the crowds, head to Funauki (船浮), reached by three ferries a day from Shirahama (白浜), at the far west end of the coastal road; the beach here, a short trek through the jungle, is one of the most beautiful in all of Japan.
Brooding darkly some 20km west of Ishigaki, Iriomote-jima (西表島) is an extraordinarily wild place for Japan. Rising sharply out of the ocean, some ninety percent of its uncharted, mountainous interior is covered with dense subtropical rainforest, much of it protected as the Iriomote National Park. Yaeyama rumour would have it that Iriomote often – or even perpetually – plays host to disaffected Japanese, living rough in the jungle. A more substantiated inhabitant, though equally elusive, is one of the world’s rarest species, the yamaneko or Iriomote lynx, a nocturnal, cat-like animal. The island and its surrounding waters are also home to a splendid array of flora and coral reefs shimmering with tropical fish. There are also plenty of opportunities for snorkelling, diving, kayaking and hiking through the rainforest.
Although it’s Okinawa’s second-largest island, fewer than two thousand people live here, most of them along barely developed strips on the north and south coasts. Ferries from Ishigaki sail to two ports on the island: ŌHARA (大原) in the south and UEHARA (上原) in the north. The latter is the better place to head for since it’s closer to Iriomote’s main scenic attractions and offers the widest range of accommodation.
Yaeyama life revolves around Ishigaki-jima (石垣島), the islands’ main transport hub and population centre. Most travellers base themselves here, making use of the excellent accommodation and dining options to be found in ISHIGAKI (石垣), the only Yaeyama settlement large enough to warrant description as a town. The rest of the island is a predominantly rural and mountainous landscape, fringed with rocky peninsulas, stunning beaches and easily accessible reefs, while its interior is scored with the gorgeous walls of hand-stacked stone which gave Ishigaki its name.
Just before six o’clock each evening, the tiny island of Taketomi-jima (竹富島) undergoes a profound, magical transformation. This is the time of the last ferry back to Ishigaki-jima – after that, you’re marooned, but there are few better places to be stuck. Just over 1km wide and home to fewer than three hundred people, the island’s population swells during the day with folk eager to see its traditional houses, ride on buffalo-drawn carts and search lovely sandy beaches for the famous minuscule star-shaped shells. When the day-trippers are safely back in Ishigaki, those who have chosen to stay on will have Taketomi almost to themselves – it’s possible to walk its dirt paths at night for hours on end without seeing a single soul.
There’s only one village on Taketomi – also called Taketomi (竹富) – and it’s a beauty. Practically all its houses are built in traditional bungalow style with low-slung terracotta-tiled roofs, crowned with bug-eyed shiisā. Surrounding them are rocky walls, draped with hibiscus and bougainvillea: these are the ishigaki that gave a certain neighbouring island its name, yet these days they’re far more prevalent on Taketomi.