From the stunning white sand beaches of the Yaeyama Islands to tasting food that will make you live longer, Okinawa should be on your Japan bucket list.
When you close your eyes and picture Japan, you probably imagine Tokyo’s neon lights and bustling shopping strips. The cobbled streets and temples of Kyoto. Or the snow monkeys and ski slopes of Niseko. But did you know the country also has white sandy beaches lapped by warm tropical water?
Welcome to Okinawa, a dreamy archipelago in southern Japan comprised of 160 subtropical islands. You will want to linger indulging in food to diving, culture to adventure. Here’s why.
Visit an island, off an island, off an island
The Yaeyama Islands are the most remote pocket of Japan and travelling to them is like discovering an untouched paradise. These 19 laid-back sub-tropical islands will completely change your vision of Japan.
Is the transport hub for the Yaeyama Islands. From here, boats zip out to other islets yet you can also stay and experience warm tropical beaches, jungle hiking and river kayaking. The island is dotted with temples and shrines, and the Ishigaki Public Market is a great place to find unique souvenirs, including Ishigaki sea salt.
Clad in dense, lush jungle 20km from Ishigaki, Iriomote is a designated National Park and said to be one of the last hidden secrets of Japan. Trekking, canoeing and jungle cruises should all be on your itinerary here. As should a visit to the Pinaisara and Mariyudu waterfalls and a paddle down the Urauchi River, the longest river in Okinawa. If you visit from the end of March to the end of May, you can watch the fireflies light up at dusk.
Iriomote was recently listed as a UNESCO heritage site. It’s home to the endangered Iriomote Wildcat, a designated national treasure that only lives on this island. At the Iriomote Wildlife Conservation Center in the eastern part of Iriomote Island, you can find rare wildcats images and information on conservation efforts.
Is like stepping back in time. Traditional limestone, wood and red roof homes draped in bougainvilleas line streets made from white coral sand. Here, you can ride on a buffalo while listening to songs played on the Sanshin. Head out onto the long Nishi Pier at sunset, and you will feel like you are standing on the ocean.
Life here goes in the slow lane, whether you’re wandering powdery beaches, swimming in the calm sea or exploring subtropical forests. Restaurants are only open during the day, so expect to dine with the family in the guesthouse you choose. Whichever island you pick, look forward to daily activities, including snorkelling with turtles, diving with manta rays, hiking… and just blissing out on powdery beaches.
Read more: Guide to the Yaeyama Islands
Discover the secret to longevity on an Okinawa food tour
Laid-back lifestyle aside, many attribute the fact that Okinawans live longer than any other population on the planet to their cuisine. In fact, Okinawa is one of five global ‘Blue Zones’, areas where people live the longest and are healthiest.
In Okinawa, the secret to longevity is attributed to a primarily plant-based diet. This includes abundant green and yellow vegetables, bitter melons, soy-based products, and tofu. Less than 1 per cent of the traditional diet is meat, eggs or dairy.
Get a tasty overview of a Taste of Okinawa tour and cooking class, beginning at a market to pick up ingredients for your lunch. Your chef for the day will teach you techniques to prepare a four-course meal, which includes main dishes such as Goya Chanpuru or Soba and local specialties like fried taimo (a kind of tubar similar to taro) and biragaramachi (fishcake wrapped in green onion with miso).
Enjoy a snorkelling day trip to the Kerama Islands
Easily reached from Naha, the 36 Kerama Islands are another secret paradise for snorkelling and diving fanatics. The water is home to many sea turtles, and whales are a common sight during migration. Many people come here just to see the ‘Kerama Blue’, the name for the water’s unique colour in the lagoon surrounding the largest island, Tokashiki. Or just to bliss out on the stunning white sand beaches.
But the interior of these islands is just as fascinating, with forested hills, jungle hiking tracks and observation decks. You can jump onto a local ferry for about 300 yen and explore the two big islands, Zamami, Tokashiki, and Aka Island.
Take a karate course from the source
Okinawa is the birthplace of karate, the famous martial arts style practised worldwide. Whether you’re a novice or an expert looking to gain more experience from an Okinawan Grand Master, opportunities abound to experience a training session across the islands.
It’s widely accepted that karate was developed in Okinawa during the 450 years of the independent Ryukyu Kingdom (1429-1879). In Okinawa, karate is known as Heiwa no Bu, the Martial Art of Peace. The sport is a way to develop martial arts techniques and to focus the mind. One of the universal principles is: “Hit not. Be not hit. Avoiding conflict is the fundamental principle.”
Channel your inner monarch visiting epic castles
During the pre-kingdom era, regional chieftains built castles and fortresses across the Okinawan archipelago. Today, five major castle sites remain. Known as gusuku in the Okinawan language, the castles were designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2000.
