From the stunning white sand beaches of the Yaeyama Islands to the 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 the neon lights and bustling shopping strips of Tokyo. The cobbled streets and temples of Kyoto. Or maybe 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, made up of a staggering 160 subtropical islands. From the food to the diving, culture to adventure, you will want to linger. Here’s why.
Visit an island, off an island, off an island
The Yaeyama Islands are the most remote pocket of Japan. And coming here is a bit like discovering paradise.
These 19 laid back sub-tropical islands will completely change your vision of Japan.
Ishigaki is the transport hub for the Yaeyama Islands. From here boats zip out to other islets. But you can also stay here and experience warm tropical beaches, 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, Iriomote island, 20km from Ishigaki, is a designated National Park. It is 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 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 images of the wildcats and information on conservation efforts.
Taketomi Island is like stepping back in time. Traditional limestone, wood and red roof homes draped in bougainvilleas line streets made from white coral sand. It’s here that 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.
Discover the secret to longevity on an Okinawa food tour and cooking class
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 mostly plant-based diet. This includes an abundance of green and yellow vegetables, bitter melons and soy-based products, including tofu. Less than 1 per cent of the traditional diet is meat, eggs or dairy.
Get an overview on 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 include 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 an immense number of sea turtles, and whales are a common sight during migration.
Many people come here just to see the ‘Kerama Blue’, the name for the unique colour of the water in the lagoon that surrounds 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 and Tokashiki as well as Aka Island.
Take a karate course, from the source
Okinawa is the birthplace of karate, the famous martial arts style practised around the world.
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 developed in Okinawa during the 450 years of the independent Ryukyu Kingdom (1429-1879). However, few historical documents have traced its creation and development.
In Okinawa, karate is also known as Heiwa no Bu, the Martial Art of Peace. One of the universal principles is: “Hit not. Be not hit. Avoiding conflict is the fundamental principle.” The sport is a way to develop martial arts techniques and to focus the mind.
Channel your inner monarch visiting 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 the year 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 is 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 a variety of kayaking courses, ranging from an hour to up to five hours, where you can paddle all the way to the Pacific Ocean.
Tee off with ocean views
Thanks to Okinawa’s balmy year-round climate, its many unique golf courses can be accessed day in, day out. Think teeing off across emerald fairways with ocean views, and putting to holes that hug the top of windswept cliffs. Head to the north of Okinawa Island where golf resorts come with standout hotels.
In Nago City there’s Kanucha Golf Course and Kanehide Kise Country Club, hugging 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 actually have to hit your ball over the sea at the 16th hole.
Pick up a new craft
The ultimate Japan travel souvenir? Something you’ve made yourself. Added bonus if you enjoy a side of culture at the same time, 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. Then sit down to create your own coaster, table runner or tapestry with tips from a local 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 when it comes to eating out across the islands. How to pick a favourite dish?
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, a stir-fry of ingredients.
Especially famous is goya chanpuru, made with bitter gourd (a traditional Okinawan vegetable), tofu, egg and pork. End your meal with sata andagi, a doughnut-like ball that is at once crispy and moist.
See how many shisa you can spot
Mythical spirits called Shisa 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.
According to UNESCO: “The Ryukyu sacred sites constitute an exceptional example of an indigenous form of nature and ancestor worship that has survived intact into the modern age alongside other established world religions.”
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.
More info: visitokinawa.jp Instagram and Facebook @visitokinawajapan
Getting there: Australians can travel from Sydney to Naha Airport Okinawa on ANA Airlines with one stop in Haneda Tokyo.
This article was produced in partnership with Okinawa Tourism. Need more travel inspiration? Try these stories.