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.