Shurijo Castle in Naha is a vibrant red fortress that served as the seat of power and the royal residence. Even after the Kingdom fell to the Satsuma domain (present-day Kagoshima Prefecture), Okinawa was still governed by the royal family from this site. It wasn’t until 1879 that the Kingdom was abolished and incorporated into Japan. Of the five Okinawa Ryukyu Kingdom castles, this is the only one that has been restored.
The Nakagusuku Castle Site is the best-preserved of the remaining four castles in Okinawa. Visitors can still see the castle’s division into multiple citadels, and from the hilltop, you will have incredible views over Nakagusuku Bay.
Celebrate Ryukyu culture
Okinawa’s long heritage as the Ryuyku Kingdom is evident wherever you go. During these 450 years, the islands flourished. Travellers can get a feel for the culture at festivals, such as the cross-islands Zento Eisa Festival (August/September annually).
Eisa, a form of folk dancing, originated in Okinawa. It’s performed by youth during the Obon festival to honour the spirits of their ancestors. The festival has processions, taiko drumming and (of course) dancing. The spectacle draws more than 300,000 people annually. It’s a colourful display of culture you won’t want to miss.
Paddle about on mangrove kayaking adventure
Gesashi Mangrove Wood mangroves on Okinawa’s main island are one of the largest collections of mangroves in Okinawa. It’s so serene that the Japanese government designated it a national treasure in 1972. The best way to see it is by kayak. You can choose from various kayaking excursions, ranging from an hour to up to five hours, where you can paddle to the Pacific Ocean
Tee off with ocean views
Head to the north of Okinawa Island, where golf resorts come with standout hotels. Thanks to Okinawa’s balmy year-round climate, its many unique golf courses can be accessed day in and day out. Think teeing off across emerald fairways with ocean views and putting into holes that hug the top of windswept cliffs.
In Nago City, Kanucha Golf Course and Kanehide Kise Country Club are embracing a swathe of forest. While in Ginoza and Onna Village, the Atta Terrace Golf Resort comes with calming sea vistas. Venture out to Miyako Island and enjoy golf on a tropical island – each hole here reveals a different perspective of the water. While at the Emerald Coast Golf Links, you must hit your ball over the sea at the 16th hole.
Pick up a new craft
What’s an ultimate Japan travel souvenir? Something you’ve made yourself. Which is possible when you sign up for a weaving workshop at Minsah Kogei Kan. Part craft centre, part museum, the space offers a glimpse into traditions where you can sit down to create your own coaster, table runner or tapestry with tips from a local artisan guru.
Sip and savour local beer and ‘island sake’
The traditional drink of the Ryukyu Kingdom is known as awamori, introduced to the archipelago from Thailand and fermented using Thai rice. The taste is similar to shochu, and you can expand your palette at one of the 45+ distilleries around the islands. On the brewery scene, Orion draft beer is a local favourite, but craft breweries have also popped up, making innovative drops.
Dine out on Okinawan delicacies
You’re spoilt for choice regarding eating out across the islands. We recommend visiting a popular izakaya (intimate Japanese gastro-pub) and ordering plates to share. Like Okinawa soba, a bowl of wheat flour noodles in a tonkotsu (pork bones) broth with ribs, fish and green onions your toppings. And then chanpuru stir-fry.
Especially famous is goya chanpuru, made with bitter gourd (a traditional Okinawan vegetable), tofu, egg and pork. End your meal with sata andagi, a delicious doughnut-like ball.
Read more: Adventure activities in Okinawa
See how many shisa you can spot
Mythical spirits called Shisa to protect every building, whether private homes or businesses across Okinawa. These creatures, somewhat resembling lion dogs, guard over the archipelago. They protect buildings and those who live, work and play in them. Today they come in many shapes and forms. But you’ll always see them in pairs: a closed-mouth female to keep in the good spirits and an open-mouthed male to scare evil spirits away. Pick them up as souvenirs to take home.
Discover the island’s spiritual heart
Utaki is the name for traditional holy places in the Ryukyu Islands. In most villages, Utaki can be found on natural rock formations or ancient trees. They are places where the gods and ancestors visit. Villagers will often leave incense and offer prayers here for good health, bountiful harvests and safe travels.
Once a place of pilgrimage and worship for the Ryukyu kings and queens, Sefa-utaki is the most sacred spot on all the islands. Hidden in lush vegetation, it was created from coral rocks and verdant trees. A wander through the twisting paths will teach you much about the Okinawan people and, hopefully, lead to your own enlightenment.
Getting there: Australians can travel from Sydney to Naha Airport Okinawa on ANA Airlines with one stop in Haneda Tokyo.
Try this: 7 Day Highlights of Okinawa Road Trip with Travel Japan
This article was produced in partnership with Okinawa Tourism.
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